Tag Archives: Sarah Death

Mårbacka

It took me a while to work out what Mårbacka was. As a child I’d read another Selma Lagerlöf autobiographical book with very nearly the same title. I was reluctant then, but as a book-starved young thing, there was no way I could ignore even a boring looking book for very long, and once I began reading I loved it.

Selma Lagerlöf, Mårbacka

This time I felt much the same, except this new translation – by Sarah Death – does not look boring. It’s very pretty with its red roses on the cover. But I thought it might go over the same ground (I suppose it does, but not so it matters), and I really don’t feel I ought to read it in anything but the original.

But once I got past that bit of snobbery, I discovered it was fun, in a quiet Swedish kind of way. Disconcerting, too, as I feel that this was more or less my life, one hundred years earlier. I wonder if this is something that many Swedes are afflicted by? I grew up in a small family with not much money, in a town. Selma was part of a larger and wealthier family in the countryside.

It could have been my life too. And the anecdotal way of telling us about her life is a good technique. It’s almost like a regular column in a magazine. And like them, entertaining and partly truthful while also being helped along with some embellishments to the truth.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help stopping every now and then to consider what the original might have said. A bit as with subtitles when you don’t need them; you still look for something. (I might have gone differently with the vörtbröd…)

It’s charming, and funny, and it shows the reader what Sweden was like before the big move to the towns, before socialism and before Ikea. It’s about building a new cowhouse, the Swedish way of celebrating birthdays when you can’t prevent the whole county from turning up uninvited, about having your old, former maid come to tea, coming face to face with a kelpie, dreaming of the King coming to visit, and how it took days to travel from Värmland to the West coast.

I can see that if I had been awarded the Nobel prize, I’d have done exactly what Selma did and done up my childhood paradise. After all, she only did what her own father worked on before her. What most of us would do if we could.

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What was I thinking???

Have you any idea how often I ask myself this? On Tuesday I asked the question so often and so loudly that you could be forgiven for thinking it had been a while, whereas the question had popped up only last Friday.

Do you remember SELTA? I blogged about them last year. They are the Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association, and they do things I’m sort of interested in. And on Tuesday it was time for their AGM in London, and they thought it’d be good to ask a few ‘translated literature’ bloggers over for some light entertainment at the end. I was one of them, and why anyone would think I can speak in the first place, and why I might measure up next to two people who read almost exclusively translated, and literary, books, is beyond me.

But there I was, pretending to speak about translation and other linguistic stuff. This is when I wasn’t feeling petrified at the mere idea. I garbled a few things at them, and I distinctly recall them laughing at one point, so I must have said something amusing. Shame I can’t remember what. I could use it again, if I did.

Wait a minute! No, that would suggest I’d ever do this again. No need to know what was funny.

They encouraged the asking of questions, so I asked whether they read the book before they translate it. Interesting reaction. Some do, some don’t. Those who do were shocked to find others don’t.

My co-speakers were Stu Allen of Winstonsdad’s Blog, and Ann Morgan from A Year of Reading the World. As you will find if you look them up, they read adult books in translation. Ann spent a year reading a book from every country in the world, a while back. And Stu reads books from all over the world, as long as they have been translated.

And then there was me. Let’s just say I wasn’t the most accomplished speaker in the room.

But it was fun. Afterwards, I mean. Never again, though. Most likely.

I threw them a challenge. I spoke to Fiona Graham who was the one who did the sample translation of My Mum’s a Gorilla – So What? that I so enjoyed last year. Dr Death was there. So was Deborah Bragan-Turner who did me the honour of interviewing me a year ago. She did it so well that when the Resident IT Consultant re-read the Swedish Book Review, he felt I’d get on well with ‘that person.’ Until he discovered that was me. Ruth Urbom, who was the one who invited me, and many others. They could all tell what was wrong with ‘sugar cake’ but hamburgerkött was less obvious. (Horse meat…)

Afterwards we went to the pub. And after that Son and I went to Diwana Bhel Poori, before we slept our way north (where I was – accidentally – greeted on the platform by Helen Grant). And that’s where I am now.

(Home, not on the platform. Obviously.)

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.