Time-Travelling Translators: Report on a Literary Translation Workshop When twenty-first-century translators work on a twenty-first-century novel that’s set in Sweden in the mid-1980s, to what extent should they attempt to recreate the language used in that earlier time? What efforts should they make to accommodate the expectations and background knowledge of contemporary English-speaking readers?

These are some of the questions SELTA members addressed at a translation workshop in May 2013 at the Swedish Embassy in London, when participants met to discuss their translations of an extract of Snöängel (Snow Angel), a novel by Swedish author Anna-Karin Palm. SELTA members had previously had an opportunity to meet Anna-Karin Palm when she gave a reading from this novel and spoke about her work after the SELTA AGM in November 2012, so that book seemed a natural choice for our workshop this year.

The format of this workshop followed that of similar events held previously by SELTA: first, a passage from the Swedish novel was emailed to members. Those participating in the workshop produced their own translations of the same stretch of text and submitted their translations via email. All the translations received were then anonymised and distributed to all participants about one week before the workshop proper, so everyone could have a look at all of the English versions of the text submitted before we met to discuss them. 

I had selected a brief extract slightly over 1,000 words in length, which turned out to provide plenty of challenges for the translators’ professional skill and judgement – the text contained dialogue, third-person narrative, a letter written by one character to another, and a significant number of references to real people, places and events.

Snöängel is set in Stockholm in the winter of 1985–86, and the streets and neighbourhoods of the Swedish capital provide a strong sense of place throughout the book. Well-known buildings and other landmarks are mentioned, and characters even ride buses along numbered routes which really exist. All of this real-life detail creates a highly evocative setting for readers who are familiar with Stockholm, but what about English-speaking readers who may never even have set foot in Sweden?

In her comments to the workshop participants, Anna-Karin Palm  identified these details as a key source of interest and pleasure for readers of books translated from other languages: ‘Part of what makes it so enjoyable and enriching to read a work in translation is the sense of being transported to a different cultural milieu where people and places have mystical-sounding names.’ While she advocates a hands-off approach to such terms, she acknowledges that there are times when translators may need to intervene in the text for readers’ benefit. ‘Of course, sometimes it’s necessary to convert an object or phenomenon into something equivalent in the readers’ own culture/language, but in general I think one should retain these and do only what’s absolutely necessary for comprehension of the text,’ she summarised.

A comparison of the translations shows that the translators in this workshop used various approaches to provide assistance to readers of the English text in understanding culturally bound terms. The translators’ individual choices result in subtly different English versions. Here is one brief snippet with a high density of challenging items:

(1) På andra sidan gatan ser han Sickan med sin shoppingvagn utanför PrisPricken, han vinkar men hon ser honom inte. Och utanför skatteskrapan står Olle och hänger på rullatorn, röker med ansiktet vänt mot solen.

(1a) On the other side of the street he spots Siggy with her shopping trolley outside PriceRite and waves, but she doesn’t notice. And outside the tax department’s towering office block he comes across Olle, lounging on his wheeled walking frame, smoking with his face turned up to the sun.

(1b) On the opposite side of the road he sees Sickan with her shopping trolley, outside the low cost supermarket. He waves but she doesn’t see him. And there outside the tax office tower block is Olle, leaning on his rollator and smoking, his face turned up to the sun.

(1c) On the other side of the road he sees Sickan wheeling her trolley outside PrisPricken. He waves, but she doesn’t see him. And outside the Tax Tower stands Olle, hanging out with his rollator, smoking, his face turned towards the sun.

Some readers and reviewers (and indeed translators) believe that characters’ names are sacrosanct and must be left unchanged, but in this case the translator of version (1a) decided to change Sickan’s nickname to Siggy, which is more familiar and perhaps less distracting to English readers.

Each of the three translators in (1a)–(1c) chose a different way to handle the name of the PrisPricken supermarket: coming up with an equivalent English-language name (as in (1a)), substituting a description (1b) or retaining the Swedish name (1c). The translators also dealt with skatteskrapan in different ways: this is a real building on the island of Södermalm in Stockholm – a familiar landmark which used to house the offices of the Swedish National Tax Board. Again, the translators variously chose to use a descriptive term or to come up with an equivalent name in English. And while (1b) and (1c) portray Olle as leaning on a rollator (a Swedish invention), (1a) has given him a wheeled walking frame – a description that may be more readily comprehensible to English-speaking readers.

