Reflections on the BCLT Advanced Scandinavian Translation workshop

SELTA members share their reflections on the BCLT’s advanced translation workshop for Danish, Norwegian and Swedish to English literary translators.

November 2023 saw the British Centre of Literary Translation (BCLT) host an advanced translation workshop for Danish, Norwegian and Swedish to English literary translators. Running online for three days and made possible thanks to the generous support of the Danish Arts Foundation, NORLA and the Swedish Arts Council, the workshop came into being thanks to a small group of dedicated translators, including SELTA Chair Ian Giles.

The event set out to bring together participants from the three Scandinavian language groups throughout, as well as incorporating three parallel workshop strands for each language. There were also  plenary events and networking opportunities to explore the similarities and differences experienced when working as literary translators with Scandinavian languages. Each group was led by a translator facilitator  and joined by  an editor with little to no knowledge of the source language. To cap it all, three online, industry-focused public sessions also took place alongside the workshops covering Trends, Challenges and Perspectives in publishing, translating genre and the infrequently-discussed topic of how to translate works that aren’t really your cup of tea. SELTA’s Sarah Death even shared a virtual afternoon tea with with TA Committee Co-Chair Vineet Lal to discuss her work and career.

A number of SELTA members took part in the translation workshop and have shared their reflections and impressions below. Hopefully these will serve as an insight into a successful and stimulating event, and whet the appetite for future endeavours.

Image from the BCLT.


Jane Davis

As a recent member of SELTA, I hadn’t much interacted with other Scandinavian translators and so I didn’t really know what to expect from the BCLT’s online Advanced Scandinavian Literary Translation Workshop. And when I saw the intense schedule – up to 7 hours of Zoom sessions on each of the three days – I rather regretted signing up at all. But a brisk, informative and entertaining welcoming presentation from Guy Puzey on the interrelationships and  miscomprehensions between the three main Scandinavian languages set the tone for what was to come. High-level, challenging, but extremely enjoyable sessions flashed past as we switched from language groups to mixed groups (mine led by the wonderful Paul Russell Garrett, who started every session with slightly terrifying warm-up exercises borrowed from the theatre world) to general sessions and broadcast webinars. Three editors had also been invited to participate, and they watched in surprise and interest as we argued over nuances and teased out meanings – and then almost always said “You could have moved even further from the source than that”.

We had a virtual pub night and I reflected – not for the first time – that it had been a particularly unfortunate coincidence that I had chosen that week to give up not only alcohol and chocolate but also to restrict myself to a mere two cups of tea or coffee per day.

But what did I learn from the workshop? Well, a few practical things that I can already tell will be worth their weight in gold as I approach future translations:

– If you’re struggling to understand a text written in one of the other languages, read it aloud as though it was your working language. This really helps with comprehension – listening to Ian Giles reading Danish with a Swedish accent was the first time I had ever understood the spoken language without subtitles.

– Make your first draft very rough. This was a technique that proved very successful in my mini-Swedish group because it prevented us from getting bogged down in the details before we had an overview of where the text was going.

– Be more editorial. As the editors kept saying, translators tend to work for the author, replicating every nuance, rather than the reader. It really is okay to smooth things out, miss out tricky concepts and take a much greater distance to the text.

Ultimately, I came away from the experience feeling much more at home amongst a lovely community of people, and with a renewed enthusiasm for translating everything, but particularly literature.


Elizabeth DeNoma

I was truly pleased to be able to join my colleagues for the Advanced Translation Workshop the other week. The programming had clearly been put together with a lot of care by Ian Giles, Kari Dickson and Paul Garrett, and there was a great mix of panel discussion alongside hands-on translation exercises and discussion.

The inclusion of the professional folks was a decided bonus, too, it was incredibly helpful for them to stick around for the entire session.

There are things that we discussed here that I know will stay with me as I approach my translations in the future – and the sense of community that was fostered, through Zoom no less, was a surprising extra benefit!

Thank you so much for the opportunity – what a wonderful use of time. Very grateful for the sponsorship and time all the organizers put into everything.


Kate Lambert

The Advanced Scandinavian Translation Workshop was an amazingly inspiring three days on Zoom. I would previously have said that workshops are always better in person, but without Zoom, I wouldn’t have got to know so many translators based in different countries or been able to work on a translation in a group of four where one of us was in the UK, one in Sweden and two in the US (all credit to them for staying awake in an alien time zone). Shared documents and breakout rooms made it all run smoothly, with the support of the BCLT IT technicians on hand to deal with any glitches.

Translators tend to work in isolation and I always appreciate SELTA’s events where we get the
chance to compare different translations of the same text. At this workshop, we not only submitted texts anonymously for group discussion but also worked together on a chunk of a Swedish autobiographical novel, graphic novels from Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, and an extract from the Swedish translation of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. Approaches varied, strokes of genius were celebrated (by the way, Michael should be given credit for our group’s admired addition of the word ‘obviously’) and the key confidence-inspiring thing that came out of all these sessions was that we all take different approaches to the trade-offs that translators have to make.

Many of us translate or have translated from more than one Scandinavian language and the market in which we operate has many similarities across the three countries. At other translator events I have encountered the assumption that if you work with Scandinavia, you get paid so much (comparatively) that you don’t have the right to complain about anything. It was good to be able to share experiences with colleagues who also work specifically in the Scandinavian market.

Another thing that made this workshop different was the presence of professional editors. Gaining an editor’s input on our translations as we produced them added a whole new angle and several of us, I think, found it quite liberating as translators to see how much an editor might change when reading the text as a piece of English writing, though we did also rein in their red pens by explaining the Swedish author’s intentions behind some extremely long sentences. It seemed that both editors and translators benefitted from seeing how the other worked. It was a brilliant idea to have them with us.

It was the BCLT Swedish summer school in 2013 that convinced me I could do literary translation after over ten years on the more commercial side so I was delighted to be attending another BCLT workshop ten years later, having published translations under my belt. Many thanks to everyone involved in making it happen.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash


Michael Meigs

Our many hours on Zoom from November 9 to 11, 2023 reminded us of the reach and dispersal of the literary translation profession as well as the interests that link us. The chat function quickly filled with greetings from across the world. From the UK and Scandinavian nations, of course, but also, for example, South Africa, Japan, Italy, Croatia, and the United States (east coast, west coast, and Texas, where I reside).

My good fortune was that Ian Giles moderated both smaller seminars to which I’d been assigned. Cheerful, attentive, unfailingly helpful, Ian kept the discussion focused with a light touch, summarizing and rephrasing contributions. He shared his own experiences in publishing, an industry that is woefully opaque to most of us. Someone noted a shelf of intriguing bottles in the background; Ian immediately invited us to drop by for a drink whenever we’re in town.

Literary translators may be the most siloed of artists. The task is lonely as we chip away at our chosen language, sentence by sentence, word by word. Collaborative exercises in this three-day workshop helped counter that isolation. As a team we picked translations apart and suggested alternative renderings, ever in search of the perfect equivalent. The day before the translation workshop began, organizers gave us 48 hours to craft short-fuse English versions of a short passage later revealed to come from Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Reviewing ten two-page first drafts produced under time pressure offered an intriguing array of possible “correct” choices. That key exercise prompted us to discuss in detail considerations of voice, register, focus, and tone.

With a six-hour time difference and sessions starting at 4 a.m. Texas time, I found myself a bit displaced from my immediate surroundings as we progressed through the three days. Removal from the immediacy of my everyday was initially disorienting—but ultimately deeply satisfying. I’d happily apply to repeat the experience.


Kathy Saranpa

Not sure what to expect from the BCLT Advanced Scandinavian Translation Seminar – and equal parts daunted and excited by the prospect of three full days online with other translators – I logged on Tuesday 7 November at noon Finnish time to a warm welcome and a fascinating keynote lecture by Dr Guy Puzey that set the tone for three days of text-based work, learning, community and camaraderie.

Now looking back at those three days, I feel that it was one of those events that stick with you for a long time because there were so many aspects of it to reconsider – is it ever OK to use the phrase ‘relentless darkness? What texts can I pitch to Editor X? Why does recasting my translation in a different font help so much in proofreading and editing?

