Translators in the news

SELTA members Sarah Death and Ian Giles were both interviewed recently for blog posts.

Sarah Death was interviewed by The Book Trail for Women in Translation Month in August. The Book Trail blog looks at the locations in which books are set so besides a great interview with Sarah, you also get maps showing the locations of the novels, in this case, Hagar Olsson’s Chitambo (Helsinki), Ellen Mattson’s Snow (Uddevalla) and Selma Lagerlöf’s The Saga of Gösta Berling (Värmland), for Read the interview here.

In July, Ian Giles was interviewed by Cath Jenkins of Norvik Press. Read his interview on small publishers and the impact of Brexit on the publishing industry here.

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 Symbiotic Relationship between Editor and Translator

In June 2019, SELTA member Tom Ellett attended a workshop run by the Association of Danish-English Literary Translators (DELT).

DELT, the recently formed association for Danish to English literary translators, organised a very successful (and welcome) event in Scotland in late June. Sponsored by the Danish Arts Foundation, the event took place at the University of Edinburgh and was hosted by the Scandinavian Studies section of the Department of European Languages and Cultures.

As professional development opportunities for Scandinavian translators are a rare occurrence north of the Border, I was sorry that a prior engagement prevented me from attending the first part of the event, a hands-on translation and editing workshop. By all accounts, this seems to have been a fascinating and productive experience, even for translators working mainly from Swedish and Norwegian rather than Danish.

I made it to Edinburgh in time for the second part of the event, a panel discussion on the symbiotic relationship between editors and translators. The proceedings were ably chaired by Kari Dickson, a prolific Norwegian to English translator based in Edinburgh, and there were three panel members: James Robertson, a Scots author, translator and publisher; Carolina Orloff, founder and editor of Charco Press, an Edinburgh publisher specialising in translations of Latin American literature; and Daniel Hahn, a writer, editor, translator from Portuguese, Spanish and French, and former chair of the Society of Authors and the Translators Association.

Kari Dickson got the discussion under way by noting that she loves both editing and being edited. The panel members agreed that they had learned from being on both sides of the editing process – both from having a fresh pair of eyes review their own work, and from editing the work of other translators and seeing how they had tackled various challenges.

Editor as beta tester

The consensus was that good editors do not try to impose their own style on the translation, by rewriting every sentence as they would have translated it, but make only those changes that are strictly necessary to eliminate errors and infelicities. Daniel Hahn drew a memorable analogy with the software development business, describing the editor as a ‘beta reader’. One of the best editors he had worked with had once told him (and I paraphrase): ‘All I’m saying is that I noticed this, and this, and this … and if I noticed these things, the chances are that other readers will too.’

A regular collaboration arrangement where two translators working in the same language pair review and edit each other’s work is perhaps the gold standard. James Robertson cited the example of his partnership with Matthew Fitt, his co-founder at Itchy Coo, an imprint publishing books in Scots for children and young adults. James considered himself prone to taking excessive liberties with the source text, which would be reined in by Matthew at the editing stage. Conversely, when Matthew as translator had taken an overly conservative approach, James as editor would encourage him to think outside the box.


Carolina Orloff remarked that editors were the invisible, unsung heroes of the publishing business. While translators as a profession had managed to win greater recognition for their work in recent years, it was still rare for editors to be credited. Daniel Hahn said this was why the TA First Translation Prize, which he had established in 2017, was to be shared between the translator and their editor.

On the perennial question of whether the editor needs to know the source language, the panellists’ opinions and experiences varied. Bilingual editors were naturally more likely to pick up on any misunderstandings of the source text, but might be more inclined to unnecessary rewriting to make the translation more ‘faithful’. Monolingual editors, focused wholly on the reader’s experience in the target language, might be more alert to infelicities resulting from source language interference.

In an amusing digression on the subject of editors’ foreign language skills, James Robertson mentioned that commissioning editors and rights agents from other European countries tended to be more receptive than their English colleagues to the idea of publishing translations into Scots – perhaps because they had encountered other examples of closely related but distinct languages in regions such as Scandinavia and the Iberian peninsula.

