Can you translate English to Swedish directly?
If you’re like me, you’ve spent a ton of time building up your Swedish vocabulary. You’ve studied sentence structure, grammar, memorized those pesky “en or ett” words, and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself.
When you build up the confidence to finally talk to a native Swedish speaker, you get nothing but a blank stare. Maybe they’ll answer you… in English.
This is the point I’ve become stuck in my learning, and I’ve finally figured out what is going on. Even though what I’ve said is technically correct, I may be translating an English phrase directly in a way that a native Swedish speaker would never even think of. At this point it just takes time, conversation, and immersion to soak in all the small quirks and phrases that make up the natural flow of the language.
To incorporate this idea into my study, I’ve come up with an exercise that I hope helps improve familiarity with a few different ways to say the same thing.
I’ll be taking a look at a few famous movie quotes and examining how I would translate them directly from English, how a Swedish speaker would probably say them, and some different ways to think about the tone and nuance of what is appropriate for the context.
The Princess Bride, how hard can it be?
The first quote I want to explore is from possibly one of the most quotable movies in existence, so I’ll pick something simple to start with to get warmed up. Should be easy right?
Not so fast.
There is an incredible amount of nuance in just a few words, and you need to take into account the context of the scene, what words require more emphasis, and the overall tone. There are multiple ways to say the same thing, and just as in real life conversation, the technically correct words may not be the best choice.
So here we go with the first quote: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
“My name is Inigo Montoya.”
As an English speaker, the most natural way to introduce ourselves is by saying “I am ____”. My first instinct when starting to learn Swedish was to say “Jag är Benjamin”. This does not seem to work at all when introducing yourself in Swedish. You learn the word “heter” (basically “to be called something”), and are taught to say “jag heter ___”.
Later on I was taught that you can actually say “mitt namn är ____” (my name is ____), but that it would sound fairly odd to native Swedish speakers to introduce myself that way.
When translating the first part of this line, I wanted to switch things around to the more natural sounding “Jag heter Inigo Montoya”. However, the dramatic tone of this scene calls for adding emphasis to the name, not to make it sound as though he’s casually introducing himself. To get the emphasis correct I would translate the line as “Mitt namn är Inigo Montoya”.
This is a good time to mention that I am still in the learning process myself. I’m hoping these posts will spark conversation and new ideas, but I urge you to discuss all of these phrases with teachers or Swedish speaking friends. I have pestered my girlfriend and friends endlessly about “what word sounds better here?”, and you should too.
“You killed my father.“
This part is fairly straightforward, except there can be a choice of words to use for “killed”. You could translate it as “dödade”, which is the more natural translation for the word “killed”, but what is the context here?
When using dödade without any further context, it could mean killed by accident, or killed on purpose. Although the tone comes through in English, it could sound vague when translated. When he says accusingly “you killed my father”, the intent sounds more like “you murdered my father”, leaving no room for interpretation. I would choose to translate this as “Du mördade min far” to fit the drama of the scene better, but you could choose either.
Prepare to die.
Such a simple three word line turned out to be the biggest translation headache of them all. English speakers are just not used to having to use reflexive verbs, or learning new phrasal verbs (partikelverb), but that’s unfortunately what has to happen here.
“Att förbereda” means “to prepare”, and the imperative tense is “förbered”, so my first thought using English sentence structure was “Förbered att dö”. Seems simple enough right?
Wrong. So wrong. This is a reflexive verb, so we need to add the object of the sentence, the one that is being prepared. “Förbered dig” would be one way to do this as it’s closer in tone to “prepare yourself” but “bered dig” could also work, being closer to “get ready”.
The catch here is in order to use “bered” in this sense, it’s part of a particle verb phrase “bered på”. Still reflexive, so the entire thing becomes “bered dig på” (get (yourself) ready). Att dö (to die) is relatively trouble free to add on the end, so our whole phrase could be “Bered dig på att dö”. A note here after a conversation with a friend – this is technically correct, but maybe sounds a little old fashioned.
This is an okay translation but it still sounds a little passive. You could use “var redo” (be ready), so this phrase becomes “var redo att dö”. (be ready to die.) Still slightly passive, and not quite fitting with the drama of the scene. We really want to emphasise the get ready feeling here. Let’s make the construction a little more active.
“Gör dig redo att dö” (Make yourself ready to die) feels the closest of all to fitting the tone in this scene. It’s important to remember that in Swedish “gör” can stand in for both “do” and “make” in English. This is a super common mistake that always tripped me up, and actually one I hear most Swedish speakers switch around when speaking English. (t.ex. “I don’t want to do a mistake”, vs “I don’t want to make a mistake.”)
“Gör dig redo att dö” feels the most active and almost menacing out of all these phrases, so this is what I would likely choose to translate for “prepare to die”.
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
So lets recap the possible variations for what was supposed to be a short and simple quote. I’ll give the Swedish version, then the most literal English translation
- My name is Inigo Montoya
- Jag heter Inigo Montoya – I am called Inigo Montoya
- Mitt namn är Inigo Montoya – My name is Inigo Montoya
- You killed my father.
- Du dödade min far – You killed my father
- Du mördade min far – You murdered my father
- Prepare to die.
- Förbered dig att dö – Prepare yourself to die
- Bered dig på att dö – Get ready to die
- Var redo att dö – Be ready to die
- Gör dig redo att dö – Make yourself ready to die
Hopefully this was a thought provoking look at how to think carefully about what you want to say, and gives you some tools to practice saying the same thing a ton of different ways.
I received a ton of replies when I asked for favorite movie quotes, so I’ll be making my way through those soon! Stay tuned for way more of these posts, there’s a ton of material to work with.