The Mouse that Roared (in Different Dialects)

To mark the publication of The Train Mouse, here’s a slightly edited version of an article I wrote for the ITI Bulletin, which first appeared in their January-February edition (please consider buying it from an independent bookshop in these challenging times!):

When I started work on translating The Train Mouse by Uwe Timm, and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, for Andersen Press last spring, it became clear that one of the major issues was going to be Wilhelm, a country mouse from Basel who speaks in a strong Swiss dialect. Particularly since this was a children’s book, we needed to avoid sounding snobby or prejudiced against any particular race or class, while – as a parent and thus a “reader-aloud” – I also wanted to avoid sustained comedy voices and being forced to work out how to pronounce things!

From Switzerland to Swaffham

I considered, and discussed with colleagues, attempting to replicate a Swiss accent in English, telling readers that he speaks with a strong accent (or in dialect) and leaving it to their imagination, dropping in occasional non-standard bits of English, putting everything he says in italics or a different font.

In the end, after consulting the publisher, we settled on a Norfolk dialect for Wilhelm as a nod towards the place where I’ve lived all my adult life and to give him a very distinct sound that would be less well-known to most English-speaking readers than a standard Mummerset-type clichéd accent. So far, so good, but could I pull it off? I then turned to the internet to find Norfolk glossaries, phrasebooks and even a site ( that would supposedly convert standard English into Broad Norfolk.

The next challenge was understanding the Swiss, which required the assistance of a Twitter friend, who translated it into standard German for me. Here is an example which shows how different the three can be:

Swiss: »Do kömme mer nie uuse. Die Glaswänd sin so glatt und viil z hoch. Mir bliibe s ganz Läbe lang do dinne hogge«, sagte Wilhelm traurig.

Standard German: „Da kommen wir nie raus. Die Glaswände sind so glatt und viel zu hoch. Wir werden das ganze Leben lang hier drinnen sitzen bleiben.“

Standard English: “We’ll never get out of here. The glass walls are so smooth and far to high. We’ll spend our whole lives sitting in here.”

Versions, revisions and new versions

The consistent grammatical forms of Norfolk include the loss of the “s” ending in the third person, the use of “that” instead of “it”, and what Wikipedia calls “a wider range of uses and meanings” for the word “do”.

So I translated Wilhelm’s first long speech in the book as:

“thass just a fairy-tale. Per’aps that used to be like that but it’s all machines do that now. There’s no rume f’r us meezen now. Y’know … Swisserland’s no country for meezen. That’s all too neat and tidy.”

It met with broad approval, so I was emboldened to carry on with this approach. Wilhelm illustrates the extreme orderliness of Switzerland by pointing out a woman dropping a chip and immediately picking it up to put in the bin. »Gsesch« he says, which I tried out as: “Do you look,”. Similarly, »Wenn mes gnau nimmt«, sagte Wilhelm, »git’s Brotschnyde für uns Müs nüt här,« might come out as “Do you look at it like that,” said Wilhelm, “cuttin’ bread ent much good for us meezen.”

However, the publisher felt that these forms would be too confusing for younger readers, as would spellings like “hare” for “here”. A peculiarity of this project is that the translation is aimed at a younger age group than the original German – Andersen Press feels, with justification, that the Axel Scheffler illustrations will mean that the book will be bought for younger children (demonstrating yet again, the role played by publishers, parents, teachers and other book buyers as gatekeepers between children and translated books). Consequently, we ended up aiming for more of an accent than a true dialect. The obscure but lovely “meezen” was dropped in favour of “moice” ; the use of “do” for “if” (do you look at it like that), “let’s” (do we go!) or an imperative (Do you watch!) was dropped altogether; but, by contrast, the use of “that” for “it” was increased as it’s a readily-comprehensible but distinctive usage: “Per’aps that used to be like that…”

So my final version for that first example is:

“Oh,” said Wilhelm, “thass just a fairy-tale. Per’aps that used to be like that but it’s all machines that do that now. There’s no room for us moice. Y’know,” he went on, ‘Switzerland’s no country for moice. It’s all too neat and tidy.”

