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Translators at Work report

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Issue number: 2020:1-2


Translators at Work

Catherine Venner reports on the author and translator events held by SELTA in Edinburgh, 2019

At the end of last October, I travelled northwards to Edinburgh for a very special event: I was going to the SELTA workshop and Swedish speed book club. It was to be my first time attending any SELTA event, so I had been looking forward to it with a mixture of curiosity and a little nervousness, not to mention the fact that I had no idea what a speed book club was.

As it turns out a speed book club is a fantastic way of getting to know books and their authors in a more informal setting. SELTA had invited four authors to attend both the speed book club and workshop: Balsam Karam, Adrian Perera, Kayo Mpoyi and Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz. They are all debut novelists whose work has not yet been translated into English, so members of SELTA provided handy translations of excerpts from each novel so that the book club was accessible to everyone whether you read Swedish or not. We had been sent these excerpts to read before the event, but there were a few reading copies on each table too, enabling us to surreptitiously catch up on our homework or just refresh our memories.

As participants, we separated into small groups of four or five and visited each author and translator at their table for about 20 minutes before moving on to the next table. Although I had initially felt slightly daunted by the prospect of such an intimate setting with the authors, both they and the translators were happy to fill us in on the synopsis of their books and to talk about the general themes running through their work. The authors, translators and participants enjoyed chatting about these topics so much that there was often a reluctance to stop when it was time to move on to the next table and many of the topics were picked up again in the workshops the following day.

Having visited many book presentations and literary panels before, the speed book club was a refreshing change that offers people like me, who feel very self-conscious asking questions in front of an audience, the chance to have their curiosity about the novels satisfied in a friendly and relaxed setting. We were able to engage in an actual conversation with the author rather than just a brief question and answer. The table talks were in English, enabling all who attended to join in the discussions. We did talk a little about the challenges involved in translating these works but that was kept to a minimum as we knew that translation would be the focus of the workshops the next day. The conversations and ideas carried on into the following wine reception sponsored by the Scandinavian Studies section of the Department of European Languages and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh.

Adrian and Kate
Author Adrian Perera and translator Kate Lambert. Photograph: Ian Giles


The speed book club was definitely one of the highlights of the two-day event and despite being initially daunted at the prospect of attending it, I would recommend this format to anyone interested in discovering new literature and I hope to attend more similar events in the future.

The next morning, we met bright and early at 9 o’clock in the rooms of the University of Edinburgh to start our translation workshops. In attendance were not only members of SELTA, but also students, members of the public and translators from other Scandinavian languages, who were all curious to learn more about the challenges of translating the ‘emerging voices’ of our four authors. After a fascinating presentation about diversity in literature by Anja Tröger, the morning workshops began with Balsam Karam and Adrian Perera presenting their novels. Balsam’s Händelsehorisonten (Event Horizon), driven by her love of astronomy, illustrates the problems facing social outcasts whatever the place and time, while Adrian’s Mamma (Mama) set in 90s Swedish-speaking Finland was intended as a horror story about what happens when there is no common language. We then split into two groups, each with one of the authors, to discuss the novels and translation excerpts in more detail.

Kayo and Alex
Author Kayo Mpoyi and translator Alex Fleming. Photograph: Ian Giles


I attended the workshop with Adrian Perera where a lot of focus was placed on what can actually be translated and what must be left in the original language. His novel is multilingual with characters speaking Swedish, English, Sinhala and Finnish. The presence of English in the source texts threw up a lot of debate about how this can be handled in an English target text. It is especially difficult to translate the words of Mama, whose English is not perfect but was the reason she got the job that supports her and her son. In an English text, how can it be made clear that speaking in English is a distinguishing part of her character and is integral to the story, when all the narrative around her speech is in English? Of course Mamma deals with many other themes, such as religion and the status of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland but in the context of a translation event, it is inevitable that the translators will focus on the conundrum of the English-speaking character.

After a lovely lunch and some good chats among the participants, the afternoon session kicked off with Kayo Mpoyi and Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz introducing us to their work. Kayo’s Mai betyder vatten (Mai Means Water) is based upon the myths told in her family, while Joel’s Sången om en son (The Story of a Son) is an exploration of how bad things can get, centring around the emotional journey of an adopted son. He stressed that this novel is a work of fiction and certainly not autobiographical, telling us the anecdote of a Swedish talk show that believed it was his autobiography and upon learning the truth uninvited Joel from participating in an interview. He raised the question of why audiences believe that minority writers are always telling their own stories. Kayo also told us that she was often asked whether her next novel was also going to be set in Africa, a question that she finds frustrating as she has the whole world to write about.

Joel and Hanna
Author Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz and translator Hanna Löfgren. Photograph: Ian Giles


The following workshops with the authors provided valuable feedback about how they as authors would like to see their work presented in another language and how, as a translator, you can sometimes set off on the wrong track. This highlights the need, where possible, for a dialogue between the author and the translator to ensure that the reader gains the full sense of a novel. For upcoming literary translators these workshops were a great opportunity to practise this inquisitive thinking around the text.

Before we knew it, the workshops were over and we were all heading back to our various homes across the country and beyond. As a first-timer, I absolutely loved attending this event, meeting the friendly and welcoming members of SELTA and taking part in extremely interesting workshops that provided input for translation whatever your working languages (for the sake of full disclosure, I should also add that I am actually a German translator, who reads and loves Scandinavian languages). To conclude, I would like to thank Ian Giles for organising such a wonderful event, the authors for their input on our translations and everyone who helped make this an absolutely wonderful SELTA event.

Balsam and Fiona
Author Balsam Karam and translator Fiona Graham. Photograph: Ian Giles


SELTA event, Edinburgh University, October 2019. Photograph: Ian Giles
About the event

The four books featured at the events and in SBR 2020:1-2 are:

Balsam Karam. Händelsehorisonten (Event Horizon). Stockholm: Norstedts, 2018.

Kayo Mpoyi. Mai betyder vatten (Mai Means Water). Stockholm: Norstedts, 2019.

Adrian Perera. Mamma (Mama). Helsinki: Förlaget, 2019.

Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz, Sången om en son (The Story of a Son) . Stockholm: Norstedts, 2018.