Ramblings around Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall coverThere are many reasons why I haven’t been keeping up with the blogging as much as I’d like lately, to do with work, life and one thing and another, but one big one is that it has taken me a very long time to make my way through Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (4th Estate, 2009). There doesn’t seem much point in writing a proper review of it though. It’s been out for ages, and everyone has said their two pennorth already, so instead here are some rambling reflections.

It’s a book I’d vaguely intended to read ever since it first came out, but it was the TV adaptation – which we very much enjoyed – that finally prompted me to take the plunge. Yes, it’s long, and yes, it’s taken me a long time, but I found it thoroughly worth the effort. It’s probably unfair both to Hilary Mantel and to Philippa Gregory to compare it to The Other Boleyn Girl, as they are very different takes on the historical novel, and aiming for very different effects,  but I enjoyed them both, and they are both very readable in their own ways.

One of the things I appreciated about both the book and the TV version of Wolf Hall was that they don’t spell everything out for you immediately, but leave the reader to figure out what is being hinted at, and – in some cases – who is speaking to whom. It requires a little more prior knowledge of the period than some handlings, but not that much – all my understanding of the era is pretty much gleaned from fiction, but I got on fine with it. The effect can be quite similar to Mark Rylance sitting around in the dark mumbling to somebody, while they are both wearing black, but you usually get an explanation in the end.

Another thing that I liked was the way Mantel describes the famous Holbein paintings, and the characters’ responses to them during and after their completion. There was enough detail to conjure them up in the mind’s eye without battering you around the head in a “look, I’m talking about a famous thing” kind of way. Similarly, characters flit around the edge of the scene – Jane Seymour, Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris and so on – with a fair degree of irony in that their later significance is never spelled out but there to pick up on in a “let the reader understand” kind of way.

I did feel that she was perhaps overly generous to Cromwell, who was surely more downright devious and unpleasant than she allows, and harsh on More – although he gets the benefit of canonisation in real life, so perhaps all’s fair, as he was undoubtedly also a nasty piece of work.

People complain about the writing style – if you don’t like the use of the present tense, tricksy games with time, flashbacks, fast-forwards, and other muckings about, then you won’t like this either. I do though. It reminds me in some ways of Kate Atkinson, whose Behind the Scenes at the Museum blew me away from the first page.

I will definitely be reading Bring Up the Bodies, but first there’s the matter of all the other books that have been piling up in the meantime…

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London Book Fair Musings

London Book Fair 2015

London Book Fair 2015

The London Book Fair has been and gone again. It was exhausting, but fun, and I’ll write up some of the individual sessions in the next little while, but first I wanted to put down a few impressions and share some survival tips.

It’s marvellous to have a “home” at the Literary Translation Centre – the first time I visited there was nothing like this, and it was truly hellish. Yet I found that on some of the panels  speakers seemed to have a different idea of what they were about than my expectations from the programme. This year, I also made it over to the Children’s Hub twice. Once was for my highlight of the first day – a panel on inclusive and accessible children’s books from around the world that have been translated for Outside In World. They all sound beautiful, and lovely, and I want to read them all. It was great to have three translators on a panel outside the LTC and a lovely end to the day.

Star of the show on the second day was the annual translation slam featuring the “market focus” country – Mexico this year. The author and two translators discussed her text and their translations in wonderfully geeky detail, overseen with panache and good humour by all-round translation guru Daniel Hahn. The second day is generally when I find myself in the zone at these things – the first day is overwhelming and the third, exhausting. On the second day, I managed my best networking, and it also featured the Emerging Translators Network’s annual social. It was a shame to be in a gloomy pub on the most glorious day of the year so far, and two tables were woefully insufficient for the sheer mass of translators per square inch, but we can’t have everything.

The most inspiring talk of the third day was a discussion of the role of public libraries in promoting translated literature – something I’ve seen a bit of via Norfolk and Suffolk’s Summer Reads scheme, but also with a crossover with Translators in Schools that’s worth pondering some more.  The end of the third day also featured free champagne and free books, and then Persian food before a train home, shattered.

So, what are my top survival tips?