More rodents, more dialects, more dilemmas

Wilhelm wasn’t the end of the story, however. In the course of their travels, Nibbles (originally Mausebiber – mouse-beaver – a name which caused a good deal of anguish in itself) and Wilhelm travel to Paris, where they meet a French mouse. He basically speaks standard German, with a few words of French dropped in, which made him fairly straightforward to translate. They then end up coming to Britain with a circus. Here, the ringmaster addresses the audience in a mixture of English and German:

»Ladies and Gentlemen, ich habe the Pleasure, Ihnen a very famous Number anzusagen. Eine Number, die die Naturgesetze außer Kraft setzt. Die den berühmten Mister Newton widerlegt. Undenkbar, aber doch wahr, was Sie jetzt gleich sehen werden. Zwanzig Mäuse ziehen eine Katze.«

My first attempt:

Meine Damen und Herren, Ladies and Gentlemen, ich habe the pleasure to present to you a very famous Nummer. A Nummer that defies the laws of nature, that denies the work of the famous Herr Newton. Incredible but true, what you are about to see. A Katze pulled around the ring by twenty Mäuse.”

Again, the editor preferred again to emphasise the accent, so the final version is this:

“And then Mr Salambo entered the ring and declared in English with a strong accent, ‘Meine Damen und Herren, Ladies and Gentlemen, I have ze pleasure to present to you a very famous act. An act that defies ze laws of nature, zat denies ze vork of ze famous Zir Isaac Newton. Incredible but true, what you are about to see. A cat pulled around ze ring by twenty mice.’”

And finally, the mice have the opportunity to get back to Germany. While they are waiting in the port for a ship, they hear some sailors speaking Plattdeutsch (Low German) and follow them to a ship bound for Hamburg, where they meet a rat, who also speaks in Platt. (Here we also have the problem of swearing in children’s books – “Schiet” being “Scheiße”, being “shit” and therefore unacceptable, and an unworkable pun – “Landratten” – “land rats” – “landlubbers” – as well as the dialect.) What to do this time?

One option for the rat was Mockney, but it didn’t sit right with Hamburg to me. Would Geordie, Scouse or Scottish be possible? Or would they locate the speakers too strongly in the wrong location? With the help of Kim Sanderson I tried a Geordie version.

The original: Der eine sagte: »Watn Schiet hier.« Und der andere sagte: »Jo. Watn Glück, in twee Doog kümmt wi no Hamburg.« … »Wat mokt ji denn hier«, raunzte die Ratte. […] »Verschwindet ünd en beten snell, dat Schip is för üns«, sagte die Ratte, »dat is nix för Landratten.« … »De Ös, verdammichnochmol, son Schiet.«

My attempt at a London accent: One evening, we heard two men who walked right past our hiding place. One said: “Cor, it’s a dump ‘ere ain’t it?” And the other said: “Yeah. Fank ‘eavens we’ll be back in ‘amburg the day after termorra.” […] “Wot’re you lot doin’ ‘ere?” grumbled the rat.

“We want to get to Hamburg and then on to Munich,” I said. “Gerraht of it, ‘n’ quick abaht it, this ship is aahs,” said the rat. “This ain’t no place for landlubbers.” / “Landlubbers,” said Wilhelm, “thass a lud a ole squit, we’re meezen!” […] For a while, we heard the ship rat digging around in the wheat, cursing: “filfy l’il beggars, cor blimey, blummin’ ‘eck…”

And the Geordie: One said: “Why, it’s propa clarty/a reet shambles/a midden heor!” And the other said: “Aye, it is an’ aall. Wuh’ll be back in Hamburg the day after themorra, but.”  … “Wot yous deein heor, like?” grumbled the rat. “We want to get to Hamburg and then on to Munich,” I said. “Haddaway man, sharpish, it’s wor ship this!” said the rat. “It’s not for yous landlubbers.” […] “Dorty beggars! Blimmin eck, well ah nivvor…”

We decided that Newcastle did work as an appropriately Northern port city, but again toned it down in favour of a hint of an accent.

Revised Geordie version: One said, ‘Why, it’s proper dirty here.’ And the other said, ‘Aye, it is an’ all. Wu’ll be back in Hamburg the day after themorra, though.’ … ‘What are youse doing here?’ grumbled the rat. ‘We want to get to Hamburg and then on to Munich,’ I said. ‘Beat it, sharpish, this is our ship,’ said the rat. ‘It’s not for youse landlubbers.’ / ‘Landlubbers!’ said Wilhelm. ‘Thass a load o’ old nonsense, we’re moice!’ … For a while, we heard the ship rat digging around in the wheat, cursing and muttering: ‘Dirty beggars, blimey, blimmin’ ’eck…’

Final version: the role of the reader

In the final text, we ended up with a version where the dialects weren’t entirely consistent, which as the translator I would have ideally liked them to be. But then again few of us speak exactly the same way in every situation. It comes down a lot to how much work the reader should be expected to do – a lot in the German case, rather less in the English. What I do hope we’ve done is manage to fulfil the aims of making the voices distinctive but non-patronising and to hint at accents rather than to force parents or teachers to do too many comedy voices! In the end, it’s up to the reader to decide.