The dialogue in Snöängel also contains many references that may not resonate with readers who are linguistically, culturally and temporally removed from the real people and events being referred to.

(2) […] Henning fnyser över tidningen. “Borgarna går på om den där ubåten. På dem låter det ju som om det var Palme själv som skickade ut den. Någon officer som kallar honom en ’säkerhetsrisk’! De där dårfinkarna tycker väl att kärnvapennedrustingen är en säkerhetsrisk också.”

(2a) […] Henning snorted at the paper. ‘The right-wingers are still going on about that U-boat. Listening to them, you’d think it was Olof Palme himself who sent it out there. Some officer’s calling him a “security risk”! I bet those crackpots think nuclear disarmament is a security risk and all.’

(2b) […] Henning snorts at the paper. ‘The Tories are ranting on about that submarine. They make it sound like Palme had sent it himself. Some officer’s calling him a “security risk”! Those birdbrains probably think nuclear disarmament is a security risk as well!’

(2c) […] Henning is chuckling at something in the newspaper. “The right are going on about that submarine. You would think, from what they’re saying, that Olof Palme himself had launched the thing. One officer even called Palme a ‘security risk’! Those nutters no doubt think that nuclear disarmament is a security risk too.”

Of these three versions, two chose to add the first name of the then-Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme as an unobtrusive bit of help to English-speaking readers. All of the translators found it difficult to find a neat solution in English for the term Borgarna, a term used to refer to the right-of-centre political parties of Sweden. The Swedish nickname has derogatory connotations, so the use of this term in the novel is a concise bit of characterisation: it is immediately clear that Henning has left-leaning political views. The translator of (2a) chose to render this as ‘right-wingers’, which may be overstating things, while (2b) chose a domesticating approach (to borrow a term from the field of Translation Studies) by using the nickname of the British Conservative Party. 

While it can be tempting for translators to provide as much help as possible for English-speaking readers in understanding Swedish names, places and other realia – and to show off their own background knowledge – workshop participants thought it was generally advisable to rein in that urge.

Translators and editors can have faith in readers: if readers are interested in finding out more about the locations in a book, they’ll look them up. After all, readers from the far north of Sweden might not ‘get’ the significance of every location in a Stockholm-based novel, either.

Of course, translators’ individual choices are evident elsewhere in the text, not just in places where the original contains tricky culturally bound terms. For example, we can compare these slight differences in Henning’s line of dialogue in (2) above: (2a) ‘I bet […] and all.’ (2b) ‘[…] probably […] as well.’ (2c) ‘[…] no doubt […] too.’ This goes to show that each translator has an individual voice, just as every author writing an original work does. Indeed, Anna-Karin Palm noticed this after reading the translated versions of her own work. ‘A translation is truly a text with a voice of its own, in dialogue with the original but marked by the choices and style of its translator,’ as she put it.

It is worth noting that the translator of (2a) chose to put the narration into the past tense, even though the original Swedish novel is written in the present tense. This prompted some discussion at the workshop. Some translators – and editors – have strong (or perhaps more accurately, strongly negative) feelings about the use of the present tense in fiction in English. The ‘narrative present’ is much more commonly used in Swedish and other European languages than in English, so one may consider whether the present tense has the same function and effect on readers of fiction in both languages. While Snöängel is set in the mid-1980s, the narrative contains a lot of description of the characters’ actions – almost as if the reader were watching a film, so the workshop participants largely agreed this stylistic device should be retained in the translation. One participant described the effect as feeling as if ‘the characters are living it as we’re reading it’.

This informal workshop, organised by and for fellow translators, provided an ideal opportunity to experiment with translation approaches and discuss the results with colleagues. Seeing how other translators have dealt with the same text can prompt a reassessment of one’s own practices, thereby helping translators to expand the range of strategies they can use in their subsequent work.

SELTA is grateful to the Embassy of Sweden in London for providing a venue for this workshop, and particularly to author Anna-Karin Palm for giving us her comments on our multiple translations of a brief extract from her novel. 

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