Finns in Greece: Riikka Pulkkinen's story from an Erasmus student to a translator and a teacher of Finnish language

Riikka Pulkkinen is a linguistic bridge builder between Finland and Greece. She teaches Finnish language and translates literature both ways between Finnish and Modern Greek. Riikka has edited and translated an anthology of Modern Greek short stories “Kasvotusten” ("Face to face"), which will be published during June 2021. She also works on her dissertation about Athens and the way it is experienced by literary characters in Modern Greek novels of the past decades.

Riikka Pulkkinen, Photo Credit Silena Triviza
Riikka Pulkkinen, Photo Credit Silena Triviza

1)  Where do you live? How long have you lived in Greece? How do you like it here?

I live in Petralona, close to the center of Athens. Sometimes it seems as if I had been in Greece forever. One thing lead to another and the years have passed almost without noticing. I can say that I enjoy my life in Greece, I have very creative people to spend time with, my son enjoys going to school in Petralona and Athens has so much to offer. I like to walk in the urban side of the city and in Filopappous hill, to go to small jazz concerts in Kerameikos and in the summer to open air cinemas. Of course, being able to discover islands during the summer is an important extra.

However, I haven’t lost my connection to Finland. We travel there every year and spend a lot of time fishing and picking up mushrooms. It seems always to be a much needed break after the time spent in the big city.

2)  What is your background and connection to Greece and Greek language?

Riikka Pulkkinen, Photo Credit Silena Triviza

I started my studies in Finnish philology and comparative literature. At some point, it was almost 15 years ago, I heard Greek and got very fascinated with the rhythm and the sound of the language – and that is how it all started. I started to fill up notebooks with words, learnt the alphabet, later on short sentences. I got accepted to do my Erasmus exchange in Thessaloniki, where I could attend an intensive language course. I was supposed to study pedagogy and literature in Thessaloniki, but I dedicated most of my time to Greek language. After Thessaloniki, I could use Greek fluently, but I was not able to read a whole novel yet. That was my next goal, because during the year in Thessaloniki I realized that translation of literature is what I want to do. So far, I haven’t changed my mind.

During my Master’s studies in the University of Helsinki in the faculty of Comparative literature I had the chance to do two internships in the Finnish Institute at Athens. My first visit to the institute was unforgettable. At the same time I met the director Martti Leiwo that is now my supervisor in my PhD and Maria Martzoukou, without whom I would not have proceeded as a translator, she has been my mentor all these years and in many projects. In 2018 I participated in the Training programme for new translators of Modern Greek literature that was organized by the Petros Charis Foundation together with Kostas and Eleni Ouranis Foundation and the Academy of Athens. The year was very intensive, we read a huge pile of books in 9 months, wrote critical articles in Greek and translated prose and poetry. After that very intensive year, I had thought of a dissertation topic and learnt to read Greek in the speed of a Greek, the change was impressive.

At the moment I am a PhD student in the University of Helsinki and the topic of my dissertation has to do with the way the characters in literature experience Athens during the past decades. The urban element has always fascinated me and throughout my studies it has had a central role. I also work as a Finnish language teacher in the University of Athens and as a translator from Finnish to Greek and from Greek to Finnish. My son turns 9 this year and goes to a Greek school. Bilingualism is present in our everyday life, and lately I have actually been able to discuss my translations with my son.

3) You translate literature from Finnish to Greek and from Greek to Finnish. What have you translated?

I always thought that I would translate only from Greek to Finnish, but finally I ended up translating to both directions. I realized that it depends on the amount and the way of reading; after reading for years a book a day in a language for different projects, in the end it is possible to write in a foreign language.

Unfortunately Greek literature is almost non-existent in Finland; a lot of important literature is not available for Finnish readers. Even the novel of two volumes, Junkermann by Karagatsis, where the protagonist is a Finnish man, is not translated to Finnish. This is the reason why I started to maintain a blog, where I present writers by interviewing them and publish samples of their novels or short stories in Finnish.

Kasvotusten, the title is from Nikos A. Mandis’s short story «Πρόσωπο με πρόσωπο»

A lot of work that I did during the Training programme for new translators of Modern Greek literature is going to be published now in June, in an anthology of Modern Greek short stories by the publishing house Enostone. The process has been a very long one. Editing and translating an anthology is a huge project! However, now it is ready, and the short stories that I love the most are going to be published in Finnish. The title of the anthology is Kasvotusten, the title is from Nikos A. Mandis’s short story «Πρόσωπο με πρόσωπο» which fits well with the whole concept of the book: being face to face with the Greeks, reading about the most sensitive and dark topics.

