“Watch out! The stairs are slippery this morning.” A common refrain you hear on early winter mornings, at least in temperate climes.
Slippery and its sibilant initial consonant bring to mind (my mind, anyway) the smooth, easy (too easy) movement of feet or wheels; the squeak of rubber tires and soles on ice; the shhh-shhh of ice skate blades; the hisssss of a sneaky snake who slithers and slides on their belly. Overall, an appropriate sound for treacherous, untrustworthy conditions. Slippery invites a feeling of discomfort and the instinct to withdraw, avoid; to go on the defensive.
But in Swedish, the refrain is different. “Watch out! The stairs are halkig today.” And suddenly the half-formed images from the mists of my unconscious take an entirely different shape. It’s not the maleficent, ill-willed nature of the surface that hits me first, but the animated arm-waving of someone hailing a cab (which can be compared to the exaggerated gestures of a cartoon character on ice or an oil slick); an enthusiastic friend trying to catch my attention and yelling “halloo!”; the hearty guffaws of a “haw, haw, haw.” Suddenly, a halkig set of stairs doesn’t seem intimidating—merely comical, or at least well-meaning.
Cultural attitudes towards ice are different along similar lines, though I suspect that’s a mere accident of coincidence. In the US, sidewalks are thoroughly shoveled and salted; maybe not so much out of genuine concern for fellow beings as much as the fear of a negligence lawsuit. Whether it concerns physical or fiscal health, ice is most definitely a threat and treated as such. In Sweden, ice is a fact of life: a handful of gravel and some winter shoes with good traction (maybe paired with Nordic walking poles) is the national response to ice. Slips and slides aren’t threats, but as facts of life, mostly harmless and mostly comical.
Swedish, of course, has other near-synonyms for “slip” that also begin with a sneaky sibilant “S.” To smyga is to steal away like a creeping thief or a con artist*; to slinka is to sneak off like a guilty child hoping to avoid punishment. But it’s halkig (and its corresponding verb, att halka) that’s reserved for the trials and tribulations of trying to get anywhere after a winter storm.
Watch out! Those stairs are halkig!
*And can we all stop and appreciate smyga‘s close resemblance to Sméagol, the name of the hobbit who became Gollum? It might be mere coincidence, or it might be the result of Nordic mythology’s influence on The Lord of the Rings. (I should note, however, that Tolkien was much more enamored of Finnish, and to a lesser extent Old Norse, than he was of contemporary Swedish. So the most likely explanation is just pure chance.)
11I moved to Sweden to be with JV, my long-term, long-distance partner. (The agonization I have over that particular word choice [“partner”] is worth another blog post, but not today.) He’s fluent in English and Swedish, and something like conversant in Dutch and Japanese. We mostly use English together, and we talk a lot about words.
The other day the topic of 2001: A Space Odyssey came up. I forget why, or whether we were speaking English or Swedish, but he mentioned the Swedish title: 2001 – Ett rymdäventyr.
“‘Ett rymdäventyr’? That’s kind of a crummy translation. It’s not a space adventure. That’s like some Buck Rogers stuff. You couldn’t just use ‘odyssey’ in Swedish?” I thought it over for a second and hazarded a guess. “Odysseyen?”
“I don’t know. The original Odyssey is an adventure, after all.”
“Yeah, but it’s also serious? Dramatic? Epic? An adventure isn’t necessarily those things. When we call something an odyssey in English, it’s usually something epic, or at least long.”
“I guess so. Huh.”
I looked it up just now, and if Swedish Wikipedia is anything to go by, it seems that the movie is indeed called 2001 – Ett rymdäventyr, but Clarke’s novel is 2001 – En rymdodyssé.
Do you think there’s a difference between “adventure” and “odyssey”? How is 2001: A Space Odyssey translated in your native language? Is it like Swedish, where there’s more than one translation?
