Category Archives: Languages

Catching Fire: A Translation Diary

This is the most wonderful book! And it’s not even fiction. At least, I don’t believe it is. Daniel Hahn’s online diary on his work translating Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire – as it became – from [the] Spanish into English (I’ll go without the ‘the’ there.)

You will remember – yes, you will – that I wrote about the diary last year as it was actually happening.

So, why would I read the same thing all over again, in book form? Well, because another translator I happen to know sent it to me. And it was pure luck I hadn’t already bought it myself. Because I wanted to read it again. Not so much as the companion piece to Never Did the Fire, but because this is like sitting down with a dear friend; someone who is funny and intelligent and you just want to spend more time with them and you want to be entertained by their thoughts, and they have a fun and different way with language.

Daniel is modest about his abilities. (Maybe.) He doesn’t mind mentioning all that he doesn’t know [yet], or musing on how he might solve another stumbling stone he’s stumbled across. I think I hadn’t quite understood that a professional translator might read a book they are about to work on, knowing only half the words or not understanding what the author meant, like the 13-year-old witch read Agatha Christie in English. You are propelled forward by a wish to get somewhere, and you learn as you go. Though I have to say that Daniel being equipped with a Chilean stepfather is a very handy thing. Under the circumstances.

I was also amused to learn Daniel has lots of incomprehensible gaps in his manuscript, once he’s ‘written’ the first translation. It’s what I have when transcribing an interview, having no idea what my victim just said there. But my advantage is that I can cut out the worst. I imagine Daniel needed to keep what was in Diamela’s book; ‘Plugging the gaps makes what looked like sheer linguistic carnage begin to resemble a piece of continuous text’.

So, this is my random meander through a really fun diary.* And I’d say that unlike with some books, this one got even funner** on a second reading. Daniel talks directly to the reader. He also chats to himself.

I could read it again, again.

I have to say: read this book! Even if your friends aren’t in it, or if you know nothing about languages. It’s like having the loveliest of friends pop in for a visit.

*He doesn’t really favour footnotes. But they are amusing. He also very kindly put me in one. Or did he? No, he didn’t. But still. It’s one of my favouritest footnote tales. And he mentions people I know.

**Channelling Daniel’s style of making words up.

Displaced

It’s hard to know what to think these days. Having read and loved so many children’s books about the Kindertransport and all the other schemes from WWII to get people, children and adults, to safety, I have been proud of what Britain did. With hindsight I realise that not everything was quite like in the books. But still, people arrived here, and many remained and many did well. So apart from the awful reason for them coming, the end result seems to have been OK a lot of the time.

And now we are ashamed of what Britain is not doing. Most of us have the Ukraine in mind, but I don’t mind casting wider and will mention Syria and Afghanistan among many other crisis-laden nations. And that other countries are receiving refugees more generously and with greater ease than seems to be possible here.

One night recently I came to think of ‘my’ first lot of refugees. Not counting the girl from Hungary I was friendly with in my first year at school, because that happened before I was aware, ‘my’ displaced people came from Chile.

Well, they arrived from there, but they were frequently from some other Latin American country, having already fled to Chile from their place of birth. I encountered many of them where I lived, which was a small town. I suspect one reason for their appearance there was that the then head of Amnesty International in Sweden lived nearby. But as is often the case, they moved on, and congregated in the bigger cities, where they could be with others from the same background.

When I moved to Gothenburg, I met Chilean refugees there. And I know many of them are still there, with children and grandchildren born in this other country at the opposite end of the world. Such a lot of them ended up there because one night they clambered over the wall to the Swedish embassy, where the ambassador temporarily achieved hero status for saving so many individuals fleeing for their lives.

So, that night I mentioned, I began wondering if the person whose full name I for some reason still remember, might still be there. He is. That’s the beauty of computerised, publicly available records. Back then he was a political student leader, not from Chile, but from one of the neighbouring countries. I have no idea what he’s done in the nearly fifty years since then, but he’s now ‘old’ and still living in the city that took him in. I wonder what his life has been like. Still marooned at the other end of the world. But I dare say it beats the alternative.

‘Blistering barnacles!’

