Category Archives: Languages

How did those Norwegians get here?

I just had to link to this article about translations from Norwegian.

Well, I suppose I didn’t ‘have to’ have to, but when finding a description of four Norwegian authors like this one, I sort of felt I had to: ‘I’ve mentioned a grand literary master, a literary smut peddler, a philosophical weirdo and an ex-footballer turned crime writer’. Nice turn of phrase, right?

Do most people wonder how literature from other languages turn up here, in English? Maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s by magic. Maybe some countries feel it’s worth their while helping literature along by throwing money at it?

You’ll find out, if you read the article. I thought it was quite good, even if I am biased. Daughter felt it was very long. It is.

But it’s not as if you have anything else to do right now, is it?

The Short Knife

How hard are you willing to work for a carrot?

You couldn’t accuse the characters in Elen Caldecott’s The Short Knife of being lazy. This surprisingly topical historical novel is quite a thing. And by surprising I mean that Elen couldn’t possibly have foreseen the slavery business making the front pages as the publication date for her book grew near.

These slaves are white, and British, and their owners are also white, and more Saxon than British, but everyone has a bad side, whatever their nationality. In AD 454 the Romans have left Britain, and the Saxons have made the move to take over.

Mai and her sister Haf and their dad are poor, but live peacefully (in or near Wales), when their lives are interrupted, and ruined, by a few Saxon men. Much hardship and sadness follow, and the girls can’t be sure what will happen to them.

The story is told from two time perspectives; mostly from autumn AD 454 when the Saxons come, slowly leading up to the second one, where someone is giving birth at the same time as something vague but horrific has happened. So the reader both knows, and does not know.

You see both nationalities with all their faults, and some good sides. Having more than a measly carrot to eat is one of the good things about what might otherwise be considered pretty bad.

You feel you know what is happening, when Elen suddenly switches the truth of what we are seeing. And then again.

This is good writing, and a truly good story.

Mohinder’s War

Bali Rai’s short novel set in France during WWII is in one way an ordinary war adventure, showing the courage so many displayed while fighting the enemy and hoping to survive.

But the hero here is Mohinder Singh, a Sikh pilot with the RAF, who crash-lands his plane somewhere in occupied France. He is found by 13-year-old Joelle, who with her parents feed and shelter people who need help, be they members of the Resistance or as in this case, a foreign soldier.

This is what’s important. You learn, if you didn’t already know, that Indians fought for Britain in the war, flying from England. And you discover that the hero of a story like this can be a Sikh pilot, which will feel good for not just young Sikhs, but for anyone who might believe that the British don’t take ‘immigrants’ seriously, and who don’t know that many of them died for what was someone else’s country.

Mo is as brave as any RAF hero, and he brings with him his Sikh values, which he teaches to Joelle, as they run from the Germans.

The book begins with Mohinder’s funeral, at the grand old age of 105, and Joelle is there too. This helps, because at least you know that the two of them survived the war. The bad things they encountered were bad enough, and you don’t want to worry about whether they will make it.

I could do with more stories like this one. We might know that all sorts of people fought in the war, while not really understanding, unless it’s spelled out to us.

The Honorary Consul

No, not the novel by Graham Greene. I read that a long time ago.

This is about the kind of person you sometimes need when in another country, if only to hand out a new passport if that’s what you require. They are surprisingly often not the same nationality as you, nor do they speak your language.

Honorary means not paid, and I’m guessing the post is usually taken for the honour (hah) or for making your business cards look great. The one I have had most experience of said openly – to a very kind and well-meaning person – that they had no interest in things Swedish.

Well, then.

The good news is that the post of Swedish Honorary Consul in Edinburgh has just been given to a Swede. What’s more, he speaks Swedish. And he’s got a good way with people.

OK, so he’s called Mike, but that might work better in an English-speaking environment, the city where he runs a group of bars and restaurants. I’m thinking this is an improvement to the bored monolingual solicitor type.

They Called Us Enemy

Not being a trekkie I didn’t know who George Takei was when his interesting snippets turned up on social media. I simply liked them.

Now I have read his graphic, well, I suppose, autobiography, from WWII onwards, about the interning – imprisonment – of American citizens of Japanese background after Pearl Harbour. It is a great book about this atrocious and shameful history. (The only thing I knew about this before came from watching the film I’ll Remember April some years ago.)