Trees in London park

My haven of lunchtime tranquility

Bring sandwiches, or find somewhere outside the exhibition hall to eat. Captive audiences result in uninspiring sandwiches at sky-high prices… In fact, getting out to a lovely sunny park to eat my lunch every day made the rest of it so much more bearable – particularly important if you’re an introvert like me! A little fresh air is also always good.

And when it comes to coffee, not all artisan coffee bars within Olympia are equal and there are (comparative) bargains to be had.

Comfy shoes! Nuff said.

Check out seminar streams beyond the Literary Translation Centre. There were some very interesting panels in the Children’s Hub and the Market Focus streams that were just as relevant.

If you want to have targeted conversations with publishers, book meetings in advance. But random, casual chats can also bear fruit.

And a note to whoever dreamt up the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party café in the children’s section. If you’re going to decorate it with teapots, you might want to consider having actual tea on the menu!


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Alain Claude Sulzer, Aus den Fugen/Catalyst

In the middle of a concert, in the middle of a piece, the internationally renowned pianist stands up, says “that’s it,” and walks out. This decision will change his life, but also those of the people in his entourage and audience in a whole array of unforeseen ways. The title means something like “apart at the seams” and having built up to the incident, we then see things start to unravel in response.

Alain Claude Sulzer, Aus den Fugen
Alain Claude Sulzer’s novel (KiWi Verlag, 2012) is told from the points of view of a series of characters. There is Marek Olsberg, the pianist himself, his agent, his secretary, one of the waiters supposed to be working at the after-concert party, audience members and so on. Affairs are revealed as people come home unexpectedly, relationships broken or patched up, there are endings and new beginnings. Sulzer handles all the threads of these stories skilfully, bringing them together into a satisfying and entertaining whole. There are also plenty of loose ends to leave the reader wondering. The book was shortlisted for the Swiss Book Prize in 2012.

I enjoyed the novel hugely and am pleased to see that it has been translated into English by John Brownjohn and published by Thames River Press under the title Catalyst (2014). As I was reading, there seemed to be plenty of challenges for a translator to get their teeth into, and I’d be interested to see the result. It’s a shame that there is absolutely no information about the book in English in any online bookshop that I’ve found though. If you’ve gone to the effort of publishing a book, it seems odd not to want to encourage people to buy it…

So I’ll do it on their behalf. This is a great book: read it (if you can find it)!

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All the Acronyms: ITI CPD in the UEA JPC

UEA was frequently observed in my day (doesn’t that make me sound old!) to stand for the University of Endless Acronyms, so it was a fitting venue for a CPD day with the ITI EARG (East Anglia Regional Group) on Saturday 7 February. It was very strange to find myself back in a seminar room in the James Platt Centre a good 12 years after graduating for the second time! (That makes me feel even older…)

Norfolk Terrace UEA by N Chadwick

Following introductions, Dr Joanna Drugan gave a talk on ‘What happens to your translations when you have handed them back to the client or the agency?’. This was based on her extensive research on applied translation in a real world context. Jo asked us about our expectations and experience of what happens when a translation is handed over to an agency or direct client, and also whether we ask about these things when we take on a new client. The subsequent discussion illustrated that there are considerable differences in approach, and that many of us were making assumptions or unsure what actually happens to our texts. Those people who had previously worked in-house at translation agencies were able to give us a valuable insight into the way they work, for example in terms of the different levels of checking, depending on what the client has paid for and the level of trust in any given freelancer. Some agencies use an approach called “linguistic validation” where the text is then translated back into the source language to see if it still conveys the original ideas, while others carry out “proofchecking” which involves project managers looking for number errors, typos etc even if they don’t know the languages involved.

Quality in Professional Translation, Dr Joanna Drugan, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013

Jo’s book, the result of ten years’ research.

Other issues raised: what about direct clients who don’t speak the target language? Do they just take translations on trust? What happens when a translator and proofreader disagree? Who has the final say? Do translators get to see the text after proofreading and before publication/handing over to the end client? Agencies and end clients often observe that translators improve the source text (ST) by picking up on errors that have previously been missed, ambiguities etc.

