Category Archives: Languages

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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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…

The 2017 Gothenburg Book Fair

Next week it’s time for this year’s book fair in Gothenburg. Maybe we should refer to it more as a Swedish book fair? Because it is the book fair, and it just happens to take place in Gothenburg. People travel there from Stockholm. In fact, perhaps they need an excuse to leave.

Before I out-festivalled myself this summer I was seriously tempted. It was as if the nine-year gap from 2007 to 2016 had not been. I was there last year and although I was exhausted from the word go, it still felt as if I should – would – be going. But we all get funny notions occasionally. I started with Philip Pullman, and ended with Meg Rosoff. Not sure what the fair would need to offer to rouse me this time.

The programme, which I perused carefully, has a lot going for it, and that was before I recollected that many authors are boycotting it this year, for permitting the far right to attend. And – this might gall them, if they actually read Bookwitch – I didn’t miss them in the programme. It looked interesting enough anyway.

My new ‘pal’ Christoffer Carlsson will be there on the Saturday. There are talks on subjects such as Arabic children’s literature today, and Are there too many children’s books being published? It bears thinking about. Black Lives Matter, on politics in teen books. Quality or Quantity? on children’s publishing. Read Yourself Well. Very important. Does the Swedish school system kill the creativity of its pupils? Chapter books vs YouTube.

Jenny Colgan will be there, talking among other things about living in a castle. I didn’t know she did. How to use children’s books to talk about current affairs. And it seems Norway has never been hotter [in children’s books].

Perhaps there are fewer ‘names.’ I’m not sure. But then, it’s not necessarily the ‘names’ that make for a good event. We flock to see and hear our literary stars, but occasionally they can be less good at performing than other literary professionals.

YA in Icelandic; how about that? Or there’s M G Leonard and Frances Hardinge. And does educated = well read? I suspect there won’t be any cake in the Afternoon Tea event with Jenny Colgan and Sophie Kinsella. Or even tea. An event on how reading trash could be the start of good reading sounds just like my kind of thing.

In fact, right now I am wondering why I’m still at home. (I know why, but temptation is back.) David Lagercrantz talks about his Lisbeth Salander, with Christopher MacLehose. FYI I’m still only on Saturday. One more day.

Astrid Lindgren and Jane Austen. Not together, and not in the flesh, for obvious reasons. More Val McDermid. Some [Swedish] superstars like Sven-Bertil Taube and Tomas Ledin. It gets lighter as the weekend progresses. It’s a way to tempt the masses to come on the Sunday, and it’s a way for the masses to rub shoulders with stars.

There’s Arundhati Roy. Ten years ago I grew – almost – blasé about seeing Orhan Pamuk all over the place. It’s what it’s like.

I might go next year. But I’ll – probably – never again have constant access to my favourite author as I prowl those corridors.

Meg Rosoff at Vi Läser in Gothenburg

Bloody India at Bloody Scotland

There were so many things I had no idea I needed to know about Kolkata!

Bloody India was my first event on Sunday morning, and it was even better than I had expected. Jenny Brown was there to usher the others in, and they were ‘needs no introduction, she’s great, obviously’ Lin Anderson and ‘little’ Doug Johnstone, whose jobs were to introduce Monabi Mitra, all the way from Kolkata, and Abir Mukherjee, from his mum’s house ‘down the road,’ but who usually lives in London.

Monabi Mitra

Chance – and the British Council – had sent Lin and Doug, and oh, Jenny too, to the Kolkata Literary Festival in February, where they met lots of people (they get something like 2,500,000 visitors there…), including, I believe, Monabi. Such numbers will explain why Scotland wants to make it on the Indian litscene. Just imagine how many books they could sell to so many fervent fans of reading! They are planning special Indian editions of Scottish crime, and expect to return there in February 2018.

Lin and Doug entered Indian immigration successfully, but there had been some doubt about whether Jenny should be let through. Or so they claimed. But when they were all safely in, and wondering what could have happened to their luggage, they discovered that people from [the plane?] had kept their bags company in the now deserted airport.

Doug said that it wasn’t until he went to India that he understood what culture shock means. And people are so cultural, in a place where readers rioted because the book fair closed early… According to Abir the words on the airport ceiling are from Tagore’s works. Watching an eight-year-old boy choosing a book to buy, they were flabberghasted to find it was a copy of Ivanhoe.

Anyway, as Lin said, we hadn’t come to hear her and Doug speak.

Monabi Mitra, The Final Report

Monabi Mitra is a professor of English literature, and she is married to a detective inspector, which might explain why she started writing crime fiction. She said there’s a duality in her life, with literature on one side and the dangerous world of the police on the other. Mentioning her own experience of being present at an autopsy, she feels there must be one in each book.

Indian autopsies are quite different from the Western kind we’ve got used to from CSI. Monabi read an excerpt from her novel, about a shockingly different autopsy. It’s fast, and careless, and there are rats, and it’s always smelly.

Abir Mukherjee

Abir Mukherjee reckons he is the only Scottish-Indian crime writer, and if there’s anyone else, he’ll have to kill them. He recounted the old tale of how in parts of Scotland people want to know if you are Catholic or Protestant, and when saying he’s Hindu, they want to know if he’s a Catholic Hindu or a Protestant Hindu.

Kolkata is practically a Scottish city, built by Scots, and it’s not all that old. Bengalis are very much like Scots, but without the alcohol. The period between 1919 and 1947 is an important one.