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September is World Kid Lit Month

Following on from August as Women in Translation Month comes September, now World Kid Lit Month, so here again is a list of 10 recommendations from me. I thought this list would be easy to write as I’ve written a lot of reviews in the past, but I didn’t want to include things where the translator was unknown or uncredited, or too many by the same people, or too many that I haven’t read myself, and to include a good mix of languages and age groups etc. so it was more of a challenge than I expected!

Apple Cake and Baklava by Kathrin Rohmann, tr. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Apple Cake and Baklava by Kathrin Rohmann, tr. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (Darf Publishers, 2018): the story of the friendship between Leila and Max – Leila is the new girl in Max’s class at school in Germany, and a refugee from the war in Syria. The story works really well as an opening to talk about some difficult issues and emotions. It deals with friendship, loneliness and homesickness and touches lightly on people-smuggling, war and the dangers faced by refugees. The recipes at the end are a nice touch too.

Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head

Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head by Stella Dreis and Daniel Hahn (Phoenix Yard Books, 2012): this is a not-exactly-a-translation, a new English text by Danny to match “the fun and eccentricity of the pictures … a faithful translation of what I found in the pictures, rather than in the Portuguese words”. Find out what happens when the other villagers try to discover the source of Miss Jolly’s amazing happiness.


Press Here  by Hervé Tullet,  tr. Christopher Franceschelli, plays on the fact that all small children like pressing buttons and making things happen. It starts with a yellow dot and the instruction to “press here” and as you go through the pages, more buttons appear, the lights go on and off, the shapes are shaken up, slide down the page and so on.


Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, tr. Anthea Bell (Chicken House, 2003): what would happen if villains who are normally safely confined within the parameters of their stories – where they are frightening enough, but harmless – could step out of the pages into reality? This is one for older children and teens. 12-year-old Meggie is an appealing character with strength and courage, and a love of books – something that shines through the story as a whole. (First in a trilogy, of which I haven’t read the other two…)


See also the Dragonrider series by the same author and translator: the story of a dragon named Firedrake, a brownie named Sorrel and a boy named Ben. Together they set off on an epic journey to find the long-lost valley where the last dragons can live in peace, undisturbed by human greed.

Little Red Hood by Marjolaine Leray, tr. Sarah Ardizzone, Phoenix Yard: a retelling, or reimagining, of Little Red Riding Hood.  Both story and illustrations are pared down to the bare bones, making it deceptively simple. Little Red Hood is a scribble and a couple of lines, yet she has a huge depth of character and no intention of being eaten. Sarah Ardizzone’s text also perfectly captures the stubbornness of a small girl and the way children can throw you off course with a single well- or ill-timed personal observation.


The Letter for the King, by Tonke Dragt, tr. Laura Watkinson, Pushkin Children’s: a Dutch classic for 50 years finally available in English. A story of knights, chivalry and adventure that grips from the first page to the last, taking in friendship, loyalty and questions of what really matters in life. See also the sequel, The Secrets of the Wild Wood.


The Adventures of Shola, by Basque author Bernardo Atxaga, tr. Margaret Jull Costa, illus. Mikel Valverde, was so popular with Son 2 that he wanted to dress up as Shola for World Book Day one year… These are charming stories about a little dog with attitude, opinionated yet lovable and with big ideas.

As the boys are getting older, there are more books they read that I haven’t read myself…

Son 1 enjoyed the Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder series by Jo Nesbo, tr. Don Bartlett (Simon & Schuster) – the title pretty much speaks for itself. Humour and fart jokes for middle grade readers.


He was also (more recently) totally gripped by The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius, tr. Peter Graves (Pushkin Children’s 2017), reviewed here by Book Trust:

Sally Jones is an engineer and loyal friend to Captain Koskela. She’s also an ape – and though she can’t talk, she’s smarter than a lot of people.

When Koskela is falsely accused of murder, Sally finds herself on her own in Lisbon, a beautiful city that is full of people that fear her. Fortunately, she finds fada-singer Ana and a local café owner to help her follow the clues to unravel the mystery surrounding who framed Koskela.

