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  • Writer's pictureIan Mac Eochagáin

Finglish delusion

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

Today, I’m going to dive straight into a specific problem I face when translating from Finnish to English, which I’ll call Finglish delusion.

Finglish delusion occurs when people, usually Finns, translate a Finnish-language term to English, stay too close to the Finnish, and produce English terms that are at best misleading and at worst gobbledegook. This would be harmless were it not for the large number of Finnish institutions, such as the Prime Minister’s Office and universities, which publish a lot of English translations of their texts. These translations create the illusion in search engine results that these are established English-language terms, when they are really just mistranslations with a lot of coverage.

Trapped in a bad translation

My first example is the Finnish word kannustinloukku. This consists of the words kannustin, (“incentive, pull factor”) and loukku (“trap”). This could mean a situation in which someone on social welfare benefits has little incentive to accept a job offer because the wages wouldn’t be much better than their benefits. English calls this a welfare trap or unemployment trap. However, there are many examples online of Finnish state bodies, such as the National Audit Office and the Ministry of Finance, using “incentive trap”. There are a couple of problems with this example of Finglish delusion:

  • Most people won’t understand it: English already has the terms welfare/unemployment trap for this, so if a reader comes across “incentive trap” in the context of social security, they won’t necessarily read it as intended.

  • It’s misleading: “incentive trap” sounds like you’re trapped in or by an incentive, whatever that may mean. In the real English-speaking world, outside the Finnish-to-English translation bubble, an incentive trap may mean something very different to what Finnish authors intended.

Working nine to life

My second example is the Finnish työelämä. This consists of two words, työ (“work”) and elämä (“life”). This particular word kills me every time I have to translate it. It doesn’t help that Finns have no problem including the compound words containing “työ” up to five times in a single headline:

Työhyvinvoinnilla työllisyyttä -hankkeen päätösseminaarissa keskusteltiin työhyvinvoinnista, työkyvystä ja työllisyydestä

This was a newsletter from my trade union this year. Roughly translated, the title read: “The closing seminar of the ‘Employment through Work Welfare’ project discussed work welfare, work capacity and employment”. My translation dampens the effect of the original Finnish, as the English word “employment” doesn’t contain “work”, but nevertheless, you get the point: Finnish loves talking about work tautologically.

So back to työelämä: what does it mean? Depending on the context, I translate it in such ways as “employment”, “career”, “professional activity”. The way I refuse to translate it is how Finns do: “working life”.

Now, this is a trickier case than kannustinloukku, above, because “working life” is found in the Cambridge Dictionary, is the title of a trade union activism website, and comes up in academic studies Finns have had nothing to do with. I can’t seriously argue we don’t say it in English. However, there are several arguments for “working life” being an example of Finglish delusion rather than a good translation of työelämä:

  • “Working life” in English and Finglish refer to different things. A search of the phrase on the Global Corpus of Web-based English (“Web-based’ capitalized correctly) shows that many hits are preceded by a possessive adjective. When we do say “working life” in English, we often mean “someone’s career”: “I'd spent such a long part of my working life playing the role of the Phantom”. Note also that the Cambridge Dictionary defines “working life” as “the part of a person’s life when they do a job or are at work”. In Finnish, työelämä is less personal and more general: it’s the entire world of work, the system of interactions between employees, employers and entrepreneurs, and encompasses everywhere work is done. What is more, “working life” in English often means “service life”, how long you can expect a machine to function.

  • For this reason, “working life” is misleading. The Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment says: “Working life barometer measures changes in working life”. On that page, you’ll see that what the Ministry is trying to say is “employment barometer” or “working conditions barometer”, not “career barometer”, as an English-speaking reader might expect.

  • “Working life” is imprecise: the average educated English-speaking reader will see a headline like “New working life and a sustainable economy” and not get more than the general gist of what is meant. A translation of that headline which would tell the reader what the article is about could be “A transforming labour market and a sustainable economy”. (I firmly believe in translating headlines freely and radically, a subject I’ll blog on later.)

  • “Working life” is just not the term we use in English the way Finns think we do. When we English speakers talk about what it’s like to work in a particular country, we say work(ing) culture, working conditions and even work-life balance. And yes, I know that work-life balance is not the same thing as “työelämä”, but it’s a real term that is used when speaking about the portion of their lives people spend at work.

So: down with “working life” and up with true translations that make sense, such as “employment”, “career”, “labour” and “working culture”.

Conceptually speaking

My third example is very specialized, but none the less irritating for that. It is the Finnish word käsite used in a very narrow context. Käsite means “concept” and is derived from the word käsi, “hand”. I imagine the idea is that a concept “handles” or “covers with a hand”.

The term I once had to translate arises from a draft Finnish government bill to include the notion of “economic employer” in tax legislation. The details of the legislation are immaterial here. What is important is how Big-Four firms like KPMG and EY in Finland have written about the plans: they wrote that the Finnish government was planning on introducing an “economic employer concept” to Finnish law. This use of “concept” vexes me in a few ways:

· That’s not how concept is used in English. A government can’t introduce a “concept” to legislation any more than it can put a new constellation in the sky. The legislation contains whatever concepts human minds conceptualize in it.

  • It’s not a concept; it’s a status. If the law designates a company an “economic employer”, then that company has not acquired a new “concept”. That would imply something fundamentally shifting in how the employer operated. The employer does, however, have a new “status”, a new label or tag, if you like. It’s as if the government groups all the employers in the country, saying “you’re an economic employer; you’re not”. It’s not “conceptualizing” these employers; it’s labelling them.

  • Because it is derived from the word for “hand”, the Finnish “käsite” is more tangible and practical than the English “concept”, which is abstract. The shoddy use of “concept” as a translation for “käsite” in all cases just doesn’t work. This makes it a good example of Finglish delusion.

Translating word for word can bamboozle or mislead your readers. Don’t go to the hassle of translating yourself: hire a professional!



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