Category Archives: Translation

All the Dear Little Animals

How could I not love Ulf Nilsson’s All the Dear Little Animals? To begin with, anything illustrated by Eva Eriksson is automatically extremely loveable. And the story of three children who hunt out dead animals so they can bury them is also rather sweet, don’t you think?

Ulf Nilsson and Eva Eriksson, All the Dear Little Animals

It starts with a bumblebee, which died of natural causes, and its death causes the poetic narrator and his friend Esther to arrange a funeral for it. Our narrator is good at coming up with poems for the ceremony.

And then Esther’s little brother Puttie discovers what they are up to, and he cries. He cries so well that he becomes their official crier. Puttie – unlike his older sister – finds death rather upsetting. He can see that when he dies, their parents will be very distraught.

Esther, on the other hand, avoids telling him that the most likely scenario might be the other way round. This, presumably, is for the adult who reads with their young child to decide to discuss. Mortality, and how it makes you feel.

Once they have hunted out a good many corpses, dug graves, read poems and cried, they are satisfied.

Tomorrow they will do something else.

(Translated by Julia Marshall, this is not a new book. Not even in translation. I would have liked the original title to be mentioned, so I didn’t have to Google it; Alla döda små djur.)

The seventh chair

I read the article several times.

Before that I had had a telephone conversation with Son, about various things. One of the ‘things’ was Åsa Wikforss. It was a professional sort of mention. Minutes later I sat down to eat supper in the company of the December issue of Vi magazine, of which page 30 was already lying open.

It turned out to be a long interview article with Åsa Wikforss. Coincidence? Serendipity, more like. She was photographed on top of a stepladder, wearing a shiny – but nice – copper coloured dress and a scarf billowing in the studio’s wind.

So I ate, and I read about Åsa. I liked everything I read. In fact, I felt a bit like her. No, not that exactly. More that we seemed to have a lot in common, in that comfortable way you sometimes discover when you talk to people. I wish I could. Talk to her, I mean.

The reason I probably won’t be able to, and the reason we are not the same, is that today she will be sworn in as a new member of the Swedish Academy. Yes, that slightly tarnished but formerly great institution. Chair number seven, I believe. The one that belonged to Sara Danius, whom I also felt strangely close to.

Åsa sounds very sensible. Intelligent. She doesn’t hail from a privileged background, so as far as I’m concerned she is the real deal. By privileged I mean money or family ties. Otherwise she was really quite privileged, having sensible – working class – parents, growing up in a concrete suburb of Gothenburg. Possibly studying at the Literature department at the same time as me. Possibly not. Then the obvious stuff; Oxford, international romance, New York, back to Sweden to be Professor of Theoretical Philosophy, and now the Swedish Academy.

It’s a long article, and the author, Stina Jofs, regrets not having had room for all the information she’d collected. So there’s no point in me going on and on here.

But she’s been where I’ve been, even if she did it in New York and I was in Stockport. It’s almost the same.

I read the article again. Told Son about it, and he wants me to save it for when he gets here. Fine. I will. But I might want to read it again.

Here’s hoping Åsa’s first day with her Swedish Academy colleagues goes well, and that soon she and her rookie peers will sort them out good and proper.

Åsa Wikforss, photographed by Thron Ullberg for Vi

Letters from Tove

I’d like to think that even people who don’t know anything about Tove Jansson would enjoy reading her letters. As the publicist for the English translation of Letters from Tove said, one can enjoy dipping in, reading a bit here and a bit there. You sort of eavesdrop on Tove’s life, which looks to have been both long and full of events.

Tove Jansson, Letters from Tove

The translation by Sarah Death is so spot on, that if I didn’t know whose letters I was reading, I could easily believe they were from a young, arty English girl. At least, were it not for the people Tove writes about, and the recipients of the letters.

For the most part I don’t know who they are. Some are obvious, others might be names I vaguely have heard of, being Swedish. But many correspondents are just that, someone Tove knew and exchanged letters with. The Resident IT Consultant felt he didn’t know enough, but I suspect that’s because he believed that a Swedish speaker would automatically know all about Tove’s people.

