Tag Archives: 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…

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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.

In conversation with Dr Death

There were many jokes and puns based on death last night at the University of Edinburgh event with Sarah Death, eminent translator from Swedish, in conversation with – the also quite excellent (cough) – Ian Giles. Although, as a mere woman Dr Death can only be a Member of the Order of the Polar Star, whereas her colleague in the audience last night, Peter Graves, is a Knight. (Graves, Death..?) But as someone said, it’s not often you find yourself in the same room with one, let alone two, such eminent polar stars.

Ian mentioned how he’d been pleasantly surprised to be approached by Sarah, when he was doing translation for his MSc. It was the idea of being contacted by the person he wants to be when he grows up…

This ‘110% clueless mother of a demanding child’ went part-time with her PhD back in the day, and started translating books on the side. The only time available to do it was when she was babysitting other people’s children, who were good enough to actually sleep. But eventually Dr Death emerged with her thesis on Fredrika Bremer and Elin Wägner; both good Swedish feminists from the olden days.

Sarah’s favourite author to translate would be Kerstin Ekman, who is so popular that she’s being shared by many translators, and Sarah has several other authors she likes, and some that she has yet to persuade a publisher to take on. So far she has translated 26 books from Swedish and two from Norwegian.

She is the former editor of the Swedish Book Review, having taken over after Laurie Thompson. The SBR is highly thought of for being independent, and publishers are happy for their books to be reviewed there. Sarah has reviewed around 70 books for the SBR, but feels she needs to limit herself so that she actually has time to translate as well.

The ‘mushrooming’ agents are a new concept in the bookworld, and a very new thing is the idea of sample commissions, translating a book without definite plans to publish. It’s a good way for the emerging translator to practise, but with no guarantees if the book does make it into being published. Likewise doing book reports, which takes time and pays badly, but which could be considered part of the apprenticeship.

You don’t necessarily get to translate the books you like. You translate the books you are offered, and then you might find your dream book gets offered to someone else. Sarah’s advice to the emerging translator is to get a foot in the door, to make contacts. And not to take on too much work. She compared herself to Judi Dench who claims to feel more scared the more she does, suffering from ‘prestationsångest’ as Sarah called it. (Interesting to find someone who borrows words in the opposite direction!)

And then you wait for someone like Joan Tate to die. (Before you worry too much; Joan Tate is already dead.) Basically, if there is someone older than you, someone very good, you may have to wait for them to die, or possibly retire, before the plum jobs come your way. And no, Sarah has no retirement plans. Translating is a slow career, so you don’t stop at 65. And like Bookwitch, she ‘suffers’ from loyalty; to publishers, to authors, so can’t really slow down too much.

Working with authors varies. Some want to ‘help’ a lot, some can’t be bothered. The dead ones are not difficult, but nor are they helpful. Sometimes Sarah has books queueing up to be translated, and it can be hard to keep her enthusiasm for as long as it takes to start on a book. She has been known to begin a book in the middle, and she always tries to get the first draft as good as possible, as there is only so much editing she can tolerate. That’s why she likes short books best.

Then there was wine and crisps, as well as some freebies and useful leaflets. Dr Death professed pleasure at meeting the Bookwitch at long last, which is surprising, but understandable. Afterwards the emerging Ian Giles guided us safely (well, Peter Graves tried to make us turn right instead of left…) to a nearby restaurant for dinner. It was him, plus eight old people. We all had a good time. And I trust Daniel Hahn’s ears burned nicely all evening.

Nordic grey – The Origin Story of Nordic Noir

I have a certain bias, but I felt that the Translation studies research seminar at the University of Edinburgh yesterday afternoon was pretty good, and really interesting. Even for me, with some prior knowledge as well as interest in the subject of Nordic Noir.

Nordic Grey with Ian Giles

The talk by Ian Giles, aka as Son, was part of a series of seminars in the next few months, and it was merely a happy coincidence that they kicked off on what was International Translation Day.

