Category Archives: History

Arra

You were promised a book most of you can’t read, so here it is.

I have continued reading my way through Maria Turtschaninoff’s writing. And while I get why her Red Abbey Chronicles were translated into English, I can’t see why her other work hasn’t been too. Consider this an invitation.

Maria Turtschaninoff, Arra

The world that you might have met in Maresi and Naondel is a world Maria uses in her other books as well, rather like our own world. This means that one book is set in one country and one period, while another can be somewhere completely different, but still in the fantasy world Maria made up, and perhaps set earlier or later than the other stories.

Arra is set furthest back in time, and feels very much like many real world settings; the poverty suffered in a far from everywhere small village, somewhere a bit like Finland. Maybe. I can’t place it in time, but they use horses and carts, and candles, and old-fashioned weapons.

The reader meets Arra when she’s born, and you soon discover that her parents really didn’t want her. But for some reason they don’t kill her. She grows up neglected and alone among her many older siblings. Arra is mute, because no one talks to her and she’s considered stupid.

Not our heroine! Arra has plenty to think about in her head, and she has many unusual talents, which unfortunately also bring her trouble. After much deprivation in her first years, Arra ends up in the capital, living with her sister and her family, where she is used as a slave and still treated as a burden and an idiot.

Now, this will sound very fairy tale, but Arra meets and falls in love with the country’s prince Surando. He also experiences difficulties in his life, and more so when he is forced to go out to war, and when things get really bad, Arra goes to search for him, to rescue him.

I know, that too sounds quite unbelievable, but it’s not.

This is a beautiful and stirring tale, with much cruelty, but also beauty and love. I wish you could all read it!

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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…

The Story of Paintings

There is so much beautiful art in this book on History of Art for Children, that at first I didn’t see Mick Manning or Brita Granström in there, and they are the ones who made the book.

I ought to be used to their style of educating children with the help of art and carefully researched facts, but still I saw only the classic art. And that’s perhaps as it should be.

From cave paintings to Jean-Michel Basquiat, it’s all there. The adult reader will not be surprised to see all the classic paintings, and this is a fine way for children to learn.

Mick Manning and Brita Granström, The Story of Paintings

Each page has a work of art alongside information about the artist and then some of Brita’s drawings to show how the artist might have looked as he/she worked, and with individual comments that make each painting special.

There is a glossary at the end, explaining the bare minimum of arty words. Enough, but not so it gets boring.

Fantastic book and so beautiful to look at!

Launching The Rasputin Dagger

I stood right next to the sign for Theresa Breslin’s book launch at Waterstones Sauchiehall Street as I asked a member of staff where it was going to be. Obviously, I only noticed as he’d very politely told me second floor. It’s not easy being an idiot.

After another turn round the lower ground floor just to show I was in no hurry, I got the lift up to the second floor, marvelling at the thickness of the floors, as well as feeling slightly ill. It’s a glass lift and you can see ‘everything.’ Seeing as I could see so much, I immediately noticed Alex Nye and a surprisingly soberly attired Kirkland Ciccone browsing crime fiction at – separate – tables, as though they were there separately.

Still feeling the shock of Denise Mina’s Bloody Scotland story, I unburdened myself to Alex, who just might have read a little in the shop’s copy to see what the fuss was about. Seems she’s a Thomas Hardy fan…

Anyway, both of them actually needed to buy books. I wonder how that feels?

Theresa Breslin at the Rasputin Dagger launch

When we were allowed to enter the events room I found Mr B, who did what he does so well; whipping out a fake beard, pretending he was Rasputin. I don’t mean he always tries to be a Russian monk, but that he enters into the spririt of his wife’s books. This time his personalised t-shirt had a dagger on the back. Better than in the back.

Cathy MacPhail and Kirkland Ciccone at The Rasputin Dagger launch

Cathy MacPhail and Moira Mcpartlin joined us and we sat down over drinks and crisps, although we gathered we were meant to stand up. I’m too old to stand up, so we rebelled. Also encountered Kathryn Ross and Kate Leiper, with Yvonne Manning, which was nice.

Moira McPartlin and Alex Nye at The Rasputin Dagger launch

It seems the events area is a new thing for Waterstones, and it looked good. I think more bookshops should have rooms for this kind of thing. After an introduction, Theresa spoke a little about the background to her book, and then she read, from chapter one, and the bit where Rasputin dies. She also mentioned that someone in the room knew someone who knew someone who’d met the Tsar.

The Rasputin Dagger launch

This probably wasn’t the rather young lady (granddaughter?) who ran up and hugged Theresa’s knees mid-read. But I imagine she might have found out that I favour the input from little ones at events like these, which could be why it seemed unfair to her when she was carried away again.

Theresa Breslin at the Rasputin Dagger launch

After chatting to the Waterstones host about the women’s demonstrations in Russia, Theresa mentioned their early right to vote, comparing this with Britain, and then they moved on to Argentina around fifteen years ago and the lack of food there, before we were invited to try the special cakes.

The Rasputin Dagger launch

To avoid being stuck in Waterstones all night, I left just before the pumpkin struck eight, and because the trains are back to being difficult (what would we do if the trains ran properly??), Kirkie and I walked down Sauchiehall Street; he to a bus and me to the last train. Moira gave Alex a lift for the same reason, and then it seems Alex got on my train in Stirling as I got off…

Bloody Scotland – the anthology

Bloody Scotland. What a – bloody – fantastic collection of crime stories! And what a gorgeous cover! It’s like blood dripping…

Bloody Scotland - the book

Although I have to admit to doubting the wisdom of going to bed so soon after finishing the last stories. How was I going to sleep after what Denise Mina put me through? Or Louise Welsh? She’d seemed like such a pleasant person when I got my book signed at the weekend. How could she?