A brilliant adventure with a wonderful main character in Sally, The Murderer’s Ape is rich with lovable multi-dimensional characters that feel like family, and a European setting full of warmth and community. The black-and-white illustrations lend an extra hint of detail and luxury to this book, which has already won great acclaim.

Highly recommended as a book to share at bedtime, as it has plenty of appeal for adults, or for confident readers of ten or older, as it is quite long.

Finally, here are some lists of new and forthcoming children’s and YA books in translation to look out for: New in 2019: Global Children’s and Young Adult Books in English Translation

New in 2017 and 2018: Children’s Books Translated into English

And an article focused on books from German: World Kid Lit: Diversity and Translation in Children’s Publishing, which features my own translation of Zippel: The Little Keyhole Ghost by Alex Rühle, illustrated by Axel Scheffler (Andersen Press), which will be out in October. All these sound great too: A Tiger Like Me by Michael Engler, illustrated by Joëlle Tourlonias and translated by Laura Watkinson (Amazon Crossing Kids); The Magic Story Shop by Katja Frixe, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (Oneworld/Rock the Boat); A History of the World with the Women Put Back In by Kerstin Lücker and Ute Daenschel, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Jessica West (The History Press); Castle in the Clouds by Kerstin Gier, translated by Romy Fursland (Macmillan); and Nobody Can Stop Don Carlo by Oliver Scherz, translated by Deirdre McMahon.

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Women in Translation Month 2019: 10 Books

Looking back through my blog for this, I see that Women in Translation Month is one thing that has prompted a regular post (once a year is regular!) in recent years. This year, it seems to have really taken off on Twitter and in real life, with booksellers and publishers getting on board, as well as bloggers and translators. I’ve been asked to put together a list of ten recommendations by women in translation for our lovely local independent book shop, Kett’s Books. So here they are, in no particular order. They are, like Jane Austen’s History of England “partial, prejudiced and ignorant” – by which I mean that they reflect my tastes, what I’ve read, the people and languages I know, and so on. I am aware that they are very European and that there is a whole wealth of other writing by women out there, but I am ignorant of much of it. So here we are:

A Modern Family by Helga Flatland, tr. Rosie Hedger, Orenda Books: a slim and enthralling novel about the shockwaves that ripple through a family when Liv, Ellen and Hakon arrive in Rome with their partners and children to celebrate their father’s 70th birthday, and their parents unexpectedly announce their intention to divorce. It cleverly shows you the same events from different viewpoints, mainly those of Liv and Ellen, and sweeps you up in its spell. I didn’t want it to end.

Soft in the Head by Marie-Sabine Roger, tr. Frank Wynne, Pushkin Press: a joyous story of an unusual and touching friendship between functionally illiterate Germain and 86-year-old Margueritte, a retired scientist with a deep passion for books, that changes both their lives for the better. I loved the relationship between the two of them, which is gruff and warm, all at once, and I particularly appreciated Frank Wynne’s achievement in capturing each of their distinct voices and all the word play.

soft in the head

One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, tr. Jung Yewon, Tilted Axis Press: a modern fairytale and a non-sentimental love story with a faintly sinister fantasy edge. There is something elusive about the writing, which is in keeping with the slippery nature of the story. It relates the touching relationship between Eungyo and Mujae, who work at different electronics repair shops in a market in a Seoul slum. There is also something strange going on, with people’s shadows starting to “rise”, to take on a life of their own, in a rather sinister way. This is never fully explored or spelled out, and the story is all the more unsettling for that.

Tregian’s Ground by Anne Cuneo, tr. Roland Glasser and Louise Rogers Lalaurie, And Other Stories, 2015: a big, fat historical novel about Francis Tregian, believed by some, including the author, to be the collector of the pieces in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and subtitled “the Life and Sometimes Secret Adventures of Francis Tregian, Gentleman and Musician”. It is set in the Elizabethan and early Stuart era – up to the Civil War – and deals with plots and counter-plots, religious freedom/discrimination (the Tregian family are Catholics), and, naturally, a lot about music.

