The Finnish language has a reputation of being extremely difficult, and very few foreigners master it. But this June, just in time for Finland's EU chairmanship, almost 20 non-Finns will graduate from a two-year intensive course in Finnish for EU interpreters.
Mr Gianfranco Bortolotti is a quiet Italian with a gentle smile and an obvious flair for
learning foreign languages. "I've been working as an interpreter within the EU Commission since 1989. My working languages are German, Dutch, English and French," he says, as we meet at the Vantaa Institute for Continuing Education of the University of Helsinki.
What made him leave Brussels for cold, dark Finland? An irresistable wish to read Kalevala in its original language...?
"Well, the main reason was that I was a bit fed up with everyday routine and thought it would be nice to come to a new country and learn a new language," he answers smilingly.
With your linguistical background, do you find Finnish difficult?
"Absolutely, in every respect! Actually, I recently heard about an Englishman who knows more than 20 languages. According to him, though, Burmese is even more difficult..."
Mr Bortolotti and his fellow-students from other European countries started the intensive Finnish course in June 1997. The course itself is being paid for by the Finnish Ministry of Education, whereas all other costs are financed by the EU Commission. The actual preparations for the course date back to 1996.
"When I met with our EU Commissioner Mr Erkki Liikanen in Brussels in May that year, we had but shaken hands before he immediately told me that the main problem ahead was to find non-native interpreters into Finnish," tells Mrs Marjut Vehkanen, Head of the Education Sector at the Vantaa Institute for Continuing Education. Since so few foreigners master Finnish, her task could best be described as "looking for a needle in a haystack". "Well," she explains, "at that time there were only five non-native translators within the EU who had mastered Finnish. So, where could we find the other 25 we needed?" The solution was to turn to the already existing EU translators with the offer of learning yet another tongue.
"The time for planning the actual educational program was very short," Mrs Vehkanen remembers. "During the seven months before the start I presented our Ministry of Education with eleven different plans. In fact, those months I use to call my private little "winter war"..."
Yet another important factor was to find the right teachers. The choice fell on Anna-Liisa Lepäsmaa and Leena Silfverberg, both highly experienced teachers from the Department of Finnish for Foreigners at the Helsinki University.
"I spent quite a long time thinking before I finally agreed," Mrs Silfverberg recalls. "I knew it was going to be extremely challenging to work with such highly talented students for such a long time." But this Friday afternoon as we meet her and the eight students in her group at the Vantaa Institute for Continuing Education, the atmosphere is quite relaxed and there"s a lot of laughter in the air.
One student asks, in Finnish, if there is such a word as "koekivi" (and this word looks quite natural and understandable to the non-Finnish writer of this article).
But... "Ei (No)," answers Leena Silfverberg, "the word is "koetinkivi" (touchstone)." Some translation exercises follow. "Helsingin Puhelimen kurssi nousi maanantaina Helsingin pörssissä runsaat kaksi prosenttia", Mrs Silfverberg reads and points at one of the students who immediately translates into English: "On Monday the shares of the Helsinki Telephone Company went up a bit more than two per cent on the Helsinki Stock Exchange."
Mrs Silfverberg's group were absolute beginners in June 1997. By September they had finished the beginner's book and by November the continuation book was also history.
"Since then I have had to tailor-make the material. Often I get up at six in the morning to video-tape the news on television and write glossaries for the students. We sometimes go to listen to lectures or make visits to factories, institutions, etc."
Karin Friemel from Germany is very impressed by the Finns' willingness to help the students with any request.
"I once mentioned that it would be nice to know more about Finnish food, and a few days later we got a demonstration from a native cook. By the way, how many other people get the chance to meet with MPs or to visit the big companies here?"
Miss Friemel has been working for the EU since 1996 and her working languages are Italian, English and Swedish. Why Finnish?
"It's so different from all other languages. And I was curious to see if I could learn it as rapidly as I've learnt my other languages."
Were you able to?
"Well, actually I learnt Finnish more quickly. But that's entirely due to the fact that this is the first time that I was able to spend 24 hours a day on one language..."
During the few months left in the course simultaneous translation plays a vital role in the training of the interpreters.
"When it comes to grammar, I have almost nothing left to teach. Now it's more a matter of broadening the vocabulary and training the students in listening to all kinds of Finnish voices. Finnish can be spoken in many different ways and now we will go through the major dialects. There are also many phrases and idiomatic settings that are vital but may not be found in a dictionary," Leena Silfverberg points out.
To Gianfranco Bortolotti from Italy the complexity of Finnish sentences still presents a big problem.
"Even in a language like German, where verbs tend to come last in a sentence, I can anticipate the end. But in Finnish I can't and I know this is a problem I share with the others. You start to translate a Finnish sentence and think the speaker is going to say a certain thing, but in the middle of the sentence you realize he or she is saying something completely different... This is a problem we have to find ways to solve."
So, will the interpreters be ready on the first of July, when the only EU country with a language that possesses 15 grammatical cases takes over the EU chairmanship?
"Well, I was a bit nervous ten years ago when I first entered the interpreting booth. I guess I'll be a bit nervous also this time too, but it will work out just fine," Mr Bortolotti predicts.
The organizer of the course, Mrs Marjut Vehkanen, has a firm message to every Finn taking part in EU work:
"Be brave enough to use your own beautiful mother tongue. If we want to get our opinion through 100 per cent in the EU there is no other way than to speak Finnish!"