Into the words: Finnish and untranslatability

Isn’t it amazing to find out that some languages can condense names and concepts all packed into one, sometimes short, word? On previously discussed posts such as “On not knowing German” or “Untranslatable: the secret life of (some) German words” the German language was in the middle of it all. What about other European languages? Not too far from Germany is Finland. A much colder and nordic country, but nonetheless equally interesting and rich in history and culture. What makes Finnish even more unique among European languages is that, despite being spoken in a Scandinavian country, it has no relation to Germanic languages.

In a nutshell, Finland has been under Swedish rule until 1809, when it became a Grand Duchy ruled by the Russian Empire. The Finnish nationalism encouraged by the Russians to favour the separation from Sweden ultimately turned against their interests when Finland became an independent state in 1917, shortly before the birth of the USSR.
The Finnish language had always been seen as the common man’s language, with Swedish being the language of culture and administration in Finland for many years. The “Kalevala“, a collection of epic poetry based on folklore and mythology by Elias Lönnrot represented a change in the attitude towards Finnish. Almost 30 years later, in 1863, Finnish was implemented in many fields of public life in Finland, and only in the 1890s an official recognition was granted.

In the perspective of this, the term “sisu” turns crucial: despite being translated into “courage“, there’s a wider meaning behind the word, as it often happens with untranslatable words (the thing is, translation is always possible, but never fully grasps 100% of the original meaning, does it?) – “Sisu” means to have both courage and perseverance in accepting defeat and quietly working towards a goal despite the adversities, “quietly” being the stressed word in the concept. Moving on to another term, one can find “myötähäpeä” quite untranslatable too: it apparently refers to a sense of shame that one emphatically feels. Words pertaining the practical side of life in Finland, especially in rural areas or where winter is quite harsh represent another challenge for the average translator. How about “hankikanto“: a construct with “hanki” (literally “snow blanket“) and “kanto” (the verb “to carry“), meaning the thickness a layer of snow can have in order to support people walking on it. Even unconventional measures of travel can turn untranslatable for an English ear. Would you ever measure distance by “poronkusema“? One should translate it as “Reindeer’s pee time“. Probably not, then! In fact, some words are not untranslatable per se, but for instance, it would be quite unusual for an English person to use the word “spirit” (Finnish: “löyly“) to indicate the steam caused by water being thrown into hot stones in a sauna!
Interestingly, in Finnish there is also a way to specify why your uncle is your uncle. Is he the brother of your mother? Then “eno” is the word. Or is he your father’s brother? Then call him “setä“. In English we would need more words for that concept (“my mother’s brother” or “maternal uncle” or “uncle from my mother’s side“, for instance).

Every language is beautiful. But these hidden gems make them so unique and tied to the history and culture of one specific place, it does not even matter we find a good substitute to convey the meaning of such words. We have got to appreciate these words for what they are, and yes, let’s attempt a translation, as we always must. But let’s also understand and appreciate that some words you just cannot translate.

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55 thoughts on “Into the words: Finnish and untranslatability

  1. Finland has a proud tradition of distance running, and one of the words cited here, “Sisu” often appears in descriptions of their greatest runners. When Helsinki held the international championship of athletics (track and field) in 2005, the press also used it to describe fans who sat through dramatic rain storms waiting for the competition to resume. It’s beautiful how a culture’s words reveal a culture’s values. Thanks for this interesting article!

    • You’re welcome. I do agree. And thanks for bringing your example. In fact, as I researched the term, it quite often came up in sports-related articles, often referring to the ability of athletes to cope with defeat and ‘silently’ work with determination to hold their head high and try again. I was impressed by the term ‘silently’ or ‘quietly’ as it totally makes this very peculiar and very difficult to translate.

  2. Nice article :) Finnish is closely relatated to Estonian, and’in Estonian you also have the differentiation of relatives: “onu” is generally used for uncle but more specifically it’s your mother’s brother; “lell” is your father’s brother. “Tädi” is nowadays your aunt on either side but originally it was your mother’s sister whereas “sõtse” is exclusively your father’s sister. “langud” (plural form) are the parents of your child’s spouce. Less commonly used nowadays but most people would recognise the words are “nääl” for the brother of one’s wife, “käli” for the sister of one’s wife (“kälimees” is the husband of the sister of your wife), “küdi” for the brother of one’s husband and “nadu” is the sister of one’s husband. The last one is still used quite a lot because it rhymes with “madu” = snake

    it’s interesting how some words are spelled the same and pronounced the same but mean something different. The word “sisu” in Estonian simply means content – the content of a book or of a person, or a basket in the supermarket. In this case you can see how the original word was probably the same but over time has evolved to mean different things. Something totally different though, “katso” in Finnish means “Look!”; “katsu” in Estonian means “touch!” – both are in the imperative form, so you’re telling someone to do something, but look and touch are two totally different things ;)

    • Thanks for sharing these differences and similarity with Estonian! Yes, I totally get what you mean about languages sharing the same words originally, and then seeing how it changed through time.

