“Should he get to keep that smile?” A radio play about revelations of racism in post-election Sweden. With a translator’s note on the embrace of the Swedish “papa state,” domesticating language for readers of English, and translating while white.

The Victor

by Pooneh Rohi with Kira Josefsson & Kaneza Schaal

Digital Project Published on June 30, 2018

What follows is an introduction to “The Victor” by the translator Kira Josefsson. “The Victor,” a radio play by Swedish author Pooneh Rohi, is performed by actress Kaneza Schaal and presented as an audio recording. In her essay, Josefsson discusses the parallel rises of right-wing nativism in Sweden and the United States, the desire to dignify white resentment, and the effort to keep a translation foreign.

If you’d like to listen to the radio play before reading the essay, click here.

In September 2010, the Sweden Democrats, a far-right party devoted to fighting “Islamization” under the banner “Give Sweden back to us,” were elected to Parliament for the first time. Like their kin on the Continent and across the Atlantic, the Sweden Democrats pit a mythical motherland against immigrants. The party, which has roots in a violent neo-Nazi sect and is linked to European and American fascists, campaigns on the notion that the Swedish welfare state can’t sustain a supposed flood of non-European foreigners. In one 2010 campaign video, an old white woman laboriously shuffles through a dark corridor toward a welfare officer’s desk marked “Pensions.” As she walks, the woman anxiously looks over her shoulder. She is soon overtaken by a horde of women in burkas who push prams as they run toward an adjacent desk marked “Immigration.”

Such aggressive rhetoric and imagery was new to the Swedish political landscape, which has been characterized by a preference for consensus politics and measured statements rather than emotional hyperbole. In 1928, the Swedish prime minister Per Albin Hansson spoke of the nation as folkhemmet, an egalitarian “people’s home” defined by “equality, care, cooperation, and helpfulness”—just as in a model family. This idea adds an intimate dimension to citizenship, encouraging people to relate to the state as more than a broker of individual rights and duties. The nation is a giant family, with each citizen feeling personally responsible for the other. Inequality is to be erased by a just patriarch who doesn’t pick favorites: pappa staten, which translates roughly to “papa state.” People on both ends of the political spectrum speak of pappa staten, often with a slight eye roll, as they might refer to their own overbearing, though benevolent, fathers.

But how capacious can pappa staten’s embrace be? Sweden has a history of championing eugenics and violently rejecting those who do not fall in line with the imperatives of the healthy, productive collective. In 1922, the government established the State Institute for Racial Biology, the first eugenics organization founded and run by a nation. The institute was particularly interested in minority groups like the indigenous Sami people and their supposedly inferior genes. Research by the SIRB led to Sweden’s policy of medical sterilization, enshrined in 1934 and only abolished in 1976, which targeted tens of thousands of persons thought “unsuitable” to reproduce because they were of an “inferior race,” “mentally unfit,” or simply “asocial.” Trans persons who sought to legally change their gender were forcibly sterilized in Sweden until 2013.

Hansson didn’t suggest excluding anyone from Sweden’s folkhemmet. But advocates of sterilization often noted the cost of sustaining unwanted populations. Judgments about sterilizing people and removing children from “unsuitable” families—another common practice—often cited race as well as ostentatious dress and behavior. Pappa staten’s generosity only applied to some. Nevertheless, the benevolent, welcoming folkhemmet remained at the heart of Swedish identity at home and abroad. During the twentieth century, Sweden was branded as an egalitarian and humanitarian welfare state, a successful and moderate alternative to free-market capitalism. The potency of this identity was evident in the frenzied aftermath of the 2010 election. Lars Ohly, then leader of the socialist Left Party, said that Sweden had been “contaminated by right-wing winds” from elsewhere in Europe, as though no such opinions could be native to the peaceful country in the north. Scrambling to make sense of the vote, urban media outlets turned the spotlight on disaffected rural whites. As later analyses made clear, however, there were both rich and poor who voted for the far right, and they lived in almost every nook of the country.

When I first heard Segraren, read in the Swedish by the actor Nadia Hussein, I was standing in my kitchen in New York. It was December 2016. I was struck by the resentment that ran through Rohi’s story, exposing cracks in the social fabric that both divide and define the characters. The story resonated with the American news cycle, which was saturated with commentators pointing to white working-class bitterness as the force behind Trump’s election. This explanation, in which an aggrieved group panics over the supposed loss of privilege and power in an era of growing diversity, verged on an excuse for racist aggression. For me, it also brought back feelings from the 2010 Swedish election, which had been on my mind as an eerie precursor to what was now happening in the United States. The Swedish debate did not really use bitterhet, the closest word that the language has to the English “resentment,” but pundits on the left and right pointed to anger, grief, and confusion stemming from unemployment and the crumbling welfare state. Swedes no longer recognized their own country. The right blamed multiculturalism and demographic changes, while the left lamented their parties’ lack of vision. “Today, fascism is Sweden’s only future-oriented ideology,” wrote the historian Henrik Arnstad in 2010, as the country’s largest parties—the center-left Social Democrats and its biggest rival, right-wing Moderaterna—bid on nostalgia, harking back to an earlier era defined by the welfare state without addressing contemporary globalized reality.

