Finland’s love affair with Donald Duck

One recent late night, when I should have been writing, and was instead scrolling up and down my Facebook page, I saw the status of an acquaintance of mine – a Formula One reporter on Finnish TV – in which he wrote: “Heard that a version of my name may have been used in the Donald Duck magazine. Can anybody confirm that?”

A couple of days later, I asked him if he’d heard anything. He hadn’t. Then I asked him why he had asked that. 

“It’d be a great honor to be featured in the Donald Duck magazine,” he said. 

We go back a long way. This is the oldest toy I have left.

In Finland, having your name featured in Donald Duck – or Aku Ankka, or even more commonly “Akkari” – is bigger than being a clue in a crossword puzzle. And it’s not just because the magazine, with a circulation of over 300 000 – and about a million readers – is the biggest weekly in Finland, a country of 5.2 million. Being one of the characters in a Donald Duck adventure makes you a part of the fabric of the country. 

“Donald Duck is the donquixotesque soldier of misfortune and that appeals to us. Donald often fails with his schemes, but he never gives up, and that’s what we call sisu in Finland,” says Aki Hyyppä, editor-of chief of the magazine, Aku Ankka. 

“That theme is a part of our heritage,” he adds. 

It’s the “don’t stay down in the line of fire” mentality, itself a line from “Unknown Soldier”, a Finnish war novel by Väinö Linna, who also wrote the great Finnish classic “Under the North Star”, which begins with “In the beginning there were the swamp, the hoe — and Jussi”. And then Jussi gets to work and clears the swamp, by himself, on his own. He was the strong and silent type. 

It’s barely a coincidence that Angry Birds come out of Finland, a country that identifies itself with another, constantly angry, bird. 

Finnish papers regularly refer to the Swedes as “a bunch of Gladstone Ganders”, a reference to the world’s luckiest bird in the comic. In that narrative, Finns obviously are Donald Duck, the world’s unluckiest duck. Swedes score game winning goals in sports at the last second, Finns somehow kick the ball to their own net – off the back of their own goalie – in an attempt to clear it from the goal line, with seconds left in a match. (True story, happened in a World Cup qualifier against Hungary in 1997.)

“That Gladstone Gander sure is annoying,” my ten-year-old son told me the other day, as we rode our bikes to the store. 

“It’s just so unfair that he always is so lucky, and doesn’t have to work. And then he shows off,” he said. 

His mother is Swedish, which makes him a Finnish-Swede, so it made me a little happy to see the Finnish side in him, but other than that, I just let it slide, and said that sometimes Donald gets a little lucky, too. 

Finns can tell you Donald Duck’s license plate number at least as quickly as they can tell you how many representatives get elected into the Finnish parliament. (That would be “313” and 200, respectively).

And speaking of the parliament, the most popular protest vote doesn’t go to Jesus Christ or even Santa Claus, the one celebrity Finns are claiming their own, but to “Aku Ankka”, Donald Duck.

In 1979, two Finnish actors, Pentti Siimes and Ritva Valkama, did wildly popular skits on famous lovers. Their series included, for example, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, and Sleeping Beauty and a prince. 

“But we’d like to kick things off with what is probably Finland’s most famous couple, a pair of lovers who have filled Finnish papers’ pages more than any other couple,” said Valkama, as she introduced the series in the first show. 

She played Donald Duck’s girlfriend Daisy, dancing with Siimes’s Donald Duck, to a Finnish chipmunk version of “You’re the one that I want”, from Grease. 

When Donald Duck turned 70, Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s biggest morning paper – and the paper in which Donald Duck strips appeared first in Finland in 1934 – found Finnish real-life counterparts to the characters in the comics. 

Then-president Tarja Halonen was Donald Duck. Nokia’s chairman Jorma Ollila was Gyro Gearloose, Duckburg’s famous inventor, and Linus Torvalds, founder of the Linux operating system, his Little Helper.

Of course, the young women who exclaim “kääk!” when something unexpected happens, don’t really think about their national heritage. Kääk is what Donald Duck says when he’s startled, but ducks, the birds, do not quack “kääk” in Finnish. The word has come to the Finnish language simply through Aku Ankka. 

