Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Softly and Slowly

Posted by Neal on June 18, 2010

I’ve been hearing about the unfortunate choice of words by Carl-Henric Svanberg, the Swedish chair of BP, after meeting with President Obama: “We care about the small people.” I didn’t know what was the big deal about it, such that it’s been getting media attention comparable to that given to BP’s out-of-control Gulf of Mexico gusher, but Lane Greene (writer of The Economist‘s new language blog, called Johnson) explained it well: The phrase “conveys either an aristocratic hauteur or a vision of tiny fishermen straight out of a David Lynch film, neither one of which BP’s chairman intended.”

All this discussion about a phrase that didn’t work so well when translated from Swedish to English reminded me of an email my dad sent me a couple of weeks ago. By the way, Dad (a retired chemical engineer in the oil and gas industry) has an opinion about this mother of all oil spills, too: It’s way, way past time to blow the well up, with nukes if necessary, and the only reason we haven’t heard more about this option (which has been used before) is that BP is still more concerned with protecting its investment in the well.

Where was I? Oh, right, Dad’s email. He wrote:

I am reading an English translation of a novel titled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by a deceased Swedish author named Stieg Larsson and translated by a guy named Reg Keeland (nationality unknown). I came across a sentence that sounded weird to me:

What he found was a wiry old man who moved softly and spoke even more slowly.

The weird thing about it was the adverb phrase even more slowly, which implies that there must have been some degree of slowness already mentioned, but the only other adverb in the sentence is softly. My hypothesis was that slowly and softly were translations of a single Swedish adverb, which was appropriate in Swedish for both moving and speaking. I kicked the question over to reader Ingeborg Nordén, who speaks Swedish, and she responded:

According to the online dictionary I checked, the Swedish adverb sakteliga can indeed mean both “softly” and “slowly”. The original author probably used that word twice in the sentence your father quoted … and the translator must have been uncertain about dealing with an “even more” which wouldn’t feel right in English.

So has anyone read this book in the original Swedish? Are we right?

Meanwhile, what could the translator have done to make this work in English? In English, we can compare different adjectives; for example, “You ain’t as green as you are young”, but it’s a bit harder to do it with different adverbs. It sounds awkward to say things like, “He speaks as well as he writes poorly.” And it’s pretty dicey when you compare adjectives with adverbs, too: “If only we swam as well as we look good.” Larsson’s sentence would turn into something like, “a wiry old man who moved softly and spoke even more slowly than he spoke softly.” It sounds pretty bad, but perhaps better than, “who moved softly to degree X, and spoke slowly to degree Y, Y greater than X.”

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11 Responses to “Softly and Slowly”

  1. The Ridger said

    “Reg Keeland” is the UK pen-name (do translators have pen names?) of Steven Murray, the name he uses when the target is American rather than UK English. He was born in Seattle and lives in Albuquerque now. He’s got a blog – you could ask him!

  2. Reg said

    Hi Neal,
    Man, it is hard to ride herd on all the misinformation that pops up on the Web. I was born in Berkeley, and I’ll be happy to answer questions about any locution in the Millennium series, if you give me a page number and tell me which book it’s in. The name “Reg Keeland” was used only for these books because my original American translation was severely “edited” and I was not given a chance to rebut the changes. See my blog or write to me: bloozshooz at gmail dot com.

  3. Reg said

    OK, I found it. This one seems to be a poor reference by Stieg as well as a change by the editor. My original version:

    What he found was a wiry old man who moved quietly and spoke even more slowly.

    Stieg’s Swedish said:

    … det han fann var en senig gubbe som rörde sig stillsamt och talade ännu långsammare.

    The UK editor, who does not read Swedish, changed “quietly” to “softly,” even less of a parallel. And with “even more slowly” I think Stieg may have been referring back to the preceding clause that recalls the impression Inspector Morell made on Blomkvist during the police investigation. When that was I don’t recall, maybe some other reader does. I haven’t read the books in 4 years!

    • Neal said

      Thanks for dropping by, Reg, and for doing some tedious checking in order to satisfy our curiosity! So it looks like my hypothesis is not correct after all, and what really happened was a bit more complicated. And of course, reading the sentence out of context, one can’t tell if the “even more X” refers to something in the same sentence (leading to Dad’s question), or something further back.

  4. Reg said

    Neal,
    I just have to share this bit of Americana with you from the current issue of EW with TGWTDT on the cover:

    Travie McCoy’s review of Usher’s “OMG”:
    “When I first heard this, I was with a group of people all looking at each other like ‘What the f—?’ Will.i.am [who produced it] — he’ll go to these crazy places and we won’t get it, but two weeks after listening to it, you’re like, ‘This is amazing.'”

  5. The Ridger said

    If the adjective can mean both, he could have said “moved slowly and softly, and spoke even more so” or “moved very softly and spoke even more slowly”. For me, the real awkwardness is the “even”…

    I’ve read the book (my copy is lent out) and I can’t say that I noticed this. I certainly don’t remember it.

  6. Reg said

    Hi Ridger, I didn’t notice it either, nor did my wife who did the first pass edit. We were working at double speed back then because the film company was breathing down our necks. If Stieg had been alive I could have asked him about stuff, but as it was I just had to go with what he wrote and leave the line editing to those who came after. Many cooks were involved in these books, in both Swedish and English…

  7. ASG said

    Leaving aside the specific case for the moment — since I know nothing about the Swedish language or the novel in question — I’m wondering whether it’s possible to do what you’re attempting by finding an adverb that can apply to both of the verbs it’s modifying. It’s true that English has no word that means both “soft” and “slow,” but we do have words that can be applied to both moving and speaking, and which may give the desired impression about both actions. Consider:

    “… who moved gently and spoke even more gently.”

    That sounds OK to me. Or perhaps, if we want to retreat into the relative safety of adjectives:

    “… his movements slow and his speech even slower.”

    Personally, I must confess to some affection for a sentence like:

    “… who moved gently and spoke even gentlier.”

    But that probably wouldn’t fly in literary prose!

  8. Very interesting, Neal! Personally, I can’t get past the first part of the sentence: “What he found was.” Larsson relied WAY too much on those structures. They’re okay sometimes, of course, but better writers tend to favor making the action verb the main verb: “He found.” (Larsson also relied too much on the structure: “It wasn’t until blank that blank.” Very annoying.)

    Re “moved softly and spoke even more slowly”: You’re right. It sure seems that the difference between the two got blurry. But, overall, I don’t see this as a translation issue. I consider it a copy-editing issue. Even if the translator nailed it exactly, the copy editor should have taken the reins.

    Is it really worth the extra words to say that the man’s slowness of movement exceeded his softness of speech (however one migh quantify those things)? Or could you create a more vivid reader experience by simply saying a “man who moved softly and spoke slowly” or, better yet, vice versa? (Personally, I’d argue that the whole description failed. “Wiry” is trite and, to me, would accompany jerky or stiff motion and shrill or gravelly speech. Larsson would have done much better to show us his motions and speech rather than tell us.)

    Oy, you got me started! Anyway, very interesting blog post!

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