Emily C. Skaftun

(skŏf • tŭn) n. A writer of speculative fiction.

Tag: language

On the “untranslatable”

Photo courtesy of Maren Eline Nord, Nittedal, Norway Three grads take part in Norway’s russefeiring, the traditional high school graduate celebration that coincides with the national day, in 2014. There is no corresponding thing in America, so we have no word for it.

Photo courtesy of Maren Eline Nord, Nittedal, Norway
Three grads take part in Norway’s russefeiring, the traditional high school graduate celebration that coincides with the national day, in 2014. There is no corresponding thing in America, so we have no word for it.

Last fall an article started to go around, written almost exactly a year ago for Matador Network, called “10 untranslatable Norwegian terms” (matadornetwork.com/notebook/10-untranslatable-norwegian-terms). A quick search will turn up many such lists, all with different words and terms, in basically every language you can think of.

It’s true, of course, that translation is an imperfect art. A language is about more than just words for the things we can all agree on (cat, dog, car, etc.); it’s innately tied up in the way the culture that uses it sees the world and therefore reveals things about that culture. Just think of the old chestnut that the Inuit have dozens of words for snow.

In particular, though, I was troubled by this list, which was:
Skjerp deg
Kos(elig)
Glad i deg
Takk for sist
Marka
Faen
Pålegg
Tøffelhelt
Takk for maten
Russ

I don’t claim to be an expert on the Norwegian language (I’ve only been learning it for two years!), but to call some of these untranslatable seemed like a stretch to me.

Judging from the comments section on the article, I’m not alone. Collectively, folks with knowledge of Norwegian and English can translate all of these, though they might not agree on how.

I’d argue that the list falls into three main categories: words that don’t translate literally but have pretty clear parallel meanings in English (skjerp deg to “sharpen up” or even “watch yourself;” faen to a different f word; glad i deg to “I like you”), phrases that literally translate but aren’t used quite the same (we wouldn’t say “thanks for last time” to greet someone, but it’s not a hard concept to grasp), and words that we don’t have in English because the thing it describes isn’t big in the U.S. (we’re not as into open-faced sandwiches as our Nordic cousins, so we don’t talk about pålegg—though I’d also like to suggest “toppings” as a simple translation—and we just don’t have Russ at all).

And then there’s takk for maten. Does the author of the list really think that we don’t say “thanks for the food” in English? I am not inviting him to dinner.

Underlying quibbles about whether these words are really translatable or not is something deeper, I suspect. Because when you come down to it, English has a word for almost everything. Perhaps not a common word, but with over a million words to choose from (twice the vocabulary of the next most verbose languages) you can bet most concepts are covered. And if it isn’t covered already, English has no problem with simply annexing words from the nearest unwary language. I predict that the Danish version of kos, “hygge,” will one day be in English dictionaries.

I think what’s really being celebrated in these lists is the culture underneath. A list like this one tells me that the author thinks Norwegians, when compared to English-speakers, focus more on finding joy in simple pleasures, are more frugal in their use of the word “love,” give thanks more freely, feel closer to nature, and curse less inventively.

Whether or not that is true, it speaks to something. As our world gets smaller, as people from all over the world are able to talk to each other, to be influenced by each other’s cultures, to eat each other’s cuisines, and generally to “melt,” it’s easy to feel that the differences between peoples and places are wearing away. The downside of a global melting pot is that what makes cultures unique can start to fade, and even though the opportunities and advantages coming with globalization are huge, that loss is scary.

Is our insistence that some things cannot be translated a reaction to this? I see it as a way of asserting the uniqueness of a culture, though perhaps not the most constructive way. Do we need these barriers? To me they feel dismissive: “You wouldn’t understand; you’re not Norwegian.” Would it be threatening if we did?

What word would a Norwegian use to describe that feeling?

This article originally appeared in the March 4, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Following the king for a day: eight observations in no particular order

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Press passes make me feel so official!

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Press passes make me feel so official!

1. The king is super punctual. I don’t know if the trains run on time in Norway, but the king certainly does. I was given a fairly detailed press schedule ahead of time, with some non-standard times (7:29 p.m.?). I was thinking of it as more of an estimate, but I’ll be darned if it wasn’t dead accurate.

