A White Room and a Blackout Curtain

By Eric Dickens

When I was fifteen, living in Solihull, England, the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest added a new language to those spoken at home (English and Dutch) and those taught at grammar school (French, German, and Latin). Rather implausibly, this lightweight song contest generated my interest in Finnish. I was enthralled by the sound of the lyrics of the Finnish entry: so many diphthongs. I went to the local branch library to find a Finnish primer. Finnish proved to be more difficult than my school languages. It is an agglutinative language, i.e., one where the noun attracts a lot of different endings, one after the other. Some words are therefore very long by English standards. One example from the story I translated for Words without Borders is ulottomattomissa, which means “out of reach.”

I later realized that there was no university degree course in the UK for Finnish, so I decided to study another Scandinavian language, Swedish, instead. I did a beginner’s course at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England. When I was required by the university to do one academic year abroad in order to improve my Swedish, I ended up studying at Åbo Akademi, the Swedish-speaking university in the predominantly Finnish-speaking city of Turku. Over the years I have learned a great deal about the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland.

I now speak fluent Swedish but, unfortunately, my written and spoken Finnish are still rather rudimentary. Finnish is outside the Indo-European family of languages which includes, for instance, English, Spanish, and Russian. Finnish has been spoken for centuries. When Russia conquered Finland, taking it from Sweden in the early nineteenth century, Finnish remained the language of the peasantry, with little status, as Russian had become the official language, while Swedish was the administrative language used by the upper and middle classes. It took a long struggle by Finnish-speaking educationalists and journalists to get their language to the position it enjoys today: the overwhelmingly dominant language of Finland, the mother tongue of 94% of the population. Curiously, Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806–91), the main champion of the Finnish language during the mid nineteenth century, was born in Sweden, then moved to Finland. He never managed to speak fluently the very language he was promoting so avidly.

Geographically, Finland belongs to Scandinavia, which comprises Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and the Faroe Isles, and these countries have similar, but not identical, cultures. Language divisions remain important. Finnish is the odd man out; all the rest are related Germanic languages. The only language Finnish resembles is neighboring Estonian, which is spoken outside Scandinavia.

The short story was first introduced to Finland in the mid nineteenth century by the Swedish-speaking author Zachris Topelius (1818–98). The first notable Finnish-speaking writer of short stories (“lastuja,” wood chips, as he termed them) was Juhani Aho (1861–1921). The short story is not quite as popular in Finnish as are the novel and poetry. In Swedish, there are quite a few short-story authors from Finland, e.g. Tove Jansson, who wrote sensitive stories for adults as well as her Moomin children’s books.

Tiina Laitila Kälvemark (born 1970) belongs to a more recent tradition of Finnish writing by immigrant authors living permanently in Sweden. I came across the story “The White Room” a couple of years ago when I bought  a copy of her short-story collection Kadonnut ranta (Vanished Shore; 2012), which is her first published work and which won a literary prize for the maturity of her writing. Tiina comes originally from the western Finnish province of Pohjanmaa, as did Topelius, but now works in Stockholm and works for Swedish Radio. She has lived in various European cities including Amsterdam and Paris.

One crucial factor with the success of any translation is being able to work with the author.  It is a huge advantage if the author knows the target language, and English is known by most educated people in Scandinavia. Tiina has been very helpful, and we actually corresponded about the translation in Swedish, a neutral language to us both.

“The White Room” is set in a hospital, where a patient is recovering from a nervous breakdown. The story is about the patient’s reactions when she is on the road to recovery. As it is set in the present and the context is immediately recognizable, there were no anecdotally interesting translation problems, beyond the usual minor misunderstandings. Unlike some of the other stories in the collection, the story could have been set in some other part of Scandinavia.

Themes taken up in these other stories suggest being alienated, lost in life, or misunderstood. The title story of the collection is set on the idyllic Zanzibar coast, where two Finns’ honeymoon becomes soured when the wife inexplicably disappears. In another story, the migrant Rashid runs a pizzeria and tries to understand why customers passing through from the Legoland theme park overspend just because they are on holiday; he can spot such tourists a mile off. In another travel story, a couple sail on the tourist ferry between Sweden and Finland, and the Finnish husband finds it difficult to come to terms with Swedish people, while his wife Lise is sailing between two cultures, both literally and metaphorically. Weekend trips on such ferries between Stockholm, the Åland Isles, and Helsinki have become legendary over the past five decades.

I have translated one other story from the collection: “The Blackout Curtain.” It tells of a battle of wills between a mother and her small daughter, Emma. The husband is away in Denmark on business, and the mother, Miia (a Finnish name), has to carry a blackout curtain along the street like a rolled up carpet. She needs it to blot out the light coming in through the window when she tries to sleep, and is very focused on getting the curtain home. Emma wonders why her mother never listens to her, and there is a language dimension: little Emma has been brought up in Sweden and cannot understand some of the words used by her Finnish grandmother.

The national language tendency in Finland today is that the country is moving toward becoming a monolingual Finnish-speaking country. Finnish-speakers who have moved to Sweden find the opposite problem: within a couple of generations no one in what was once a Finnish-speaking family will be able speak Finnish any longer. Tiina Laitila Kälvemark’s collection highlights this language problem between otherwise rather similar countries, but the stories are intrinsically about human relationships and their failings.


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