Well, we don’t, and the book is more exciting for it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that someone Tove’s age would have spent time in prewar Paris, mixing with other arty people. But somehow I’d not thought about this. And I know the grass is often greener, but I am always struck by how interesting life in the past seems.

And then there is the more normal life at home, which is surprisingly normal, even for non-arty me, so much younger than Tove. It’s as if there is something timeless and Nordic about certain aspects of how we live.

I think this will be interesting to read, whether or not you are a Moomin fan. And perfect to keep near you for dipping into. There are many years of numerous and long letters to discover.

(Starting today as Book of the week on BBC Radio 4.)

Too young to translate?

I mean, you have to start somewhere, don’t you?

I was somewhat flabbergasted to discover that some publisher – unnamed – had withdrawn their book so that it wouldn’t be translated by someone new.

The Peirene Stevns Translation Prize 2019 has had to be postponed after the publisher of their intended book to be translated by those entering the competition, refused to agree. Not for beginners, apparently.

It’s a bit worrying, as older translators will be retiring or dying out, so younger ones do need to step into their shoes if you want books moving into other languages.

The prize is for unpublished translators. However, Peirene discovered that many people have translated things for free, just to get a foot in. This seems to be yet another case of unpaid work, because ‘you can.’

Just because you’re new doesn’t mean you are bad. Some new translators of fiction even get shortlisted for prestigious awards. In fact, I’d say that when you’re starting out, you possibly spend far longer on getting it right, because you feel you should, than you do later on, when everything’s become more routine.

Lobster Life

The Resident IT Consultant is standing in for me today. He threw himself at one of the Norwegian books from Norvik Press that turned up recently. Over to his Lobster review:

Lobster Life (Et hummerliv) by Erik Fosnes Hansen is the story of a year or so in the life of Sedd, a 13-year-old boy living with his grandparents who manage a Norwegian mountain hotel.

Erik Fosnes Hansen, Lobster Life

Sedd knows that, eventually, the hotel will be his to inherit. But he knows very little about his own origins. His mother, ‘taken by time’ when he was a toddler, is scarcely a memory. Of his father he knows nothing. Sedd is precocious, always with adults and possesses knowledge that goes far beyond that of the average 13-year-old. Nevertheless his youth means he is not a very reliable interpreter of the events that are going on around him.

All is not well in the hotel. It is the 1980s and Norwegians are abandoning hotels at home for package tours abroad. The bank manager, who has kept the hotel alive for years on extended credit, suddenly dies. Gradually clues to the hotel’s problems accumulate. But Sedd cannot see these for what they are. He has his own concerns. Who was his mother? Who was his father? Why is there a mysterious locked room in the hotel?

A new bank manager appears, and his daughter proceeds to pester Sedd in every way imaginable. There is a growing sense of doom. Things are not going to end well. And they don’t. Nevertheless this is a comic book. Sedd’s accounts of those he comes into contact with, and his adolescent perspective, provide a succession of amusing accounts.

I thoroughly recommend it.

(Translation by Janet Garton)

Keeping up with Findus

Yes, it can be hard keeping up with Findus. He’s a hyper-active cat who never stops. But Hawthorn Press are doing well with their publishing of Sven Nordqvist’s Findus and Pettson in translation by Nathan Large. This latest book is original 2019 vintage and just as enjoyable as the previous ones have been.

Sven Nordqvist, Keeping up with Findus

You have to feel a little sorry for Pettson. He’s old (-ish) and wants a quiet life, but with a cat like Findus, what can you do?

Well, you can refuse to ‘hop on both feet and bounce all the way to the house.’ But after that he gives in and gamely attempts Findus’s challenges. You can guess who wins, can’t you?

This is another sweet story, and the apple tree-climbing took me straight back to my childhood summer paradise. The nostalgia almost made me cry. And I must point out that my paradise had no apple tree in it. That’s how strong the Pettson and Findus magic is.

I hope children will never grow too old or too cool for this kind of book.

