Swimming race to disappointment

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This story of a swimming race to disappointment is an essay in literary translation. Five pages (pp20-25) from Överlevarna (The Survivors), a novel by Alex Schulman. As far as I can discover Överlevarna (published in 2020) is not available in translation.

Cover of book: Alex Schulman Överlevarna

Swimming race

“Wait,” Dad said, taking off his wristwatch. “I’ll keep time.”

He pressed the tiny buttons of the digital watch with his oversized thumbs, muttering “hell” to himself when he couldn’t get it to work. He looked up.

“On your marks.”

Benjamin and Pierre shoved one another, trying to get a favorable starting position.

“None of that,” Dad said. “No pushing.”

“Or we’ll just forget it,” said Mum, still sitting at the table, refilling her glass.

The brothers were seven, nine and thirteen, and when they played football or cards together, they could nowadays end up fighting so hard that Benjamin felt something break between them. The stakes were raised further when Dad pitted the brothers against each other, when he made it clear that he wanted to find out which of his sons was best at something.

“On your marks… Steady… Go!”

Benjamin rushed down towards the lake with his two brothers close behind. Out into the water. He heard the shouts behind him, Mum and Dad from the shore.

“Bravo!”

“Go for it!”

Fish

A few quick steps and the sharp stony bottom disappeared beneath him. It was June-cold in the bay, and a little farther out, the strange streams of even colder water, coming and going, as if the lake were something alive that wanted to test him with different kinds of cold. The white Styrofoam buoy lay still in the mirror-clear lake before them. The brothers had released it a few hours earlier when they were casting nets with their father, but Benjamin didn’t remember them putting it so far out. They swam in silence, saving energy. Three heads in the black water, the cries from the shore growing more distant.

After a while, the sun disappeared behind the trees on the other side. The light shifted and suddenly they were swimming in different lake. Benjamin found the water strange. Abruptly he was conscious of what might be happening below him, the creatures down there that might not want them up here.

He thought of all the times he had sat in the boat with his brothers while his father picked fish out of the net and tossed them into the bucket. And the brothers would lean forward and look at the sharp little fangs of the pike, the spiny fins of the perch. Some of the fish thrashed suddenly and the brothers jumped back and screamed, and Dad, frightened by their sudden cries, yelled himself in surprise. And then calm again, he muttered as he fiddled with the net, “You can’t be afraid of fish.” Benjamin thought that these creatures were now swimming right beside him or right under him, hidden by the murky water. The white buoy, suddenly pink in the twilight, was still far away.

Chill

After a few minutes of swimming, the starting field had stretched out – Nils was well ahead of Benjamin who had left Pierre trailing behind. But when darkness suddenly came and the cold began to sting their thighs, the brothers closed in again. Soon they were once more swimming close together. They might not even think about it, and they would never admit it to each other, but they weren’t about to leave one another alone in the water.

Islands in summer dusk illustration
Islands in summer dusk

Their heads sank deeper. Their arm movements became shorter. At first the water had foamed with the brothers’ strokes, but now the lake was silent. When they reached the buoy, Benjamin turned and looked back at the cottage. The house like a piece of red lego over there. Only now did he realise how far away it was.

Fatigue came from nowhere. Suddenly it seemed impossible for him to raise his arms to swim. He was so shocked that he forgot how to move his legs, he no longer knew how to do it. A chill from the back of his neck radiated out over the back of his head. He heard his own breathing, how it became shorter and more violent, and an icy realisation filled his chest: he would not be able to make it all the way back to the shore. He saw Nils craning his neck to keep the water out of his mouth.

Too far

“Nils,” Benjamin said. Nils didn’t react, just swam on with his eyes on the sky. Benjamin struggled over to his big brother, they breathed heavily into each other’s faces. Their eyes met and Benjamin saw an unfamiliar fear in his brother’s eyes.

“What’s up?” Benjamin asked.

“I don’t know…” Nils gasped. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

He reached for the buoy and held on to it with both hands, trying to rest on it, but it wouldn’t support his weight and sank into the darkness below him. He looked inland.

“I can’t,” Nils gasped under his breath. “It’s too far.”

Long strokes

Benjamin tried to remember what he had learned in swimming school, during the teacher’s long lectures on water safety.

“We have to be calm,” he told Nils. “Take longer strokes. Breathe more deeply.”

He glanced at Pierre.

“How are you doing?”

“I’m scared,” Pierre said.

“So am I,” Benjamin replied.

“I don’t want to die!” Pierre cried. His wet eyes just above the surface of the water.

“Come here,” said Benjamin. “Come close to me.”

The three brothers drew together in the water.

“We’ll help each other,” Benjamin said.

They swam side by side back toward the shore.

“Long strokes,” said Benjamin. “We’ll take long strokes together.”

Pierre had stopped crying and was now swimming resolutely forward. After a while they found a common rhythm, common strokes, breathing out and breathing in, long breaths.

Benjamin looked at Pierre and laughed.

“Your lips are blue.”

“Yours too.”

They grinned briefly at each other. And concentrated again. Their heads above the surface. Long strokes.

Red cottage by water illustration
Red cottage by water

Forgotten

Benjamin saw the cottage and the small, uneven, grass pitch where he played football every day with Pierre. The potato cellar and the berry bushes to the left, where they used to go in the afternoons to pick raspberries and blackcurrants, coming back with white scratches on their tanned legs. And behind all this the fir trees rose, darkening in the twilight.

The brothers were getting closer to land.

When there were only about fifteen metres left to the water’s edge, Nils set off and began to crawl wildly. Benjamin, surprised, cursed and set off after his brother. Suddenly, the lake was no longer still as the brothers’ struggle towards the shore grew wilder. Pierre was immediately, helplessly behind. Nils swam ahead of Benjamin as they came ashore, and they ran up the slope side by side. Benjamin jerked Nils’s arm to get past, but his brother tore free with a fury that surprised Benjamin. They reached the terrace. They looked around.

Benjamin took a few steps towards the house, peering in through one of the windows. And there, through the kitchen window, he glimpsed the figure of his father, his broad back, where he stood bent over the kitchen counter.

“They’ve gone in,” Benjamin said.

Nils stood with his hands on his knees, catching his breath.

Pierre came panting up the slope. His bewildered gaze swept over the cleared table. There they stood, the brothers, confused. Three uneasy gaspings out in the silence.

Book over ripples illustration

Notes

I translated the above using a combination of on-line translation tools and dictionaries, and a certain amount of “own knowledge”. Next week I’m planning a follow-up article discussing the translation process I used. The subheadings are my own interpolations to satisfy the SEO software on my site that doesn’t like long articles without them. Apart from the cover of Schulman’s book, the illustrations are based on my own photos.


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