Tregian's Ground by Anne Cuneo, tr. Roland Glasser and Louise Rogers Lalaurie

Subtly Worded by Teffi, tr. Anne-Marie Jackson, with contributions from Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase. In her day, Teffi was a literary superstar, and it’s easy to see why, because these short stories are witty, yet thought-provoking tales; she is inevitably called the “female Chekov”, although some have a bite that reminds me more of Saki or Dorothy Parker.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern, tr. Ros Schwartz and Emily Boyce, Gallic Books. A deeply moving epistolary novel about Parisian archivist Hélène, whose mother died when she was three. After finding a photograph of her mother at a tennis tournament with two men, she places a newspaper advert seeking information about any of the people in the photo. Unexpectedly, she receives an answer from Stéphane, a Swiss biologist living in Kent, who has recognised his father. The love story between Hélène and Stéphane is touching, while that of their parents – interrupted, frowned-upon and tragic – soon becomes devastating. There is also enough of a mystery in the quest to unravel the complex affairs of the past to keep the reader hooked until the end.

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hannah Krall, tr.  Philip Boehm, Peirene Press: a “remarkable true story of love and survival”. It is the story of Izolda, a Polish Jewish woman, and her determination to save her husband, Shayek, who has been imprisoned by the Nazis. This combination of a true story, an author with first-hand experience of her subject and the theatrical approach to its translation makes for a truly amazing book.

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, tr. Adriana Hunter, Peirene Press: a tiny book that packs such a punch. The story of a woman who’s fallen through the cracks of society and is not coping with motherhood, it is incredibly well written and carries you along with its immediacy. An uncomfortable, yet gripping read. It could be me. It could be my boys.

Little Red Hood by Marjolaine Leray, tr. Sarah Ardizzone, Phoenix Yard: a retelling, or reimagining, of Little Red Riding Hood.  Both story and illustrations are pared down to the bare bones, making it deceptively simple. Little Red Hood is a scribble and a couple of lines, yet she has a huge depth of character and no intention of being eaten. Sarah Ardizzone’s text also perfectly captures the stubbornness of a small girl and the way children can throw you off course with a single well- or ill-timed personal observation.

The Letter for the King, by Tonke Dragt, tr. Laura Watkinson, Pushkin Children’s: a Dutch classic for 50 years finally available in English. A story of knights, chivalry and adventure that grips from the first page to the last, taking in friendship, loyalty and questions of what really matters in life.

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Translation workshops in lovely places, part 2

Last weekend got known in our house as “the weekend with everything”. There was Cub camp for Son2, a first quarter peal for Son1, who is learning to ring church bells, a choir concert at the zoo at sunset and, on the Friday, for me, a day in London for a “DIY workshop” for translators from German to English.

The Goethe Institut reflected in the windows of Imperial College over the road

The Goethe Institut reflected in the windows of Imperial College over the road

The idea came from Katy Derbyshire and it ended up with 10 or so of us in the library at the Goethe Institut. We talked about retranslations and poetry before lunch, with translating voice, commas and swearing, and translation appreciation after lunch. And there was German food and beer afterwards. I learned some new words: asyndeton and asyndetic parataxis, which are to do with linking things up with commas for reasons of rhythm and balance, rather than the dreaded comma splice… We experimented to see whether reading an existing translation was a help or a hindrance in translating a text ourselves, and we wound down with an enthusiastic discussion of swearing culture and how it differs between English and German.

Yes, that was my part of the workshop. No, I don’t swear much myself. Yes, my work can be very sweary indeed. Chastity Riley, I’m looking at you… So: German swearing is very focused on bottoms and bodily functions. It can be surprisingly mild – “damned axe”, “damned hoe”, “piss dandelion” (that’s a very bad one) from rough-tough cops and gangsters – yet seems to start young (no, you can’t easily have “shit” or “damn” in an English children’s book), so Germans often go to town on English swearing instead, scattering F-bombs around their casual conversation and business writing like they’re going out of fashion. I have a lovely list of synonyms to work with now, anyway.

And we finished up by appreciating Breon Mitchell’s new translation of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, which does many things very well. See Katy’s list of things to look for in a good translation here.

We had fun, and here’s to next year!

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Translation workshops in lovely places, part 1

Bloomsbury Square Gardens on a sunny morning

Bloomsbury Square Gardens

This article first appeared in the ITI German Network’s newsletter and the ITI Bulletin, so sorry if you’ve read it already, but here it is again for anyone else interested…

On 2-3 May, 2019, I was lucky enough to be one of twelve translators taking part in the GINT Translab translation workshop held in the beautiful surroundings of the German Historical Institute in Bloomsbury. The event was focused on academic translation from German to English, organised by Frankfurt Book Fair, Geisteswissenschaften International Frankfurt, the German Historical Institute London, the Goethe-Institut London and New Books in German, and moderated by Dr Ruth Martin, literary and academic translator, and one of the co-chairs of the Translators Association of the Society of Authors. It was open both to experienced translators currently working on academic texts and people at an early stage in their careers or looking to move into academic translation as a specialist area.

