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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Short

Translating the Swedish Existential: A dramaturgical reflection

The “law of Jante” is very much a known phenomenon in Scandinavia. It’s talked about, people relate with it or in opposition to it, and can be used as a throwaway term to easily summarise a reason for something. Janteloven is originally a Danish word derived from a fictional text and it outlines ten commandments of conformity; rules that can be used to explain the perceived socialistic societies in the Nordic countries. It is typically about not standing out in the crowd and keeping balance within a collective body.

Whilst working with a basic translation of Johan Svensson’s Den du är (The One You Are) I had to figure out the best way to express a “Jante country”. I proposed the word “uniformed”, since it is for a British/Irish context, and most people will have had experience of being literally in uniform during their schooling. It is also quite likely that they faced challenges to individual expression with shoes, coats, or stylings of said uniform that are not strictly up to code. Ironic that Sweden, a perceived Jante country, does not typically have school uniforms.

This was one of the easier translations to make between the two versions of this text, and it helps that Brits can be quite socially similar to their Scandi-neighbours. Try complimenting a Brit for something they did and they would insist on how it wasn’t really them that did it but other forces at play. It was the more abstract, existential, and ultimately personal expressions of experience, such as: tangled up vs. tangled out, blind bubbles, and a shadowy light, that were more tricky to capture in English.

The One You Are is an avant-garde existential play made up as a collection of vignette texts and dialogues dealing with a world that is at once so much bigger than you, but also a world that is extremely private and insular: the self-world. Supporting the translation of it created a new form of intimacy with Johan; my work was about discerning a view-point and perspective that is at once familiar (from our previous joint-artistic endeavours), but also alien since it’s a perspective that doesn’t always reflect how I see the world. This work had me confront existential concepts two-fold. An external existentialism that centres around the life and perceptions of Johan, and an internal one that evolves through my relationship to the text. The familiar lies in the text as a queer text, the characters as queer bodies. Queerness, the antithesis of the law of Jante. The foreign lies in the structuring of the world by Johan’s hand, a structure that is often the antithesis of how I would personally narrate the world.

This form of dramaturgy requires the building of an inbetween space: a space for being the subjective self (as the expert of the culture into which the play is being translated) and the objective non-self (so as to not remove the authorial self of the original writer). In this space, you are not dealing with the act of creating, but instead of recreating. Creativity here is secondary action, or perhaps what we are doing is a secondary form of creativity. In this space, one must exist in flux, constantly navigating whether your advice or changes are creating opportunity for authenticity, or overpowering originality for homogeneity.

This experience highlighted to me the universal commonalities of the queer experience and the stressors of internalised or external crises. However, the way that these are dressed up in language and expression can just as quickly make those commonalities unfamiliar and jarring. It leaves one asking “is this really what that feels like?”, or “why can’t we also explain it this way?”.

I am very fortunate to have close contact with Johan about his work. Not all translators or dramaturgs might have this luxury. We spent nine hours on video call going through line by line, finessing fixes I made, de-translating certain words that had been misunderstood prior, and challenging each other about modes of perceiving; what we can get away with leaving as is, and what will definitely be interpreted strangely by an Anglophonic audience. During this time, I could sometimes occupy the inbetween space confidently, allowing feedback to be taken objectively and dealt with smoothly. Other times, my subjective self would take up too much room leaving me doubting about whether or not I actually knew English as intimately as I had thought, making me question how much of my knowledge has been shaped through my native connection, or lost through my adulthood lived abroad in non-English contexts.

Previously, I have conducted research with third-culture people: those that have grown up in a different cultural context than that from which their parents have come from and still enact at home. The space in which they are forced to create themselves is hybrid creating conflicts and creativity in their sense of self. It is another kind of inbetween space. This space is typically far more dominated by the subjective self, but modes of rationalising the experience also requires the objective non-self (though more to a lesser degree). I would argue the dramaturgical space requires more voice of the objective non-self, so as to ensure that a personal voice doesn’t override the original voice, however, we have the privilege of knowing that our subjective selves cannot be made invisible, so we accommodate them in this inbetween space.

The existential questions raised in The One You Are are deeply human questions that in many ways transcend cultural barriers. Yet still, there is something uniquely Swedish in the cultural form of the play. We spend the entire play with two characters, strangers to each other, and through this we are met with the Swedish social enigma. It is often talked about by foreigners in Sweden that Swedes are cold, difficult to discern, and polite but always at an arm’s length away. It can be difficult to make friends with Swedes. However, once you persist and break through that wall, then they can be very caring, affectionate, and loyal friends. This carries through to the text, the dialogue keeps the characters very much at a distance that can sometimes be frustrating to outsiders, especially those from cultural contexts that are more talkative, warm, and welcoming. The subtleties of what is “really” being said are buried deep, or sometimes not there at all because the conversation has ended already in the mind of one of them.

Also, the external forces that are subjecting these characters to their line of questioning of the existential is very much in relation to the law of Jante. These issues that the characters are facing have the guise of Swedish contexts, Swedish ways of doing, and Swedish society. The subjects of these questions would be very different if we were to change these characters to two Brits standing in a queue, but the real matter of the questions might be very much the same.

Ultimately, Johan and I are happy with the way the English script turned out. It offered a great opportunity to interrogate how we both use language and to what end. We left learning new things about our own languages through the challenge of external eyes. We found pleasure in the way that we can play with words and to what extent we could make things up within the restrictions that grammar and linguistic cultures dictate.

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