Category Archives: Languages


Tomorrow is Birgitta. You may well wonder what I mean by that. In Sweden each day has a name, or two, in the calendar, and if that’s your name, then it’s your nameday. You might celebrate a bit, depending on what you’re used to.

These days I tend to forget my own, and most other people’s. Although, some stand out, for various reasons, and tomorrow is one. It’s Birgitta.

I was surrounded by Birgittas as a child. My best friend and closest neighbour was a Birgitta. Everyone seemed to be a Birgitta (pretty much like all the Davids I find myself knowing now).

And you may well wonder why I mention it today, when it’s actually tomorrow. My first Birgitta was born on October 6th. And it’s her nameday the following day. I’d say it’s fairly clear that her mother looked at her new baby daughter and looked at the calendar for the next day and decided that Birgitta would be a good name for her child.

It would make more sense if you picked the name on the actual day of a baby’s birth – assuming the sex is right – and I’m sure people do that too. I was very certain that Son would be born on January 13th (can’t recall why now) and that day was Knut. I knew he couldn’t be a Knut, should he turn out to be a boy, which he did. Not even in Sweden would you have been ready for a Knut back then. Maybe now, when old-fashioned names have come almost full circle. In England he’d have been a [K]nut. And that’s not a good name. Even if we did live close to Knutsford.

Today is Jenny. Nice enough name. But she became a Birgitta. And she’s not the only Birgitta I know, born on October 6th. Must be plenty of mothers – sorry, parents – who have looked one day ahead for inspiration.

Happy 60th Birgitta! And happy nameday tomorrow.

Hej då, Henning

By now you probably all know that Henning Mankell died this morning. His death is in the news everywhere, which just goes to show how far crime will get you. Even when you’re a foreigner, as Henning undoubtedly was to most of you.

I never did get that interview, apart from my impromptu four-minute one in the children’s bookshop in Charlotte Square; the place where he wasn’t guarded at all, unlike for his adult events. But we did speak very briefly, several times, including that first meeting when Son startled him by wanting a book signed that Henning didn’t recognise as his. It was his, though, and after some discussion it got sorted out.

Even then, Henning was a grand person, while on Swedish soil; walking round with a bit of an entourage. But that’s how Swedes do their worshipping. His star status in the English speaking world came a little later.

I knew he was ill, and ever the pessimist I expected the worst. But as recently as last week I felt a moment of optimism. I have a Facebook friend, whom I barely know, despite having ‘known’ him for decades (he’s GP Cousin’s very good friend). He’s rich, and he’s a rather radical leftie, and he does unusual things with his time and money. His latest venture is some museum for another well known Swedish radical, which is opening next month. And the encouraging news was that Henning was to do the honours. So I thought, ‘Oh, he’s well enough to do that then?’

Today’s sad news took my radical millionnaire by surprise too, as he was due to have lunch with Henning a few hours ago. Which I suppose was a good sign in itself; that he’d felt able to make such plans.

As for me, I’m glad we met a few times, and I’m even glad I cried at his event in Gothenburg eight years ago. He was a good man who did lots of good to lots of people, and that’s not counting entertaining us with Wallander.

Henning Mankell(I prefer this photo from some years ago, to the one my local Swedish newspaper used, where you can clearly see how unwell he was.)

The Henning Mankell mini-interview

Girl on a Plane

Not long into Girl on a Plane I felt really nervous and wondered why I was reading about a plane hijacking. It was so very realistic. Then I wondered what time of year it was (senior moment) and decided that it was after the summer holidays and I’d not be flying anywhere anytime soon. No, I thought, I’m flying tomorrow. No, the day after tomorrow. Oops. So my timing was bad for reading this tremendously exciting book.

Miriam Moss, Girl on a Plane

Miriam Moss knows her stuff, because she was a passenger on one of those planes in September 1970 which were hijacked and flown to a desert airstrip in Jordan. She was only 15, just like her character Anna, who was flying back to boarding school in England.

Her BOAC plane was the fourth plane in a few days to be hijacked by the PFLP, and the hijackers demanded that Leila Khaled be freed by Prime Minister Ted Heath after she was jailed for an earlier incident.

