IN TRANSLATION: ROSIE HEDGER TALKS ABOUT TRANSLATING THE BIRD TRIBUNAL BY AGNES RAVATN

the-bird-tribunal-a_w-v4

Today I’m delighted to be hosting a stop on THE BIRD TRIBUNAL blog tour, and I’m joined by Rosie Hedger who translated this fabulous book by Agnes Ravatn from the Norwegian original.

Over to Rosie …

I was thrilled when Karen announced she would be publishing The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn – the book was very popular in Norway, and Ravatn is a well-respected writer in her homeland. However, I must admit to feeling anxious at the prospect of translating her work, fearful that I might not do the book justice. Every translation has its own unique challenges, but as much as I might tear my hair out in my attempts to find the right word or phrase, these challenges are really what make the job so interesting.

One particular challenge when translating Ravatn’s work was the style of the writing, which has an almost breathless quality at points: sentences would often be very short and staccato-like, and these would often start without pronouns. Whilst this works in Norwegian, it doesn’t have the same effect in English, so the challenge was often to replicate these aspects of the style in sometimes different ways, retaining the tension for readers that is evident in the prose, as well as in the plot. Short sentences did not present the only difficult, however, and equally challenging were those much longer sentences, as Allis’ mind churns over and over things, analysing everything she does in minute detail – one sentence on p. 63 leaps to mind, with one sentence coming in at around half a page! I always read the entire manuscript aloud at least once, and this sentence troubled me for many weeks before I felt that Allis’ obsessive inner monologue sounded right.

I’m hesitant to say too much about the ending for those who have yet to read the book, but I will say that it was one of my favourite sections to work on, as well as being one of the most challenging from a translation perspective. When I first read the final chapter, I returned to it three or four times to get my head around exactly what was going on. Agnes plays with language and form throughout the novel, but particularly in the final few pages, where she also weaves in the elements of Norse mythology peppered throughout the text. The final few sentences are some of my favourites; while translating, I did quite a bit of research and reading on ‘Völuspá’, the first poem of the Poetic Edda. According to this poem, a new world emerges after Ragnarok, but even here the dragon Nithhogg is seen ‘sweep[ing] through the air from Nithafjoll and into the new world with human corpses nestled among its feathers.’ This dark image has stuck with me ever since – it seemed the perfect symbol for Allis’ own shame, which taints her attempts at building a new life, and is a sublime conclusion to the novel.

The Bird Tribunal offers astute commentary on many topical social issues – it touches upon the expectations woman place on themselves (and other women) to exude perfect femininity, and the impossibility in achieving these arbitrary targets. It looks at notions of shame and vulnerability, and unhealthy relationships between damaged individuals. Allis worries about every word to cross her lips, idolising Sigurd in ways that he almost certainly doesn’t deserve, and finding her only validation in his approval. It takes a long time for reality to bite for Allis, and when it does, the consequences are severe. One of the most interesting aspects of the work for me, though, is the unreliability of Allis’ narration – her perspective is the only one that we have, leaving the reader with a number of questions, and making for many an interesting and enjoyable translation challenge.

A big thank you to Rosie Hedger for coming on the CTG blog today to talk about translating THE BIRD TRIBUNAL.

THE BIRD TRIBUNAL is out now from Orenda Books. You can buy it here from Amazon

In the meantime, here’s the blurb: “Two people in exile. Two secrets. As the past tightens its grip, there may be no escape … TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and her job to take voluntary exile in a remote house on an isolated fjord. But her new job as housekeeper and gardener is not all that it seems, and her silent, surly employer, 44-year-old Sigurd Bagge, is not the old man she expected. As they await the return of his wife from her travels, their silent, uneasy encounters develop into a chilling, obsessive relationship, and it becomes clear that atonement for past sins may not be enough … Haunting, consuming and powerful, The Bird Tribunal is a taut, exquisitely written psychological thriller that builds to a shocking, dramatic crescendo that will leave you breathless.”

And be sure to check out all the fabulous THE BIRD TRIBUNAL blog tour stops …

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Guest Post: Quentin Bates on Stepping into the Translation Zone #Snowblind

Quentin Bates

Quentin Bates

Today, crime writer Quentin Bates takes the reins here at CTG HQ to tell us about his recent experiences in translation – working on the fabulous novel Snowblind from Icelandic crime writer Ragnar Jónasson (published in English by Orenda Books) …

It has been something of a step into the unknown. All right, I’ve done plenty of translation before from my adopted second language, Icelandic, a language that 320,000 Icelanders and a couple of dozen non-Icelanders speak. It’s a long story, but I lived there for a long time, boy meets girl and all that stuff, and found myself staying a lot longer than originally intended.

But to get back on track, I’ve done bits and pieces of translation before, almost all of it fairly grim technical and news material, although there was a novel I translated years ago for the fun of it and eventually wound up publishing myself as an e-book. It’s here if you fancy a look, but I warn you, it’s not a crime story and there are no murders in there.

