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.