George was four when his family were more or less removed from their beds in Los Angeles in the middle of the night, and taken on a long journey to Arkansas at the other end of the country, where they were to stay for most of the war.

I have deep admiration for George’s father, who worked hard, kept the peace and made himself useful to his fellow ‘prisoners’ for the duration of this wrongful treatment. His behaviour also meant that this whole period seemed like an adventure to George, and possibly as almost normal to his two younger siblings.

Through George’s later fame, some of this unfair treatment has reached more people than might otherwise have been possible.

And I was reminded of what I read on Normblog some years ago; something which made me want to cry again. But mostly good crying. In a world of many really very bad people, and leaders, there are good ones too.

(Almost as an afterthought, I have to comment on how easy it was to read this graphic novel. They aren’t always, but this one worked perfectly.)

Our Cookbooks

We discussed gateaux, Daughter and I. She is going to bake. I, apparently, get to have some say on what and how.

I now have crème pâtissière coming out of my ears. Not literally, unfortunately, as that would save on the making of it. If that’s what we’re having.

Consulting my old and trusted copy of Vår Kokbok, I issued my thoughts on the how and the what. Not ready to completely agree, Daughter eventually came to the conclusion her own copy of it would have to come out of hiding.

We made our way out into the garage where I proceeded to slit open several boxes of books. The first two were upside down. Very disconcerting. You stand there looking at all these anonymous opposite ends of book spines. However, we could tell none of them were Daughter’s Vår Kokbok. That was in the third box we tried.

Then we sat down and compared the recipes for the same, classic cakes, discovering they varied quite a bit at times, and not at all for some. I also discovered I had been staring at the wrong recipe for about three decades. Not all in one go, but still.

The Resident IT Consultant joined us, looking for his socks. He seemingly misheard my reading of a recipe, believing it had mustard in it. Most of my kitchen disasters involve mustard. The socks were in his pocket, which, if you ask me, is a stupid place for them.

As for me, I am hoping Daughter is still willing to bake after all this cream here, crème there business.

The Stone Giant

Literature is full of clever little girls and stupid monsters. The Stone Giant by Anna Höglund, and translated by Julia Marshall, is one example.

There is a young girl, living on an isolated island with her brave father. One day he leaves her alone to go and sort out some calamity happening elsewhere, involving people being turned into stone. And of course he fails to return.

The girl – we don’t learn her name – goes off in search of her father, wearing a red dress reminiscent of another red-dressed heroine.

On the way, she meets a wise old woman, who gives her some advice on how to deal with the giant. So with the help of an umbrella and a mirror, the girl fools the dreaded giant and all the stony people become real people again.

Power to little girls!

How many?

I don’t get this. I know we are all different, but how many books do you need to sell to be a success?

Quite a few authors have shared their sales figures with me. I have no idea if I’m supposed to keep quiet about them, but let’s assume that I am. Let’s just say I have been surprised. Not by the smallish number a good many absolutely fantastically good authors have sold. It’s wrong and it’s unfair and I don’t know how they live or how they sit down and write the next book. But they do.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I’ve also been taken aback by how few copies – at least of the hardback – one or two authors with very solid reputations and marvellous novels, have sold.

How does selling 40 000 copies of your books sound to you? It’s not J K Rowling, but it’s quite respectable. Especially for someone who’s not a household name.

More than ten years ago I was persuaded to buy a crime novel when on holiday in Sweden. Written by Christina Larsson, who holidays just around the corner from the sales point, and let me tell you, that is no cheap place to have a holiday home. I’d never heard of her, but felt duty bound to support both the author and the ‘bookseller’.

I never got round to reading the book, though. I went looking for it recently, but deduced it’s either ‘on holiday’ without me, or it’s a charity case. I suspect the former.

Anyway, I looked, because I discovered Christina was about to receive some award in Finland, being very popular there (all these years later). The award caused articles to be written about her and her humble writerly beginnings. The first three novels – of which I bought the second – ‘only’ managed to sell 40 000 copies, so she gave up her writer career plans due to lack of success.

I’m afraid my jaw dropped. I know the publishing business in Sweden is more benevolent than the dog-eat-dog in the UK. But I don’t see how these sales figures could be considered a failure.

Eventually Christina did continue writing and has now done even better.

At the same time she has run a summer restaurant in the holiday resort, throwing lots of time and money at it.

