Interview: Linus without Linux

By Natalie Shahova
Editor’s note: The following interview was originally published in English at the EnRus Translation Agency’s Web site in conjunction with the Russian language release of the Linus Torvalds book, “Just for Fun.”Shahova was the Russian translator of the book. The interview, which first appeared in Russian in Computerra on March 26, is used with the author’s permission.
Even people remote from the computer industry have heard about Linux, a free operating system that has become widespread and, some people expect, may someday replace Microsoft Windows. Its creator Linus Torvalds, the world leader of the popular Open Source movement in the IT industry, told his story (in collaboration with David Diamond) in the book Just for Fun, published by HarperCollins in May 2001.
The book was translated into Russian by EnRus and published by EKSMO. I made Linus’ (virtual) acquaintance while translating Just for Fun, as I contacted him in order to solve various issues in the text. When the project was finished, Linus gave me an interview, which was published in Russian in Computerra #11, 2002. The English original appears below.

Linus with his first computer, a Commodore VIC-20

Knowing from Just for Fun that Linus is tired of answering questions about Linux and Open Source, I turned to topics of language and culture that interest me as a professional translator and are particularly relevant in the post-Soviet environment.

Question: You were born in Finland, but your mother tongue is Swedish. Do you call yourself a Finn, or a Swede? What is it like to be a Swede in Finland?

Torvalds: Oh, I’m a Finn, definitely. When Finland beats Sweden in ice hockey, it’s a national holiday, and Swedish-speaking Finns are celebrating. I only speak Swedish; there are no ties to the country of Sweden. And don’t say “Swede in Finland,” it’s really “Swedish-speaking Finn” (“finlandssvensk” in Swedish, “suomenruotsalainen” in Finnish).

Question: Do all Swedish-speaking Finns speak Finnish? Do other Finns understand Swedish?

Torvalds: Most Swedish-speaking Finns do indeed speak Finnish too, mostly fluently. Not all, though — there are still areas where Swedish is common enough that you’ll find a very small percentage of the Swedish-speaking Finns that really don’t much understand Finnish at all. It’s quite uncommon these days, though. The reverse is not true — most Finnish-speaking Finns know some Swedish (you have to learn the rudiments of it in school), but it’s a very rudimentary knowledge in most cases, and fairly few can actually speak it fluently. Many more Finns speak and understand English.

Question: What languages does a person have to know to work in government?

Torvalds: In theory, since Swedish is an official language, government officials are supposed to be able to understand and speak Swedish, but in practice that’s usually true only in areas where Swedish is reasonably common (mainly along the southern coast of Finland).

Question: And is Finnish a must for government officials?

Torvalds: Yup.

Question: Can you get an education in Swedish? Read newspapers?

Torvalds: There are Swedish-speaking schools, and many universities tend to have a number of courses in Swedish too (depending on the area and university). There are various newspapers and some of the public TV time (around 10%, I think) special to the Swedish-speaking population.

Question: You married a Swedish girl — sorry a Swedish-speaking Finnish girl — (same as your father did). Are there many mixed marriages in Finland?

Torvalds: Yes, there are tons of inter-language marriages. It’s quite common to have one parent speak Swedish and the other Finnish, and often when that happens the kids are sent to a Swedish-speaking school simply because that way they’ll be fluent in both languages. My younger half-brother, for example, has a Finnish-speaking mom. That said, the culture is very much intertwined, and you don’t actually have many cultural clashes. For example, you wouldn’t be able to tell from clothing or looks whether a person is Swedish-speaking.

Question: Your sister is a translator (so she is good at languages), and yet your book says that she moved to “a small city west of Helsinki, where the street signs are in Swedish first and Finnish second,” while you moved to the USA where nobody knows the difference between Swedish and Finnish. Do you feel comfortable in an English-language environment?

Torvalds: Oh, I’m very comfortable in an English-language environment — I used to read books almost exclusively in English since my early teenage years. And through Linux, I’ve been communicating professionally exclusively in English for the last ten years. In fact my English is stronger than my Finnish, and was so even before we moved here, in fact (well, that’s almost true — I wasn’t very used to actually speaking English before we moved here, so it took a while to get used to the difference of reading and writing English and actually speaking it). My sister, I think, just has a stronger language identity than I had. And it’s actually interesting that she prefers Swedish so much more strongly than I do, because her Finnish is much better than mine. She used to have Finnish-speaking friends when she grew up, while I basically never spoke it socially.

Question: How could that be? Neighbors, salespeople, and so forth — were they all Swedish-speaking? (I know you were not very social, but still!)

Torvalds: Oh, I knew people who spoke Finnish, and I spoke Finnish in shops etc., but all my friends were basically from school and Swedish-speaking.

Question: What language do you use at home, with your wife and kids?

Torvalds: We talk Swedish at home, although the two older kids actually sometimes speak English to each other (probably because they go to English-speaking school, so they get used to playing in English).

Question: What language do you think in?

Linus with his sister Sara when they were teenagersTorvalds: I always think in the language I speak — I don’t even understand how people could think in one language and try to speak another. BTW, I’m also totally unable to switch back and forth between them quickly or try to have two languages “active” at the same time. I can’t translate well between the three languages I speak, for example; I just don’t have the associations. Sara can [think] one language and speak another, and you must be able. To me, doing something like simultaneous translation is just totally incredible.

Question: My spoken English is much worse than my written. Living behind the iron curtain, I had little oral practice for most of my life.