I’ve written before about my secret dreams of becoming a translator. (I guess that makes them not so secret anymore.) Truthfully, there is some amount of translation that I do as an editor; many of the projects I work on are from EFL writers, and oftentimes in these cases, editing becomes the translation of the idea or concept that they’ve described into how a typical native speaker might phrase it. This is not to suggest that the manuscripts I work with are garbled messes. They are not! But there are levels of flow and idea organization that can be difficult to achieve in a foreign language–I’ve experienced this firsthand. When I look anything of at least some complexity that I’ve written in Swedish and think about how it would be translated back into English, the result is never a perfect alignment with what I originally had in mind. In fact, it’s often clunky and childish. The struggle is real.
The question is trickier when the English is not clunky or ambiguous; when it sounds like how a native or fluent speaker would actually phrase something; when not only the meaning but the stylistic intention is clear. Is this repetition of a word deliberate, or is it because the writer couldn’t quite reach for an acceptable synonym? Is this unorthodox usage intentional, or is it the result of a misunderstanding? (My Swedish friends will tell you that I default to menar (“mean” as in “intend”) instead of betyder (“mean” as in a neutral dictionary definition or logical consequence). While one could interpret this idiosyncrasy as a poetic attempt to give words or sentences souls and wills of their own, since that’s not entirely impossible to imagine, the truthful answer is that menar is just closer to “mean” and so that’s the one I hit upon when speaking.)
Generally speaking, I prefer to think of my editing as minimally invasive, especially when it comes to EFL clients. In my opinion, as long as your writing successfully communicates your intention, without ambiguity, unintended double entendre, or distracting word choices, then I will leave it untouched. I’m more than happy to recommend style guides and the like if you want to work on developing your English voice–but I want it to be your voice, not mine.
In my undergrad years, I took a fair amount of writing workshop courses. The final project in one of them was to re-read the entire corpus of work a given classmate had produced over the semester and write a little blurb on them and their style, as well as provide detailed, private feedback on their work overall (as opposed to the feedback provided publicly in workshop sessions). We didn’t get to pick our partners for this assignment; this was a mandate from the professor. To this day I’m not sure if it was a random selection or a deliberate pairing, or something in between.
I remember the classmate I was assigned fairly well, and the general tone of his work (abstract, experimental). I might have used the words “ethereal,” “dream-like,” and “otherworldly.” But what I remember really well is what he said about my writing: that I had a really distinctive voice, and that even without looking at the name on the piece he could tell which submission was mine. He phrased it as a negative, and while at the time I was a bit miffed that he thought that was a bad thing, years later I finally understand that it’s rightfully a mixed blessing, especially when editing.
(That “distinctive voice” all but disappears when blogging; apparently I can only coax it out in the privacy of work that never has to see the light of day. As a result, I rarely feel like myself online. But anyway.)
The urge to go to town on a manuscript and move things around to how I would say them would be overwhelming if I ever let it out. In that respect, I’m like an editing Hulk. Or, more appropriately, when I edit, I’m Bruce Banner: by focusing purely on meaning and (sometimes) flow, I keep the HULK REWRITE urge at bay. I stay the mild-mannered word nerd and let your writing take the spotlight, for better and for worse.
I have been known to let the Hulk out, but only after people have explicitly asked me to do so. I recognize that writing, especially creative writing, is personal. There needs to be a level of trust and openness between writer and editor before those kinds of changes should even be on the table. The best creative writing comes from places of vulnerability and uncertainty; if you can’t be vulnerable and uncertain, the writing will fizzle out.
I’ve always been interested in foreign languages — my electives in high school were essentially all the music and foreign language classes I could fit in my schedule — so it’s not surprising that I would fall into teaching as a career.
I’ve made oblique references to studying Russian and Swedish elsewhere; I’ve also studied, in increasing order of fluency, Korean, German, and French. If you peek at my DuoLingo profile, you can see that I’ve also dipped my toes into Turkish. (It’s been a while with that one; I wouldn’t claim any kind of proficiency or knowledge.) While I’m just plain interested in languages, I think it’s important for language teachers to keep up their own language studies throughout their careers.
