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Up Against The Wall

17th December 2019

Even for the most articulate among us, multilingual communication presents a minefield.

Last week TIME Magazine named Greta Thunberg as its person of the year for 2019. She became the latest name on a list that features, among others, Queen Elizabeth II, Bill Gates and fifteen US Presidents. At the age of just sixteen, Greta has made a remarkable impact on global awareness of climate change. Her passionate public speaking informs, cajoles and persuades. It’s sometimes easy to forget that she’s speaking in a second language, but now we’ve had a reminder.

While speaking at a climate change event in Turin, Greta commented that world leaders who refused to acknowledge global warming and its consequences should be “put up against a wall”. In her native Swedish, this form of words means that people should be held accountable for their actions, but in English the connotations are far more threatening. When the error was pointed out to her she immediately acknowledged it and apologised – something many politicians could learn from – and no one seriously believes that this young woman spoke with sinister intent.

It is a reminder, though, that even for the most articulate among us, multilingual communication presents a minefield.

Linguists will be aware that many Swedish words have no equivalent in English. “Vobba” is a combination of “jobba” (to work) and “vabba” (to stay at home and take care of a sick child). So vobba means to take a day of paid leave to look after your child, and to work from home while doing it. It’s refreshing that Swedish employers are prioritising parenting and work/life balance to the point where new language is being built around those priorities, but it’s a conundrum for translators.

On a less wholesome note, “vaska” is the word for buying two bottles of champagne in a bar and having one poured down a sink to show off how affluent you are. It’s an incredibly specific word for an incredibly foolish act, and in the more exclusive bars of Stockholm it comes up more often than you might expect.

Greta Thunberg isn’t old enough to buy champagne, of course, and she doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who would condone vanity or waste. She’s a very worthy winner of TIME magazine’s award, and she’s earned the right to be heard. But like all of us, she still needs to be careful with her language. No one needs to be put up against the wall for the simplest of mistakes.


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