Tag Archives: Peter Graves

Bookwitch’s 2018 selection

It’s that time of year again. Here are some of the books I enjoyed the most, chosen with some difficulty, because the next tier consists of really excellent books. Too.

I haven’t always felt that ‘picture books’ belong here, but the two I’ve got on my list are more literature with pictures. They make you cry. I mean, they made me cry. And that’s good. They are:

Michael Morpurgo and Barroux, In the Mouth of the Wolf

Jakob Wegelius, The Legend of Sally Jones (translated by Peter Graves)

And then for the more ‘regular’ children’s novels:

Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X

Candy Gourlay, Bone Talk

Michael Grant, Purple Hearts

Matt Killeen, Orphan Monster Spy

Hilary McKay, The Skylark’s War

Sally Nicholls, A Chase in Time

Maria Parr, Astrid the Unstoppable (translated by Guy Puzey)

Celia Rees, Glass Town Wars

Ellen Renner, Storm Witch

Books like these make everything worth while. There are a couple of ‘beginners,’ some ‘mid-career’ authors – whatever I mean by that – and some established authors with decades of great writing behind them. And, only two that I knew and loved before Bookwitch became famous for her reading, meaning that this blogging business has been responsible for many introductions, without which my life would have been the poorer.

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The Legend of Sally Jones

This is all about where you belong. It needn’t be the place you were born, although you will probably always miss it, while still being happy – or not – somewhere else.

Serendipity – and Pushkin Press – brought me Sally Jones, the ‘prequel’ to Jakob Wegelius’ The Murderer’s Ape. It’s not, really. But for those of us who came to Sally Jones in her second book, it will feel like a prequel. For the English language market it is a new book, just published, translated by Peter Graves. The Swedes had the original ten years ago, awarding it prizes.

Jakob Wegelius, The Legend of Sally Jones

Jakob Wegelius did all the illustrations for his recent novel, but here he has really excelled. The Legend of Sally Jones is picture book; each page a work of art. Especially the back cover is gorgeous. And the story is lovely and really tugs at your heartstrings. Now we know what made Sally Jones who she is, and why she is so loyal to her friend the Chief.

Because all through The Murderer’s Ape you have to take it on trust that he deserves all the love Sally Jones shows as she searches for a way to prove he’s no murderer. When you’ve read The Legend of Sally Jones you know.

Sally Jones met some quite bad people when she grew up, but also a few lovely ones. Even her worst humans proved useful as they taught her some of the many skills she later on puts to good use. If you want your gorilla to be your slave, don’t teach them to drive.

The Ice Sea Pirates

I almost expected the ice sea to have melted by the time I got Frida Nilsson’s book to read. But it was still cold. At least in the book. The Ice Sea Pirates, translated by Peter Graves and illustrated by David Barrow, is that kind of slightly old-fashioned, traditional children’s book that we often hanker after.

Frida Nilsson, The Ice Sea Pirates

Ten-year-old Siri lives with her sister Miki, who’s seven, and their father, somewhere far north, where it’s cold and life is fairly hard. And where there are pirates who snatch small children, forcing them to work for Whitehead, the pirate captain, somewhere unknown. All that people know is that the children are never seen again.

And then Miki is taken. The adults reckon it’s now too late to save her, but Siri is aware it was her fault and she vows to get her sister back. What follows is a hazardous journey for a young girl, meeting unreliable adults who mostly want something for themselves, rather than to help such a lost cause.

But Siri does make some real friends, and she perseveres like a true heroine.

I can’t tell you what happens, or how, but there are mermaids – yes they exist – and wolves and it is freezing cold. So cold you can walk on the sea.

As for me, I was so busy looking for connections between people that I missed the most important one. But if you have courage, you will go far.

A perfectly ordinary Monday

Or was it?

As the rest of the literary world gathered in London for the announcement of this year’s Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medalists, I made my way to Edinburgh for lunch with a literary lady. It’s always nice to get out and see new places and new people and to pretend to be a proper grown-up. So over 35 years after eating at Brown’s in Oxford, I’ve now tried the more local-to-me branch north of the border.

On the way I passed Charlotte Square. It looks so small when you see it without a book festival on top. Just grass, and trees, with a fence round it. Soon, though.

