Ian Mac Eochagáin
Why is Finnair’s English so bad?
(Lue tämä kirjoitus suomeksi tästä.)
Finnair writes in English that sounds distinctly like Finnish. The grammar is awkward, the vocabulary choices are poor and some content is not localized for English-speaking readers. I know because I’m a Finnish-English translator who produces English you won’t be ashamed of.
Finnair is Finland’s flag carrier and an ambassador for the country. Its corporate language is English, the language it prioritizes on its planes, website and app above other languages. Even their safety cards on board are in English only, despite the large numbers of Finns they fly (apparently, the safety of Finnish- and Swedish-speakers aboard a Finnish state-owned airline is not important). Given that, you’d think the airline would put effort into making sure their English was correct and idiomatic.
Unfortunately, like many other internationally oriented Finnish companies, Finnair produces English that bears the strong stamp of Finnish. The result is embarrassing for a company with such a large budget. According to the airline’s 2021 annual report, it spent €38 million on sales, marketing and distribution: couldn’t it have spent more of this money on proper English?
The following examples are from the UK – English locale of the Finnair site. I group Finnair’s embarrassing English into three categories: bad grammar, bad vocabulary and bad localization.
First, bad grammar.
“The coronavirus situation still affects air travel significantly, but the world has gradually started to re-open again and travel guidance has been eased in many countries already.”
The adverb “already” is in the wrong place. The correct position is after “has” and before “eased”: “travel guidance has already been eased in many countries”.
“You can now purchase upgrades from Economy Class to Premium Economy conveniently online.”
The adverb “conveniently” is in the wrong place. The correct position is after “now” and before “purchase”: “you can now conveniently purchase upgrades”.
“How to keep the kids happy on a flight?”
“Where to find information?”
Unlike Finnish, English does not form questions in the infinitive. Questions always need a subject. The correct form of these questions could have been with “I”:
“How do I keep my kids happy on a flight?”
“Where can I find information?”
Finnair has some problems with punctuation:
“We always aim to contact you directly, if your flight is disrupted.”
The comma is unnecessary here. The rule in English is to put a comma after a clause beginning with if: “If your flight is disrupted, we always aim to contact you directly.” If the if-clause comes second, the comma is not needed: “We always aim to contact you directly if your flight is disrupted”.
Here’s some more Finnish grammar at work behind the scenes:
“…for everyone flying with Finnair, either we have the pleasure of having you onboard often or every now and then.”
This is the wrong word. What they meant to say was “whether we have the pleasure of having you on board often or every now and then”.
Finally in grammar, a perennial stumbling block for Finns writing in English. Oh yes, the biggie: “also”:
“You’ll find disruption information also on our social media channels, especially on Twitter.”
“I paid for a seat/extra bag/meal. Does the payment cover also the return flight?”
“Air France allows me to carry 12kg of carry-on baggage. Can I take 12kg also on the flight operated by Finnair?”
“Delays and cancellations on Finnair flights are expected and also delays are expected for baggage handling at Helsinki Airport on 26 February.”
In English, one of the rules of the adverb “also” is that it goes between the subject and the main verb. That means that in all of these cases, “also” should have come earlier in the sentence than Finnair thinks:
“You’ll also find disruption information on our social media channels.”
“Does the payment also cover the return flight?”
“Can I also take 12kg on the flight operated by Finnair?”
“Delays and cancellations on Finnair flights are expected and delays are also expected for baggage handling at Helsinki Airport on 26 February.”
Next, bad vocabulary – or rather, bad idioms. Finnair writes in English but doesn’t say things the way native speakers normally would in English. The result is sometimes confusing and sometimes the opposite of the intended meaning.
“It is also good to visit our Safe travel during coronavirus page, where you can find all the relevant information you need.”
This is a literal translation of a Finnish idiom. “It is good to [do something]” in English does not mean “it’s useful to”, as Finnair is trying to say here, but “[doing something] produces a beneficial result”. An example would be “it’s good to talk”: talking eases your mind and makes you feel better. What Finnair is trying to say here is “visiting this page is useful”, but the sentence sounds like visiting the page is therapeutic. A better alternative would have been “You may also find our Safe Travel during Coronavirus page useful”.
“When connecting from a flight to the bus service, you will receive your checked baggage among the first customers at Helsinki Airport.”
“Among the first customers” is a literal translation of a Finnish idiom, and it sounds nonsensical in English. Trust me, Finnair, no one says this is in English. A much simpler and understandable way of saying it would have been “your checked bags will be the first on the carousel at Helsinki Airport”.