I’d never really thought about it. The translating of ‘comics’, by which I mean pages with pictures and speech bubbles. You take out the original words and find something suitable, in both senses; so that it means roughly the same, and so that it fits in physically.

I find the ‘Other Lives’ obituaries in the Guardian fascinating. Often much more so than the ‘real’ obituaries of the people they have on their own list. Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper sounds like an interesting woman, with a career starting in WWII and taking her to the Open University as a rights specialist, until she retired 35 years ago…

What gripped me the most was that she, along with Michael Turner, spent thirty years translating Tintin, coming up with phrases like ‘blistering barnacles’, to fit snugly in those speech bubbles left by Hergé. (I haven’t read much Tintin in English, which makes me wonder what happened in Swedish. Which, of course, I don’t remember.)

There is so much that is important, and interesting, and fun to learn about, and as always my main gripe is that one doesn’t find out about these people while they are still alive.

‘Leslie was especially proud of their invented Tintinian oaths.’ I should think so!

Coming in August

Back when I first read the first Millennium novel, I wasn’t expecting this. Neither the continuation of ‘writing’ Stieg Larsson’s books for him, nor who might translate them. So here’s to Stieg, David Lagercrantz and Ian Giles!

Tea with Danny, OBE

OK, so the Society of Authors’ afternoon tea with Daniel Hahn might have been more like him wielding a mug – though not a Moomin one – of coffee. But it was nice anyway. He might be busy, but it never shows. Danny always seems very cool and calm, and that rubs off on the rest of us. It was good to have an event ‘to go to’ even if it was no further than our own screens and our own mugs of tea/coffee/wine. And this was last week, so I offer my apologies for the late report. Stuff happens.

There he was, and there we were, and there was Antonia Lloyd-Jones, his translator colleague. (I have it on good authority that she is nice.) They discussed translating, as you do. And no, Daniel does not have a chimpanzee in the basement. He does all the work himself.

We discovered to our great delight that he has a ladder – for his library – when he walked us from one room to another, in order to find the thing he’s working on now, so he could read to us. It had been printed out and he read it with red pen in hand for any necessary corrections that might make themselves known to him. And he did, indeed, note down something that was wrong, meaning we were sort of useful.

The reason Danny doesn’t read the books before he translates, is that he hates first drafts and the payoff is the discovery of reading something for the first time. ‘There is nothing like it.’

And the reason he translates what he does, is that you can only choose the opportunities that exist. And there is the mortgage that wants paying. To help with that are the several translations at different stages, because he needs to work on different things; not just the first draft. He works fast, which is his good fortune, and he’s good at multitasking. Moving between translations is energising.

Danny enjoyed cooperating with a recent author, being able to ask her questions. His current author is long dead, which is not terribly practical. And he’d have liked hanging out with this man who died 114 years ago.

Co-translating is great, and tends to make for a better book, because two people have looked at everything, and thought about it, and discovered the mistakes. He’s doing something with palindromes and anagrams, which seems not to be as hard as his audience felt it must be.

For pleasure Daniel reads mostly the same as when he works, but he also reads a lot of children’s books. He tries to engineer things so that he can do some interviews or festival work, chatting to authors, and being allowed to ‘deduct it off his taxes.’

To assist with his tax paying, you could always look into his new book about translating, Catching Fire: a Translation Diary. It’s both fun and interesting. As was this event. We want more, please.

Always

I was all right. It was fine me not having read two of the books in Morris Gleitzman’s Once series. This one – Always – is the last. And it really is the last. Because several of the books have turned up in random order, it doesn’t actually matter at all. But it does help if you have met and know Felix.

He is an old man now. Granted, he was old before as well, in modern Australia. But when Once began he was a child, and that childlike way of being has remained with both Felix, and the current child in the book. The world is full of sweet and lovely people.

But I suspect that when Morris saw what was going on in Europe today, he needed to write one more book about Felix. Because there are also many rather nasty people, and perhaps a book won’t help change that, but it will help the reader to believe in courage and goodness.

Wassim is the latest – last – child and he is as kind and thoughtful as all the others have been, especially not forgetting Zelda. Either of the Zeldas, but mostly Zelda the first, who died. (I’m sorry if you didn’t know that, but it’s very much part of the story.)