In Sweden and the United States, I saw a desire to dignify a particular form of white resentment: in its zero-sum logic, far-right voters were presented as unfairly forced into a downtrodden, subaltern position, if they weren’t already there. Resentment became, as Adam Smith writes, “the safeguard of justice,” something “justly provoked” in a sufferer unfairly wronged. But clearly these sources of trauma—poverty, the foiled attempts at envisioning and creating a future, the failure of the promise of political representation—had been experienced since the foundation of both countries by indigenous populations and other people of color, despite the frequent elision of those narratives in the post-election frenzy for analyses, answers.

Though Rohi’s story is without many concrete details, I can’t help but read the unnamed narrator’s navigation of a newly and openly hostile city as that of a racialized person after a particularly cruel election. Neither race nor political events are explicitly named, but Swedes who listen to the original will likely think of their home country: since the 1980s, Sweden has welcomed almost two million immigrants and refugees, first from countries like Iran, Chile, Lebanon, Poland, and the Balkans. As world politics changed, so did those seeking protection; more recently, they’ve come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. But, once again, folkhemmet’s open arms were predicated on a narrow definition of assimilation, and immigrants found that they had to give up their previous identities if they wanted to belong. Rohi’s story explores the suspicion of otherness that undergirds that condition, a suspicion that has confronted immigrants and refugees multiple times in the past decade: after terror attacks, around officially permitted Nazi marches, and through the accretion of more or less subtle everyday racism. In the monologue, I hear a consideration of a lesser-heard resentment, an interrogation of an otherwise broadly accepted one-sidedness.

The script of “The Victor” is chatty, replete with the filler words that are more common and more plentiful in a certain register of Swedish than they are in a similar register of American English. I share this way of talking with the narrator (our sociolects are so similar that I could almost model her English on mine); the filler words are so typical of the young, educated, urban middle class that they hardly registered when I listened to the monologue. Reading it, therefore, was quite strange. In the first part of “The Victor,” Rohi’s narrator litters every sentence with ba, a, dårå, liksom, alltså, and especially ju. As fillers, they all perform some variant of what in English is accomplished by “anyway,” “so,” “yeah,” “kind of,” and “like.” The relaxed register brings the speaker and the listener closer together. Ju, in particular, has this function: the word lacks a satisfying English equivalent, but indicates that what is being said is something the listener should already know or be aware of. Consider “Alltså gamlingarna dom kunde ju inte argumentera för fem öre, det var ju helt tragiskt,” which I translated as, “And I mean those two, they couldn’t hold their own in an argument for the life of them. It was pretty tragic, to be honest.” The speaker interpellates the listener as aligned with the speaker. Of course you’d agree that these people are not very intelligent. Right? As the story progresses and the anger builds and becomes more righteous, these filler words disappear, as though the speaker no longer cares whether the listener agrees or not. She knows she is right. She cuts her losses. Her rage is expressed in short sentences and clipped rhetorical questions—syntactic expressions of emotional turbulence shared by both languages, requiring few pirouettes to bring the rhythm of the Swedish into the English.

Broadly speaking, though, my narrator is neater than her Swedish sister. In English, there is less variety in the markers available to communicate the casualness and intimacy that characterize the original Swedish. Too many instances of “like,” “you know,” “I mean,” and “honestly” could make the speaker sound ditzy, just as an overabundance of swear words in the English might make her sound younger, or perhaps of a different social class. Draft by draft, the fillers dropped from my translation. I changed other things: I inflated the number of YouTube views of the clip of the initial encounter with the white couple, as the original number felt proportionate to a Swedish audience but in English sounded small. I chose not to include Swedish geographical markers. Vasastan has become “uptown,” Norrland “up north.” Stadsbiblioteket, the Gunnar Asplund–designed building at Odenplan in Stockholm became, simply, “the library.”

The translator and theorist Lawrence Venuti termed these kinds of moves strategies of “domestication”: I am massaging the text to make it more comfortable for an English-language reader-listener. This is often thought of as a sin for a translator; instead, Venuti argues for making visible the translation as such. The effect is to emphasize the norms of the culture of the language into which the work is being translated, as well as the perception of the stability of its linguistic conventions. To domesticate the text is to serve the nationalistic project of erasing heterogeneity, thus repeating “the conceptual violence that occurs whenever the unity of a nation is proclaimed, whether at its founding moment or subsequently in its cultural and political institutions,” Venuti writes.