And then of course there’s that irresistible urge to reread Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow…

Our own Ian Giles and the two coordinators from Danish and Norwegian, Paul Garrett and Kari Dickson, succeeded beyond all of my expectations. The work sessions were well-organized, well-run and thoroughly captivating and bore witness to extraordinary footwork ahead of time. The texts we worked with were excellent for their purposes and the use of graphic novels to introduce translators unfamiliar with the other two languages was a stroke of genius. They took everything into consideration – the need for reliably working technology (I’ve never seen a better or more efficient use of Zoom break rooms) and the necessity of altering focused text study with listening to webinars on a headset while walking around in a different room are two examples. It also added a lot to have editors and publishers ‘visiting’ – what they had to say about their professions as well as what they observed about us translators was very useful information.

Three days of Zoom meetings may sound like torture to some people, but Ian, Paul and Kari made it work. This is not to say that we weren’t exhausted by the end of Day Three, but for me, and I suspect for others, it was more a function of having so much ‘good stuff’ crammed into such a short space of time. While I am very much for an in-person translation seminar at some point in the future, this proved that you can have an incredibly valuable experience online as well.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash


William Sleath

The recent online Advanced Scandinavian Translation Workshop was extraordinarily good, and I benefited enormously from taking part.

The highlight for me was the Swedish-English group translation sessions, which gave one the rare opportunity to translate together with colleagues. This was a great treat in a profession where one chiefly works in isolation. It was fascinating to juggle a plethora of translations of a word or phrase in search of the mot juste – and often we found not just one mot juste but several contenders.

Another intriguing session was the one devoted to translating ‘Scandinavianly’. Seeing how speakers of each of the three languages perceived speakers of the other languages was an eye-opener. I was above all relieved not to be the only one who found spoken Danish a nightmare!

Guy Puzey’s excellent lecture made for an impressive start to the three days, which were packed with a variety of sessions. The timetable even included a ‘pub night’, which to my surprise worked very well, despite its being on Zoom.

Whilst the Zoom format has its limitations, it meant participants in other countries were able to take part – and as far as I’m concerned it meant I took part in something I might not have attended had it involved travel & overnight stays.

Last but not least, the fact that each translator received a bursary for the workshop made participation a no-brainer.


Nicky Smalley

Over three packed days, thirty-three Scandinavian translators went deep into the complexities and conundrums of their craft. I was lucky enough to be welcomed into the Norwegian-focused group, and as someone who feels most at home in Swedish, it was a real treat to work with practiced, skilled Norwegian specialists. With a range of practical translation challenges, featuring a range of short texts that presented different challenges (knotty, playful novel excerpts, highly idiomatic language, the challenges of brevity and image-correspondence in graphic novels, a snippet of a famous Danish novel in its Scandinavian translations) we were really tested. The practical work was augmented with a series of genuinely fascinating and brilliantly put-together panel discussions that looked at some of the practical workplace concerns faced by translators. All this was topped off by the inclusion of some talented and brilliantly frank editors, and several publishers who provided some very meaningful and insightful advice. All in all it was three days, incredibly well-spent! With thanks to the speakers, the other participants, and most of all, the organisers, who really went above and beyond in putting together a fantastic programme.

SELTA’s translation workshop on Swedish Working Class Writing

SELTA members Sarah Death, Kathy Saranpa and Anna McGroarty and student guest Lily Stewart share their impressions of SELTA’s workshop on Working Class Writing held at the Swedish Embassy in London in October. The idea of Ruth Urbom, the workshop brought writers Susanna Alakoski, Eija Hetekivi Olsson, Mats Jonsson and Anneli Jordahl to discuss their work and its translation with members.

Photos by Ian Giles.

Sarah Death writes:

The recent SELTA translation workshop, held at the Swedish Embassy in London at the kind invitation of the cultural counsellor and her team, was the brainchild of former chair Ruth Urbom and brought to fruition by her hard work, with the help of Chair Ian Giles and the SELTA committee. The theme of the event was working-class writers and our four guests from Sweden introduced themselves and their work before we broke into author-led groups to take a closer look at the extracts we had prepared and the many and various solutions we had found.


I was part of the group that enjoyed a very fruitful session working with author and critic Anneli Jordahl, who has a long catalogue of titles to her name, both fiction and non-fiction. She is a critic and reviewer for the Swedish papers Aftonbladet, Expressen and Sydsvenska Dagbladet and has won numerous literary prizes.

As has become customary at SELTA workshops, those who had done the translation in advance – including members who could not attend – had sent in their work, and thanks to the organisers we had in front of us an anonymised array of English versions to inform our discussion. When a group of literary translators assembles to work on a text they have prepared, the discussions can be quite intense, detailed and niche, but having the author there always leads to more insightful and rewarding work, and Annneli was such an engaging collaborator.

We worked with her on an extract from her recent, book-length essay Orm med två huvuden (2019, Snake with Two Heads) in which she casts an appraising eye on her own background and its impact on her dual – and sometimes conflicting – roles as an author and a critic. For someone from her background to be accepted as a critic, she told us, it was a real struggle. The extract we tackled was from a section in which the young Anneli becomes a latchkey kid and discovers her appetite for books and the joy of libraries and solitary reading.

The first challenge hit us in the very first sentence. Anneli’s parents lived in a ‘Mexitegelvilla’, house of a type that has become pretty much synonymous with the optimistic and aspirational spirit of Sweden in the 1970s. The building material, ‘Mexitegel’ is a shimmering kind of white brick and the ‘villa’ is nothing like the Mediterranean image that this might conjure up for a British reader but simply a standard, free-standing Swedish domestic residence. Yet how to encapsulate all this and convey all those associations with a simplicity that comes anywhere near that of the single word in the original Swedish? None of our versions could really do it full justice.

Anneli’s father was an electrician and her mother worked in a restaurant. She writes of them as ‘pappa’ and ‘mamma’, which seems simple enough, but these words are perennially problematic for translators into English in terms of register and cultural connotations. Take ‘mamma’, for example. We discussed leaving it unchanged, but does it sound a little too much like a child’s exclamation? Eventually we concluded that all solutions had their drawbacks. ‘Mama’ has too Victorian a flavour, doesn’t it? Is ‘Mum’ too British and ‘Mom’ too American? Does ‘Mummy’ sound too childish, or too upper-middle-class British? Anneli gave us some interesting background information: in Sweden there were, and perhaps still are, regional variations. In Skåne, your parents would be known as ‘mor och far’, whereas in Dalarna they would be ‘mamma och pappa’.

Anneli’s mother worked for many years at ‘Stadshotellet’ (traditionally the leading hotel in a town) where her job description in Swedish was ‘kallskänka’. There is a great deal to unpack in this word before one can even think of trying to find an appropriate translation. Various dictionaries offered us the term ‘cold-buffet manageress’, which sounds like someone who takes bookings, shows people to their tables and makes sure the buffet platters are replenished; but the title also has that slight managerial ring. Anneli explained that in reality it was a job with quite a lowly place in hierarchy but requiring considerable artistic skills. It involved not only arranging all those eye-catching platters of smorgåsbord essentials but also constructing the smörgåstårta, the staple of summer Swedish catering: essentially a party-sized cut-and-share club sandwich, full of seafood and other layers, all held together with mayonnaise and beautifully decorated with unshelled prawns and fronds or flower-heads of dill. How could we render all this cultural context in English? In the end, reluctant to overload the sentence, we decided to make do with the rather underwhelming phrase ‘running the lunch buffet’.

Moving on to how Anneli was expected to behave as a child, we read in our text that her mother thought it safest in social terms for her largely to be seen and not heard, but – as was quite common at that period – she would sometimes be expected to niga, that is, to curtsey, to important guests. We had an entertaining interlude in which full, deep curtsey (called a hovnigning or court curtsey in Swedish, Anneli told us) was demonstrated by one of our number, but decided that for a young girl we would probably use ‘bob’ or ‘give a bob’, as long as we were sure the context made it clear what was going on.

In the next section Anneli described the gloriously indiscriminate reading of her childhood, everything from Asterix to Jules Verne – ‘från A till Ö’, as Anneli’s text put it, which in English surely has to become A to Z?  We were faced with putting the extensive lists into succinct English, and not cramming them to full of explanatory detail. One example was Vilhelm Moberg’s ‘Utvandrarromaner’, his quartet of novels (1949-59) set in the 1850s, when hardship and hunger forced waves of emigration from Sweden to North America. In these days when readers can look up anything online in a trice, is it all right simply to say ‘the Emigrant novels by Vilhelm Moberg’?

