Inventing an Idiolect: Report from a Workshop on Translating Jonas Hassen Khemiri On 16 February of this year, a number of members of the Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association (SELTA) and postgraduate students from the Department of Scandinavian Studies at University College London (UCL) met in London for an afternoon-long translation workshop, in which we discussed our own draft translations of a chapter from a contemporary Swedish novel. The idea for this workshop was initially prompted by a query sent in to SELTA by Nichola Smalley, a UCL PhD student, concerning the strategies translators use when translating texts with highly vernacular language, such as those by the increasingly prominent Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri.

This seemed like an excellent opportunity for translators to exchange ideas on practical approaches to a text. I set about selecting a suitable chapter from Khemiri’s novel Ett öga rött (Norstedts, 2003), which has not yet been published in a full English translation. A total of ten people prepared their own translations of the same sample chapter and submitted their translations via email. These documents were then anonymised, and the entire batch of files was emailed out to the participants so that everyone in the group could look through the set of ten versions prior to the workshop date.

The opportunity to compare ten independently prepared translations of the same passage provided a clear illustration of the often-repeated maxim that every translation is an interpretation. No two translators’ versions of any given sentence were completely identical. Nor were the differences limited to minor variations at word and sentence level: when taken as a whole, the translations exhibited a great deal of variety in terms of their overall tone.

As Laurie Thompson helpfully pointed out in his introduction to his translation of the first few chapters of this book in SBR 2005:1, Halim, the narrator of Ett öga rött, deliberately uses language in a creative, non-standard way in order to construct an identity for himself distinct from mainstream Swedish culture. The key challenge for us as translators, then, was to render Halim’s non-standard features and slang in English in a way that retained his sense of creativity and did not sound merely ungrammatical.

When looking back over the translations during the discussion, many participants felt that they could have been bolder and more creative with their own translations. However, this desire to engage with, and attempt to recreate, the author’s own approach would have to be balanced in the real world against the expectations of various other parties: the author, who might have strong views on how his text ‘ought’ to look in English; the commissioning editor; the reading public, who might baulk at a book written in relentlessly non-standard English; and reviewers, many of whom seem to view a ‘smooth’ translation (whatever that means!) as the gold standard.

There was a great deal of discussion concerning ways to treat culturally bound terms – particularly food items and place-names – as well as slang and ethnic slurs. Of course there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but for some terms, no approach seemed entirely adequate. Many cases involved a difficult trade-off between achieving a pleasing effect in English and conveying as much of the original nuance as possible. The different choices made by translators resulted in significant variation across the ten versions of the text.

One culturally bound term in the text that prompted a good deal of head-scratching was ‘hård bröd’ [sic] (literally, ‘hard bread’) – the term Halim, the narrator, uses for knäckebröd, which is sometimes rendered into English as ‘crispbread’. In actual usage, it is likely that British people would refer to that foodstuff by the brand name Ryvita, rather than using the generic term. If the translator decides to go with the more typical English term – i.e. the brand name – this creates a new problem later on in the text when Halim uses the phrase ‘trekantig hård bröd’ (literally, ‘triangular hard bread’) because Ryvita brand products are only available in rectangular pieces. One might query whether it is necessary to specify what kind of Swedish bread is under discussion: would it be sufficient to say ‘bread’ in this case, or would that lose some important local colour?

Another thorny term was svenne, an ethnic slur Halim uses to refer to white people who represent mainstream Swedish culture. Here, finding an English equivalent that conveys the full connotation of the insult is doubly difficult. Firstly, one could argue that the usual terms applied to white people in English (e.g. whitey, honky, paleface) do not carry the same sting. Secondly, what is needed is an insult specifically directed against white Swedes, and we simply do not have such a term in English. One possibility that was mooted was to retain the source-language slang term in cases where no satisfactory English equivalent was available, and to credit the reader with the ability to cope with the new term in context.

Although the sample chapter chosen for this workshop was under 1,000 words long, it generated more than enough discussion for an entire afternoon. The translation approaches discussed are surely relevant to many other literary texts, such as works that include dialect or other types of nonstandard language. We are grateful to the Scandinavian Studies Department at UCL for providing seminar rooms and refreshments for this workshop.

SELTA members have already expressed interest in participating in another such session. I was pleased to hear that even members who were unable to attend in person felt that they benefited from being able to compare their own translation with the versions submitted by other participants.

Ruth Urbom

Reading Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Ett öga rött (One Eye Red) for the first time, the main thing that struck me was the vividness of the language. In this I’m certainly not unique, but my particular fascination has grown, to the point at which I am now undertaking a PhD that was in some ways inspired by the deft complexity of Khemiri’s play on identity through words.

This was why I was so delighted at the prospect translation workshop based on an excerpt from the novel. It related directly to my research into the translation of non-standard language in Swedish literature, and gave me a chance to see how experienced translators would tackle a text that used language to a very specific end.

When it was published, the book sparked a passionate debate in the Swedish media. Many of the initial reviewers interpreted Khemiri’s novel as a portrayal of biographical experience, and the language as an authentic depiction of the voice of young multicultural Sweden. This claim of authenticity was one to which Khemiri voiced strong opposition, and gradually the discussion became more nuanced, as awareness of the creative, imaginative nature of his prose increased.

The complex relationship between spoken language and its literary representation is relevant to any translator working with a text that foregrounds vernacular language in the way Khemiri’s writing does. Representing spoken language in a written form brings with it an added complication, in that readers are asked to read what they usually only hear. This can be disruptive to the reading process, and can easily appear forced or even ridiculous. A talented writer can turn this to their advantage, honing their style to create a unique voice for their protagonist, as in the case of Khemiri. For the translator, though, this challenge may be even greater, as it is combined with more common translation challenges such as those mentioned by Ruth in the first part of this article: how do you tackle food terminology that is unfamiliar to the audience who will be reading the translation? How do you deal with racial slurs that have arisen in a very specific social context?

If the translations that emerged from this workshop are anything to go by, it turns out that everyone deals with it in a different way. Personally, I’m interested in investigating how young people use slang and non-standard speech, and working with them to produce exciting, dynamic translations that utilise the creativity of their linguistic innovation; whether this is viable as a long-term translation strategy is debatable. Other translators produced extremely strong translations that moved away from the slang you might hear on the street, instead featuring a kind of personal, made-up slang that was not reliant on existing forms.

Although this translation workshop dealt with a small excerpt from a single text, the exercise is relevant for translators working in any literature written in non-standard language. For me, the clearest lesson was that the key to translating a text like Ett öga rött is to be confident and consistent in your decisions, and to acknowledge that while there may be many alternatives, when the language of the original is so finely honed, only one will fit the voice you are trying to create.

I’d like to thank Ruth Urbom and the members of SELTA for an enjoyable and insightful afternoon. I look forward to the next UCL/SELTA translation workshop.

Nichola Smalley