With Maria Martzoukou we are translating Antti Tuomainen’s Jäniskerroin (The Rabbit Factor) in Greek at the moment. It will be published during this year. I wish all the translations would be done like this, as a team – discussing the text with another translator makes the work very nice and in addition, two minds have twice as much ideas as one!

In general, the year 2021 is very good for Finnish literature in Greece. Ville Hytönen’s children’s book Pikku-Matelin laulu, illustrated by Pete Revonkorpi (Enostone 2019) was published by Kalendis Publications in Greece in January, with the title «Το τραγούδι της μικρής Μάτελι». In addition, I have made an agreement on 4 more books to be translated; some of them will be published in 2022.

4)  What is your all-time favorite in Finnish literature that all Greeks should read? And vice versa, which book Finns should read, if they only read one Greek book?

It is a little bit more difficult to say about Finnish all-time favorite. Personally I found Mikko Rimminen’s novel Nenäpäivä an excellent and touching story about loneliness and about being a human. Laura Lindstedt’s Oneiron has some parts that could belong to the future classics of world literature. The author that I respect the most in Finland is Leena Krohn, whose two novels; Tainaron and Hotel Sapiens were translated by Maria Martzoukou in 2017.

Last years I have read much more literature in Greek. If I should choose 3 books to be translated first in Finland to present the Greek reality, they would be “Where we live” by Christos Cythreotis, “Some others” by Iakovos Anyfandakis and “The Blind” by Nikos A. Mandis. However, if I was to mention more, the list would be much longer. Greece has plenty of quality literature that unfortunately seldom reaches the wider audience in the rest of the world.

5)  In school we learned about linkage between Homeros and Kalevala. How do you see the literary connections/relations between Finland and Greece in general?

Junkermann by Karagatsis

Well, nowadays the connections are very few. I can see that also the topics differ usually. In Finland the stories are more often connected to personal experiences and to social life, when in Greece the society is always in the background, pushing the characters to different directions. I can see that Greece interests Finnish writers lately and quite many have chosen Greece as the place of their narrations.

In my Master’s thesis I did research on the short stories of Constantinos Chatzopoulos, who lived during the change of the century and whose wife was Finnish. I first heard about Chatzopoulos’ Finnish wife Sanny Häggman from the professor Erasmia Stavropoulou, whose lectures I attended in the University of Athens. She gave me a task to search all the possible information about Sanny Häggman. It was during the time of this task when I first met Maria Martzoukou and realized that she was also doing research on Sanny. In continuation, I translated Sanny’s memoirs from Greek to Finnish and paid attention to the point, where Chatzopoulos visits Finland and spends a whole night discussing with Eino Leino.

This detail lead to a new quest that hasn’t finished yet; I started to search for possible connections between the supporters of dimotiki in Greece and Young Finnish Party in Finland. They must have shared they thoughts about the issue that had such an importance in both countries. I could not find any letters from Greece in Leino’s archives, but this research could still lead somewhere. In each case, the idea that the most important supporters of Finnish and dimotiki had shared their thoughts in the beginning of the 20th century is intriguing.

6)      What are the main characteristics in Finnish and Greek contemporary literature? What are the similarities and differences?

Well, the topics differ, definitely. What I have paid attention to, is the vivid role Athens has in Greek literature. The influence of the city on its habitants is often described – at least – in the background of the narrations. The space is always a factor, and the nowadays reality appears in literature – often also commented on by the thinkers. A big part of the contemporary literature is always a commentary on the problems that the individual have to face in Athens.

In Finland I can see that literature often has the tendency to comment on the past or on the influence of the past on people. Finnish literature is less urban, which is maybe the outcome of the way less urban capital of Finland.

7)      How do you see literature’s future in this digital time?

The past years, when I had more time to work on my blog, I could see that people have got used to read shorter texts online, and literature published online has its own audience. It is maybe easier to start reading a text when you can access it by a mobile phone in a bus. Unfortunately, that is reading nowadays for many people.

8)      What are you going to publish next?

Many books will be published in Greek in near future. There will be a series of children’s books from Magdalena Hai, and the great success, Anja Portin’s Radio Popov. I am also currently working on an anthology of contemporary Greek poetry that will also be published by Enostone in Finland. Editing the anthology is again a long process, however very fascinating. It has made me read many Modern Greek poets and has been a great lesson. It has also showed me, how strong roots poetry has in Greece.

I am also going to publish my article about the representation of December 2008 and the following demonstrations in literature. The topic is connected to my dissertation and will be included to a Routledge publication about Literary Urban Studies.