The Resident IT Consultant and I both went. We were pleasantly surprised to find Helen Grant there too, but shouldn’t have been, as she’s both a linguist and proficient translator, when she’s not simply killing people. I introduced her to Peter Graves, making rather a hash of it. Translator Kari Dickson was also in the audience, as were other Scandinavian studies people and aspiring translators. And I was surrounded by a whole lot of Chinese whispers. Literally.

Nordic Noir didn’t begin with something on television five years ago. It’s been coming a long time, and Ian is on its trail, trying to determine where and when we first met ‘dark storylines and bleak urban settings.’ It’s more than Sarah Lund’s jumpers or Lisbeth Salander’s hacking skills.

The trail might begin (or do I mean end?) with Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, via Peter Høeg to Sjöwall and Wahlöö. But that list is not complete without mentioning the murder of Olof Palme or Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater. And apparently some critic recently accused the new Martin Beck on television of imitating itself.

Here there was a slight sidetrack to a Turkish writer, translated twice in the last twelve years, long after his death, and only because his compatriot, Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk said he liked him. Knut Hamsun had something similar happen to him.

Because yes, the trail goes a long way back. Before Sjöwall and Wahlöö we had Maria Lang and Stieg Trenter, for instance. Earlier still, Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doktor Glas would have qualified, as would Norwegian Mauritz Hansen. And maybe even Carl Jonas Love Almqvist and Zacharias Topelius.

And when it comes to the crunch, Peter Høeg’s Miss Milla’s Feeling For Snow is not a true progenitor of Nordic Noir. It seems to be, but isn’t. People would have read the book no matter what. Hindsight tells us Peter Høeg doesn’t belong to the origin story.

Anyway, there are many more books translated into English than there used to be. The 3% of translated books has recently become more like 4 or even 5%. Swedish books come sixth if you look at language of origin, but make that Scandinavian books and they end up in third place, and if you count all the Nordic languages, they are the second most translated.

Nordic Grey with Ian Giles

So, it’s not all jumpers, and Scotland has just claimed to have more words for snow than the cold Nordic countries. The latest idea for selling books on the international market is to translate the whole book into English, rather than a few sample chapters, making it possible to offer an almost finished product, as well as facilitating sales to countries where they don’t have a steady supply of translators from Scandinavian languages.

As I said, I found this interesting. And Ian’s a tolerable speaker, too. The right amount of jokes, and a good selection of slides and videos to show what he’s on about. The beard, however, was rather a surprise.

Was there a World War I?

I know. It’s hard to even imagine asking that question. You might not know a lot about any particular period in history, but you sort of feel (well, I do) that everybody knows it happened. And if you are a student of History at a reputable university like Uppsala, it seems a very unlikely question to ask.

But it’s one Peter Englund had to answer as a History lecturer, and it’s what made him write The Beauty and the Sorrow, which takes a look at WWI from the points of view of twenty randomly chosen people.

I have not read it, but I understand it’s a rather special book. Hardly surprising when the author is the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Partly because of this, I persuaded myself to attend his event in Charlotte Square on Sunday, and partly because the English translation was done by Peter Graves, who has become a bit of a household name in the Bookwitch family.

Peter Englund

Peter didn’t disappoint. What he had to say was interesting, and he said it in excellent English. Not surprising for an academic, but still much appreciated.

The book is an experiment in historical writing, and an experiment which seems to have worked well. Peter was looking for multiplicity, wanting to get in as much of the war as he could. He had a matrix which he filled as he went along. He didn’t look to see what X did on a certain day; but who could fill the hole for that particular date.

The people chosen didn’t know what was going to happen, because they lived the war. You lived in a bubble of ignorance. From his own experience in the military Peter knows how easy it is to forget why there is a war. Momentum keeps it going. He found that the daily observations of the women were generally more interesting and more detailed than those of the men.

The book turned out better than Peter had expected. Which is nice.