Translating Cliches

I just finished a first read of Montecore, by Tunisian-Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri. (Think a more sophisticated, and Arab, Mark Leyner.)

This is Khemiri’s second novel, written in his native Swedish and translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles. But this novel is not simply Swedish: Many sections are written as though they’d been translated from the Arabic and/or as though they’d been written by a native Arabic speaker. (Although ultimately, who is allowed to speak, and to what extent their speech is edited, is unclear).

In some ways this is Arabic literature in English, by way of Swedish.

The text must make for many linguistic delights in Swedish—after all, Montecore was awarded “Sweden’s highest honor for a young novelist,” according to the dust jacket—and it does make for some wonderful language in the English as well, courtesy of Willson-Broyles. When it stands alone, “Certain eggs must be decapitated for a delicious omelet” sounds a little silly. In the context, it’s a joyful and energetic re-jiggering of “proper” speech.

For a male author, Khemiri seems to have to do a lot of glamor shots.

Where the novel drags is in a long section titled “KHEMIRI’S (& KADIR’S) RULES OF GRAMMAR.” Full of “mnemonic rules” for learning Swedish, this section attempts to pin down what Swedes are like via their language, through the eyes of Arab characters. In so doing, the narrator and his father go through a raft of different cliched sayings.

At least, that’s what we readers of the translation assume.

In the English version, we are confronted with English words and sayings—and these, somehow, are supposed to give us insight into what Swedes are like. They don’t, and the litany of English-language sayings becomes so boring that I had to skim parts of this section.

Perhaps this was what the section did to Swedish readers, and the translator was simply reproducing the effect of a hail of cliched sayings. Still, I wanted to learn more about Swedes through their language. While it’s often the translator’s goal to make a book that “felt as though it had been written in English!” in this case, it would’ve been more delightful to feel the book’s Swedish-Tunisian-Arabic linguistic character.

One of the few moments when I felt the language was when, on p. 251, the narrator informs us that “the most beautiful part of the breast” is called, in Swedish, “a wart yard.” Really? Whoa.

Since Montecore is a book full of linguistic twistings and turnings—a fun book, but I doubt it’s the next mega-best-selling Scandinavian thriller—I see no reason to shy from a more complex translation of cliche.