Category Archives: Blogs

Hiding in full view

Sometimes I do stuff which is not all that nice. Often it’s done hurriedly, and later I might wish I hadn’t. Once I had it forced on me. And that’s the one time I don’t regret.

I used to have this irrational belief that adults can and will behave like adults. That the politics from the school playground stayed there and didn’t enter any grown-up dealings. But as I watched the new employees of a small business I was slightly connected with, come, and go, followed by childish but unpleasant gossip behind their backs, I was a bit shocked. However, I assumed that what was said was mostly true, because I couldn’t see the point of them lying.

Until one day I realised that I was next. I wasn’t employed by the business, nor was I paid. I had believed this would safeguard me from being ‘fired.’ And I wasn’t, because I simply walked away.

But I could see that it was likely similar gossip would be used about me, and potentially to people I liked and who I would prefer if they continued liking me to the same extent they’d done in the past. And belatedly I understood that what had been said about all those other people had not been true, but more a way for the business owners to justify the departure of yet another member of staff.

What to do? Well, I blogged about it. No, not about that as such, but about what had gone before. It wasn’t nice, but it was done with names changed, and only to get in there first, in case anyone ever asked. Because blog posts are dated, and I’d read enough crime stories to see the value of that. And if it wasn’t needed, then no one would be any the wiser.

It deeply offended the business owners. I was actually quite touched that they continued reading Bookwitch after what had been said between us. The thing is, I didn’t want to upset them, even though they upset me at the time. It was merely intended as a safeguard.

In the years since, I have talked to others who knew them, and I believe I know where I stand with most of them. Some continue being friendly with the business, and I don’t mind that. Others have been able to share openly how they themselves felt ‘at their hands.’

The funny thing is, I am really, really good at bearing grudges. I could grudge for Scotland. But in this case I don’t. On the other hand, when I see they are looking to recruit new staff, I don’t suggest anyone has a go. I don’t wish that experience on anybody.

If the playground could have been left where it belonged, I reckon we would all have benefitted from continued collaboration. Because when it was good, it was good. It’s just that when it wasn’t, it really, really wasn’t.


The embargo

Reading Harry Potter a week after ‘everyone’ else never bothered me. I would hope for no spoilers, but I didn’t feel an absolute urgency. We already bought two copies of the book, and three or four would have been ridiculous. Especially as I preferred to take my time over the book, savouring the adventure, not wanting to hurry, and definitely not being an officially recognised reviewer.

I’ve had today’s date in my diary for months, and suspecting a return to the secrecy Harry got, I enquired a few months ago whether this was likely to happen again. Hard to tell whether I was strung along or misunderstood. I wouldn’t have minded the answer, whatever it was. I merely wanted to know what to expect.

As with Harry Potter, I know full well that a review – by anyone – is not needed. Millions of impatient fans will buy the new book. Most of them today.

I want to savour this book as well, so there’s not going to be a hurried review. It would obviously have been different had I been sent an early copy, in good time. I know there are copies. I know of some people who’ve had one. I’ve seen a photo of one. So not only do I know they are numbered (woe if your number ends up on eBay), but I know who’s got the number I’d have liked…

What I don’t know, at the time of writing this, is if today’s post will bring anything, or if I should put my shoes on and walk to the nearest bookshop. That is another bit of information I’d have appreciated, and I could have ordered online, in advance.

While a reply to my emails would have been nice, no one owes me anything.

Tea in the library

It wasn’t until I typed that heading, that I realised quite how Agatha Christie it sounds. There were no corpses, to the best of my knowledge. The books were legal registers, rather than books you’d actually read, but it still made for a suitably bookish backdrop.

My friend Pippi was in town (=Edinburgh), and like me she enjoys an extravagant afternoon tea. And she had just the place in mind for us to test. After all, someone has to. Colonnades at the Signet Library, right next to my very own Cathedral on the Royal Mile, made it easy(-ish) to get to.

Would have been easier had I not been required to bring a computer thingie for Son, who met my train at Waverley and then proceeded to walk with me. It’s uphill all the way and his idea of slow didn’t tally with mine. But we got there, and as we waited in the foyer for the clock to strike afternoon tea-time, he chatted to Pippi, before running off to do the kinds of things Sons do.

Pippi and I were shown to our own little alcove table in the sun, and the tea started coming. Now I know why they set aside two hours for it! It’s not so you can lounge; more to allow you to eat all of it, as the dishes keep coming. The photo below is my personal stand showing the savoury stuff. There was another for the sweet things. And two more for Pippi.

