Lost in translation: A Man Called Ove

There’s a lot to like in Fredrik Backman’s novel about a cantankerous widower in contemporary small-town Sweden.  It’s a neat story with an unusual protagonist and it will no doubt be made into a lovely film with someone like Stellan Skarsgård in the title role.

But my God, the translation!

Henning Koch, who did it, is a Swede who (according his own blog) has lived all over the English speaking world and writes books in English so I have no doubt that his command of English is superb.  But – as it turns out – that does not mean he can translate someone else’s words well.

If his intention was to leave the translation a tiny bit “off” so that the reader is reminded every couple of pages that he is reading a translation, then he has succeeded.  I honestly don’t know.  Perhaps it was intentional.  There is a slightly odd, spare, staccato rhythm to the prose that I presume is the author’s own, and you kind of get used to it.  Maybe the jarring translation is meant to accompany that.

I suspect not, though.

oveWhat are we to make of similes like “Her temper could flare up like saloon doors in a John Wayne movie”?  I cannot check whether the author or the translator is responsible for such a weird image, but I suspect it’s the translator.  How the hell can saloon doors flare up?

Or take this one: “Jimmy wolfed the sandwich down in one bite.”  That’s just silly, not to mention impossible.  I happen to know, thanks to Mrs W, that there exists in Swedish the expression “eat something in one bite,” which is of course figurative. We would say, “to wolf” or “to scoff” or something.

And worst of all is the swearing.  There’s not much: a few “bloody”s and (I think) one “fuck”.  The Swedes don’t swear much anyway, least of all men like Ove.  But getting the rhythm and tone of English swearing right is crucial, and Henning Koch has a poor grasp of it, and of other colloquialisms .

I cannot understand why someone at the publisher, Sceptre Books (part of Hodder & Stoughton), did not pick up on this.  Its not just me: a glance at some of the one- and two-star reviews at Amazon shows that other people have noticed the off-kilter translation.

It’s a shame.  It marrs an otherwise sweet and funny book.


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5 Responses to “Lost in translation: A Man Called Ove”

  1. Brandie Says:

    Ugh! Thank you!! I’m listening to the audio book; the sheer number of similes ALONE are becoming as excruciating as nails sliding down a chalkboard as if bareskinned legs on a hot metal slide like… (case in point). And then yes, often they are just plain unhelpful, making it more of a mental exercise to understand the adjective-adorned comparisons than the main point itself. I do like the story so far though, and Ove… And Backman’s insights into human nature. Aside from the occasional incredulous thought, “Is this what bestsellers are like?? I could totally write a book!” (followed by my firing the damn inner critic that’s held me down all these years).
    So thanks for sharing theses thoughts. I just stumbled here by googling “Fredrik Backman simile” in now-consoled hopes of feeling less alone.

  2. Ross Welford Says:

    THanks for stopping by the blog! By the way, your “damn inner critic”? I listened to mine for far too long. He knows nothing.

  3. Henning Koch Says:

    This is interesting. Alas, I am not at liberty to speak my mind. Wish I was. Note on comment above: you may think you could write a bestseller, but chances are you could not. A bestseller has little to do with “writing great fiction” and everything to do with everything else…
    PS. I know a lot about swearing, the trouble is, translators have to try to reflect the style of the piece they are translating.
    PS2. Swedes swear. A lot. They just tend not to blaspheme, that is for a good historical reason relating to the power of the church in Sweden. Instead they curse about the Devil. This is not always easy to translate. There is no “f…k” in use in Swedish. We don’t use it. Inserting it into a translation has to be a conscious decision. With Backman we did not feel there was a good reason for it, all in all.

  4. Blair Backman Says:

    I could not disagree more with your assertion. i don’t speak Swedish(third generation Canadian) but have had 70 years experience living in a Scandinavian community in western Canada (as well as a great devotee of “Norskfest” in Minot N.D.) The tone, phrasing and pacing of Mr Koch’s translation is 100%.

    I had been of the impression that the genius was all Mr Fredrik’s but I am willing to assign Mr. Koch some of the credit for these modern masterpieces.

    I hate to accuse you of having no soul, but only someone who didn’t cry when old yeller died could have written such a criticism.

    note: I am no known relative of Fredrik, I presume his surname (like mine) is an artifact of surnames being arbitrarily assigned in the Swedish Militia during the third quarter of the nineteenth century to replace the customary Hanson, Larson, Anderson, Peterson etc that had previously been the norm.

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