To apply, we had either to submit a work-in-progress, or translate a sample text provided by the organisers. After introductions and a warm-up exercise (and coffee, of course), we began by looking at the very challenging text the “emerging” translators had tackled, in a kind of giant, 4-way translation slam. This quickly showed, as these things always do, that no two translators will ever translate any given sentence, never mind an entire text, in exactly the same way. It was fascinating to see the variety of approaches that people had taken to the passage, particularly to ways of breaking up enormous German sentences, or patching short ones together.

During the lunch break, we were also given a whistle-stop tour of the Institute’s library – obviously an enormously valuable research resource. This was also a chance to see some more of the fascinating building (for more on its history, see the 40th Anniversary publication, here). The staircases and ceilings are stunning and make you feel that a Jane Austen lady could appear at any moment…

View to the skylight up the John Nash staircase at the GHI

See what I mean about the staircase?

In the afternoon, we looked at the first batch of work-in-progress texts, which covered a wide range of subject areas and threw up a huge array of interesting questions for discussion. These ranged from how to tackle massive concepts that don’t map precisely from one language to the other, such as fremd and all its related terms, to do with “foreignness”, “otherness”, “alienation” etc, to the enormous amount of research work that could potentially arise from a single footnote. We could have talked about each of them for hours but Ruth kept us ably on track.

After tea, there was a panel discussion with GHIL staff, which focused mainly on their experiences of being translated, as well as translating themselves, and of ways that their research related to translation. This highlighted the benefits of establishing a good working relationship with your author as soon as possible, although this is harder if they have been dead for 600 years…

After this, most of us adjourned to our hotel before meeting up again for dinner, where the chatter and discussion continued to flow freely along with good Turkish food and wine (or beer).

The next day, we covered the last batch of texts (including mine). These covered much more similar ground and highlighted the particular challenges of the Second World War and Nazi-era terminology and subject matter – an occupational hazard in academic translation from German. It was extremely useful to be able to discuss resources and approaches to the same perennial questions that we all face, and I’m sure that the connections made during the workshop will continue in the future.

After coffee, we had a round-table discussion of academic translation in general, sharing tips and advice on all kinds of aspects. These included both very practical matters and also the importance of looking after your physical and mental health, particularly when translating the very emotionally demanding texts that come with the territory here. This is an area that the Translators’ Association is planning to consider in general this year.

The final session of the workshop was with Tom Bonnington of Berghahn Books and related to the nuts and bolts of publishing, as well as what happens to our manuscripts once they are submitted, how they select the books for publication and translation and many other areas.

Ceiling and chandelier in the conference room at the GHI

Ceiling and chandelier in the conference room

Thus it was with a tired but buzzing head that I set off back for Norwich and home after a fascinating and inspiring two days, looking forward to applying what I’ve learnt to my work and incorporating some of the brilliant suggestions made by other participants over the workshop.

Many thanks to Anke Simon of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, and Ruth Martin in particular for facilitating the workshop, Emily and Carole from GHIL for hosting and arranging the event, and everyone who was involved. It was marvellous!

Takeaway Points:

  • Focus on the argument and what the author is trying to say as a building block for writing.
  • Academics aren’t always great stylists… although they can be.
  • Discuss potentially sensitive terms with the author as soon as possible, especially with Nazi-era texts.
  • It’s generally useful to make abstract terms into punchier verbs in English, but sometimes this works in reverse too.
  • The Wikipedia test – is a German term well-enough known to have its own Wikipedia entry in English? Is the term translated in the headword or left in German?
  • For copyright reasons, if there is a pre-existing English translation of a text that the author quotes, you have to use that and not translate it yourself. If this causes problems, you can add to the explanation in a footnote or take the phrase out of quotes and paraphrase it.
  • In footnotes, don’t translate archive call signs!


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February Reads

So I didn’t read as much as I’d have liked in February, but there were some exciting things all the same. I got to read Simone Buchholz’s Mexikoring, on which more later… Watch this space! Likewise, Zugmaus by Uwe Timm, illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

My non-work-related book of the month was The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl, translated by Don Bartlett, having been lucky enough to be sent an advance proof by Karen at publisher Orenda Books.

In Oslo in 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden whilst the rest of her family is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, Ester’s childhood friend. A relationship develops between them, but ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.

