An Unexpected Journey into Finnish

“It’s a dangerous business going out of your door,” said Bilbo. “You step into the Road. And if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

That happened to Kersti Juva, and to me. Our adventures in Finnish began three decades apart, hers in the 1970s when she “met someone at a party”, and was swept into translating the Lord of the Rings (vol. 1 cited above), mine in the 2000s when I met my future wife, who swept me off to Finland and into the language. So I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Juva’s book, Löytöretki suomeen. In two short weeks, the first print run has already sold out.

What is all the fuss about? People like reading about themselves. This book tells Finns about their language, and why it is special, by comparing it to a language so many people have to learn – English. Juva shares her lifework, translations of everyone from Allen Bennett to Aphra Behn to A. S. Byatt to Aragorn and Bilbo… the list is long, even at the beginning of the alphabet. By comparing the English original phrases with her translations into Finnish, Juva guides the reader through the delights and dangers of translating in general, and between the two languages in particular.

In his review for Helsingin sanomat, Ville Eloranta felt she had micromanaged the modals. I personally loved this chapter, as, like Juva, I find that Finnish modals that reach the parts that a flat English “can” simply can’t. International Finns have been asked countless times whether they have viihtynyt Suomessa (“do you like it in Finland, have you settled here?” is a poor substitute). Why merely “be able” to respond to this question when you could pystyä, kyetä, ehtiä, jaksaa or viitsiä as the situation and your mood demands?

Juva sifts the fine differences between these and other words in both languages by trawling through digital versions of her translations over the decades. She learnt these nuances through writing, but clarified the rules with the Great Finnish Grammar (Iso suomen kielioppi). One of her aims is to make readers aware of the hidden rules that steer Finnish, which they never had to learn. Since I did have to learn them, much of this aspect of the book was no surprise and I could skim through it.

On the way, Juva confirmed shades of tone that I had felt in Finnish but had never seen written about. When he was learning to talk, my fourth nephew – who is destined for his own radio show – used to describe things as minun tämäni (something like “my this, it is mine”) which has much grander tone than tää on mun (or “’smine”). Using both the personal pronoun and the possessive suffix can feel excessive in Finnish, but Juva knew when not to, and when to.

Editors of Finglish will be delighted to find backup in Juva’s book. Even if you do not speak Finnish that well, you will get a lot out of the bilingual examples. They explain why Finns don’t use articles, or mix up genders (they only have hän, most English speakers still choose “he” or “she”). Finnish can do away with the doer altogether (nollapersoona, or “zero-subject” expressions) to shift the focus to the doing and the experience. This is why an English editor often has to put the person back in (does that remind YOU of anything you’d like to tell ME about?). Juva offers endlessly elegant solutions to the problems of what English needs but Finnish doesn’t, and vice versa.

Editors of any kind will be delighted to hear how much Juva learnt from her own editor, Vappu Orlov, not least about aspect (whether time is running or standing still, as Juva neatly puts it, a distinction in Slavic verbs that she unearths in Finnish, too). Juva stresses that her findings are not just for translators – engaging deeply with language as she does will help anyone in their own writing.

Tove Jansson is said to have had nightmares about being chased by Moomins – her art and writing were about so much more. I certainly hope Kersti Juva does not have nightmares about being chased by orcs. She is best loved in Finland for her rendering of Tolkien, and invented a suitably disgusting-sounding word for the uruks, örkki (it’s the umlaut that does it!). This book shows how much more Juva has brought into Finnish through her translations. In it, she revels in the “three-dimensionality” of the language (to summarize, Finnish has not just tämä/this and se/that, but tuo, or “that over there” in a larger dimension; Finns can use place rather than person to clarify what’s going on around them). Juva makes familiar phrases strange to show how they work and then bring them even closer.

As a translator, Juva confidently domesticates for her readers, to draw them into the stories she writes for them in their language. Foreignizing is perhaps the responsibility of translators working in the other direction, into the language of empire and power, whether in business or academia. Can NEaT members take up the challenge and explain Finnish, or indeed English, as well to English readers as Kersti Juva has done for her fellow Finns?

Left: the cover.

Above:
Kersti Juva speaking about her book to NEaT members at English Today, March 2019. Photo by Anna Mathews.

Dr Kate Sotejeff-Wilson translates from Finnish, German and Polish and edits in English. She lives in Jyväskylä, the cradle of Finnish-medium education. Contact her on kate@kswtranslations.com

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