Keeping up with Cultural Change as a Translator

or: The day I discovered that Swedish children love their parents

Guest blog by Linda Gunnarson, English to Swedish translator since 2001, specializing in marketing translations.

At the age of 35, after 10 years as a full-time translator, I was told by a younger linguist that I was out of touch with my own culture. Even though I lived in the country where my language was spoken, I had apparently missed a major change in how people expressed themselves. This was put to me delicately and respectfully, but the experience was brutal because I soon found out she was right.

A change that took me by surprise

When I grew up I never told my parents that I loved them. It’s not that I had a difficult childhood, but at that time in Sweden, “love” was a word you didn’t use lightly in connection with people. Although I happily told others that I loved My little pony and scented pink erasers, when my mother put me to bed, I would tell her that I “liked” her. To the moon and back.

As a translator therefore, I was very restrictive in my use of “love” and would always play around with different options depending on the context. Until that day when I was training a new translator in her early 20’s.

We were doing a joint translation of a text that included a letter from a 10-year-old boy to his aunt, and my goal was to help the translator break free from the English source text. Things were going well until we came to the concluding words: “Love, Peter.” I suggested translating it simply as “Goodbye”. My apprentice objected and suggested “Love you”. I stared at her in disbelief and suggested “Regards”. “But that sounds as if he hates his aunt”, she replied.

After some research, I realized she was right. Children were actually using a much warmer vocabulary now and were not embarrassed by it at all. Even teenagers expressed themselves in a way that felt very unfamiliar to me. But why this change?  One explanation might be the growing American influence, of course. But still, Swedes had been watching American sit coms since the days of the Cosby show, so why now?

I came to the conclusion that the change did not originate with the children, but with a new generation of parents. They were slightly younger than me and the first to grow up with cable TV. While not changing the way they spoke to their parents or people in general, they had introduced a different way of talking to their children.

So why did I miss this? First of all, I didn’t have children of my own, but that shouldn’t be a requirement for translators. Secondly, after work I had very little energy left to socialize, so I spent most of my time at home with my husband and a nice book. When I did see other people, it was mostly people similar to myself. And thirdly, even though I sometimes heard people express themselves in new or unusual ways I thought of it as a cultural anomaly – the exception that proves the rule – instead of taking note and being curious.

Keeping up

I realized that reading newspapers, magazines and specialist literature was not enough, I needed something more. I had been a late adopter of social media and was only following family members and close friends. But now I started to grow my network, following acquaintances with small children, teenagers whose grandparents I knew, and, of course, the grandparents themselves. I still didn’t have the time or energy left at the end of the week to socialize with them all, but this way I could get a glimpse of their everyday life.

Social media is old news today, of course, but I still treat my social accounts as strategic study tools, a way to keep up with Swedish culture. I watch parents play with their children, I read teenagers expressing their love for their friends in terms that still make me cringe, and I am often amazed at how young and agile old people are today.

I am like a linguistic parasite sucking verbs, idioms and particles from my social feeds, constantly calibrating my sense of what is normal behavior and normal vocabulary. At times I feel guilty, but then I remind myself that people publish voluntarily and that they have all accepted me as their friend. (And I hope they won’t block me when they read this and find out how creepy I am.)

Why it matters

But why do I make such a big deal of all this? Because the majority of my work consists of marketing texts, which means that all these people could fit the marketing personas used by the companies I translate for.

I need to know what newly retired people do when taking all those trips they’ve been dreaming of and how they describe it to their friends. I need to know how 20-year-olds describe their makeup routine compared to 45-year-olds, because those are the words I should be aware of when translating for beauty brands. And I need to know about people’s worries, what is going on in their minds, what they rave about and what they rage against.

Because it could make or break my next translation.