Sunday, August 30, 2015

Hey Hey, Kuni Keksit!

My husband Whitney and I spent twelve days this August in Finland and Sweden, with a short day trip to Tallinn, capital of Estonia, across the Baltic Sea.

It was a trip that fell into place with only weeks of planning. He was given a three month sabbatical that started in early June, and sometime in July agreed we’d take a “roots quest” to see the places where his family and family name began. Just days before our trip, we emailed several Finnish relatives, and were honored to find cousins rearranging schedules to meet us for dinner, show us family graves, and take us to places important to his extended family.

As always, being in another country set me thinking about words, about how unfortunate it is that as Americans we rarely find ourselves in that enlightening space where language and meaning step apart and invite us to rethink our understanding.

Those moments are frequent in places where translation is necessary daily. Finland is a country of two national languages, Finnish and Swedish. By law, in bilingual municipalities (where 8% of the population or at least 3,000 people speak the minority language) legal documents are translated and authorities need to be fluent in both languages. In places with both Finnish and Swedish names, both appear on signs (or are announced on trains, subways, ferries). The Sami people, (in English called Laplanders), are also entitled to services in their own language. And all children are taught English, beginning in grade 3, to ensure entry into global commerce and culture.

Nuances of speech, difficulties of interpretation, awareness of the limitations of  language are part of the air the Nordic nations breath.

In Finnish and Swedish, the word for  “hello” is “hey!”  As an English-speaker, it feels a little rude to say “hey” to someone I’ve never met, but  “hey “ is the one Finnish word I can now say with real confidence. That and  “hey hey,” which means good-bye. I’m not much more fluent in anything else, although I studied French for years, took years of Latin, a semester of German.

One of the goals for our journey was to better understand the last name “Kuniholm,” a name created by Whitney’s great-great grandfather sometime in the 1840s.  Our time in Finland offered new context. Apparently in Finland it was common, until legislation in 1921, for surnames to change with each generation, depending on location, parentage, or personal whim. Johan’s son became “Johannson.” Johan Johannson, Whitney’s great-great grandfather, added a last name from a farm he bought: the Holm farm, then moved to a tplace named Kuni and became Johan Johanson Kuniholm.

We had been told somewhere along the way that “Kuni” meant King, and “Holm” meant hearth. Spend a day or two around the Swedish language and it quickly becomes clear that “Holm” is a variant of “Holmen,” which means island. Except when it doesn’t: it more likely means “very small island,” but can also mean the low flat land along a river, lake, or sea. The Holm farm of the family name was nowhere near an island, but might have been a low, flat farmstead along the Malsor Channel.

Kuni is equally tricky. A sign on Suomenlinna, or Sveaborg, the sea fortress guarding Helsinki's harbor that once rivaled Gibraltar, points toward “Kuninkaaportti" or "Kungsporten," "King’s Gate.” The Swedish word for king is “kung”, but there’s no translation for kuni in Finnish. King is "kuningas". An Old Norse word study suggests kuni means “royalty.” Maybe.

A sign for cookies in a Helsinki market suggested a different direction. "Kuni Keksit." I asked the young woman behind the counter what Kuni Keksit were. “Queen Cookies” was the confident response. Why Queen? She struggled for an answer: “It’s the berries. The kuni berries.”  A particular kind of berry? No – a group of berries. Queen berries. Blueberry, cloudberry, and some others that wouldn’t translate into English. She tried, then gave up. Finland has 37 edible species of berry. We have names for just a fraction.

We had reserved a car for the trip north to the village of Kuni. We found it in Ostrobothnia, a Swedish-speaking region of Finland, just 50 miles from Sweden across the Gulf of Bothnia. It’s in a region that never had a king, except the rule of Swedish, then Russian royalty. Kuni itself is hardly a  place, just a tiny hamlet, with a pretty little school, a car repair lot, a trailhead for a beautiful woodland trail, a few small farms, some houses.

Was the town named after royalty, or to highlight the berries that grew in the woods  and the brambles along the river? We have no way of knowing – so far at least. Maybe some Finnish cousins will enlighten us. Until then, we have only theories.

There are many words that can’t translate from Finnish to English. A short sampling (with apologies for the very rough approximations):
  • "myötähäpeä," which means vicarious embarrassment, feeling embarrassed on behalf of someone else 
  • "jokamiehenoikeus": freedom to roam, travel through and enjoy wild harvests in the countryside, including private landholdings 
  • "tokka": a large herd of reindeer 
  • "lieko": the trunk of a tree submerged on the bottom of a lake
  • "sisu": stoic courage and determination
Every language has words that are immediately understood in that language, yet hard to explain in another. On a lovely ferry ride to Birka, once center of Viking enterprise in Sweden’s Lake Mälaren, I found myself talking with two Swedes about birds, history, language, politics. We found ourselves stalled on a word that would adequately capture the ongoing discussions one of the group described having with his young adult granddaughter: not arguments. Not disagreements. No – discussion didn’t work. What is the word in English for impassioned, spirited, carefully thought-through conversation about things that matter deeply? The Finns around us scratched their heads and shrugged. They knew exactly what the man was saying. They had no idea how to put it into English.

In the days since our return, I’ve been thinking about translation: what’s lost in conversations between nations, what we lose when we approach words as if every word in one language can be replaced, one for one, with an equal word in another.

And I’ve been thinking about the challenge of reaching back in time to understand what words meant when used by those before us. If the word “Kuni” is a distant whisper of meaning, what about those ancient Hebrew words from the early books of Genesis? We know what some of them meant, and have broad theories about others. Yet some Christians read those texts as if the exact meaning is captured precisely – forever! – in the structure and idiom of their own preferred English version.  

I’ve been thinking of the dangers of a simplistic understanding of language and translation, and the more immediate danger of using words in the public arena with little care or understanding about actual meaning or historical resonance. Socialism, communism, Nazi: those words take different shape in small countries just miles from the Russian border, just across the Baltic Sea from Germany.

And from that vantage point, language about rounding people up, sending them back, “Making American Great” by building walls and eliminating outsiders sounds dangerously familiar, raising discussion about difficult words like fascism, totalitarianism, nativisim.

I’ll be exploring some of these words, and others, in the months ahead. I’m more convinced than ever that we are accountable for the words we use or misuse, the words we hear, the words we pretend we don’t hear.