Like so many other words. One of the reasons Donald Duck is still so popular in Finland is that it’s not simply a children’s comic book. The Finnish translations of the stories are multilayered so that while a ten-year-old boy – like my son – will enjoy the adventures and funny goofs on the page, his father – that would be me – will also enjoy the goofs, and the rich language. 

I learned to read thanks to Aku Ankka, and my son learned to read thanks to Aku Ankka. My daughter now carries a pile of Aku Ankkas to the breakfast table, too. 

In 2001, the Helsinki University’s Department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies gave Aku Ankka received its annual language award for its rich use of Finnish language. 

“The first editor-in-chief, Sirkka Ruotsalainen, realized right away that Aku Ankka was not just a children’s magazine, like it is in, for example, Germany. When we make those name variations, we make sure that they’re funny for everybody,” Hyyppä says.

The day my son was born, I called my parents, I emailed my friends, and just before going to bed after a long day and night, I took care of just one tiny bit of business. I took out a subscription to Aku Ankka, and went to bed. 

“One of our main customer groups are 30-year-old males. It’s almost some sort of a divine responsibility of the new father to take out an Aku Ankka subscription almost as soon as the pregnancy test shows a positive,” Hyyppä says. 

“About 99.8 percent of our circulation is subscriptions. Then of course, if the kids didn’t like the magazine, the parents wouldn’t always renew the subscription,” he adds. 

Aku Ankka was the first of two big Americans landing in Finland in the early 1950s. The first issue came out on December 5, 1951, a Wednesday – the magazine still comes out on Wednesdays – so when Coca-Cola made its big launch in Finland during the 1952 Olympics, Donald Duck was already waiting for it there. Finland was just a few months from paying the last instalment of its war reparations, the only country in the world to pay them in full. 

“It was a perfect timing for Donald Duck. It marked the end of a national torment, and a symbol for the country’s liberation,” Hyyppä says. 

“Also, it was a brand new concept for Finns. There weren’t any color magazines aimed at both boys and girls, and maybe that’s why it really got a hold of the baby boomers,” he adds. 

Finland has embraced Aku Ankka so much that there are now original adventures set in Finland. The Finnish publisher has also issued special Aku Ankka albums in which the characters speak in different Finnish dialects. 

The adventures are drawn at Egmont in Denmark, but the Finnish editors get to read and make comments on the scripts before they go to the artists. When the finished story comes back to Finland for translation, it will go through a translator, and two editors, who make sure the language is what it’s supposed to be, and who punch up the lines. 

“The original script is our starting point, and then our translators have fairly free hands to work on it. We have about ten freelance translators, who relax by translating Aku Ankka. Two of them have won the Mikael Agricola Prize, the highest award for translations, but none for their work with Aku Ankka. Not yet, anyway,” Hyyppä says, laughing.  

In recent years, the Finnish publisher has also commissioned original scripts from Finnish pop artists and authors. 

“Everybody has said yes. Well, one Finnish author said he could maybe do it in three years because writing an Aku Ankka adventure would be a career highlight, and he didn’t consider himself a good enough writer, yet,” Hyyppä says. 

J. Karjalainen – a singer-songwriter who’s sold hundreds of thousand of discs in Finland – had his story in the comic recently, and he called it a “surreal feeling to get to have the characters of one’s childhood do whatever I wanted.”

According to Hyyppä, it’s important that Aku Ankka feels American in the future as well.

“We don’t want to have ultra-Finnish adventures in which the ducks sit in a sauna and eat mämmi [a traditional Finnish Easter rye pudding],” he says. 

“Whenever there are references to Finland in the stories, it’s like we’re having an international movie star over for a visit, and we’d like to keep that feeling,” he adds. 

The pages are filled with celebrities anyway because a famous movie star may be called Lissu Louhio (Lindsey Lohan, Finnishized), or Clint Itäpuu (“Itäpuu” is Eastwood, a literal translation). Or maybe a gangster called Ali Kaponen is making life difficult for Scrooge – and by extension, for Donald.

I tell Hyyppä about “a friend of mine” who thought he might have made the list and wonder if he could check if he has. Hyyppä doesn’t bite, but says that it’s such a big deal that every once in a while people do call him and ask him to put their names in. 

“Let’s just say it doesn’t improve their chances,” Hyyppä says. 

It has to be earned. My friend will have to just wait. I hope I didn’t ruin it for him. 

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