Category Archives: Languages

Romancing the ghost

Were it not for this Bookwitching business, I’d never have ended up on the front cover of a novel in Romania. Admittedly, someone else’s novel, but still. I’ve even said something in Romanian.

Let me see what it might have been. ‘A Beautiful book. Not that I would have expected anything else from Helen Grant.’ As you can tell from the top of the book cover, she is the author of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. Or that other title, the way it looks when it’s been translated into Romanian.

Which, as you well know, is a Romance language, and therefore ought to look more comprehensible than this is doing right now. Maybe it’s just that I’m old and tired. It’s mostly me being incomprehensible.

The cover is gorgeous, in all its spookiness. And Fantoma sounds scarier than Ghost. But I dare say Helen’s characters behave just as badly, I mean well, as in the original. May they live happily ever after…

But, you know, this kind of thing I did not expect.

Bookwitch bites #148

The trip to Spain might have been fake – fake Spain with rain, not so much fake trip – but this week Kirkland Ciccone went to Sweden. Only in cyberspace, but it’s hard to travel these days, so it will have to do. I’ve been itching to have a photo published on Boktugg, and when Kirkie ended up on my television screen last Thursday, I decided to send in my picture of the occasion, and they’ve printed not only the photo, but my words about him, including the murderous porridge.

I must think before I press send…

This week gave us the long nominations lists for the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals for 2021, and as always, they are good lists. They give pleasure and hope to those on them, and I feel considerable guilt for having read only a few. But those few were Very Good. I’m sure they will make the longlists and maybe the shortlists too. Even if only one – in each category – can win.

Somewhere you can win a bit more easily is when it comes to pay. Equal pay. I had kept a link to something from absolutely ages ago, but ended up never getting to it to comment, so deleted it. Now in The Bokseller I see that the gender pay gap at PRH – Penguin Random House – has widened. That’s what I would call going in the wrong direction. If you really, really want to improve pay equality, you do. More money to the women, and not necessarily less to the men, but not increasing their salaries disproportionately. Pay is something you can determine in an office. No need to wait for pandemics to end or for politicians to grow sensible.

And the same goes for reviews of children’s books. Last year The Bookseller reports only 4.9% of book reviews were for children’s books, and a year later this had managed to slide down to 4.3%. 50% is too much to hope for, I suppose, but maybe a little more than barely 5%? I forget who said this in the last few days, but children’s books matter more, because they shape their readers into the kind of people they will grow up to be. I do my best, but as you well know, that is not a lot, and my viral reading has plummeted.

My local newspaper has launched this year’s charitable collection for Christmas presents for children who might not get any. I am gearing up to give them books again. Especially with the above in mind, but also with that in mind, I fear that plastic toys in primary colours will be more welcome. At least by the adults sorting the gifts. Except I know there are children who don’t actually own any books, and who would be happy to be given one.

And finally, thirty years on, we are looking at the last book by Jacqueline Wilson to be illustrated by Nick Sharratt. Not that we have been wanting this to end, but as they say, the time has come for Nick to concentrate on his own work. Here at Bookwitch Towers we will be forever grateful for the way he has captured Jacqueline’s characters and made so many children want to read her books. I have on occasion wanted to simply sit there and stroke the gorgeous covers, especially that pink one over fifteen years ago. And who can beat Tracy Beaker?

Zooming in on Linda Bondestam

This evening the Anglo-Swedish Society hosted Linda Bondestam on Zoom, all the way from Finland. Hers is the kind of name I know really well, except when I start thinking about it and I realise I know nothing.

Linda is a Swedish-speaking Finnish illustrator of, mostly, children’s books. She has more recently taken to writing a couple as well. When telling us about one of those books, which was about death, Linda described how she’d had to decide which character to kill, to bring the message home to the young reader, but deciding that killing the main character might be too harsh.