If the names BOAC and Leila Khaled bring back memories, you will probably enjoy the period feel of this novel. I’m virtually the same age as Miriam/Anna so remember most of this surprisingly well. What I appreciate is that Miriam has got it right, which isn’t always the case with ‘history.’ She knows what clothes a girl would have worn, she remembers the food people ate, what flying was like, how much people smoked and how acceptable it was.

This book made me feel as though I was there. I’m glad I wasn’t, but am grateful Miriam is ready to share, because it’s a new part of recent history, most likely completely unknown to the intended readers of this book. It’s also surprisingly low key, considering we’re talking terrorism, and it’s all the better for it.

For those of us who were around in 1970 it’s not the ‘what will happen?’ that is of interest. We already know. It’s ‘what was it like?’ which is almost impossible to imagine for anyone not actually there. Even the invited press failed to grasp what it was like, despite looking at it.

Maybe don’t read this just before* getting on a plane, but do read Girl on a Plane. It’s a great thriller, as well as a trip down memory lane.

Miriam Moss

*I noted with amusement that it was one of the recommended books in the airport bookshop… And as you will have realised, I wasn’t hijacked. This time.

Mr Sparks

‘Well, I didn’t see this coming!’ I thought I knew where Danny Weston was going with his new novel, Mr Sparks. Set in 1919, it’s the story about 12-year-old almost orphaned Owen. He lives with his ghastly aunt at her hotel in Llandudno, when one day a strange man arrives, with even stranger luggage.

It talks. The man is, of course, a ventriloquist. Or is he? As Owen gets closer it appears that the dummy, pardon, Mr Sparks, speaks and thinks on its own. But that’s not possible. Is it?

(I’d say Mr Sparks is as real as, erm, Danny Weston. And we all know him, don’t we?)

Danny Weston, Mr Sparks

Soon this little horror story has Owen and Mr Sparks in a closer relationship than the boy had imagined possible. Who is in control?

It’s not as scary as I had been afraid. It’s more creepy. And then it didn’t go in quite the direction I’d imagined. And then it looked fairly promising, all set for a happy-ish ending, and then, well, maybe it didn’t. I know how it ends. As long as that Danny Weston doesn’t do anything I don’t want him to do!

You hear me?

I should probably disclose that Danny has been kind enough to dedicate Mr Sparks to me (and someone else, whom I shall ignore for the moment), which is, well, nice. It was clever of him to let Owen live in Llandudno, that pearl of seaside resorts. Although we might have to have a little chat about the pier at some point.

But that’s not why I say this is a good book. Actually, I haven’t said that yet.

It’s a good book! Even without the dedication. Creepily good, even.

Nordic grey – The Origin Story of Nordic Noir

I have a certain bias, but I felt that the Translation studies research seminar at the University of Edinburgh yesterday afternoon was pretty good, and really interesting. Even for me, with some prior knowledge as well as interest in the subject of Nordic Noir.

Nordic Grey with Ian Giles

The talk by Ian Giles, aka as Son, was part of a series of seminars in the next few months, and it was merely a happy coincidence that they kicked off on what was International Translation Day.

The Resident IT Consultant and I both went. We were pleasantly surprised to find Helen Grant there too, but shouldn’t have been, as she’s both a linguist and proficient translator, when she’s not simply killing people. I introduced her to Peter Graves, making rather a hash of it. Translator Kari Dickson was also in the audience, as were other Scandinavian studies people and aspiring translators. And I was surrounded by a whole lot of Chinese whispers. Literally.

Nordic Noir didn’t begin with something on television five years ago. It’s been coming a long time, and Ian is on its trail, trying to determine where and when we first met ‘dark storylines and bleak urban settings.’ It’s more than Sarah Lund’s jumpers or Lisbeth Salander’s hacking skills.

The trail might begin (or do I mean end?) with Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, via Peter Høeg to Sjöwall and Wahlöö. But that list is not complete without mentioning the murder of Olof Palme or Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater. And apparently some critic recently accused the new Martin Beck on television of imitating itself.

Here there was a slight sidetrack to a Turkish writer, translated twice in the last twelve years, long after his death, and only because his compatriot, Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk said he liked him. Knut Hamsun had something similar happen to him.

Because yes, the trail goes a long way back. Before Sjöwall and Wahlöö we had Maria Lang and Stieg Trenter, for instance. Earlier still, Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doktor Glas would have qualified, as would Norwegian Mauritz Hansen. And maybe even Carl Jonas Love Almqvist and Zacharias Topelius.

