Tuesday, 28 March 2006

Much ruder in Finnish

In a post last month I traduced the memory of John Donne by suggesting that the title of the comedy series Last of the Summer Wine might have been taken from one of his poems. I am making amends by quoting from an article which shows clearly how wise he was to write in English and not in Finnish.
The article is by Anniina Jokinen of Philadelphia, a distinguished writer who has created a magisterial and much admired website on mediaeval, Renaissance and 17th Century English literature. She was asked (possibly by a monoglot Finn rather hopelessly studying English poetry) to translate one of Donne’s poems into Finnish, and replied as follows:

Firstly, I do not fancy myself a translator of poetry. Secondly, in my opinion Donne translates into Finnish clumsily and poorly—all the subtlety is gone, and whereas the original is coy and veiledly risqué, the end result in Finnish is jarringly vulgar. That said, a translation was requested. Here is the first verse:

ELEGY XX. (Original English)
TO HIS MISTRESS GOING TO BED.
Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy ;
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe ofttimes, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though he never fight.

ELEGIA 20 (Finnish translation)
RAKASTAJATTARELLEEN NUKKUMAAN MENNESSÄ.
Tule, neitoseni, tule, kaikkea lepoa voimani kaihtavat;
Siihen asti kunnes uurastan, ponnistelen.
Vihollinen usein, vastustajansa näkösällä,
Väsyy seisomaan valppaana, vaikkei taistelisikaan.

Jarringly vulgar indeed, sufficiently so to make me glad that I never pursued the option of a degree course in Finno-Ugrian Studies. And some of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s verse is not just vulgar but downright filthy: the other day I found this phrase of his quoted in print together with its translation into several other languages: Täysravinto aaikuisille kissoille…. I ask you!

On the other hand, there is something admirable about a language in which even a soap salesman is palindromic: saippuakauppias. And Finnish has no gender: the same pronoun hän denotes both he and she.

4 comments:

Gervase said...

All right Tony, tell us what the filthy phrase was in English.

Tony said...

Yes, I thought some dirty-minded swine would demand to know that. I found it on a packet in the larder, and it means complete petfood for adult cats.

Verity Martindill said...

Don't mislead Gervase by acting the innocent, Tony. You know perfectly well, from the songs of Bôffit Skënnsstøllen if nowhere else, that "täysravinto" has a very racy double meaning - treble meaning in the north and parts of Lapland, actually.

Surprising, really, since the particular practice to which it playfully alludes was only legalised in Finland in 1971, and even then only for the over 25s and with a nurse present.

Still, probably explains why the Finns don't concern themselves too much with gender.

Tony said...

Nice to hear from you, Verity. I had imagined that you'd gone long ago to that great continuity desk in the sky (or the Sky!)
Of course I know what "täsravinto" really means; some of us wilder spirits used to do it every Saturday night in a little room behind the Tampere Student Union bar, though I hadn't heard that it's now legal.
It was just that I didn't want to explain it to Gervase, who as you know is a prudish old Scots git.