Pre-empt questions

Although the panel’s experiences of editing and being edited were generally positive, they also shared a few horror stories. Daniel Hahn said that, when he delivers a translation, he also sends a covering letter or email in which he explains his choice of voice, register and vocabulary, and his approach to any particular challenges the translation has thrown up. This helps to pre-empt some questions and overzealous editing, and may reduce the risk of being paired with an incompatible editor.

After an hour and a half of free-flowing discussion, it was time to vacate the room. The panellists and most of the 35 audience members adjourned to the adjacent hallway for refreshments, networking and more lively conversations about translation and editing.

DELT’s own blog post about the event can be read here.

Q&A with the founder of DENT – the Danish equivalent of SELTA

We were joined at our AGM on 3 November 2017 by two representatives from the nascent Association of Danish-English Literary Translators – or DELT – who came to observe SELTA at work. Ian Giles reports on our discussion with the founder and current Chair of DELT, Ellen Kythor.

SELTA: Hello there! Tell us how DELT got started… And what’s your role in this?

EK: Hello and thank you for inviting me and Lindy Falk van Rooyen to the SELTA AGM this year to introduce ourselves and learn from SELTA! I’m the recipient of the first UCL Impact PhD Studentship in Danish-English Translation, co-sponsored by UCL and Statens Kunstråds Litteraturudvalg (The Danish Arts Council’s Committee for Literature). Part of the ‘impact’ element of my PhD is that I’ve been given the remit to set up a new network for Danish into English literary translators, as one did not exist.

I started the PhD in UCL’s Scandinavian Studies department in Autumn 2013 and soon hosted a few initial meetings for translators in London and Copenhagen to run through the options for online networks and find out what they would find useful. The result of these discussions was that we identified the need for two separate online spaces: a (closed) network for translators to communicate and form a group identity, and a public website as the online presence of this network, to provide information to interested people about the network, its members, their work, and other useful resources. So in mid 2014 I launched our Google+ Community and the website

Now after a few years of DELT meetings and events in London, Denmark, and the USA, we have started the process of formalising the network by establishing a committee and constitution. The voluntary ‘working committee’, of which I am Chair, has had two meetings this year and I’m very excited that the energy and expertise of enthusiastic translators is being channelled into ensuring the future of the network!

SELTA: In what ways is DELT different to SELTA?

EK: There are similarities and we have found so much inspiration from SELTA, but the first key difference is that DELT is open to all literary translators of Danish into English worldwide – that is, there is no separate network in North America (unlike SELTA’s counterpart STiNA), and the joining criteria at the moment are that established and emerging translators of Danish literary texts into English are welcome to join at any stage in their career. DELT is independent and unlike SELTA at present receives no regular funding or stipends, though we are eligible to apply to the Danish Arts Foundation’s Pulje for oversætternetværk for our meetings and events. In addition, at this stage we do not have a publication, though we eye Swedish Book Review with respect and envy and are making plans to develop an online publication once DELT is more firmly established!

SELTA: What is the hardest thing about setting up a brand new translators’ network?

EK: On reflection, it has been a very gradual process, partly owing to my other commitments (for instance, I am of course researching and writing my PhD on the dissemination of Danish literature in the UK!) and in trying to find where this network fits for its members around existing networks (such as the Society of Authors’ Translators’ Association or Danish equivalent Dansk Oversætterforbund).

SELTA: And the best thing?

EK: Meeting so many passionate people! All the translators I’ve met are infectiously keen on what they do. It is great to see the connections and friendships developing from creating such a network which simply didn’t exist before. On a personal level, the network has been a fantastic boon for my PhD research as I’m writing about the publishers, authors, funders, and translators who participate in bringing contemporary Danish literature to the UK, and translators have been so generous in giving me insight into this world.

SELTA: What opportunities do you see for future co-operation between DELT and other organisations like SELTA or the TA?

EK: Joint events and workshops certainly! For instance, it would be fantastic to set up a joint seminar day or similar in the not-too-distant future for literary translators of all the Scandinavian languages to network and learn together.

SELTA: Know any good jokes?

EK: My five-year-old’s current favourite: what’s orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot!

SELTA: Well that’s about it then… Thank you Ellen Kythor, DELT Chair.

This post was amended on 5 January 2018 to reflect the fact that shortly after this interview, DENT was renamed as DELT.

