Skip to content
Join us on October 26 at 7PM EDT for the 2021 WWB Virtual Gala. Learn more and get your tickets today!

Deciphered Desire

My Norwegian ex-boyfriend always accused me of selective comprehension. If he said something I didn’t want to hear, he claimed, I would forget the vocabulary necessary to translate it. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps that is the chief luxury of socializing in a foreign language: it’s easier to pretend ignorance. We were living together in Oslo, on his turf and in his mother tongue. I’d argue that I was being extra cautious in order to avoid a potentially hurtful mistranslation. I know you know what I said, he’d insist. Usually, I did. And then I’d begin the steps that follow knowing: understanding, translating, thinking, translating, and speaking my split mind.

For the better part of two years I operated entirely in Norwegian, in a self-taught and unstable form of the language that the locals humored. One of those years I spent dating this man from the heart of the country, a man whose regional dialect compelled him to call inanimate objects by “he” or “she” even though formal Norwegian, unlike French, didn’t require it. Selecting a jar of mustard at the supermarket, he’d say, “We’ll take him!” I dislike mustard, but I loved the phrasing.

I often wondered whether my relationships and friendships abroad were boosted by this kind of linguistic pleasure. He liked it when I messed up prepositions. He’d put our hunk of Jarlsberg near the sink, then in the sink, then behind. Then there’d be a quiz. Nær, i, and bak all resembled their English equivalents, but only if I looked closely: the “e” and “a” in “near” switched order; the “c” in “back” and the “n” in “in” disappeared. The words “over” and “under” were the same in both our languages, which felt like having so much in common.

I’d begun studying Norwegian during my first solitary summer in the far north, years before I’d relocated to the more bustling Oslo. I’d become enchanted by the introverted-but-swashbuckling novels of Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize-winning national bard whose malignant politics as a ninety-year-old have complicated his legacy. It was a thrill to read his novels while living in the same towns and territories where Hamsun had lived a century earlier—reading first in English, then terribly slowly in the original. I couldn’t get enough of his sweeping but detailed accounts of isolated emotional lives.

I loved best the passage toward the end of his early novel Hunger, in which the protagonist begs his beloved for permission to kneel before her on the carpet:

Nu går jeg! Nu går jeg! Kan De ikke se, at jeg allerede har Hånden på Låsen? Farvel! Farvel, siger jeg! … jeg viser Dem det Sted, hvor jeg vilde knælet for Dem, der borte på den røde Rose i Tæppet. Jeg peger ikke med Fingeren engang, jeg peger slet ikke, jeg lader det være, for ikke at forskrække Dem, jeg nikker bare og ser derhen, således! Og De forstår meget godt, hvilken Rose, jeg mener, men De vil ikke tillade mig at knæle der…

I’m going! I’m going! Can’t you see I already have my hand on the lock? Farewell! Farewell I say! … I showed you the place where I would have knelt before you, over there on the red rose in the carpet. I’m not pointing with my finger, I’m absolutely not pointing, I’m leaving it be, so as not to frighten you, I only nod and look toward it, like so! And you understand me entirely, which rose, I mean, but you will not allow me to kneel there…


Hamsun relied upon frustration, neglect, and the deep inner recesses of his protagonist’s private personality to express a universal romantic longing. The heroes and heroines of Hamsun’s novels missed each other, more often than not, but their fleeting exchanges built rope bridges between one loneliness and another.

My Norwegian girlfriends told me that my boyfriend belonged to a breed of Norwegian man called kjekk og greie, literally “hot and OK.” It meant that he was upstanding, energetic, idealistic, well-raised, and essentially ordinary—something akin to a Norwegian “bro.” But kjekk og greie didn’t translate to “bro” in my mind. It had more to do with finely knitted sweaters and the Holmenkollen ski jump than baseball caps and frat houses, and in my boyfriend’s case, more to do with a reticent playfulness than a party personality.

