University homepage | Suomeksi | På svenska | In English

Heteroglot Soldiers – Marja Suominen

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume1, 2001

Translation Studies

This paper contains some examples in Modern Greek. We recommend that you use Internet Explorer or a Netscape version later than Netscape 4 to read it. © 2001 Marja Suominen


Marja Suominen

Abstract. This paper focuses on the way heteroglossia (multiple voices, i.e. dialects and other language varieties) functions in Väinö Linna’s novel Tuntematon sotilas ‘The Unknown Soldier’ and to what extent the source-text heteroglossia is retained in the English and Greek translations of the novel. It is found that there is a clear difference between the two translations in this respect and that the difference is linked to the way each target text was expected to function in the target culture.

1. Introduction

Väinö Linna’s novel Tuntematon sotilas ‘The Unknown Soldier’ was published in 1954. It has since been translated into 24 languages, the most recent being the Chinese translation of 1997. Now the “heroes” of the Finnish Continuation War (1941-44) fight, die, survive and argue with their officers in all the world’s major and many of its minor languages. In the original novel they do this in dialectal Finnish, but what about the translations? This paper is based on my Master’s thesis (Suominen 1999), in which I looked at the original novel and its English and Greek translations from a functional point of view: what is the function of dialects and other language varieties in the source text, and how does the absence or presence of dialects and other language varieties affect the function of the target texts?

My approach to Linna’s novel was to consider it as a heteroglot novel with multiple heteroglot voices. The heteroglot voices were seen as carriers of meaning – sociocultural, individual and intertextual meanings, as well as meanings attached to power relations. The target texts were analysed according to their success in transmitting the heteroglot voices as carriers of meaning. The consequences of either succeeding or failing in transmitting the heteroglossia (see section 3 below) into the target texts were also estimated from the point of view of the target text structure and the likely response of the readers of the target texts. Nevertheless, my aim was not primarily to evaluate the target texts in comparison with the source text or with each other. Rather, the analysis and comparison were meant to be tools. I aimed to show how complex the function of heteroglot voices can be in a novel, and to demonstrate how awareness of this may be valuable to a translator when translating a heteroglot novel. The point I want to make is that a translator in this situation cannot neglect the voices of the novel and still hope to transmit a functional equivalent of the source text into the target language.

2. The source and target texts

When Tuntematon sotilas was first published, it received a good deal of negative criticism partly because of its unconventional form. Instead of presenting a single central character (as would have been required by Finnish novelistic conventions in the 1950s), Linna wrote a collective novel with a group of people as its main character. The author reconstructs the war from the point of view of a machine-gun platoon; he presents his characters through their actions and their speech. The mental state or psychological reality of the characters is not prescribed by the voice of the author – at least not thoroughly or continuously. Instead, the men joke, swear, chat and argue – they talk. Each of the soldiers has a voice of his own based on his personal way of speaking Finnish. The soldiers are described through their language – their individual way of speaking. “I described a group of men that I tried to bring alive so that people could see just what had died”, said Linna himself (Stormbom 1957:v-xiv). It is true that the dialects of the novel are “eye-dialects”, i.e. dialects resembling regional dialects but created by the author for the literary purposes of the novel; nevertheless, their resemblance to the genuine regional dialects of Finland is considerable, and is carried even further than the author himself had originally intended.

Tuntematon sotilas was published in English in 1957 under the title of The Unknown Soldier. From the very outset, the translation was controversial. Its history is somewhat uncertain, but according to Yrjö Varpio (1979), the correspondence between the two publishing houses involved, WSOY and Collins, has shed some light on the issue; in addition, Jarl Hellemann discusses the matter in his recent book (1999:168–172). The name of the translator remained unknown for a long time, but it now seems that a Finn, Alex Matson, made the translation for a British publisher and afterwards an English native speaker corrected the result, comparing it with the French translation. Later, the American publisher Putnam’s had the British version Americanized in order to make it suitable for American readers. This is the English-language version (ETT) I used in my study.

The Greek translation (GTT) was published in 1995 under the title of Ο Άγνωστος στρατιώτης (O Agnostos stratiotis), with the addition an anti-war novel (Ένα αντιπολεμικό μυθιστόρημα). Thus, the translators, Maria Martzoukou and Päivi Panagopoulos, saw fit to include in the title a kind of instruction on how to read the novel: to read it as an anti-war novel instead of a war novel. Maria Martzoukou explained (personal communication) that the addition was the idea of both the Greek publisher and the translators, and that it was done partly for the sake of publicity; aiming to attract attention to the novel, since Finnish literature is not at all well known to Greek readers. This addition is especially interesting, in so far as it has been suggested that the weaknesses of the English translation are due to the way in which the publisher took on Tuntematon sotilas as a war novel, hardly more than an adventure story.

