I am trying to translate the short story by J. M. Coetzee but can't understand how exactly to interpret the sentence in the second paragraph. The story narrates about a young boy who finds a strange circle in the field. Next we have the following:

He thought of it as a fairy circle, a circle where fairies came at night to dance by the light of the tiny sparkling rods that they carried in the picturebooks he read, or perhaps by the light of glowworms. But in the picturebooks the fairy circle was always in a clearing in a forest, or else in a glen, whatever that might be. There were no forests in the Karoo, no glens, no glowworms; were there even fairies?

I am particularly interested in the second sentence. Does whatever that might be mean that the boy doesn't know what the word glen means? If so, where did he take this word? From picturebooks? The word looks for me quiet encyclopedic and as if it is a label for an image of fairy circle of mushrooms. So it is unlikely that fairies dancing may be mentioned in an encyclopedia. Does then the boy mix two kinds of books - picturebooks about fairies and an encyclopedia? Or glen is still a normal word to appear in a picturebook? Do you think a fairy circle of mushrooms is supposed to exist as a double meaning at all?

Depending on the answers I am going to choose:

  1. how to translate glen - more encyclopedic or not;
  2. should I rely on existing tradition of naming circles of mushrooms in a target language or not.
  • It's not a very well thought-out usage. The writer is getting confused between the fact that he isn't sure of the exact definition of the word "glen" (and/or suspects that at least some of his readers might also lack that knowledge), and the vocabulary of his subject. Obviously the boy being written about doesn't need to know or care what a "glen" is, since we're explicitly told he gets his understanding from picture books. If a picture happens to have the word "glen" underneath the image, it makes no sense for the boy to wonder what it means - he's looking at one! Aug 2, 2022 at 17:50
  • I think everything in the text cited is a way of thought of the boy, his internal dialogue, and the commentary about glen is boy’s voice, not author’s. Aug 2, 2022 at 19:27
  • Picture books normally combine text and pictures, so they might well use the word "glen" in text. Of course FumbleFingers may know better than a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I doubt it.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 2, 2022 at 22:18
  • @Ihor Shnaider: Yes - the entire text is basically telling us what the boy thought. But it makes no sense for the boy to be wondering what a "glen" is if he only encountered the word in picturebooks. Obviously Coetzee himself (or any typical South African boy, such as he would remember himself as being, in his youth) might well not know that essentially Scottish word. But that would only make sense for boys who came across it in pictureless texts, which isn't the case for our subject here! Coetzee is lazily / thoughtlessly trotting out an inappropriate stereotypical cliche. Aug 3, 2022 at 3:24

1 Answer 1


Yes, it means that he doesn't know what a 'glen' is. It's a mainly Scottish word for a valley - not a particularly obscure word, at least to British people. I googled fairy glen and found references to several places of that name in Scotland and Northern England; picturesque valleys where people imagine that the fairies might gather. The expression might well have been used in one of the boy's picture books.

Glen doesn't mean a fairy ring, though you might picture fairy rings in a fairy glen!

  • Thank you Kate. Sorry for not being clear - I didn't mean that glen is a fairy ring, I just imagined some label in an encyclopedia like fairy circle in a glen. Anyway, you answered my question by saying that glen is still a relevant word for children books. So the author doesn't imply any encyclopedias or mushroom circles in the boy's mind. Aug 2, 2022 at 13:42
  • Certainly he wouldn't have had to look in an encyclopaedia for the word glen! But he thinks of fairies when he sees the circle on the ground because of the images of fairies dancing in a circle round a 'fairy ring', which is in fact the natural way that some mushrooms grow. Aug 2, 2022 at 14:15
  • It is exactly because the word glen is common that the boy assigned it here correctly, without knowing its exact meaning. As a low meadow, it contrasts well with forest. Five-year-olds can use phrasing correctly without knowing why, like "I'm outraged. Mortified. Wadthafahk." Aug 2, 2022 at 16:03

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