These days, every once in a while one runs into a populist claim that somehow Finland is forced to become increasingly multicultural. This claim is based on a false notion that Finland would have been, one time or another, a closed, monocultural and monolingual vacuum. In reality, Finland is a living biosphere nourished by a multitude of diverse elements and I would argue that its vitality results from this very diversity. Even in the earliest times, our Pohjola has been enriched by coexistences (sometimes peaceful, sometimes competitive). We have experienced migrations between the traditional territories of diverse peoples and the adoption of new beliefs, customs and languages – as well as the abandoning of old ones.
I am myself an example of a typical Finn, born and raised in a monolingual environment. But one only has to scratch the surface of the linguistic monolith in order to start perceiving fine cracks and new nuances. One of my grandmothers had learned quite a bit of Swedish while working for a bourgeois family; my childhood friend traced their family to German-speaking, cosmopolitan Vyborg; in a nearby nursing home I befriended an old Tatar lady with whom I was able to practice Turkish, which I was passionate about; the surname of one of our family friends had been translated from Russian into Finnish after the war…
And that is not mentioning the linguistic habitat of the country itself, which is officially bilingual, but multilingual in practice. As aggressively marginalized minority languages as the Sami languages, the Roma language of Finland, and languages such as Carelian and Yiddish have all survived to the best of their ability, pinched between the rock and the hard place.
The languages that wash upon Finnish shores in the wake of contemporary migrations and international trade are therefore a natural part of a long continuum. And despite the clamorings of some political passions, we live in a reality where, in addition to Finnish and Swedish, the heart of Finland beats also in Arabic, Kurdish, French, Somali, Estonian, Albanian and Dari, to name but a few. Fences come crashing down when people live their Finnish lives – shiver in the icy rain of the May First celebrations, wake to the light of the Midnight Sun, dress their children in rain gear so they can play outside in inclement weather, fall in and out of love, create and rest – in all these languages.
We have finally started to question the ossified categories of conventional structures. For example, literature has long been categorized as either “Finnish” or “foreign”. But what to say about Hassan Blasim’s novel God99, which I translated last year – from Arabic, yes, but the author is a Finnish citizen and the story tells us as much about life in Finland as it does about life in Iraq. Which one is it, “Finnish” or “foreign”? The question loses its relevance in a culture that is becoming increasingly universal – curiosity does not give a hoot about the ideal of a monolingual nation state.
To accept diversity is to strengthen people’s sense of belonging. I have personally seen this as a language professional. When Allah99 was praised in the traditional and social media, many Iraqis told me they had for the first time been able to identify with a Finnish success story. In the spring of 2020, when we put together Covid 19- related news programming in Arabic, Kurdish, Dari and Somali in record time, the linguistic communities inundated us with positive feedback: “I felt for the first time that there was programming for me on the Finnish TV. For the first time I really felt like a citizen.”
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the pioneers who, through their work, have tried to show the public that being Finnish comes in different colors and languages. We, the representatives of the majority, are slowly understanding how important it is to stretch the surface of the public conversation to cover truly every member of the public.
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Without outside influences our thinking becomes stale and starts turning in on itself. From the beginning, Finnish writers and thinkers have been absorbing influences from multilingual sources – either by reading works in their original languages or in translation. For example, Aleksis Kivi’s literary influences included Shakespeare and Cervantes, whose works he read in Swedish translation. And our contemporary Finnish literature – as original as it is – has been deeply nourished by translated world literature.
Bringing world literature to the reach of Finnish readers is not self-evident. Translation is slow and patient artisanal work; consequently, bringing a work of literature to the market of a tiny language like Finnish is a complex commercial, cultural, economic and intellectual effort. At our best we succeed in it, because — at least as of now — reading as a pastime is still holding its own against the siren calls of social media and the advances of other contemporary time hogs, and because there are institutions that continue to value and fund culture.
Nonetheless there is room for improvement. The literary markets have become, so to speak, phenomenalized, as efficient news cycles keep us updated in real time on every unrest whose bubbling manages to percolate to the surface. This means, however, that a lion’s share of our attention goes to provocative, loud and aggressive voices who often are backed by large production machines — and, thanks to the laws of globalization, these phenomena often surface in English.
A deplorable amount of literature that could open new intellectual perspectives for us but does not survive the economy of attention – perhaps because it thinks along its own lines and especially if its thinking is formulated in a language other than English – is crushed under this wheel. We ought to care about this, because language is one of the things that shape thinking, and in order to understand our diverse world we must be drawing our information from a variety of wells.
The first example that comes to mind is our home community, the European Union. The Union makes decisions on the most important matters that concern all of us. But where do we get the information on European values and cultural currents? The media does its part by provisioning us with facts, but what about the European soul? The best way to get in touch with that is by following the cultural production of European countries.
But how much Bulgarian, Polish or Portuguese literature ends up being translated into Finnish? Even French and German literature is undertranslated, considering how vital these two world languages are. There are brilliant, first-rate works written in English, but English cannot be the only lens through which we view life in Europe — especially in the post-Brexit world. This applies of course to the whole planet, since today no corner of the world is so distant that its events would not affect us in one way or another.
The Arab world is a good example. The migrations set in motion by political (and, more frequently, environmental) causes have washed waves of Arab countries’ reality on Finnish shores in their wake. If we wish to understand the circumstances, we need to listen to voices that speak in Arabic. The media provides us with the important facts, but creative texts will give us a perspective on people’s emotional truths.
Because of this, I believe firmly that in the end multilingualism supports world peace. It is much easier to feel empathy towards those with whom we already have an emotional connection. Visual arts and dance can speak to us through language barriers, but literature requires an intermediate – a truchement.
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Humanity faces challenges of such magnitude that everybody is needed on deck in order to solve them. The crew will be successful if we give space to everybody’s strengths and welcome everyone to tell our common story in their own language. For my part, I will try to do my share by nourishing our cultural life by thoughts translated from other languages. Our linguistic health is part of our cultural wealth.
Sampsa Peltonen is a certified translator (Arabic-Finnish, Finnish-French-Finnish), who translates audiovisual programming for the Finnish Television and Radio (YLE) and literature for several publishing houses. At the moment he is also a member of The Finnish Language Board, an expert body on language and name use guidance in Finnish.