1. You can understand your students better.
If nothing else, when you have a better understanding of your students’ mother tongue, you can better understand where there might be L1 interference or confusion. My Korean students and friends, for example, often would use the verb “play” in a manner that, while not technically wrong, sounded odd, especially coming from someone older than 10. (“How was your weekend?” “It was good, I played with some friends.”) If I didn’t know any better, I would just be confused or annoyed by this persistent pattern in Korean English. But it’s an idiosyncrasy that’s a lot easier to understand because I know (a little bit) about Korean.
As it turns out, in Korean you can use the verb “to play” for everything from schoolyard games to company dinners (놀다) to just shooting the shit in the park, whereas in English we quickly outgrow it unless it’s in the context of a sport or a musical instrument. I hope that, if I taught my teenage Korean students nothing else, I got them to start using “hang out with” instead of “play with” when talking about their weekends.
2. You can remember what it’s like to be a student.
After a few years of pedagogical training and work, it can be really easy to fall prey to teacher hubris. Being a beginner again helps foster a sense of empathy with your students and their own struggles.
3. You can learn to be a better teacher.
This one is a little tricky if you’re not actually taking a class, but you can probably still be inspired by a good textbook or workbook. While there is plenty of EFL material written by plenty of highly qualified EFL experts, English isn’t the only language out there. The more you can branch out into other languages, the greater pool of inspiration you have to draw from. Maybe the worksheet you did for French is the perfect thing to adapt to your direct object lesson next week, and so on.
4. Your students can feel more comfortable with you.
Many argue for the immersive “target language only” philosophy; this is the approach I was taught when I did my CELTA. While I agree that the immersive (or faux-immersive) environment can be exactly the challenging situation that a lot of students need, and that it sometimes is the best practical situation (e.g. a class of international students who don’t all share the same mother tongue), I don’t think it’s always entirely appropriate. Some students are shy, or not quite confident in the target language–sometimes just knowing that they can ask a clarifying question or use a word in their mother tongue is the Dumbo’s feather that they need to take productive learning risks. The more languages you know at least a little bit about, the more students you can reach.
So I study languages for all of these reasons, but also just because it’s something I’m interested in. I’m not the most diligent student, I’ll admit, but I still make an effort. I’ll get into my own study habits and schedule in another post. But for now, I’ll leave things here.
It took me a long to realize it, but I love organization. Specifically, I love record-keeping: diaries, lists, even some sad attempts at scrapbooking. One of my favorite record-keeping tools is GoodReads. Reading is important to me, and being able to keep track of what I read, when I read it, and what I thought about it is immensely satisfying for reasons I can’t really identify. Since 2007, everything I’ve read has been meticulously rated and catalogued. One unintended result of this records obsession is that I can effortlessly track my reading habits and trends. What were my favorite and least favorite books in a given year? What did I read the most of?
My Favorite Books of 2015
I gave only four 5-star reviews last year: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For the Time Being (quite recent), NoViolet Buluwayo’s We Need New Names (also quite recent), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (not so recent), and Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas (also not so recent).
February 2015: Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
It’s been my goal for the last few years to read every novel on the TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list, which is how I stumbled across Under the Volcano. As a revered English classic, the book needs no selling, no praise, no recommendation.
What struck me was Lowry’s complex and intricate prose and the examination of expatriate life. Having lived for a few years in South Korea, the genre of “expats and tourists behaving badly” holds a special place in my heart: The Sun Also Rises, The Sheltering Sky, Tropic ofCancer, and Giovanni’s Room were some of my favorite reads in my tour of 20th century English literature. Under the Volcano is part of that genre, but also more. It’s a lyrical character study, a sympathetic, heart-wrenching exploration of alcoholism and interpersonal relationships, and a study of Mexican politics in the 1930s.
May 2015: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
I think the only reason A Tale for the Time Being isn’t on the TIME Top 100 list is because it was published in 2013 and the TIME list was assembled in 2005. I hope so, anyway.
In brief, A Tale for the Time Being is about a woman in Canada, Ruth, who finds and reads a diary that washed up along the coast. It turns out to be written by a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, some years earlier.
