Category Archives: Translation

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.’

‘Something stinky’

My two favourite translators being boys notwithstanding, I am all in favour of girls. Yesterday five of them got together in an online event for the British Centre for Literary Translation’s Summer School Event – Translating Children’s Books. It was Very Interesting.

Extremely well chaired by none other than Sarah Ardizzone, we met two pairs of small publishers and their translators, from Arabic and from Swedish, learning how the journey from original book to its English version had gone. And you need to keep in mind that US publishers might not appreciate the word poo. Regarding any other censoring in translating, Arabic is already very sanitised, so nothing to remove, according to Sawad Hussain.

Sawad had discovered an interesting sounding YA book on Twitter and eventually found her way to the author, before making contact with Neem Tree Press publisher Archna Sharma. Archna finds that not even being able to email her author, but having to go via her translator whenever she needs to make contact, makes for a different experience. As did applying for a PEN Translates grant, with Sawad’s help, and which she’d now happily do again.

Greet Pauwelijn, from Belgium, who runs her one woman publishing company Book Island, had come across a Swedish book by Sara Lundberg and gone looking for a translator from Swedish, eventually being introduced to B J Epstein. B J was ill and pregnant at the time, but immediately felt she needed to be involved with this book, The Bird Within Me, which has the most gorgeous illustrations. And you can translate with your baby in a sling.

One should not adapt down to children, either language or topic. And children can be most useful to test words on to see if you’ve got it right. Do they get bored, or do they want to read the book again? It could even be useful to pay a teenager to check that you’ve got the style right for how young people talk. Arabic can be quite stilted in books, so needs to be ‘rewritten’, but you also need to get the language of today right.

The cover for the Arabic novel had to have a new cover to work, preferably one dripping with blood. Greet, on the other hand, would never change an illustration as she feels pictures and words go together.

They chatted about how they work, how to change a crocodile into an alligator (apparently it worked better), swapping ideas for how to do things, and wondering what it will be like when the time for publicity comes, visas, travelling, even language for authors who are not confident in English. There was also a mention of readers ‘prejudging translatedness’ if brought to their attention. B J always mentions it to her children, whereas Sarah Ardizzone said something about ‘lowering the othering’ in case translations are seen as a possible deterrent.

The last question of the afternoon – and it could have gone on for a long time – was on bad language, sex and death. You can see how that would be really rather interesting. B J can get annoyed, and is a reluctant gatekeeper, but as already mentioned, there is generally nothing for Sawad to remove from an Arabic original.

Lena, the Sea and Me

As soon as I began reading Maria Parr’s Lena, the Sea and Me, I remembered what a pain in the xxx Lena was. Because I’d read about her before, in Maria’s book Waffle Hearts. But I did love that book, so perhaps she wasn’t as bad as all that? Deep down?

And as with Maria’s other book, I soon fell in love again, even with Lena. She’s a loud and opinionated 12-year-old, but with a heart of gold. And I suspect she feels a lot more uncertain about herself than her behaviour leads you to believe. She’s also a very good friend to Trille, the 12-year-old narrator of this somewhat crazy book about the people in a small village in northern Norway.

They are growing up, and they are both discovering how awkward it can be with other, new, friends, not to mention family. What’s happening with Grandpa? And Trille’s mother? And why can’t Lena have a baby brother?

There’s so much love in this book. A bit of hate, too. But it seems not everyone dislikes the same person Trille does. And what do you eat if you don’t eat your own dead animals, lovingly killed at home? It’s hard to understand.

With a long dead Grandma, adventures on/in the sea and football, not to mention romance and bravery, there is much to learn.

I’d even be willing to meet up with Lena again.

(Translated by Guy Puzey)

A translation?

You need to say that title line out loud, and try to channel your inner Lady Bracknell as you do.

I was sent some information about a new book from Finland, Me and the Robbersons, by Siri Kolu, translated by Ruth Urbom. It was partly about the translation process, which was what I expected.

Only partly, because I had not realised that [English language] publishers need their hands held quite a bit before tackling a book in another language. This one happened because Daniel Hahn accompanied a group of UK publishers to Bologna and introduced them to people and to the general idea of translated books [for children].

It costs more to publish a translation. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes sense. Maybe. The translator obviously needs paying, as does the original author. When dealing with smaller languages from countries keen to spread its literature around, there is often financial help, as there was in this case.

So that’s the production side of the foreign book dealt with. Have the idea, find the right book, get it translated and out there.

