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Making Danish Sound American

Date: Nov 15, 2010


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When they discovered Andreas Garfield's play Home Sweet Home, about a Danish soldier returning from Iraq, the Scandinavian American Theater Company knew they'd found a play that encapsulated their mission. They knew the show's dark drama could both resonate with American audiences and engage them in a conversation about Scandinavia. And most importantly, they knew they wanted to produce it as quickly as possible.

The only problem was the English translation of the script. "It was filled with clichés and things you might hear in a bad movie if you live abroad" says Lisa Pettersson, an actress and SATC co-founder.

Pettersson plays Iben, a magazine editor who opposes the war and is settling into pleasant suburban life with her boyfriend Kim. Things change, however, when Kim's best friend Carsten, a captain in the Danish army, confronts them with his unsettling new worldview. Carsten's provocative attitude is partly inspired by Garfield's interviews with actual soldiers, which give the script a distinct voice. "There’s a lot of subtle humor and irony, and I felt like it just wasn’t captured at all in the translation," Pettersson says.

She decided to translate the play herself. Originally from Sweden, she also speaks Danish and English, and SATC's other six founders cross just as many cultures. Together, they aim to be the go-to source for Scandinavian theatre artists living in the U.S.

That can't happen, of course, unless they mount Scandinavian plays that sound natural to American ears.

With that in mind, Pettersson tried to follow the spirit of Garfield's play, even when she avoided a literal translation. "For him, it’s not so much about the exact wording," she says. "It’s about the sense of it, the slang. It’s about the expression."

In the play, for example, Carsten avoids talking about what has happened to him and why he’s been sent home from the war. Pettersson took note of repeated phrases like det er fint which translates to "it’s fine," or det gik fint nok, which means "it’s all good." She decided that "it’s fine" felt more appropriate in both cases.

"American English is flatter and broader, and it’s the same way with Danish," she explains. "You sort of draw out your words and you don’t really swallow them. There’s this relaxed feeling."   In contrast, she says her native Swedish is similar to British English, more proper-sounding and upright.

All these languages create a fascinating dynamic onstage. The actor playing Carsten is Danish and trained at the Danish Theater School in Copenhagen, while the actor playing Kim is American. Pettersson, meanwhile, identifies as Swedish-American, and Christoffer Berdal, the director, is Danish. (Home Sweet Home is his U.S. directorial debut)

The play, which is being produced at PS 122's 9th Street space, is performed entirely in English, and Pettersson hopes the story will illustrate Denmark’s complex role in the Middle East. "I don’t know how many Americans know that Denmark has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan," she says. "In a way, American soldiers and Danish soldiers are having a shared experience in Iraq, but they come from very different backgrounds, and also, they see differently when they get back."

While Garfield’s script and Pettersson’s translation offer plenty of emotional fodder, the actress hopes her performance will maintain some of the "sleekness" of her Swedish roots. In America, she’s noticed there’s a tendency to “kind of go with the emotion, instead of playing against it.” Never one for melodrama, Pettersson finds resistance more interesting, and that's what she wants to bring to the stage.


Laura Hedli is a journalist based in New York City