To Kill a Child, by Stig Dagerman
February 2, 2014 1:45 PM   Subscribe

To Kill a Child, by Stig Dagerman (Wikipedia). Translated by Steven Hartman. For a meager fee of seventy-five kronor Dagerman was commissioned by the National Society for Road Safety to write a cautionary tale as part of a campaign designed to get Swedish motorists to slow down on highways when speeding was becoming an increasingly difficult social issue with serious consequences for public safety. What could have been an ephemeral and gimmicky work of public service fiction became perhaps the greatest short short story in the history of Swedish letters, for in this tale Dagerman took the simple redressing of a particular social problem as the starting point rather than as an end in itself and out of these mundane materials created a poignant tale of choice, chance, and human loss that rises to the highest levels of art, literary balance, and philosophical concision.
posted by russilwvong (13 comments total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
While hunger-riots are sensational, hunger itself is not sensational, and what poverty-stricken and bitter people here think becomes interesting only when poverty and bitterness break out in a catastrophe. Journalism is the art of coming too late as early as possible. I’ll never master that.

posted by philip-random at 1:56 PM on February 2, 2014 [22 favorites]

'Wow' is what I thought, too.

This is the finest PSA for not speeding ever put to paper.
posted by Catblack at 2:13 PM on February 2, 2014

A superb story, and now I want to read German Autumn. Awful to learn that he committed suicide at 31. Thanks for the post.
posted by languagehat at 2:39 PM on February 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Brutal and apt.
posted by localroger at 2:47 PM on February 2, 2014

If that is the translation, I shudder to think how impactful it must be in Swedish.
posted by bystander at 4:35 PM on February 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Afterward everything is too late.

posted by ottereroticist at 6:05 PM on February 2, 2014

We read this as an assignment in my undergraduate Swedish language class. The fact that it was readable by students only three months into their language course shows how some of the impact at least comes from use of very simple matter-of-fact language.
posted by lollusc at 6:46 PM on February 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

If that is the translation, I shudder to think how impactful it must be in Swedish

I read this story now for the first time, the original as well as the translation since Swedish is my native tongue. The translation is overall a faithful one, although I think I would have chosen a couple of words differently. The faces in the villages on their way home aren't unfriendly as much as they are void of joy, and the "somehow" has been added to the second-to-last sentence as if to bolster it a bit. I'm not one to pass judgement though, as my English isn't good enough for it.

Many years ago I took a university class in practical Swedish writing. It was for native Swedes and at a fairly high level, so more about stylistics than learning the basics of the language. One of the assignments was to a translate a text from English to Swedish, and the English "original" turned out to be a translated piece by Dagerman that we had to bring back to Swedish. He has this style where the scenes are assembled from distinct and detailed observations of the environment, but the mood of the text is shaped by repetition and rhythm. I think I can see why that mix of dry precision and stylistic methods was chosen as an exercise in translation. He's also recent and modern enough that his vocabulary doesn't feel too outdated.
posted by Herr Zebrurka at 7:33 PM on February 2, 2014 [14 favorites]

Reads a bit like the metafiction of Calvino.

But yeah: Wow. And tremendous empathy.
posted by dhartung at 9:34 PM on February 2, 2014

That's remarkable. Thanks for posting it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:48 PM on February 2, 2014

Inexorable and pitiless in its progression. Stern stuff beautifully crafted.
posted by Wolof at 1:12 AM on February 3, 2014

Why is everything done by Scandanavian governments amazing? They solicit a PSA and it ends up being a contribution to world literature.
If this was done in the US, the PSA would have featured an anthropomorphic dog rapping about how speeding "isn't cool so don't be a fool."
Do ligonberries stimulate the portions of the brain that govern public mindedness? Does corn syrup suppress them?
posted by vorpal bunny at 8:07 AM on February 3, 2014 [11 favorites]

Seconding Herr Zebrurka. My English is good enough, and I disapprove of the paradiddles on this translation. But livstycke? Surely no one says that any more?
posted by alloneword at 11:35 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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