The discussion turned to the general importance of local libraries in both Britain and Sweden for educating and inspiring children. Many Swedish working-class writers have described their vital function in less-privileged childhoods, underpinning many a subsequent class journey. Anneli told us about a successful – and rather touching – modern-day initiative in a library in her own area. Children who are too nervous and intimidated to read out loud in class can go there to read to Book Dog, a trained dog who sits and listens as they read. The scheme has boosted the confidence of many young readers.

The perfect conclusion to our wide-ranging discussions was the group’s wholehearted applause for Anneli’s enthusiastic participation, and also for the fact that she now has the job of her dreams. When young Anneli wistfully enquired whether there was a job she could do in adulthood that would allow her to keep her nose in a book all day, her mother of course said no. But now, she jokes, the majority of her work as a critic and reviewer does indeed involve lying on the sofa, reading!


Kathy Saranpa writes:

On Thursday, October 21, around 20 participants, including authors and guests, assembled at the Swedish Embassy in London in a bright and pleasant room facing the courtyard. After hanging up our coats, signing in, disinfecting our hands, and putting on our masks, we were greeted most warmly by our hosts, Ruth Urbom and Ian Giles, and by a welcome table of coffee, tea and treats. We had a fully packed day ahead of us, and Ruth and Ian kept us on schedule in a very gracious and efficient manner. Ruth explained to us how she had happened to choose the topic of working-class writers, giving us a look at her own background as a log chopper’s assistant. (You’ll have to ask her for the correct term – and terminology was definitely one of the issues surrounding the day’s topic.) She had also noticed that there was a festival of working-class writers scheduled in Bristol on October 22, and worked behind the scenes to enable four Swedish writers to attend. What a terrific opportunity for us!

Susanna Alakoski introduced herself and her ‘klassresa’, another theme for the day, noting that she was 17 before she set foot in a library. Otherwise, those places were far too fine for someone like her. Her first story, ‘Pärs första fisk,’ was the result of her having found a fresh (?) cod, passing it off at home as edible and not eating the soup made from it in case she had to take care of sick family members. She spoke of her very difficult childhood and the struggles she had as a ‘finnjävel’ – another thread that returned with the next speaker, Eija Hetekivi Olsson. She grew up in a rough Gothenburg suburb, Angered, and brought home the grim reality of working-class families almost from the beginning of her remarks: The most segregated city in Europe, Gothenburg features a difference in life expectancy of 30 years between those living in the most affluent areas and those living in Angered. Eija never expected to live very long, so she began writing about her experience in letters to her two daughters – which became books.

After the introductions to these two authors, we split up into two groups. I participated in the session with Susanna Alakoski. The issues we worked on dealt primarily with vocabulary (skiftflicka: doffer? shift girl?; trådrullar: bobbins? spools, reels? and the like) but also tricky citation issues such as the folk song ‘spinn min flicka spinn’ and the quote from Merrie England. What do you do when you don’t have the original text – translate it yourself? We spent a lot of time also simply enjoying the fact that we were working with a real author in real time! It became clear that both professions require a lot of research, but also that translators and authors don’t always have the same priorities or the same amount of power.

We were served a scrumptious, generous lunch along with a well-needed one-hour break for some fresh air out from behind masks. Then the afternoon session began with Anneli Jordahl introducing herself. She explained that she had taken a translation exam once but failed miserably because she had stuck too close to the text (sigh. Weren’t we all there once upon a time?). So she expressed her admiration for what we do. Her “klassresa” began when she got the keys to a library – as a cleaning woman. But she had access to all of those books and, like her character in Ormen med två huvuden, she read indiscriminately – as she explained later, her parents did not hierarchize her reading for her. Next, Mats Jonsson introduced himself as growing up as the only child in his village in Norrland – his best friends were elderly people, who often told him stories, and he credits them for giving him a sense of narrative. He read many comic books as a child and found that this was a genre he could express himself well in – and that they weren’t just for ‘barn och debila’.

I found myself in Anneli Jordahl’s session afterwards. Our first stumbling block was a brick – ‘mexitegel’. How on earth do you express all of the connotations of this word without using a run-on sentence? Another tricky single-word conundrum was ‘skönt’, the word the main character uses after telling the reader that she’s a latchkey child (latchkey was a unanimous choice for ‘nyckelbarn’). Great? Nice? We agreed there was ambiguity in this word until you got to the next sentence. Do you make things easier for the reader, or provide the same degree of vagueness? Other words we talked about were ‘skönlitteratur’, ‘niga’ (which elicited a lovely curtsey from Annie Prime!), ‘ensamförsörjande’, ‘surminen’, and the quotation from Kristina Lugn about indiscriminate reading. We also had some general discussion about translation and writing – having a real-live author there made it difficult to stick strictly to the text. But I suspect that was just fine.

We reconvened after another coffee break and summarized the day. One of the students remarked that she had had no idea of the complexity of literary translation – but she did not seem scared away. Ruth Urbom thanked the Swedish Embassy, the Swedish Literary Exchange, and the authors themselves. When she first thought of creating this workshop, she had four authors in mind and then listed the ones she would contact if she couldn’t get her top 4. She revealed that her top 4 were sitting there with us. Every one of them had said ‘yes’.

As a new member of SELTA, I was simply blown away by the opportunity to compare translations with colleagues, and equally by the kindness, the humor and the skill they all displayed. I even got an ‘inside’ glimpse of what Brexit has meant in a chat with Ian, and some great tips for places to go on this first trip to London from Henry. I will definitely make this trip again for a future workshop.


Anna McGroarty writes:

At the end of October, I had the pleasure of attending the SELTA translation workshop on working class literature at the Swedish Embassy in London. This was my first SELTA event, and I enjoyed it immensely. I think everyone present was thrilled to finally be able to get together in person again. Having the opportunity to discuss translation choices, difficulties, and ideas with colleagues in person was a hugely rewarding experience. We were also incredibly lucky to have the authors of the books being workshopped with us on the day, giving interesting presentations on their works and backgrounds and participating in our discussions.

In the afternoon, my break-away group chose to focus on an excerpt from Mats Jonsson’s graphic novel Nya Norrland. As most of us had no previous experience of translating this type of text, we were all curious to find out more not only about the craft of translating comics, but also the process of writing and publishing them. We learned plenty from Jonsson who, in addition to having published several highly successful graphic novels, also spent many years working as an editor at Galago, one of Sweden’s largest graphic novel imprints.

Much of our subsequent discussion centred on the difficulties and peculiarities that a text of this nature presents for the translator. Jonsson made the point that the translation of a graphic novel is a whole other animal; one that arguably has more in common with subtitling than with ‘classic’ literary translation, chiefly due to the paramount issue of space. Unless it is possible to increase the size of the text boxes and speech bubbles (usually the task of the letterer, a further person with whom the translator may need to interact over the course of the translation process), the translated text needs to fit in the space allocated to the original in the corresponding text box. Given that text volume tends to expand in translation from Swedish into English, this creates an obvious dilemma, similar to that faced by subtitlers.

The group immediately noted that some tough decisions would have to be made. What needs to be retained to stay true to the original and tell the story, and what can be sacrificed? The need for the translator to be pragmatic becomes clear. Similarly, where in a traditional book, the translator might be able to play around with the structure to make the text flow well in English, the graphic novel translator does not have this luxury. The translation must correspond to the illustration panel in which the original text appears in for the story to make sense to the reader. Our group considered that while these issues impose certain limitations on the translator, there is perhaps also a freedom in being allowed to take more liberties with the source text to make the necessary cuts.

These issues aside, the drawings in a graphic novel add a visual element to the translation process and another layer for the translator to interpret in addition to the text. This has its own appeal for readers and translators alike and is part of what makes the format so unique and captivating.

Lily Stewart writes:

I was barely three weeks into my master’s degree studying Translation Studies at UCL when I was presented with the wonderful opportunity to attend SELTA’s annual literary workshop, joining Swedish authors and translators of Swedish literature into English. As a student of the Scandinavian languages and an enthusiast for literary translation in particular, this was a window into the profession that could not be turned down – and at the Swedish Embassy, no less!

