Peter Graves – the poetry of translation

When I discovered that The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius had been translated by Peter Graves I was very happy. This highly regarded translator has mostly translated such proper works of literature that I hadn’t had an opportunity to read his work. And the Bookwitch family are really quite keen on Peter, because he’s one of Son’s PhD supervisors, and we have met him a few times, and the last book I was aware of him translating was by the then permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy. In other words, not much Nordic Noir there.

After reading The Murderer’s Ape, I was a firm fan, and knew I simply had to persuade Peter to answer some questions on how he works. And I’m a bit humbled, because his answers are so poetic, that I rather wish my questions had been too…

Here’s how a true translator and linguist thinks! Over to Peter:

Peter Graves

If The Murderer’s Ape becomes a classic, do you feel this is partly your doing, or do you see yourself as ‘merely’ a tool?

The Murderer’s Ape will become a classic – I’m as sure of that as I can be of anything. But I’ve never gone along with the idea of translator as co-creator except, perhaps sometimes, in the case of poetry. So I’m happy with ‘merely a tool’ or, maybe better, ‘craftsman’. And just as a violinist can make or break the performance of a concerto, the translator can make or break the transfer of a literary work from one audience to another. In that sense, the appeal of The Murderer’s Ape to an English-language audience is partly my doing, but the wonderful score I had to work with is all Wegelius.  

Sitting down to translate such a book, does it ever feel daunting, in case you are working on a future classic?

By the time I was listening to a fado singer in the O Pelicano bar in Chapter 2, just ten pages in, I knew I was working on a classic. But it was a joy rather than daunting: Wegelius’s language flows in such a naturally balanced way that I never found myself having to untangle clumsy Swedish before deciding what to do with it in English. And since the settings are exotic (Portugal, India and so on) rather than Swedish, I wasn’t faced with the need to explain cultural issues because Jakob Wegelius had already dealt with them for his Swedish readers.

What was your brief? To translate into British English, and the American publisher would edit what you’d done? Or do you translate into American English too?

The brief left it unstated and my translation was into British English, though I knew, of course, that it was to be published initially in the United States. I don’t think I let that influence the translation, not consciously anyway. I do remember wondering on one occasion whether a particular idiom would be too British, but went ahead and used it. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what the phrase was. Having reread the published version, the only American English changes I can find are the obvious spellings such as ‘harbor’ or ‘traveled’.

Did you have any contact with Jakob Wegelius at all? Do you know what Jakob thinks of your translation? Because this is the thing with working into English; every single author is able to have an opinion.

No, I had no contact with Jakob at all since nothing emerged that needed clarification. I think we are back to the business of exotic cultural settings here, and I suspect I may have done some of the same research into the Raj and into Portuguese history and geography as he did. But I would love to know what he thinks of it, always assuming that he approves, of course.

I believe you don’t normally translate children’s books. Why is this? And what made The Murderer’s Ape different?

I’ve never avoided children’s books, it’s just that they haven’t often come my way. Nor have I done more than a handful of modern novels. It’s probably because my name has become attached to translations or retranslations of classics like Strindberg or Lagerlöf, or to volumes of more or less academic history. In the case of The Murderer’s Ape, Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press (for whom I’d done Peter Fröberg Idling’s fascinating Cambodia novel Song for an Approaching Storm) recommended my name to Beverly Horowitz of Delacorte Press. A wonderful stroke of good luck and joy for me, and I hope that more Jakob Wegelius comes my way.

Authors are often asked how long does it take to write a book… So how long does it take you to translate one? And are you of the read before translating school, or translate as you go?

I normally work at a fairly slow pace. In the case of The Murderer’s Ape, I started in the middle of June (2015) and sent it off in the middle of December. Since the book is about 115,000 words, that suggests about 1000 words a working day, though that doesn’t really reflect my normal working pattern. I usually produce the first draft quite quickly, but then redraft at least twice more, making substantial changes. I find reading my translated text aloud is very important, and leaving a week or so between drafts. As to reading things in advance of translating them, I tend not to, and I can think of one or two books where I wish I had read them first and then turned them down.  

What do you read for pleasure? In what language[s] do you read? And do you ever choose to read children’s books for your own entertainment?

I read English, the Scandinavian languages and German. For pure relaxation I chew through endless crime, preferably not too noir and with exotic settings and sense of place. (I like reading with an atlas alongside me.) I probably read more history and biography than is sensible, most recently Julia Boyd’s stunning Travellers in the Third Reich. Lots of walking and climbing guides to places I shall never go. Now that my own children are middle-aged and my grandchildren at the teenage electronic stage, I don’t read many children’s books. Sometimes reread Wind in the Willows and Paddington Bear for sentimental reasons, though – and I’m sure they’ll be joined by The Murderer’s Ape.

Do you have a favourite book or author or genre?

On the whole I’m a novel reader, most recent favourite being Lars Sund’s Colorado Avenue from 1991. I keep trying short stories but always end up unsatisfied and wanting to know what happened next. If I had to choose one book for a desert island it would be Göran Tunström’s novel Tjuven. It’s been translated into twelve languages, but English isn’t one of them and I’ve never really understood why. It has everything a great novel needs: a wonderful sense of time and place, suspense, humour, unforgettable characters (including some hateful ones) and profound humanity. It actually shares a lot of qualities with The Murderer’s Ape. It’s on my ‘perhaps one day’ list.

I would like to read more [children’s] books translated by Peter Graves. Just because they are children, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have access to the best words.

And I must get round to reading Tjuven…

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