HAM, LET ME.

An Ask MetaFilter question led to an amazing result. The question was:

Is there a pun in Hamlet’s first line in the movie Hamlet liikemaailmassa? The scene takes place in a kitchen where someone is slicing ham; Hamlet comes up, takes over, and cuts a large piece off for himself. As he does so he says something which is rendered in the English subtitles thus: “Ham … let me!”. The actual dialogue is given in Finnish, though. Is there a pun in the Finnish as well? What is it?

I responded “I am having no luck finding the quote in Finnish online, but I think the answer to your question is certainly ‘yes.’ It just doesn’t make sense that the translator would wantonly introduce an obvious pun.” But I was wrong, because (thanks to the detective work of Finnish MeFite keijo) it turns out that the Finnish text is “Kinkkua, anna minä,” which simply means ‘Ham, let me’ and (as keijo says) “is not funny in any way in Finnish without the context. However, it is a brilliant pun introduced by Kaurismäki and not the translator, since most of the viewers will be familiar with the English translation.” So Kaurismäki deliberately wrote an unfunny line in Finnish because of the effect it would produce in translation! I wonder if other writers have done this?

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    I suspect that the author had bilingual Finns in mind. The Finnish schools teach well enough that the secretaries Finland exports to the US are in high demand for their English skills.

  2. michael farris says:

    “However, it is a brilliant pun introduced by Kaurismäki and not the translator, since most of the viewers will be familiar with the English translation”
    I find this very hard to believe. Do Finns mentally translate their own language into English on a regular basis? That’s beyond bizarre.
    I can believe that the writer might have put something in for that purpose, I cannot believe that Finnish audiences watching it in Finnish would get it in real time.

  3. John Emerson says:

    This is empirical and maybe some Finn will show up.
    t doesn’t seem odd to me that educated Finns would be aware of the English when watching “Hamlet”. Jokes as abstruse as this in cult movies often do circulate by word of mouth once someone spots them.

  4. michael farris says:

    “once someone spots them”
    Exactly, I really doubt if most Finns would spot that the first time they heard it. Once it’s been pointed out they might find it funny but that’s a different issue.
    in other Finnish news, I was recently in Rhodos, Greece where Finnish was one of the most common languages I heard on the street – it’s a very big Finnish tourist destination apparently and the hotel I was in (with hardly any Finns) was right in the middle of a part of town where a bunch of mostly Finnish hotels and Finnish owned businesses.

  5. I agree with Mr. Emerson. This film somewhat pre-dates Kaurismäki’s fame in the Anglophone world, and let’s agree that it’s not a mind-bendingly sophisticated pun, so it’s probably intended for the 2nd language English-speakers. Kaurismäki included.
    Lots of English jokes (“jokes”) crop up in his films, but how many clever crosslingual puns have been made I can’t begin to guess.

  6. Do Finns mentally translate their own language into English on a regular basis?
    Presumably not, but they are watching a movie called “Hamlet”, in which the main character’s name is still “Hamlet” (whereas Laertes is “Lauri”), so it’s not beyond question that they’ll be somewhat primed just be being there and a little more by seeing the ham, which is in focus at the beginning of the scene for a reasonable amount of time.

  7. John Emerson says:

    The normal English pun on “Hamlet” is to say that it’s a tiny ham. Was there a tiny ham in the movie?

  8. The ham is not tiny.

  9. I’ve done a few multi-lingual puns here, though of a different variety.
    I look for homographic multilinguals – phrases that, through pure chance, are spelled the same in different languages, while meaning different things. Then I try to connect the different meanings in verse.
    http://lazyglossophiliac.blogspot.com/2009/12/stupid-word-tricks_19.html

  10. Something I came up with:
    Q: What’s a good name for a baby pig?
    A: Hamlet.
    I wonder about multi-lingual works of literature. I’ve seen plenty of non-fiction, such as a book on Venezuela with one page in English and the facing page in Spanish.
    And of course novels can have very brief bits of dialog in other languages, but what about extended scenes which go on for pages?
    So many people in India are multi-lingual that I wonder if novels in India are ever multi-lingual.
    Has anyone written a novel in English, but the hero travels to Paris and speaks French and the dialog is written in French, then the hero goes to Berlin, speaks German, the dialog switches to German…
    Is that too unlikely?

  11. The interesting case would be a clear separation of large sections into the standard forms of multiple languages.
    Otherwise, it seems like the more common case is going to be a mixture throughout down to the sentence level. For instance, Without Kiinua Mgongo is written in Sheng, the hip urban Kenyan mix of Swahili and English.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    stephen: … a book on Venezuela with one page in English and the facing page in Spanish.
    Was the text continuous, with just the language changing from one page to the next while the story continues, or was the book bilingual, repeating the same information on the facing pages, but in different languages? the latter (with facing pages or columns) is quite frequent for non-fiction books (and shorter forms such as catalogs or instruction manuals), or for books intended for language learners.

  13. I don’t think the claim is that Finns are ALWAYS aware of what the dialog they’re hearing on-screen is in English, but rather that in this one case, as the first line in a joke movie about Hamlet, signaled by an on-screen ham, they would realize what Kaurismäki what doing and find it amusing. That seems plausible enough to me.

  14. Does a contemporary school edition of Война и мир translate the French? From a quick Search Inside on Amazon, it seems that the Penguin Classics, Signet Classics and Oxford World Classics versions of Villette all have end notes (numbered, by page number and starred, respectively), but the Vintage Classics does not.

