Category Archives: Translation

[T]OBE or not [T]OBE

Sorry about that. I was trying to think of some sort of heading, but as you can see, I failed.

Translator, and general facilitator of all things literary, Daniel Hahn has been awarded an OBE in the [rather late] Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Many of us are very happy about this, and we’re hoping Danny is too, and that he didn’t accept his OBE just to please the rest of us. Although that would be a perfectly good reason, too.

Children’s laureate Cressida Cowell is another new OBE.

It’s rather lovely to be a little bit involved in a trade like children’s books, where some participants go on to be recognised in this way. Last year it was Theresa Breslin, and I’m very proud of her efforts too, especially considering how purply she dressed.

To return to this year, I’m also happy for the new Dame Mary Berry. I’m not into baking in any great way, but she has a nice crinkly smile.

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.

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.

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 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!

Lisette’s Green Sock

To learn to be happy with what you have. That’s what you find in this adorable picture book by Catharina Valckx.

Lisette – who is a duck – is out for a walk when she finds a lovely green sock. She puts it on, and is very happy. At least until a couple of cat bullies tells her how silly she is with just the one sock.

She looks for the missing sock, but only finds a fish with some of its own treasure. Her pal Bert – who might be a rat – reckons the sock is a great hat, and being a kind friend, Lisette lets him wear it.

In the end there are three socks; one for Lisette and one for Bert, and one for the fish. Everyone’s happy in their own way.

(Translated from Dutch by Antony Shugaar)

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.)

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.

When the dentist calls twice

Or the five-coat crofter.

Well, the dentist called, to say he had a cancellation in an hour, if I wanted to come. Wanted to? Is he not a dentist? I turned him down. I had another ten days before it was my turn. Besides, I was just on my way back to bed after half a breakfast. I mean, half a breakfast! I never have just half a breakfast.

When I woke up I had an email, which suggested the dentist had called again, so I checked with the Resident IT Consultant (who had been forced to honour my appointment with the hairdresser, rather than cancel. Good thing he had some spare hair), and yes, it seems there had been a second call.

This time they’d had a patient talking about her university course homework, jokingly asking if he knew any Swedish-speakers. Well, yes, he did. And the Swedish-speaker’s husband said it was fine to email her, despite the bed situation.

So I found myself staring at three pages from some parish records in Öster-götland in the 1880s. As you do. Basically, some poor man had died and this was an inventory of what he left behind. It’s quite interesting, actually.

He had five coats! Five! He only owned three shirts. And one pair of trousers. The coats were valued at three times the amount for the bed and the sofa, together. There might have been a metal chamberpot, too.

The handwriting’s a bit taxing, but luckily I’m so old I have been taught joined-up writing of that very kind at school. I could read most of it.

But, I mean, five coats!