In the morning, the authors Susanna Alakoski and Eija Hetekivi Olsson introduced themselves and their work, speaking especially on the theme of ‘arbetarlitteratur’ and of their personal ‘klassresa’ and how class had motivated and moulded their writing. With this context in mind, we then split into groups to discuss our translations of their work.

My group looked at Eija’s text; an extract from her acclaimed 2012 book Ingenbarnsland. Eija had related to us the influence of her own upbringing in the Gothenburg suburbs on her writing; coming from a Finnish migrant family, her mother a cleaner and her friends and peers with few prospects of advancement or even an average life expectancy. This background is very transparent in the text. The dialogue between the two girls in the extract is distinctively in the Gothenburg dialect, with Finnish influence and 1980s slang. This posed a challenge in terms of situating the characters in time and place for an anglophone audience. To relay the equivalent sense, we discussed how we could convey a non-standard working-class dialect without taking it to the extreme of, for example, peppering the dialogue with Geordie slang! Aside from the clear oddity of this approach, we would then be faced with the issue of whether we could make this work for a North American readership, in which case the ‘equivalent’ dialect would again have to be different.

Another point of discussion was how we could translate the humorous way the girls talk, with examples such as ‘E du go eller?’ rendered by one translator as ‘Are you off your rocker?’, but again lacking the distinctive humour that the Gothenburg dialect lends. It was suggested that where we must inevitably lose humour from one aspect of the text, we can compensate in other areas of our translation. The girls are raw and rude and we talked about their tone and attitude being important to preserve in translation, but also considered the question of how brash we want to be and the target readers would allow us to be. The mention of a character taking a 100 SEK ‘en hundring’ from their mother also posed a challenge. One clever suggestion was the translation of ‘a tenner’, which carries the same colloquial sense of ‘hundring’ and states the equivalent value, without going as far as to simply render it as the rough conversion of £10, which we all felt would take the setting too far away from Sweden.

Something which particularly struck me was the translators’ reactions to each other’s work and how much everyone seemed to relish the opportunity for collaboration and vigorous discussion which the workshop sparked. Translators were able to compare their work and decision-making processes, and as our translations differed, we discussed at length the justification of our choices and pondered how far a translator can fight to defend their choice. The direct communication with the translators was also invaluable, and it felt wonderfully empowering to be able to ask the author instantly what their intentions had been when we encountered a particularly tricky or ambiguous line!

I have taken so much from the SELTA workshop, and it has not only strengthened my desire to pursue Swedish literary translation but has given me a better sense of how to achieve this. What’s more, everyone I met at the event was so approachable, helpful, friendly, and inspiring, and I would like to thank Ian Giles and Ruth Urbom for organising the workshop and for being so accommodating.


SELTA literary translation workshop on 21 October 2021

Authors Susanna Alakoski, Eija Hetekivi Olsson, Mats Jonsson and Anneli Jordahl will be coming to the UK this autumn. As part of their visit, SELTA is organising a full-day translation workshop at the Swedish Embassy in London. (Covid permitting)

An important part of the day will be practical workshop sessions, where we will examine and discuss participants’ translations (prepared in advance) of brief extracts from works by the authors. This promises to be a very rewarding experience, with the authors on hand to answer questions and discuss their work. Source texts for the workshop will be sent out to SELTA members in mid-September. In previous years, participants in SELTA workshops have found these events to be stimulating opportunities to develop and hone their craft as literary translators. Materials will be made available for reading and translation well in advance of the workshop to all members of SELTA.

To get an idea of what to expect from the workshop day, you can read the reports on our previous author events held in 2014 (Children’s and YA literature), 2017 (Nature writing) and 2019 (Emerging voices). This year’s focus is on working class writers and the authors will also speak on a panel at the Working Class Writers’ Festival, which takes place October 22nd–24th in Bristol. For more information, see the festival website.

If you wish to attend the 2021 SELTA translation workshop, you can book your ticket here. The ticket price has been set at £20 to cover the cost of providing catering and refreshments during the day. The last date to book is 13 October 2021. Please note that a health policy is in place for this workshop event in light of current circumstances and that by booking you agree to adhere to all aspects of it. Read the policy in full here.

If you have any questions about the event, please contact the Chair by email at

Diversity and the Power Balance of Language

Sophie Ruthven looks at diversity through Adrian Perera’s book Mamma at our Edinburgh workshop.

Sophie Ruthven is an emerging literary translator of Swedish living in Innsbruck. She joined us for our translation workshop in Edinburgh.

A certain playfulness is required to sling possible Anglophone versions of kärring around a table with enthusiasm, and the group of often-solitary translators were certainly not left laughter- free at SELTA’s literary translation workshop in Edinburgh. Yet the duty of giving a text to a new linguistic audience is anything but light, and when the author has allowed their debut novel to be dissected (however lovingly) by a team of both experienced literary translators and those of us who are curious starters to the literary side of things, a lot of weight rests on picking the correct language. Even if the workshop is exploratory, even if the notion of completing the translation is purely hypothetical. Translators have a certain power which can be misused, and when the source text presents problems of power balance inherent in the use of different languages, we have to solve puzzles to the best of our ability.

Cover of Mama by Adrian Perera depicting Jesus with a broken heart

Then again, can we always realistically carry out our task? This question arose during a workshop with the Finland-Swedish author Adrian Perera and his novel Mamma, one of whose characters is a multilingual mother living in Swedish-speaking Finland, viewed through the eyes of her son, Tony. We translators fell into what we do best: we zoomed in on the micro details of a text, sometimes losing sight of the text as a whole in the process. Though in the case of the extract from Mamma, we weren’t necessarily tying ourselves in knots over a curious adjective which didn’t sing in the English translation, rather the challenge of rendering a Swedish work in English, when the broken English of the protagonist Tony’s immigrant mother (spoken alongside Sinhala and Finnish), is, both in itself and its quality, a crucial part of the text, an indicator of both class and cultural difference, in a Swedish-speaking area of Finland. That’s a lot of layers of linguistic minority/majority interplay. There are footnotes which give clarity to grammatically problematic utterances, also serving to keep the narrative along the lines of Tony’s understanding. We considered adding some in to explain linguistic nuance, but then again, it would seem a shame to turn the book into a ‘Primer for Swedish Finland’, which would be both incorrect and potentially unreadable.

In his presentation of Mamma, Perera had floated the idea that no interpreter exists who doesn’t draw on something else with their interpretations, as all reality is inherently subjective. With the reader as the interpreter of the text after the translator has presented it to them in the reader’s own language: if the whole text is rendered in English, will the resultant invisibility of the English and foreign-ification of the Swedish parts disrupt the power-balance of the novel? Would an English reader judge the mother’s broken language in the same way as they would judge the doctor’s with whom she speaks’? Such a scene could be clearly read by a Finland Swede, but may become just a tangle of many Othernesses to an English language reader. The diversity which we wish to present to the new audience may end up simply invisible to that audience. Any good workshop often throws up more questions than answers, though it’s curious to be stumped over whether something can be translated at all.

SELTA’s Speed Bookclub and Workshop in Edinburgh

Catherine Venner reports back on SELTA’s literary translation events in Edinburgh in the autumn of 2019.

Catherine Venner is a translator of German based in Durham. However, she has a sideline in Swedish and became an Associate Member of SELTA in 2018. SELTA’s Edinburgh workshop offered her the chance to get her feet wet with colleagues working in Swedish-English.

At the end of October, I travelled north to Edinburgh for a very special event: I was going to the SELTA Emerging Voices literary translation workshop and Swedish Speed Bookclub. 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 Bookclub was!

As it turns out Speed Bookclub is a fantastic way of getting to know books and their authors in a more informal setting. SELTA had invited four authors; Balsam Karam, Adrian Perera, Kayo Mpoyi and Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz to attend the Speed Bookclub and workshop. 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 Speed Bookclub was accessible to everyone whether you read Swedish or not.

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, 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. Having visited many book presentations and panels before, the Speed Bookclub 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 my curiosity about the novels satisfied in a friendly and relaxed setting. The conversations and ideas carried on into the following wine reception sponsored by the Scandinavian Studies Section at the University of Edinburgh.


The next morning, we met bright and early at 9 o’clock in the rooms back at the university 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 “Event Horizon”, driven by her love of astronomy, illustrates the problems facing social outcasts whatever the place and time, while Adrian’s “Mama” set in 90s Swedish speaking Finland is designed 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.

