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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