The Greek translation was made directly from the original Finnish source text; no other translations were used. The translation includes the whole source text, nothing is excluded, and it aims to transmit the novel’s language world. The distinction between the speech of the officers and that of the soldiers is made using dialects and other distinctive language features characteristic of Modern Greek language varieties.

3. Heteroglossia and literary translation

The Bakhtin School introduced the term “heteroglossia” in the field of literary theory. But it was Mikhail Bakhtin himself who precisely defined the term in relation to the novel as a genre, in his essay “Discourse in the Novel” (written 1934-5, published in The Dialogic Imagination, 1981). According to Bakhtin (1981), “heteroglossia” is a basic condition of the novel as a genre. With this term Bakhtin refers to the dialogic nature of all languages. All discourse and every utterance receives its meaning through social context – in every utterance we hear a social and an individual voice. In everyday discourse the play of social and individual voices is unintentional, but an author brings a multiplicity of individual and social voices into a novel intentionally.

The heteroglot novel receives part of its meaning from its heteroglossia, and the variety of discourses present in the heteroglot novel are both vital for its textual function and inseparable from its meaning. The translation of a heteroglot novel requires specific approaches to translation based on both translation theory and theoretical approaches to literature.

In Linna’s Tuntematon sotilas, the dialects of the soldiers have mostly been regarded as a stylistic effect, a feature that puts the novel in the genre of the realistic novel. But in fact, the dialects should be seen as an essential part of the novel’s meaning. They link and contrast with other voices in the novel, resulting in what is in fact the discourse of the novel.

4. Examples of heteroglossia in Linna’s novel and its Greek and English translations

In this section I shall present some brief examples of my qualitative analysis of source and target texts. They are analysed in terms of the internal dynamics of the texts, noting the presence or absence of heteroglossia: how do the different voices link with and contradict each other in the texts and what is the meaning of the resulting discourse? The function of multiple voices in a novel varies, not least according to the dimension from which their meaning is examined. In my thesis (Suominen 1999) I chose four major dimensions of meaning to provide standpoints for considering the functions of the multiple voices in Tuntematon sotilas: (1) the sociocultural and (2) individual dimensions and (3) the dimension of power and resistance, as well as (4) intertextuality. All these dimensions were looked at from the point of view of the author and the reader – what can be assumed to have been the aim of the author and how the reader might be expected to respond. I aimed to ask questions and look for answers that could elucidate the meaning and function of the multiple voices in the source text, as well as the effects of omission or transmission of these multiple voices on the target texts – and on the reader’s reception of the texts.

Of course, given the multiple dimensions of meaning that are affected by heteroglossia, all the examples and voices could also be read from other points of view. I am not suggesting that in any of the extracts the voices carry only the single meaning I refer to. In fact, heteroglossia carries many meanings simultaneously, but this does not prevent one from looking at one aspect at a time.

The extracts I have chosen for this paper are the ones that, in my view, best illustrate the socioculturally dividing function of the heteroglot voices in Tuntematon sotilas.

4.1. Heteroglot points of view in the novel

The source text (ST) begins with an ironic passage describing the relationship of divine and human intentions. The author’s intention is not merely to make a philosophical point, but rather to emphasize one important aspect of the novel: the firm faith of the army officers in their cause – that even God is on their side: The first one to perceive what the Almighty had in mind, was a colonel. Chief of staff of an army Corps, he was regrouping his forces when he saw how extremely well the burned clearing would serve as a military camp site (ETT:1).

The opening lines, however, do not get their full meaning until a few pages later, when the message is contrasted with another point of view – that of an ordinary soldier. Linna lets one of the soldiers, Hietanen, express his own view on the purposefulness of God’s deeds. Previously, the biblical language used by the narrator expressed the officers’ point of view; the use of this “biblical voice” is to some extent ironic, but it is also a representation of an army officer’s idealistic point of view – the view of one who is looking for divine justification for the army’s actions. By contrast, Hietanen, the common soldier, sees the acts of God in a completely different light: […] jos mää olisi ollu Jumal nii mää en olisis tehnyk koko tährei. […] Mitä semmose ollenkan tekevä olemas ku ei mittän tee? (ST 32) ‘If I’d been God I’d never have made any stars. […] What are they good for when there’s nothing they do?’ For him, stars have no purpose. Hietanen looks only for practical value so in his world there is no room for unnecessary things. Hietanen is a realist. But why does he speak in a dialect?

