Kin And Unkin

Writing in English when it’s not my native language will occasionally provide some interesting challenges – mostly when it comes to translations.

In Swedish, the words knytt and oknytt are references to little creatures of uncertain definition. The word knytt is sometimes also used for a small child, in an endearing way. If you put the word knytt into google, the first page will be full of links to a computer game with the name.

In the Moomin books of Tove Jansson (on of my most favorite authors) knytt are little harmless, emotional, and slightly confused creatures. They pop up now and then in the stories, usually with no real import to the plot, but still adding a little bit of color to the world.

Knytt might live here. Photo from the park around Blarney Castle.
Knytt might live here. Photo from the park around Blarney Castle.

To me, knytt is a collective term for little beings that live out in nature, in trees, or under rocks or little holes in the ground – stuff like that. Apart from that, they’re not strictly defined – and that’s kind of important. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they don’t. They’re secretive little beings that you don’t really know very much about, except they’re there.

They’ll be nice and friendly and they’ll stay out of your way as much as possible. They’d invite you for tea and talk about the weather, if only you weren’t so big and scary, and if only they’d remember to do the dishes.

In a way, they’re sort of like your regular birds and animals, except they’re people too.

Then there’s oknytt. They’re the same thing, except they’re mean.

The important thing to me isn’t to define exactly what knytt and oknytt are, but the feeling that the concepts invoke when used in a story. It’s not about describing a certain kind of being, but about setting a scene. I think that’s why the translation is so difficult.

I’ve pretty much given up on finding an acceptable standalone translation for each of the two words. There’s just too much that gets lost in translation. However, using the words together as a phrase, the translation becomes easier. Knytt och oknytt can be translated as kin and unkin (och = and). In the third chapter of Emma’s Story I use the phrase like this:

The cold winter night drains all warmth from the world, and a pale moon shines on hillsides covered in snow. Kin and unkin stalk and prey on each other in dark woods, and in burrows and villages, sensible fylk sleep and dream of summer.

By doing it that way, I’m getting that there’s some kind of conflict between the kin and the unkin, which brings a lot more life to the expression. I’d probably have managed that feel even without mentioning that they stalk and prey on each other, but that highlights it even more. It gives the sense that out in the forest, there are unknowns which struggle against each other for survival (and that’s the important part – even if the stalk and prey part doesn’t quite match with my description of knytt earlier).

In a way, there’s no easy answer to the question “What is a kin?” Then again, you could say that it’s a trick of words used to evoke a certain kind of feeling when describing a setting – but that does seem a bit dull, doesn’t it?

Kin And Unkin

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