Translating Colloquialisms between Swedish and English

Translating Colloquialisms between Swedish and English

Translating Colloquialisms

Finally it was done. I clicked the “Send” button and in a few moments the text would reach my client.

A few days ago I had anxiety just as soon as I accepted this document translation assignment. It wasn’t a long translation, just a couple of sentences, really. The client was a small company in Santa Monica and they needed to translate a funny blurb from English to Swedish.

Blurbs quickly tell you what it’s all about, a sort of a tagline. In short the text said:
“Stop beating around the bush! Tell us what you really think about…”

But these few words were just enough to keep me up at night wondering if I really could translate a saying like “beating around the bush” into Swedish and make sense out of it. Sayings, puns, and rhymes are always tricky, and sometimes even impossible to translate. Hence, my love-hate relationship for advertising copy.

“Stop beating around the bush“  is just a saying, but the assignment meant a total overhaul, bordering on local custom copywriting. In addition, my text had to appeal to another culture, in a different way that meant that I could end up in linguistic and
cultural pitfalls. I wasn’t quite ready for that!

In terms of using the right meaning or saying at the right level, I had to find a connection to the product or brand and the target group. The target audience must identify with what is being said. Often it works fine to use a local meaning or saying, but more than often, it does not.

Just to fill you in: the Swedish saying for “beating around the bush” has a pinch of humor in it as well. We say “gå som katten kring het gröt” which word for word translates “walk like the cat around hot porridge”.

Swedish is particularly rich in colloquialisms that certainly add an extra spice and ponderosity to our language. However, people globally can’t understand the significance, and the saying certainly leaves room for countless misinterpretations and ridiculous misunderstandings when translating colloquialisms.

A funny saying can be a great ice breaker in social settings and sometimes in advertising as well, but a literal translation, I thought, was still not possible. Good results in advertising copy are rarely achieved by trying to make the translation as close to the original as possible. More often it requires sensitive language and fingertip adaptation with the right feeling and tone.

English source texts, particularly in the American context, are usually full of superlatives and rave reviews. But for us complacent Swedes, grandiose words like ”unique, outstanding, exceptional, state-of-the-art and greatest”, crammed into each sentence, seldom work. They tend to reduce credibility and drown the message. Swedes are much more down to earth. We like to keep things simple and straightforward.

As a professional translator, I ask myself: What is this text really about? What sentiments are conveyed and what does the company really want to say? And who are they saying it to? I listen to the context, and then I write a text which is relaxed and more direct.

And, in the end, how did I translate “Stop beating around the bush”?  I wrote: ”Vänta inte! Gör slag i saken nu…” which literally translates: ”Don’t hesitate, act now!”
Simple and straightforward.

About Jeanette Gardner

I am a native Swedish translator living on an island in the Swedish Archipelago. I have worked as a professional trilingual translator (Swedish, German, and English) for more than 20 years. A translator, editor, and writer, I formerly worked for the largest publisher in Sweden.


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