Of course it’s also about much more than that. There’s prehistoric flora, quantum entanglement, philosophy, Zen monks, and insects (among others). But everything falls under that found diary and Ruth’s relationship to it.
Ozeki displays an incredible technical range. She ends up writing from the perspective of five different people (not all of them are equally prominent; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the book focuses primarily on two of them, so the book is much more focused than it sounds like it would be with five different protagonists) and gives them all incredibly distinct and personal voices. There are other metatextual indications when the writing shifts perspective, like a different font or a chapter title or so on, but Ozeki gives each of them a strong enough voice that you would be able to tell anyway.
A Tale for the Time Being is not only a technical achievement, though. Ozeki also creates a compelling story. After rationing out portions of the book like literary chocolate, at maybe halfway through I just binged and read the whole thing. I might have cried. (As in: I cried.)
If you’re in the mood for experiments with narrative form, bildungsroman, or a sampling of Japanese history and philosophy, A Tale for the Time Being is for you.
December 4th, 2015: We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
This book was a mostly-random selection from the “world literature” shelf at the library. “Mostly-random” because I’d heard a little buzz about it beforehand; enough that I checked this book out when I couldn’t find anything from my TIME Top 100 list. (It seems Stockholm biblioteket’s copy of The Buddha of Suburbia is lost forever.) Like A Tale for the Time Being, I think We Need New Names would be a strong contender for an updated and more diverse TIME Top 100 list.
We Need New Names is about the Zimbabwean Darling, first as a child in Zimbabwe and later as a teenager in the United States. Bulawayo’s short story “Hitting Budapest” won the Caine prize, and she later expanded it into a novel. The book lends itself to comparisons with Adichie’s Americanah; I think readers who like one will like the other. The difference (aside from setting) is in focus: Bulawayo focuses on details and short episodes, leaving much implied or suggested, while Adichie went for a grand epic of everything. Bulawayo’s voice is also unique and clear. For a sample, you can read “Hitting Budapest” online.
December 27th, 2015: Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist
This one was a reread for me. You might recall my earlier lament that Lagerkvist English translations are few and far between. Barabbas is one of his works that has an English translation, and a good one at that. That’s how I originally read it in university. Last year I picked up a copy from the library to give it another go, this time in the original Swedish. Lagerkvist’s style is sparse and straightforward, and the novel itself is quite short, so it was good Swedish practice for me. Likewise the English translation would be good English practice.
Barabbas is the story of Barabbas, the criminal who walked free while Christ was crucified. Lagerkvist tells us the story of this marginal figure, exploring the issues of faith, doubt, and belief through Barabbas’s struggle to understand his fate and the nascent Christian faith.
In my private life, I follow a lot of book bloggers. Sometime last year, at least one of them brought The Room to my attention. No, not Tommy Wiseau’s “masterpiece.” This The Room is a novel by the Swedish Jonas Karlsson. The premise sounded interesting and I looked high and low for the original Swedish edition, only to turn up empty-handed. I shrugged and moved on to other things.
One of those other things was NetGalley. I finally bit the bullet and signed up a few months ago. I could rationalize that decision with “it’s important to stay abreast of literary trends when you’re an editor” but really I just wanted free ebooks. (When you live outside the US and Canada, you don’t get the free physical copies.)
Last week I noticed a new title in the Literary Fiction section: The Invoice, by Jonas Karlsson. I recognized his name immediately and requested the book as a way to give him a test run. I was also curious about how the translation was handled, as my luck with English translation of contemporary Swedish books (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) has been much worse than with English translations of Swedish classics (Doctor Glass). Where would The Invoice fall in this spectrum?
The answer: somewhere in the middle.
In the case of The Invoice, there was something clunky and choppy about the writing. I noticed it, frowned, and continued reading, because at least it didn’t use any archaic or awkward turns of phrases I had seen elsewhere, and by elsewhere I mean in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (No one uses “anon” anymore; at least, not to mean “soon.”) I eventually stopped noticing the choppiness, but only because something bothered me even more: an uncomfortable mix of American and British English.