In the beginning there were political pushchairs. Or something like that. Ulf Stark, whom she admired greatly, asked her to illustrate a piece he’d written, and it seems to have taken off and started some trend to do with armed tank style pushchairs in Eastern Europe.

The Anglo-Swedish chair person suggested she could be the next Tove Jansson, and possibly also Maurice Sendak. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek Linda agreed.

There was a short clip of Ulf Stark reading his own words, and later on Linda read some of her words, translated into English.

Linda’s pictures are wonderfully quirky and colourful, and to prove that good art goes anywhere, she also puts it on fabric, showing us shirts and stuff made from her designs. (Contact Linda if you want anything like that. The website is not here yet.) I said to Daughter that maybe she could order a duvet cover, and no sooner had I mentioned it when someone on Zoom suggested sheets…

One very young viewer was so inspired that she/he produced some of their own art while watching, which we all got to admire. Such is the power of the internet.

And Linda keeps winning awards.

Both Sides of the news

I’m more of an ice hockey girl myself. However I do know some names of football players, although Nicklas Bendtner was not one of them.

He appears to be a successful Danish football import, now returned to his own shores, where he teamed up with a most respectable ‘ghost’ writer, Rune Skyum-Nielsen, for his autobiography Both Sides. This is according to his translator, Ian Giles. So Nicklas was responsible for the exciting doings, Rune for writing about them well, and Ian for making it possible for you to read the whole thing, now that the English translation is out.

I have my own copy, I’m pleased to say, but will probably not get round to reading. The Resident IT Consultant did, though, and survived. (He’s not really into sports.)

With my experience of book publicity, I’d say Nicklas’s PR team is pretty good. Being famous for kicking a ball obviously helps, but so far this week there has been a double spread of excerpts from the book in the Daily Fail, followed by another couple of pages interviewing the man. This morning there were another couple of pages in the Guardian, adding quality. In the sports pages, so I could easily have missed the happy event.

I understand this is the translator’s first Danish book, so has very little to do with me.

The Cheshire set

Where I used to live, I was part of a group of – mostly – Swedes, who met up about once a month, for coffee and cake and chat. It was the language we had in common, and a – mostly – shared background. Otherwise we were as different as you and your neighbours and cousins and the people in your office.

But over the 25 years, or so, you grow fond of people, while being aware of their individual peculiarities. You forge a closer relationship with a few, who suit you best, and others do the same. I’m still in touch with a couple of them, while time and distance mean we no longer do the cake.

Their age means few are on Facebook, but I have two of them as friends on there. Both, incidentally, moved back ‘home’. We never interact, but that’s OK. I know ‘where I’ve got them’ so to speak. Or thought I did, when one contacted me out of the blue, asking if I was the one she suddenly thought I might be. (Considering I look mostly like my old self in the online photo, I felt the question superfluous. Especially along with my personal information on there.)

Anyway, she phoned. We had a – mostly – nice chat (after 22 years). I could tell she was struggling to remember people, and with hindsight I understood it’s because she never invested that much in the group. But she had saved the ‘membership’ list of names. If that had been me, I’d have used it better, as a prop to get people ‘right’.

After an hour she went into sales mode and enthused at great length about a product that would change my life and by my instant calculation would cost me a mere £1000 a year.

Even the cynic in me felt a little disappointed.

Translating Wretchedness

I ‘went to’ a webinar on Thursday evening, to hear Nichola Smalley talking to Swedish author Andrzej Tichý about her work on translating his novel Wretchedness, which has had some good reviews. Hosted by Brookline Booksmith, someone had done some thinking of the timing. It was early in the US, but late in the UK and later still in Sweden. But we were at least all awake.

I have heard Nichola speak before, live, and I was struck by how well I know her voice. I have not read the book, nor had I ever heard of Andrzej. But it seems that this might be rectified if he’s as successful as people believe. And no, that’s not a very Swedish name. He’s half Polish and half Czech, but also Swedish.