According to Bakhtin (1981), the author justifies the acts and thoughts of a character, gives them a background, through the language the character uses. Hietanen is allowed to think in the way he does because the dialect he speaks gives him a certain sociocultural background: in his world a man’s worth depends on the amount of work he does. A hard worker is useful and valued. Why then do we have stars that do nothing? Why did God trouble himself with making such a lot of useless things?

Hietanen’s thoughts have been completely left out of the English translation. One reason for this may be that the book was meant to be marketed to the American readership as a war novel. But there may be another reason also, and that reason may lie in the global translation strategy of standardization, omitting the dialects. If Hietanen’s thoughts had been presented in the source text without the dialect, in standard Finnish, the lines would have conveyed a stupid man, since the necessary sociocultural background would have been missing. I suspect that an English-speaking audience would also have regarded Hietanen as simply stupid if his argument had been translated into standard English.

The Greek translation, however, includes Hietanen’s “meditation”. This is made possible by giving Hietanen a dialectal voice. His Greek voice has its source in a Greek geographical dialect spoken in the districts of Thessalia, Epirus and Sterea, a western dialect of Modern Greek. The actual dialect in question is a clearly marked and highly distinctive one when compared with standard Greek. (The term standard Modern Greek is used here to refer to “the language normally written and spoken today by moderately educated Greeks in the urban centers” [Mackridge 1985:11]). Only some, mainly phonetic, features of the western dialect have been used in the translation, the most striking being the radical abbreviation of words, a feature which changes the rhythm and intonation of the speech. These aspects are similar to the striking features of Hietanen’s Finnish dialect in the source text. By giving Hietanen a distinct social and personal voice, the translators have succeeded in transmitting the functional connection between the opening lines of the novel and Hietanen’s thoughts some pages later.

As one of the translators, Maria Martzoukou, explained to me, the decision to either include the dialects or omit them was difficult. The translators had consulted several Greek and Finnish writers, who all recommended standardization. The reason for this was the fear that the dialects would connect the novel too strongly with Greece. This concern is certainly relevant, but there is also the possibility of constructing a literary dialect and using that instead of a genuine, geographical one; this was also the translators’ final solution.

4.2 Heteroglot literary conventions in letter writing

The opening lines of the narrator, which are opposed to Hietanen’s meditation later in the first chapter of the source text, lead the reader into an important aspect of the novel: the sociocultural distinction between army officers and ordinary soldiers. Throughout the book, the two parties fail to understand each other, fail to communicate and end up in conflict. The reason does not lie only in power relations and the army hierarchy, but also in the different sociocultural backgrounds of the two parties, in their completely different points of view. Again these differences are revealed through language. One example of this is a letter that one of the officers, Kariluoto, writes after a soldier’s death in battle, informing the parents of the death of their son (ST 72).

The style of the letter is highly idealistic and chauvinistic as well as romantic. The following examples are mostly glossed by the corresponding ETT wording except in a couple of examples where the target text departs too far from the source text for this to work, and both a literal gloss and the ETT wording are given. Consider poikanne ylpeä laulu / your son’s voice proudly rising; sittenkin on meidän tuskamme uhri korkeimmalle / his life was sacrificed in the cause of the loftiest and noblest; Karjalan kahleet murtuvat ‘the chains of Karelia are breaking’ / Karelia is being liberated (ETT); koittaa Suomen uusi huomen / a new day is dawning for Finland. At its end the Finnish hero sings the glory of his country in the midst of the battle, happy to give his life for the freedom of Finland. The grief of the parents is identified with national loss and national grief through frequent use of first person plural forms: kansamme kohtalo / our country’s lot; uhrimme / our sacrifices; meidän on kestettävä ‘we have to endure’ / yet they must be borne (ETT). Note that in the last example, this point is not conveyed in the English target text.

Later on, this letter is contrasted with another kind of letter, written by Hietanen, the common soldier, in dialectal Finnish (lähettäkä lihaa leipää ja voit, ST 320 ‘send some meat, bread and butter’). Even when writing Hietanen keeps his own voice. He does not change from one convention of language use to another, and he does not care about punctuation; he probably has not learned the rules. The letter is clearly written by a man who does not feel at ease when writing. The subject matter is food, as immediate and pragmatic as his dialect.

