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Book translation: an insider’s perspective

If you’ve read Jo Nesbo or Henning Mankell’s crime fiction novels, have you ever thought about how their books are translated into English?

Ever wondered how you become a literary translator or do you like the idea of becoming one?

If so, you’ll enjoy this interview with one of the world’s best literary translators, Neil Smith. Neil translated Swedish author Leif G W Persson’s forthcoming book, Linda, As in the Linda Murder. He is also responsible for translating the international bestselling author Liza Marklund into English, as well as working on Postcard Killers, the novel she co-wrote with James Patterson.

He has also translated books by Mons Kallentoft, Alexander Söderberg, Anders de la Motte, Marie Hermanson and Hjalmar Bergman.

We asked Neil to put down his manuscript mid-translation and managed to grab some of his precious time to ask him some key questions.


Can you explain exactly what book translators do?

Most of a translator’s time is spent trying to capture the meaning and the spirit of the book they’re translating, and transposing it into clear, accurate, readable English. Understanding the words is the easy part! The hardest is always finding a way to convey each author’s voice as faithfully as possible in another language.

On a more practical level, the job involves working closely with publishers, authors and their agents, to make sure that the books reach as wide an audience as possible, in the best shape as possible.


What are the must-have skills for book translators?

The starting point, of course, is a very good knowledge of the source language, so that you can pick up the tiniest nuances indicated by the use of specific words. You also need a good grasp of the history and culture of the society that your authors are writing about: the Swedish legal system, for instance, differs from the British system in several important respects, and it’s essential for a translator to know about cultural differences like that. But, as much as anything else, you have to be obsessed by written English! You need to read as widely as possible, and be able to absorb and reflect different literary styles.


What are the most difficult parts of your job?

Capturing the tone of a book is simultaneously the most difficult and the most rewarding part of the job: once you’ve nailed that, the rest flows fairly naturally.

There are sometimes moments when, like any reader, you wish that an author had done something differently: as a fairly devoted cat-owner, I did find it difficult to translate a section of one particular novel in which a cat met a rather gruesome fate. I could see that it was necessary in order to emphasise how isolated the main character was, but that didn’t make it any easier to translate.

On a purely practical level, deadlines are always something of a nuisance: most translators are perfectionists, and would probably never let go of a translation unless forced to do so by deadlines – so perhaps we should be grateful for them!

Keeping up to date with slang can be tricky- the internet is an absolute godsend! And the global reach of English can cause unexpected problems: how do you convey the various connotations of a Swedish character using English swearwords, for instance, if the entire text is in English?


What are the most rewarding?

Having an author tell you that they’re happy with what you’ve done, and that you’ve managed to capture the tone and voice of their book is always very rewarding! That, and hearing that readers have enjoyed your work. One of the nicest compliments you can get – albeit something of a back-handed one! – is when someone tells you that they forgot they were reading a translation.

In general, though, being in the privileged position of being able to get up each morning and know that you can spend the day immersed in words and books and language is reward enough in itself. I genuinely can’t think of a nicer way to earn a living!


Can you give us some examples of a word or phrase that just doesn’t translate well?

The word that Swedes will usually give you if you ask them this question is ‘lagom’, which means ‘just right’, ‘sufficient’, ‘just enough’ – but it’s usually not that much of a problem! There are a couple of very common Swedish verbs which lack a direct equivalent, ‘orka’ – ‘to have the energy’ or ‘to be bothered’ to do something, and ‘hinna’ – ‘to have time to’, but there are various ways around those, depending on context. There are some wonderfully specific compound nouns that can be rather tricky: ‘klämdag’ (literally ‘squeezed day’) is a lovely way to describe the days between national holidays and the nearest weekend! My personal bête noire is a perfectly innocuous little word: ‘besöksstol’, a ‘visitor’s chair’ – no problem at all, until you try to fit it into a sentence and discover that the chair instantly becomes the most obtrusive thing in the sentence!


Which book past or present, do you imagine was the most difficult to translate?

Anyone who has ever translated James Joyce’s Ulysses or Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy into another language has my utmost respect! There’s a Finnish novel that hasn’t yet been translated into English, Volter Kilpi’s Alastalon salissa (‘In the Parlour of Alastalo’), which is often referred to as ‘The Finnish Ulysses’: it’s always fun to suggest to a Finnish translator that they might like to tackle it!

My favourite classic Swedish author is Hjalmar Bergman, who had a wonderfully elegant literary style: I’ve translated one of his books, Memoirs of a Dead Man, which was both a huge challenge and a great honour. I’d dearly love to tackle more of his work in the future.


What does a book lose or gain in translation?

That’s a very difficult question to answer objectively. A translation is always going to be a different book, but as a translator you hope that you’re going to be able to retain as much of the essence and flavour of the original as you possibly can. How easy or difficult that task is will obviously differ from book to book: an author who uses a lot of word-play, for instance, is always going to be harder to translate successfully than one whose main focus is on character and plot.

It’s sometimes claimed that the broader vocabulary of English results in richer texts than can be written in languages with smaller vocabularies, but that strikes me as a terribly arrogant assumption! Each book – and each translation – ultimately stands or falls on its own merits, and its fate rests with its readers.


Has the digitisation of books affected the role of a translator?

I haven’t noticed any significant impact yet, but of course that could change. I’m slightly more concerned about the development of a reliable translation programme, but we still seem to be some way off that, thank goodness!


Is there a view amongst translators about which language is the most difficult to translate for British readers?

I’m afraid I don’t know enough about non-European languages to be able even to hazard a guess at an answer to this question! But within Europe I think there’s a general feeling that the non-Indo-European languages are more challenging: the Finno-Ugric languages, for instance – Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian.


If you weren’t a book translator, what would your dream job be?

I honestly can’t think of a better job than translating books!

I spent several years working as a nursing assistant in a hospital in Stockholm, a long time ago now, but I still miss it – of the many paths that were ultimately not taken, that’s probably the one I think about most, so: nursing!


If you enjoyed Neil’s insights and you would like to read a book translated by him, Liza Marklund’s latest novel Last Will and Leif G W Persson’s forthcoming novel Linda, As in the Linda Murder are available to buy below.

Further reading: Our inside book publishing articles What does a book editor do?


    Isn’t the time pressure imposed by publishers a problem? Do you ever feel they’re not giving you enough time to do the job properly?

    I can’t deny that there are time pressures, but there’s usually a bit of room for manoeuvre when you’re negotiating delivery deadlines at the outset. Obviously, you have a fairly good idea of the number of words you can translate in a day, and if that number gets pushed uncomfortably high because of a tight deadline then the alarm bells start to ring. So, in theory, the deadlines for the actual translations *ought* to be manageable. But if you’re working close to capacity, there’s not much room for things that are less predictable: page-proofs, for instance, have a nasty habit of turning up at just the wrong moment…

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