Sunday, October 28, 2012

Reading Swedish

I've been reading in Swedish for the last month or two, one academic text, various articles, and for fun, two thrillers--one by Henning Mankell, Hundara i Riga (The Dogs of Riga) and En Helt Annan Historia (A Completely Different Story) by Håkan Nesser, which was absolutely fantastic.

I don't read Swedish as well as Danish and Norwegian. Often, especially after a long absence of reading any Swedish, it's quite difficult to begin.

It's as if, when I look at the page of Swedish text, all I see is a smudged glass window spattered with tiny bugs over the a’s and o’s. Through the smeary window I glimpse shapes moving––People? Cars? Bears?––but I can’t make them out. What’s the story here? What is the meaning? I try to focus on single words that I don’t know or don’t remember and look them up in the pale yellow dictionary. I calm my rising panic (None of this makes any sense) by reminding myself that I’m looking at roman characters, complete sentences with a familiar structure, and that I can and do read two other Scandinavian languages.

Norwegian and Danish are closely related to Swedish, though with distinct verb endings and grammatical peculiarities—and yes, of course, different words and often quite dissimilar spellings. It often helps to move my lips as I read a sentence. The sounds of Swedish are similar to Norwegian, but the phonetics are written with different letters. As if this sentence I’m writing reads thizz centans reeds. Sometimes when I read aloud a Swedish word I don’t recognize I find it’s just a Norwegian word, disguised. Then, sometimes if I’m lucky the meaning of the whole sentence snaps into place, the bug-speckled window begins to look less greasy and, fitfully, I see the shapes behind. No, it’s not a bear, it’s a second person. They are getting into a car and going downtown, they are having a conversation about their relationship.
If I’m making my way through an academic text, I begin to see the passive verbs, the cautious, repetitious phrasing, the multitude of qualifiers. If I’m reading a thriller, there are welcomes stretches of dialog and violent events that keep me focused. Wait, who is murdering whom? In English the slight different between he and she doesn’t trip me up; in Swedish I can mistake han (he) for hon (she). Reading thrillers helps me with my Swedish; I read faster and look up fewer words, guessing often at their meaning from the context. My brain no longer complains, I can’t read this—it’s Swedish for god’s sake.

I no longer notice the bugs and the window has only the light fog of mist, just enough to make the moving figures and the landscape on the other side a little hazy and romantic. Otherwise I see what the characters are doing, I can almost touch them, hear them. And the longer I read the more vivid and real the world on the other side of the glass will become, so at times I will be on the other side, in that room or city, on that boat, under those cliffs, dipping my toes in water that is cool and soft and real. The words, if I am lucky, will vanish altogether.