In the source text Linna makes a distinction between two conventions of letter writing. One is the voice of the Finnish upper middle-class employing the chauvinistic discourse of the time; the other is the voice of the peasant class – realists, with their feet on the ground. Their education was at the village school. They worked with their parents and were taught the value of hard work instead of good literature. They learned to write, but just enough to make their point. It is their voice that we hear in the dialect. That voice is missing from the English translation. In neglecting the dialect the voice is lost; only the content of Hietanen’s letter remains, the context has evaporated.

These two literary conventions are complemented with a third example of letter writing. This time the writer is a young recruit called Hauhia. The letter reveals a swaggering young boy who has read about war as an adventure and believes the stories he has read; he tries to carry off the role of a rough and resolute soldier. In his letter home the same attitude towards life appears as in Hietanen’s letter, but this young man has received his ideas of war from another source, that of war-time patriotic journalism and boyish adventure books (see Nummi 1993:106-111). The letter shows us a soldier who accepts the official war-time discourse – something that further distinguishes him from characters like Vanhala and Honkajoki, who find in it an endless source of humor.

Once again Linna proves to be a master of bringing different voices into his novel. The letter (ST 340) begins with the romantic place reference to the front, täällä jossakin (‘somewhere around here’), which echoes both wartime patriotic journalism, mystification of war, and an attitude of romantic adventure books towards war. Hauhia then continues with expressions he believes to be part of rough soldiers’ language: aika rytinää ‘quite a crash’, ne suolattiin siihen ‘they got salted away’, jo matoina ‘crawling with worms’. Then comes an important contrasting phrase that immediately recalls Hietanens’s letter: pankaa lihaan suolaa kun lähetätte ‘salt the meat you send’. This letter connects Hauhia with the ordinary soldiers’ cultural and ideological background. But it also frames and emphasizes the cultural and ideological impact of the official, patriotic and idealistic discourse. Hauhia does not speak a strong dialect but his letter contains some markers of non-standard written Finnish: kauvan (for kauan) and me joudutaan (for joudumme). Again, most of these features are lost in the English translation, along with the contrasting phrase with its humorous (unintended by Hauhia) analogy between the enemy corpses and the meat he is expecting from home. If only the translator had added the request please send the meat salted or else it’ll get spoiled, the humor of the abrupt contrast, the analogy, and the implicit reference to Hietanen’s letter would all have been conveyed, and at least a part of this letter’s function would have been achieved.

In contrast, the Greek target text contains all three letters, and in them the translators have used variety markers of both dialectal and standard Greek. Kariluoto writes his letter in fairly unmarked standard Greek, but the letter contains utterances that give the reader the impression of an educated man. The impression is conveyed via minor features indicating influences from katharevousa (the artificial, upper-class language variety) and markers of formal language use:

υπήρξε ένας από τους καλύτερους is a slightly more sophisticated way of uttering was one of the best than for example ήταν ένας από τους καλύτερους;

πρώτον is an indicator of input from katharevousa; the demotic version of the adverbial first would be πρώτα.

The Greek text of Hietanen’s letter uses equally simple means to transmit his personal and social voice; the text reveals a man with a different “ideological scenery”:

κανένα φράγκο ‘some cash’ is a lexical choice that indicates vernacular language use;

– dialectal language use is indicated by one word only: τσιγάρ‘ ‘cigarettes’ is used instead of the unmarked option τσιγάρα.

One solution that seems odd in the Greek translation is the careful punctuation of Hietanen’s letter. Omission of even one comma would have conveyed the message present in the source text. In the English translation too, the letter is carefully punctuated. Thus the English translation fails to transmit the function of the letter on all levels of language use.

In Greek, Hauhia’s letter indicates no input from katharevousa nor does it contain dialectal markers. Instead, the letter is written throughout in colloquial, almost demotic language; the colloquial style is enriched with vernacular utterances indicating manliness and an almost boastful attitude. For example:

– (ε)χτές ‘yesterday’ may be seen as a characteristic of colloquial, demotic use of language, while its variant χθές would indicate input from katharevousa (Browning 1969:76, Mackridge 1985:8).

