The three Scandinavian languages are well-known for their similarities. But what are the pitfalls to their supposed mutual intelligibility, and what does this mean for translation agencies and their clients? Is it necessary to translate into all three languages, or is one better than the others? And while we’re at it, just why are they so expensive, anyway?

Norwegian, Swedish and Danish flags – From Wikipedia.

Scandinavian languages – a package deal?

Wherever you go in Europe, no matter who you ask, the perception around Scandinavian languages is increasingly that they are but one and the same – after all, TV these days is full of Swedish cops collaborating with their Danish counterparts or patchwork Nordic families speaking different dialects but all understanding each other just fine. The Dano-American actor Viggo Mortensen boasts that he speaks seven languages – but we all know it’s cheating to include Swedish, Danish and Norwegian separately, right!?

Indeed, Swedish Danish and Norwegian are all off-shoots from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, and they do share a great deal of mutual intelligibility. Their vocabularies are very similar and they have common rules around grammar and syntax, albeit each with their own idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. But even so, cut Viggo some slack and don’t believe everything you see and hear on TV – the differences between the three languages are stark, and there is much scope for misunderstanding.

Just consider all the false friends, for example. When a Swede says something is rolig, they mean it’s fun – entertaining, perhaps even raucous. Danes and Norwegians, on the other hand, take this word to mean calm, peaceful or serene. For them, this is a word for describing spa weekends, not theme parks, so you can just imagine the chaos this little term can cause. Equally a source of great confusion, frukost means breakfast in Swedish while the almost identical frokost means lunch in Danish. Then there’s words like rar which can mean cute in Swedish, nice in Danish and strange in Norwegian – totally rar, right? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The tip of the iceberg – From JumpStory.

Three languages, three ways to get your wires crossed.

But these are just isolated words, you say, and surely any confusion will quickly be quelled by context. Maybe so, but false friends are also just the first of three major stumbling blocks between the languages. Pronunciation and spelling can be a great source of frustration, too.

For instance, melodic Norwegian and Swedish speakers have great difficulty understanding the more guttural sounds of Danish, which they affectionately say sounds like their own languages spoken while chomping down on a hot potato or after one too many beers. The reason for this is that Danish pronunciation has its own unique phonology, complete with glottal stops and a great deal of dissonance between how things are spelt and what they actually sound like when spoken. In fact, such is the disconnect between the written and spoken language that studies have shown Danish kids actually pick up new words at a much slower pace compared to children in other European countries.*

Okay, alright, so forget spoken language, you say. This is the 21st century, we all use email and messaging apps to communicate nowadays anyway. And sure enough, when written down the Scandinavian languages do look very similar. Except this time, it’s Sweden’s turn to play the lone wolf. While Danish and Norwegian both use the same special characters (Æ, Ø and Å) and share many spellings, Sweden often does its own thing entirely. It uses different special characters (Ä, Ö and Å) and it diverges from its neighbours on vocabulary, borrowing more words from French and often standardising words of Germanic origin which are niche in Danish and Norwegian. Add to this the fact that Norwegian has two standard forms of spelling and it quickly comes apparent that written communication is no walk in the park either.

The Scandimix solution

So the long and short of it is that Viggo Mortensen is just right – Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are sufficiently different to be considered distinct languages, and the idea that all three nations can understand each other just fine is a fallacy cooked up to shill Nordic Noir abroad. The question, then, is what does this mean for companies looking to edge in on the Scandinavian market, and for the translation agencies who are there to help them?

The trick answer to this question is to translate all three into one single blend, otherwise known as Scandimix. A pragmatic solution born out of necessity, this is an approach which recognises that all three languages are different but nonetheless insists on rolling them up and forcing them together into one hulking yet unified package. It is an art-form largely relegated to product labels where there is a need to communicate with consumers from all three countries but not enough space to print each language separately.

Typically, it works like this: A Danish linguist writes or translates a text. They then pass this on to a Norwegian linguist who adds whatever tweaks or additions they need to add to make the text understandable in their language. Finally, a Swedish linguist does the same, often adding a great deal of new text given how much of a lone wolf Swedish is when it comes to spelling. The end result might look something like this:

Rengörande/rensende handgel

Effektiv rengöring/rensning av händerna utan behov av att skölja/skylle.

Bidrar till att fukta/fugte/fukte och rengöra/rense huden, den första skyddsbarriären/beskyttelsesbarriere mot yttre organismer.

Neat, right? And it works just fine on a bottle of shampoo or printed onto a box of delicious, Danish liquorice. But there are plenty of places where it doesn’t work so well. Like in a glossy brochure, for example. Not just because it will give your readers a migraine after a paragraph or two of having to cut through so much additional noise, but also because the number of linguists needed will quickly push up the price of an already expensive language pair.

There is no silver bullet

So if all three languages are different and stitching them together gives us nothing but an ugly and messy hybrid akin to some kind of Nordic Frankenstein, what’s the answer for companies looking to translate on a budget? Well, the sad news is there is no silver bullet. As we’ve seen, all three languages have their quirks, and none can reach across borders in a way that comes anything close to the native experience. And at the end of the day, that’s what translation is all about – reaching people in that genuine and familiar way which you simply cannot hack.

Companies wanting to reach the Scandinavian market will therefore need to choose one, two or all three of the languages depending on their specific product and aspirations. Perhaps Swedish, given its larger population of ten million compared to around five million for Norway and Denmark respectively. Or maybe Danish, since it’s more standardised than Norwegian yet still largely intelligible to Norwegian speakers. Not to mention the fact that it’s also used as an official language in Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and thus somewhat more international in its reach.

For many, Norwegian combines the best of both worlds – the singy-songy intonation of Swedish and the standard spelling of Danish. In fact, it’s often referred to lovingly as the middle child of the Scandi family: the bridge between sensible older Sweden and young, rebellious Denmark. One drawback, however, is that Norway is not in the EU, and over time this has meant that Norwegian has been cut adrift from processes of term harmonisation – which is a factor worth keeping in mind when it comes to highly technical or specialised texts.

Pricey but rewarding language pairs

Amongst so much uncertainty, there is one thing you can bank on – no matter which language gets picked, the bill won’t be cheap. The Scandinavian countries all have highly advanced economies with their own currencies, and Norway in particular is often recognised as being among the wealthiest countries in the world. Taxes and the cost of living in these nations are much higher than in other European countries and this gets reflected in the price, as does the fact that Scandinavian language translators are a scarce resource compared to translators in other language pairs.

All of these factors combined means that not only will you be wishing you had Viggo Mortensen’s language skills, but his wallet as well. Yet despite the high costs and the mutually intelligible headaches, another certainty when it comes to translating the Scandinavian languages is that there are enormous rewards to be reaped. The Scandis may be a tricky folk to reach in their own respective languages, but companies who make the effort will be richly rewarded in the form of lucrative revenue streams and fruitful collaborations with innovative thinkers.

Viggo Mortensen 2020 – From Wikipedia.

So there you have it – Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are three very similar yet very different languages. They each have their own unique personalities and while they can be rolled uncomfortably into one, they work best when cut loose to do their own thing. It would be fool-hardy to think that a one-size-fits-all solution can be grabbed right off the shelf, but with a bit of guidance and careful consideration, a perfectly rar solution is usually within reach.

* https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-child-language/article/abs/early-vocabulary-development-in-danish-and-other-languages-a-cdibased-comparison/D12A283664A8BA4A695D0DDF3378555A

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