Finland is a small country with population of approx. 5.5 million, situated in the northern Europe between Sweden and Russia. As the national language, Finnish, is spoken only in Finland, we Finns tend to read a lot of translated fiction. However, every year a small number of Finnish fiction is translated into other languages, such as Swedish, German, French and English. Here’s a quick peek at some of the internationally famous Finnish authors (plus one epic) – see if you know any of them!
The only Finnish author to have won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1939, F.E. Sillanpää wrote in the years of 1916-1945. Three of his novels have been translated into English: Meek Heritage (1919), Maid Silja (1931; his most acclaimed work), People in the Summer Night (1934). Sillanpää was acquainted with many of the cultural figures of early independence, such as composer Jean Sibelius. However, he struggled with alcoholism as well as personal issues later in his life. I must admit that I have never read an entire book by Sillanpää, only excerpts of his writing.
Mika Waltari was a very prolific Finnish author who rose to fame after WWII. His international bestseller, The Egyptian, has been translated to over 40 languages, and was made into a Hollywood film in 1954. Waltari wrote novels, fairytale collections, poetry collections, plays, radio plays, non-fiction, and more. Out of his vast bibliography, 11 have been translated into English. Waltari was also an important figure in the Finnish liberal literary movement Tulenkantajat. I’ve grown up reading Waltari’s fairytale collections, and read some of his novellas in school. However, I still haven’t gotten round to tackling The Egyptian that’s sitting on my shelves. Some day…
One of the most influential authors of 20th century Finland, Väinö Linna won the hearts of Finnish readers with The Unknown Soldier, a book depicting a group of Finnish soldiers in the Continuation War between Finland and Soviet Union. He also gained fame with his Under the Northern Star trilogy. Both books have been translated into English; however, strong criticism has been made against the translation of The Unknown Soldier and a new translation is expected to be published in a few years. I read The Unknown Soldier about a year ago, and was surprised how misguided I had been in thinking that it would be only ‘a war novel’. I hope that the trilogy will be just as good, if not even better.
Part of Finnish literary foundation, Aleksis Kivi wrote the first proper Finnish novel, The Seven Brothers (published in 1870). The Seven Brothers tells of seven unmarried and rather rowdy brothers who struggle to fit into the norms of society, preferring the freedom of the forests. Aside from his masterpiece, Kivi wrote plays and poetry before dying in 1872. I’ve read The Seven Brothers twice and keep discovering new things every time I read it.
A collection of Finnish folk lore, collected and compiled by Elias Lönnrot. The Kalevala is “19th century work of epic poetry from oral folk lore and mythology”. The Kalevala metre is a form of trochaic tetrameter, which makes it hard to translate into English. However, there are at least 3 known English translations of The Kalevala. It is said that J.R.R. Tolkien drew part of his inspiration for Middle Earth from The Kalevala. I’ve never read the entire Kalevala, only parts of it.
(You knew this was coming.) Tove Jansson was a Finnish-Swedish author, illustrator and artist whose international breakthrough came with The Finn Family Moomintroll (1948). Mostly known for her Moomin books and comics, she also published short story collections for adults. She was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1966 for her work in children’s literature. If you want to know more about her short stories, check out my Tove100 post!
And now for some more current (alive) authors:
Arto Paasilinna is a Finnish humorist, whose works have been translated especially into French. Overall, his books have been translated to over 27 languages, but in English there are only The Year of the Hare, The Howling Miller, as well as some non-fiction, such as Businessman’s Guide to Finnish Sauna. I generally enjoy Paasilinna’s writing, although I’ve only read 3 of his novels (Year of Hare being one of them).
A contemporary Finnish female author, Sofi Oksanen rose to fame in 2008 with her third novel Purge. Purge is the discussion of two women in 1990s Estonia, revealing the deep set wounds that the Soviet government inflicted on the people. The novel was originally a play that Oksanen wrote, and it is the only one of her work that has been translated into English. It was the first foreign novel to win the French Fnac prize in 2010. I read Purge in English translation back in 2011, but didn’t really enjoy it as much as everyone else. I guess I should give her other works a try.
Leena Lehtolainen (pictured)& Ilkka Remes
Lehtolainen and Remes are both prolific crime fiction writers. Leena Lehtolainen is best known for her crime series following a female police officer Maria Kallio. Many of her books have been translated to several European languages, and she is rather famous in Germany. However, as of late two of her Maria Kallio books have been translated into English: My First Murder and Copper Heart. I’ve read almost all of the Maria Kallio books and can highly recommend them.
Ilkka Remes writes both adult thrillers as well as young adult mysteries. He writes under a pseudonym and has gained high popularity both in Finland as well as Germany, where his books have been translated by Stefan Moster. I must admit that though I consider him as one of the most famous Finnish authors, I have never picked up any of his books.
Salla Simukka (left) & Emmi Itäranta (right)
Finally I have two Finnish YA authors whose books have recently been published in English. Salla Simukka began her career in 2002 and has published a book almost every year since. Aside from writing young adult literature, she has translated Swedish fiction, worked as book critic, edited a literary magazine for children as well as worked as a writer for a Finnish tv series. Her global success came with the Snow White trilogy, with the first book As Red As Blood being translated into over 40 languages.
Emmi Itäranta published her debut novel Memory of Water in 2012. The book depicts a world where water is rare and the human race has had to regress, digging through waste to find useful materials. The unusual thing about this book is that she wrote it simultaneously in Finnish and English as a part of her creative writing masters studies in University of Kent. Itäranta’s novel was published in English in the spring of 2014, and it has gained a lot of good reviews.