And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter Turid. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…

This stand-alone historical thriller is told with a split timeline that jumps between 1942, 1967 and the present day, skilfully weaving the threads together to reveal the chain of events that brings us eventually back to the point at which the novel began. It is tightly plotted with convincing characters and a compelling narrative that grips you from start to finish. And of course Don Bartlett’s translation is as skilful as ever, vividly conveying the voices and places we encounter along the way.

It’s such an interesting and shocking period of history that it offers endless possibilities to the novelist, of course, and Dahl is adept at showing how interrelated crimes of the past continue to send ripples, or even shockwaves, into the present. Highly recommended (unless you’re on public transport, in which case you might miss your stop – just saying).

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January 2019 Reads

I don’t know quite how it got to be 2019 when I wasn’t looking, and I don’t seem to manage regularly reviews any more, but I’m hopeful that semi-regularly round-ups of what I’ve been reading lately might be more doable…

So, January is a good month for reading as there are lovely piles of books accumulated as Christmas presents to work through.

The Night Circus  by Erin Morgenstern (Vintage) Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Mors, tr. Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin, 2017) Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Black Swan, 2019)

The Night Circus  by Erin Morgenstern (Vintage) – I don’t know how I missed this when it came out back in 2012. Apparently there was a massive hype around it, and it was longlisted for the Orange Prize. But miss it, I did. And I’m glad of that because I came at it without expectations. I’m also glad that the blurb I read isn’t the one that wound up a lot of earlier reviewers for being sort-of accurate yet misleading. Anyway, despite a few irritations with the overuse of certain phrases and shaky period detail, I loved this book. It’s atmospheric and slightly creepy and romantic and swept me up in its spell, leaving me slightly reeling at the end.

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Mors, tr. Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin, 2017)– this was shortlisted for the Man Booker International and is billed as a “bracing antidote to the cult of hygge.” It’s about a translator of crime fiction who suffers from BPPV – a form of vertigo that I have also experienced – so I possibly identified with Sonja rather too strongly! This style of book that meanders around for a while and then stops isn’t altogether to my taste though. I’d call it wryly amusing rather than hilarious, myself.

Sonja’s over forty, and she’s trying to move in the right direction. She’s learning to drive. She’s joined a meditation group. And she’s attempting to reconnect with her sister.

But Sonja would rather eat cake than meditate.

Her driving instructor won’t let her change gear.

And her sister won’t return her calls.

Sonja’s mind keeps wandering back to the dramatic landscapes of her childhood – the singing whooper swans, the endless sky, and getting lost barefoot in the rye fields – but how can she return to a place that she no longer recognises? And how can she escape the alienating streets of Copenhagen?

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a poignant, sharp-witted tale of one woman’s journey in search of herself when there’s no one to ask for directions.

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Black Swan, 2019) – I already knew Lissa Evans could tell a story from Wed Wabbit and she is also very strong on characterisation. It’s an engaging look at the Sufragette movement and “women of a certain age” in search of a new cause. Very entertaining and I’ll be looking out for her other books all the more now.

Mattie is a woman with a thrilling past and a chafingly uneventful present. During the Women’s Suffrage Campaign she was a militant. Jailed five times, she marched, sang, gave speeches, smashed windows and heckled Winston Churchill, and nothing – nothing – since then has had the same depth, the same excitement.

Now in middle age, she is still looking for a fresh mould into which to pour her energies. …  but what starts as a brilliantly idealistic plan is derailed by a connection with Mattie’s militant past, one which begins to threaten every principle that she stands for.

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Attend by West Camel

First of all, full disclosure: West Camel is the editor of my translations of Beton Rouge and Blue Night at Orenda Books, who also publish Attend, and I was sent a PDF proof copy of by the publisher Karen a for review. This is my absolutely honest opinion of the book, though, and West submitted it to Karen under a pseudonym to avoid any potential nepotism.



So, to the book. Attend rather defies categorisation. A romantic, gangster novel with a touch of magical realism and a nod to Armistead Maupin. How’s that? As the cover image suggests, there are three strands to the story: Anne, Sam and Deborah.

Anne is a recovering heroin addict who is trying to rebuild her life and her family having got clean and escaped her abusive ex. Sam is a young gay man who has moved to London in search of a new life. They are both looking for new beginnings in Deptford, which represents a homecoming for Anne and an escape for Sam. Here they meet and become friends with the enigmatic Deborah, who has lived here all her life. But can she really be over 100 years old, and unable to die, as she maintains?

