On the difficulty of translating Tove Jansson

This is part of what may become a sort of series; notes on the difficulties presented by some of the books I am reading. In particular, they are examples of the discomfort I feel when I know what something means but I don’t know how to translate it.

Tove Jansson is a writer who ought to be easy. Her meaning is always clear and she uses simple declarative sentences that consist of nothing but the proper words in their proper places. But the balance and rhythm of her sentences is almost impossible to reproduce. They just take a different route to their end than is possible in English. How to translate this into English, a language which wouldn’t let you put words in the same order, even if they had the same sounds?

I know that her stories and her characters carry over. But there is a rhythm and a tension to her style that just doesn’t. Swedish is a stiff and rather weighty language: English is by contrast light and floppy. Trying to preserve the rhythm of Swedish in English feels like trying to fly cast with string.

Here are the last paragraphs of “Fair Play”, in Swedish, with the tricky bits marked up:

Jonna utbrast: Visst förstår jag! Och hon gav sig in i en lång ivrig utredning om illustrationens bety­delse, det omsorgsfulla arbetet, koncentrationen, behovet av att få vara ostörd för att få ett gott ar­bete till stånd.
Mari lyssnade inte så noga, en äventyrlig tänk­barhet höll på att ta form; möjligheten av en allde­les egen ensamhet i frid och förväntan, nästan ett slags lustighet som man kan tillåta sig när man är välsignad med kärlek.

Here’s a more or less literal translation, written out anachronistically after the notes that follow it.

Jonna burst out: “Of course I understand!” and she threw herself into a long and eager disquisition on the importance of illustration, the painstaking labour, the concentration, the need to be undisturbed so as to get a good piece of work done.
Mari listened without attention; a world of bold thoughts began to form: the possibility of a solitude all her own in peace and anticipation, almost a kind of delight which you can allow yourself when you are blessed with love.

Perhaps because I am not a native Swedish speaker I find that even the simplest words in it are, so to say, unclichéd, unknotted and spread out for my admiration when they are well used. “Omsorgsfull” translates almost directly as “careful” but when I hear “careful” I hear its primary meaning as an injunction: “Be careful!” or “Watch out”; what I would, as a parent in Swedish, have expressed as “Akta!”; whereas the Swedish word has for me connotations of taking care, of patient painstaking lovingness.

Utredning is an enquiry; usually used of a government or other official enquiry. In this context I suppose I would use “disquisition”; the point, of course, is that Jonna is flung away from the moment of emotional communication: what she “of course understands”, which is that she is free to go to Paris and talks instead of something “officially” admissible. I have no idea how to pack all that into one word of English.

An äventyrlig tänk­barhet is more obviously difficult, and possibly easier. It’s a bold, or an adventurous, thinkableness. It’s what stout Cortez saw. “A world of brave new thoughts” perhaps. Nah, that’s wrong. It’s a very Mumin moment, though this is not of course a Mumin book.

And then of course there are the repeated alliterations of the next sentence: egen ensamhet i frid och förväntan, though the last two es of alldeles also belong in this run of sound. The sense is clear: “a solitude of her own, in peace and anticipation”. And it’s fine. But there is still something missing.

That’s taken me about an hour: time well spent, but hardly well paid. I feel a weight of responsibility for all the translators on whom I must sit in judgment over the next two months.

For reference, here’s Thomas Teal’s version:

“Of course I do!” Jonna burst out, and she launched into a long, earnest discussion of the importance of illustration, the painstaking labour, the concentration, the need to be undisturbed if you’re going to do your best work.
Mari was hardly listening. A daring thought was taking shape in her mind. She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility. She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love.

“Peaceful and full of possibility” preserves the alliteration very nicely and brings out the sense.

Enough. I need to earn a living.

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