How We Are Translated, Jessica Gaitán Johannesson

Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) is hard work! Each infintessimal advance in the plot takes soo many words. I needed a break. Grandson Dingo needed books for his first birthday. And once inside the bookshop I couldn’t really not check out new releases. So now I own How We Are Translated and John Kinsella’s short story collection, Pushing Back.

Johannesson “grew up speaking Spanish and Swedish and currently lives primarily in English”. She lives in Bath and the book is set in Edinburgh, about which she writes as though she had lived there too.

I was attracted to the book because it seemed to be in the first place a book about words, about language, about languages, about playing with the way words and meanings change as they slip from one language to another. It is turning out to be a very difficult work to write about, so I will start by answering Melanie’s question up front. Did I like it? Yes I did, Very much.

My question, Is it Literature? is more difficult to answer. At one level, How We Are Translated is ‘just’ a whimsical novel about a bi-lingual young woman dealing with her boyfriend/partner (no one says de facto anymore, though that is the relationship they are in. Is that maybe because ‘living together’ is no longer intended/expected to be permanent?) and with her (odd) job. But at another level the author clearly expects us to look at her writing as well as at her story. In particular the way she counterposes Swedish and English. So, yes, Literature.

After reading the whole book I find I don’t know the protagonists’ names. The author/narrator refers to them as I and you. She I think is Kirsten or Kristin, a Swede five years in Edinburgh, who found her odd employment to see her through uni, but is now two years graduated and still in the same job. He is Brazillian, brown, adopted young by a Scotswoman, who in the last couple of years has trained as a nurse and works for the council as a carer, visiting old people. They live in a flat, on the second or third floor. I see much/all of this in the text, but it bothers me that I look out for it because of the blurb I necessarily read to make the purchase. I hate blurbs. They spoil the reading experience. But how else can you choose?

As the book begins, they have not so much stopped talking, as stopped communicating. It is a difficult time, The Project has commenced, and ‘he’ has responded by insisting on communicating only in Swedish, which he has only just begun to learn. The Project? An unplanned and as yet unconfirmed pregnancy which they may or may not terminate, and about which, the pregnancy and the termination, they both speak obliquely, fearing to bring it out into the open.

I’m looking for quotes. The word Ciarin pops up from time to time. I’ve been ignoring it but perhaps it’s ‘his’ name. I wonder if I’d thought that earlier, some passages would have made more/different sense.

You said you wanted to ‘immerse’ yourself in ‘my language’ to ‘prepare’. ‘For both our sakes,’ you said, which is NOT an answer to why you’re JUST NOT HERE ANYMORE…

By the way, Swedish isn’t going to help you much if your future is within the NHS. And anyway, didn’t you say there was no future?

‘Jag är ledsen,’ you said.

This means ‘I am sad’, though he means it as ‘I am sorry’ which, as we Australians already know from (former Prime Minister) John Howard’s refusal to say ‘I am sorry’ to Aboriginal Australians, can express both sorrow and an acceptance of guilt.

Her ‘odd’ employment is as a Norse woman, Solveig, in an ongoing historical diorama about immigrants to Scotland, in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle. There are 3 or 4 ‘Norse’ – Ida, Solveig’s mother in law played by an Icelandic woman, and Sigurd/Niklas, a Norweigan. At work, they may only speak their ‘home’ language, so Solveig and Ida must communicate via Sigurd who luckily understands both Swedish and Icelandic. Their supervisor, and each ethnic group has a bureaucrat to enforce the rules and advance their interests over the others, Joanne Tarbuck, speaks only English (and schoolgirl French it later transpires) so must communicate with them by gestures, or hold them back for meetings after work.

The other ethnic groups are Lithuanian coal miners, farmers waylaid on their way to America, and Irish dock workers. Towards the end I may have noticed some emigrés from the French Revolution.

The elements of the plot are that the Lithuanians are plotting a rebellion and K won’t go to the doctor to confirm her pregnancy, but increasingly stays up all night worrying and walking the streets. ‘She’ ignores ‘his’ texts, in increasingly good Swedish, but wallows in the emails from their early days.

Mitt nya favoritord:



My new favourite word:



K does this quite often, As he tries out a new word she looks at its literal meaning. [I’ve used ‘columns’ for the first time – Emma, how do you do it? – but the Swedish and English won’t line up and I’ve had to switch to Classic block to trick the columns into ending].

The truth of the matter is that you haven’t told me what you think is the right thing to do either, and you think I haven’t noticed that you’re as far from knowing what you want as I am.

