The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 02 Mar 2021


Often when I'm reading something that was translated from another language, I get to wondering what the original was. Often this appears in connection with some sort of wordplay. For example, the first chapter of Stanisław Lem's novel The Cyberiad begins:

One day Trurl the constructor put together a machine that could create anything starting with n. When it was ready, he tried it out, ordering it to make needles, then nankeens and negligees, which it did, then nail the lot to narghiles filled with nepenthe and numerous other narcotics. The machine carried out his instructions to the letter. Still not completely sure of its ability, he had it produce, one after the other, nimbuses, noodles, nuclei, neutrons, naphtha, noses, nymphs, naiads, and natrium. This last it could not do, and Trurl, considerably irritated, demanded an explanation.

"Never heard of it," said the machine.

"What? But it's only sodium. You know, the metal, the element..."

"Sodium starts with an s, and I work only in n."

In the end Trurl asks the machine to make “nothing”, which is an important plot point.

Okay, but The Cyberiad was written in Polish. I wondered for years: was it “N” in Polish also? If the Polish word for “nothing” happened to begin with a “W”, then the Polish text would have had to have had a machine that could create anything starting with “W”. Then the translator couldn't keep the “W” the way it was, because the whole point of the story leads up to “nothing”; they have to rewrite the whole thing with “N”.

One day I met the translator, Michael Kandel, and was able to ask. And yes, it was originally “N”; the polish word for “nothing” is nic.

(Here's a related question on SF Stack Exchange. It discusses how the original “N” items turn into their somewhat-similar “N” counterparts in English.)

But anyway, I meant to talk about Pippi Longstocking, which was originally written in Swedish.

Pippi and the Ibex

In one episode, Pippi goes to school, where the teacher tries to teach her the alphabet. She shows her a card with a letter ‘i' and a picture of an ibex. Pippi says:

“I think it looks exactly like a straight line with a little fly speck over it. But what I'd really like to know is, what has the ibex to do with the fly speck?”

Clearly Pippi is describing a lowercase letter ‘i’. “Ibex” is a pretty strange choice of animal, in English or in Swedish, so I wondered: was the picture an ibex in the original Swedish? It turns out it was not! “Ibex” in Swedish is stenbock. In the original Swedish, the picture is an igelkott, a hedgehog.

Well, in the translation I had as a kid, by Florence Lamborn, it was an ibex. But a different English translation (by Tiina Nunnaly) makes it an iguana, and another that I found, by Edna Hurup, contains the following elaborate invention:

[The teacher] therefore brought out a picture of a pretty little green island surrounded by blue water.

My philosophy of translation is opposed to this sort of thing. I will take all sorts of liberties, and I might make up an island if I have to, but having done so I would not describe it in detail as Ms. Hurup did so shamelessly. In the original the hedgehog is not described:

Därför tog hon fram en liten vacker plansch föreställande en igelkott.

(“Therefore, she took out a small, beautiful poster depicting a hedgehog.”)


Today I was thinking about Pippi, and I recalled that one of her goals in attending school was to learn “pluttification”:

“Hey, everybody,” hollered Pippi, swinging her big hat. "Am I in time for pluttification?”

In English “pluttification” is obviously Pippi's misunderstanding of “multiplication”:

“All kinds of things,” said the officer. “Lots of useful things, like the multiplication tables, for instance.”

“I've been fine for nine years without any pluttification tables,” said Pippi…

What was pluttification in Swedish?

It turns out, it wasn't any different. The Swedish for “multiplication tables” is multiplikationstabellen.

”Hejsvejs”, hojtade Pippi och svängde sin stora hatt. ”Kommer jag lagom till pluttifikationen?”

Pippi's Name

Long ago I wondered about Pippi's full name, which in the Lamborn version I read was:

Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking

The original Swedish was:

Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter Långstrump

and the English was a fairly close translation. Viktualier is “victuals”, and I think turning it into “Delicatessa” is clever. (Viktualia is actually a real Swedish name, although quite rare.) Rullgardina is exactly “windowshade”. (Literally “roll-curtain”.) Krusmynta is a nonsense compound of krus (see below) and mynta (mint). I thought that krus was “mackerel” but I can't find anyone to agree with me; everyone says that the Swedish for “mackerel” is makrill, as in most European languages.

The Nunnaly translation has:

Pippilotta Comestibles Windowshade Curlymint Ephraimsdaughter Longstocking

“Commestibles” is terrible, but “Curlymint” is just fine, because krusig is indeed “curly”.

The Hurup translation says:

Pippilotta Provisionia Gaberdina Dandeliona Ephraimsdaughter Longstocking

I don't like “Provisionia”, but it can be defended as a more literal translation than “Delicatessa”. I can't imagine why Hurup decided to replace “Windowshade Curlymint” with “Gaberdina Dandeliona”.

English Wikipedia has a whole section about this if you are not tired of it yet.


I recall that in the version I read, Captain Ephraim was "formerly the Terror of the Seas, and now a cannibal king", and that the original Swedish version of “cannibal king” was negerkung, “king of the negroes”. Mathilda Haraldsson's undergraduate thesis describes this as a “quite strong expression”, but adds that in the 1940s neger was considered inoffensive. (Recall that in the United States at the time, “negro” was the polite term.) It does appear that some people today consider negerkung offensive. And in any case it was never accurate; the people in question are not Africans, but Polynesians. In the Swedish version I looked at just now, the word has been changed to söderhavskung, “King of the South Seas”.

To me the most offensive part of all this is Lamborn's description of Ephraim's subjects as “cannibals” . As far as I can tell, the original Swedish says nothing about cannibalism, and this is a disgusting and completely unnecessary invention. Nunnaly makes it just “king of the natives” but Hurup inexplicably retains “Cannibal King”.

Norwegian Wikipedia has an article about Lindgren's use of negerkung, but Swedish Wikipedia does not!

[ Addendum: I just noticed that my discussion of the cannibal thing omits the word “racist”. This was an oversight. The cannibal thing is racist. ]

[ Addendum 20210303: Justin Pearson, Anders Nielsen, and Adam Sjøgren have each informed me that krusmynta is not a nonsense compound as I said. It is a standard term for spearmint. Also, is not Swedish Wikipedia. The language code for Swedish is sv. Wikipedia SE is Northern Sami Wikipedia. ]

[ Addendum 20230507: The official Astrid Lindgren web site says “Did you know? Pippi's full name is: Pippilotta Victoriaria Tea-cosy Appleminta Ephraim’s-daughter Longstocking”. I have nothing good to say about any of this. ]

[ Addendum 20230509: Wikipedia informs me that, in English, spearmint is sometimes called “mackerel mint", so it is clear now that Lamborn's translation of krusmynta is quite literal. I applaud her choice of the alliterative and rhythmic “mackerelmint” instead of the mundane “spearmint”. ]

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