Ten Thoughts on Having Your Novel Translated into Your Native Tongue
The Challenges of Working in a Language You Only Use to Speak to Your Mother
The relationship between author and translator is, in theory, symbiotic. And when the relationship remains theoretical, because the author can’t read the translator’s translation, it usually stays symbiotic. Problems often arise when the author can read the translation.
Milan Kundera has a notoriously difficult relationship with his translators. Kundera was burned early on when his first novel, The Joke, was grossly overwritten in the French translation, with the translator inserting countless pompous metaphors in place of Kundera’s playful and direct prose. Compounding the problem, the dearth of Czech translators working at the time meant that the French translation was used for subsequent translations into less central languages.
Kundera didn’t learn of this violation until years after the fact (at least according to him, but authors have a notoriously fluid relationship to autobiography). Much like the person who is cheated on by their first love and then suspects every subsequent partner’s trip to the grocery to be a secret affair, after the first betrayal, Kundera became a little touchy.
First, he began carefully vetting his translations, even in languages he didn’t totally speak. Then he began renouncing earlier translation in favor of retranslations, turning on the ones he had already vetted and championed just years earlier. He eventually decided to cut out the middle man, abandoning his native Czech to write in French. The rational was simple: The more central the language you write in, the more likely it is that your work will not only be translated but be translated with fidelity. If Kundera wrote in French, he would have more translators to choose from and his novels would no longer have to pass through an intermediary language on their way to their final destination.
Günter Grass tried to tackle the problem of fidelity in translation with Übersetzertreffen, three- to four-day meetings he would hold for his translators to work out problems or questions that might arise in the translation of a new text. American translator Breon Mitchell described one of these meetings in Gdansk in 2005, in which Grass went over “more than twenty-five hundred instances” in which he wanted to clarify the meaning, effect, or nuance he most hoped to capture with a particular phrase.
Partly because of the fame that came from Grass’ Nobel Prize and partly because of the centrality of the German language (translators from German, French, and English are in great abundance across the globe in a way that translators from Czech are not), Grass had the luxury of translator meet-ups that most writers could only dream of. What Grass was getting at with these meetings was to urge his translators away from domesticating his texts. As he had previously told his translators, it would be wise to lay off trying to make his text “flow” in translation, as many of his practices “struck German publishers as strange too.”
Swedish was technically my first language, but English is the language in which I grew up, the language in which I became myself, and the language in which I feel at home.
I recently had the unusual experience of having my debut novel translated into my first language.
I was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and American father, but I moved to California at the age of two. Swedish was technically my first language, but English is the language in which I grew up, the language in which I became myself, and the language in which I feel at home. I write in English, and though I can read and write in Swedish, I lack the vocabulary and cultural fluency to write a novel in Swedish.
When my novel sold in Sweden, I soon received a letter from my Swedish translator, Molle Kanmert Sjölander. Some quick googling showed that she was accomplished and had translated authors from Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, and Mohsin Hamid, to J.K. Rowling and George RR Martin.
“What a luxury to get to write to an author in Swedish,” she wrote to me (in Swedish). “It’s a first!” (in English).
I, too, was excited. But my translator had been doing her job, and doing it well, for many years. If this was in fact the first time she was translating an author who had enough Swedish to look over her shoulder, I wondered if she would still feel it was a luxury to work with me once we were through.
Translation scholar Lawrence Venuti said of the reception of English language translations: “over the past sixty years the comments have grown amazingly consistent in praising fluency while damning deviations from it.” Venuti’s findings hint at one of the possible conflicts between author and translator: Even if authors value fidelity to the original in translation, what readers and critics tend to value in translation, especially those who cannot read the original, is flow.
Kundera said that when readers complain of his translations, “that’s not how you say it in German,” he responds, “It’s not how you say it in Czech either!”
The translator faces pressure either external (from the publisher) or internal (from the translator’s own desire to make the book as readable as possible, often because they love the book and want it to be loved by a new audience) to smooth over the bumps that pop up when you move almost any sentence, much less a whole book, from one language to another.
Over the course of translating my novel, Molle would periodically check in with questions. Usually it was just a phrase or concept that didn’t have a Swedish equivalent, and she often already had a good idea for a solution, while I occasionally I offered input that might be helpful. But these little questions were not enough to give me an idea of what her translation would sound like. I was excited to see what she came up but also nervous. The translation was due in May. The book would be released in Swedish in August. If I didn’t like what she wrote, there wouldn’t be much time to do anything about it.