From that point of view it’s a touching story, and it comes to a head, sort of, as the Lithuanians mount their rebellion. There are other elements, the use of language of course, K’s relationship with Joanne Tarbuck is a mild satire on bureaucratism, and there’s ‘his’ status as an overseas adoptee which she is more interested than he is, or than he is willing to talk about.

Give it a try. It’s an innovative work, not quite but nearly up to the standard of Normal People, and I hope it features in next year’s awards.


Jessica Gaitán Johannesson, How We Are Translated, Scribe, London/Melbourne, 2021. 229pp

15 thoughts on “How We Are Translated, Jessica Gaitán Johannesson

  1. I hadn’t heard of this book, but am intrigued by your review. I’m not sure I’ll get to read it, but I’ll remember your hint about Clarin, if I do.

    I’m not sure it sounds much easier than The Italian?

    BTW I thought I’d try columns recently but couldn’t make it work. I needed to Google it, and didn’t have time.


    • I’m back reading The Italian tonight after racing through HWAT in a day.
      The premise sounds tortuous but it’s fun and easy to follow.

      If I had more patience I might have restarted the matching language using a small Table. But Emma has always had French and English side by side so it’s definitely possible.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My technique for doing columns is this: first I Googled how to do it, tried to replicate it and failed, so instead I copied and pasted their entire HTML into the HTML editor (that is with their content inside the columns).
    Then I switched back to the text editor, and deleted their content from all but one column. (If you delete all of it at once, the columns disappear. Then I put my content in, finally removing their content after I’ve got mine in the other columns as a place holder.
    And every time I do columns (which is whenever I read a book in French) I go back to that first post and copy & paste it.
    It ain’t perfect but it works for me.


    • Thanks Lisa. I’ll give it a try. The Block editor gives you lots of choices for columns, which looks easy, so I don’t understand why the text in adjacent columns is at different heights, especially when Tables proved really easy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You may need to check whether the text in each column has been centred or not. The default option isn’t reliable I have found so far.


  3. This sounds interesting despite having a rather convoluted plot – I like “play within a play” type things, and it sounds like that might be what’s going on with Kirsten/Kristin’s employment? And I don’t think I’ve read a book that’s directly about languages and being bilingual before, which is strange because that is definitely a fascinating subject to explore.


    • I didn’t say so, but towards the end when things are getting confused (for K) the POV becomes Solveig’s ie. the character that K plays (I think her name is Kristin but her boyfriend calls her K or names like K-bomb and Joanne Tarbuck, her supervisor calls her variations like Kristen and Karen.) I hope you read it. I’m sure it will start being discussed around the place soon if not already.


  4. I always ask you if you liked the book because a traditional review of anything — a book, a movie, a car, a coffee cup, a restaurant — informs the reader of the review if the thing in question is worth their time/money. Granted, you don’t have to like something for it to be worth the time/money, and if the thing you’re reviewing isn’t worth YOUR time/money for reasons X, Y, and Z, it may be worth someone else’s time/money for the very same reasons.

    I used to teach review writing to college students, and their final exam was to review The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book we’d spent all semester discussing during the first 10 or so minutes of class as the students read.


    • The last time I did a book report was in high school, but that’s how I feel about my posts. I’m interested in how a book works and how it connects in time and place and to other books. So, did I like it/will you like it? always feels a bit tacked on. But I know readers are probably more interested in recommendations than in Lit.theory so I try and compromise.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. FYI, “de facto” only ever seems to be used in Australia. In almost 21 years of living in the UK, I never came across the term. In any forms I had to fill in, the choice was normally “partner” or “living together”. It’s been strange coming back to Oz and filling out forms for various things where “de facto” is the option and there’s no mention of “partner” or “living together”


    • De Facto was a big thing in the 60s and 70s and then suddenly everyone was doing it, from the Prime Minister down, but not calling it that. Now I wonder if they had the same debates in England and America. Interesting that the usage still persists on (Australian) official documents, of which no doubt you and Mr Matters have seen a few over the past year.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, very sick of filling in official docs. I have worn a little path backward and forward to the Justice of the Peace office in Freo library getting lots of stat decs signed!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve never heard of this de facto in this context, interesting. I’m not sure if I fancy this book, but the Norse thing will pull me in. Mind you, I told off a Norse re-enactor at the Jorvik Centre in York for getting something wrong once – I was ashamed of myself immediately and Matthew ran and hid!


    • She’s very funny about being Norse, and the need for staying in character. Every day she gets to say goodbye to her father in law on a funeral pyre. Solveig says whatever she likes to the tourists in the belief they can’t understand her, so don’t feel too bad.


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