Andrzej started by reading a few pages, before Nichola talked about how she’d found the book. It’s not an easy book, apparently. Nothing you’d take to the beach. And no, it didn’t sound like it from either the reading or the description.

Nichola asked Andrzej to read again, but he didn’t read what she’d expected. But ‘apparently I need conducting’, he said as Nichola apologised for pushing him about. Theoretically, of course, with everyone in their own room, in their own country.

Speaking of rooms, Andrzej had a beautiful wall of books in the background and Nichola had some very fetching children’s art behind her. There was also a car alarm somewhere, making it hard for her to concentrate.

There were questions for both of them, with Ian Giles asking ‘how was it working with Nicky as a translator?’ She instructed Andrzej to say only nice things. Which he did. I think. Someone else was interested in the time it had taken Andrzej to write the book, and whether he’d suffered writer’s block

And we learned how useful it had been for Nichola to meet Andrzej and to be able to discuss his book with him and ask him endless questions, in order to translate it. It was a difficult book, and she’d already read it twice, so meeting Andrzej was really helpful.

All things come to an end, and the host came on again, saying she hoped people might buy the book from them – but only within the US – and that they’d be back with more talks during the autumn.

After the War

The tears started falling right from the start of Tom Palmer’s new book, After the War. I missed The Windermere Children on television in January, so had been looking forward to Tom’s book. To say it’s an enjoyable book would be wrong. It’s very good, as always with Tom, and so important, especially now.

We meet three Jewish, teenage boys, who along with three hundred other children came to the Lake District in the summer of 1945, straight from the concentration camps.

The automatic reaction for the modern reader is how lucky these boys are, and how they must know that things will be OK from now on. But what you tend to overlook is what has been done to them during the war. Yes, we know about the camps and the loss of their families and the general awfulness of everything.

But here the boys are worrying whether they can really trust these people, whether they will really be all right now. Because being transported in large groups to somewhere new, where they are being promised better lives, food, and so on, has been done to them already. And we know what happened then.

When they arrive, the many buildings they see look a bit like the concentration camps. They have to remove their clothes, for obvious reasons, and they are told to wash, and they are deloused, etc. But this too rings a bell for the children. It has all happened before.

On the other hand, they have been given a piece of chocolate, for the first time since before the war. Maybe things will be OK?

To begin with they hoard the food they are given, in case they aren’t fed again. They even steal potato peelings, just in case.

But slowly, slowly, they learn to trust, they stop being hungry, they learn English. In fact, they are allowed lessons, which is something they’ve not been permitted for six years.

This is a beautiful book, telling us about something real. Until quite recently we would have taken this kind and decent behaviour by the British for granted. But whatever our future holds, I am so glad these children were given a future after all they went through in the war. And I hope there was much chocolate for them.

The Time Travel Diaries – Adventure in Athens

Every time I ask myself whether I might have grown a little tired of this, and how many fictional trips can a witch make to Roman times, or whenever, and still enjoy it?

‘Hvergang,’ as the Danes say, or every time, as I say [every time].

In Caroline Lawrence’s second time traveller book, Adventure in Athens, I knew how things were likely to happen, and they did, and it was still just as much fun. And once you get going, those old Greeks really are fascinating. Not to mention smelly.

Here Alex and Dinu and their families travel to modern Athens as a reward for last time. And, well, there is a portal through to ancient Athens, and their task is to find Socrates. Because that should be easy.

I have to say, I grew quite fond of old Socrates. He was a wise man, and from now on I will remember this.

Not only did they smell back then, but many people were really quite violent. And I do not want to meet their dogs. Plus, the important thing for our young time tourists is to avoid interacting in such a way that the future changes, possibly meaning that they won’t actually exist, if they go kerpluff.

This is fun, and while it’s light adventure, you learn so much without really noticing. Perhaps our heroes are a tad unrealistically proficient in ancient languages, but this is fiction. They’re allowed. And so are we.

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.