Collecting time capsules

Sweden and Finland have a truly interwoven history. I have thought a lot about this lately, as the Finnish decision to join Nato speeded up Sweden’s application to do the same. Many Finnish and Finnish-Swedish as well as Swedish-Finnish people live in Sweden and just like me, there are many of us who have relatives in each other’s countries.

As I have previously written in this blog, my grandmother Ruth, on my mother’s side, grew up in the small village of Sideby, an almost two hour drive south of Vasa in Finland. She left Sideby to start her life in Sweden, working as a maid. Here, she met my grandfather Kaj, who was a tinsmith in Stockholm.

Yesterday, I went to the #Supermarketartfair in Stockholm, it’s an annual event, where artists create their own art fair. This year, the art fair displayed around 60 galleries from 20 different countries – mainly from Europe. (Due to the pandemic still preventing many from travelling, galleries from for instance Asia, have not come this year).

It’s always a very spectacular, varied, engaging and colorful event with many new expressions and unexpected takes on society issues as well as how to express ideas and artistry. Of course, there are also “regulars” that come back to the art fair year after year. In 2018 a publishing project named “Rojal Förlag” was there and did actual book binding at their stand. I then purchased a small leaflet-book that was a replica of a dictionary issued in 1942.

The dictionary was aimed at Swedish foster parents who had taken on war children from Finland during WWII. It was full of useful phrases and words in order to help families understand the needs of these children. I wrote about it here.

This year, the same publisher was present at the art fair again. I was surprised to see they had found another Swedish-Finnish dictionary booklet to present. This time around, the target group was Swedes who travelled to Finland and needed useful phrases to use there.

The booklet is from 1940 and it is a true time capsule, just like the other one from 1942.

There is a significant difference though. In this new one, the focus is not on eating all the food on the plate, washing behind the ears or going to bed, but instead on preparing for going to a country at war. There is in fact a whole section of war terminology. I can imagine both my grandfathers’ were in need of this one when they fought in the Finnish Winter War.

A small selection: Attack = hyökkäys, Bomb raid = pommitus, Land forces = maa-voimat, Dugout = korsu, Handgranade = käsi-kranaatti, Refugee = pakolainen, The enemy got away = vihollinen pääsi pakooon

And of course the winter war was fought on skis: Skis = sukset, Ski stick = suksi-sauva, Ski track = suksen-jälki

Knowing how to communicate in the field was also important: They are fleeing = pakenevat, Let me go! = päästä minut!, Help him = auta häntä, Who shot? = kuka ampui?, We must seek = meidän täytyy etsiä, The enemy = vihollinen

The first page of this little booklet also tells us the reason for the collection of words and expressions.

A Swedish geologist once said, that he managed well during a trip to Finland with but three words: “Rouka – kyyti – heti,” meaning food, ride, with haste. This collection of words and expressions is for those travelling to Finland, who have to express themselves just as briefly. It is not supposed to replace a textbook in Finnish.”

As someone who has grown up in times of peace, I have never thought of having to learn these kinds of expressions in other languages. And the need to express oneself briefly, as the situation might be both stressful and very dangerous, is of course another layer on top.

This little booklet has sadly come full circle, and today it does not seem that far a reach to produce these kinds of booklets again. Especially since we cannot be sure to rely on access to google translate or the Internet during times of war.

I put my hope to some of the other phrases in this dictionary though: hyvää (nice), cute (makea) and let’s sing! (laula-kaamme!)

10 comments

    • Yes, even though many communicate well in English today, you cannot underestimate the importance of knowing other languages – thinking of accuracy, nuance and speed 🙂 Not even beginning to talk about the importance of language when it comes to understanding other cultures… Thank you for reading both posts, Liz – it’s sad, that back then we were thinking a lot about Syria and now it’s Ukraine. And all over the world, there are always some wars or conflicts going on, tearing families and friends away from each other…

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      • You’re welcome, Therese. It’s incomprehensible that, regardless of the year, we always have a current war to reference.

        I definitely feel a gap by being monolingual. There is so much literature I’d love to read in its original language.

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      • I can imagine. Perhaps some day it will happen. I would think it’s very interesting for an author to experience how one comes across in another language. It must affect both reviews and target groups, I suppose. Like seeping through someone else’s vessel.

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      • That surely is difficult to translate. I think it’s invevitable to loose some through translation, but then again – perhaps one gains something else as well. I sometimes read in German or French, and then come across the same book in Swedish. Though one looses out on the original voice, one can gain something in feeling a bit closer to the text. In Sweden today, translators are pulled out from “behind the scenes” as important interpreters of the author’s voice. I find that interesting, as they have been in the shadows for such a long time. Now, people are recognizing their importance and their contribution to authors at all coming across in foreign languages.

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      • You might be interested in this article from the Authors’ Guild advocating that a translator’s name be placed on the cover of the book. https://www.authorsguild.org/industry-advocacy/publishers-should-include-translators-names-on-the-cover-of-books/. Translation of poetry in particularly is an art as much as a skill. If you’ve ever seen a strictly denotative translation of a poem, it just goes “Thud” on the page and is actually painful to read.

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  1. That is interesting! Thank you, Liz! Yes, they bring up the fact that the translators create a word universe as well, which is a good reason to be mentioned on the cover. You are so right that a translation that does not resonate, can be quite painful! It truly is an artform!

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