By Richard Impola, Professor Emeritus, State University of New York (SUNY), College at New Paltz.

Translation Losses. As with most clichés, we assume the truth of the words, and don’t continue to question what is lost and to whom. For the sake of convenience, let’s use terms one finds in most discussions of translations. The source language being the original text, and the target language is the language into which it is translated. In most cases, complaints about translation losses come from native speakers of the source language. And listeners often assume that they know best.

Natural Expressions. Yes, something is lost to them. Every language has its own words and idioms for expressing thought. And, to native speakers of language, words or phrases used to express thoughts just seem "natural.” He/she has little problem with quite literal translations, which might be frustrating or funny to native speakers of the target language. Yet, translations that really are more accurate seem off the mark.

Traveling in Finland, we saw the following examples of literal translations. At
Runeberg’s home in Finland, the publishing firm Werner Söderström Inc. is referred to as "the biggest bookmaker in Finland." On a street in Helsinki, a sign tells of "home-made" food. At a campground, people using the washing machine are cautioned against using "violence." Etc. While such translations seem “natural" to Finns, it is sometimes difficult to convince them that they are not "natural" or correct to native speakers of English.

A more extreme case is the Finn who could not understand how Americans can say "Hi" to one another, since "Hi" (Finnish "Hai") means "shark." But, here is another example on a more serious level. The last words in Väinö Linna’s Tuntematon Sotilas (The Unknown Soldier) are: "Aika velikultia." Ignore the meaning of "aika" as "time." In this case it is the augmentative "very." "Velikultia is one of those Finnish compounds: "Veli - brother, kulta - literally "gold," but also a term of endearment, "dear" "sweet." So literally, the phrase reads: "Very dear brothers." Oh yes, "velikulta" also has an alternate meaning, something like "rascals." The existing English translation gives us, "They were good men." I do think something is lost in it.

However, a Finn insisted that the phrase should be translated as: "They were golden brothers." Nothing I said convinced him that it wouldn’t work. But to him, it "felt" like the Finnish expression. Given the fact that the book was written by a soldier who had served with the men he was writing about, a statement such as "They were quite a gang" comes close to giving us the meaning in English.

Expressiveness of one’s own language. In literary translation, the feeling about the natural expressiveness of the source language and the failure of translations to convey it leads, I believe, to many of the complaints about things being lost in translation. I’ve had this experience a number of times. Readers who are native speakers of the target language are delighted with a translation,
while readers who are native speakers of the source language are often disappointed by it.

Why differing opinions? Of course, we feel that the language we grew up with is more expressive than other languages. We used it to make our needs and feelings known and to convey our thoughts. It has literally become a part of us. And, when we read in our own language, the response is direct, immediate and effortless. I suspect that it is the effort one has to expend in reading a text, which is not in the reader’s native language that results in the feeling that the translator just didn’t get it right. And, pride of heritage may be another factor.

Who should criticize translations? Most Finns, I am afraid, would be outraged at the notion that a native speaker of English is the best critic of translations from Finnish. If he/she studied English and achieved a fair mastery of it, he/she feels that he/she is unquestionably the best authority. But, I suggest that very few achieve the level of mastery of another language required to make adequate critical judgments of translations into it. Try to name several writers who wrote great works in a language that was not their native tongue. I can think of only two: Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov. It takes a gift for languages and many years of living in a country where a language not native to one is spoken before one begins to feel comfortable using it. Experience is valuable.

That is why I would never attempt translating into Finnish. An Englishman who
does excellent translations from Finnish once joked that it was lucky he did not know Finnish. He was married to a Finnish woman, and claimed that he always depended on her for the meaning while all he did was to apply that meaning into English words. Translation remains an intriguing problem.


The FINNISH HERITAGE MUSEUM invites you to submit additional examples related to translation and language usage. What is Finnglish? What English words have been adopted as part of the Finnish Language? What happens when Swedish/Finnish/English are intermixed? Send your comments to: info@FinnishHeritageMuseum.org  Kiitos – Thank you.











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