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 Means Water” is based upon the myths told in her family, while Joel’s “A Story of a Son” is an exploration of how bad things can get and is definitely not autobiographical. 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 and only realise it right at the end.

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 for organising such a wonderful event, the authors for their input on our translations and everyone who helped make this an absolutely wonderful event.

The Art of Translating Stereotypes – A SELTA Workshop

SELTA member Joanna Flower reviews SELTA’s translation workshop held on 19 September 2018.

Konsten att göra intryck: Angela Ahola, (Natur & Kultur, 2016)

In September 2018, a group of SELTA members met at the Swedish Embassy in London to discuss how to translate an extract from a non-fiction book, Konsten att göra intryck (The Art of Making an Impression, Natur & Kultur 2016) by Dr. Angela Ahola, a psychologist and popular motivational speaker in Sweden.

Dr Ahola’s book, which has not yet been translated into English, emphasizes the importance of the first impression, an instinct that has been handed down to us by our ancestors from thousands of years ago, when a positive or negative first impression could be a matter of life and death – is that man standing there in front of me with a knife, a friend or foe? Who should I fear? Who can I trust?

The extract selected for discussion at the SELTA workshop concerned stereotypes and how they unconsciously affect our day-to-day perceptions of others. A number of participants had translated the 800-odd words in advance, and these English versions formed the basis for the exchange of views on the thorny issues arising from the text.


A preliminary point was the question of localisation; if it were to be translated into English, how would this book be positioned?  Who would be the target audience? The extract under consideration was very much geared towards a Swedish audience, so a translator would have to make decisions on various fundamental linguistic and cultural questions right from the outset. For example, the narrative of the book is structured around the pronoun vi (“we”), a construction very common in Swedish texts, but much less so in English. Should this Swedish-style narrative device be retained in the English, or might a different approach be preferable? If so, what?

The book uses examples of scenarios that are very much entrenched in Swedish culture, and employs references and stereotypes that English language readers may not understand. Should those cultural references by kept in the English, in the expectation that, for example, this book would appeal to the recent British appetite for all things Scandinavian, with a title such as: “The Art of Making Impressions the Swedish Way”? If so, the translator may want to retain some of the Swedish elements of the text. If not, alternatives would have to be found.

In this text the voice of the motivational speaker comes through clearly on the page and it was agreed that it is aimed at lay people with no expertise in psychology, reading for general interest and for tips on how to become more aware of the environment and of their own, as well as others’, behaviour.

Sex and gender

Dr. Ahola’s text includes the gender-neutral pronoun hen, the use of which has become commonplace since being included in the Swedish Academy’s authoritative glossary on the Swedish Language in 2015. This pronoun is very specifically gender-neutral, and can be used to refer to a person who does not wish to be designated a specific gender. Should hen be translated as “he or she”, “she or he”, “s/he” or “they”? There was a general view that “they” is preferable here, given that it is rather less cumbersome than the other alternatives, and reflects the neatness of hen, even if it side-steps that new pronoun’s very specific and pointed gender-neutrality.

There was also some debate on how to translate kön. Should this be “sex” or “gender”? And did it matter? The argument was made that “sex” was most appropriate as the discussion focused on stereotypes, and the basic fact of whether a person is male or female in and of itself gives rise to stereotypes. On the other hand, “gender” was considered to be a more inclusive term that covered a wider set of connotations than simply the biological sex of the relevant person; and the term “gender” seems to be used more frequently than “sex” today.

Cultural stereotypes

Dr. Ahola illustrates her comments with two mini case studies, which gave rise to a number of cultural and social issues for the translators to consider.

The first case study concerns your new work colleague, Ronaldo, who comes from Brazil. Your unconscious stereotype image of people from Brazil is that they love football and dancing, but Ronaldo loves neither, and there is a description of Ronaldo being dragged on to the dance floor at an office party and being painfully embarrassed by the whole experience. You explain away his unusual behaviour by telling yourself that he was undoubtedly born with rhythm, but that he must have lost it thanks to living in Sweden: Vi här i Norden har ju inte samma tradition, tanker du. This sentence was variously translated around the basic meaning: “Here in Scandinavia we don’t have the same tradition, you think”.

Again, the starting point was localisation. If the translator has decided to domesticate the text to a significant degree, such that the narrative is squarely set within an English speaking environment for the British market, she or he may consider localizing the examples in the book in Britain. Given UK immigration requirements and restrictions, it might be unlikely that a worker from Brazil would find her or himself in this office environment in the UK. It would perhaps be preferable to use an example of a different nationality to illustrate the same point.  By the same token, what might work as a credible and resonant example for the British market might not work in another English language context, such as a global or transatlantic audience.

Another issue of debate was how to translate the word Norden. Although this is formally translated as “the Nordic countries” (namely, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), it is colloquially used in Sweden to refer just to Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and therefore “Scandinavia” would be a more accurate choice here. However, this ties in again with the target audience. If the decision has been taken to market this book as part of the British Swedophile mood and to position it as a guide to how-to-make-a-good-impression-the-Swedish-way, then retaining a reference to the Nordic countries/Scandinavia, together with the inclusive “we” would seem appropriate. If, however, it has been decided to domesticate the text so that it is a how-to-make-a-good-impression-in-general book, it would be best to remove the reference to the region entirely. Another approach would be to make a broad distinction between north and south, for example by contrasting Brazil with, for example, “Northern Europe” or “the Northern hemisphere”. Again, it shows the importance of determining quite clearly in advance precisely for whom this book is intended, in its translated form.

The second mini case study concerns your new friend, Sten-Ove, who represents a specific type of Swedish stereotype. He is from Norrland, and you meet him on a ferry to Finland.

Finlandskryssning (literally, “Finland crossing”) refers to the boats that travel non-stop from Sweden to Finland and back again so that the passengers can stock up on cheap alcohol. A number of the translators used the term “booze cruise”. It was suggested that British readers would associate this term with the cheap trips from the south coast of England to France in the days when there was duty free shopping between the two countries.  The Sweden/Finland booze cruise is quite a specific cultural phenomenon. The boats used for these trips are like enormous floating parties, with numerous bars and discos on board, so the phrase “booze cruise” may not encompass the connotations involved in the Nordic experience.

The region of Norrland is the most northerly part of Sweden, a vast area which includes Swedish Lapland. The stereotype of someone from this region will of course be familiar to Swedish readers, but it is highly unlikely that this stereotype will resonate with an English speaker. Again, if the text is being translated as part of a “taste of Swedish life” genre, then an example like this will undoubtedly be interesting to an English reader who wants to know more about Sweden, or the “Swedish” way of doing things. In that case, the translator might well include a little more information about Norrland.

If, however, this text is being domesticated, then perhaps this example simply doesn’t work here. The point of these case studies is to trigger in the reader’s mind an unconscious image. If further information needs to be given to explain the sort of image that should emerge with this trigger, then one of the functions of the text will, arguably, be undermined. It may be preferable to replace Sten-Ove and/or Norrland with a stereotype that will speak much more clearly to an English reader.

It is possible to employ national rather than regional stereotypes, avoiding the potential risk of offending certain readers in a British market: The notion of a rather stiff and polite German, used by one translator, instantly triggers in a British mind a classic national stereotype, which is something of a jokey, broad-brush collective approach to another nation. It was generally felt that this approach was preferable to trying to find a regional stereotype from within the UK.

There was some discussion of whether, despite the current fashion for all things Scandinavian, the English-speaking reader would recognize the stereotype of Swedish reticence or reserve. Some considered that the British have a very positive view of Swedes in general, and wondered whether a less positive national stereotype would be more appropriate in this particular scenario.

A natural consequence of changing the regional Swedish stereotype to a national stereotype is that many of the details of the case study would also need to be amended; for example, the German is thought to be “stern, humourless, hard-working and reliable”, whereas the stereotype of Sten-Ove is  “calm, laid-back, pleasant and reliable”. In one translation the action takes place in a British pub rather than on a party boat, and in another, Sten-Ove’s hyperactive exuberance is explained away by his enjoyment of a holiday in the sun. For some, this was a step too far, though it was agreed that if this approach were to be adopted in a real scenario, the point ought to be raised with the author/publisher to highlight the difficulties attached to culturally specific case studies like this.