2. Covering an event as official “press” is boring. I vaguely remembered this from my meager experience pretending to be a journalist (don’t tell anyone, but I am not really much of a reporter), but it reminded me even more of being on crew for a theatrical production—a lot of hurry up and wait. Some of this waiting could have been avoided if I’d known just how entirely punctual the king was, I suppose.

3. Hanging out with the press is even more boring when they all speak a language you’re still just learning. The bus ride to and from Tacoma with the Norwegian press? Nap-inducing. Of course, everyone on the bus could speak English, but also of course they chose not to. Don’t mind that woman in the last row. She’s just napping and definitely isn’t interested in your conversation.

On a personal note, this made me realize just what a long way I have to go with Norwegian. I’m getting close to being able to read and can almost understand simple Norwegian sentences spoken by Americans, but a busload of real Norwegians? Forget it. A word here and there. Pathetic.

4. Journalists are on the same team. You hear about cutthroat reporters trying to get a scoop, and I’m sure that’s the case for certain kinds of stories, but at least on this beat there was a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. However, I could see this being a problem, because…

5. Journalists who travel together all get the same perspective. I’ve read a bit about how this happens, especially on foreign beats, with war correspondents, etc., but sitting in that Norwegian press bus unable to understand the words I could easily see how this happens. When all members of the press are at the same press conferences, shooting photographs from the same angles, typing up their notes while chatting over sandwiches, how different are their final stories going to be? Not very, would be my guess.

6. If there are professional photographers covering the event, unless you too are one, don’t bother trying. Okay, I got a couple of usable shots with my borrowed camera that I barely knew how to use, but I got access to many more by asking the pro photog from PLU to share his shots with me. I got the shots for this week’s story through the Norwegian embassy from the royal press secretary. My time onsite would have been better spent taking notes.

7. Women will never advance in many fields as long as the shoe gap remains in place. The male reporters, photographers, and organizers all wore basic men’s shoes: decent looking and functional. The women all wore heels. There was a lot of walking, including times when we needed to almost run in order to get around a building to the next photo op. Guess who got there first? Kine Hartz, from the Norwegian Embassy, had a little pair of flats in her bag that she switched into a couple of times when things were slow, but the heels always came back out. And switching shoes also slows a person down. What if sensible flats were the accepted norm for woman too?

8. Norwegian VIPs are more “just folk” than American ones. All over the PLU events security boundaries had been set up, all of which the Royal Palace staff wanted to move closer. We were constantly waved closer in, in a way impossible to imagine for, say, President Obama.

The previous Sunday, at Seattle’s Syttende Mai celebration, I found myself at a table with Thorhild Widvey, Norway’s Minister of Culture, and this seemed perfectly natural. Our leaders and politicians don’t seem quite so approachable, and it’s a shame. One gets the sense that even though Norway is a rich and powerful country, it’s also kind of a small town. Or at least I get that sense, as I watch the king laugh and joke with students and reporters alike.

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Kvikk Lunsj v. Kit Kat: A comparative analysis

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun I decided to see how Kvikk Lunsj and Kit Kat stacked up, literally and figuratively.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
I decided to see how Kvikk Lunsj and Kit Kat stacked up, literally and figuratively.

Emily C. Skaftun
Norwegian American Weekly

Around this time last year I learned of the Norwegian Easter phenomenon that is Kvikk Lunsj. It seemed that the country went wild, yearly, for this… what was it? I’d never heard of it.

The name threw me at first. It’s a lunch thing? Like maybe an energy bar?

Coworkers scoffed at me. I did more research, turning up photos. Oh, it’s a Kit Kat!

I was informed, by many sources, that I was wrong. Kvikk Lunsj was far superior to Kit Kat. Not even in the same league. That seemed likely, given what I already knew about the relative quality of American versus Norwegian chocolate. I set out to see how the two candies stacked up.

I think it’s pretty clear that in packaging, Kvikk Lunsj wins hands-down. Its cheery red, yellow, and green design is bold and much more appetizing than Kit Kat’s orange (and I love orange). The label is simpler and cleaner.

But Kvikk Lunsj’s advantage doesn’t end on the outside of the packaging. Inside it has “Søndags-turtips,” a description (på norsk) of a hike in Norway. (Which I can almost read; hooray for a year of Norwegian classes!). This is obviously far superior to Kit Kat’s… foil.

