Category Archives: Languages

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.)

Whose Shakespeare?

We moved Shakespeare upstairs over the weekend. Mostly this was because the bookcase he was in ascended, and Shakespeare is rather large, so needed the big shelf. He’s now in Son’s room, should the boy ever be able to return to it.

Anyway he went, along with the three-volume poetry collection from Linlithgow.

There was a most beautiful piece in Thursday’s Guardian, written by Aditya Chakrabortty, about his mother who died recently. I’m sorry for Aditya’s loss, but infinitely grateful that he shared his lovely memories of his mother with the newspaper’s readers.

Mrs Chakrabortty was a teacher. As her name suggests, she was not born in the UK, but she definitely did more than her share for this country and the people already here as well as those who arrived after her.

According to Aditya his ‘mother’s love of Shakespeare and Hazlitt was not an attempt to fit in. She claimed them as she claimed all of world culture.’

This set me thinking of how some people view Shakespeare, believing he’s there exclusively for the English. We all know Shakespeare in some way or other. His plays have been translated into many languages, and Hamlet is everyone’s prince; not just that of ‘cultured English’ people. We all have the right to know and enjoy Shakespeare’s work.

I would like to think he’d see it as an honour to be the favourite of a woman such as Mrs Chakrabortty.

Genre?

By turning as French as I can – no mean feat for a non-French speaker – I have retrieved the ability to say ‘genre.’ Which is good, because one sometimes has to say it. Out loud, and so others can hear what you’re on about. It was while I interviewed Anthony McGowan about five years ago I discovered that for the life of me I couldn’t say the blasted word.

To get round this handicap, I’ve had to avoid using it, or to spell it.

When I was young, and tremendously foreign, I learned this word. Both what it meant, and how to ‘say it in Swedish.’ It involved saying it really wrong, in a kind of pidgin Swench. I don’t know whether Swedes now know better, or still say it like that.

As to its meaning, well, it stands for sub-categories of fiction, like crime, or romance, or sci-fi. All very nice categories. And useful if you want to specify what something is about. Because that’s what I took it to mean, a useful labelling tool. Not that it might indicate anything less worthy.

But that’s what it’s come to. At least in Britain. Maybe it was always thus. Maybe the term was invented, or adopted into the English language, in order to refer to rubbish fiction, on a completely different level than Literary Fiction.

A couple of months ago the word and its meaning came at me from two totally different directions at the same time. One was a question on a Swedish book newsletter site, where someone was asking ‘What does genre mean?’ Except they did it in Swedish. And I think the question was prompted by the discovery of the more British use of the word.

The other was on social media, where someone reported a programme they’d listened to, which went roughly like this:

(I asked permission to use it.) It’s not an exact quote or anything; more an idea of how people actually think, and are not ashamed to admit to in public. But basically, anything not very good is genre.

It’s very snobbish.

I read practically only genre fiction. By which I mean several genres, like children’s, or crime. It’s really good stuff. Sometimes I read Literary Fiction. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it isn’t and that’s when I remind myself why I prefer children’s books and crime. Although, some really Literary authors have been known to lower themselves to genre-writing. Quite often something seems to go wrong when they do.

They all helped

You might know that Son translates for a living. Recently he was asked to make Swedish words into English ones, for an American customer with Scandi roots.

Trouble was, he couldn’t read them. Joined-up handwriting from a hundred years or more, can be hard. Especially in the other language. But he has a mother, who is older, although not that old, but old enough. She can read. I mean, I can read. He asked me.

There was lots of it! Everything from a school report to a ten page diary entry for travels round the US. We agreed on a couple of samples, so I soldiered on with lots of verses of religious songs the joiner ancestor had composed. By the time my transcribing of the handwriting had gone through the keyboards of the translator, and then his proofreader editor – who also happens to be a published author – those songs brought joy to the client’s heart.

Or so I would like to think. He was happy and wanted more.

Then came the rest of all those texts, apart from some that were farmed out to other, equally ancient readers of old handwriting. There was a really short one; just a receipt for travel tickets. But where to? And when? Once I applied myself, I could make out most of it.

Daughter helped, spurred on by the clue-solving aspect of the whole thing. She suggested she try it on her iPad, with this newfangled handwriting stuff, reckoning she could write on top of the illegible words. And she could. But not all of it. We couldn’t agree where the man had travelled to. Or from.

The receipt was emailed over to our ‘old’ minister from church, and when he’d pored over it it for a while, we had the destinations. I’d like to think that he, too, enjoyed the puzzle.

An old letter, about three cows and a horse, and what hard work it was to look after them, had our translator harking back to Hamsun. The actual transcribing was done by the witch’s friend from school, being pretty old (I mean, sprightly and agile) and experienced at deciphering ancient letters.

When all pull together, the job gets done. Though how our boss will divide up the earnings between us, I have no idea.