A non-fiction work on psychology is at first glance a rather unusual brief for discussion by a group of literary translators, but the rich and wide-ranging debate on numerous questions that emerged during the workshop shows that the practice of translation is a constantly demanding one that requires an intense engagement and critical reading of any text, whatever the genre. As always, the practice of doing and then comparing and discussing was a highly stimulating and interesting exercise for the translators.

There are many different ways to make an impression. As the in-depth discussions over this short extract showed, translating is the art of considering as many ways as possible to do it.

Many thanks to the Swedish Embassy for providing a venue for this workshop.

The rights to the book are available from Maria Enberg at The Enberg Agency.

Author Elin Olofsson with Translators in London

In early May 2017, Elin Olofsson was one of four Swedish authors invited by SELTA to take part in two days of literary events in London. Here she shares her thoughts and reflections on that day’s discussion.

Participants had prepared their own translations of a brief excerpt from Elin’s 2016 novel Gånglåt (‘A Walking Melody’) and met to discuss their interpretations and word choices.

The English translation here is by SELTA member Marie Andersson. Scroll down for Elin’s original Swedish.

What exactly does the Swedish word sly (pronounced somewhat like ‘slee’, meaning ‘brushwood’ or ‘undergrowth’) refer to?

What English word best describes the vegetation that is so abundant in the wooded landscapes in the north of Sweden, where my books are set?

How tall is it? How dense?

What could be hidden in it?

A small cat, an escaped criminal, or perhaps even a two-metre-tall elk, about to run out into the road and pose mortal danger to an unsuspecting driver?

Indeed, what could be hidden in the sly? And what could it signify?

What does it represent, this brushwood or undergrowth that appears so frequently in my books?

Perhaps my sly is more about people’s inner state than the actual vegetation out there in the natural world? These were some of the thoughts that I brought with me back to my desk in Jämtland in Sweden after participating in the SELTA seminar in London in May.

I don’t know exactly how we came to talk about brushwood, the enthusiastic (passionate!) translators in my workshop group and I, but I think what triggered it was something related to people and what grows both inside and around a person (we did also discuss sexual slang terms and little cottages for rent amongst the mosquitoes!). You may think a discussion about brushwood could be easily dealt with, as it only concerns some little birches, or tiny goat willow or rowan saplings, or perhaps some newly sprouted fir trees in a row, but it turned out – as so often happens when it comes to words, languages and stories – that there was a whole world concealed in that sly.

A world that is about what we see and what we don’t. In each other, or in our surroundings.

Somehow for me, who grew up in rural Jämtland, it is only natural that brushwood represents deserted farming country. In a depopulated region the brushwood is left free to grow wild. It swallows up fields and consumes gravel roads and even whole houses, where no one wants to live anymore.

Thus, I believe that brushwood stands for a kind of sadness in my stories.

Sadness for what has become of everything, all this life that once was lived.

But brushwood is also vitality – as anyone who has ever tried to combat it will know. It never gives up. You can cut it down to the ground and try to dig up all its roots, and yet it keeps coming back. The moment you turn your back, it shoots up, tall and dense.

Nature has made brushwood unstoppable. That makes it impressive in itself.

And quite a lot like mankind.

And like a story that always finds a way forward.

I took these thoughts about brushwood – the translators’ interesting discussion about the value in finding exactly the right expression for Swedish sly, plus one single word’s importance with regard to context and implied meaning – back with me from London and the SELTA seminar, right into the final touches to my forthcoming novel Krokas. Here brushwood, trees and shrubs together actually conceal a person, but also eventually make it possible for the central characters to show human kindness.


Vad är egentligen ”sly”?

Vilket engelskt ord passar bäst för att beskriva den vegetation som det finns så gott om i det skogslandskap i norra Sverige, där mina böcker utspelar sig?

Hur hög är slyn? Hur tät?

Vad kan denna sly dölja?

En liten katt, en brottsling på rymmen eller kanske en till och med en två meter hög älg, som strax ska störta ut på vägen och bli till en livsfara för en intet ont anande bilist?

Ja, vad kan slyn dölja? Och vad kan den visa på?

Vad står den för, denna sly som så ofta förekommer i mina böcker?

Handlar min sly kanske mer om människornas inre tillstånd än om den faktiska växtligheten där ute i naturen? Ja, det var några av de funderingar jag tog med mig hem till Sverige, Jämtland och mitt skrivbord efter att ha deltagit på SELTA:s seminarium i London i maj.

Jag vet inte varför vi kom att diskutera just sly, de engagerade (passionerade!) översättarna i min workshop-grupp och jag, men jag tror att det var det där med människan och vad som växer både inuti och runt henne som satte igång oss (vi diskuterade ju könsord också … Och små stugor att hyra, mitt bland myggen!). Man kan ju tycka att ett samtal om sly vore enkelt överstökat när det bara rör sig om några enstaka tunna björkar eller några små skott av sälg eller rönn eller kanske alldeles nyfödda små granar på rad, men det visade sig – som så ofta när man har med ord, språk och berättelser att göra – att en hel värld dolde sig i den där slyn.

En värld som har med det vi ser och inte ser att göra. Hos varandra eller i omgivningen.

För mig, som är uppvuxen på den jämtländska landsbygden, är det på något sätt självklart att sly står för en övergiven jordbruksbygd. I en öde trakt låter man slyn härja fritt. Slyn slukar åkrar och tuggar i sig både grusvägar och hela hus, där ingen vill bo längre.

Därför står sly för en sorts sorg, tror jag, i mina berättelser.

Sorg över vad det blev av allting, allt detta liv som en gång levdes.

Men sly är livskraft också – det vet alla som försökt hålla tillbaka sly. Den ger aldrig upp. Du kan såga av den längs med marken och försöka gräva upp rötterna, men den kommer alltid tillbaka. Så fort du tittar åt ett annat håll växer den sig tät och hög.

Den är av naturen obetvinglig. Slyn är imponerande på så sätt.

Och påminner inte så lite om människan.

Och om berättelsen, som alltid letar sig fram.

Jag tog med mig tankarna om sly – översättarnas intressanta diskussion om värdet av att finna exakt rätt ord för sly samt vad ett enskilt litet ord bär med sig av kontext och underförstådd innebörd – hem från London och SELTA-seminariet, rakt in i slutförandet av min kommande roman Krokas. Där döljer sly, träd och buskar tillsammans bokstavligen en människa, men blir också till det som slutligen gör det möjligt för huvudpersonerna att visa medmänsklighet.


Nature in Writing

In early May 2017, SELTA welcomed four Swedish authors to London for two busy days of literary events, Chair Ruth Urbom looks back on the event.

Sooner or later every translator of Swedish literature has to grapple with descriptions of the natural world. Even in books that are not primarily about nature, the Swedish landscape, weather, flora and fauna often appear in the course of the narrative. Just how fluffy or slushy is that snow, and how solid is the ice? What sorts of trees are present in the forest? What kinds of fish are biting in the lake? And how can we translators convey all that to English-speaking readers?

With that theme in mind, SELTA invited four Swedish authors – Göran Bergengren, Jonas Gren, Elin Olofsson and Therése Söderlind – to come to the UK for a two-day programme of translation workshops and other events. All four of these authors are well established in their native Sweden but still unpublished in English. While they work in a variety of genres spanning fiction, poetry, essays and children’s books, they all address the natural world in their writing to a greater or lesser extent.

We were lucky enough to secure a slot in the Free Word Centre’s Wanderlust programme of international literary events. Their ‘speed book clubbing’ format was ideal for giving audience members an opportunity to hear all four authors speak about their work up close. Everyone was seated at four round tables. The authors, each accompanied by a SELTA member who had translated a brief extract from one of their works, introduced themselves and their writing and responded to questions and comments from the group. After around 20 minutes a bell rang out, signalling it was time for the authors and translators to move to the next table and meet a new group of readers. The dynamic format kept interest levels high, and eventually all the groups had a chance to engage with each of the visiting authors. If you missed this exciting event – tickets sold out well in advance! – you can still get a sneak peek at the pieces that were specially translated for the evening on the Free Word Centre website.