The Danish writer Dorthe Nors wrote that because Danish has a shortage of words, consciousness of aesthetics and style are particularly pronounced in Denmark: “Compared to English, for example, on paper, we only have about half as many words to play with.” But she also called the lack of words a blessing that inspired creativity.
Nors, who also translates books from Swedish to Danish, said that the strength of the Danish language was in “irony and aesthetics,” while the Swedish language has an enviably “melancholy, classical resonance.”
But here’s the thing: Swedish and Danish are very similar languages. Though they have grown apart in speech since Sweden and Denmark split in the 1600s, and Danish now sounds, to a Swedish person, like the part of a chorus that you mumble through because you don’t quite know the words (“Rocket man! Burning up a meeda heba do mo!”), the two languages are still mutually intelligible in writing. They’re close enough that a Swede can usually read Danish, and vice versa.
Yet when Nors compares the two languages to explain her style, she finds important differences. I’m sure someone who grew up in either country would have a lot to add and qualify to my assessment of the languages, while Nors, who has worked so closely between the two languages has a much greater understanding of the differences between them than I ever will. But when I read her description of the two languages, I suspect that she isn’t really talking about Danish and Swedish so much as finding a backdoor through which to sneak a discussion of her craft. In typically Scandinavian modesty, she avoids discussing her magnificent style—which is brutally and delightfully economical in Danish, Swedish, and English—by instead discussing the language itself.
Every night while my translator worked on my novel, I woke at four in the morning, Portland-time (which was afternoon Sweden-time) to check my email for the arrival of the translated manuscript.
One night, in attempts to quell my nervousness and out of eagerness to hear what my book might sound like in Swedish, I started trying to translate my novel myself. I quickly had to shut the computer in horror. While I had translated work from Swedish to English, I had never successfully flown in the other direction. I wasn’t equipped for it. Translating my own work was also a mistake, since it allowed too much freedom: when I hit a problem, instead of translating through it, as a translator must, I would just rewrite the problem sentence. Since I’m not good at writing in Swedish, the result was very bad.
Finally, one early morning in late April, I woke to find the highly-anticipated email glowing in my inbox. I burst out of sleep to scroll through the translated manuscript in the blue light of my phone.
Reading the first page was a Sliding Doors experience in which I got to hear what I might have sounded like had my parents decided to stay in Sweden and raise me there. The translator had captured my voice as it existed in English, in Swedish. It was a me that I myself could never quite capture in Swedish conversation, not even after two years of living in Sweden as an adult.
At the same time, it was bizarre meeting this me, because already on the first couple pages, Swedish-me said six words I’d never heard before:
Opening another window and feeding the words into a translator, I learned that they meant:
– teaching assistants
Swedish-book me already knew these words in Swedish, just like American me knew them in English.
In a language where I couldn’t hide, I had no opportunity to bullshit.
Molle had captured the rhythm, the humor, the irony, and the sadness of the story better than I ever could have imagined. While there were of course little issues—idioms and expressions inserted to smooth over my flat English, repeated words replaced with synonyms for the sake of flow (which, to be fair, is something American editors do as well)—after reading the first forty pages, I was overjoyed. 99% of the stuff was not just right, but better than I could have imagined it. I felt a calm settle over me like I hadn’t experienced in months and fell soundly asleep with my phone resting on my chest.
The problems arose when I woke the next morning and continued reading. In this second part of the book, the narrator, Jonas, a 28-year-old recovering drug addict, arrives in Sweden to go back to school and get clean, and begins a relationship with his German neighbor. All of a sudden, in Swedish translation, Jonas sounds like an asshole. He’s curt and mean. The deadpan flirting he shared with his girlfriend in English had been distorted to cold rudeness in Swedish.
I paced around the apartment wondering what to do. This wasn’t an easy fix. I would have to ask, if I were to ask, for total retranslation of at least sixty pages. It was my first book; I had no cache; I didn’t want to be difficult. I decided to write my Swedish friend, Jakob Nilsson, to ask for advice.