We’re back in, not quite Poland, but somewhere a bit like it, and Wassim is having a hard time, with dead parents and Uncle Otto, who can be harsh sometimes but who took him in, and the Iron Weasels who are very bad. In other words, we and Wassim are looking at a Europe that hates foreigners and coloured people and anyone else who is different; Jews, Muslims. You get the picture.

I’m grateful to Morris for wanting to write about this, which I believe both he and I thought was part of the past, the past where Felix was a child and WWII happened.

Wassim knows he needs help, and he learns about Felix, and he looks him up online. Although it could be worth noting that public libraries ‘can be more dangerous than they look.’

Anyway, he finds Felix and Felix agrees to help him. This is where you need to start worrying. But with these two very sweet people working together, you know some good will come of it. Even if you also know, or suspect, that some bad is unavoidable. Remember Zelda.

Now is very much a time when we need a Felix.

Miss Graham’s [Cold] War [Cookbook]

We’ve got used to books where we are all terribly pleased the Allies won WWII. And it’s quite obvious, really – isn’t it? – that the victors take over and they run things, while the losers put up with it. Especially if you are the victorious one. And the British were quite decent and everything worked out for the best.

Well, there’s much that’s wrong with this picture, and I’m glad to report that Celia Rees deals with these tired clichés in her adult book about Miss Graham and her cookbook, back in Germany in 1946. To begin with, I found it refreshing to have a heroine – neither young, nor old – who drinks and has sex, in a way that we’ve got used to female heroines not doing [back then]. In fact, Edith Graham is quite normal, in a way that fits in with both modern thinking, but also doesn’t feel wrong for the 1940s.

And the British… well. They ‘know’ they are right and the Germans ‘had it coming.’ But they are not very nice. Nor are the Americans, and it goes without saying that the Russians are all wrong. We see the victors eating and drinking really well, while the Germans are quietly starving on the sides. Perhaps not those who ‘had it coming’ but more the normal civilians.

Edith is in Lübeck to look after education, but she has also been involved in a couple of sidelines, doing bits of minor (?) spying for the Military, and also for someone else. She does this with the help of her recipe collection, which turns out to be a useful hobby.

She makes friends, but also plenty of enemies. Above all, she learns that all is not simple and that even close friends are doing the wrong thing and not always for the right reason.

In a way I already knew this, but I still feel my eyes have been opened. And the book has probably forever ruined similarly set books where the Allies are the heroes.

There are a couple of unusual twists to the story, at least one of which I could sense from the beginning, while not quite sure how it would work out. I’ll leave you to enjoy the book, and to see what you think will happen.

(I believe the words ‘cold’ and ‘cookbook’ have been dropped from the paperback edition. I would like to think that they have also edited the surplus of ‘Teirgartens’ I was disturbed by. Or not. German is a foreign language, after all.)

Pitch Black Humour

Of course we wouldn’t go to see Val McDermid instead! Here were three funny crime writers, being chaired quite unexpectedly by publisher Karen Sullivan, who has form for not necessarily keeping control of proceedings like these. She did. And she didn’t.

Karen was a bit taken aback by Barry Hutchison. She had to make sure he wasn’t an old boyfriend of hers by the same name. He was there as J D Kirk, which is quite different. There was Doug Johnstone, who wore shorts. Shorts, I tell you! Barry dressed like the gentleman he is. I was proud of him. And between them was Antti Tuomainen, who is that impossible creature, a funny Finn. He writes about mushrooms, and actuaries. Very funny. He’s got the same wife as Barry. She doesn’t find him/them in the slightest bit funny. If he’s also gone out with Karen is a different question again.

By the way, I didn’t take notes. I was wanting to enjoy my evening out on the town, so just skulked quietly in my corner at the Golden Lion.

I keep forgetting what a well educated man Doug is. Despite the shorts. PhD in nuclear physics. Drummer. Plays football for the Scottish crime writers. His latest humorous books feature a funeral parlour, so he balances nicely with Barry, whose biggest laugh was with his father and sister at his mother’s funeral (which reminds me a little of Catriona McPherson in that same room a couple of years ago..), in the best of ways.

