Many, if not most or even all, languages have varieties, such as dialects, regional varieties, and so on, and they can be more or less formal and recognized. Let us compare American and British English. They differ in vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling and grammar. In addition, both American and British English have a number of regional sub-varieties.
In this article I am going to focus on two varieties of my native language, Swedish, and discuss some of the challenges that are involved when translating Swedish as a Finland-Swedish native speaker. There are considerations when your native language is not the standard variety of the language in question. Just to make things clear: Finland-Swedish can hardly be considered a separate language, nor is it considered only a dialect. Finland-Swedish is a variety of Swedish, just as Australian English is a variety of English.
My native language is Swedish; more specifically Finland-Swedish. As you might know, Finland is officially a bilingual country, Finnish and Swedish are both official languages. This is stated in the Constitution (“The national languages of Finland are Finnish and Swedish”, chapter 2, section 17) and in the Language Act (“The national languages of Finland are Finnish and Swedish”, chapter 1, section 1). Approximately 6 % of the population in Finland, or about 300,000, has Swedish as their native language, or one of their native languages (there are, of course, bilingual persons in a bilingual country).
I was born and raised in a Swedish-speaking family in Finland, and later attended Swedish schools and a Swedish university. All of this took place in Finland. I lived the first 20 years of my life in a small town where Swedish is the majority language. When I started studying at Åbo Akademi University, I moved to Turku (Åbo in Swedish), Finland's oldest city and former capital. Here, the percentage of native Swedish speakers is representative of the country as a whole. The number of persons registered as Swedish-speakers is about 10,000 in Turku.
When I first started translating, I had little knowledge of what it means to be a Swedish translator without having standard Swedish as my native language. What I did know was that I would only translate into Swedish, my native language (and I have stuck to that), but I had paid little attention to the differences between Finland-Swedish and Sweden-Swedish. And now is the right time to say: yes, there are substantial differences. Mostly in vocabulary and pronunciation, but also to some extent in grammar and syntax. Of course, there are a number of dialects and sub-varieties in both Finland-Swedish and Sweden-Swedish. However, I will focus on the standard variety of these languages. By standard, I mean a language that most speakers would recognize as free from dialectal influences; the language we most often hear in television and on radio, and most importantly, a language that everybody with Swedish as their native language can understand.
Most of my translations are from Finnish and English into Swedish, but I also translate from Danish and Norwegian (close relatives to Swedish). From time to time I do easier and smaller jobs from French, Russian and Polish. Now we are reaching the point I would like to focus on: Am I translating into Finland-Swedish or Sweden-Swedish? Before I start with a job, I have to answer this question. Why? Because, as I stated above, these two varieties of Swedish differ from each other. If I know that my translation is aimed for an audience in Sweden, I cannot use Finland-Swedish words and expressions, as that would not be in the customer's interest. If I know that my translation is going to be used only in Finland, then I am freer to use words and expressions that are typical for Finland-Swedish. And if my translation is going to be read by Swedish-speakers in both Finland and Sweden, it might be a balancing – in those cases I try to use a language that is neutral for both Finland-Swedes and Sweden-Swedes, and if I have to choose, I use standard Swedish.
This is both challenging and rewarding. Challenging because it requires near native command of two varieties of a language, and rewarding because it is both fascinating and interesting, and it gives me the opportunity to learn something new almost every time I work on a translation project.
So, in what ways is Finland-Swedish different from the Swedish in Sweden? What is most obvious is the pronunciation. However, that is not a problem when writing and translating. Then we have the vocabulary. Like the French-speakers in Canada and the German-speakers in Switzerland, Finland-Swedes share certain distinctive linguistic features. This is not a problem generally – I would even say that it is both interesting and a sign of a living language. Nevertheless, for a Finland-Swedish translator it might be an issue. A word here or there does not raise any eyebrows, but a Swedish translation filled with Finland-Swedicisms (I will talk more about them soon) is not always what the customer in Sweden was expecting. Even if it does not make the text unreadable, it is not the way you would like to go if your aim is to become a professional Swedish translator.
Finland-Swedicisms, then – what are those? According to SAOL (Svenska Akademiens ordlista, a dictionary published by the Swedish Academy), a “finlandism” is a “finlandssvensk språkegenhet”, a Finland-Swedish linguistic peculiarity. According to “Finlandssvensk ordbok” the Finland-Swedish Dictionary (af Hällström & Reuter, ed., Schildts, 2000), the Finland-Swedicisms can be divided into 1. official Swedish words and expressions used in Finland, 2. Swedish words for phenomena in Finland, 3. stylistically neutral Finland-Swedicism, 4. everyday expressions, 5. regional and commonly spread dialectal expressions, 6. a limited number of well established slang words and 7. purely Finnish words, well established in Finland-Swedish.
Out of these seven groups, at least the last four should be avoided when translating and writing texts aimed for all Swedish-speakers. The two first groups, on the other hand, cannot and should not always be avoided, especially not the first group, official Swedish words and expressions used in Finland.