In the original, the underlying question of who gets to be resentful challenges the Swedish nationalist narrative. Through much of the story, the nonwhite narrator’s resentment over being denied full recognition as a citizen in her home country simmers just beneath the surface, threatening to erupt as full-blown anger—which eventually happens. The “boiling lava stream,” to use the narrator’s own image, gushes from what seemed to me a quintessentially Swedish place, related to the fraught history of folkhemmet’s welfare state. I worried that domesticating the story for the American context would compromise the text. And yet there were reasons for using this kind of strategy. For one, I was translating with the idea of the story being performed as a monologue. If you stumble at the foreignness of “Stadsbiblioteket” when you sound your way through the story, the effect is distinct from that of a performer haltingly reading. We could have avoided breaking the fourth wall by choosing a Swedish-speaking actor, perhaps even someone who, though reading in English, sounded Swedish. This truly would have marked the translation as being from a different linguistic place. But I wondered if many listeners would hear a blonde, pale-skinned girl if they heard the narrow vowels and soft j’s that characterize a Swedish accent in English, no matter the actual diversity of the owners of such accents today.

Furthermore, I was interested in the resonance of this story within the U.S. context. When I heard Segraren while chopping garlic at home in Brooklyn, I briefly forgot what language I was listening to, and the story, for all its Swedishness, sounded like it could have taken place on a J train traveling across the East River. I was curious about what emotionality the piece would take on if it were performed in U.S. English. The post-election interplay of racism and resentment in the United States seemed to have so much in common with the situation in Sweden, and yet I knew that the histories that created the political climate in each nation are very different.

While most translators work from a language acquired later in life, I translate from my mother tongue, Swedish, and into my second language, English. Does this fact, and the similarity between Rohi’s narrator’s Swedish and the way of speaking that I automatically adopt when I visit Stockholm, give me more of a license in translating than I otherwise would have? Emotionally, perhaps: the practice of translation is often spoken of as embodiment, and for me it was easy to slip into the narrator’s idiom. But comfort is treacherous: the speaker and I are “basically the same” in the way that she and the mom idealized by her aggressors are “basically the same.” That is, we are different in that I do not share the speaker’s embodied experience of being othered in my home. Or, I am white and she is not.

That knife’s blade of difference is central to the story. My distance from the blade was highlighted when my editor expressed incredulity about the narrator not having understood until after the election what was meant by the bus driver shutting the doors in her face; by the middle school teacher being so mean to her, and only to her. Shouldn’t a lifetime of experiences add up to an analyzable pattern? He felt that the delayed realization made her unbelievable.

I could point to the nationalist exceptionalism that underpins Swedish identity, one that, coupled with the lack of public acknowledgment of racism, might make such a pattern indiscernible. I could underscore the class perspective, which also runs through the story. There are many Swedes who don’t have the luxury of misinterpreting acts of racism directed toward them, but living her entire life among urban, middle-class Swedes who present themselves as tolerant and inclusive, the narrator wouldn’t necessarily have realized the extent of the animosity in the country, even among those she encountered daily. Nobody wants to feel like a stranger in her own land, and folkhemmet doesn’t facilitate the airing of conflicts; the homogeneity of the family is prioritized over the actual variety of the Swedish citizenry. Still, I have not myself lived under the weight of this hostility, and, moreover, a lack of public recognition does not necessarily entail a private one. In the end, as a translator, I can only trust my writer.

Despite the cross-cultural legibility between Sweden and the United States, the exchanges with my editor over the narrator’s dramatic realization made clear just how much difference still exists despite the similarities. Rohi and I decided to tone down the sharpness of the narrator’s discovery ever so slightly. But does erasing this aspect of the narrator’s experience make the work somehow less of a translation? At some point, is a translation no longer a translation, but something else? I was left to ask whether I was wrong to erase some of the source’s Swedishness. Having finished the translation nearly a year ago, I now wonder how keeping the monologue as Swedish-sounding as possible would have altered this situation: is it easier to tolerate something that seems implausible when it’s presented as completely separate from you, as opposed to when difference is small, incremental, and adjacent to your own experience? With such a translation, a listener might not have measured believability against her own experience, and therefore might be more willing to suspend disbelief. But such a translation, perhaps emphasized as “translation,” i.e., foreign, might be passed over by the listener as such, dismissed as an irregularity without expanding the scope of the receiving culture.

This question—what kinds of difference are allowed to pass?—is at the center of “The Victor.” The supposedly all-encompassing folkhemmet’s contradictions, the assortment of inclusions and exclusions, are explored through a narrative that slips between certainties and slides between righteousness and shame. If my translation has tended toward domestication, I hope that exposing my own stakes and hesitations in this labor might restore some of the original ambiguity and, despite the easy transposition into American English, render the translation recognizable as something foreign.

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  • “The Victor,” by Pooneh Rohi. Translated by Kira Josefsson and performed by Kaneza Schaal.

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