      This can never stop fascinating me ;)

    • From your description, I think the Estonian “sisu” might be related to the Finnish word “sisus”, which is a word for the inside part of something.

  3. You guys like languages, right? I might sound trollish but I’m serious with this question: Would the world be a better place if there were only one language? Do languages have a value of their own and why should we try to protect diminishing ones?

    • I do believe diversity is what makes the world a great place. Having only one language would be like seeing one colour out of many. Would that be good? I don’t think so. Moreover, languages which seem to disappear MUST be saved. Why? Because the language is key to so many treasures of a culture!

      • This is my opinion of the matter: The basic root for any language is the compulsion to turn the environment and the movements of the mind into words. It doesn’t matter how you do it. If every finnish speaking person stopped using finnish and switched to for example english, it wouldn’t take long to have everything uniquely related to finnish culture turned also into english words. Probably we would need to invent new words to do it though.
        But the point is, it doesn’t matter how we speak as long as we speak. Everything around us, the things we do and the way we understand this world would stay the same.

        Waiting for a counter-argument!

    • Language is also very important in shaping your image of the world and the self. Try speaking in foreign language for a day, and you realize that you start even thinking differently! As a finnish person, I think that finnish language is big part of what and who I am in very essential way. It’s the ‘standard’ to what everything else about me is build.

      • I think you’re right. Language is not just the way through which we communicate. It sums up the way we think (or the way a culture is made). Perfectly makes sense!

        What do you think speaking Finnish means to a Finnish person. How does it define how you are as a person or as part of a culture?

      • I know this comes very late but anyway: I’d like to supplement Toni as follows — if I speak Finnish (my mother tongue) I also act as the typical Finn, that is, very little physical support for spoken comms. If I speak English to a native English speaker I find myself using my hands, body language etc as the other would very likely expect… The way I’ve learned, both audio and visual based communication form the true language shared.

    • “Language enthusiast” isn’t quite what I’d call a renowned polyglot and professor of linguistics at Oxford, but yes. Tolkien was certainly enamored with Finnish, and its underlying presence in a lot of his canon really helped me to come to appreciate it not only as my second native language but also as a viable, beautifully and intricately malleable language for poetry. His love for languages and the way he tirelessly cultivated an extremely varied and colorful linguistic aesthetic was one of the greatest things I took away from his works, and ultimately it established the basis for my current passions (poetry and translation). So hooray for linguistic diversity!

      • You’re so right, Kasper! Did you know JRR Tolkien introduced Beowulf in the Western academic canon? No one studied it at Uni before his proposal.

        He was so in love with languages! :)

  4. I think the BrE term ‘cringy’/’cringeworthy’ could work as translation for ‘myötähäpeä’ at least in some contexts. What do you think?

    • I’m not sure. First, because translation never equals the original word, but it is an adaptation.

      Second, I see ‘cringeworthy’ as a sort of rejection of something, not shame. That’s how I see it, but I might be wrong!

      • I hear people using it in situations where I’d say “myötähäpeä” in Finnish – definitely as an expression of embarrassment in behalf of rather than rejection.

        Ever-so-reliable (;)) online dictionaries such as sanakirja.org and dictionary.com offer such definitions for ‘cringeworthy': Adj. 1. That causes one to cringe with embarrassment; embarrassing.;
        — adj: informal ( Brit ) causing feelings of acute embarrassment or distaste.

        Managed to get some native speakers’ opinions too: they seemed to agree it is indeed used to express empathy for other’s embarrasing/awkward situation, which causes themselves to feel awkward/embarrasing.

        I dunno if it’s the best adaptation for ‘myötähäpeä’ but it’s the best I can think of! :)

      • “The Office” is the perfect example: it’s all based on cringe-humour (yes, that’s a term I’ve heard native speakers use). Though personally I don’t find it funny at all, I find it really sad and uncomfortable and generally I just want to get as far away from it as I can. Question for a Finn though would someone who thinks “the Office” funny be extra developed in “myötähäpeä” or is it the opposite – that they don’t have any?

  5. Thank you for this interesting article and conversation! In my mind, “myötähäpeä” doesn’t have much to do with empathy, it’s rather an euphemism for moral disapproval. If someone sings poorly, another person feels myötähäpeä and makes the situation for the singer even worse: she’s guilty both for singing poorly and awakening myötähäpeä and thus anxiety in other people. This is the sense the word is often used.

    • Oh, thanks for clarifying that. Then, it’s not too far from “embarassment” but I bet it’s never exactly the same. Each language has its own shades and they often, if not always, get lost in translation. We might get an idea, but it’s never 100% what it originally is in the translated language.

