Category Archives: Languages

Mr Sparks

‘Well, I didn’t see this coming!’ I thought I knew where Danny Weston was going with his new novel, Mr Sparks. Set in 1919, it’s the story about 12-year-old almost orphaned Owen. He lives with his ghastly aunt at her hotel in Llandudno, when one day a strange man arrives, with even stranger luggage.

It talks. The man is, of course, a ventriloquist. Or is he? As Owen gets closer it appears that the dummy, pardon, Mr Sparks, speaks and thinks on its own. But that’s not possible. Is it?

(I’d say Mr Sparks is as real as, erm, Danny Weston. And we all know him, don’t we?)

Danny Weston, Mr Sparks

Soon this little horror story has Owen and Mr Sparks in a closer relationship than the boy had imagined possible. Who is in control?

It’s not as scary as I had been afraid. It’s more creepy. And then it didn’t go in quite the direction I’d imagined. And then it looked fairly promising, all set for a happy-ish ending, and then, well, maybe it didn’t. I know how it ends. As long as that Danny Weston doesn’t do anything I don’t want him to do!

You hear me?

I should probably disclose that Danny has been kind enough to dedicate Mr Sparks to me (and someone else, whom I shall ignore for the moment), which is, well, nice. It was clever of him to let Owen live in Llandudno, that pearl of seaside resorts. Although we might have to have a little chat about the pier at some point.

But that’s not why I say this is a good book. Actually, I haven’t said that yet.

It’s a good book! Even without the dedication. Creepily good, even.

Nordic grey – The Origin Story of Nordic Noir

I have a certain bias, but I felt that the Translation studies research seminar at the University of Edinburgh yesterday afternoon was pretty good, and really interesting. Even for me, with some prior knowledge as well as interest in the subject of Nordic Noir.

Nordic Grey with Ian Giles

The talk by Ian Giles, aka as Son, was part of a series of seminars in the next few months, and it was merely a happy coincidence that they kicked off on what was International Translation Day.

The Resident IT Consultant and I both went. We were pleasantly surprised to find Helen Grant there too, but shouldn’t have been, as she’s both a linguist and proficient translator, when she’s not simply killing people. I introduced her to Peter Graves, making rather a hash of it. Translator Kari Dickson was also in the audience, as were other Scandinavian studies people and aspiring translators. And I was surrounded by a whole lot of Chinese whispers. Literally.

Nordic Noir didn’t begin with something on television five years ago. It’s been coming a long time, and Ian is on its trail, trying to determine where and when we first met ‘dark storylines and bleak urban settings.’ It’s more than Sarah Lund’s jumpers or Lisbeth Salander’s hacking skills.

The trail might begin (or do I mean end?) with Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, via Peter Høeg to Sjöwall and Wahlöö. But that list is not complete without mentioning the murder of Olof Palme or Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater. And apparently some critic recently accused the new Martin Beck on television of imitating itself.

Here there was a slight sidetrack to a Turkish writer, translated twice in the last twelve years, long after his death, and only because his compatriot, Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk said he liked him. Knut Hamsun had something similar happen to him.

Because yes, the trail goes a long way back. Before Sjöwall and Wahlöö we had Maria Lang and Stieg Trenter, for instance. Earlier still, Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doktor Glas would have qualified, as would Norwegian Mauritz Hansen. And maybe even Carl Jonas Love Almqvist and Zacharias Topelius.

And when it comes to the crunch, Peter Høeg’s Miss Milla’s Feeling For Snow is not a true progenitor of Nordic Noir. It seems to be, but isn’t. People would have read the book no matter what. Hindsight tells us Peter Høeg doesn’t belong to the origin story.

Anyway, there are many more books translated into English than there used to be. The 3% of translated books has recently become more like 4 or even 5%. Swedish books come sixth if you look at language of origin, but make that Scandinavian books and they end up in third place, and if you count all the Nordic languages, they are the second most translated.

Nordic Grey with Ian Giles

So, it’s not all jumpers, and Scotland has just claimed to have more words for snow than the cold Nordic countries. The latest idea for selling books on the international market is to translate the whole book into English, rather than a few sample chapters, making it possible to offer an almost finished product, as well as facilitating sales to countries where they don’t have a steady supply of translators from Scandinavian languages.

As I said, I found this interesting. And Ian’s a tolerable speaker, too. The right amount of jokes, and a good selection of slides and videos to show what he’s on about. The beard, however, was rather a surprise.

Past Calais

I think it was Danish author Janne Teller who said she’d written a short book featuring a nice Danish family who had to leave their country and find somewhere else that would take them. And a couple of years ago I read and reviewed After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross. It was a pretty scary read, seeing as it turns those ‘migrant’ stories on their head. It’s you heading into the unknown, where you are not welcome, and because you have to. Not because you’re greedy.

Re-reading my review made my heart palpitate, and it all looked so familiar. It’s what we see in the media nearly every day, except we are the the ones not too keen to let those others in.

