2 April 09 | Chad W. Post

Nordic Voices is an interesting addition to the lit blog world. Run by three British literary translators (who combined translate from Finnish, Swedish, Russian, and Estonian), the goal of the blog is to bring more attention to Nordic literature (beyond the thrillers) and related translation issues. The site is still relatively new, but the early posts are really interesting, well thought out, and unique.

One post that caught my eye was an excerpt from Eric Dickens’s translation of Thomas Warburton’s memoirs about translating. (According to Warburton, he’s translated more than 30,000 pages from Finnish and English into Swedish.) Warburton uses his translations of novelist Mika Waltari as a launching point to get into a greater translation/editing issue and a description of a certain type of editorial assistant:

Waltari used to claim that he had a tendency to write too much and be unable to excise things from the text. He said that he was therefore grateful for any suggestions for abridgements from his translators and editors, and would nearly always accept them completely. All his later voluminous novels have thus been abridged by about five, six or an even higher percent each.

This kind of editing is, no doubt, more common than you would believe, and there are many foreign authors who are not even aware that something has happened to their books in translation. Similar, if not worse, things have happened with our books when published abroad, when we have managed to check up.

Obviously, such a practice is completely unacceptable and comes quite close to an arrogation of the rights of the author. But the law is vague on that score and tends to allow changes that do not alter the artistic merit or aim of a work. [. . .]

One of these [types of editorial assistants] is – or was, as the variant has surely vanished by now – what you could term the normaliser. He was a proponent of the theory that all books should sound as if they had been written in the target language, Swedish in this case, and why not make it the Swedish of Stockholm, just for good measure. That’s his problem. But such an editor will then go on to think that it becomes pretty unpleasant for the reader to come across rare or difficult words and expressions, however Swedish they may be. These words have to be simplified and aligned. Here, the fact that the original author may have wanted to express himself in an unusual way, even in a convoluted or stilted manner, is no excuse. You have to explain what he really means. – This problem area is adjacent to another: have you the right to improve the text, however tempting this may be, without consulting the author? No, you haven’t.

Not sure that I agree that “the normaliser” really has vanished from the publishing scene, but I agree that translations should contains some “strange” phrasings . . .


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