And before that she moved the whole resort to somewhere in the vicinity of Madagascar if I don’t remember wrong. Son has the hoodie to prove it. Lots of merchandise got printed with the wrong latitude and longitude. These things happen. And Son enjoys his ‘mistaken’ hoodie.

What I only discovered last year, was that it was a friend of mine who’d discovered the Indian Ocean aspects of our summer paradise. 🙃

And I still believe 40 000 is more than fine.

More interesting than Sanskrit

After my earlier moan about there not being any events to attend, I did manage one yesterday. Not physically, obviously, nor ‘manage’ if by that you mean I could suddenly cope with IT issues. But after five or ten minutes of abject failing to connect to SELTA’s The Path Less Trodden: Different Routes into Translating Swedish Literature, Son sent me a clickable link, and there I was. So to speak.

As were they: Deborah Bragan-Turner, Rachel Willson-Broyles and Paul Norlen, chaired by Alice Olsson and ‘teched’ by Ian Giles. They were all lonely, and welcomed being able to talk to the world about their work. Admittedly, when it came to questions, Ian inadvertently dragged one questioner from the kitchen where he was doing goodness knows what.

One very important question was whether they had to have such impressive bookcases as their backgrounds. Or if they were even real. All five who appeared on our screens were backed up by books. Probably an unfortunate coincidence… Some tried to claim they had to be real because they were so untidy (but then I don’t believe they have ever seen untidy).

Translating is a fun job. All right, so sometimes an author might reckon they know best and have opinions on the English these people are paid to translate their books into, but it’s rare.

How they started was quite similar. Some early experience, maybe at university level, enthused them so much about Sweden and Swedish that they just had to learn more, which they did by spending time in Sweden, discovering how we live (I still don’t know) and having fun, and withstanding suggestions like why bother with a boring language like Swedish. Why not Persian or Sanskrit?

These days you learn a lot by attending the Gothenburg Book Fair, where you can speed date agents and make contact with useful people. There can be financial help with attending, too, from Kulturrådet. Good stuff.

Agents are the most useful. Not so much publishers. You might contact an agent, or more likely, they will find you. Sometimes an author finds you. There can be short – and fun – sample translations, and there can be full novels translated on spec.

Questions to authors are varied. ‘Lagom’ – not too many nor too few – is best. That way the author knows the translator cares, but is neither too unconcerned or too fussy.

Literary translations seem to be the norm with these translators, but they do get other work as well. It can be restful working on something different. But basically, this is a fun job. Maybe not so much the editing, but that is fun too…

You can listen to it here.

(There wasn’t so much as a ‘Hej, Mamma’ at any point!)

When it’s good

This will sound silly, but I’m currently reading a book that is so good that I don’t have to worry. It struck me as I was reading past my bedtime, that I had no idea where the plot would take me. But I knew I felt quite safe and I had no concerns, because wherever it went and whatever happened, it’d be fine. Not necessarily a happy ever after ending; but a more than competently put together story. Good content, using good language.

I don’t know Words Without Borders as an online magazine. Understandable perhaps, as I gather they hardly ever cover children’s literature. In the April issue they did, and Daniel Hahn was there to tell us about it. He, very sensibly, felt it wasn’t for him to select authors to showcase, as he doesn’t read every language in the world. (He almost does, I’d say.) He asked some translators for advice.

One of the authors chosen was Maria Parr, about whom Daniel had this to say: ‘If we didn’t have Guy Puzey to do the hard work for us, I would willingly learn Norwegian to be able to keep reading Maria Parr.’

So, it’s not just me. Except I don’t need Guy. At least, I hope I don’t, but even so his translation work is more than welcome.

And in the same issue of Words Without Borders there is a short piece by Maria, translated by Guy, about explaining Corona virus to your stupid younger brother:

“Corona is a ball with spikes,” said Oskar.

He was in the lower bunk, jabbering away as usual.

“Corona is a virus,” I said.

“It looks like a ball with spikes on,” said Oskar.

“Yes, but it’s a virus,” I said, feeling annoyed. I wondered if all seven-year-olds are that stupid, or if it’s just my little brother who’s particularly dense.

Oskar went quiet for just long enough that I thought he’d gone to sleep.

“It looks like a ball with spikes no matter what you say,” he said…

and if you want more, you click here.

If you want more still, just read a lot of children’s books, especially good ones like Maria’s and others. Like the one I’m reading now.

(I might tell you more about that later.)