Kevin Hanley

Kevin Hanley

Ten Difficult-to-Translate Finnish Words (Words 1-5)

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As a Business Language Trainer in Finland, the question I most often get asked is “How do you say {insert Finnish word here} in English?” Most of the time I know the answer to this question, as the same words come up all the time (Finnish readers: You are in the minority if you can translate ‘haravoida’ without looking it up.) If I don’t know the answer, it usually takes just a little bit of extra research and effort to arrive at the translation. On rare occasions, however, there doesn’t seem to be any translation at all - or, at best, an awkward Google translation that no native-English speaker would ever say.

I am fascinated by the difficult-to-translate category of words. More to the point, I’m fascinated as to the possible reasons why translating them into English is so difficult. Sometimes these words reveal some interesting and peculiar cultural phenomenon not prevalent in English-speaking countries; at other times they reveal a nuanced emotional state which is so universally felt that one is left wondering how the English language – in all its richness – could not have come up with a decent word.

A few years back, I compiled a list of the ten most common of these Finnish words and created two YouTube videos around them. As interesting as the videos were to make, still more interesting were the viewers’ lively discussions in the comment section of the videos. Clearly, I am not alone in my fascination. The discussion below comes partly from my own thoughts, but mostly from the insights of Finns commenting on the videos. I will discuss five words in this piece, and five in the next. 

Be warned: There are no clear-cut translations for any of these. There is broad disagreement even among Finns on the nuances to the words’ meanings. Some of my suggestions will no doubt leave you with a lingering dissatisfaction. In this case, I absolutely encourage you to watch the videos, leave your suggestions in the comments and join the spirited debate. With that in mind, let’s get to the words.

 

1. MYÖTÄHÄPEÄ (literal translation:  co-shame)

This fantastic Finnish word describes the common feeling of being embarrassed by the actions of somebody else. Myötähäpeä is the emotion that leads to the cringe, and combines three elements:  1) Being embarrassed on somebody’s behalf, 2) judging them negatively and 3) ultimately feeling sympathy for them. Think of a well-meaning older person who says something that was acceptable when they were young, but that sounds cringe-worthy and overtly racist, homophobic, etc. today.

In English we would typically say something like ‘I was embarrassed for him.’ (the preposition has to be for here…not of or by) or ‘I cringed at what he said.’  Some interesting and clever-sounding direct translations are ‘second-hand embarrassment’, ‘second-hand shame’ and ‘compassionate shame’, but nobody ever says these in English.

 

2. SISUKAS (derives from the Finnish word ‘sisu’, which means ‘interior’ or ‘guts’)

Sisukas is the adjective form of the common Finnish word ‘sisu’, which is a trait strongly associated with the Finnish national character. It indicates a stoic perseverance and determination in the face of adversity. No matter how much one is beaten and battered down, one rises up and quietly continues onward. Sisu comes in particularly handy through long, harsh winters and extended Soviet occupations.

The difficulty in translating ‘sisukas’ is in capturing its many nuances. Some noble attempts, but which all fall a bit short, are ‘gutsy’, ‘persistent’, ‘determined’, ‘strong-willed’ and ‘persevering’. Inevitably, I think, one has to combine two or more adjectives to get to the core meaning. In my (non-Finnish) mind, ‘gritty and determined’ come closest.

 

3. VAHINGONILO (literally:  accident’s joy)

The meaning of vahingonilo can be captured in the phrase ‘joy at someone else’s misfortunes.’ If your arrogant, rich neighbor - who can’t stop bragging about his indoor swimming pool or collection of Lamborghinis - suddenly files for bankruptcy, then you will probably feel an overwhelming sense of vahingonilo.

It’s extraordinary then that, for centuries, the English language didn’t have a translation for this very common feeling. Respect to the Finns for not only facing the ugly truth, but naming it. This word is different from the others on this list in that it’s not technically true that we don’t have a straight translation. We actually borrowed the word ‘shadenfreude’ from German in the late 1800’s and it has since become part of the lexicon. Still, although it’s growing in popularity, it is a fairly unknown and little-used word…certainly less so than vahingonilo.

 

4. TALKOOT

Talkoot was the word that arguably generated the most comments on my videos. This is most likely because they are such a common event in Finland, and not so much in English-speaking countries. If you walk around the residential parts of a Finnish city in the early spring or late autumn, you may notice groups of people raking leaves, cleaning the yard, painting a building or eating sausage. Most likely you are watching a talkoot in action. A talkoot can be described as an event where Finns – usually family, friends or neighbors - voluntarily come together to work on a common project. An important part of the event is the food (often sausage), drinks (often beer) and socializing that come after the work is done.

Many of the English translations given for talkoot - working party, volunteer party, community work - are clumsy and sound like some Soviet-era propaganda. Apparently, in parts of the U.S. people speak of ‘barn raising’, but this, to me, evokes images of religious men with long beards who refuse to use electricity. The winner for best translation for talkoot, it seems, is ‘working bee’. This is a phrase that is commonly used in Australia and New Zealand (which, admittedly, I did not know before doing the videos) and lacks the awkwardness of the other translations.

 

5. KALSARIKÄNNIT (literally: underpants drunk)

‘Kalsarikännit’ has been generating a lot of international attention lately (even landing its own emoji), and deservedly so. It’s a fantastic word that Finns should be proud of. The basic idea behind kalsarikännit is that you are at home alone, dressed only in your underwear and getting drunk. If you are imagining Homer Simpson(nen), then you are not far off from understanding it. The driving force behind kalsarikännit is more that you are boozing at home alone (and, therefore, you don’t care what you have on) and less about what you are – or are not – wearing. You don’t have to be wearing only your underwear to have a successful kalsarikännit, but you do have to be drunk at home and alone.

Like with the other words on this list, many of the English translations are clumsy and would not be understood out of context by native English speakers: Long johns drunk, underwear boozing, couch-intoxication, underwear-clad drunkenness, etc. The unsatisfying conclusion I came to is that there is no good translation for kalsarikännit. ‘Boozing at home alone’ perhaps captures the semantic meaning the best, but it lacks the humorous overtones and imagery of the Finnish word.

Perhaps it’s a ripe time for Finnish to give English another loan word.