I’m so naïve that I imagined that might be it. The book goes to shops and libraries and all the rest, and is read like any other book. No. My source also mentioned a review by a child on a kid’s review site. The child mostly liked the book. But so much seems to have been made of the fact that it was a translated book, that the child focused on this. ‘The fact it had been written in a different language initially made me feel uncertain but excited because I had not read a translated book before.’

That would be because no one had thought to mention that some of the standard childhood classics which many children have read, are translations.

I’m wondering if adults ought to see if they can refrain from pointing out the different aspects of whatever they are offering, be it organic, home made, contains garlic, or has been translated.

4 to 5 translations to pay the mortgage

I was ready to throw something at the screen. But as it was the television screen I had to restrain myself. Although, I don’t suppose the computer screen would have been a cheaper option.

I was enjoying Singing for Your Supper: How to Make it as a Translator, on Zoom last night. It was organised by DELT, which is to Denmark what SELTA is to Sweden. Literary translators. OK, so it was supposed to be literary. But to me that is as opposed to business press releases, mining reports or death certificates. Fiction.

But when Kyle Semmel, the chair of this event with Daniel Hahn and Misha Hoekstra, said as advice to new translators that there was no immediate shame to translating genre (he’d done it himself to begin with), well, I was reaching for something to throw. Because clearly you must be literary. Misha Hoekstra nodded in agreement, whereas Daniel had stressed that mortgages have to be paid and he likes to eat, too.

He wasn’t the only one to pipe up about how being paid is important. He translates four or five books a year just to make sure he has somewhere to live. Kyle translates when he feels like it, and Misha has the safety net that is a Nordic country with financial support for literature. Very different lives. I couldn’t help but feel that many of the translators or hopefuls who listened in were also in need of daily food and a roof over their heads.

Misha’s advice was probably sound for someone living and working in Denmark, and I suppose many of these translators were working from Danish, if not actually in Denmark. I know that some authors do well enough to be able to pay for someone to translate their books [without there being a buyer for it abroad], but not everyone is that lucky. The idea that a budding translator should approach some of the authors I know here in the UK, wanting money for a sample translation is, well, not terribly realistic.

If you want to know how a translator like Daniel works, I will suggest, again, his diary from earlier this year, on how he translated one particular Chilean novel. Aside from being an interesting window into how one person works, it’s a funny, well-written diary.

And no, you don’t have to love what you translate. As Daniel pointed out, there are more hopeful translators than there are books publishers want translated. And there is that mortgage that wants paying.

Genre, that is also literature. It can be crime. Or children’s. It’s not something to be looked down on. Especially not if you work with books, words and language.

Do you think it’s funny to be here?

Crawled out of bed early to attend a Norwegian frokostseminar, which translated means something like an online talk at breakfast time, and being hosted in Norway meant an earlier crawling at this end.

I only do this sort of thing for special people – in this case Son – who was giving a talk, ‘Britain: so close, it’s practically Scandinavian?’ It works both ways; Scandinavians believe they are really good at English, and the British know all about hygge these days.

Hah. I was served a shit sandwich. (Language, boy!) It’s not something I usually consider, but yes, the British tend to hide a bad message with kind words, whereas the pragmatic Scandinavians just get to the point. And being Scandinavian, their sandwiches are open affairs, so you can’t really hide the shit all that effectively.

I was gratified to see that our chance encounter with some lovely people about twenty years ago, was still good for a translation talk. We had just arrived in Sweden for our holiday. We went for a walk and met a dear neighbour with her son and daughter-in-law, and the latter enquired whether we’d had a bath yet. We had not. We had not gone for a swim yet, either.

For the Q&A afterwards, someone wanted to understand the difference between fun and funny. The Resident IT Consultant and I laughed [off microphone]. But it set me thinking. At the tender age of 13 I must already have known the difference. My English pen friend visited me in Sweden. We met up with a couple of my friends one day, and the chatty one asked the pen friend if it ‘was funny to be here’ and the pen friend looked really confused. Especially as she probably thought it was rather funny to be there. But I knew where the chatty one had gone wrong and what she should have said instead, so managed to clear it up.

But yes – or should that be no? – neither side of the North Sea can pretend to be the other. Hygge is impossible to grasp (by reading books, anyway), and no matter how good your English is, people can tell you are not.

Plus I’m seriously considering crawling back into bed.

Kissing frogs

When we were in the front garden a while back, with the Resident IT Consultant doing the gardening and me sitting comfortably, issuing instructions, the neighbour next door gave us two frogs. I suspect they were ours originally, and we do have a tiny pond they can live near.

