Explaining Syttende mai

Tough task for a translator

Norway - Syttende mai

Photo: Ranveg / Wikimedia
Scouts marching with Norwegian flags, on May 17, 2005, in Sandnes.

Asker, Norway

Imagine that you are a Norwegian lexicographer called in by an Artificial Intelligence (AI) company to enable a multilingual robot being built to take part in conversations about Syttende mai. At first you think the task is simple, as Syttende mai is part of the received knowledge with which you grew up. But then you realize that though the robot commands a vocabulary at least as great as your human one, it doesn’t have the received knowledge built into a human through growing up in Norway. It has all the words needed but cannot put them together in a meaningful conversation.

You start at the beginning. Syttende mai is Norway’s national day. All countries have national days. Well, almost. Notably, the United Kingdom, as well as Norway’s neighbor Denmark, have no official national days, though Denmark celebrates June 5 as the day of adoption of the Danish Constitution of 1849. Moreover, neighboring Sweden long had no national day, though it did celebrate the June 6 as Svenska flaggans dag (“Swedish flag day”) commemorating the election of Gustav Vasa as King in 1523. More than four centuries later, in 1983, the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament, declared that day to be the country’s national day. So Sweden now has a national day, though many Swedes still call it flag day.

As Syttende mai commemorates the signing of the Norwegian Constitution in 1814, Norway early settled on the straightforward name of Grunnlovsdagen. That’s the official name of the day that now appears on calendars and in descriptions of it. But it’s not a universal term; in Norwegian, it’s synonymous with Syttende mai and no other date.

The result: a drawback in Norwegian-English dictionaries. Grunnlovsdagen translates exactly to “Constitution Day,” but Constitution Day is not always the national day of a country. The notable example is the United States, where Constitution Day is Sept.17, the day in 1787 when the U.S. Constitution was signed in Philadelphia, while—as every American schoolchild learns—the Fourth of July is called “Independence Day,” because it commemorates the Continental Congress’ adoption in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence.

Declaring independence is often part of a political revolution, as it was in the United States, where in April 1775, the citizenry instigated armed conflict against their British rulers, triggering a war known in the United States as the Revolutionary War and in Britain as the American War of Independence. In turn, revolution often is the historical event commemorated by a national day. The French national day is La fête nationale, commonly known as Bastille Day, held on July 14, the day in 1789 of the storming of the Bastille fortress, the seminal event in the revolution that had begun two days earlier in Paris. As for the equivalent of Syttende mai, the everyday French term for it is just the date, Le quatorze juillet.

If the French, arguably the linguistic purists of Europe, opt for Le quatorze juillet without further explanation, you might give up searching for a succinct explanation of Syttende mai and let the robot learn for itself, as do human children.

This article originally appeared in the May 8, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.