Whereas Stuart MacBride, who usually is too dark for my general wellbeing, just entertained me, and almost made me laugh. Almost. I would like to see his crazy romp at Kinnaird Head Lighthouse with his insane characters made into a short film. I think. I might not be able to watch it, though. Crying out to be filmed, whether or not I am witch enough to view it.

This crime story collection with stories by twelve of Scotland’s best, was the brainchild of Historic Environment Scotland, or HES for short, in collaboration with Bloody Scotland. Why not have our professional killers write a story each, set in one or other of the many HES buildings or sites? Why not? Well, maybe in order not to scare people.

For those less feeble-minded than your witch, this is a marvellous memento of your visit to a HES site. It’s marvellous even if you never go, and after you’ve waded through some bloodbaths you might have second thoughts. So visit first, then buy, and read last. After which you either go back to look at the place again (I know your type..!), or your next visit will be to a place where Bloody Scotland has not murdered anyone.

Yet. I feel there should be more of these. Obviously not to be read at bedtime.

It’s not all blood and gore and devastation however. Chris Brookmyre is suitably fun and lighthearted, and Gordon Brown’s character has a lesson to learn. A couple of authors have gone for revenge, which was most satisfying. Or history, such as Lin Anderson’s visit to the distant past, or E S Thomson’s industrial history drama.

I’ve already mentioned how pleased Doug Johnstone was about my reaction to his tale about the Forth Bridge. And if I don’t mention Val McDermid, Sara Sheridan, Craig Robertson or Ann Cleeves next to their stories, it’s to avoid spoilers.

You don’t want to know when to beware the narrator/main character, or when they are as innocent as you want/expect them to be. Or people close to them. There’s a lot of bad people out there.

But as I said, once the sleep problems have been dealt with, I can’t but want more of this. I can think of authors not yet asked to kill for HES, or places to visit that have not yet been, well, ‘visited.’

Let the blood flow and your nerves take a beating. Won’t be the only thing to take a beating, I can promise you.

Bloody Scotland blog tour

Pitch Perfect at Bloody Scotland

Had they even written those books they worked so hard to pitch?

I ask only because last year’s winner of Pitch Perfect apparently hadn’t. She pitched. She won. She got contract. And then she wrote. Or I hope she did, as the book is coming out in the spring.

I don’t know why I’ve never gone to one of these sessions before. Well, I do. They sounded too intimate, for some reason. A moment between hopeful writer and stern publishing person. Could be embarrassing to witness.

Pitch perfect

Except it wasn’t. Eight – slightly vetted – hopefuls using their three minutes as wisely as possible, trying to charm the four professionals, who in turn had three minutes per applicant to give their verdict.

The first pitch was really good, I thought. I liked the person, I liked his performance and I thought the book sounded promising. But maybe they’d all be like that.

Well, some were, in some respects, and others weren’t. Most were interesting in some way. But what fascinated me was that while what I liked best, the professionals also liked. I think. But they seemed to like what I didn’t go for, even more. Very illuminating. As far as the publishing world goes, I mean.

And the thing is, a personable potential author does not guarantee a good book, or sales. A good pitch still does not mean it’s going to be a cracking novel. And so on. Those publishing people could be wrong. Maybe?

Or rather, they know very well what is likely to work. But it doesn’t mean they pick the best story to work with. The choose what will fit in best with their business. And it’s from this readers get to pick what they might enjoy. I noticed how one of the panel was impressed by an idea that I at my age felt was anything but original, because I’ve been around for longer.

Pitch perfect

They liked the person who could say who her expected readers might be. Except she had young people in mind, and that makes it YA (the horror of it!), and young people don’t spend money. Probably right. What they overlooked – perhaps – was that authors are often mistaken about who will love what they have written. It’s a judgement better done by someone else.

The panel obviously wanted to tick boxes. It’s how business works. And the digital publisher understandably had different needs from traditional publishing.

That’s why they eventually picked two winners; one for a possible digital future, and one traditional. The latter was the one I liked best, the first one. Look out for crimes in 1930s Singapore!

The Warrior in the Mist

When your future is threatened by the fracking about to be let lose on the land where you live, the obvious thing is to look for the tomb of Boudicca, in the hopes that finding it will stop the drilling. It’s the kind of thing one would expect from the kind of teenagers Ruth Eastham puts in her books, and The Warrior in the Mist is no exception.

Ruth Eastham, The Warrior in the Mist

If not stopped, then Aidan will have to move away, and ‘his’ beloved horse Centurion will most likely be sold, which would be another loss after the death of his mother.

What I like in Ruth’s stories is that the young people who end up doing what they have to do, are so nice. By which I mean there is none of the hostile quarrels or scheming that so often goes with groups of teenagers. These young people simply get on with what has to be done. And in this book it’s finding Boudicca and her two daughters.

Can’t be too hard, can it?

It seems that Aidan and Emmi and Jon have paid attention in school, as they at least know what to look for.

Is Boudicca fashionable? I ask, because I sense I have come across her more frequently in the last year or so. Or maybe she’s always been a good historical character to put in your story.

As always, it pays to be wary of people. You just never know who will be the bad guy. And having your own drone is really quite useful.