Torvalds: But you must still be able to think in both languages “at the same time,” when you actually do translation. I just can’t. I remember trying to translate some stuff from English into Swedish when I was younger, and I just couldn’t do it — even though I was fluent in both.

Question: How often do you visit Finland? Do you want your kids to feel that they somehow belong to Finland?

Torvalds: We go back about once a year, and to the kids Finland is mainly the place where the grandparents are. Patricia knows she was born there, but I seriously doubt she feels Finnish in any other way.

Question: Your book says that you read to your kids in English and Swedish. How do they manage to cope with two languages?

Torvalds: Speaking two languages is easy, especially if you grow up with them. I never felt strange knowing two languages, even if one of them was my primary one, and kids really learn languages much easier than adults do. In short, no problem at all.

Question: Do you know any other languages?

Torvalds: I speak three languages fluently, those being Swedish, English and Finnish.

Question: You wrote that learning Latin in high school “was fun.”

Torvalds: I can decode some written Latin, although I’ve forgotten most of it, and it really was fairly weak to begin with (I remember being able to read some of the Latin inscriptions in Rome when we visited there 15 years ago).

Question: How many programming languages do you know?

Torvalds: I really only read and write C fluently, although there are a number of others that I can make do with.

Question: What language did you use in comments to Linux while you were a student?

Torvalds: English. I’ve always programmed in English. All the books were in English, and the programming-languages tend to be somewhat English-based too (i.e. “while (x) { … }”).

Question: And what about fiction? I guess from the name of your cat — Randy — that you like Tolkien, am I right?

Torvalds: Yes, I always liked reading. And “The Lord of the Rings” was one of the first books in English I read (i.e. I started out reading it with a dictionary by my side). Not many people recognize the name of my cat. Did I explain it in the book?

Question: Yes, you did (“short for Mithrandir, the white wizard in “The Lord of the Rings”). Otherwise I wouldn’t recognize it either, since I read Tolkien in Russian. (Though my sons are Tolkien fans and even created a special Web site devoted to Tolkien: And what else do you read?

Torvalds: I don’t tend to have “hugely interesting” books on my list; they are mainly humor and fantasy, I’ve read pretty much exclusively in English for the last twenty years, simply because the kinds of books I read (whether fiction or the technical books) are almost always in English and I gave up on translations long ago. It used to be Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Tolkien, Douglas Adams, etc.; these days it tends to be more comedic and/or fantasy writing (Douglas Adams is an example of both, but so is Terry Pratchett, Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat,” etc.). I liked Robert Jordan’s “A Wheel of Time” series a lot, for example (although that’s a few years ago), and these days I usually just go to the local bigger bookstore and see if I can find anything interesting.

Question: Have you ever read any books by Russian authors?

Torvalds: I know Stanislaw Lem (from my earlier hard science fiction days) was at least known in Russia too, but he is himself Polish. I can’t think of any actual Russian authors I’ve read off-hand — the classical stuff isn’t exactly in my taste, and I don’t think I ever even tried to pick up Dostoevsky, etc., that are well-known outside Russia. Isaac Asimov (who was one of my favorite writers early on) was born in Russia, but I doubt you can count him as a Russian writer. His family moved to the U.S. when he was small, and he wrote everything in English.

Question: By the way, all of the authors you named are known and loved in Russia, not only Stanislaw Lem. And talking about Russian authors, I am sure you would like Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (they were brothers). Your book includes the following words from your mother: “I still don’t think Linus has any ‘special’ talent and certainly not ‘for computers’ — if it weren’t that, it would be something else. In another day and age he would focus on some different challenge, and I think he will. (What I mean is, I hope he won’t be stuck in Linux maintenance forever).” Do you agree with her?

Torvalds: I think I do. I enjoyed computers, and it’s what I’m doing, but I think I could have been doing physics or math or something else equally well. I like stuff with “patterns” — and I’m good at concentrating on a particular problem. All good things for programming, but there are other areas where they could have been applied.

Question: What was your personal involvement in the Sklyarov case?

Torvalds: I avoid very much to get involved into what I call “politics.” I’m a technical guy, and that’s what I want to do. So I will definitely not claim to have been very active personally. I do feel that the electronic issue of free speech is one of the more important issues we face, and this year I made a sizable contribution to the EFF (the Electronic Frontier Foundation), which is the main entity protecting those freedoms (and who definitely need help. Sadly, protecting people from legal attacks is not exactly cheap). And I was obviously one of the co-signers on the “Free Sklyarov” community petition (but there were something like 13,000 other signers there too.

Question: How do you expect the suit against Microsoft will end, and what influence will it have on MS, Linux, and the IT industry as a whole?

Torvalds: To me personally, the thing doesn’t much matter. I think the main thing to have come out of the big lawsuit has been to make people aware of how MS isn’t exactly a nice company, but at the same time I’m keeping away from being one of the MS bashers. Linux didn’t start due to any anti-MS issues, and I still simply don’t care about Microsoft.

Question: Am I right that you visited Moscow in 1976? Sara said: “What I remember most was the huge toy store they had, bigger than anything in Helsinki.” Do you remember anything from that trip?

Torvalds: Yes, I’ve definitely been there, but no, I don’t remember much. I can’t confirm the year, but 1976 might well be right. I must have been just 6 years old or so at the time.

Question: Do you have any special message for Russian readers of your book?

Torvalds: I don’t think I have any special messages at all. I think the only “message” in my book was the tongue-in-cheek, “Party on, dude!”


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