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Iida Ruishalme

We went for a stroll with Albert. It was such a romantic night by the lake—just me and Albert hand in hand, gazing at the water lilies trembling on the moon bridge.

Confused yet?

I have bewildered many readers before learning, among other things, that in English, ‘we go with person x’ never implies a headcount of two, and that a moon bridge isn’t an English concept at all.

Encountering obstacles like this, I began to think that translators must engage in some manner of alchemy. My head hurt when I tried to figure out ways of explaining the ‘moon bridge’ phenomenon—of moonlight casting a narrowing linear reflection over the body of water between you and the moon, imaginatively seen as a bridge—in a form better adapted to anglophone understanding, yet retaining that compact atmospheric impact.

Creativity is recycling and re-channeling.

Between then and now I have translated close to 200,000 not-so-writerly-mature Finnish words into English. My own words, that is, from my first attempt at a novel, begun in my teens. I have learnt plenty of humility along the way and am no longer terribly embarrassed to admit that the starting material was rife with unoriginal phrases (alongside with many perhaps a bit too original).

In fact, I have a memory of a vague sense of accomplishment each time I would succeed in weaving a well placed cliché into my text. Many of these pieces of worn-out imagery wriggled their way through to the English draft of my manuscript, too—by then I had, though, gotten the idea that clichés were not the height of literary achievement, and was trying my best to un-learn another languageful of them. (Learning them in the first place was no easy feat, I tell you.)

Then something wonderful happened. I realized that many of my Finnish phrases had lost their stigma in translation. Saying that something ‘vanished like ashes in the wind’ no longer sounded dowdy. A commonplace word for a less-than-harmonious note suddenly struck a chord (or to put a Finnish clang on it: found an echo) in my English readers in ‘a dissonant call’. A scene with ‘a mousely silence’ (in Finnish as good as synonymous with just ‘silence’) had gained a tone of apprehension I had never before contemplated on.

Those words, just like me, had become expats …

The first time I was commended for using an original choice of words simply for having translated a platitude, I felt torn. Should I claim the credit and move on? If that excellent writer in question would have been critiquing my Finnish text, I would’ve been in for a scolding. Should I correct my reader’s mistake and inform her that said choice of words actually demonstrated poor taste?

But that’s just it—it didn’t, not anymore. Those words, just like me, had become expats and they had found a new and better home in the process.

Language is a frolic between minds …

A sign of me coming to terms with my situation as a linguistic eloper was when the online dictionary returned ‘blistering’ instead of ‘beginning to break’—which happen to be homonymous for the specific declination of the word I had used (rakoilla)—and I jumped at the chance of seeing my character’s (im)patience as something that would blister. So very descriptive, and fallen onto my lap right out of Google Translate. Yes, it did hurt my writerly pride that I had not dreamt up that expression in my head all on my own. But I didn’t get into this in order to bolster my pride, now, did I? I was (still am) doing it for the story, the words, and the expression.

So I swallowed my pride. Or perhaps I should say, ‘I took the spoon in my fair hand’, as the Fenno-Anglic writer I am? Creativity is recycling and re-channeling. I decided to accept the Finnish influence, with its prizes and pitfalls (and occasional debris), and use it to the best of my ability.

It doesn’t always play out in my favour, of course. I feel nostalgia for some wonderful Finnish words and when I don’t find their suitable substitute I tend to overcompensate. Like with the ah-so-atmospheric adjective kuulas, which had me describing a lake as being ‘clear, cool and crisp’—in a sentence with three other adjectives to begin with. Let’s just say that there is a special place for me at the meetings of the AAA (Adjective Addicts Anonymous or … no—that can’t be it. Adjectives—Awesome and All-important).

I like to praise Finnish language for its many delicious words with a specific quality and feel.

Finnish has a flair for words that describe sounds, created with a playful dose of onomatopoeia (and a liberal attitude about forming new ones where necessary). There is an array of words for a variety of buzzing noises for instance, from the high-pitched (sirinä) and insect-like (surina), to the crackling (särinä), and a spectrum of liquid sounds differing on volume and viscosity: from lirinä (the sound of a trickle of a thin stream of liquid) through lorina (your regular pour) and lärinä (a robust splish-splash), to lörinä (a … bad day on the loo).

Faced with the task of finding English counterparts sometimes has me pulling at my hair (this idiom, unfortunately, is equally worn on both languages), but I have turned many a translation battle into a victory thanks to my beloved friend, the thesaurus—the spirit animal of words in danger of becoming forgotten and fossilised, much like my memory of why a synonym lexicon has a name like a dinosaur.

The strengths in one language gave me the gusto to search for that treasure I never knew existed in the other.

There are words buried deep within a language, just waiting for someone to pick them up again and put them to use. When I wanted to describe a distant murmur of an echo, ‘a susurrus of bird calls’ carried it to my ears in just the appropriate wind-blended whisper. When I went looking for that right word for the soul-soothing melody of a small stream, I found and fell love with the clarity mixed with the softness of a kitten’s purr in ‘the purl of a river’. The strengths in one language gave me the gusto to search for that treasure I never knew existed in the other.

Another pastime that interlingual travellers can enjoy is metaphor mining. As much as I appreciate the richness of my mother tongue, there are many expressions there which I use without a second thought—chiseling them out into English, however, can reveal some mineral marvels. While reveling in the plentitude of words for sounds, I noticed what a telling cosy quality there was in the way an energetic chatter can in Finnish be described with the word for the boiling of stew (porina), and a wonderful liveliness in the cross-over between senses when an exclaimed hissing (sähinä) can depict the patterns of fireworks on the sky. Granted, it may take some work to set those gems in their proper English places, but the inspiration they give carries an edge that can cut through concepts and reveal fresh facets within.

I figured out that using a couple of extra words to talk about ‘water lilies trembling on a bridge of light that stretched over the pond and toward the moon’ didn’t put me at a disadvantage at all—getting to introduce a novel idea of a moon bridge was a luxury, a rare find for those confined to their mother tongue.

For me this is the beauty, and basis, of language: the expression of ideas that entice us to the degree that they stick with us and make us convey them to others. Memes spread and become culture, words are shared and become a language. Nothing about it is written in stone (with a few well-known exceptions) and all boundaries are fictive. Language is a frolic between minds, and zingy expressions can’t be contained, they want to spread and infect the thoughts and tongues of others.

Iida Ruishalme

More on Amazing Onomatopoeiec Finnish can be found here



Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist, social entrepreneur, nutrition and narrative coach. Creative Director of The Woolf Quarterly; Co-Founder of WriteCon and The Powerhouse Zurich. Nature is my jam.

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  1. Just a question: Does intoxication with language ever detract from narrative impulse?

    Post a Reply
    • That’s a good question to ask davetherave2, one that I often ask myself while writing. I wouldn’t want to get so lost in words as not to see the story. Depending on how it’s used, I’m sure too much focus on language can become a hindrance to the flow of the story. I often end up polishing juicy turns of phrase only to realise I need to cut them out (kill your darlings), because they muddle up rather than crystallise what I am trying to express. I think it is always a question of knowing what serves the story and not the other way around (what serves my nice phrases). But even very simple non-story-muddling expressions may require just that one right word, and intoxication for searching for that word not only satisfies my language sense but, I believe, benefits the story.

      Looking at it from another perspective, what comes to my impulse to narrate a story, it is a joint love for play and flow of language and the exploration of where my story should go to be true. For me, advancement of the story and my language intoxication have a synergistic effect on each other. I just need to edit well to strike a balance and have the right language in the right place.

      What do you think? Do you loose your way in beautiful words? 🙂

      Post a Reply

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