This is the second article in a two-part series on Finnish words that are difficult to translate into English. The two articles are based on my own YouTube videos, and most of the insights in the articles come from the lively discussions that were linked to the videos. In the first article, I discussed words that touch on some interesting cultural phenomena (talkoot, kalsarikännit, sisukas) as well as interesting emotional experiences that should – but don’t – have an English equivalent (myötähäpeä, vahingonilo). The five words in this article also get into the cultural and emotional but, in addition to these, include a cute word that is arguably not needed (but nice to have) and a very practical set of words that English has yet to come up with good translations for.
It should be noted that, from a translator’s perspective, it is not always necessary to have a direct translation for something. In fact, it can very often be a terrible idea to try. Good translators will grasp the tone and meaning of the wider context, and utilize the right words, phrases, idioms, structures, collocations, etc., to produce the best possible translation.
That said, it’s still interesting to look at words that are difficult to translate, wonder at the reasons why and attempt to provide translations for them. Let’s start with a common set of words that my students struggle, a lot, to translate.
6. AVOPUOLISO / AVOVAIMO / AVOMIES (Literally: open spouse / open wife / open husband)
Living with a romantic partner, but not being officially married to them, is increasingly common. Avopuoliso, avovaimo and avomies describe partnerships that have all the common characteristics of being married (living together, sharing assets, maybe having kids together) but have not gone through the official marriage process. Married in everything but name, basically.
Finns caught a lucky linguistic break with these words. The actual words for spouse, wife and husband are aviopuoliso, aviovaimo and aviomies, respectively. By simply removing one letter from avio (marriage), you get the Finnish word avo (open). The person you are officially married to (aviopuoliso) becomes the person who fulfills many of the requirements of a spouse but to whom you are not officially married (avopuoliso). The same logic holds for wife (aviovaimo/avovaimo) and husband (aviomies/avomies). Pretty convenient.
English does have a lot of words for avopuoliso, but none of them works as well as the Finnish word. ‘Common-law partner’ and ‘civil partner’ are too cold, loveless and official-sounding. ‘Life partner’ and ‘life companion’ are too overly sentimental and mushy for Finnish tastes (as well as for at least one American). The three that come closest are ‘domestic partner’ (though Finns hate this word as they think of their pets), ‘live-in partner’ and ‘life partner’. I recommend to my students that they refer to their avopuoliso as their ‘life partner’.
Side note: You absolutely do not want to translate avopuoliso, avovaimo and avomies literally (think about it).
7. KAUKOKAIPUU (Literally: far longing)
Kaukokaipuu is a word most Finns know but never use. It’s one of those old, poetic words that has staying power probably because of the lovely way it sounds and the deep emotion it conveys. It describes the longing for a faraway place (or even a person). Take a song sung by sailors – the missing-home kind, not the rowdy kind – from any language and you get a sense of what kaukokaipuu is. Think about the man or woman you fell in love with on that amazing trip to Indonesia and how you yearn to be with them again.
Google translates kaukokaipuu as ‘remote longing’ but, not only does that not make sense, it completely misses the deep meaning. I have also seen ‘wanderlust’ as a translation, but this is too restless (and more easily obtainable) than kaukokaipuu. Usually, in English, you would use the word ‘yearn’ in a phrase such as “I yearn to be back in my homeland”, “I yearn to go hiking in the Amazon” or “I yearn to see her again”. It doesn’t get at it exactly, but it gets close.
8. PEFLETTI (literally: bottom placemat)
This word is a portmanteau of peffa (which is soft slang for a person’s bottom) and tabletti (which means ‘placemat’). A pefletti is essentially a piece of cloth or paper one sits on in the sauna. It is used for the hygienic purpose of keeping certain body parts from making contact with the sauna bench. Presumably, this benefits the current and future sauna-bench-sitters in equal measure.
The best concrete translation — which leaves little to the imagination — is the rather crass ‘sauna bum towel’. However, perhaps ‘sauna bench towel’ (or simply ‘bench towel’) is a better translation as it gets the meaning across without provoking unwanted imagery. Google once again fails to rise to the occasion by translating it as ‘seat cover’, which is commonly used to describe what people place on top of their car seats.
Sometimes words just utterly lack good English translations. Pörriäinen is one of them. A pörriäinen can be described as ‘a flying, fluffy, buzzing insect.’ It has both positive and cute connotations. The insect that is most associated with pörriäinen is a bumblebee. Usually – and weirdly, when one really thinks it through – the bumblebee of drawings is oversized, overly fluffy and smiling broadly.
One common mistranslation of pörriäinen is ‘buzzer’. English speakers never use this to refer to an insect. It is instead used to refer to an electronic button that makes a buzzing sound. Another mistranslation is ‘buzzing insect’. Mosquitoes are buzzing insects, but they are very far from cute and fluffy pörriäiset. Sometimes an awkward string of words is needed if one insists on a direct translation. ‘A flying, fluffy, buzzing insect’ covers it with porriäinen, although with some dissatisfaction.
The interesting thing about the word avanto is how little Finns seem to agree on it. To one person, an avanto is only a man-made hole in the ice meant for swimming. To another, an avanto – man-made or otherwise – is any hole in the ice large enough to fall through. For another, a hole drilled for ice fishing is an avanto. And for another still, an avanto is strictly for swimming purposes only.
Any direct translation of avanto is inevitably going to be clumsy. Arguably, the one that comes closest is ‘ice-swimming hole’. As one commenter pointed out, however, perhaps the best way to translate avanto is to focus on the swimming part of the experience and not the hole (“Let’s go for a swim in cold water.”).
Be especially careful to get your vowels correct if using the common translation of ‘ice hole’ (again, think about it).
There you have it. Though I find this list fascinating, it is no doubt the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The search for more quirky and difficult-to-translate Finnish words will continue. Time now to grab the pefletti and have a sauna with the avovaimo. The avanto awaits…
Kevin Hanley is one of Delingua’s professional English language trainers. Kevin has considerable teaching experience with business customers in a wide variety of fields, including healthcare, real estate and construction, as well as more general business English courses that focus on spoken skills. If you’re interested in improving your English with Kevin, request a quote here.