Jakob is a writer, critic, and translator I met when I attended grad school in Sweden from 2014 to 2016. To borrow a formulation from Hannah Arendt who had American friends “English” her writing when she switched from writing in German, when I was living in Sweden, Jakob would “Swedish” my prose. When I wrote in Swedish, he’d fix the prepositions, rearrange the English syntax into Swedish formulations, and point out places where I phrased something in a way that didn’t work in Swedish. (He would also point out places where I phrased something in a way that didn’t work in any language.) Now I asked Jakob how he thought I should approach the problem of the mistranslation.
He wrote back quickly—bless the saintly people who write back quickly when you’re acting crazy—and said that he had read the section I sent over in both English and Swedish and was afraid that he didn’t see the problem.
“I think the translator did a great job,” he said.
What, exactly, he wondered, did I think had been mistranslated?
In her essay about teaching creative writing to students writing in English as their second language, Ana Menéndez told of an assignment in which students were to translate their English-language stories into their first languages. A Latvian student explained that his story was too dark for Latvian, which was “a very sweet and beautiful language.” Menendez puzzled over this. As it turned out, the student had moved from Latvia from the age of ten. It wasn’t the language that was sweet but the experiences he associated with the language from the first ten years of his life.
The problem hadn’t been with the translation of the second part of my novel—it had been with me. In my novel, Jonas was speaking English like a twenty-eight-year-old American. He was sarcastic at times, as if he were frequently sharing an inside joke with an invisible spectator. He had command of his words, the selection of which he modulated to make someone laugh, listen, or back off.
In 2016 when I was finishing up Swedish grad school, I was living in Malmö and nursing the fantasy that I might be good enough at Swedish to make a living writing for Swedish newspapers, allowing me to avoid moving back to the US after graduation. With Jakob’s help, I had just published my first essay in a Swedish newspaper, and the positive response it had gotten, along with the generous paycheck, made me think I might be on track for a new career path.
I asked the editor who’d published the essay if I could write a profile of the American writer Jensen Beach. Beach had previously lived in Sweden for six years, learned Swedish, gained Swedish citizenship, and was about to release a short story collection, Swallowed by the Cold, written in English, that centered on Swedish characters.
The editor gave his okay and offered me more money than I had ever been paid for a piece of writing before. (This was still a relatively small amount of money—but as all young writers know, money made writing is worth ten times as much as money made doing anything else.) I decided that Beach and I would conduct our interview in Swedish to avoid the mediating influence of my translation. Beach agreed. He had been back in the US for some time, and I imagine conducting an interview in a language you had to dust off just for that occasion wasn’t the most comfortable thing. However, after the initial hiccups, our call went very well.
On the phone, Beach talked about reading a translation of a Swedish book in English and trying to mimic the tone of that translated prose to get the effect of Swedish in English. That’s how he found the right for rhythm for the dialogue in his collection, written in English about people speaking Swedish.
“I’m much simpler in Swedish,” Beach told me. “I can’t do all the intellectual things I can do in English.”
I said that I could relate: I felt much less capable of hiding in Swedish. Without the calibrated irony that I’d spent an awkward adolescence cultivating in English, I didn’t know how to deflect anything. Swedish, to me, meant having accidentally sincere conversations every day.
But this weakness, I now believed, could be turned to strength. In a language where I couldn’t hide, I had no opportunity to bullshit. Since I spent so little time showing off, my Swedish prose was much more direct in a way that lent itself to freelance assignments with a limited word count.
I wrote the Beach profile, had Jakob Swedish it for me, and sent it off to the editor, feeling very pleased with the result.
The editor had accepted my first piece within an hour of receipt, so I checked my email every minute that first day, waiting for an email full of praise. But I didn’t hear back for weeks.
Finally, I wrote to ask the editor if he’d read it.
“I have read it,” he replied. “And I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t really work.”
My questions to the author were shallow and uninteresting. As result, the editor said, the profile was rather boring.
I was devastated. Not at the editor but at myself. How embarrassing to reread my pitch now, in which I had been so confident about my ability to write the promised piece. What a fool I’d been to think I could write in Swedish!
The editor, perhaps predicting my dismay, attempted to cushion the blow with the last lines of his email: “Maybe the problem was that you two were speaking Swedish and couldn’t express yourself freely,” he said. “It probably would have been a more interesting interview in English.”