– words like φασαρία and πανηγύρι express Hauhia’s swaggering attitude. Φασαρία is a vernacular expression for ‘trouble, noise, hullabaloo, uproar, fuss’. In many ways the word brings to mind the Finnish utterance panna hulinaksi, which does not actually occur in the source text letter, but is used earlier in connection with an ordinary Finnish soldier’s idea of war (ST: 6 Aatu panee hulinaksi). In fact, the Greek translators have used the expression there also: Ο Αδόλφος κάνει φασαρία (GTT: 10). Πανηγύρι relates in the first place to religious festivals and secular feasts or parties, but it is used in a figurative sense meaning a row, synonymous with φασαρία, with a touch of humor due to the word’s original meaning. These two words bring a vernacular and colloquial tone to Hauhia’s letter, but they also represent the attitude Hauhia tries to adopt and display openly towards war.

The Greek translation makes the connection between the decomposing bodies and salted meat, thus catching the contrast in the letter: […] τώρα έχουνε σαπίσει. Βάλτε πολύ αλάτι στο κρέας […] ‘[…] they have rotted away now. Add much salt to the meat […]’. The romantic reference to place in täällä jossakin has been translated literally as κάπου εδώ. Its significance for a Greek audience, though, is uncertain.

As we can see, Linna’s use of three distinctive Finnish language varieties underlines the significance of three different literary traditions, each with its own distinctive voice. Two of the varieties are marked through vernacular vs. elevated lexical choices and structural solutions (Kariluoto, Hauhia), and the third is marked through the use of phonological and other dialect markers (Hietanen). The three voices in the letters introduce three different ideologies or ideological sceneries – attitudes towards war, life and reality in general. These voices both justify and present ideologies as world-views. The distinction between the world-views is also made through language varieties in the Greek translation, but the English translation, which presents only two language varieties, standard and colloquial, transmits three individual letters only, with no social background meaning, with no world-view context, and without the dimension of ideological scenery. In the English translation each letter remains sporadic and isolated.

5. Conclusion

When Marja Kyllönen, a young Finnish writer, was interviewed after winning an award for her first work, she said that if she could not write in her strongly idiolectal and dialectal Finnish, she would not write at all. “The story would not be possible without the kind of language it is written in. The language is a way of stepping into the world of the novel” (Kyllönen in Majander 1997).

A heteroglot novel like Tuntematon sotilas uses diversity of language as an essential element of the story, giving it its structure and meaning. If the diversity of the novel’s language is neglected in translation, the target text will ultimately transmit a different kind of story, with a different structure and meaning. The change occurs because the text loses the support and justification, which is given, for example, by the sociocultural background of the characters and groups of men portrayed. One could express this through an analogy: if the story and structure are the skeleton of a novel, its heteroglot voices could be compared to the muscles that move the skeleton and give it its final form and meaning.

E-mail address:


Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981) The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holmquist, trans. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holmqvist. Austin and London: University of Texas Press.

Browning, Robert (1969) Medieval & Modern Greek. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

Hellemann, Jarl (1999) Kustantajan näkökulma. Kirjoituksia kirjallisuuden reunalta. Helsinki: Otava.

Kivikuru, Ullamaija (1996) “Suomalaisen kansalaisyhteiskunnan premissit.” In Ullamaija Kivikuru (ed). Kansa euromyllyssä. Helsinki: Helsingin yliopisto. 5-24.

Linna, Väinö (1954) Tuntematon sotilas. Helsinki: WSOY.

Linna, Väinö (1957) The Unknown Soldier. Trans. Anonymous. New York: Putnam’s Sons.

Linna, Väinö (1995) Ο Άγνωστος στρατιώτης. Trans. Maria Martzoukou & Päivi Panagopoulos. Athens: Kalendis.

Mackridge, Peter (1964) The Modern Greek Language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Majander, Antti (1997) “Jos en kirjoittaisi juuri tätä kieltä, en kirjoittaisi ollenkaan.” Helsingin Sanomat. 14, 11, 1997. C 1.

Nummi, Jyrki (1993) Jalon kansan parhaat voimat. Helsinki: WSOY.

Stormbom, N-B. (1957) “Preface.” In Linna, Väinö (1957). v-xiv.

Suominen, Marja (1999) Unknown Soldiers. On Translating a Heteroglot Novel. Unpublished Master’s thesis. University of Helsinki, Department of English.

Varpio, Yrjö (1979) Pentinkulmalta maailmalle. Tutkimus Väinö Linnan teosten kääntämisestä, julkaisemisesta ja vastaanotosta ulkomailla. Helsinki: WSOY.