For anyone who missed it, Geraldine McCaughrean is our latest Carnegie winner – second time round, I believe – for Where the World Ends, and Sydney Smith won the Kate Greenaway medal with the book Town is By the Sea. Thank goodness it was someone as senior as Geraldine who won, because who else would have the nerve to tell publishers off for dumbing down the language in children’s books?

By the time the lunch was over and my literary lady and I made our way to two different shoe shops; one for her, one for me, Son had begun his PhD viva ordeal at the nearby university. I’d have been there if they let people in to watch, but they don’t. I will simply have to assume the boy was brilliantly clever and dazzled everyone in the room, including the not one, not two, but three supervisors. And, erm, the specially flown in expert. From Norway, I believe.

I gather Son is now Dr Son.

On the train home I continued reading one of the books one of his supervisors – Peter Graves – has translated. But more about that some other day.

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?

Peter Graves – the poetry of translation

When I discovered that The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius had been translated by Peter Graves I was very happy. This highly regarded translator has mostly translated such proper works of literature that I hadn’t had an opportunity to read his work. And the Bookwitch family are really quite keen on Peter, because he’s one of Son’s PhD supervisors, and we have met him a few times, and the last book I was aware of him translating was by the then permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy. In other words, not much Nordic Noir there.

After reading The Murderer’s Ape, I was a firm fan, and knew I simply had to persuade Peter to answer some questions on how he works. And I’m a bit humbled, because his answers are so poetic, that I rather wish my questions had been too…

Here’s how a true translator and linguist thinks! Over to Peter:

Peter Graves

If The Murderer’s Ape becomes a classic, do you feel this is partly your doing, or do you see yourself as ‘merely’ a tool?

The Murderer’s Ape will become a classic – I’m as sure of that as I can be of anything. But I’ve never gone along with the idea of translator as co-creator except, perhaps sometimes, in the case of poetry. So I’m happy with ‘merely a tool’ or, maybe better, ‘craftsman’. And just as a violinist can make or break the performance of a concerto, the translator can make or break the transfer of a literary work from one audience to another. In that sense, the appeal of The Murderer’s Ape to an English-language audience is partly my doing, but the wonderful score I had to work with is all Wegelius.  

Sitting down to translate such a book, does it ever feel daunting, in case you are working on a future classic?

By the time I was listening to a fado singer in the O Pelicano bar in Chapter 2, just ten pages in, I knew I was working on a classic. But it was a joy rather than daunting: Wegelius’s language flows in such a naturally balanced way that I never found myself having to untangle clumsy Swedish before deciding what to do with it in English. And since the settings are exotic (Portugal, India and so on) rather than Swedish, I wasn’t faced with the need to explain cultural issues because Jakob Wegelius had already dealt with them for his Swedish readers.

What was your brief? To translate into British English, and the American publisher would edit what you’d done? Or do you translate into American English too?

The brief left it unstated and my translation was into British English, though I knew, of course, that it was to be published initially in the United States. I don’t think I let that influence the translation, not consciously anyway. I do remember wondering on one occasion whether a particular idiom would be too British, but went ahead and used it. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what the phrase was. Having reread the published version, the only American English changes I can find are the obvious spellings such as ‘harbor’ or ‘traveled’.

Did you have any contact with Jakob Wegelius at all? Do you know what Jakob thinks of your translation? Because this is the thing with working into English; every single author is able to have an opinion.

No, I had no contact with Jakob at all since nothing emerged that needed clarification. I think we are back to the business of exotic cultural settings here, and I suspect I may have done some of the same research into the Raj and into Portuguese history and geography as he did. But I would love to know what he thinks of it, always assuming that he approves, of course.

I believe you don’t normally translate children’s books. Why is this? And what made The Murderer’s Ape different?

I’ve never avoided children’s books, it’s just that they haven’t often come my way. Nor have I done more than a handful of modern novels. It’s probably because my name has become attached to translations or retranslations of classics like Strindberg or Lagerlöf, or to volumes of more or less academic history. In the case of The Murderer’s Ape, Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press (for whom I’d done Peter Fröberg Idling’s fascinating Cambodia novel Song for an Approaching Storm) recommended my name to Beverly Horowitz of Delacorte Press. A wonderful stroke of good luck and joy for me, and I hope that more Jakob Wegelius comes my way.

