From Finnish Folk Poetry to Vietnam’s First National Epic

Kalevala the national epic of Finland was translated into Vietnamese in 1994 by Bui Viet Hoa whose next effort is to compile and illustrate Vietnam’s very own first national epic by the end of the year.

How it Started

Bui Viet Hoa was in Budapest in the mid-1980s when the communist Vietnam usually sent talented young people to study in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. While studying literature and the Finnish Language, she encountered the Kalevala, which has an even greater following in Hungary than it does in Finland.
When Hoa was in Kuopio on language course she was invited by Juminkeko Foundation which specializes in the Kalevala, to go on a trip to villages in Russian Karelia where the poems were compiled by Elias Lönnrot. Interest in the epic was then struck Hoa during the trip that she decided to translate the great Finnish Epic into Vietnamese.
After translating the Kanteletar and the Kalevala into Vietnamese, Hoa returned to Hungary, where she wrote her dissertation on the differences between Finnish and Vietnamese national poetry.
She harbored a dream of collecting a Vietnamese epic. At the turn of the millennium, the woman managed to step into the boots of Lönnrot when development funding was granted to the extensive epic project.

In Hope to Unite Vietnam Nation

Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups with dozens of oral miniature epics. Hoa uses them as a basis for her own work, which is to unite the nation.
“Vietnam does not yet have a work that would unite all the people. I hope that all Vietnamese will be able to feel that the epic is theirs and that it would also be read in schools” says Hoa.
Like Lönnrot, Hoa has traveled among the people to collect her stories. Accompanying her was the third worker in the project, Hoa’s husband, linguistic researcher Vo Xuan Que. The two have gone into Vietnamese villages and asked men and women of different ages to sing for them.
“I show them the Kalevala and said that the idea now is to collect Vietnamese poems in the same manner. People agreed to sing, and I recorded and photographed them,” Hoa explains.
Songs in minority languages had to be translated into the main national language. One of the challenges facing Hoa is to come up with a name for the epic that is easy to pronounce in all of the languages.
Hoa says that the biggest difference between her epic and the Kalevala is that Finns solve their problems alone, while the Vietnamese work in groups.
“Growing rice has required the power of the community, and people have also hunted in groups.” adds Hoa.

Hoa Vs Lönnrot

While Lönnrot wrote about three per cent of the Kalevala poetry himself, Hoa is writing 20-30 per cent of the poetry in the Vietnamese epic.
Vietnam has lacked a national epic, because local epic research has not approved of the role of a compiler of national poetry. Hoa might manage to change the situation.
Hoa is a bit embarrassed by the comparisons between herself and Lönnrot. Whereas the development toward Finnish independence can be seen to have started with the Kalevala, the Vietnamese epic cannot be seen to have had much of an influence. However, Hoa believes that her work can bring Vietnam’s dozens of ethic groups closer together.

The Illustrator

In Hanoi Dang Thu Huong is doing the illustrations for Hoa’s epic using the same technique that she had for the paintings of the Kanteletar, the companion work to the national epic poem, the Kalevala.
“There are many layers on the painting, and I use water and a stone to grind them down. It can take up to a year or one work to dry.” Says Huong
She also uses real gold in powdered form inside the paints. This makes the final work shine. The work is finalized with a thin layer of oil.
Vietnam’s first epic has an immediate benefit, at least for its illustrator.
Hou and Huong are getting support from the Juminkeko Foundation which has received development cooperation funding for the project from the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

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