It was a surprise that there are so few Icelandic crime writers translated into English. For a long time there were only two, the two everyone knows about, Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Then they were joined by Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson with a handful of books and Árni Thórarinsson with only one and it’s a shame as Árni’s books are excellent, refreshingly different with a journalist as a protagonist rather than a detective or a lawyer. It has long been a mystery to me why so many Swedish and Norwegian crime authors seem to make it seamlessly into English, while their Danish, Finnish and Icelandic counterparts have been left behind, even though they frequently seem to be published in every other language; but not English.

But now there’s one more. A bunch of us conspired to get Ragnar Jónasson published in English, pulling strings and passing the word to kick-start the process.

The excellent Karen Sullivan was in the process of setting up her new imprint, Orenda Books, and was able to publish six books in her first year. She managed to secure Ragnar’s Snowblind, his debut novel (published on 20th April on Kindle and 15th June in paperback) as well as his latest novel, Nightblind.

So this is where the step into the unknown began. I was sure I could produce a translation, and hoped it would be up to Karen’s exacting standards, very much aware that for a new publisher with a limited number books in its first year, each book has to count.

Translation is different from writing your own stuff. There are similar technical aspects, but it calls for a different set of skills. There’s no plotting to worry about as the author has already done all the heavy lifting there, but while technical translation calls for precision and accuracy, literary translation also calls for accuracy, but in a different way.

Snowblind cover image

Snowblind cover image

A technical handbook needs to be as close to the original as possible, while still making sense, as anyone who has bought a Chinese-made DVD player with a badly translated handbook will understand. With a novel it’s more about being faithful to the spirit of the author’s words than to those words themselves.

Sentences might need to be rolled together, as Icelandic uses short, sharp sentences. Like this one. That don’t work in English. Punctuation is also a headache and it has taken me years to figure out that a full stop in Icelandic isn’t necessarily the same as a full stop in English. The nature of an Icelandic full stop can depend on the context and it can be the equivalent of a semi-colon, or even a comma, just a pause in a narrative rather than a break, but the context is all-important.

Then there are the idioms that need to be rendered into English, and often enough there isn’t any direct translation that does the original justice or captures the right feel. So some suitable parallel phrase has to be found. Worst of all are jokes, especially a joke or a phrase that relies on an untranslatable play on words. This is where the translator has to go out on a limb and trust instinct that the replacement joke, which may be nowhere even close to the original wording, is strong enough to capture the elusive feel that the author was looking for.

All this has to be achieved without crossing the often very elastic line from being a translator into the other world of being an editor. There should never be a temptation to improve on an author’s work, only to interpret it in the best way possible, and it’s well known that a poor translation can ruin a good book. On the other hand, an inspired translation can lift a good book and make it into something outstanding.

These days I find myself looking for the translator’s name as well as the author’s. I know that if a book translated from French has Frank Wynne’s or Ros Schwartz’s name on it, I’ll be in good hands. The same goes for Anthea Bell, that queen among translators who produced those inspired English-language versions of Asterix the Gaul that were part of my childhood, plus so much else… then there’s Don Bartlett for anything from Norwegian, and this list goes on.

So it has been a challenge. Translation has also been better that the most fiendish crossword for keeping the grey cells active, almost as fiendish as the plotting of Ragnar’s book. There has been much silent muttering and poring over dictionaries, and my vocabulary of obscure Icelandic words has certainly grown.

Would I do it again? I already am… Look out for Nightblind next year, and hopefully a few more of Iceland’s stable of crime writers appearing in English in the next few years.

A huge thank you to Quentin Bates for dropping by today to talk about stepping into the translation zone, and for giving us a peep behind the scenes at Snowblind.

Summerchill cover image

Summerchill cover image

Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson is released as an ebook today and in paperback on 15th June. Here’s the blurb: Siglufjörður: an idyllically quiet fishing village in Northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors – accessible only via a small mountain tunnel. Ari Thór Arason: a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik – with a past that he’s unable to leave behind. When a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed, elderly writer falls to his death in the local theatre, Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life. An avalanche and unremitting snowstorms close the mountain pass, and the 24-hour darkness threatens to push Ari over the edge, as curtains begin to twitch, and his investigation becomes increasingly complex, chilling and personal. Past plays tag with the present and the claustrophobic tension mounts, while Ari is thrust ever deeper into his own darkness – blinded by snow, and with a killer on the loose.”

Quentin Bates’ latest book Summerchill (the next in his popular Gunnhildur Gísladóttir series) is out on 7th May and available now for pre-order. Here’s the blurb: It’s the tail end of a hot summer when half of Reykjavík is on holiday and the other half wishes it was. Things are quiet when a man is reported missing from his home in the suburbs. As Gunna and Helgi investigate, it becomes clear that the missing man had secrets of his own that lead to a sinister set of friends, and to someone with little to lose who is a fugitive from both justice and the underworld. It becomes a challenge for Gunna to tail both the victim and his would-be executioner, racing to catch up with at least one of them before they finally meet.”