We also note that since this interview SELTA has voted to accept membership applications from Swedish to English translators worldwide.

Northern Noir in London

In October 2017 several SELTA members attended In from the Cold: Northern Noir, a symposium on northern crime writing, translating crime fiction and criticism. Fiona Graham reports back.

At In from the Cold, attendees heard interviews with crime writers and gained an insight into translating crime fiction from Norwegian in a workshop and a translation slam. Fiona Graham gives an account of Henry Sutton’s workshop on Purpose and prose in the modern crime novel.

Committing crimes… to paper

What makes a good crime novel?

As a seasoned practitioner of the genre he calls ‘North Sea Noir’, Henry Sutton is well versed in the essential components of today’s crime fiction. The features he highlighted in his workshop, ‘Purpose and prose in the modern crime novel’, are of as much interest to translators hoping to surf the Nordic crime wave as they are to aspiring Highsmiths and Chandlers.

So what are those magical ingredients? Henry began by distinguishing between story and plot, the second of which introduces causality. Thus ‘The king died, then the queen died’ is a story, whereas ‘The king died, then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. And ‘The king died, then the queen died. No-one knew why, until it was discovered that she had been suffering from grief’ is a plot with suspense. A plot requires an element of risk or conflict that must be resolved. As John Le Carré put it, ‘The cat sat on the mat’ isn’t a plot – but ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is. The novel needs to start by establishing a situation with an element of tension, which may be slow-burning; a good example is Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.

Character, motivation and setting are bound up with one another. To build a sense of impending menace, the writer needs to enter the mind of her characters and create convincing motives for the way they act – be it as perpetrator or detective. Here, a sense of authenticity is more important than absolute accuracy. As for the setting, Henry argues that it should be observed and depicted through the eyes of the characters. It is the subjective view that catches and grips the reader’s attention. As with travel writing, what interests the reader is not so much an accurate description of place and period, but the perceptions of a particular individual.

Since crime novels are plot-driven, a well-crafted structure is essential. Henry recommended that new writers plan the structure carefully before starting to write. More experienced writers, too, need to have a good idea of the direction the plot is going to take; between 58% and 62% should be established in the writer’s mind from the outset. (Quite how the writer might quantify this remained a mystery!) Then there is the question of how to narrate the story: will the narrative be linear, will the story take place at different time levels that intersect at some point, will it include flashbacks, what length of time will it cover – a day, a week, a year?

And here we come to pace and suspense, those vital ingredients of a gripping crime novel. Henry pointed out that advances in forensic science and technology have put modern crime fiction under ever-increasing time pressure. When Sjöwall and Wahlöö were writing their famous Martin Beck series, they didn’t have to contend with DNA analysis, computer databases or Internet, and solving a crime could credibly take far longer. Today the pace is relentless, and it tends to accelerate as the novel progresses, building up more and more tension. The crime novel should be tightly written, with no superfluous material. Every scene should advance the plot. As for suspense, the key technique is to pose questions – and postpone the answers for a long time.

Finally, Henry stressed that the crime novel must, above all, be entertaining. To do this, it must engage the reader, mainly by creating believable and intriguing characters and arousing strong emotions. What stays with the reader long after he has forgotten the details of the plot is the impression of the characters whose minds he has inhabited. The novel also offers intellectual pleasures; be it a whodunnit or a ‘whydunnit’, it demands the reader’s focused attention and deductive powers. Trying to outsmart the fictional detective is particularly enjoyable.

Though Henry’s workshop was designed primarily for crime writers, it also provided plenty of food for thought to all those of us who are tempted by the idea of translating ‘Scandi-crime’. Creating believable characters in an atmospheric setting, and maintaining pace, tension and suspense, after all, call for narrative skills of a very high order.

By Fiona Graham

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 member Annie Prime is, among many other things, the English translator of Finland-Swedish writer Maria Turtschaninoff. In this blog, Annie reflects on the 2016 FILI translators-in-residence and getting to know your author.