  15. It seems that I’m the first Finnish commentator… And yes, I was aware of this pun before any translation came up. I’m not sure I noticed it myself (I’m not that clever…), but my friend pointed it to me, after which I thought it was the funniest thing ever.
    BTW, I don’t think it was the first line by Hamlet in the movie. It certainly wasn’t the first scene, I’m quite sure. The movie itself is pretty funny, one of the best in Kaurismäki’s rather overrated ouvre.

  16. Boy, it’s nice to have an international readership! Thanks very much for providing the much-needed Finnish perspective.

  17. sorry to disillusion, Tuomas, but there were previous Finnish commenters, Mr. Panu, i recall
    i hope i can claim my own perspective firstness around here though

  18. respective, i meant
    p or r, odin chert

  19. The book on Venezuela is non-fiction. The English pages are a translation of the Spanish pages.
    I know lots of bilingual/multilingual non-fiction, but not so much fiction. Aren’t there enough bilingual/multilingual people to encourage publishing it?
    Thanks for the note about Without Kiinua Mgongo.

  20. sorry to disillusion, Tuomas, but there were previous Finnish commenters
    I’m pretty sure he meant in this thread.

  21. BTW, I don’t think it was the first line by Hamlet in the movie. It certainly wasn’t the first scene, I’m quite sure.
    It’s the first scene, but the preceding scenes involve Claudius poisoning the drink, Claudius and Gertrude embracing and C. making the swap, and Gertrude bringing Old Hamlet his drink. I just saw it on Friday! I am pretty sure it’s Young Hamlet’s first line (it would be much less funny otherwise, too).

  22. Now I want to see the movie.

  23. not so much fiction
    The unusual case would seem to be changing the narrator’s voice. No examples come to mind. It seems like it might be a bit gimmicky.
    Bits of dialog to reflect the situation or the status of the speaker, like those French examples, make sense, and do assume a bilingual reader (or require notes).
    And literature within a bilingual / diglossic community is more likely to reflect the way the languages actually work. Another complementary example would be Nila Noor – The Blue Light, which (as I understand it) is written in Punjabi, but with loads of English, and so reflects the language of the diaspora community (like in Bend it like Beckham or Bride and Prejudice). I think it’s all printed in Gurmukhi, but I could be mistaken.
    Bilingual poets do publish anthologies both in parallel translation (of their own) and with selections of different works in each language. The latter sometimes have independent translations of one of the languages. But that’s more like your non-fiction case in how it works.

  24. I saw the movie Dune when it came out in 1984, and at the theater I was handed a glossary of terms so I could understand what was going on! It was a single sheet, printed on both sides.
    I’d already read the novel, so I didn’t really need it.
    I wonder if it’s a collector’s item now.
    I have a feeling that comes under the heading of, “You know you’re seeing a bad movie when…”

  25. Here’s my chance to investigate a mystery that’s been puzzling me for years. I was given a copy of Matt Groening’s comic “Life in Hell” in Finnish.
    In one of the cartoons, in the original, little Bongo recites the American Pledge of Allegiance as

    I plead alignment to the flakes of the untitled snakes of a merry cow and to the Republicans for which they scam, one nacho underpants, with licorice and jugs of wine for owls.

    In Finnish, this is given as

    Vannon uskollisuutta merikaanin yhdyskalojen nipulle ja osapaltureille, joita se edesauttaa yhdelle kasvikunnalle, yhdelle julmetulle ja oikotielle ja vappuviinalle

    What is the translator doing here?

  26. Google Translate: “I pledge allegiance to merikaanin yhdyskalojen nipulle osapaltureille and that it contributes to the municipality for one plant, one with a vengeance and shortcuts and vappuviinalle.”
    Tuomas, you still here?

  27. Wikipedia has a baseline unofficial Finnish translation of the original.
    That helps suggest what is going on. So, tasavallalle is ‘republic’, but osapaltureille is ‘piece of garbage’ and vapauden is ‘freedom’, but vappuviinalle is something to do with wine for May Day.
    (I hope I’m not embarrassing myself with these inferences.)

  28. David Marjanović says:

    I don’t think the claim is that Finns are ALWAYS aware of what the dialog they’re hearing on-screen is in English, but rather that in this one case, as the first line in a joke movie about Hamlet, signaled by an on-screen ham, they would realize what Kaurismäki what doing and find it amusing. That seems plausible enough to me.

    Seconded. I’d probably notice Schinken, lass mich! in that kind of situation.
    Crosslinguistic jokes do have a certain tradition, too. Why is it called “fast food”? Weil es fast ein Essen ist – because it’s almost food. And then there’s a Schwarzenegger-themed joke about how easy English is, based on random homophones in Bavarian-Austrian dialects, but that’s difficult to explain and difficult to write down…
    Trilingual pun. (Scroll down to below the second missing picture.)

    I hope I’m not embarrassing myself with these inferences

    -lle is a case ending. I know because it says Itävallan tasavalta in one of the 21 languages in my passport.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    Better link to the trilingual pun, but the pictures are still missing. :-(

  30. Ha! That’s a pun in a variant form of a dogwhistle – two plausible interpretations, with one being a private, coded message made for a subset audience, but concealed (by language translation) so that the general audience is unaware of the existence of the pun. It just has this boring, surface read for Finnish-only speakers, but a little something extra for the English & Finnish speakers (a subset of the entire audience). That’s neat.

  31. “Peccavi”

  32. I ought to explain the above: apocryphally, that was the one-word message sent from Charles James Napier to his superiors after he disobeyed their orders and successfully conquered Sindh.
    “Peccavi” is Latin for “I have sinned” — and in this case, also “I have Sindh.”

  33. Yes, one of my dearest childhood discoveries (I was studying Latin at St. Mary’s International and loved puns); I was devastated to discover, years, later, that it was apocryphal.

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