Those are not the frogs I am kissing. Wouldn’t dream of it. But it struck me, not long ago, as I was contemplating what to read and why, that it’s a bit like kissing frogs, to see if they will turn into princes. Sometimes you have to kiss quite a few frogs, to find a book worth spending your time on. (This might be a mixed metaphor. I am hazy about those, but I suspect frogs and books are not interchangeable.)

So, I kiss fewer frogs these days, and am not able to bother with quite a few of them, even if they really are princes, deep down. And far too many have no blue blood in them at all.

Not sure how our frogs are doing, as I’m rarely out there searching for them. At the time we had a lot of frog spawn, however. Whether they will grow up into handsome princes, I have no idea.

Once a week Daughter has online tea with some friends/colleagues. On some occasion the chat turned to books (one can never be certain those academic types actually read…) and one of them mentioned she’d loved a Swedish thriller recently. Some more digging revealed a title and the mention of two authors, which in turn made me sort of, nearly, remember something. She had read it in Dutch, as the English version isn’t out yet. It will be, though, seeing as my inkling confirmed that it’s one of Son’s translations.

This week he received his copies of another Swedish crime novel – Gustaf Skördeman’s Geiger – which is out sooner. Both of these books have been much talked about, enough so even I could hear it and be a little aware of things.

And both Daughter and Son have recently sent off copies of their theses to GP Cousin, who was foolish enough to ask to read them. Those books are definitely not frogs. At all. I know, because I have read them. One a bit more closely than the other, but I pride myself on believing that I understood more than GP will. (Which is unkind, because he is a boy and he is four years older than I am, so…)

Some books actually are about frogs. They can be quite good too.

Longlisted International Booker book

We did as we were told. Or rather, we didn’t. Our SELTA host Ian Giles suggested we could ‘get a cup of tea, sit back and relax’ as we listened to – and watched – the Zoom webinar late afternoon today, with Nichola Smalley and ‘her’ Swedish author Andrzej Tichý, talking about his novel Wretchedness. (What we did was continue with our work, but accompanied by an interesting, literary conversation.)

They have talked about this before, and I have written about it here. But it was worth returning to it again, because the book has been longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021. This doesn’t happen to lots of Swedish novels. In fact, I believe it might be a first.

I have to admit to not knowing very much about the International Booker Prize. I looked it up, and discovered it’s worth £50000 to the winning pair, i.e. half to the author and half to the translator. That’s very good, especially for the often overlooked translator.

The event was organised by SELTA and supported by the Swedish Embassy’s cultural department, which shows that they take this kind of thing seriously.

I’m a little bit biased, but I have crossed my fingers for a successful Wretchedness.

¡Never the Fire Ever!

I don’t have anything better to do. Because this is actually quite interesting. I mean, very interesting indeed. And a bit charming.

Daniel Hahn, my second favourite translator, is making more work for himself, by not only translating another book – Diamela Eltit’s Jamás el fuego nunca –   but writing a public diary about the process. As he says, ‘But why a diary?

(Apart from a natural translator’s desire to make things more difficult for himself – and, you know, ego?)’

To entertain us, which is a worthy aim. To make us more knowledgeable regarding what goes on in the heads of translators as they read and change every word some author has laboured long and hard over.

To make me, personally, realise I’ve mislaid my upside down exclamation mark, which is almost as bad as when I had to ask a stranger for a grave accent.

I think some of you will enjoy reading this. Even setting aside the educational aspect, it’s fun. Daniel has a nice style. Which, of course, he can’t always insert into his work, having to mostly follow what that other author wrote in the first place.

‘We begin, then, with my title. In English, the book will be called Never the Fire Ever.

At least, I think so. But – hmm – I might yet change my mind.

OK, I’ll come back to that.’

Romancing the ghost

Were it not for this Bookwitching business, I’d never have ended up on the front cover of a novel in Romania. Admittedly, someone else’s novel, but still. I’ve even said something in Romanian.

Let me see what it might have been. ‘A Beautiful book. Not that I would have expected anything else from Helen Grant.’ As you can tell from the top of the book cover, she is the author of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. Or that other title, the way it looks when it’s been translated into Romanian.

Which, as you well know, is a Romance language, and therefore ought to look more comprehensible than this is doing right now. Maybe it’s just that I’m old and tired. It’s mostly me being incomprehensible.

The cover is gorgeous, in all its spookiness. And Fantoma sounds scarier than Ghost. But I dare say Helen’s characters behave just as badly, I mean well, as in the original. May they live happily ever after…

But, you know, this kind of thing I did not expect.