Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Excerpt from a translator's memoirs

If you look at the labels at the bottom of the page on this blog, you will see that the name Thomas Warburton already appears a couple of times in March 2009 postings. He is, if you remember, a Finland-Swedish translator of Finnish and English-language literature into Swedish, and estimates that during his long career he must have translated some 30,000 pages of book text.

One of the Finnish authors he has translated is the historical novelist Mika Waltari, and he translated seven novels and plays by this author. Here's what Warburton has to say, in a short excerpt from my translation in progress, i.e. a translation of a work where someone is himself writing about what it's like to translate:

At the time, Waltari was translated by two brilliant stylists, Lorenz von Numers and Örnulf Tigerstedt, with one book each, before I took on his later novels from Johannes Angelos. – By the 1950s and 1960s, Waltari had become an experienced author, with the perhaps unusual capacity of being able to look at his own work almost with the eye of a stranger, once he had finished the work and taken a few steps back from it. It was a joy to work with him, because he
was generous in conversation. – I tend not to go to funerals if I can avoid it, but I went to his with deep respect and wished him farewell when he his time came in July 1979.

Waltari used to claim that he had a tendency to write too much and be unable to excise things from the text. He said that he was therefore grateful for any suggestions for abridgements from his translators and editors, and would nearly always accept them completely. All his later voluminous novels have thus been abridged by about five, six or an even higher percent each.

This kind of editing is, no doubt, more common than you would believe, and there are many foreign authors who are not even aware that something has happened to their books in translation. Similar, if not worse, things have happened with our books when published abroad, when we have managed to check up.

Obviously, such a practice is completely unacceptable and comes quite close to an arrogation of the rights of the author. But the law is vague on that score and tends to allow changes that do not alter the artistic merit or aim of a work.

When such things happen, you cannot always blame the translator. Another literary professional that could come under suspicion is the editor at the publishing house. There is an inevitable and latent dividing line between translators and editors. I myself have stood on both sides of this line, or even on occasions with one foot on each side, so I know how it feels.

These publisher’s assistants come in a number of varieties, and I think that most are near to the ideal. There are people with a good ear for language and the eye of a hawk, who detect every careless inconsistency in the translator’s text, check up ever factual item, whether it be the author or translator that has made the mistake, listens carefully to what the translator has to say in defence of any differences of opinion, and will argue in favour of their own sensible opinions, before doing exactly what they want. I have met quite a few of these. But their also aberrations.

One of these is – or was, as the variant has surely vanished by now – what you could term the normaliser. He was a proponent of the theory that all books should sound as if they had been written in the target language, Swedish in this case, and why not make it the Swedish of Stockholm, just for good measure. That’s his problem. But such an editor will then go on to think that it becomes pretty unpleasant for the reader to come across rare or difficult words and expressions, however Swedish they may be. These words have to be simplified and aligned. Here, the fact that the original author may have wanted to express himself in an unusual way, even in a convoluted or stilted manner, is no excuse. You have to explain what he really means. – This problem area is adjacent to another: have you the right to improve the text, however tempting this may be, without consulting the author? No, you haven’t.

I suspect that the normalisers, who were prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s, had brought with them a tradition originating with journalism, or maybe from that unfortunate school of children’s writers which laid emphasis on pedagogically simple and moralising material, all for the best of innocent little children.

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

See also in this blog: Nykarleby - town of poets
Thomas Warburton


  1. >>This kind of editing is, no doubt, more common than you would believe<<

    It certainly happened to Matson's translation of Linna's The Unknown Soldier, which in the hands of its English-language editors almost became a different book.

  2. As in the posting here about intellectual silence, this is the hubris of people speaking a dominant language. British and American editors are often ready to cut corners, so that much of the couleur locale and historical subtleties disappear in the editing. They believe that Johnny Foreigner should not become too obtrusive, and that it's the story that counts. While there are limits to what a translator can do to reproduce dialect speech and other quirks of that sort, he should at least be aware of class and region.

    Turning "The Unknown Soldier" into just another war story, without taking its Finnishness into account is reducing the value of the translation.


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