As I say in that review, I’m one of those migrants. And remembering how the boy in Gillian’s book doesn’t speak French and how that causes problems, I am full circle, again. Because I have created a migrant in the next generation, too. One who doesn’t speak French, and thereby missed the expected knowledge in the supermarket regarding what you have to do if you are buying grapes. Not kiwis, just the grapes. I’ve married a foreigner, too. One who has been told off in another country’s supermarket for putting the food he’s buying the wrong way at the checkout. I remember a Swedish tourist many years ago, crying over the bananas in London’s Queensway, because she’d done what she was used to doing at home.

None of us fruit shoppers are persecuted at home. We just went on holiday or moved abroad for some perfectly normal reason. That can be hard enough. Add a little peril to life or starvation and then see how you manage.

Literature is full of people like us. A long time ago it would have been enough to leave your village and move into town. Or the further away countryside to the capital, or from the poorer end of the country to the richer end. And then the move from one poor country to another country, perceived to be better. It probably takes a generation or two before life becomes almost normal in the new place. That is unless you move somewhere else again, like where they sell grapes differently.

There are different class immigrants too. Despite her poor grasp of grape-buying, Daughter is a higher class foreigner than her similarly recently arrived supervisor. He outranks her in all academic aspects, but the receiving country rates him lower. (He’s Australian…)

And speaking of Australians. The Resident IT Consultant chatted to someone here, whose son moved to Australia. There he married an Australian. And now he can’t find work. And he can’t move back home if he wants to continue living with his wife and children.

Maybe if we could all go where we want to be, it would sort of even out? Natural selection and all that.

If You Were Me

It would seem that Sam Hepburn is good at taking a topic I’m not all that keen on and then writing a novel about it; a novel so good and so exciting you don’t know what to do, because you have to hold on to the book to keep reading, but at the same time you could really do with holding on tight to your chair. Or something. You know.

Sam Hepburn, If You Were Me

If You Were Me is a gut-churning thriller, about Aliya and her family who had to flee Afghanistan in a hurry one night, only to exchange a bad situation there for a bad one in London. Her brother who was an interpreter for the British, is accused of being a terrorist, plotting to kill the man who helped them enter the country.

With the help of Dan, who came to sort out the plumbing in their decrepit flat, she starts sleuthing, desperate to clear her brother’s name. Dan is keen to assist, but he also has reasons to hide certain aspects of their investigation, to keep his family safe and intact.

It’s amazing how these two manage to find any clues at all, let alone that they are able to make something of what they discover. Very, very exciting indeed. And basically, you must remember you can’t trust anyone. Had the introduction not suggested it might end well, I’d not have believed it possible.

Aliya and Dan are two incredible heroes. Not everyone else is bad, but very nearly.

Writing someone else’s sequel

I don’t mind in the least. But at the same time I wasn’t eagerly looking forward to the next ‘Stieg Larsson’ novel, even if it means I can have more of Lisbeth Salander. Didn’t exactly feel I’d boycott the book, but nor did I visualise myself reading it.

But then I read the first interview with David Lagercrantz in Swedish magazine Vi. It was a good interview, done by one of my favourite columnists on Vi, Johan Norberg. Johan usually writes about music, which he does well, since he’s a professional musician. He’s also a good friend of David’s. It’s very Swedish, this, but for the last two decades these men have delivered and fetched their children from the same daycare. (Yeah, a lot of children were required.)

Vi interview David Lagercrantz

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Swedish title Det som inte dödar oss [literally What doesn’t kill us]) was conceived and written under the greatest secrecy, like something straight out of a Stieg Larsson novel.

When I first heard David Lagercrantz was writing the book my cynical reaction was ‘of course,’ as in my mind he belongs to a writing dynasty. Turns out he’s part of the nobility, too, which I didn’t know. But from my foreign horizon I had no idea it was David who wrote Zlatan, or any of the other books he’s responsible for. He just wasn’t important enough for me to keep track of.

For obvious reasons Son wondered who the translator of this fourth Millennium novel would be. The name George Goulding elicited more wondering, as he was totally unknown to everyone. Some digging by Son suggests he’s a pal of Christopher MacLehose, with no translating past, apart from the recent Alan Turing book, also by David Lagercrantz.

Anyway, judging by Johan’s article in Vi, David is a nice, and somewhat shy man, who prefers not to leave his home, other than for the previously mentioned school run. He has been subjected to the expected nasty tabloid articles, because in Sweden it doesn’t do to seem to be more than anyone else. (But they can’t all write Larsson novels!)

David’s only comment to Johan’s interview was that he most certainly doesn’t shave using disposable blades. So now you know.

On the perpendicular

Yeah, so I can spell it. I can say it out loud. But I don’t really (I mean really really) know what perpendicular means. In a way I’d rather people didn’t use the word so much, at times when I actually need to know the actual meaning of it. Usually it crops up in vaguely mathematical circumstances, and in ways I don’t understand, so the exact meaning of the word is irrelevant.

It probably has a Swedish translation that I would understand perfectly. But I’m lazy.