Abir Mukherjee, A Rising Man

Reading from A Rising Man, Abir chose a passage about a visit to a church (because we were in a church). His detective is a Scot who has gone to live in Kolakata after being widowed, and it was ‘slightly preferable to suicide.’ A sad background, but Abir’s writing is humorous and his book sounds like a great read. There is apparently a shared gallow’s humour between Scotland and Bengal.

Monabi mentioned the works of H R F Keating and his Inspector Ghote. As homage to this man who wrote about an India he’d not visited, she named her detective Inspector Ghosh. She pointed out that in India you don’t tend to hire a PI, unless you are ‘in deep shit.’

Monabi Mitra

When asked, she said that she thinks in English, although she speaks two other languages. She described her Saturday at Bloody Scotland, the sunshine (!) and what a great invention queueing is. Kolkata is not orderly. It’s wonderful here, and the events were real eye-openers.

But on the other hand, Kolkata used fingerprinting before Britain, and Ronald Ross discovered what causes malaria (admittedly by experimenting on the servants…). Kolkata was very cosmopolitan between the two world wars, and in the past ‘its greatness was greater.’

Abir said that the reason he writes is he read some popular crime novels and felt they were so badly written that he could do better. Despite his Indian background he said he didn’t feel he could write from a Bengal point of view, which is why he chose a Scot in Kolkata.

Abir Mukherjee and Doug Johnstone

His first book is set in 1919, and he said that whereas what happened in Amritsar that year had an impact on Kolkata as well, news travelled so slowly, that he had to make up faster news for his story, so that they knew the day after.

When time was up, there was a bit of a scramble to be first to the books for sale [as there could have been more copies]. I admit to buying a book by each of the visiting authors, which is something that hardly ever happens. I spoke a little to both of them, and Monabi told be about the number of Scots who have not only moved to Kolkata, but have aquired nationality, because it’s the best place to live.

After this event I can sort of see why.

The Murderer’s Ape

You will want to read this award-winning book. At least I hope you will. I can’t believe I didn’t know [more] about The Murderer’s Ape by Swede Jakob Wegelius, before it was translated into English, by none other than Peter Graves. Or that I hadn’t even heard of the first book about the gorilla by the name of Sally Jones. Also award-winning.

Jakob Wegelius, The Murderer's Ape

I believe that in the first novel about Sally Jones (no, you can’t just call her Sally) the reader meets the baby gorilla, and finds out how Sally Jones got her name, and how she learned to do all those human things she’s so good at, apart from talking. Sally Jones does not speak, but thankfully she can type, and that’s how we know about the dreadful time when her best friend Henry Koskela is jailed for murder, and what Sally Jones did to free him.

Like many of the best characters in fiction, Sally Jones is both a loyal and loving friend, as well as extremely skilled at many things. Until the murder Sally Jones and Koskela – the Chief – had run a cargo boat, and she’s an experienced engineer. When the Chief ends up in jail, Sally Jones has to use all her skills, and learn many new ones, to help him.

Jakob Wegelius, The Murderer's Ape

She also makes new friends; really lovely friends, although never quite as special as the Chief. And it goes without saying that there are many new enemies for Sally Jones. Powerful people want to stop her from helping Koskela, and for someone who doesn’t speak, it’s not always easy to ‘speak out.’

This beautifully illustrated book (drawings by Jakob Wegelius himself), set some time in the first half of the 20th century, mainly in Portugal and in India, has the feel of a classic film. It’s a wonderful adventure with a genuine pre-WWII feel to it; a time when anything was possible, and there was both good and evil, and unimaginable wealth, but also possibilities for going places if you worked hard and were good at what you did.

It does take a little while to get used to Sally Jones being a gorilla, but only about as long as it takes those who become her dearest friends to understand what a gem she is. And if you want to get rid of your useless boyfriend, Sally Jones is your, well, gorilla.

This is nearly 600 pages of exciting, nail-biting, romantic adventure. Besides, you can’t beat a bit of good engine grease.

Cutting edge

I had my hair cut the other day. And on a good day the hairdresser remembers I am into books, and we can talk books. I suppose it helped that I brought one with me. To read, in case he was delayed with some other woman’s hair. It calms my nerves. The reading. Not other people’s hair.

He does read, which is nice. Not all hairdressers do. His children read, too. I asked once.

His current book is Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. So I immediately burst out with the words ‘that’s a Swedish book!’ He might not have known that.

He then paid me a compliment by saying he thought the book read so well, that it could almost be an original English one… I’m sure translator Roy Bradbury will be pleased to know.

And as Daughter and I had discussed the film just a week or so ago, I said I’d been thinking of watching the film. He said he thought it’d make a good film. I said it already had. And I’d been surprised to discover the film is several years old, since it felt as though it was only this year.

Time goes fast sometimes.

So based on that, I decided to look up how old the book is, and found it’s actually seven years already. But the English book version is two years old, so the film clearly happened before the translation.

Whether I find time to read Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann is uncertain. But I do feel the film must be watched. If only to make sure it doesn’t climb out any windows and disappears.

I suppose the next thing I should do is ask the hairdresser if he buys his books, and if so, where. Because he lives in Cumbernauld, where they don’t have any bookshops. I’ve been meaning to look into that, but it’s good to know that people still read, anyway.