This is a novel of contradictions: gritty, yet beautifully written;  fantastical, yet down-to-earth; gripping and moving. I was instantly drawn in and could have read the book in a sitting if life and work hadn’t inconveniently intervened. There is brutal violence and touching romance, raw emotion and convincing characters, drugs, abuse, faith and the possibility of redemption. I felt for Anne, working through such a challenging situation and sometimes put in impossible positions by her family and best friend Kathleen. Sam’s relationship with gentle yet thuggish Derek also felt very real.

Yet it is Deborah who holds the whole thing together, telling stories, weaving spells and providing the literal and figurative guiding thread that brings things to a conclusion. I loved the way needlework runs through the book, and the firm grounding of its setting in Deptford.

Highly recommended!

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5 Questions: Recommended German Books and The Freer Use of ‘Scheiße’

September is #WorldKidLit month – here I am doing a Q&A for Marcia Lynx Qualey at the World Kid Lit blog!

Rachel Ward of Forward Translations ( is the translator of several books for young readers as well as the original translated kidlit listicle-maker over at her blog, “A Discount Ticket to Everywhere.”

She translates from the German and answered 5 questions about her work, German kidlit, and her recommendations.

Can you tell us about the book you’re translating now?

I’m currently working on “Zippel” by Alex Ruehle for Andersen Press. It’s about a boy called Paul who finds a little ghost living in his keyhole, and it’s for age 6+ and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, which is very exciting. There’s a lot of wordplay and silly rhymes involved which makes it both fun and challenging to translate. I still don’t have a good solution for the biggest of these challenges.

How do you discover new German kid lit? Do you discover great new kidlit differently from…

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#WITMonth: Soft in the Head by Marie-Sabine Roger


August is Women in Translation Month, the reasons for which are discussed by Katy Derbyshire here on the Freeword Centre site, and elsewhere.

soft in the headSo it is a fitting moment to write about Marie-Sabine Roger‘s joyful novel Soft in the Head, published in 2016 by Pushkin Press and translated by Frank Wynne.

Germain has been looked down on and insulted all his life, by his mother, his teacher and his so-called friends. He’s left school functionally illiterate and thinking of himself as an idiot, and he lives in a caravan at the bottom of his mother’s garden. When he’s not working or in the bar, or whittling wood, Germain likes to sit in the park, counting the pigeons. One day, as he arrives at the park, there’s “this little old lady who looked like she was the type to throw breadcrumbs to get them to come to her” sitting on a bench near the pigeons. Germain’s heart sinks, but the old lady doesn’t act as he expects.

She didn’t stare at me out of the corner of her eye the way most people do when I count.
She stayed very still. But then, just as I was about to leave, she said:

This is the start of an unusual and touching friendship between Germain and the 86-year-old Margueritte that changes both their lives for the better. Margueritte is a retired scientist with a deep passion for books. She begins reading to Germain, first from Camus’ The Plague, and then from other books. At first he only thinks of it as “not unpleasant”, something to keep your ears busy, but soon he is hooked. Margueritte tells Germain that he is “a true reader” because reading starts with listening. This is the first time that anyone has taken him seriously, and as a result, he comes out of the defensive persona he has adopted, and slowly blossoms.

I loved the relationship between the two of them, which is gruff and warm, all at once. And I particularly appreciated Frank Wynne’s achievement in capturing each of their distinct voices. Germain is rough and, initially, crude, while Margueritte is clipped and precise, or as Germain puts it:

She had a complicated way of talking, with more frills and laces than a tart’s knickers, the way posh people talk.

There is also word-play of the sort where the apparent effortlessness of the translation shows just how much work has gone into it. And personally, I enjoyed seeing little bits of Irishness come through in words such as “banjaxed”.

There is sadness in this book – loneliness, cruelty and a soul starved of affection – but there is so much joy too. In words, in language, in books, and in friendship.

Words are boxes that we use to store thoughts the better to present them to others. Show them to their best advantage. For example, on days when you just feel like kicking anything that moves, you can just sulk. Problem is, people might think you’re ill, or depressed. Whereas if you just say out loud: Don’t piss me around, I’m really not in the mood today! It avoids all sorts of confusion.

Apparently “up lit” is a thing now. So there’s a fancy term for books like this, that make you feel better about the world without sugar-coating it. I’d love to see more of them in translation. The world is grim enough without always having to read miserable books. When I tweeted my enjoyment of this book, Frank Wynne replied that it had been a “joy to translate” and that joy really shines through. Lovely.


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