Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Swedish Swearing and Translation Travesties

While websurfing during the winter break, I found, among other interesting reading, what appears to be a Master's thesis by a student at Luleå university, Katarina Källhammer, on Swedish literary translation. Her study, a 32-page work, was entitled "A Study of the English Translation of Populär Musik från Vittula (Popular Music)". Since studies on Swedish-English translation are not all that easy to come by, I clicked in and read it eagerly. Källhammer spends a great deal of time analyzing the problem of swear words and the difficulty of rendering swear words appropriately, and she examines various ways that Swedish swear words have been rendered into English.
Now we all know that translating swear words is not easy. Obviously, if I translated a line of a contemporary work as "Fie, seventeen!" the English language reader is going to react, probably in an extremely confused manner, to this literal rendition of mild Swedish swearing, pretty much equivalent to "Darn it!" The strongest Swedish word for excrement, spelled exactly the same as its English cousin, is also considered mild and is used as an intensifier, to the amusement of English-speaking students of Swedish. Quite frankly, the translator would render this word as the innocuous "very" and be at the exact level of the Swedish usage.
In her essay, Källhammer critizises Laurie Thompson at one point for "protecting" English speakers by not rendering some taboo words in their most virulent forms at certain places in the work. I doubt very much that this would be the case, as in other places in the work, Mr. Thompson has availed himself of most of the English language's rich f-word vocabulary. Anyone using any aspect of the f-word in a literary work is not protecting anybody from anything, so something else must be going on.
Magnus Ljung has written a wonderful work called "Om Svårdomer" (All about Swear Words), and his study will give us a clue as to the situation we are encountering here. He begins his work with swearing in Swedish and ends with swearing in American English, recognizing that swearing is completely different in the British Isles and the North American continent. Ljung progresses from a few pages to a major discussion (three pages for Swedish, fourteen for American English). Quite simply, there are not as many Swedish ways of swearing compared to English ways of swearing. In fact, the Swedish language is now borrowing English obscentities wholesale.
Let's take the cliche of piano keys for a moment. I see Swedish swearing occupying the middle three octaves and English swearing taking the entire register. That is, we have swearing in much milder forms and in much more severe forms than our Swedish-speaking counterparts. I am often amazed that Swedish speakers use English swear words in abandon (indeed, the influence of films and music from the Angl0-Saxon language realm has had a great impact), but I am also amazed at the apparent lack of understanding these words have on the native English-speaking ear (not to mention the inadvertant humor if, say, the word for excrement is pronounced "sheet", though lately, I admit, that mispronunciation is less common). It seems to me that the native Swedish speaker has attempted to bring the English swearing system into the Swedish register, and cannot comprehend the English-speaker's reaction. One has heard English-speakers called prudish and puritain from the Swedish side in this regard, but I counter that the Swedes do not fully comprehend our many levels of swearing, and leap to the most severe examples as normal swearing as opposed to extraordinary swearing, if I may call swearing extraordinary.
Now, having grown up in a Waukegan of many ethnic groups and a large working class base being devestated by a recession that began in 1970 and has kept going to this day, I was not raised with a firewall between me and the swearing of my culture and I can also swear with the best of them as needed. (Just get me talking straight Waukegani dialect, and you'll see.) So I hardly see myself as puritanical, and therefore would not avoid the f-word if necessary in a translation (or if I had just crashed the car). Nevertheless, I have noticed that if a Swede is translating from Swedish to English, the first word of choice for rendering a Swedish obscenity will be the f-word, ignoring the entire levels of swearing beneath that register. I believe this is a reaction to the borrowing of this word into the Swedish language at a lower level of offense than it has in its native English habitat as well as its ubiquity in present-day spoken Swedish. Ms. Källhammer's criticism of Mr. Thompson for not leaping to the most severe word in the lexicon can be understood in that light. The word itself does not need to be so severe in an English-speaking context, because it is not as severe in Swedish. So watch your language! And, if you are Swedish-speaking, take some time to peruse Ljung's enlightening book.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't read nor write in Swedish or Finnish, but I believe many of the swear words in that book are Finnish in origin. Finnish has a wide variety of swear words. My partner, incidentally, is an ethnic Finn who has been raised in Sweden. Although he has become a Swedish citizen and speaks Swedish 99% of the time, favors swearing in Finnish because he believes Finnish swear words are the most satisfying to say. "Perkele" which is used in the book, is a Finnish swear word on the level of the f-word in English, though its translated meaning seems rather weak in English. It's basically means "go to the devil." Most of the coarsest swears have to do with the devil or hell, whereas anglo swear words seem to do more with copulation. Another seemingly mild swear in Finnish is "heista nupa" which means "smell my belly button" but its as strong as saying "kiss my ass." There are more of which I don't know--I am an American Finn who does not speak the Finnish language. I believe the Swedish translation of the books included the Finnish swear words. And also, I know Waukegan well. There are many American Finns there.

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Anonymous said...

"heista nupa" this is "haista napa" and its not offensive at all.if you would say "haista vittu" it would be as offensive as "smell a cunt"

Anonymous said...

vittu cunt,pussy,twat.
vittunaama fuckface,clitlips.
paska shit
etc etc..
but!
none of this "yo mamma"
or god cursing.
thank you

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Daivd said...

In some ways, it almost seems to me that English and Swedish swaer words are in complementary distribution: there are plenty of mild curse words in both languages, but in English there seems to be a big gap, and then there is the f-word. In Swedish, the typical swear words (fan, jävlar etc.) come in somewhere in the middle. This means that if you're going to translate "jävla helvete" you could either choose 'bloody hell' or 'f-ing hell', while the stylistic value strikes me as being somewhere inbetween.