Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
When an author is described as having a ”fresh voice”, I usually dismiss the description with a shrug; the attribute is repeated so often that it’s become bleached of all real meaning. But Jessica Gaitán Johannesson has, actually, a very fresh voice that packs everything with so much new meaning that you won’t think about language or communication the same way again.
How We Are Translated is set in a week in the lives of Kristin, a Swedish immigrant to Edinburgh, and her Brazilian-born Scottish boyfriend Ciaran. Out of nowhere Ciaran takes it upon himself to learn Swedish in a fully immersive way; their flat is soon covered in sticky notes labelling everything with its Swedish name, very much to Kristin’s annoyance. Meanwhile Kristin spends her days working at an exhibition about the history of immigration in Scotland as a representative of the Nordics. Her role as the Viking Sigrid is also fully immersive: for the sake of authenticity she is allowed to speak only Swedish during working hours, just as everyone else has to stick to their native languages — even if it means that she can’t understand a word her Icelandic Viking mother-in-law is saying.
However language isn’t the only barrier creeping between people: in her real, non-Viking life, Kristin has discovered that she is pregnant, but she refuses to speak about The Project growing inside her, just as Ciaran refuses to speak English.
The novel’s 200 pages are filled to the brim with delicious little everyday observations, and the story flows through little anecdotes. Gaitán Johannesson has a delightful way of describing how preoccupied people can be with what others are thinking and picking out the things that aren’t said aloud. When Kristin buys pregnancy tests in Boots, she launches into an analysis of why the person at the till doesn’t offer her a points card: “Maybe he thought that, considering what I’d spent the money on, it was bad taste to take advantage, that it would suggest a likelihood of me being back soon for further pregnancy tests, label me some kind of loose cannon.”
The book is sharply ironic, too; the way different cultures are treated by the exhibition management is a constant source of humour, but also offers some very poignant criticism of how we want to view history. Without revealing too much, let’s just say you will think twice before going for a fika.
The biggest star, though, is the language (and I don’t say that just because I’m a linguist and language nerd myself). The story constantly jumps to observations of how we use language: “WITH CHILD is even worse. It makes me think of the yellow traffic signs used on school routes, with one big and one small person. It looks like a T-shirt: ‘I’m with stupid!’, ‘I’m with child!’” Gaitán Johannesson’s prose is filled with comparisons of Swedish and English and little etymologies. The reader is made to wonder why there are two ways of saying ‘I’m sorry’ in Swedish, and take delight in the fact that nipple is bröstvårta, literally a breast wart. “We must, as people, hold nipples in very low regard in Sweden”, Kristin observes. Indeed.
I’ve never read anything quite like How We Are Translated before, but I very much hope that Gaitán Johannesson will follow her debut with more of the same.
Anna is a bookworm and journalist.
Jessica Gaitán Johannesson, How We Are Translated (Scribe, 2021). 978-1913348069, 240pp., hardback.
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