04 June 2021

When Lars Liljegren started to study English translations of works by Swedish author August Strindberg, he discovered that some had been given a completely new guise. The translated works were Bowdlerised versions, cleaned from coitus, breasts, testicles and the unsuitable interactions that were notorious elements of Strindberg’s writing.

Victorian romantic couple whirls while dancing together.

 Many people consider that they have read a book after reading a translation of it. But is that the case? For translation researcher Lars Liljegren the reply is not obvious.     

“A translator works within the framework set by the author, but also places his or her stamp onto the work. How often have you heard a reader or reviewer say ‘Oh, I just love Lorca!’. And when you ask what it is they love about Lorca, the answer is: ‘His beautiful language’. But since Lorca wrote in Spanish, it’s not Lorca’s language they love, but the translator’s”, says Lars Liljegren.  Photo credit Magnus Johansson

For older works that have been translated during a period of censorship, the contents may have become completely different from the original. Lars Liljegren has looked in detail at translations of August Strindberg’s books from the early years of the 20th century, and shows that much has been changed. And this causes problems still today, since people all over the world read these translations, and they are required reading in many university courses.  

“One of the problems is that when buying an older – translated – book over the internet, the e-commerce site may refer to the first translation that was made. So even if a new translation is available that is closer to the original, they try to make us purchase the older translation”, says Lars Liljegren.   

This is the case with August Strindberg’s work Married (Sw. Giftas) from 1884. Strindberg is now regarded as something of a Swedish national treasure, but he was controversial for both his work and his life. His text was not acceptable in 20th century Britain when the first translation was published, in 1913. When Lars Liljegren started to study this translation he discovered – completely unexpectedly – that it differed significantly from the original, and was, furthermore, based on a German translation.  

“All the shameless and shocking things that Strindberg had written had been removed. At the time in Great Britain, it was thought that obscene literature gave rise to obscene living.”  

In 300 pages, 120 formulations have been censored! This is not an English version: it’s a different book. And that’s still true.
Lars Liljegren

Even today, Strindberg can be seen as too shameless with his repeated sexual allusions. One passage of the Swedish original reads as follows: “He wanted to seize her, to press her breast(s), to mate, in a word, because now the woman was only a female to him.”

“None of this is present in the first English translation from 1913! There it simply says that he wanted to kiss her: the references to breasts and mating have been removed.”

Lars Liljegren says that those who read the English version were cheated. They had heard so much about Strindberg, but when they read Married they couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, or why he was so controversial.

“In 300 pages, 120 formulations have been censored! This is not an English version: it’s a different book. And that’s still true.”

A new translation of Married was published in 1972. Now, Strindberg’s naturalistic vision, that humans are animals controlled by drives, was allowed expression. This translation is much closer to the original and is more in line with the image of Strindberg as a provocative author. Even so, this is often not the version that is used, nor the easiest to get hold of.

Lars Liljegren is now trying to stimulate a discussion of how translated books are used in teaching. He teaches many courses in English, and has seen that translations of works affected by censorship can also be found on university reading lists.

“If you study a translated version, I suggest you should also discuss the translation and the period in which it was translated.”

So – to return to the initial question: should we read a work in the original language before we can say that we have read it? Do we have to read Lorca in Spanish before we can say that we love his language?

“If your aim is to understand and come close to the author, his or her message and way of writing, then you should, of course, read works in the original language, if you can. However, that’s not to say that reading Lorca in translation is uninteresting. We just have to be aware of what we’re reading and the limitations this involves.”


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