Finnish Translators Rise in Concert to Protect Language Research Institute

 by Jill G. Timbers

            On October 13, 2008, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat published the news that Finland’s Ministry of Education had recommended drastic cuts for the Research Institute for the Languages of Finland. The Institute’s name in Finnish is Kotimaisten Kielten Tutkimuskeskus, or Kotus. The Productivity Programme of Finland’s Ministry of Finance called for Kotus to reduce its staff by a third by 2015. The Ministerial Committee on Economic Policy would discuss and, presumably, finalize the slash in funding on November 25, 2008.

            Kotus, the Research Institute for the Languages of Finland, began operating in March 1976. It is an independent institution under Finland’s Ministry of Education. It is the only body of experts outside the universities which focuses expressly on the domestic languages of Finland: the official languages (Finnish and Swedish) and the official minority languages  (the Saami languages, the Romani language, and Finnish Sign Language). Kotus produces and maintains dictionaries, tracks linguistic developments, makes available on the Internet the Comprehensive Grammar of the Finnish Language (Iso Suomen Kielioppi), maintains language archives, and provides writing classes, free language consultation and many other services related to the languages of Finland. Kotus also participates actively in international projects. Language institutions throughout Europe have drawn inspiration from this Finnish model. Finnish translators rely heavily on Kotus and its services and products.

            As the news spread, 42 professors of Finnish, Swedish, Sami, the Nordic languages, and the Finno-Ugric languages submitted a formal appeal to the government in early November to halt the planned cuts. They argued that the spending cuts would threaten national culture.

            On November 6, journalist and publisher Niklas Herlin published an editorial in the online journal Uusi Suomi. He points out the historical irony. In the early 1900s, “the young builders of young, impoverished Finland understood that a young country needs its identity. A country needs its language and good care taken of its languages….The humanists creating young, independent Finland understood that  you can’t build an economically prosperous, socially functioning nation without a culture of its own.” The Finnish language was a central part of the struggle for Finland’s independence – how can decision-makers in the prosperous country that resulted choose now to set it aside?

            Translators reacted to word of the required personnel cuts with disbelief. Discussion buzzed. Voices raged and despaired. Tiina Ohinmaa, translator and translator educator, lamented, “Language is a medium of thought, and a people with a poor command of their own language thinks more weakly. How else could Finland have succeeded in the Pisa comparisons and such, if our language had not been carefully tended, not only in schools but also in the media and in literature published here, both domestic and translated? Can the Finnish State afford to look down its nose at its own citizens by allowing to crumble the most important foundation and resource for their identity, their own mother tongue? For translators into Finnish as for many others who use language as a profession, Kotus provides irreplaceable services, if we want to hang on to some degree of quality. If these services are reduced as proposed, it will mean the deliberate decision to put the Finnish language out to pasture and allow it to lie fallow and overgrown in public discourse, newspaper texts, and Finnish translations.”

            Artist Professor Kersti Juva submitted a letter to Helsingin Sanomat on behalf of the translator community. She wrote, “One’s mother tongue is a medium of thought, the foundation of all culture, interaction and society… Finland and the Finns would do well to take a lesson from the healthy self-esteem of the French and recognize that we must defend our own language against the ever-increasing influence of the English language and Anglo-American culture. In this battle, Kotus is our fortress and purveyor of arms…Kotus needs more resources, not cuts.”

            Translators flooded legislators with e-mails and letters. Translator Tiina Kinnunen founded a  Facebook group called “Keep KOTUS Viable”. (I did have to laugh when she announced the group and said it was called “simply” “Säilyttäkää KOTUS elinkelpoisena” – definitely a copy and paste, for the non-Finn.) The group drew over 1000 new members in its first 24 hours. 

            The Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters, SKTL, prepared an official position statement to submit to the Ministry of Education. Other cultural organizations and language professionals joined forces with the translators. Newspapers paid increasing attention, and the public wrote in overwhelmingly in favor of stopping the proposed cuts. Politicians took stands. The radio devoted time to the story.

            The date set for the Ministry to meet and finalize the proposed cuts was Tuesday November 25. A translator delegation scheduled an appointment to deliver a formal resolution to the Ministry on Thursday, November 20. That date had to be rescheduled because Finland’s Minister of Education, Sari Sarkomaa, wanted to be present in person to receive the translator delegation.

            On November 24, 2008 representatives of the Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters delivered the formal resolution to Minister of Education Sarkomaa. It was signed by fourteen stakeholder groups, including the Finnish Literature Society, the Union of Journalists in Finland, and the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers. The resolution criticized the government’s Productivity Programme and argued against the proposed cuts affecting the Research Institute for the Languages of Finland. In the same visit, a delegation from Kotus itself delivered a petition in defense of the Institute. Available online for less than a week at that time, the petition had already gathered 9300 signatures.

            The next day, on November 25, 2009, the Ministerial Committee on Economic Policy decided at its meeting that the Productivity Programme and its proposed reductions should be tabled pending further deliberations. Helsingin Sanomat ran an editorial applauding the decision to rethink the matter. The editorial called the “Productivity Programme” a travesty and its title, “Orwellian newspeak”. Since then, Minister Sarkomaa has been replaced. The Ministry of Education has formed a task force with representatives from Kotus to evaluate the situation, and discussions continue.

            Swift and concerted efforts by the translator community halted what seemed foreordained. While current economic circumstances may make some funding cuts necessary, translators and those who make their living using the Finnish language have made very clear that cuts will have significant long-term effects. Thanks to their efforts, the workforce of the Research Institute for the Languages of Finland will not be reduced blindly or mechanically. Hopefully, any reduction in funding will be minimal, and its application will reflect considered shared deliberation among stakeholders.

            You can read and even sign the petition, the Appeal for the Research Institute for the Languages of Finland. It appears in Finnish, Swedish and English at

http://www.adressit.com/kotus_focis

 

            At this writing, the petition has gathered 12082 signatures.

 

Links related to the effort to preserve Kotus from funding cuts

1. Home page for the Research Institute for the Languages of Finland:

http://www.kotus.fi/?l=en&s=1

2. The petition itself:

http://www.adressit.com/kotus_focis

3. Professors: Spending Cuts Threaten National Culture

http://www.yle.fi/news/left/id106529.html

4. Finland’s Sarkomaa draws flak over Kotus cut plans:

http://www.finland.fi/stt/showarticle.asp?intNWSAID=20415&group=Politics

5. Niklas Herlin’s editorial, in Finnish:

http://www.uusisuomi.fi/nakokulmat/niklasherlin/litsari-kotimaisille-kielille

6. Scathing editorial in Helsingin Sanomat, in Finnish:

 

http://www.hs.fi/paakirjoitus/artikkeli/Valtion+tuottavuusohjelma+on+tarkoituksensa+irvikuva/1135241404768

 

7. Report in Turun Sanomat, in Finnish:

http://www.turunsanomat.fi/kotimaa/?ts=1,3:1002:0:0,4:2:0:1:2008-11-25,104:2:578644,1:0:0:0:0:0:

 

 

 

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