How We Are Translated by Jessica Gaitán Johannesson

January 2022

I bought this book after participating in an online translation summer school, where the author led a creative writing workshop and did a reading from this work.

This is a quirky book that plays with language and identity, as well as the conventions of storytelling and even book design (there are many passages rendered in both Swedish and English, with the different languages in columns side by side). It has a kind of surrealness to it, almost as if it’s an alternate universe, one in which Edinburgh Castle has become a Museum of Immigration where the employees dress up in costume and role-play different groups of people who have moved to Scotland. They can only converse in the language of the characters they’re playing, and to prepare for each day they spend some time in a Translation Room, where they cast off their actual personas and slip into their new ones. It’s a funny and somehow unsettling concept. Equally unsettling is the home life of the Swedish/Scottish narrator, whose Brazilian/Scottish boyfriend suddenly insists on speaking to her only in Swedish so that he can learn the language, upsetting the established identities in their relationship and causing a rift between them.

The book feels fragmentary on many levels, but that’s not necessarily a criticism. The narrative is fragemented, personalities are fragmented, society is fragemented. This kind of personal literary fiction isn’t my usual fare and I can’t say that I whole-heartedly loved the book, but I did appreciate it for its interesting ideas and experimental approach, and certainly for its intriguing musings on (and use of) language.

Further reading…