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):

Confessions of a translator

In preparing and writing the Swedish text on this site, I find myself doing exactly the opposite of what I preach!

GooglskaWell, perhaps not exactly the opposite, but close. Swedish is not my mother tongue. My first language is English – but I recognise I need to use both English and Swedish to clearly describe the services I offer. I anticipate that most of my potential customers will be Swedish speakers and will have Swedish as their first language. They will be most likely to search for a translator, a copy editor, a trainer or whatever in Swedish. I want to be sure of reaching the widest audience, so I need to have a Swedish language presence.

How to do that? My solution is to parallel the descriptions I am writing in English with Swedish descriptions. So, in the black bar under the heading of the site you’ll find clickable buttons for both Services and Tjänster. Among the blog entries describing my services in more detail you’ll find, for example, Swedish to English translation service next to Översättning från svenska till engelska.

The Core of the Poodle
But how to achieve the Swedish translations? Here we come to the core of the poodle. (That’s a Swedish idiom BTW!)

First of all I write a draft in English …


Swedish to English translation
No, I don’t translate from English to Swedish!

… trying it out in Swedish in my head.


Svenska till Engelska översättning
Nej, jag översätta inte från engelska till svenska!

(Yes, that sounds OK. 🙂 )

Then I use Google to translate it sentence by sentence.


Svenska till engelska
Nej, jag översätter jag inte från engelska till svenska!

(What happened to ‘translation’ in the first line? Google ate it!)

Then I run the Swedish text through the spelling and grammar checker in my Swedish edition of MS Word.


Svenska till engelska översättningar
Nej, jag översätter jag inte från engelska till svenska!

(Word did not rest till I’d put back ‘översättningar’ into the first line, but didn’t blink at the double ‘jag’ in the second line.)

Then I present it to a native Swedish speaker who throws her hands up in horror and helps me re-write the text.


Översättning från svenska till engelska.
Tyvärr kan jag inte hjälpa dig med översättning från engelska till svenska.

Finally I back-translate to English to make sure the English and the Swedish harmonise – so I’m not promising different things in Swedish and English.

English back translation

Swedish to English translation
Unfortunately I cannot help you translate texts from English to Swedish.


Of course, it would be a great deal more effective if I wrote the original in good English first and then employed a Swedish translator to put it into good Swedish for me … but this way I get to spend lots of time thinking about the services (and tjänster) I’m offering. At this early stage in the firm’s relaunch that’s probably time well spent.

I’m not encouraging YOU to do this! Oh, good heavens no! Come to me with your good Swedish texts and let me translate them for you!

But if you prefer to do as I do rather than as I say, come to me with your ‘Sw-english’ texts and let me be your sounding board, your text editor, your ball plank. (Another Swedish idiom there.)

Hire me to work with you. Together we can express your ideas in real English (rather than Swenglish or Googlish or MSWordish).

^ Pudelns kärna = The core of the poodle. The real, true centre of anything. The dog inside all the poodle’s hair. (Actually this Swedish idiom comes from Goethe’s Faust: “Das also war des Pudels Kern!” See the Swedish Wikipedia entry.)

Write this large

JNELS graffitiHello New Readers!

Actually I don’t imagine there are many of you out there just yet, so this is more for my benefit than anyone else’s. Still, there may be a few curious souls who will open this blog entry and, perhaps, have already decided to subscribe to this site’s RSS feed. (You’ll find the Subscribe buttons up in the top right-hand corner.)

To you I say: Welcome, and thanks for stopping by! 🙂

This site is under construction, as you can see I think. For the next few weeks most of the News here is likely to be about the services I’m offering through my firm. (John Nixon English Language Services or JNELS for short … in case you were in any doubt.) Most of these items will be composed in two languages – English and Swedish. Though they’ll start out life as blog entries, they will gradually metamorphose into static pages and find a place in the black-bar menu at the head of the page.

My plan, once I’ve defined and described my services, is to give this “News” blog over to articles, illustrations and podcasts. The focus of the blog will shift to:

  • exploring the English language,
  • investigating the teaching and learning of English,
  • considering the ways in which English, Swedish and other languages impact on working life,
  • scrutinising the use of English in Sweden (and elsewhere in Scandinavia), and
  • examining the tender spots where English and Swedish rub against one another.
  • These are subjects that interest me. I hope they will also interest you and other subscribers and casual visitors, and act as an advertisement for this site and my English-language services.

    Most of these blog entries will be written in English, though I expect some will turn out to be better expressed in Swedish. (Whether better expressed in my Swedish remains to be seen.)

    Anyway, this blog entry serves notice of my plans, and its heading references an English idiom, “writ large”, which means something “expressed with great magnitude” or “made obvious”. I’m trying to express my plans loud and clear. I hope it’ll help me to remember and keep to them.