An example from the first group would be the word department (as in ministry): in Sweden the word for this is “departement”, while in Finland the word is “ministerium”. They both mean the same, but the official names are different – hence, if we talk about a department in Sweden, we refer to it as “departement”, while we refer to the equivalent in Finland as “ministerium”. Another example from this group is the word for social security number: in Sweden this is called “personnummer”, and in Finland it is called “personbeteckning”. Just to make them three, I will add a third and last example from this group: a master's thesis. In order to earn your Master's degree, you will have to write a “avhandling pro gradu” (or simply “gradu”) in Finland, while the students in Sweden write a “C-uppsats” or a “magisteruppsats”.
What should also be mentioned is that a quite large number of cities and places in Finland have official names in Swedish. The capital, Helsinki, is called Helsingfors in Swedish, and as I already told you earlier, Turku is called Åbo in Swedish, Tampere is called Tammerfors, and so on; all of these cities have Finnish as their majority language, but there are also cities and places with Swedish as the majority language, and then it is more correct to say that these places also have Finnish names, for example, Ekenäs is called Tammisaari in Finnish, Dalsbruk is called Taalintehdas and Närpes is called Närpiö.
The Swedish names for cities and places in Finland are commonly known and used in Sweden. A number of the municipalities in Finland are officially bilingual, and in every bilingual municipality the street names are given in both Finnish and Swedish on the signs, and the Post Office in Finland delivers your mail irrespective of what language your address is written in. However, this is not always common knowledge in Sweden. I have proofread texts translated by Sweden-Swedish translators, who have failed to translate the addresses into Swedish (but I forgive them).
An example from the second group, Swedish words for phenomena in Finland (meaning phenomena that do not really have equivalents in Sweden) would be “vicenotarie”. This word refers to a person that has earned a lower degree in Law. According to the Finland-Swedish dictionary, this title does not exist in Sweden. An American equivalent would be J.D., Juris Doctor, or LL.B., Bachelor of Laws in British English.
Another example from this group is the word “valmansförening”. This word refers to a group of voters that, by collecting a specified number of signatures, have the right to nominate a person to run for the Presidency or to become a candidate in any other national elections.
My third and last example from this group is the word “mjöd”, in English “mead”. This word exists in both Finland-Swedish and Sweden-Swedish, but does not have the same associations. In Finland, “mjöd” is something we drink every year when we celebrate the eve of May Day, or Walpurgis night (April 30th and May 1st), a spring festival. In Sweden, drinking “mjöd” when celebrating “Valborg”, as it is called in Swedish, is not very common. “Mjöd” in Sweden is rather understood as something the Vikings used to drink.
An example from the third, or perhaps the fourth, group could be the word for ground meat. In Finland we tend to call this “malet kött” while it is called “köttfärs” in Sweden. What is interesting here is that “köttfärs” in Finland-Swedish usually means “meatloaf”. Another example is Santa Claus. In Sweden he is called “jultomte”. This word is also used in Finland, but Finland-Swedes also like to call him “julgubbe” or even “julbock”.
An example from the fourth group could be speeding, which in Swedish is “fortkörning”. However, many Finland-Swedes would say “överhastighet”, which is a direct translation from the Finnish word “ylinopeus”, which literally means “overspeed”. Albeit, also here in Finland the correct term is “fortkörning”, although “överhastighet” is widely used, also in newspapers, TV and radio.
Another example is “egnahemshus”, a word that in Finland-Swedish refers to a normal house, or home, for a family. This is a direct translation from the Finnish word “omakotitalo”, which, literally, means “own home house”. In Sweden these buildings are referred to as “villa”, “enfamiljshus”, “småhus” or simply “hus” (“hus” means “house”). The word “egnahem” exists also in Sweden-Swedish, but most often refers to a house built and financed by a government-backed loan.
The third and last example from this group is the word washing machine. If we check this in a dictionary, we will learn that this domestic appliance is called “tvättmaskin” in Swedish. But again, we Finland-Swedes have our own word for that, which is “bykmaskin”. Not every Finland-Swede would say “bykmaskin”, but quite many. The word is understood in Sweden, but in Sweden-Swedish it sounds, well, perhaps a bit silly, and a Sweden-Swedish proofreader would change that into “tvättmaskin”.
Now having reached almost 2'000 words, I feel that it is time for me to round off. The list of examples could be much longer (the Finland-Swedish Dictionary, for example, contains about 2,300 entries).
For most experienced Finland-Swedish translators it is not a problem to distinguish between Finland-Swedish and Sweden-Swedish, and to choose the appropriate word or expression when translating. Nevertheless, it is something we cannot ignore, and it is a good idea to keep you updated on what is going on both in Finland-Swedish and Sweden-Swedish.
It might appear as a burden, but from my point of view, it is both interesting and rewarding, having the opportunity to develop my native language skills in two language varieties. Of course, I must admit that there are times when it makes me frustrated, if I cannot find the appropriate word or expression in standard Swedish, but most of the times I have some great colleagues that will help me when I cannot find the answer in dictionaries or on the Internet.
Anyway, before I finish, I have to point out that working as a Swedish translator when you are native in Finland-Swedish does not make you a worse translator than your colleagues in Sweden. Nor does it make you a better one. But sometimes it adds a certain dimension to your job, and you might want to be aware of the differences. On the back-cover of the Finland-Swedish Dictionary it says (my translation): “True linguistic freedom is when you master your language so well that you can have a well-founded opinion about why you express yourself as you do.” This is something I try to achieve, not only as a translator, but also as an ordinary language user.