To celebrate Women in Translations Month, we chatted with Caroline Waight on translating In Your Orbit from Danish, a YA read written by Lise Villadsen. Scroll down to read our chat with Lise Villadsen about being translated.
Translation isn’t really about words. It’s about culture – and the funny thing about culture is that it’s more or less impossible to translate.
Let me give you an example. In Your Orbit is set at a Danish secondary school, and the plot builds up towards the graduation ceremony at the end of the year. In Denmark, it is traditional for the graduating class to drive around in specially decorated trucks covered in banners (seriously, it’s awesome – google ‘Danish graduation truck’). In English-speaking countries, this requires some explanation. You can’t just throw it out there. The solution? When the topic is first raised in the book, we added in an extra line – the trick is to try and make it so seamless that the reader doesn’t notice anything is being ‘explained’.
Another example: what kind of slang should Astrid use? Should she sound British? American, maybe? She’s neither, of course. She’s Danish – but you can’t use too many Danish words in English, or you rapidly end up back where you started. Our solution was to lean into the kind of globalised internet-speak that teenagers across the planet are generally fluent in.
It’s a balancing act. You want readers to feel engaged, so you have to clarify a few things – but nothing catapults a person out of the reading experience faster than a clunky explanation. You have to walk just the right line. After all, you’re trying to share a new and unfamiliar world with readers – not just a plot, not just characters. You offer hints and explanations when you can, but ultimately – as with any novel, I suppose – you need your reader to take a leap of faith.
Top 5 Books in Translation
Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf
translated from German by Tim Mohr
The tale of an unconventional friendship. Fourteen-year-old social rejects Maik and Andrej embark on an epic road trip across Europe in a battered old Lada Niva – no maps, no preparations, and only the vaguest of plans.
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
translated from Norwegian by Paulette Møller
The book that took the history of philosophy and made it into a bestselling novel. Fourteen-year-old Sophie secretly begins taking philosophy lessons – and soon discovers that her entire world is a lie.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
translated from Swedish by Steven T. Murray
The book that kicked the cult of ‘Scandi-noir’ into overdrive. This dark psychological thriller became an international bestseller and a hugely successful film.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein
Chronicling the friendship between two young women, Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels were a global phenomenon. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the extraordinary series.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
translated from Korean by Deborah Smith
Beautiful, weird, horrifying – The Vegetarian is the story of Yeonge-hye, an ‘unremarkable’ woman who rebels against her stultifying surroundings in an unexpected way.
I am sitting in Denmark, and yet I am on another continent, in another culture, led there by a stranger’s words …
This is the magic of storytelling and the privilege of being alive in a time with access to translated literature: We can explore how life is lived and how stories are told in other cultures, in other parts of the world and by voices we would never even know existed if it was not for translation.
It is actually a rather funny thing to be translated. It is your story – only it is not. Because in order to make the leap from one language to another, the book needs a bridgebuilder: the translator. And the most delicate job for the translator is to make sure the reader will not sense that the book was originally written in another language. The translation is so much more than just words and sentences. It is about rhythm, tone and authenticity. A book well-translated will take us as far as the other side of the planet without even a bump on the road – at least none noticeable on the pages.
My top 5 translated books:
Exile – Africa Trilogy by Jakob Ejersbo
translated from Danish by Mette Petersen
This late author has written a harsh testimony about the African continent with focus on neo-colonial privilege and a youth driven by drugs, sex and adrenaline. The novel is partly inspired by the author’s own upbringing in Africa.
Crazy by Benjamin Lebert
translated from German by Carol Brown Janeway
This partly autobiographical coming-of-age-novel is written by an only 16-years-old author. It is both funny and moving and shows life from the perspective of a teenage boy with a disability. I highly recommend it for teenagers and adults alike!
Mirror, shoulder, signal by Dorthe Nors
translated from Danish by Misha Hoekstra
This is a quiet, funny story about loneliness and how no man nor woman is an island. Dorthe Nors’ writing always leaves me wiser and more optimistic about humanity.
You disappear by Christian Jungersen
translated from Danish by Misha Hoekstra
A woman discovers that her husband is ill with a brain tumor. But could the tumor be the whole explanation for her husband’s strange and transgressive behavior? Every time I read a book by Jungersen, I feel like I am reading a suspense-novel, but a philosophical one!
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
This quiet and comic little novel makes a sharp point about society and the pressure to be normal. A woman, single and childless, finds it hard to fit into her family’s expectations and the social norms. She finds purpose and peace by working in a convenience store. A thought-provoking and beautiful novel.