At first glance, they remain remarkably similar. The Kvikk Lunsj looks slightly larger, just slightly in every direction, than a regular-size Kit Kat bar. Both are divided into four wafery sticks, but Kvikk Lunsj wins the design competition with Freia’s bird stamp outclassing “Kit Kat” in the chocolate’s embossing. Okay, initial points go to Kvikk Lunsj.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun At a glance, the candies are remarkably similar, inside and out.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
At a glance, the candies are remarkably similar, inside and out.

The ingredient lists for both are similar, with predictable variations and, one assumes, higher-quality ingredients used in Norway. This last one is pure speculation, of course. No points awarded in this category.

Is Kvikk Lunsj healthier? Of course the serving sizes aren’t the same on their nutrition facts labels, making an apples to apples comparison tricky, but… no. Gram for gram, the Kvikk Lunsj has more protein, but also quite a lot more fat. Points to Kit Kat for health, shockingly.

Taste is, of course, the most important factor in a candy bar. For my money they were close enough to the same as to be almost indistinguishable. However, one thing both I and Molly (whom I roped into my research) noticed was that even though the Kit Kat appeared to have more chocolate covering it, the Kvikk Lunsj tasted a little more chocolatey. For Molly, this made the Norwegian version the clear winner. I’ll go ahead and give Kvikk Lunsj those points.

So all things being equal, it looks like Kvikk Lunsj is outclassing Kit Kat. But things, here in the U.S., are rarely equal. You may not have a handy local Scandinavian store, like I do, where you can pick up a Kvikk Lunsj. Or even if you do, you may find the price a bit of a shock. Mine cost $3.50, versus the Kit Kat’s buck or so price tag. I get it. Importing things from Norway isn’t a cheap proposition. And the Kvikk Lunsj is slightly larger. But it’s not so much larger that three Kit Kats isn’t a lot more.

So here is my Easter recommendation for you (and I realize this is sacrilege to some of you): Buy one Kvikk Lunsj. Unwrap it; eat it; enjoy it. Save the wrapper. Then, anytime you feel the need for a Kvikk Lunsj, wrap the saved packaging around a Kit Kat bar—it’ll fit. Tell yourself that what you’re about to eat is really a Kvikk Lunsj. Save $2.50.

Happy Easter!

This article originally appeared in the April 3, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Tomato, tomat, tómatar

Photo: Henrik Omma / Wikimedia Commons You say “tomato,” I say tómatar.

Photo: Henrik Omma / Wikimedia Commons
You say “tomato,” I say tómatar.

It’s been a while since I worked in education (teaching composition to mostly indifferent first-year college students), and even longer since I was a student in the full-time sense, so today when I think about education I think about language. You see, about a year ago, having begun work at something called the Norwegian American Weekly, I started learning Norwegian.

I never picked up much beyond “tusen takk” and “klem” from my Norwegian family, and when I’d tried as a kid to take Norwegian classes I quit as soon as my parents let me, because it was boring and irrelevant.

Or so I thought, right? I couldn’t have known then how relevant it would later become to me.

At various points I have flirted with languages—French, Bahasa Indonesia, American Sign Language—with very limited success. Weirdly, none of those felt very relevant to me either. Today I feel confident in exactly three hand signs: “thank you,” “awkward,” and “bullshit.” I don’t suppose this will be very helpful in conversation with a deaf person.

Even on the brief trips that I took to Indonesia and France, I got little use out of my very limited language skills.

Fast-forward to about four weeks ago. I was in Iceland, hooray! On one of our first lunches we went to Hamborgarafabrikkan, and as I was staring at that long word something clicked, and I exclaimed to my friends (probably much too excitedly), “It’s the hamburger factory!” On the matseðill, many words looked familiar. And not just words like tómatar, that any rube could puzzle out, but also things like rauðlaukur, which seemed similar enough to a norsk rødløk to mean red onion.

Of course the English version was printed on the other side of their menu (which deserves a whole story in itself), but I was amazed how much even my limited Norwegian allowed me to read (simple) things in Icelandic.

It’s these kinds of connections that make learning relevant, of course, but also fun. If only my English students could have found my lessons on proper apostrophe use as exciting! But perhaps they found it more challenging to find examples of this in their daily lives to relate to.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 20, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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