  6. I totally agree about some words being untranslatable; my parents were Dutch, and there are some words in common usage that I understand but in English you have to use several words to translate one word in some cases! Even then, you can’t really give the full meaning … =D

    • Related yes, but not that closely. They’re in the same language family. Whereas an Estonian and a Finn can understand some words from each others languages, there’s very little resemblance with Hungarian. Maybe like English speaker with Hindi, both are in Indo-European language family and so “related”, but not really.

    • However, Finland is often, if not always associated with Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are the Baltic countries, but since Finland seems to be left out of both groups, I guess it’s easier to particularly associate it with Sweden (especally because of its history).

      Why is it not Scandinavia? Thanks for sharing!!

      • But Iceland isn’t a Scandinavian country either! As I said, this is nitpicking, but Scandinavia consists of only Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The latter is sometimes left out too.
        Still, it’s not all about geography. While all of the Nordic countries share some history together, Finland is the oddball in the group, culturally. We actually share a lot of cultural history with Estonia, yet often forget this ourselves!

        And what perhaps makes this even confusing, Estonia isn’t really a Baltic country, like her southern neighbors are. They’re a Fennic nation (and a language), like us Finns. And Estonians often consider them rather a Nordic country, because of their linguistic and cultural ties to Finland. The Nordics don’t seem to agree with this, unfortunately.

        One could say we’re something in between the Balts and Scandinavians, just torn apart by history – and geography. Rest of the Fennic peoples live in Russia.

        Long story short, I’d say that where as Baltic, Fennic and Scandinavian are the terms for linguistic and genetical use, Nordic is something broader, a cultural term.

      • Thanks for clearing that up. It appears there are way more differences than we Europeans know. It is a fact that for most of Europe Scandinavia also include Finland. I guess history (Sweden and Finland being under the same rule, for instance) also does not help in clearing things up a bit!

  7. Scandinavia is a peninsula where Sweden and Norway are located. There is also an area called “Fennoscandia” which includes Scandinavia and Finland. Finnish and Hungarian belong to the same linguistical family, but are very different – we can’t understand a word from each others languages, although some words have a common base, like hand= käsi in Finnish, kéz in Hungarian.

    • Thanks for sharing this! It is actually very confusing from a different perspective. I’m sure it’s clearer in other parts of Europe. But, for instance, in most European countries “Scandinavia” means Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark. Thanks for clearing that up!

      Although I now know “Nordic” would be a better word.

    • Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian belong to the Fenno-Ugric language group; but while Finnish and Estonian belong to the Fenno-part, Hungarian is Ugric. Finnish and Estonian are similar enough that if a Finn speaks slowly then an Estonian can get the gist and vice versa but Hungarian vocabulary is hugely different. However, the structure of the languages is very similar: they’re all agglutinative – meaning: instead of using prepositions such as “at” “in” “under” “to” etc., you change the end of the verb, noun or adjective. So, in its core these three languages are very different from indo-european languages in the way you structure a sentence to convey your thoughts. Where in English you would say “I pour milk for the hedgehog”; and the basic structure of the sentence doesn’t change much from English to French, Latin, Romanian, Polish or Dutch; the direct translation from Finnish, Estonian or Hungarian would be “(I) pour-I hedgehog-for milk-of”

      As for Scandinavian vs. Nordic. Estonia used to be part of Sweden, too. It’s actually still known as “the good old Swedish time”, though that has more to do with the fact that coinciding with the end of the Swedish rule there was famine, then plague, then war, then more famine and roughly 70% of the population died. So obvioiusly the time when there was enough to eat and everyone still lived was, in comparison, rather nice. Unlike Finland though, the Estonian language (and genotype) has a lot more influences from German, Dutch and Russian with relatively few Swedish bits. This is why Estonians (and Finns and Hungarians) are often offended when people assume that their language is similar to Russian. Russian is more similar to English or French than it is to any Fenno-Ugric language.

  8. Oh, in another life I would love to be a linguistic scholar. I dropped by to thank you for liking my post “early Valentine” on thesaltwatertwin, and I’m so glad I did! Wonderful post and provocative discussion in the comments.

  9. great – that sent lots of ideas banging about in my head like bees in a jar – In Scottish there is a word – ‘knapdarlochs’ which means the pellets of dung that stick to the hairs of a cow’s hind-quarters – but these words were part of rural Scots; urban Scots has lost all that vocabulary

  10. Language is such a major part of one’s cultural being and how we express ourselves and see ourselves – I agree, there are some words that just don’t translate, which keeps it unique and special. A very interesting post – thanks too for visiting my blog.

  11. Pingback: Into the words: Finnish and untranslatability | Oppitori | Scoop.it

  12. Pingback: Excuse-moi? – The French words you just cannot translate | The Bright Old Oak

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