Daughter went to Geneva. Did I say that? Where they speak French, which we don’t speak, although that has nothing to do with perpendicular.

Anyway, she told me about her new office. The desk was perpendicular to the window. (Which, on the whole, I thought was nice of it.) I sort of guessed roughly what it meant when she held up her laptop on Skype to show me the room. All the desks lined the window wall, at what I might call right angles to said wall. No slantiness or anything, which is what I would have guessed.

So, the office and its desk positions are really not that important. They stand there and they do the job, and so do the people at them. Perpendicular or not.

But then she went into Geneva city for various important-ish errands. And she appears to have not taken her map of Geneva. Which, it has to be said, would have helped.

When the first errands had been done, she needed to find an estate agent’s office. I texted her the address. Then I texted her the name of the nearest tram stop, after which I tried to explain how walking would be easier, and which direction to head off in. Because I had Google maps. At one point I asked to speak to the Resident IT Consultant (yes, he was there too, equally mapless), as it seemed to me that the south/north aspect of where to go was his area of expertise.

That went well, apart from when I was told they were ‘next to a tram stop and which direction was it now?’

Luckily there were more addresses to be found. I only texted the wrong address once. Not much difference between nos. 10 and 23 to my mind.

But this is where the conversation got harder, for me. Attempting to describe the turns to take from errand four to errand five, Daughter threw perpendicular into the equation. How was I to know if said street was perpendicular to some other street or not? When I didn’t know what it meant. I tried recommending parallel streets instead, because I could see those on the map.

Well, they didn’t get lost. Much. And that was mainly the 10 v 23 issue.

(I have now looked it up. Right angles. 90 degrees. Vinkelrät. I won’t remember for long. I much prefer right angles.)

The Nordic Noir boys

It was a toss-up between my pasts; Nordic Noir or Brighton Rocks? I went with the Nordic boys, but didn’t admit to having been to Öland when Johan Theorin asked. It was a long time ago and I prefer to remember it as a summer paradise, and not one of Johan’s bleak crime settings.

Johan Theorin

Chair Miriam Owen did a good job, only slightly dishing out criticism at men who eat yoghurt with cinnamon, which apparently no Scottish male in his right mind would do. Well, maybe not.

They are all bleak, in their own way. Apart from Johan’s Öland, we have Gunnar Staalesen’s Bergen and Ragnar Jonasson’s northernmost town in Iceland, where the sun never appears in winter, and the tunnel in might become blocked by an avalanche. Although, he professed to being an Agatha Christie fan – as well as being her translator – so he’s probably all sweetness, really.

It seems that 50 years ago there were no murders in Iceland. They only arrived with the crime novels, so we know who to blame. Johan is hoping there will be a trend that brings new Nordic crime from recent immigrants, and he mentioned how humorous they’ve become in Sweden… (That’s not why people like you, you know!)

Apart from Gunnar’s Spanish translator who felt he had so little food in his novels that he added some for him, there is food in them books. Ragnar does pizza a lot, both for himself and his characters, but his UK editor required more Icelandic fare, so he had to edit his food. Johan tried to explain kroppkakor, but I think we do well to stop at slaughtering the right pig.

Do they work closely with their translators? Well, Ragnar was sure he knew how to translate a book, so helpfully corrected a friend’s work, all in red. Johan’s translator corrects his mistakes, not vice versa. Gunnar has the excellent Don Bartlett, so finds he has to go back to his Norwegian original and alter things he’s got wrong.

And there’s an explanation to the cinnamony yoghurt. It’s not yoghurt at all, but filmjölk, in which case the cinnamon makes sense, and any man should be proud to eat it.

Gunnar Staalesen

Gunnar had been incensed by ‘his’ films. They put an actor speaking in an Oslo accent to play Warg, who has a very strong Bergen accent, and believe me, even a foreigner like me can tell the difference. Johan feels it’s like sending your child out into the world. You just want to go along and hold their hand.

The Norwegian Easter crime trend was explained. Everyone goes to their second home for ten days at Easter. Everyone wants to read crime when they do. So, lots of published crime, easy to carry up that mountain to your cabin. In Iceland you get your books for Christmas instead. Everyone has to read a book on Christmas Eve. Gunnar said it’s those dark night which make Nordic readers such prolific readers.

Asked if they have anything like Bloody Scotland, they said of course they do. And of course they do. There is Crime Time Gotland, and Iceland Noir and there might even be a Bloody Bergen one day.

Gunnar likes red herrings, and in case his readers see them coming, he then adds a green herring for good measure. Johan had been in danger of making his books into tourist brochures, but his translator pointed out they were not. And Ragnar feels it’s best to write for the Icelanders, and offer no explanations. The reason Nordic crime on television has been so successful is that they are very well written.

Ragnar Jonasson

Who would they themselves go and listen to this weekend? Gunnar likes Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Philip Kerr. Ragnar goes for Peter May, while Johan extolled the writing of James Oswald.

And I simply cannot explain the bloodstain which appeared on the last page of my notebook during the last few minutes…