The next morning, SELTA members and the authors descended on the Swedish Embassy in London for an intensive day of discussions and talks about writing and translation. First we heard presentations by Elin Olofsson and Therése Söderlind about their novels. Sweden’s rural north figures prominently in the works of both writers. Elin spoke powerfully about the inspiration she derives from the experiences of her own mother and other strong women in her family tree – her foremothers. Therése outlined the in-depth research she did to uncover the true events that led to over 70 people being put to death for witchcraft in the late 17th century. This story forms the core of her second novel, a review of which is available online.

We then split into two groups to analyse and discuss a bundle of translations that participants had prepared of a brief extract from Elin and Therése’s most recent novels. Looking at multiple English versions of a single source text highlights the differences between individual translators’ interpretations and word choices. It also gives us translators a chance to really geek out about fine shades of meaning and to expand our range of translation strategies, learning from the solutions chosen by our colleagues. Elin Olofsson has shared her own reflections on her group’s workshop discussion in a guest post.

The afternoon session began with presentations by Göran Bergengren and Jonas Gren about their work. Göran’s most recent books contain personal, lyrical essays about birds, butterflies and other elements of the natural world, but he has also written many children’s books. He read some brief extracts and commented movingly about the environmental changes he has observed over the years in his role as a naturalist. Jonas treated us to readings of some of his poems, which added a new dimension to our enjoyment of them. In addition to his creative output as a poet, Jonas is on the editorial team at Effekt, a Swedish magazine that focuses on climate and environmental issues. He does more than just talk the talk: having taken the decision to stop flying, Jonas travelled all the way from Stockholm to London by train for this seminar. Göran and Jonas’ presentations were followed by small-group workshop sessions in which we compared participants’ brief translated extracts that had been prepared in advance.

Then it was time to listen to a panel of UK editors who shared their experiences of publishing nature-related books in translation and what they look for in a book when commissioning. Saskia Vogel of SELTA moderated the panel discussion with Laura Barber of Portobello Books, Katharina Bielenberg of MacLehose Press and Luke Neima of Granta Online.

The day concluded with a reception at the Swedish embassy for specially invited publishers and others involved in the UK’s literary scene to chat with the authors and translators over a glass of wine.

The Spring 2018 issue of Swedish Book Review, a literary journal with close ties to SELTA, will feature translated excerpts from these four authors’ works. Let’s hope some enterprising UK publishers will soon snap up their intriguing books and make them available in full to English-speaking readers!

If you’d like to learn more about these four fascinating authors’ works – plus a few more titles from Swedish and Finland-Swedish authors – you can download this PDF brochure.

SELTA is grateful to the Swedish Arts Council and the Anglo-Swedish Literary Foundation for the grants that made it possible to bring the authors over to the UK, to the Embassy of Sweden in London for the use of the seminar venue and staff assistance, and to the Free Word Centre for hosting the public event. My thanks go to Saskia Vogel and Nichola Smalley for their assistance in planning these events and to all the participating authors and translators for contributing to such a thought-provoking and rewarding experience.

By Ruth Urbom

Photo credit: Ian Giles

SELTA Workshop on Children’s and YA Literature 2014

In November 2014, Swedish authors Per Gustavsson, Annelis Johansson, Cilla Naumann and Malte Persson came to London to join SELTA members in a workshop on children’s and young adult literature.

Author and poet Malte Persson joined four other Swedish writers who came to London in November to participate in a day of practical literary translation workshops with SELTA members. Since his literary debut in 2002 with the novel Livet på den här planeten (‘Life on This Planet’), Malte Persson’s output has encompassed fiction, poetry, literary criticism and children’s literature. He has received a number of awards for his work, including the 2012 Tegnér Prize, and was nominated for the prestigious August Prize in 2008 for his novel Edelcrantz förbindelser (‘Edelcrantz’s Relations’). In this guest post, Malte reflects on workshop participants’ various translations of an extract from his 2012 children’s book, Resan till världens farligaste land (‘Journey to the World’s Most Dangerous Land’). The English translation here is by Nichola Smalley.

We Swedes are so used to reading and hearing English that you can start to convince yourself you’re completely fluent in it. That’s wrong, of course. I wish I could translate myself, but every time I try, I have the distinct feeling that my English, even if it should happen to be grammatically correct, doesn’t really sound like normal English. And what’s worse: I have no clue whether it sounds abnormal in a good, intentional way (which even my Swedish does sometimes) or if it just sounds weird.

That’s why we need translators – these often all-too-anonymous wordsmiths at the literary anvils of our ungrateful book market. In any case, discussing and trying to solve translation problems is one of the funnest things I can think of, and it was a privilege to get to take part in SELTA’s seminar on the translation of Swedish children’s and YA literature in London on 7 November this year. The highlight for me was of course the workshop in which I and a group of translators discussed six different versions of an excerpt from Resan til världens farligaste land, a picture book by me and illustrator Rui Tenreiro. Even the title is complicated: ‘The Journey to the World’s Most Dangerous Land’, ‘Journey to the World’s Most Perilous Land’, ‘Journey to the Scariest Land in the World’, or perhaps ‘A Journey to the World’s Most Fearsome Land’… And it just keeps on getting worse.

The book’s fantasy world is full of dangers. After crossing a dangerous sea, you come to a spooky shore, and beyond the shore you find first a forest full of trolls and kidnapped children, and then a dangerous bog, which we can take as an example of the difficulties a translator also encounters during the journey. In Swedish, it says: “I skogen ligger världens värsta träsk / som bubbler brunt som kolaläsk.” And here are the various English translations, which are remarkable not least for the fact that they are so varied:

You’ll find a bog, in all the world the worst,
where bubbles brown as toffee cola burst.

The forest’s swamp is truly deadly,
Bubbling up like a can of Pepsi.

In the forest, the world’s most hideous bog
bubbles brown and dank under odious fog.

In the forest lies the world’s worst blistering bog:
Cola-dark its bubbles rise as from a drowning dog.

Deep in the forest the world’s worst swamp can be found,
like cola pop its brown mud fizzes and bubbles around.

The world’s worst swamp you’ll find there too –
It bubbles up like thick brown stew.

In Swedish, the ‘träsk’ (bog/marsh) bubbles brown like a fizzy drink, but which fizzy drink? There’s a double meaning in the ‘kolaläsk’ – should you be thinking about something in the Coca-Cola genre (‘cola’ in Swedish) or a fizzy drink that tastes like toffee (‘kola’ in Swedish)? This double meaning can’t be reproduced in English. The translators have chosen different alternatives here, or even exchanged the image for another. Personally, I like the creative half-rhyme of ‘Pepsi’ and the addition of ‘like a drowning dog’, which isn’t in the original, but retains its drastic spirit. Exchanging the untranslatable fizzy drink for a ‘thick brown stew’ is totally fine too.

Then we have rhyme and metre – the original is somewhat irregular; some translators have made it even more irregular, others have made it more regular in English. As a fan of Alexander Pope, I wouldn’t have had anything against being translated into ‘heroic couplets’, as in ‘You’ll find a bog…’ But opinions were strongly divided as to which was preferable. It’s safe to say, though, that you can only succeed with a translation like this if you’re daring enough to take pretty big liberties with the original text.

As an author, one can dream of being translated by the joint labours of a great committee of translators, but alas, that’s hardly realistic… and in any case, finding a competent translator is less difficult than finding a publisher prepared to take the risk of publishing a translated book.

Between the presentations and workshops, there was time during the day for informal conversations and a huge amount of sandwiches and cakes. I hope the participating translators found it as rewarding as I did.


Per Gustavsson is a Swedish author and illustrator who travelled to London in November 2014 to take part in SELTA’s event on children’s and young adult (YA) literature. In addition to being a member of the Swedish Academy for Children’s Books, Per has won a number of awards for his work. His most recent prize is the 2014 Elsa Beskow plaque for the year’s best Swedish illustrated children’s book, which he received for Skuggsidan (‘Shadowside’, 2013). In this guest post, Per shares his reflections on the day of workshops and discussions. The English translation here is by Ruth Urbom.

The one thing I miss from my time at school (my education as an illustrator/designer) is the group crits where everybody had to present their own solutions to a given task. I was always amazed at all the solutions I was never anywhere close to. They might not always have been better. But just the fact that they were new ways of looking at the problem was inspiring.

