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.”