Category Archives: Translation

The Emperor of Portugallia – Retranslating Classics

The Resident IT Consultant has been reading that well known feminist, Selma Lagerlöf, over the holiday. Here he is on The Emperor of Portugallia and translations now and then.

“There’s nothing like a fresh translation to invigorate a classic. When I read Austen or Scott or Dickens I’m usually prepared to accept the stylistic differences and obscure vocabulary that tend to accompany texts of this age. Publishers provide notes to help me to understand words that I cannot look up in the dictionary. But with a translation I’m less sympathetic. Why should I accept dated language when it’s not that of the original author?

If foreign language classics are to remain accessible to the ordinary English reader they need to be retranslated every generation or so: the last decade has seen enthusiastically received retranslations of, among others, Pushkin, Balzac and Cervantes.

Selma Lagerlöf, The Emperor of Portugallia

Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) was the first female winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is the author of a succession of works, mainly novels and short stories, published between 1891 and 1932. Most are set in her native Värmland and share some of the same sense of place, and the tragedies of life, as Thomas Hardy’s Dorset. Her books were widely translated at the time of their first publication but there have been very few retranslations. It shows.

Norvik Press are to be congratulated for undertaking (with support from the Swedish Academy) the publication of a series of high-quality new translations of Lagerlöf’s most important texts.

I have just finished reading The Emperor of Portugallia, translated by Peter Graves. This relatively short novel, first published in 1914, tells the story of the relationship between poverty-stricken farm labourer Jan and his daughter Klara. At the age of seventeen Klara leaves home in order to raise the money that will enable her parents to remain in their home. She is successful, but never returns home herself, and Jan is driven mad by his grief at her absence. He comes to believe that he is the Emperor of Portugallia.

The novel focuses on the father/daughter relationship and the author herself saw it as a Swedish King Lear.

I found the text easy to read, stylistically straightforward and with generally accessible vocabulary. So I thought I would test the hypothesis that classics need retranslation by comparing with the original English translation by Velma Swanston Howard in 1916 (available on gutenberg.org).

Stylistically, perhaps surprisingly, there seems to be relatively little difference. Average sentence length, measured over a number of passages, appears to be about the same. The main differences are in the words and I here I far prefer Graves’ choices. Howard has translated some of the place names: Askedalarna has become Ashdales, Storsnipa has become Great Peak and Snipaåsen has become Snipa Ridge. I feel this loses some of the feeling of place.

In Swedish, Jan’s daughter is named Klara Fina Gulleborg, a particularly grand sounding name intended to celebrate Jan’s idea that his daughter has the sun as her godmother. Howard has translated this as Glory Goldie Sunnycastle while Graves has left it almost unchanged as Klara Fina Goldenborg. I much prefer the latter.

Howard’s ‘seine-maker’ is Graves’ ‘net-maker,’ her ‘spavined bay’ is simply ‘Brownie who was old and stiff-legged,’ her ‘senator’ is a ‘Riksdag man’ and her ‘rix-dollars’ are ‘riksdaler.’ Again Graves’ translations all feel more appropriate.”

Well, this is what new translations are for; making books better. And who better than Peter Graves?

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Hills, and snow

In just over a week I have reviewed three books, all with things that connect them – at least in my mind – in that odd way I find when randomly selecting books to read. Or is it so random? Maybe the books tell me to pick them? Because in some cases I know so little about plot or setting that I can’t subconsciously be choosing the snow theme, or the computer theme, or the mermaid theme. Or the anything else theme.

The books on my mind today are Belle and Sébastien, Orphan Monster Spy and Astrid the Unstoppable. On top of that, there is the snow we had more than we wanted of.

Belle and Sébastien had lots of snow in it. An avalanche and more. Astrid skis and sledges in snow, and she even had lots left, high up, after Easter. That’s Norway for you. I don’t know that there was snow in Orphan Monster Spy, but because I had snow, and the setting of southern Germany made me think Alp thoughts – possibly incorrectly – it took me back to Sébastien’s Pyrenees.

Yes, those mountains. Lots in the Pyrenees, lots in Norway, and presumably some in Germany.

Two of the three books are translations, which is unusual enough for it to stand out. And the third was set in another country, with plenty of languages being mentioned and used.

I myself had plenty of language to use when looking out my windows too.

But at least the good thing about being marooned by snow and having several excellent books to read, is that the two combine so well.

Snow

Above, my personal avalanche, waiting to happen.

Astrid the Unstoppable

You probably haven’t read Maria Parr’s Astrid the Unstoppable yet. In which case you are very lucky indeed, for what a glorious story this is! I felt so happy, having access to Astrid’s never-ending adventures. (In real life I might have got wiped out by the unstoppable-ness, but in fiction? Never!)

Astrid is the only child in the Glimmerdal valley, somewhere in northern Norway. It almost doesn’t matter, because 74-year-old Gunnvald in the nearest house is her best friend. They have a very special relationship.

It’s a story about kindness and [super-]energetic behaviour, about absent parents, and about belonging to a community. This is so wonderful. I thought Maria’s first book Waffle Hearts was special. Well, Astrid the Unstoppable is even more special.

Eventually there are a few more children, and Astrid even learns to cope when it turns out Gunnvald has been keeping a big secret from her all her life (almost ten years). If you want the perfect children’s book, look no further! Here you have courage and friendship and fiddle music, and as much madcap sledging and skiing as you can digest.

It’s more than refreshing to have a story where the children can go about on their own, with no need to kill or otherwise remove the responsible adults. I never lived in a place like this or did what Astrid did, but I still felt this was a return to my childhood.

