Translating the In-Betweenness of the Immigrant Experience: a conversation with Jessica Gaitán Johannesson and Electric Lit

“Surprising … Rising from the surp. What is a surp anyways?” The narrator of How We Are Translated by Jessica Gaitán Johannesson questions. The Swedish word for “surprising,” on the other hand, translates to “överraskning”—which, when taken apart into “över” and “raska”—literally translates back to English as “to trod over something.” Word games like this are scattered throughout this debut novel; How We Are Translated formats its many Swedish-English translations into columns, comparing them side by side and using them to illuminate quirks about the narrator’s headspace. Johannesson nimbly plays a game of linguistic telephone, breaking words apart and filtering them through different languages. 

A 24-year-old Swede who recently immigrated to Edinburgh, Kristin can’t stop thinking about language. Johannesson’s introspective and rambling narrator certainly has a lot else on her plate (and Kristin might question here: is this an idiom that exists only in English?). Her partner Ciaran wants to immerse himself in Swedish and refuses to speak English. Her workplace, the National Museum of Immigration, is going through a series of bizarre changes—as if working as a Viking reenactor at a tourist attraction wasn’t surreal enough; Kristin spends her days milking unhappy cows and pretending not to understand English, so that the tourists can have an authentic experience. And, sooner or later, she has to decide what to do about her potential pregnancy. 

Johannesson’s novel acutely points out how “translation” isn’t simply about carrying one language over to another; it’s about how we are constantly translating one another’s words to communicate with each other, and translating our own desires to make sense to ourselves. Taking place through just one eventful week in Kristin’s life, How We Are Translated probes at the messy intersections between immigration, language, reproduction, and our constructions of home. 

Read the full interview here.