There but for the


Today I’m reading Ali Smith’s There but for the, that is to say: I’m reading På stedet mil – which is what the Norwegian translation of the novel is called.

The title seems strange to me, but it might just be so because its not my mother tongue.

  • Have you read it?
  • Any thoughts on the title?

I have yet to finish this book, but I do like Smith’s earlier work, both short-stories and novels, a lot!

10 Comments Add yours

  1. “Here but for the” is the interrupted “Here but for the grace of God go I” — an expression that means “I could be in this same trouble; that I’m not it’s thanks to chance/luck/God” (whichever is your preference; out of your hands in any case). What does the literal Norwegian translation mean, same thing?

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you so much!
      The Norwegian translation is very odd, its not a kind of phrase one has heard of. The two first words PÅ STEDET means staying on the same spot, MIL = 10 kilometers … I have never seen these three words together before, it doesn’t make sense. We have a phrase saying PÅ STEDET HVIL, which means one isn’t getting anywhere.
      The meaning in your explanation surely can be translated into many Norwegian words & phrases, but not into PÅ STEDET MIL.

  2. Øystein says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I take the title to be an allusion to the phrase “there but for the grace of God go I”, which in turns makes me think of mortality & Christianity & relief & how easily one could’ve been in someone else’s less fortunate circumstances. As I’ve heard the story, it was originally uttered by some olden fellow on seeing a man executed.
    Not sure what to think of half the phrase being cut off. “Grace” and “God” are perhaps not terribly hip words, but their omission makes me expect them & questions of their existence to be central to the novel. Mainly I’d expect the book to be about someone seeing others in trouble.

    The punning Norwegian title seems oddly comical in comparison, and makes me think of the army. Not sure why “mil” — perhaps the translator had “dørstokkmila” in mind? Something about not getting out and getting started on things &c?
    Perhaps I’m missing a comical aspect of the English title. I vaguely recall first hearing the “for the grace” phrase in a Bloom County comic strip, so there’s that …

    I don’t know anything about the book, so I have no idea if any of this would be relevant.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Very relevant, thank you!
      I’m in the middle of reading the book, its a great text. I can still not see any reason why calling it PÅ STEDET MIL, but will keep looking for arguments supporting the translators choice. The English title and its religious connotations, on the other hand, is easily understandable (when you are introduced to them …)

  3. Isn’t that interesting… and probably a good decision. The more I think about it, the more I like the Norwegian version. Instead of looking for a similar expression in Norwegian and truncating it, the translator went for something different yet still applicable to the work (maybe even with the approval of Smith — when writer is alive, she is very likely to be consulted on translations).

    Maybe PÅ STEDET MIL is close to English expression “Getting nowhere, fast”? As in: “His acquiring of Japanese language is going nowhere, fast.”

    Or, something along the lines of “10miles per hour in the same spot.” I like them both more than the original.

    I read the book – let me know how you find it, Sigrun. As in many a British novel, class and class differences and a comfortable, smug middle-class are very much at the centre, and that’s the part that I’ll always like (even though here these things are drawn in very black and white brushstrokes). Then there are other aspects of the novel that fail to seduce me as a reader.

    The chunks of the book are divided into parts called “Here”, “but”, “for” and “the”, if I remember correctly. And each examines the life of words and categories, what humans do with them and what they do to humans.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Interesting! Have to look into it!
      I’m starting to understand that translating this book must have been a real challenge! I might have to read it in original as well.

      “Here”, “but”, “for” and “the” made me think of Carol Shield’s beautiful novel UNLESS, where each of the book’s chapters, like the novel itself, is titled with the sort of words or phrases that protagonist Reta calls “little chips of grammar (mostly adverbs or prepositions) that are hard to define, since they are abstractions of location or relative position, words like therefore, else, other, also, thereof, theretofore, instead, otherwise, despite, already and not yet.” Yet without these “odd pieces of language” to “cement” together the more colorful, momentous nouns and verbs, we can’t “form a coherent narrative.”

      1. Exactly like that. I wonder if Smith read Shields… I bet she had.

        And! UNLESS also has a break-away from the normalcy consensus, and that’s Reta’s daughter. I am very intrigued by this literary affiliation, now really want to have a look at Unless again.

  4. KM Huber says:

    What an incredible and wonderful exchange. Thanks to all, in particular Sigrun who wrote the post! I have requested Smith’s book from my local library and look forward to it; of course, this exchange will frame my reading rather nicely. Much appreciated, all.


    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you Karen!
      Looking forward to hear your views on it!

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