Bookwitch goes speed dating

Seems the trolleyful of wine wasn’t for us. It was Jackie Kay’s, for her Black History Month event at the University of Edinburgh’s language department.

Oh well. I was on a date night, as was the Resident IT Consultant. We had come to speed date a new generation of Swedish authors, who’d been invited to Edinburgh to talk writing and translation, with a group of translators from SELTA. Their debut novels had not been previously translated, but the translators present had worked on some parts of the books, which we were able to read.

Not being entirely sure where we were heading, I decided to follow Son – because this was his baby – when he took his group of authors and translators off to the meeting room. And then they just disappeared!

I was only three steps behind and saw them go down the stairs and turn left. They were not in that room. The only thing remaining was the unlabelled door next to it, which led to a short corridor, from where Son appeared again, letting me through a door on which it said No Access.

So that was straightforward enough… Tried to text this info to the Resident IT Consultant, but there was no signal. He got there in the end.

Swedish Speed Bookclub

I wasn’t sure about this speed dating thing. One author and his or her translator sat at each table. The rest of us joined one of the tables for a brief reading, followed by a discussion. And then we were rotated anti-clockwise to the next author and translator. I was with two of my favourite translators, A A Prime and Guy Puzey, plus another translator and ‘Mrs Perera’ who belonged to one of the authors.

Adrian Perera and Kate Lambert

We started with Adrian Perera, who is that very unusual thing, a Swedish-speaking Finn, with a Sinhalese parent. His book Mamma, written mostly in Swedish, also features Finnish, English and Sinhalese; some of it spoken badly by the various characters. I gathered this made translating the text a bit tricky for Kate Lambert, because how do you convey how bad the Swedish or the English spoken by the Finnish doctor is?

But it wasn’t until I asked how old the main character is (seven) that sentences like ‘The whole Looney Tunes gang is covered in vanilla ice cream,’ made sense. Really fascinating.

Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz and Hanna Löfgren

Anticlockwise movement brought us to Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz and his Aussie translator Hanna Löfgren. Himself coming from Latin America, Joel had borrowed the title of a poem by Gabriela Mistral for his novel, The Story of a Son/Sången om en son. I enjoyed his reading from the book, and we were amused to be told that Joel feels there is so much sex in his novel that he won’t ever write another one like it.

He also reckons he has finished the book and moved on, and he had worried whether he’d be able to discuss it with us. (Seems to have gone just fine.) Translator Hanna brought up the necessity for her to add the word ‘I’ in lots of places. Joel had been told by his publisher to remove most of them, because that’s how people speak these days. Except it doesn’t work in English.

Fiona Graham and Balsam Karam

Up and on to Kurdish Balsam Karam and Fiona Graham, whose translation of Event Horizon/Händelsehorisonten was very beautiful. It really got to me when I read it. Balsam read a page out loud, if rather quietly, from this story about refugees and some kind of rebellion, where the punishment when getting caught is either execution, or being sent into a black hole in space.

I’d be interested to know how that goes, but understand that there is no clear description of what actually happens. Balsam feels that Swedes don’t have much idea of what martyrdom means, whereas Fiona had been shocked by the torture described in the book.

Kayo Mpoyi and Alex Fleming

Last but not least we came to Kayo Mpoyi and Alex Fleming, where Kayo was exclaiming about reading the same extract for the fourth time. But for us it was new, and I’d like to think that the subsequent discussions didn’t all go in the same direction for every group. Set in Tanzania, the story is about a family, two young siblings, maybe a curse on a name, and there is – possibly – a young god who appears every now and then. More a god like the Greek ones, rather than the One Up There, whom so many of us think about.

Kayo has a lot of thoughts and theories about life, and she’s not sure what language she uses to think about it in. Her characters are not Swedish, although the book is written in that language. She herself thinks in several languages.

Swedish Speed Bookclub

This whole speed dating was a lot better than most of us had been expecting. We got up close to four authors and four translators and got a brief look at a book we’d probably never otherwise have encountered. Also, what good English they all speak!

It was fun.

And I didn’t have to marry anyone.