Raising a glass to the translators by Quentin Bates

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Certainly for writers in Britain, translation is hugely important as foreign rights can represent the difference between struggling and actually making a decent few quid. It takes some people by surprise, as most people seem to think that a publishing deal is a gateway to riches, but something like 3% of authors are able to make a full-time living from writing books. So foreign rights make a difference. I hasten to add that I’m not part of that exclusive 3%, and have to juggle a day job as well.

My first two novels, Frozen Out and Cold Comfort, have been bought by German and Dutch publishers and while I’m delighted at the prospect of the sales in those countries, both of them serious consumers of my brand of Gloomy Nordic Crime Fiction (GNCF), I can’t help feeling a sneaking uneasiness at relinquishing control to a translator I’ve never met.

It’s like giving your baby to someone else to bring up, or asking a stranger to train your dog. Are they going to do a good job? Do they understand those little nuances of meaning that you were so pleased with when you wrote them? Do those subtle private jokes make the transition intact into Flemish or Galician?

It was a wonderful feeling to handle the advance copies of In Eisigem Wasser (as Frozen Out/Assets is titled in German) but deeply uncomfortable struggling to read my own words in someone else’s language. Granted, I can struggle through some of it. A-level German (a less than impressive grade D) back in the days when flared trousers and sideburns were still thoroughly cool hasn’t left me with a lot of skill in colloquial German, but it’s enough to recognise the gist. It’s all tantalisingly close, but still too far away to see if those subtleties translate seamlessly.

Maybe Dutch, of which I can manage only a few well-chosen, mostly food- and beer-related, words, will be more comfortable. Gebroren Tegoeden and Schrale Troost in Dutch, by the way, on bookshop shelves in Holland and Belgium next year.

I know I shouldn’t worry about it. The lady who is translating my books into German is a highly experienced and prolific translator. I’d bet her English is better than mine and she can rattle through one of my books in a couple of afternoons.

Translation is a very undervalued skill. It’s something I’ve done a bit of here and there, mostly dull technical stuff, although many years ago I translated a fine book by my friend Guðlaugur Arason into English and entirely failed to find a publisher for it. It never fails to irritate when monoglot colleagues at the day job send me a link or a page of text and ask for a ‘quick translation.’ These days there’s a simple answer – that there’s no such thing as quick translation that one nonchalantly cranks out in a few minutes between polishing off that awkward chapter in the latest whodunit and composing an elegant, pithy leader article. The options are for an accurate translation or bad one. That’s it; the alternative is to try Google Translate and run the risk of getting pretty much anything more complex than ‘the cat sat on the mat’ turned into gibberish.

A dozen years ago I was approached by a London publisher who had clearly gone to some lengths to unearth someone in England with a command of Icelandic. The brief was to read books by an unknown new Icelandic novelist. I’d never heard of the guy, but was happy enough to take £50 for reading a book and sending them a précis and an opinion. Soon enough I found out that Arnaldur Indriðason was the son of Indriði G Thorsteinsson, a respected writer and critic. The books were Synir Duftsins (which was fine apart from the far-fetched premise of the whole thing) and Napóleonsskjölin (recently published in English as Operation Napoleon).

The books got similar reviews from me; Synir Duftsins was well written, with interesting characters, the first outing for Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson. The standalone Operation Napoleon was readable and rattled along nicely. My verdict was that this guy was worth keeping an eye on.

Then everything went quiet and I thought no more about it, until I started seeing Arnaldur’s books in airport bookshops and read one on a flight. It was great… Intrigued, I read a few more in Icelandic and it dawned on me that these books were actually better in English.

I’m not saying that Arnaldur writes dull books, because that’s certainly not the case. But both Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir have had the tremendous good fortune to be translated by the mighty Bernard Scudder, himself a poet and writer who was able to transpose their books into English with a deftness that preserves the atmosphere of the originals, plus a bit more.

It brought home just how much a writer is at the mercy of his or her translator. I’ve also seen what happens when a translation is done in a hurry – or worse, to a budget. Translation requires care, experience, intuition and background knowledge as well as language skills. A good translator is someone who wallows in words and I’ve heard it said that nobody knows and understands a writer as well as the translator. The fact is that a poor translation can easily turn a decent book sour, while a good book can be made into a great read by an inspired translator who makes an author’s words sing in another language.

These days translators are starting to get billing alongside the author, noticeably on Amazon. Some authors may resent the side-by-side billing, but some of us understand just how vital a translator’s skills can be.

So here’s to the translators who do authors and readers a service that too few of us appreciate.

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