The unbearable lightness of translating from English to Finnish

Why is it so challenging to produce a good translation from English to Finnish? Usually translators do better translating from a foreign language to their native language. Their wonderful, utterly loved Mother tongue. That’s only logical. Translating from English to Finnish, however, is an exception, and I’ve pondered a theory for this.

By its structure, for historical and geographical reasons, the Finnish language is very different from our neighboring languages Swedish and Russian as well as from other widely known European languages, including English. However, because of our advanced educational system and very open and eager exposure to the Anglo-Saxon (popular) cultures, Finns know English exceptionally well and have great respect for the related cultures. This is something that can prevent translators from properly cutting loose from an English source text when translating into Finnish.

Swedish, German, French and Spanish, for example, are all more or less related to English so that there are far less structural differences between the languages, and the logic of the languages is more the same so that they are much easier to translate into. Another thing is that in many other cultures, such as in France, it is a matter of honor to say and modify things in terms of adapting them to own culture, whereas in Finland, most of the people don’t even recognize anglisms anymore.

My theory is that the further away from the Anglo-Saxon penetration a culture is, the easier it is to produce an acceptable translation from English to their own language. Translators are forced to rewrite or explain the actual meanings for the people in order to be understood at all. Finns are so used to hearing and reading English everywhere that it takes an extra effort from us to even notice if a text we are reading is really Finnish or English with Finnish words. I’d love to hear some comments to this theory.


  1. Katri - March 9, 2012 9:05 pm

    Thanks Virve, so nice to read your texts again! English to Finnish is probably challenging for the one translating the text – but as a reader at least I appreciate a good translation. Couple of weeks ago I tried to read a book translated from English to Finnish: I got allergic rash on page 6 and I had to give up on page 8. I prefer to have my “rule of thumb” as “nyrkkisääntö”, not as “peukalosääntö”.

  2. Virve - March 10, 2012 10:25 am

    Hei Katri, thanks for your comment! We all appreciate a good translation to be able to enjoy a good story. That’s why translators need to be extra careful not to fall into the pitfalls of direct translation. Especially fiction needs to be understood, put aside, and rewritten in order for it to be readable.


Have your say