To better understand Janteloven, columnist Sarah Redohl attempts to track down a rare English translation of the book that named the concept. Along the way, she’s reminded that there is no textbook shortcut to understanding other cultures.
Text: Sarah Redohl
“Do you have an English translation of “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks”?” I ask a librarian at the Royal Library. He assures me they do. Tap, tap, click. “Actually...we don’t have any copies in English,” he says, with evident surprise.
In preparation for this article, I’d hoped to track down a copy to better understand Jante Law (Janteloven). After all, the book by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose gave the Nordic attitude of egalitarianism its name. Since moving to Denmark, Jante Law has been explained to me many times - but never the same way twice. My journalistic instincts told me to go to the original source.
Some Danes say Jante Law is dead or dying. Others say it exists, but only in provincial Denmark. Still, more say it’s a pervasive aspect of Danish society. One Dane demonstrated this particularly well when he started our conversation by telling me Jante Law was dead and 20 minutes later used it to explain contemporary Danish characteristics.
Some see Jante Law as a benefit to Danish society, others see it as a detriment. Of the 10 ‘laws’ Sandemose outlined, Danes who dislike Jante Law tended to cite ones like “Do not think anyone cares for you” and “Do not think you are capable of anything.” Those with a more positive view opted for ones like “Do not think you are better than us” and “Do not think you are more important than us.” The former see conformity and inferiority; the latter, humility and equality. Another Dane, who began by telling me opinions on Jante Law are generally negative, seemed to talk herself into its benefits during our conversation. “I guess it’s both bad and good,” she concluded.
In the book itself, which tells the story of sailor Espen Arnakke as he recounts growing up in the fictional Danish town of Jante, Jante Law is portrayed as petty and oppressive - something from which Espen hopes to escape. Sandemose himself said he witnessed the concept of Jante Law while growing up in provincial Denmark. He didn’t invent it, but he did name it and turn it into a modern Danish classic.
And yet, it doesn’t seem to be particularly well-read. At the first bookstore in my search, the shopkeeper didn’t even know what I was talking about. Of the dozen or so librarians and shopkeepers I spoke to, only a couple had read the book. But everyone - every single one - knew about Jante Law and had opinions on it. Sandemose might’ve named Jante Law, but Jante Law transcends its author.
"Some Danes say Jante Law is dead or dying. Others say it exists, but only in provincial Denmark. Still, more say it’s a pervasive aspect of Danish society. One Dane demonstrated this particularly well when he started our conversation by telling me Jante Law was dead and 20 minutes later used it to explain contemporary Danish characteristics."
Jante Law might even transcend Denmark. When Espen leaves Jante, he was surprised to find Jante everywhere: “It lay on the prairie in Canada, it sprawled over the U.S.A., and it bloomed at Jevnaker and flourished in Jylland,” wrote Sandemose. On the other side of the world, there’s Tall Poppy syndrome. In nature, we see the crab bucket effect. In the bible, “When pride cometh, then cometh shame” (Proverbs 11:2). However, as one of the librarians I spoke to said, Jante Law is a bit different: “There’s a reason the book was written here.”
An alternative reading might be that Jante Law wasn’t everywhere; perhaps Espen took Jante Law with him wherever he went. I opt for this interpretation for two reasons. First, as an American, I don’t see much evidence of Jante Law “sprawled over the U.S.A.” Second, as an international, I see myself carrying many of my American inclinations abroad.
Unfortunately, after visiting several more bookstores around Copenhagen and calling a handful of Norwegian bookstores, I discovered Sandemose’s book was only translated into English once, in 1936. “It’s going to be hard to track down a copy,” said one shopkeeper.
And then I got an email; someone had found it! They sent me a link and a warning: “It’s very expensive!” More than 6500 DKK, in fact.
And so, my knowledge of “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks” remains limited to excerpts, synopses, and literary critiques. In a way, this oblique understanding of the book mirrors my oblique understanding of Danish culture in general, and Jante Law in specific. A Dane may know Jante Law without having read the book, but I wonder if I will only ever understand it by synopsis.
Regardless, my search for Sandemose continues. I’ve got new leads with American universities who may have a copy buried in their libraries, and an English translation might become available online when the book’s copyright expires. But I know there is no textbook to understand another culture. It takes time, conversations, and concerted effort. In the meantime - and in the spirit of Jante Law as I understand it - I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know more about janteloven than anyone else.