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 All four of these authors are well established in their native Sweden but still unpublished in English.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