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):

Swedish: Alive and not so slap

All living languages grow and change all the time. The only languages which do not change are dead languages. This is as true of Swedish as it is of English.

I think living languages are examples of consensus democracy at its most pure. All users of a given language will at some time and to some degree test the bounds of their language. This happens mostly when they are children and learning the language for the first time. They will add words, change grammar, alter pronunciation. Most often other language users around them will correct them, or simply ignore their innovations, and they will learn to conform to the consensus of the greater mass of language users.

Sluta ersäta svenska ordAs we grow older we become less and less likely to step outside the bounds of the language consensus, but some of us do, and sometimes our changes are taken up and used by others. Still, it seems that in order for a linguistic innovation to be adopted by others it must in some way conform to the consensus, even though in other ways it rebels.

Sometimes, very occasionally, a change may spread so widely and be so universally accepted that it actually become a part of the consensus. When this happens, after a few decades or generations, the innovation will come to be seen as a natural feature of the language.

I’m brought to thinking about this because of a letter in my local newspaper, Göteborgs-Posten, (“Fria ord” Monday, 6th August 2012. And I’d happily put in a link here but GP chooses not to make available on-line all the content of their daily paper. You’ll have to make do with the photo to the right.)

In a letter to the editor under the title “Sluta ersätta svenska ord”, which translates as “Stop replacing Swedish words”, the writer gives an example of a sentence in which six Swedish words have been replaced by English ones.

Teamet tog ett break, softade och shoppade bagar på airporten.
The team took a break, softed and shopped bags at the airport.

“If we don’t put a stop to all these English borrowings,” says the letter-writer, “soon we’ll all be speaking English!” Hmmm. His preferred sentence would read:

Gruppen tog en rast, slappade och handlade väskor på flygplatsen.
The group took a rest, relaxed and bought bags at the airport.

I strongly suspect the first sentence to be a figment of the writer’s imagination. Not that I would never expect to hear or read any or all of these words at some time or another, but that I would be surprised to hear a sentence so packed with English-isms, and very surprised indeed to see it written down in any context.

Be that as it may, I think the sentence beautifully illustrates my argument that innovation always attempts to conform to the consensus. See how all the English words in the sentence have been embedded in Swedish grammar.

Team-et … ett break … soft-ade … shopp-ade bag-ar … airport-en.

(And how do Swedes know that team and break are to be categorised as ett words while airport is categorised as an en word? It’s that consensus again, I’m sure of it! I’ve certainly never been able to internalise the ett/en rule after getting on for 30 years.)

It’s true there is a fashion for borrowing English words into Swedish, and that the trend has been going on and very probably growing since the 1950s or 60s. Every decade sees new English words come into fashion, but every decade sees once fashionable English words fade out of consciousness. However, before English, Swedish was influenced by French, and before French by Low German for hundreds of years. Very large numbers of Swedish words are in fact borrowings from German. And no doubt a few hundred years ago there were people who worried about the horrible influence of German on “our beautiful Swedish language”.

One of the mechanisms by which languages grow and change is exactly by borrowing words from other languages. All languages do it (though not always to the delight of the language police). Take a closer look at that sentence the letter-writer preferred.

Gruppen … rast, slappade … handlade väskor … flygplatsen.

Of these six words, just two and a half are Old Swedish: rast, handla and flyga. They all developed from the same proto-Germanic words that gave English rest, handle and the verb fly. Plats is an early loan word into the Germanic languages from the Latin word placea, which gave modern English place and modern German platz. According to Elof Hellquist’s Svensk etymologisk ordbok, väska (first recorded in Swedish in 1587) is a loan from an unspecified Slavic language. The verb slappa is first recorded in 1718 and seems to have been borrowed from the Dutch or Low German slappe, which by the way also gave English the first element in the word slapdash. Finally grupp is a 1781 loan from the French groupe, which is also whence English borrowed it about 100 years earlier.

I don’t really know why the letter-writer plumps for grupp instead of the much more Old Swedish lag, but I’m sure he has his reasons. I note he’s chosen to use rast instead of paus. (Paus strikes me as more natural in context – and more common in everyday Swedish.) But then he probably recognised paus as a loan from French (1810).

Incidentally, of the six English words that made his blood boil, only three are really Anglo-Saxon: team, break and soft. Shop was borrowed into English around 1200 from the Old French eschoppe, though it comes originally from the same proto-Germanic word that gave Sweden köp. Bag is a 13th century borrowing from Old Norse, though the Vikings may have got it from the Celts. Air is Greek by way of Latin and French, and port is an Old English borrowing from Latin.

The word airport is probably from American English and was coined 1919 in reference to Bader Field outside Atlantic City, New York – or so says the Online Etymological Dictionary.

I would love to add something more about soft as a verb, but I’ll hold it over as this article is already over the 900 – urk – 1000 word limit!