All three talked about some of the general stuff that authors get asked about when it comes to books and writing. And they answered in a humorous manner, arguing with each other as though they were long time friends. Karen was good at getting them started, if not always able to stop them. But that’s humour for you.

Asked about their favourite, humorous crime writer, Antti mentioned Chris Brookmyre. Karen pointed out Chris was sitting ‘over there.’ As Barry said, it got a bit embarrassing, as he was also going to choose Chris. At which point Doug asked if he wasn’t allowed to pick Chris as well. (Chris had obviously paid them handsomely.)

And speaking of Chris, he sat next to Mark Billingham, and I’m willing to stake my reputation on the ‘teenager’ next to them being James Oswald. It’s amazing what jeans and a t-shirt and long hair and a facemask does to one’s favourite crime writer coo farmer. In fact, lots of people [still] had Covid hair, including Bloody Scotland director Bob McDevitt. Recognised a few other people there, but had they been unmasked I’m sure I’d have ‘known’ even more.

Antti and Doug haven’t written that many books. I mean, in comparison. Barry’s 140 children’s books might have got a mention as did some of his other ‘adult’ books before the DCI Logan books, of which there are 12, with the 13th coming in December. Plus the new series starting in October. All this speedy writing is facilitated by him being unable to see a blue spot when he closes his eyes!

They were asked what books they read, that are funny. Chris Brookmyre, apparently, is funny. As was Iain Banks. Douglas Adams. Barry mentioned Terry Pratchett, who he avoided for a long time because the books were recommended to him by his mother’s friend. Quite beyond the pale. Until he picked one up and discovered what the rest of us already knew.

At this point I was struck by what I am about to do, which is to recommend one of Barry’s children’s books to a boy whose mother I know. It’s, well, I don’t know. But us older women know what’s what.

At the end I dashed out to stand first in line for the signing, cornering J D quite nicely, getting the signature and the requisite doodle, along with bits of news. And then I abandoned him for some macaroni cheese I had waiting for me.

Where I listen listen listen

to Michael Rosen, the Master of Repetition.

I surprised myself and ‘went’ to watch the bookfest event where Michael talked to Dean Atta. I’m very glad I did.

Michael is a born entertainer, albeit now perhaps slightly less vigorous than he was. I’m just so very grateful we still have him. I believe he used to be louder, but I like him like this.

He read some of the poems from the new book with Quentin Blake, talking about the background to his poems. And he talked about his other book about his lost great uncles in France. The two books sort of became one the way Michael talked about his relatives; the ones who survived the war and the ones who didn’t.

We learned how his mother used to tell him off, mixing English with Yiddish. And while we’re on the subject of languages, Michael is also a Master of French. He could have spoken a lot more French. It would have been a pleasure to listen to.

We learned about ‘interiority’, which is learning to see things through someone else’s eyes, by thinking yourself into their situation. He did this with his cousin Michael. The one whose parents sent him away and who therefore survived.

This was such a beautiful event! Michael doesn’t really require any steering, but what steering there was, was done very nicely by Dean.

And we now know he has numb toes. There could be a poem in this. He knows what rhymes with numb…

While not forgetting the bagel sock situation.

Making aunties

I remembered that I had quoted from Astrid the Unstoppable, by Maria Parr, and that it was because it was such a beautiful passage from a rather lovely children’s book. But I somehow didn’t believe it would feel as nice today as it did three years ago.

It does, though, and I’m sure you need some nice words today. One doesn’t always get them.

So here is Astrid, and God, translated by Guy Puzey:

‘Astrid thought that God must have been having a good day when he made her aunties.

“Today I’m going to come up with a surprise,” said God, and then he started putting together an auntie.

He made her skinny and freckly, and decided that she would crumple up like a concertina when she laughed. Then he stuffed her full of noise. He’d never put so much noise in an aunt before, Astrid thought. God decided that she would like everything that was funny, everything that made loud bangs, and everything that moved fast. When he’d finished, he took a step back and looked at that aunt. He’d never seen anything like her. He was so pleased with her that he decided to make another, so by the end of the day, God had made two aunts who looked exactly the same. To put the icing on the cake, he took an extra fistful of freckles from his freckle bowl and sprinkled them all over both of them, especially on their knees.

“Knee freckles are my favourite thing,” said God.’