“Last year I helped triple the sales of Finnish books to foreign publishers. Next year I’m going to increase it ten-fold.” Literary agent Elina Ahlbäck’s Helsinki office is decorated with pink tulips that match her flawless nails and signature magenta jacket. She offers me fresh melon and dates as we discuss the future of Maria Turtschaninoff’s Red Abbey Chronicles in the UK, USA and beyond. Elina is impressive to the point of formidable and I do not doubt her one bit when she tells me of her ambitions. It is a good time to be involved in Finnish literature. My stay in Helsinki was generously funded by FILI, the Finnish Literature Exchange, who are also ablaze with plans to encourage the translation and propagation of Finnish literature. So much so, in fact, that they are trying to encourage me to learn Finnish – of which I know exactly three words, if you don’t count sauna.

I was lucky enough to spend time with two of the bastions of Finnish to English literary translation, Owen Witesman and David Hackston. Lunch with them gave me an invaluable insight into the small world of Finnish literary translation. Their numbers do not go into double figures, and they seem to be flooded with work. This starts me thinking that perhaps I should make efforts to study Finnish, though there is very little that looks welcoming about the language, beautiful though its bobbing melody is.

But back to where my strengths lie, namely translation from Swedish, it is a fortuitous coincidence that I am here to witness the birth of brand new publishing house Förlaget, which I suspect is destined for great things. It is partially funded by Tove Jansson’s family and the Moomin characters brand who are on a mission to promote Finland-Swedish literature specifically. The director, Fredrik Rahka, is just as impressive and trustworthy as you hope a Moomin representative would be. It is a good time to be involved in Finland-Swedish literature.

During my residency I was housed on the six-island sea fortress of Suomenlinna. Built in 1748 as a Swedish maritime fortress, Suomenlinna was later occupied by the Russians then used as a Finnish naval base before becoming a world heritage site in the 20th century. It is currently a residential community and global tourist attraction. Suomenlinna has been the ideal environment to get lost in Maria Turtschaninoff’s far-off, pre-industrial fantasy world. It is an island like no other, covered in centuries-old ruins, stone-walled chambers, dark passages, rocky shores and ancient cannons. Store rooms with low doors under mounds of earth like Hobbit homes. Footbridges over partially frozen inlets. The otherworldly sense of living history is incredible. It is a place for stories to come to life.

This has been especially fitting for working on Naondel, the second novel in the Red Abbey Chronicles. It is a story of castle-building and sea-faring in a forgotten age, where sacred sites offer profound magical powers. The first novel Maresi is actually set on an island fortress, the eponymous Red Abbey, a refuge for girls and women fleeing lives of cruelty and servitude, and a powerhouse for knowledge and female community. I would not be surprised if Suomenlinna was Maria’s inspiration for this island world, at least on an unconscious level.

Naondel is the prequel and follows the lives of the First Sisters, the founders of the Red Abbey, before they come to the island. It is the story of the lives of women: their ordeals and suffering; the often tragic consequences of the injustice they have to endure; and the strength it takes to overcome and fight back. The characters of this book are an incredible example of the Finnish notion of sisu (grit, guts, hardiness) with which I have recently become acquainted.

 Naondel is the prequel and follows the lives of the First Sisters, the founders of the Red Abbey, before they come to the island. It is the story of the lives of women: their ordeals and suffering; the often tragic consequences of the injustice they have to endure; and the strength it takes to overcome and fight back. The characters of this book are an incredible example of the Finnish notion of sisu (grit, guts, hardiness) with which I have recently become acquainted.

Though the women in the story come from disparate cultures, all of which belong exclusively to the fantasy reality in which they live, their stories are representative and reflective of the tragic lives lived by many women past and present. Often difficult to read, the book makes no attempt to sugarcoat harsh realities, and yet offers such a profoundly empathetic vision of struggle, and such a realistic reality of natural magic, that the reader cannot help but be uplifted. It is a real privilege to be trusted with the English words that will go some way to recreating Maria’s magical world and reanimating the characters she has made so real.

When I haven’t been translating Naondel and appreciating the profound peace and silence of a snow-quilted island, I have had a chance to meet some wonderful people in Helsinki, including several publishers and agents from Finland and abroad at FILI’s publishing event on my first week.

But best of all, I had a chance to spend time with ‘my’ author, Maria Turtschaninoff, and turn our business relationship into a genuine and enduring friendship. I have gone from studying her work at university, to becoming her official English translator, to playing Lego with her son on their living room floor. What could be better.


Photo: Annie Prime

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”.