Online Etymological Dictionary
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles
Svenska Akademiens ordbok
Svensk etymologisk ordbok

Cue Sweden queue!

(This blog entry originally went out in 140-character-tweets in my Twitter stream.)

Greetings! This morning my local paper printed a letter bemoaning the damage caused to the beautiful Swedish language by English loan words. The letter writer mentioned his admiration for the French who only ever use French in the media. So those 5500 hits on “le week-end” I just got on Le Monde’s internet site must be a figment of my imagination.

Last time I was on Twitter I shared some articles about the Great Teddy Bear Bombing of Belarus. It has had consequences. Not my tweeting, of course, but the action itself. The Swedish Ambassador has been expelled. Ambassador Eriksson’s crime seems to be his ability and willingness to speak Belarusian. At least according to Sovetskaya Belorussia as reported by Charta 97 in a link I sent earlier. “…Swedish Ambassador Mr. Eriksson, who speaks Belarusian language and actively uses it.”

A “ridiculous accusation,” says Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. And see his tweets following this one.
Carl Bildt Tweet screenshot

Sunday 4 August would have been the 100th birthday of Raoul Wallenberg Swedish TV showed Kjell Grede’s excellent God Afton Herr Wallenberg (Good Evening , Mr Wallenberg) from 1990. See here on the Internet Movie Database. One of the IMDb reviewers says: “…it’s a good film …[but] it is very depressing and hard to shake off after you have seen it.” Fair comment.

I hadn’t seen it for more than ten years when I switched on Sunday night. I don’t think it’s aged badly at all. Still as good … but it’s no light entertainment. Let me also draw your attention to this Sign Language photo published here earlier in the year.

And so to other (non-Olympic) Scandinavian news.

Norway is expressing concern about Facebook’s facial recognition software. See this from Bloomberg.

Meanwhile Swedes don’t think Norwegians know how to queue. Complaining about foreigners who can’t queue properly? My! Swedes are getting more English all the time. Talk about cultural imperialism.

And with that neat segue back to the opening concerns of this round up, I think it’s time to bow out. Cheerio!

And just by way of an addendum and a nod towards the Olympics. View this fascinating little silent video: the Olympic Rings used to illustrate some comparative statistics.

oceaniaeuropeamericasafricaasia from gustavo sousa on Vimeo.

William Vaughn’s Weird White Van

William Vaughn is a man, a man with a van,
and his van is of course painted white,
but William’s white van is no ordinary van
though it looks commonplace at first sight.

In the past, William hired his van as a rule
to folk moving house here and there.
He’d help them to load it with boxes and stools,
carpets, bags, books, a table, a chair –

small things mostly, for the van wasn’t large.
Till one day an elderly woman
employed him to move her from an old barge
to a brand new apartment in Cannes.¹

William started to load his white van but soon saw
he’d never find room for all that she owned.
“A van can’t expand and break natural law,”
he told her. She’d have to postpone.

“No, no,” said the woman, “I will not delay.
Just fill it as much as you can.”
And so William Vaughn began right away
to pack all her things in his van.

Two sofas, a bed, some shelves, a black cat,
a wardrobe, three tables, an armchair, a bat,
a cauldron, a broomstick, a black pointed hat.
(William found himself wondering rather at that.)

A sideboard, a set of heavy oak chairs,
a huge grand piano, a portrait in oil,
four tires from a Volvo, a small flight of stairs,
and all of the books of Sir A. Conan Doyle.

He found room for everything, strange to relate,
though the van was so small and compact.
He filled up the van with a huge load of freight
and when he was done, it was packed.

Then he drove the white van for two days and a night
till he came at long last to south France,
where the sun blazed down and his white van shone bright.
The unpacking went like a dance.²

Ever since then, viewed from outside,
William’s white van looks quite small,
but open the doors and load up inside –
it’ll swallow IKEA and all!

Especially for Anders L. and Pia G.


1. The rhyme on ‘woman’ and ‘in Cannes’ is poor. Phonetically it looks like it ought to work since /wʊmæn/ and /ınĸæn/ both end in the same vowel, but the stress in ‘woman’ falls on the first syllable /ˈwʊmæn/ while the stress on ‘in Cannes’ falls on the second /ınˈĸæn/ .

2. ‘Went like a dance’: This is a literal translation of a Swedish idiom (‘det gick som en dans’). The best English equivalent really would be to say ‘things went smoothly’. (Google Translate suggests ‘went like clockwork’, but I think this means a timetable was kept.)

3. William Vaughn does not seem to be a typical White Van Man. Here’s a link to Wikipedia on the subject.

Who you gonna call?

A recently stenciled sign seen around Hisingen in Gothenburg … and an inventive addition!

Vem ringer du? Ghostbusters!

“Vem ringer du när det är polisen du är rädd för?”

“Who do you ring when it’s the police you’re scared of?”