And I cried when reading the piece about Astrid’s aunts.

Maria Parr, Astrid the Unstoppable

‘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.’

(Beautifully translated by Guy Puzey)

1947

I love the cover of 1947. This ‘literary scrapbook of the year’ by Elisabeth Åsbrink consists of a somewhat odd collection of facts from the year ‘when now begins’ as it says on that attractive cover.

Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947

Maybe it’s true that life as we recognise it came into being two years after WWII ended. I don’t know. I began reading 1947 with the expectation of finding out; discovering some startling proof. But the book is mainly a series of unrelated stuff happening to people or countries during that year. I was waiting for a reason why George Orwell was in there, and what the significance of Simone de Beauvoir’s romantic interlude with some man in America might be for me.

There are flying saucers. I like flying saucers, but why were they in there? About the most interesting fact – to me – was the possible background to the disappearance of Dagmar Hagelin in Argentina in the 1970s. That was part of my growing up.

Elisabeth appears to have grabbed facts as she found them, putting them in for artistic effect. It feels a rather Swedish thing to be doing at the moment. For that’s what this is, the latest ‘historical’ offering from a woman whose own father escaped Hungary after the war. But that doesn’t explain all the rest; the UN, Palestine, Mahatma Gandhi, Christian Dior, Swedish nazis and fleeing nazi war survivors.

I was hoping it would be fascinating, that it would teach me something new. Instead it was a return to the Emperor’s New Clothes, all over again.

It’ll be fun to see how the rest of the world receives 1947. I found the English translation by Fiona Graham good enough to make me forget I was reading in the ‘wrong’ language.

Ferryman goes to Hollywood

‘I bought her a cookie,’ said Daughter when informed about Claire McFall’s new film deal for her Ferryman books. This – the cookie incident – happened during our interview with Claire in August.

Claire McFall

And now Hollywood wants to make her books into films for both the western world and for China, where I imagine there could be ‘a few’ fans wanting to see the film version of their favourite Scottish novel.

I’m not surprised by this, and I’m sure neither are you, as I’ve been busy telling you about Claire and her romantic Ferryman since then.

Successes like this are far too rare, and I’m just very pleased for her. Besides, it’s not every YA author who ends up as a page three girl, even if it was in the Guardian. Much more respectable, and the photo was by Murdo Macleod, which is a bit of an honour.

Although I’m grateful I didn’t know Tristan was a Leonardo DiCaprio sort of boy [when I read the book]. In my mind he was much more handsome!

Kepler, take 2

Translations can be tricky. I’m sure that in some cases it doesn’t matter what they are like. In the case of instructions for household appliances it does help if they don’t cause people to be injured, or worse. On the other hand, it has been claimed once or twice that a good translation of mediocre literature can win awards for authors, including the Nobel.

But does a bad translation prevent sales? After all, you tend to buy before you discover this, if you are able to tell. Sequels might suffer, though.

I read about the plans to reissue the crime novels by Lars Kepler, with new translations into English, and was reminded of a comment on here when I reviewed The Hypnotist, which was their first. Adèle Geras felt quite strongly that the translation was what put her off finishing the book. On the other hand, Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril (aka Lars Kepler) reckoned the translation was good. And I found no immediate fault with it, but could have been handicapped by having already read the book in Swedish. It was just not a favourite of mine.

Now, however, Niclas Salomonsson of the Salomonsson Agency believes he knows why the books haven’t done as well in the US as he feels they deserve. When he ‘discovered’ that the translations were bad, he first spent a lot of money on buying the agency which owned the rights and then he bought back the US rights and hired a new translator to retranslate the first three books (of six). And he has high hopes of success, second time around.

It will be interesting to see if he’s right.

Another ‘fascinating’ aspect is how this all goes down in the translating community. A job is a job, so I can understand if the new translator feels OK about this improvement task. But it must surely also feel a little icky, re-doing what your colleague seemingly has ‘failed’ at? And if you’re the ‘failure’? Except, according to my in-house translator, we don’t know who did the first translation, as it was a pseudonym, so I imagine no one will be publicly embarrassed.

In the end, I wonder if it will make a difference. I believe more in a good publicity effort, even if it is second time lucky. After all, we mostly don’t read crime novels and thrillers for any literary chills that might run down our spines. We want quick thrills.

But the blurb by Lee Child probably won’t hurt.

Minor experts, eh?

As a most cynical witch I still feel awestruck when I realise quite how much someone else believes. Which is sort of nice.

A few books ago I wrote here about David Lagercrantz, the man who is writing Stieg Larsson’s novels now that he is dead. That time it was based on an interview by one of David’s best friends, Johan Norberg, who usually writes [my favourite] columns in Vi magazine. They are often about music, because that’s Johan’s day job.

This time Johan had a hand in helping David with some music advice for book five, where he needed a piece of jazz, and got both the suggested Django Reinhardt track and all the necessary musical terms from Johan. The latter were important as part of the plot hinges around stuff like minor 6. (No, I don’t know what that is, but I get that it matters.)

When it was time for the English translation Johan offered to proof-read, but David ‘knew’ that he and his book were in safe hands with this major publisher, who would use experts for those parts.

And then Johan met the translator at the launch party and chatted about this, learning that the translator had asked his neighbour for help. ‘A musician?’ asked Johan. No, it seemed she had done music studies at university. Johan smelled a rat, and quite rightly. The minor 6 had become seven, and chords and stuff had not been translated, and other things invented in their place…

I gather that in the next edition, all is well, translated and proofed by Johan.