And when it comes to the crunch, Peter Høeg’s Miss Milla’s Feeling For Snow is not a true progenitor of Nordic Noir. It seems to be, but isn’t. People would have read the book no matter what. Hindsight tells us Peter Høeg doesn’t belong to the origin story.

Anyway, there are many more books translated into English than there used to be. The 3% of translated books has recently become more like 4 or even 5%. Swedish books come sixth if you look at language of origin, but make that Scandinavian books and they end up in third place, and if you count all the Nordic languages, they are the second most translated.

Nordic Grey with Ian Giles

So, it’s not all jumpers, and Scotland has just claimed to have more words for snow than the cold Nordic countries. The latest idea for selling books on the international market is to translate the whole book into English, rather than a few sample chapters, making it possible to offer an almost finished product, as well as facilitating sales to countries where they don’t have a steady supply of translators from Scandinavian languages.

As I said, I found this interesting. And Ian’s a tolerable speaker, too. The right amount of jokes, and a good selection of slides and videos to show what he’s on about. The beard, however, was rather a surprise.

Past Calais

I think it was Danish author Janne Teller who said she’d written a short book featuring a nice Danish family who had to leave their country and find somewhere else that would take them. And a couple of years ago I read and reviewed After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross. It was a pretty scary read, seeing as it turns those ‘migrant’ stories on their head. It’s you heading into the unknown, where you are not welcome, and because you have to. Not because you’re greedy.

Re-reading my review made my heart palpitate, and it all looked so familiar. It’s what we see in the media nearly every day, except we are the the ones not too keen to let those others in.

As I say in that review, I’m one of those migrants. And remembering how the boy in Gillian’s book doesn’t speak French and how that causes problems, I am full circle, again. Because I have created a migrant in the next generation, too. One who doesn’t speak French, and thereby missed the expected knowledge in the supermarket regarding what you have to do if you are buying grapes. Not kiwis, just the grapes. I’ve married a foreigner, too. One who has been told off in another country’s supermarket for putting the food he’s buying the wrong way at the checkout. I remember a Swedish tourist many years ago, crying over the bananas in London’s Queensway, because she’d done what she was used to doing at home.

None of us fruit shoppers are persecuted at home. We just went on holiday or moved abroad for some perfectly normal reason. That can be hard enough. Add a little peril to life or starvation and then see how you manage.

Literature is full of people like us. A long time ago it would have been enough to leave your village and move into town. Or the further away countryside to the capital, or from the poorer end of the country to the richer end. And then the move from one poor country to another country, perceived to be better. It probably takes a generation or two before life becomes almost normal in the new place. That is unless you move somewhere else again, like where they sell grapes differently.

There are different class immigrants too. Despite her poor grasp of grape-buying, Daughter is a higher class foreigner than her similarly recently arrived supervisor. He outranks her in all academic aspects, but the receiving country rates him lower. (He’s Australian…)

And speaking of Australians. The Resident IT Consultant chatted to someone here, whose son moved to Australia. There he married an Australian. And now he can’t find work. And he can’t move back home if he wants to continue living with his wife and children.

Maybe if we could all go where we want to be, it would sort of even out? Natural selection and all that.

If You Were Me

It would seem that Sam Hepburn is good at taking a topic I’m not all that keen on and then writing a novel about it; a novel so good and so exciting you don’t know what to do, because you have to hold on to the book to keep reading, but at the same time you could really do with holding on tight to your chair. Or something. You know.

Sam Hepburn, If You Were Me

If You Were Me is a gut-churning thriller, about Aliya and her family who had to flee Afghanistan in a hurry one night, only to exchange a bad situation there for a bad one in London. Her brother who was an interpreter for the British, is accused of being a terrorist, plotting to kill the man who helped them enter the country.

With the help of Dan, who came to sort out the plumbing in their decrepit flat, she starts sleuthing, desperate to clear her brother’s name. Dan is keen to assist, but he also has reasons to hide certain aspects of their investigation, to keep his family safe and intact.

It’s amazing how these two manage to find any clues at all, let alone that they are able to make something of what they discover. Very, very exciting indeed. And basically, you must remember you can’t trust anyone. Had the introduction not suggested it might end well, I’d not have believed it possible.

Aliya and Dan are two incredible heroes. Not everyone else is bad, but very nearly.