Suddenly lagom and Sprachspiel

Language is a subject that I have always found fascinating. In order to understand one another it is important to interpret not only what is being said, and the underlying meaning, but also how it is said. Tone, body language as well as words that have been left out of a conversation can be as important as the words the speaker pronounces. Dialects and intonation can make the person one speaks to open up or be more guarded. The American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) is famous not only for having written the poem “Dedication” for U.S. President Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961, but also for his quote ”Poetry is what gets lost in translation”. In 2003 the movie “Lost in translation” with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, became widely popular all over the world. It dealt with the difficulties a Westerner had in understanding Japan and Japanese behaviour and was very funny, but not altogether correct in its description of Japanese society.

The point that I think both Robert Frost and the movie makers wanted to make was that it is not enough with words to communicate, you also have to understand non-verbal signals. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) spoke about “language games” (Sprachspiel) and that it is a kind of bewitchment to believe that words can capture or describe reality. When I worked as an interpreter at the Embassy more than thirty years ago I often found myself in situations where I had to find ways to convey the messages that could be found behind the words, rather than the words themselves. I did not always translate exactly what speaker said, but hopefully exactly what the speaker meant.

In most languages it is possible to say something like “he expressed himself very diplomatically”, or “she was very diplomatic”, meaning that the person in question was not very explicit or went around the real problem by using polite or vague expressions. In real life, I think it is often the other way around. Diplomats have to be very clear when they convey messages, if they wish to avoid misunderstandings. They might say something vague in public, while negotiations are going on, but behind closed doors conversations can be quite tough and direct.

The Swedish and Japanese languages are on the other hand two languages that are rich in vague expressions. Often you here Swedes say that there is no other language which has an expression which corresponds to our word ‘lagom’, but in my opinion Japanese is such a language. The expression  “tekitô ni” can be used in the same way.  For instance, if you ask another person how much butter he or she wants on the sandwich you can answer “lagom” in Swedish and ”tekitô ni” in Japanese. We are both good at being vague when we need to.

On the other hand, I have over the years noted down expressions in Japanese for the expression “suddenly”, and so far I have found thirtynine. There are probably more. In Swedish we have the word “plötsligt” and perhaps one or two more similar expressions, for instance “hastigt”. When translating Japanese into Swedish it is almost impossible not to use “plötsligt” all the time. Does it mean that we Swedes are not so surprised at what is happening around us and that the Japanese are constantly startled? Or does it have no significance at all? I am still looking for a diplomatic answer.


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