Colonnades at the Signet Library

I didn’t actually eat all of it. Honest.

Luckily the uphill meant it was downhill back to the train, which was a jolly good thing.

Before that, Pippi had asked me book questions I couldn’t answer, and then I told her what to read. She even asked me which bookshop I go to, which is an awkward question for someone who does not specialise in buying books. But I trust she will go somewhere, and buy some books, although hand luggage only means not too many of them.

Colonnades at the Signet Library

Yes, that is Pippi’s head at the bottom, with books behind her going way further than you can see.

Library knot-tying

The New Librarian got married yesterday. That was Friday the 13th, in case you didn’t notice.

We were told on Facebook. I can’t help but feel that it would be so much simpler if everyone did this. Not necessarily the online announcement, but the going off and getting it done, without fuss, not to mention expense.

Wedding announcement

In this she followed the example set by her parents. Not that she was around to see that.

I’m guessing that School Friend (that’s the mother, btw) doesn’t even know about hats for bride’s mothers. What a relief! Another expense not spent. That money can go on books. Or Moomin mugs.

I’m fairly certain that a marriage is no happier for fortunes having been squandered. (Obviously if you fancy a hat, that’s fine by me. But maybe make it a cheap one?)

Some of our best wedding gifts were books. No hats anywhere.

Only thing is, this way I didn’t even get to buy the happy couple a book…

Forævar and ævar

The very lovely, and kind, Ævar Þór Benediktsson, is very lovely. And kind.

Just thought I’d mention that. He likes me. This is understandable, if unexpected. He read my recent blog post about Moomin mugs and about having too many or – as in my case, and the former case of Daniel Hahn’s – of owning just the one.

So he emailed to ask how he could send me something. I told him.

And it has arrived! The something being my second Moomin mug!!!

And, it’s weird. I am a witch. We know that. But I didn’t know that Ævar is too. Because another thing about Moomin mugs is that you sort of know what your next one would be if you were to go shopping. And that’s precisely the mug Ævar sent me… The Moomin house; the mug with a hat.

Moomin mug

Isn’t it wonderful?

Now, what else could I blog about that would make someone want to give me presents?

Except this won’t work, because I do my witching for no reward. I can’t be bought. In this Moomin mugs instance I remained completely oblivious to even the possibility that an Icelandic author might suddenly be afflicted by a bout of generosity and send me such an exquisite gift.

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…

National Bookshop Day

Every day should be bookshop day. But that’s not how it is, so after the surge of new books on Super Thursday two days ago, our bookshops are celebrating being bookshops today.

I’ve known a lot of bookshops in my life, but the one that stepped forward when I thought how the best thing would be if books came a bit more evenly distributed, was Waterstones in Altrincham. It used to be semi-local to me, although not terribly close.

This is going back almost twenty years, but when we were Christmas shopping in Wilmslow en famille – which is a most uncharacteristic thing for the Witch family  to be doing – the Resident IT Consultant found a copy of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I didn’t know it, but he remembered it from a long time before.

So we bought it. I think as a present for all of us. He read it again, and I read it, and Son read it. The following year I had cause to go to Altrincham, where I visited the High Street bookshop. Because you have to. Not looking for anything special, I found Black Hearts in Battersea. I bought it. It felt like it was meant. Besides, it also turned out to be what I consider the best in the whole Willoughby Chase series.

As I said, I had cause to go to Altrincham, and on my subsequent regular visits, I always popped into Waterstones, where they always had the next Joan Aiken book. It felt weird, because the shops closer to us didn’t seem to have any, and it was always the one I needed next that I found. I don’t believe I was ever disappointed.

And it’s not as if I had to wait for a new book to be published. It’s more that they didn’t seem to have all of the books at the same time, which they could have had.

The Willoughby Chase books are special to me primarily because they are very, very good  books. But also for the way I was able to buy them, one after the other.

I was about to say I couldn’t recall what the [first] shop in Wilmslow was, but Ottakar’s just popped into my mind.

Yesterday The i published an article about authors’ favourite bookshops. Toppings does well, and Hatchards. Bath in general seems to be good for books. And of course there is a difference between where authors might go to shop, and where they enjoy doing events.

As this old blog post of mine shows, there are other reasons for shopping – or not – in certain bookshops. Pushchairs and no [working] lifts would be one of them.