Monday, 6 April 2009


Having worked as a translator in the field of Nordic literature for the past three decades or so, it occurs to me from time to time that the work has definitely had an influence on the way my life has developed over that span of time. It has taken me to places both geographical and intellectual which I might never have visited had I become involved in some other area of endeavour. I have met people who have told me things and given me insights that I would never have seen and heard if I'd stayed at home within the confines of the English language. And above all, I've had an opportunity to get acquainted with a part of European cultural identity and history that often remains hidden from the world of Anglo-Saxon culture - a view from the North that is often clearer and less encumbered with ingrained national preconceptions about issues that relate to international co-operation and co-existence, for example.

On the other hand, the world of Nordic writing is rather a small one. As a translator of Finnish, Danish or Finland-Swedish authors, one can easily become inadvisably involved in the tensions that affect these literary communities, and are often acted out in the columns of newspapers and journals, or on radio and TV. Also, because the languages of the Nordic countries are not widely known outside the Nordic area, the English-language translator is placed in a special position that he or she does not necessarily have in relation to languages like French or German. Authors in the Nordic countries have a particular motivation towards getting their work known and read outside the Nordic region, and translators are perhaps the main conduit for such aspirations. There can also be peculiar nuances of protocol and etiquertte - I can recall authors present at a Norwegian seminar for foreign translators insisting that they had no interest at all in being translated: among them it was simply considered indecent to be seen promoting oneself by seeking the translation of one's work.

And then there are the stories - the incidents and events and happenings that inevitably occur in the course of a translator's career. Many of these narratives are of a personal nature, and should probably never be told in public - they probably are akin to the experiences of members of the consulting professions in that they often involve deep-seated emotional responses on the part of their clients. After all, a translator working with a living author is frequently put in a position analogous to that of a counsellor or a confessional priest - and doubtless has the same obligation of confidentiality, though this is nowhere set down or defined.

My own feeling is that most of such stories should probably not be told. Yet from time to time it's possible that one or two of them may be posted here - and if that happens, we'll do our best to see to it that identities remain obscured, and that at least the authors, if not the translators, are protected by a cloak of anonymity.


Eric Dickens said...

Escaping the bell jar of English. My mother was Dutch, so ever since I was a child, I have had an awareness that people speak foreign languages "for real", and don't just read passages out of French primers in a classroom environment with a heavy English accent.

So when I discovered the Scandinavian languages, I was not too surprised that they too spoke their languages "for real". What does surprise me now is the astonishing number of Brits that have never had anything to do with any foreign language. Holiday conversations throughout Europe tend to be on English-language terms. Few Brits make any effort to learn anyone else's language, yet snigger at every mistake the foreigner makes.

I've avoided getting too Nordocentric by living some 20 years in the Netherlands. And I can read French and German when necessary.

Working with foreign authors goes smoothly, as long as the author recognises that a translator who is a native-speaker of English may commit blunders when they don't understand the original, but tends to have a good grasp of the target language. When an English author is translated into "Scandinavian", he is unlikely to know the target language. But a Scandinavian author ending up in English may become proof of the adage: "a little learning is a dangerous thing". He will alter every idiom into what he thinks is proper English.

As for translation anecdotes and disguising identities, you have to decide whether you want no one reading your piece to understand whom you're talking about, or only a select few. That will determine the amount of generality or specificity in your yarn.

Harry D. Watson said...

David mentions meeting Scandinavian authors "insisting that they had no interest at all in being translated: among them it was simply considered indecent to be seen promoting oneself by seeking the translation of one's work."

That does surprise me. I've posted elsewhere about how I got my start in literary translation. One day back in the 1980s I read an article by the literary editor of the "Guardian" in which he described a lunch in Stockholm with some leading Swedish novelists, all of whom were complaining about the difficulty of getting their work translated and taken up by publishers in the chauvinistic English-speaking world. They were all extremely keen to get into that world. One of them was Per Wästberg, whose novels I had enjoyed once I had learned enough Swedish to read them. I had found a couple in my former Swedish girlfriend's flat, she being a fan.

I wrote to Wästberg via the "Guardian", he commissioned me to translate some extracts from his current novel sequence to show to publishers, and I never looked back. After a few years during which I had translated novel extracts, essays and poetry for him, when he had nothing more for me, he recommended me to other people.

Wästberg had a good conceit of himself, being a leading panjandrum in Swedish literary life - literary editor of "Dagens Nyheter", past president of International PEN, eventually a member (and now chairman) of the Nobel Prize for Literature committee - and it really rankled with him that he carried off the literary prizes in Scandinavia but was little-known in the English-speaking world.

Similarly, the author of a prize-winning book about an alleged miscarriage of justice relating to a gruesome series of murders in Stockholm (two doctors, one Estonian, were arrested and charged) asked me to do specimen translations for British publishers, and I warned him right at the start that, unfortunately, miscarriages of justice are ten a penny over here and I doubted if our publishers would be too excited by his variation on a theme. (I was proved right).

My current author is yet another prize-winning Swedish writer, and translator! (from Russian), and I know he is deeply underwhelmed by not just the poor sales of my translation of his last book, but by the fact that his British publishers made no effort at all to market it, and it has had but one review, tho' a good one (London Review of Books). Our latest joint effort - a biography of the Russian Futurist poet Mayakovsky - has so far had one vague expression of interest from an American publisher, much to my man's disgust - keen as he is to have a British and American readership.


David McDuff said...

It's just possible that the "translation-shy" Norwegian authors were putting on a show for their audience of captive translators. And for one another. With some of them there was also an element of demonstrative indifference to the workings of the Anglo-Saxon literary world.

In reality, they were all rather keen to have their books translated into English, as one might have expected. It just didn't do to look too keen.

Eric Dickens said...

I have been scouting around for Finland-Swedish poets to translate for this blog and received a communiqué this very evening that said: "...I was happy to read that you
would like to translate some poems of mine." So there are still Scandiknaves out there that are not falsely modest pseudo-shrinking violets when it comes to the translation of their works. And at the London Book Fair, I hope to talk to a Norwegian or two. I shall be diplomatic, though rubbing it in that I rather fancy translating things from nynorsk, which is similar to telling Finns that you like hurrarna.

As for murderous Estonians, the name Härm is not, as one tabloidic type writes, a rare name in Estonia. The poet Viiu Härm is married to the better-known poet Paul-Eerik Rummo. I once met this latter poet in Antwerp along with a Dutchman called Paul. So we made the inevitable crack.