“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Karin Tidbeck on svårmod, and translating herself

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

I recently finished Jagannath, a collection of short stories from Swedish author Karin Tidbeck which, I only realized at the end of the book, belongs to the rare and strange category of books that have been translated by their own author.

"Damn this is a good translation," I thought more than once as I read the stories. There's no guarantee that an author will have the chops in a second language to do themselves justice, but Tidbeck does. From her afterword:

Concepts and stories definitely work in different ways depending on language. For example, "Jagannath" and "Aunts" taste different, partly because of the sound of words associate with the stories. They are both concerned with anatomy, and the English terms I found appropriate were often softer and less abrupt. The word flesh, for example, can be drawn out and rolls around in the mouth; the Swedish analogue kött (sounds similar to the English shut) is hard and brutal in comparison, and also means "meat," which is not the feel I wanted. The same goes for intestine versus tarm, blubber versus späck and so on, with the exception of slemhinna which sounds far better than mucous membrane.

The whole afterword is an excellent discussion of her very strange stories. I've been putting off writing anything about her, but just today realized that she's talking at the upcoming Bookworm festival, first on March 20th, 8pm, with Jacek Dehnel and Andrej Blatnik, and again on the 22nd, 6pm, talking with Fei Dao about the fantastic.

Tidbeck may have something we Chinese translators can borrow as well. Again from the afterword:

And then there's the melancholy. The beloved Swedish word svårmod translates into "hardship mood," which translates into a sort of despairing acceptance of the facts of one's existence… But it also translates as what a friend of mine called "smiling through tears." It defies concrete description, but it shines through in much of our culture, a moody Bergman sibling in the back seat of the Volvo, sighing at the sunset.

So: svårmod as a translation of Yan Lianke's 受活?

Tidbeck ends with something that could be adopted as every translator's evening prayer:

"I have tried to convey all of these things, and more. Hopefully some of them made it across to you."


# 1.   

I'm not too sure most Swedish people would agree about the "smiling through tears" part. It definitely tilts more towards gloom than smiles.

Anna GC, March 10, 2013, 10:31a.m.

# 2.   

Aww, damn. That's what I get for romanticizing someone else's language...

 Eric Abrahamsen, March 11, 2013, 8:43p.m.

# 3.   

Well, actually that was her, wasn't it? We have another word called vemod, which I would think of as a bit lighter than svårmod, more melancholy.

Anna GC, March 12, 2013, 11a.m.

# 4.   

Not to belabor this, but for my own amusement, would you briefly explain the meaning of the relevant bits? "svår", "ve", and "mod"? Assuming it actually breaks down that way?

 Eric Abrahamsen, March 12, 2013, 11:40a.m.

# 5.   

I'm not really an ethymologist (if that's even what it's called in English), but: vemod is a loanword from old German, wehmut. Ve means dispair, misery, misfortune. Vemod, however, is usually defined as a kind of longing sadness. You can use ve it on its own. Ve! would be something like Alas! or Woe! (well, I guess woe is the same word, isn't it?)

Mod would have the same origin as mood, the way you feel, spirit, state of mind, feelings.

Svår means difficult but also pain, hardship, suffering (German schwer, old English sweer). If you are svårmodig you are depressed, think dark thoughts, generally gloomy.

Basically, Swedish is like German or English, with a slightly different pronounciation. :-)

Anna GC, March 15, 2013, 4:52a.m.

# 6.   

Very cool! Thanks for the explanation…

 Eric Abrahamsen, March 17, 2013, 9:25p.m.


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