I started reading this book last week during my mother’s visit, and I was probably thirty-five pages in when I stopped and asked her if she read a lot of Swedish authors. She told me she hadn’t (and claimed it wasn’t at all because she was Norwegian); she wondered why I had asked such a question, and I said I was having a little trouble getting into Jonasson’s book. I felt, I told her, the same way I did when I tried to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – everyone told me it was great, but I couldn’t get further than the first sixty pages. The style was just so…reserved.
I was struggling with the same issue when it came to this book. I liked the protagonist well enough that I was going to plow onward, but it made me wonder if these two books were a reflection of a larger element of modern Swedish literature. Was it common to feel removed from both the action and the characters in an almost clinical way? My mother considered this for a moment and then said, “Do you remember the joke your grandmother used to tell? ‘How can you tell an extroverted Swede? When he shakes your hand, he’s looking at your shoes rather than his own.'” I remembered. “Well,” she waved her hand, “there you go then.”
I had to think about that. We happened to be at a red light at the time, and my mother had plenty more to say about my question, including the pearls of wisdom, “maybe you should do some research,” but let’s be honest – no. It’s 150 thousand degrees here. I’m still wearing sleep shorts at eleven o’clock every morning. There will be no research. It’s too hot for me to spend an afternoon trying to decide how legitimate articles I find on the internet might be.
I did go to the trouble of asking three friends from Sweden whether they thought this was a trend or just a coincidence, but apparently, none of them read. Well, they read, but they mostly read fiction in Swedish, which sparked another topic of interest – is it possible that the translation to English could have so altered the style of the original text? Is it particularly difficult to translate certain idioms or cultural norms from one language to another? I’ve read plenty of books translated from French, Spanish, and Portuguese, and they seem emotionally compatible with what I expect from many American writers (although writers from other English-speaking countries don’t always resonate in quite the same way for me).
When I’ve read Russian writers, I’ve also been told there is some flattening of what the original text says. In college, I took a course on Russian fiction, and the star of the class was an exceptionally annoying – and insightful – student from Moscow who took over each and every class to lecture us about the problems with the translations we were reading. I sort of enjoyed the text myself, but I could understand where she was coming from – we were reading things into the stories that were not there (and missing things that were) because of the translation. By the end of semester, I felt like I was beginning to recognize some of the subtleties found in the best translations, but many of the writers still sounded oddly similar.
I imagine this is what happens when English books are translated around the world as well. The nuance of the language and the author’s intent are obscured by cultural concepts we can’t even find the words for. Possibly, translators who are intimately familiar with more than one language and culture eventually stop noticing the massive gulf between them, and we end up with books translated accurately, and even beautifully, but without an eye to the exquisite detail – that essence connecting the human experience.
Despite that, I’m glad I’ve held on with this book because 150 pages in, I don’t mind its unfamiliar grasp. The story is absolutely compelling (enough so that I ignored Game Night to keep reading), and Jonasson’s sense of humor appeals to my Scandinavian sensibilities (“as opposed to,” my mother says, “your Italian melodrama roots?” Yes. As opposed to them.) Now if I could just fill the bathtub with ice, I’d have the perfect place to finish this unintentional foray into linguistics…
For more about Jonas Jonasson, go here.