A couple of years ago, a fellow illustrator (Helena Willis) and I worked on a project to write and illustrate a book together. We wrote a story and figured out the pagination, and then we each went off to our own studios to sketch out the book. It was incredibly exciting to see how we had dealt with each double-page spread. Sometimes they turned out eerily similar and other times totally different. The latter cases were the most interesting, of course. The end result was our book Kaninkostymen (‘The Rabbit Costume’, 2015).

It was brilliant to be able to see the translations that people did of my book Måntornet (‘The Moon Tower’, 2014). So many variations. So many possibilities. Some of the translations made me want to revise the Swedish text, because I thought the translation was better than what I had written myself. That’s because whatever the case, I surprise myself all too seldom. I get stuck in old thought patterns. Having access to so many new ways of interpreting a text was hugely inspiring. I’ve always regarded myself as an illustration person. I’ve never been as interested in texts as I am in images. But after my days in London where everything revolved around words, sentences and meanings, I’ve had a textual awakening. I see the texts I’m working on now in a new light. And that’s really inspiring.


Cilla Naumann is one of five award-winning Swedish authors who travelled to London in early November for a day of practical translation workshops and discussions with SELTA members, other translators and postgraduate students. In one of the workshop sessions, participants compared their translations of an extract from Cilla’s young adult novel 62 dagar (‘62 Days’), published in 2011, and discussed the differences in word choice and textual interpretations that emerged from the various translations. Cilla Naumann’s blog post has been translated into English by SELTA member Nichola Smalley.

On 6 November I left a freezing and snowy Stockholm
– and went out in London’s sunshine and into SELTA’s concentrated world.
What’s a ‘tuva’[1]? And what’s a ‘pir’ – jetty or breakwater?
And the squirrel’s tail – how gruesome can it be?
And why all these compound colour nuances? Is ‘vitgrå’ more grey or more white?
And that little word ‘ju’ just can’t be translated. It has to be left in the sentence as is –

On the plane home my unconscious word choices whirring round my head – why did I write this and not that?
And what was that thing about ‘spyflugor’[2] – how could I write green-blue when ‘shimmering’ is so much better?
Hear it: ‘skimrande gröna’. What beautiful Swedish!
Then I dozed off and awoke in Stockholm and the snow was all gone.
Thank you SELTA for two intensive, reflective, productive, fun days.

[1] a clod? a clump? a tussock?
[2] bluebottles/blowflies


An ethnologist by training, Annelis Johansson was twice nominated for the August Prize for Young Writers, a national award for promising Swedish writers aged 16–20. She made her publishing debut with Fågelungar (‘Baby Birds’), a young adult novel, in 2007 and followed that up with two more YA novels. Her most recent book, Herr Fikonhatt och slottet Thoufve (‘Mr Fighat and Castle Thoufve’), just out from Opal in September 2014, marks a new direction in Annelis’ writing as it is aimed at slightly younger readers. The English translation here is by Agnes Broomé.

It’s been a week since I and four other Swedish authors had the honour of participating in SELTA’s Literary Translation Seminar and Workshop in London. Outside the sky is low and grey; the Swedish autumn has descended on us, making it difficult to remember that there even is a sun. It’s back to the grind of everyday again, and my inspiration is sealed away inside the memory of green leaves, brighter days and a body trembling with the joy of spring.

Back in the slow November rhythm of my small town, London feels very far away. Winter is almost here and it’s time to hibernate. I actually think I do my best writing in winter. It’s as though my longing to live breathes life into my words and it’s in the mild light of reflection my stories develop and grow wings.

“It’s a gorgeous day!” my boyfriend exclaims when we wake up and look out the window. His words contain no hint of irony, and suddenly I see the cold, bare trees anew. This is the way November expresses itself. Why not? November has a story to tell too.

We go to the library for some inspiration and to feel the power of the thoughts and words hidden there. My boyfriend studies, reading a text about cures for HIV, and I sit here contemplating words. Words that hold so many things. To be honest, there are days when I can’t make myself go to the library. On occasion I’ve made it here only to immediately leave again. It’s as though the power of the words and the thoughts locked inside them is an energy that sometimes knocks me over. And yet, there are so few of them. Because really, who among us can say there is a language able to explain everything? What sound does a budding wood anemone make when it bends in the breeze, and who can describe what it feels like when the forest hums and tingles and you’re struck by the enormity of the fact that something has existed for aeons of time, while you yourself have only been drawing breath for a fleeting moment. Sometimes I have enviously wished I worked with music, not words, because I somehow believe that notes can speak where words fail. That there is a language beyond words. And yet, words are what I choose to surround myself with.

At SELTA’s seminar the other week it was brought home to me that Swedish is a feeble language. It’s been said that people get terser the further north you go, but it suddenly seemed so ridiculous to me that we northern people have so few nuances to describe the world around us, while the English language seems to be an endless well to draw on. I snuck in during the conversation between a group of translators and the Swedish illustrator and author Per Gustavsson. A lively debate was under way about how to translate the Swedish word “skog”. The contenders seemed to be “forest” or “wood”. The discussion centred on whether a “forest” is darker and scarier than a “wood” and I asked whether maybe a “forest” might be evergreen while “wood” could be predominantly deciduous.

We journeyed on through the text, pausing at the translation of the expression “simsalabim”. Someone had used a brief English rhyme that neither Per nor myself had heard and it seemed like the English language had several different ways of describing a sudden and somewhat surprising event that still falls well short of Harry Potter magic. Per looks to me for support and asks if I can think of an expression for an event of that kind in Swedish, but despite desperate efforts, nothing comes to mind. “Maybe we’re not that magicky in Sweden,” I put in hesitantly, and we share a laugh. The Swedish language feels inadequate. Someone suggests “tada!” and we smile again, because even though “tada!” might be as close as Swedish can get, it doesn’t quite feel like a word; it’s more of a sound. Like something from a speech bubble in an old comic book.

A few hours later it’s time for my own workshop, and I have used the word “rumpa” in my text. The translators put forward a range of suggestions on how to phrase that in English. Words like “bum”, “ass”, “bottom” and “arse” featured. “Bum” is the popular favourite. I have no idea which one is more suitable. We have several words for “rumpa” in Swedish too, but the difference in register of “röv” or “arsle”, for example, seems so great there’s really no need to discuss them. Especially in the context of a children’s book. “Röv” is not a word you often hear coming out of children’s mouths.

The discussion was long and lively and at this very moment, when I’m writing this and realise that I keep reverting to the present tense to express myself, I remember that somebody told me that English children’s books are almost always written in the past tense. As though the past tense sets the right mood for a story and that rich language exists to bring memories to life. A story told in the present tense doesn’t contain within it the considered reflections of the narrator; it bounces along in the here-and-now, with little time for verbosity. Maybe that’s why we’re so feeble in Sweden? Events are habitually retold in the present tense, where memory hasn’t had a chance to add brighter shades to the colours and sharpness to the details. It’s like November. The sea is never bluer, the fields never more golden and the trees never more beautiful than in November. When it happens, when life is in the present tense, those short weeks when the banks of the river are covered with wood anemones, when you’re busy just being and wondering at the enormity of spring returning, year after year, the joy and exultation comes out as a delighted “ahh”. Or “guuuud, vad härligt!” or the almost fully English “shit, vad najs!”. Swedified English loanwords that sound innovative and international but maybe express nothing so much as our inability to put our thoughts into apposite words.

I think about language more and more. I think about how words are tools that make it possible for us to express our inner selves to the outside world. To make ourselves better understood.

A little girl, maybe one year old, has been watching us while we sit reading and writing. She observes, delighted, and her eyes are more alive than ours. She doesn’t have any words yet. Even so, she’s happy and alive, and yet we know that she, like the rest of us, will spend her life mastering language. It’s through words she will explore life and herself.

I’m grateful that I was given the chance to participate in SELTA’s seminar. Grateful to have realised how adept the English language is at expressing exactly what needs to be said, and how impressed I am by all the translators and their ceaseless efforts to strike the right note when words are transformed on their journey to a new country. Imagine, if I had been born in the UK instead! Then I would have had a richer palette to work with. Then my word-painting could have been even more subtle.

“Do you want to go for a fika?” my boyfriend asks, and I look up and smile. Fika would be good. Because when all’s said and done, I’m Swedish. And we always go for fika. So I wrap things up, turn my mind to other things, and finally admit to myself that ultimately, it might be a good thing that I don’t have to make a decision every time I think about “skog” or “rumpa”.