Theatre of the Absurd

I have always maintained that English words only rarely mean exactly the same as their Danish equivalents. Style, usage, tone, connotations may vary even if the words look completely alike. This is what makes quality translation such a demanding craft. These days, the word “absurd” is being scrutinised as the Danish PM used the Danish word “absurd” in a comment on President Trump’s wish to buy Greenland. This apparently offended the President to a degree that he cancelled a state visit to Denmark at very short notice. How can one word have such impact? Linguists are frantically searching for differences in the meaning of this word in English and in Danish. They are still searching. I would venture to say that “absurd” means almost the same in English and in Danish. It’s a semantically powerful word and sounds like a nice version of “crazy”. Calling a person’s utterances absurd is offensive in either language if one wants to be offended.

The President’s newly acquired sensitivity inspired him to call the Danish PM’s use of the word “nasty”, which is a powerful word, too. Quite offensive, in many people’s minds. But the world leader kindly defined it as “not nice”. The President seems to have a soft spot for very few powerful words and phrases, which he uses again and again. “The likes of which the world has never seen before” is an extremely powerful phrase when used once – used many times, it becomes ambiguous. “Incredible” and “awesome” are everyday examples of the same phenomenon. Big words whose meaning broadens when used frequently. The president frequently uses the word “nasty” about people he doesn’t like. “Not nice” – or disgusting? Your choice. 

The American President’s cancellation of his visit to Denmark is a case of selective interpretation of the word “absurd”: whereas the Danish PM said that it was an absurd discussion, the President decided to interpret it as offensive to him and, hence, to the United States of America. The President is crazy. That is offensive.  The President used one semantically powerful word as a pretext for not coming to Denmark. He may have his reasons. One word triggers the cancellation of a state visit. May I use the word “absurd” here? Hats off to the Danish PM for not engaging in a war of words!

Claus Adam Jarløv, CEO

Cecilie Tejnø

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