Some like it hot
Every language professional knows the fun and struggle of dealing with culture-specific notions and phenomena. How to describe the concept correctly? How to convey its place and meaning in the source culture? Unlike in literary translation, a replacement is often not an option when translating in the commercial world.
The sauna is firmly rooted in Finnish culture, and though its bathing practices are well-known all over the world, the concept and associations have not crossed borders as effortlessly as the physical elements. For a Finn, the sauna is inviolable. It is a natural, family-centred activity with no room for indecencies or gimmicky paraphernalia. We consider it a treat for the body and the soul.
The word sauna is an ancient Finnish word, but the sauna itself is an integral part of modern Finnish society. Historically, Finns have made the most of the sauna over the centuries. Different versions of sweat baths have of course been known all over the world, but the Nordic way of life where even peasants enjoyed a weekly sauna did stand out during the periods when frequent bathing was not a common phenomenon in Europe. When people moved house, building a sauna was often the first task on the list: you could live in it, wash in it, cook food on the stove and even give birth in a fairly sterile environment.
Today, the sauna plays an equally important part in the private and even public lives of the Finnish people. It is estimated that in a country with 5.3 million people, there are currently around two million saunas. In moderation, sauna bathing is considered suitable for everyone from small babies and pregnant women to chronically ill elderly people and the fittest of athletes. Taken to the extreme, as in the now infamous annual Sauna World Championship Contest, it can of course be lethal. But taking a sauna was never meant to be an extreme sport!
The act of taking a sauna begins by washing and then sitting in the heat of typically 80 or 90 degrees Celsius. Water is thrown onto the hot stones of a special stove, and this produces steam to increase the humidity and heat inside the room. The process introduces a host of terms that usually need to be explained rather than translated. The stove or heater (Finnish kiuas) can be electric or wood-burning. The electric models can be ‘always ready’ (just open the lid to release heat) or have steamer functions. There are wood-burning versions without a chimney, which fill the sauna room with fragrant wood smoke. The sauna steam has a special name (löyly), and then there are the leafy birch branches you use to gently beat yourself with (called vihta in Western Finland and vasta in Eastern Finland). When the sauna starts to feel too hot, relief can be found by jumping in a lake or swimming pool. In winter, it is quite common to either roll in the snow or swim in a hole cut in the ice (avanto). If you ever visit Finland, you are sure to be invited to enjoy a sauna experience and have the added pleasure of your host earnestly trying to explain all these concepts in their best English.