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The Casual Translation

The Casual Vacancy cover A couple of weeks ago JK Rowling’s latest novel The Casual Vacancy was published here in its Swedish translation. Entitled Den tomma stolen – literally “the empty chair” – the translation is remarkable for having been produced in a kind of turbocharged translation frenzy in just one week by six translators working parallel with one another, each taking responsibility for about 80 pages.

Now, I haven’t yet read The Casual Vacancy, but what I’ve read about it suggests that it’s written in sociolects. That the author has chosen to write the characters’ speech as it is pronounced and as it reflects their social class. I would think that would be a challenge for any translator with time on their hands. For a battery of translators, none of whom had time to read the whole book before tackling her 80-or-so pages, it strikes me as a recipe for disaster.

While I’m sure the translators – all of whom are experienced professionals – have done their best, I can’t help wondering about the quality of the book as a whole. No doubt an editor at the publishing house, Wahlström & Widstrand, will have gone over the six pieces of translation with spackling paste for the gaps and sandpaper for the irregularities and inconsistencies, but why the rush?

In an interview in my local paper, one of the translators, Helena Hansson, says the publishers wanted to bring the book out in Swedish as quickly as possible for fear that otherwise people would buy it in English instead. Speed was of the essence, quality was irrelevant.

In an interview with JK Rowling in The Guardian that was printed to coincide with the publication of The Casual Vacancy at the end of September, Rowling is quoted saying: “The worst that can happen is that everyone says, That’s shockingly bad.” But perhaps she doesn’t care so much how people react to the translations. Or to be fair, it’s probably her publishers who don’t care.

The book has received varied reviews here in Sweden. Some find Rowling’s presentation of the people in her invented town of Pagford to be snobbish, and criticise her for failing to draw sympathetic portraits of any of her adult characters. Others describe themselves as spellbound by her “rich gallery of characters” and “shocking realism”.

I’m not entirely clear whether the reviewers are reacting to the original English version or to the Swedish translation. One positive review, in Uppsala Nya Tidning, is quite clearly based on the Swedish translation, which is either a great advertisement for the professionalism of the translators, or sadly revealing of the reviewer. Of course, reviews by Swedes based on the English original – whether positive or negative – might also be sadly revealing of the reviewers.

Regardless, I’ll make a point of steering far clear of Den tomma stolen. And I don’t plan on buying the translation for anyone as a Christmas gift.


If the Harry Potter books were a kind of mash up of English boarding school fiction with fantasy and that genre of children’s fiction that follows the adventures of young people persecuted by and resisting dictatorship, then The Casual Vacancy feels like a political satire crossed with Murder in Midsummer. So varied are the reactions I’ve come across that a book I had absolutely no interest in reading has now gone to the top of my wish list.

So, not Den tomma stolen but The Casual Vacancy. And maybe a review here in the not too distant.

Den tomma stolen bokomslag

Bokomslag av Den tomma stolen tagen från webben

Den tomma stolen’s translators are: Molle Kanmert Sjölander, Charlotte Hjukström, Gudrun Samuelsson, Ing-Britt Björklund, Helena Hansson and Tove Janson Borglund.

The Guardian’s interview with JK Rowling:

Uppsala Nya Tidning’s review of Den tomma stolen (på svenska):

Göteborgs Posten’s review of Den tomma stolen (på svenska):

Göteborgs Posten’s interview with Helena Hansson (på svenska):

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