I’m all in favor of standardizing English; it would make my job (both as a tutor and as an editor) that much easier. But we haven’t accomplished that standardization yet, and while usage may dictate rules, I don’t think individual publishers deciding on their own “blends” will successfully further the International English cause. When it comes to The Invoice, this blend was:
So we had a character walking into a gray granite building, taking a lift up to the eleventh floor, and talking to a Mr. Something-or-other.
This is a minor quibble on my part, I realize. Once I figured out was going on, I was able to put my discomfort in a box and read the story for the sake of the story. It certainly didn’t hamper my understanding in any way. But I think it’s a point worth discussing: when translating into English, how much should consistency and localization matter?
After all, I had no trouble understanding the writing. The differences between British and American English have been thoroughly documented, to the point where any adult English-speaking reader (usually) knows there are differences and can (usually) switch between the two without difficulty. And how many people, exactly, really notice those differences? Literature translated into English isn’t done for the exclusive sake of native speakers. There is a huge market for non-native speakers as well; readers who might not be attuned to the differences, or who might prefer “color” and “analyze” but also “lorry” and “dustbin.” Does that make the distinction between conventions nothing more than a shibboleth on par with “rules” about ending sentences in prepositions?
For me, not quite, though I couldn’t give you a satisfactory answer as to why. I just like consistency! (Hobgoblin of a little mind it may be.) If I had been working on this project, I would have favored American terminology and made the appropriate changes, with a comment explaining why.
I asked other editors (informally) and the majority response seemed to be that this was an inconsistency, and one that “should” be rectified, validating my own thought on the issue. A not-insignificant portion replied that they had been instructed to mix conventions in similar ways, or had heard of that happening to other editors. I was surprised to learn that this is something that deliberately happens, but if that’s how a publisher or author wants to roll, that’s what they’re allowed to do.
But something that bothers word nerds might not bother the general public, so I put this question out to you, Internet: how do you feel about mixing different English conventions?
Legal “CYA” moment: in case context didn’t make it clear, I received a free preview copy of The Invoice in exchange for honest feedback and review. The translation issue I described here (in as much as it’s an “issue”) may be addressed by the time the book goes to print.
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has been making the rounds on the book blog corners of the Internet for a while now, so I’m not that surprised to see it win the prestigious Man Brooker Prize. What is more surprising is the story of the English translator:
The book was translated by Deborah Smith, who only started teaching herself Korean in 2010.
She said she initially tried to translate the book for a publisher after only learning Korean for two years, but the translation was “awful”.
However, after publisher Portobello Books asked her if she had a Korean book that would be “right for their list”, she had another go at translating a year later.
Translating can be a tricky business. Even in neighboring languages there are discrepancies—when does “jag orkar inte” mean “I don’t want to,” and when does it mean “I don’t feel like it,” and when does it mean “I can’t be bothered”?—with languages from two different language families, the gulf will only widen. An artful translation that maintains all of the nuances of the original is a difficult task, and it seems like Smith succeeded. (“Seems like,” I say: I leave it to the bilingual readers to determine if she actually succeeded.)
I’ll admit, for a few years now it’s been my pipe dream to foster more translations of Korean literature into English. Smith’s success has rekindled the hopes I have for that pipe dream (there are Korean courses at Stockholms universitet! was my first thought on reading the news) and I find myself daydreaming a little. But maybe the daydream is more about attaining enough Korean fluency to enjoy a whole new realm of literature, and less about actually translating anything.
At any rate, there is certainly plenty of work to be done when it comes to Swedish literature in translation. There is far more in the Swedish literary tradition than Astrid Lindgren and gritty crime novels, after all. It’s a sad state of affairs when Pär Lagerkvist, one of the foremost Swedish authors of the last century and a Nobel prize winner, is still incompletely translated into English. I would love to bring his work, or help somebody else bring his work, to a larger international audience.
Again, congratulations to Han and Smith. I look forward to devouring (hah, hah) The Vegetarian in the near future, and I wish them much success, literary and otherwise.