I had always been excessively effusive, excessively affectionate—in other words, a touchy-feely breed of New Yorker. In Oslo, I would compliment strangers on their platform sneakers and their ponchos. I soon learned that Norwegians deliver praise in the past tense. It seemed an extension of the country’s social modesty and its cold weather. fin du var (“How fine you were”) was the only way to say, “Right now you look beautiful.” The Crown Prince Håkon had gotten married a few years earlier and included in his speech the phrase, Jeg elsker deg (“I love you”). The Norwegian media was shocked by this explosive declaration of passion.

When my boyfriend and I later wanted to make declarations, they came in phases. First there was Jeg liker deg—“I like you.” Then, a big step: Jeg er glad i deg. Literally, “I am happy in you.” It’s romantic, but noncommittal; sincere, but not serious. It’s as far as most dating couples get. Norwegians can be glad i lots of things: it is common to be happy in waffles, happy in cross-country skiing, happy in tomato mackerel paste. The closest English translation is “fond”— it’s doting, but flexible. 

The day my boyfriend used the verb elske, as the Crown Prince had, he immediately added: and that’s something I never say. New couples have similar queasiness about confessing love in the States. But this elske moment made an impression commensurate to the rareness of the word—I can’t think of a word in English used as sparingly. We’ve been broken up now for eight years, but I still remember that he said it on May 4. It felt to me like an international Norwegian-American holiday.

I continued to pore through the major Norsk poets, looking for a guide to northern relationships. Inger Hagerup lived from the start to the end of the twentieth century and filled her time and her country with sensitive, wistful, resistant, romantic, conscientious lyrics that glorified her internal and external landscapes.


klø sine ferske myggstikk 
med doven ettertenksomhet 
og være ung og meget rik 
på uopplevet kjærlighet. 

scratch fresh mosquito bites
with lazy contemplation
and be young and very full
of unexperienced love.


Hagerup sketched in negative space: unexperienced love, unwritten letters, unlit hearths, and unwalked paths frequently called forth and described what she most desired. In pairing what she lacked with what she needed, she’d found a poignant and understated way to celebrate the whole.

I walked in that same lazy contemplation through the Vigeland sculptures in Oslo, taking in their mammoth grace. Vigeland’s human figures had succeeded in expressing the most raging and saturated emotions, day in and year out, against every color of sky and weather, without uttering any kind of word. I felt so devoted to them, so attached to their company, visiting the sculpture park became a compulsion.

There were moments of silence in Norwegian daily life that English would have chatted straight through. Then again, there were moments of physical communication that made up for it. I suppose the differences between these love cultures—these alternating sources of pride and shame and lust and withholding—are all made moot by the fact that love is not, at bottom, verbal. What happens to a physical relationship in the absence of a shared spoken language? Does physical contact become supercharged, as hearing does for the blind, or is it burdened with misplaced significance? Do we hold sex responsible for communicating more than it ever could? I felt an exaggerated physical eagerness in my foreign relationships that matched the converse terror: if we didn’t have good sex, we had nothing. Depending on the quality of our sensual experience, postcoital silence either transcended language or desperately lacked it.

In June following that memorable May, my brother got married. I left my boyfriend’s apartment for what I’d imagined would be a quick trip to Los Angeles, and got arrested at the Oslo Gardermoen airport. Schengen Area laws forbade U.S. citizens from spending more than three of any consecutive six months in Norway; I’d been there for three months and five days this time, and in total, for more than two years. The border control officers scanned my passport and prohibited me from entering Norway again for fifteen months. My boyfriend and I tried to stay together long-distance, but here our communication was put to a four-thousand-mile test and failed.

It didn’t surprise either of us that the mutually entertaining little discrepancies of our culture clash weren’t enough to support a real connection. In retrospect, it was wrong of me to conflate person and place, to funnel the discovery of an entire new geography into our single household. Over the near decade since our split, I’ve relied on the wide canon of Nordic literature for more permanent and instructive expressions of romance in the Norwegian language—a language I truly love.

All couples assemble a unique vocabulary, no matter which languages they start with. But the search for fluency has stuck with me: a relationship, anywhere, still feels like a gathering and sharpening of all possible tools, and the coming together of two minds still feels like an act of translation.

© 2019 by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight. All rights reserved.

Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.