“In case you decide to cancel your reservation”
This is a Finnair and Finnish classic, and has long been a pet peeve of mine. For once and for all: “in case” means “in the event of”, not “if”. “Take an umbrella in case it rains.” It is not a translation of the Finnish word “mikäli”. The information under this sentence, “In case you decide to cancel your reservation”, is instructions for how to cancel your reservation. The meaning an average English-speaking reader would expect here, however, is “precautions to take should you decide to cancel your reservation”, such as cancellation insurance. What Finnair meant to say here was:
“If you decide to cancel your reservation”
In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, a Finnish company can make itself sound more idiomatic in English by replacing “in case” with “if”.
Another clunky word choice:
“You can also upgrade your flight ticket from Economy Class to Premium Economy or from Premium Economy to Business Class.”
It is a ticket for a flight, but who says “flight ticket” in English these days any more? No one. It’s just a “ticket”. This is a direct translation of the Finnish “lentolippu”, but “ticket” would have been enough. The airline could also dispense with it altogether:
“You can also upgrade from Economy Class to Premium Economy or from Premium Economy to Business Class”.
If there’s a single word that for me encapsulates all that is wrong with Finnair’s communications in English, it’s this one:
“Enjoy the new sensation of flying – our brand-new Premium Economy travel class, completely renewed Business Class and refreshed Economy Class are now available on selected long-haul routes.”
“During the winter season until 25 March 2023, you can experience our renewed cabins on the routes listed below.”
“Our completely renewed Business Class will make flying with us feel like home.”
“The new seat will become available gradually during 2022 and 2023 as part of our cabin renewal.”
“Renew” is not a good translation of the Finnish verb “uudistaa”. In English, we can renew a driving licence, insurance policy, wedding vows – anything that’s about to expire or that has already gone out of date. It means to increase the lifetime of something, or to replace something old. However, when we make something like new, as Finnair has done with its cabin, we can use some of the following verbs in English: overhaul, update, make over, reform. A good adjectival phrase to replace “renewed” in the examples above would be “new and improved”:
“During the winter season until 25 March 2023, you can experience our new and improved cabins on the routes listed below.”
Instead of “renewal”, Finnair could say makeover or redesign:
“The new seat will become available gradually during 2022 and 2023 as part of our cabin redesign.”
Finally, here are three examples of failing to localize spelling and terms:
“Grown out of a pearling village on the coast of the Persian Gulf this economic and cultural centre has gone through a growth spurt at a dazzling speed.”
This is from Finnair’s tourist blurb about Doha, the Qatari capital. I don’t think Qatar likes to refer to the Persian Gulf, though: they’d probably prefer just the Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. Given how much Finnair is cooperating with Qatar Airways these days, I’m surprised they aren’t bending over backwards to please Doha. Perhaps the Qataris simply haven’t noticed yet.
Finnair ostensibly uses British English, as shown by the -ise spelling all over the site, but often fails to stay consistent:
“The 300-meter-tall hotel known as The Torch Doha is the tallest among the futuristic buildings in the city.”
This ought to be “metre” in British English. (“Meter” in British English is a measuring device, not 100 cm.)
“A loyalty program for everyone flying with Finnair…”
This is the incorrect spelling for British English. It should be “programme”. (“Program” is also correct in British English, but for software.)
Why is Finnair’s English so bad? I imagine that it’s either because Finnish-speaking employees translate it from Finnish copy, or they write it in English, relying heavily on the Finnish webpages. Perhaps they then send the text to a native speaker to be checked. Maybe an employee who studied abroad in an English-speaking country for a while is considered good enough to check copy in English. My strong impression is that Finnair works on the DIY principle, thinking it can save money. Its English feels homespun, almost as if written by volunteers. But with €38 million spent on sales, marketing and distribution in 2021, it could afford to spend more and get better results.
I don’t know if Finnair outsources its translations to bargain-basement translation agency or if it does its translations in-house. What the airline is clearly not doing, however, is using a translator or editor who gets to review all the English the airline produces. They don’t use a style guide: if they did, they’d consistently spell words in British English.
When your company says its corporate language is English, when it prioritizes English at the expense of its home market's languages, when it is an ambassador for its country’s brand abroad, its English should be good. This means idiomatic and consistent. Finnair’s English fails to do this.
When you want proper English that doesn’t embarrass you, hire a professional, like me. If you’re not completely satisfied, I won’t charge you.