METM22 Chronicles: Siru Laine

Working with minority languages and uncommon language pairs: insights from a hyperpolyglot

Siru Laine never set out to be a hyperpolyglot and was already well into her language-learning journey when she first heard the term. Growing up in Finland and inspired by her mother’s studies in Finno-Ugric languages, Siru seized every opportunity to learn a new language that came her way. She studied nine languages at school alone and picked up several more while living and studying in Reykjavík, Sardinia and Barcelona.

On her opening slide, Siru showed us her delegate badge from the 2018 Polyglot Gathering, listing her then-20 languages by level, but she was keen to stress that it was no longer up to date – a lot can happen in four years when you’re a hyperpolyglot! Siru is constantly learning, both formally and through self-study, and at the time of writing, she has just finished a five-year Basque course (in-person in Barcelona) and is in her second year of Nahuatl (online). Murmurs could be heard around the auditorium as Siru rhymed off the various languages she’s studied over the years, particularly when she casually mentioned in her flawless English that she considers Esperanto to be her second language after Finnish. More on that later…

Siru Laine presents

When it comes to her work as a translator, Siru’s language combinations are both a blessing and a curse. She has a truly unique selling point, but this often means being put under pressure by clients who have no one else to turn to. For some of her language pairs, she is one of a handful of linguists, or indeed the only one, working in medical translation. This means that, in addition to translating her main source languages into Finnish, she also works with other source languages and translates into her non-native languages when needs must.

Siru gave examples of some unusual jobs she has worked on over the years (including some involving Faroese, Latin, Interlingua and Ido) and the steps involved, depending on how critical the text is for the client. These steps may include a linguistic revision by a translator who is not a subject-matter expert, a target-only revision by a subject-matter expert, or a multi-step revision involving back-translation and reconciliation.

One example was a cancer information leaflet that needed to be translated from Norwegian into Finnish. The subject matter was well within Siru’s area of expertise, but she doesn’t actually speak Norwegian, despite being able to understand it. Siru worked with colleagues – following a multi-step process – to ensure this critical document was translated accurately:

  1. Siru: Norwegian > English translation
  2. Other linguist: English > Norwegian back-translation
  3. Siru: English > Finnish translation
  4. Other linguist: Finnish > English back-translation
  5. Siru: Norwegian > Finnish reconciliation

Siru ended her talk by sharing her checklist for managing clients’ expectations and ensuring she is fairly compensated for her efforts (in her words, “no peanuts”!). Then it was time for questions.

“So, Esperanto… How? Why?” This could have been a talk in itself, but to summarise, there are indeed native speakers (children of parents whose common language is Esperanto). While it’s impossible to say how many people speak it, Siru estimates about a million; and yes, you can learn it on Duolingo, if you’re so inclined.

Other questions referred back to Jon Andoni Duñabeitia’s keynote on the multilingual mind, and parallels were drawn between Siru’s work and that of Timothy Barton, who gave a talk on managing projects in Namibian languages.

Siru’s talk was both entertaining and eye-opening, and it certainly made those of us working in more common language pairs appreciate how easily we can simply turn down a job or pass it on to a trusted colleague!

This METM22 presentation was chronicled by Jacqueline Lamb.

Featured photo by METM22 photographer Jone Karres, embedded photo by Jason Shilcock.

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