Authors are often asked how long does it take to write a book… So how long does it take you to translate one? And are you of the read before translating school, or translate as you go?

I normally work at a fairly slow pace. In the case of The Murderer’s Ape, I started in the middle of June (2015) and sent it off in the middle of December. Since the book is about 115,000 words, that suggests about 1000 words a working day, though that doesn’t really reflect my normal working pattern. I usually produce the first draft quite quickly, but then redraft at least twice more, making substantial changes. I find reading my translated text aloud is very important, and leaving a week or so between drafts. As to reading things in advance of translating them, I tend not to, and I can think of one or two books where I wish I had read them first and then turned them down.  

What do you read for pleasure? In what language[s] do you read? And do you ever choose to read children’s books for your own entertainment?

I read English, the Scandinavian languages and German. For pure relaxation I chew through endless crime, preferably not too noir and with exotic settings and sense of place. (I like reading with an atlas alongside me.) I probably read more history and biography than is sensible, most recently Julia Boyd’s stunning Travellers in the Third Reich. Lots of walking and climbing guides to places I shall never go. Now that my own children are middle-aged and my grandchildren at the teenage electronic stage, I don’t read many children’s books. Sometimes reread Wind in the Willows and Paddington Bear for sentimental reasons, though – and I’m sure they’ll be joined by The Murderer’s Ape.

Do you have a favourite book or author or genre?

On the whole I’m a novel reader, most recent favourite being Lars Sund’s Colorado Avenue from 1991. I keep trying short stories but always end up unsatisfied and wanting to know what happened next. If I had to choose one book for a desert island it would be Göran Tunström’s novel Tjuven. It’s been translated into twelve languages, but English isn’t one of them and I’ve never really understood why. It has everything a great novel needs: a wonderful sense of time and place, suspense, humour, unforgettable characters (including some hateful ones) and profound humanity. It actually shares a lot of qualities with The Murderer’s Ape. It’s on my ‘perhaps one day’ list.

I would like to read more [children’s] books translated by Peter Graves. Just because they are children, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have access to the best words.

And I must get round to reading Tjuven…

The Murderer’s Ape

You will want to read this award-winning book. At least I hope you will. I can’t believe I didn’t know [more] about The Murderer’s Ape by Swede Jakob Wegelius, before it was translated into English, by none other than Peter Graves. Or that I hadn’t even heard of the first book about the gorilla by the name of Sally Jones. Also award-winning.

Jakob Wegelius, The Murderer's Ape

I believe that in the first novel about Sally Jones (no, you can’t just call her Sally) the reader meets the baby gorilla, and finds out how Sally Jones got her name, and how she learned to do all those human things she’s so good at, apart from talking. Sally Jones does not speak, but thankfully she can type, and that’s how we know about the dreadful time when her best friend Henry Koskela is jailed for murder, and what Sally Jones did to free him.

Like many of the best characters in fiction, Sally Jones is both a loyal and loving friend, as well as extremely skilled at many things. Until the murder Sally Jones and Koskela – the Chief – had run a cargo boat, and she’s an experienced engineer. When the Chief ends up in jail, Sally Jones has to use all her skills, and learn many new ones, to help him.

Jakob Wegelius, The Murderer's Ape

She also makes new friends; really lovely friends, although never quite as special as the Chief. And it goes without saying that there are many new enemies for Sally Jones. Powerful people want to stop her from helping Koskela, and for someone who doesn’t speak, it’s not always easy to ‘speak out.’

This beautifully illustrated book (drawings by Jakob Wegelius himself), set some time in the first half of the 20th century, mainly in Portugal and in India, has the feel of a classic film. It’s a wonderful adventure with a genuine pre-WWII feel to it; a time when anything was possible, and there was both good and evil, and unimaginable wealth, but also possibilities for going places if you worked hard and were good at what you did.

It does take a little while to get used to Sally Jones being a gorilla, but only about as long as it takes those who become her dearest friends to understand what a gem she is. And if you want to get rid of your useless boyfriend, Sally Jones is your, well, gorilla.

This is nearly 600 pages of exciting, nail-biting, romantic adventure. Besides, you can’t beat a bit of good engine grease.