Then there is a lack of shared understanding of the meanings of and differences between editing, revising and proofreading – using differing terminology can result in a job being far more work than originally expected, for example. Does a client edit/revise/proofread a TL language text in isolation or with reference to the SL? A frequent approach is known as “sampling”. This involves detailed checking of a section of text and using that as a basis to decide how much scrutiny the rest will need. Problems can arise if changes are made and then not communicated to the translator. Where changes may be justified, it would be useful to know for professional development. Where unjustified – do we want our name attached to the end result?

Then there is  the impact of international translation standards – these may be very cumbersome making it impractical/inefficient to be compliant for every job. Not everything relevant to quality is actually quantifiable. Sometimes standards lead to a focus on the wrong aspects, as we see (often to our cost) with other watchdogs, such as Ofsted, which often end up “counting what can be counted, not what counts”. Mari says this is a cliché in data circles, but it’s certainly worth flagging up.

Direct clients may not engage with quality – they may consider that they have outsourced translation to an expert and leave it up to us. Agencies sometimes make assumptions on a client’s behalf about the level of service/quality/checking they require.

Jo’s take-home points were: technology is changing approaches in many ways, not just machine translation and its pre- or post-editing. We should not assume that any quality control will be carried out and this has implications for ownership, responsibility and potential for reputational damage. *

We then adjourned for an excellent lunch at the Sainsbury Centre (it has a fantastic climbing tree outside it, maybe we could use that to get the boys there while we look at art…!) before returning for an afternoon of more informal discussions. The first topic was the perennial issue of negotiation and rates. Are there legitimate reasons to give an agency or client a discount? If so, what are they? Are volume discounts OK because a bigger project means less admin, or do they mean that we are doing more work for less money and potentially losing other projects by turning clients down? Some people prefer to offer a discount on smaller projects because it means losing out on less. Others offer a discount for a longer timescale as it allows time to take on other jobs at the same time.

It was pointed out that low rates mean working more to make a living, resulting in a lack of time for CPD or funding for CAT tools, professional memberships etc. This argument might not go down so well with direct clients, who are interested in quality – somebody else might do the job cheaper, but will they do it well?

Several people said that they charge extra for PDFs and other non-editable formats. This sometimes results in the file magically turning up in a different format after all… Similarly, there was discussion of higher charges for evening/weekend work and rush jobs.

When it came to raising rates with agencies, it was noted that this might result in a freelancer being dropped down the order in a database, but that doesn’t necessarily equal losing out. You might end up getting more money for less work. Not being VAT registered can make a difference when working for agencies in countries where nationals have to register. They might then afford a higher rate if they aren’t paying VAT on top.

Tips for raising rates: quote higher prices to new clients. Keep applying to new agencies so a few lost ones make less difference. Send out a service presentation of what you offer rather than a CV. Drop bad payers. Build rapport with clients/PMs. Find other networks as a source of work, e.g. web designers who can then suggest you to their clients as they build them a new website.

The other topic was literary versus commercial translation and specialisations. I found myself explaining (my understanding of) how the literary translation world is different from commercial translation, how to find out about translation rights, approach publishers etc. Other areas of specialisation discussed were song translations – something maybe done less commonly these days, (last year’s ITD conference touched on opera translation though) – tourism and green energy/ the environment.

Tips for building up a specialisation: go to trade fairs in the subject area, read trade publications, concentrate on areas you’re already familiar with, learn as you go, do pro bono work for charities etc to gain experience, Translators Without Borders, research. Mention to existing agencies that you would like to move into a new area so that they add that to their databases. Consider doing short courses or diplomas in the subject area. Another suggestion was that where specific terminology is hard to find, it can be worth writing to senior academics in the field who are often happy to help.

UEA roundabout by N Chadwick

Woah, what’s happened here? That’s changed!

And of course, after a hard day’s talking, some of us repaired to the pub for drinks, dinner and socialising. There we collided with a large wedding party and established that cycling is faster than the number 25 bus…  All in all, it was an enjoyable and rewarding day, and further proof, if any were needed, that Norwich is the centre of the translation universe. Many thanks to the organisers, and here’s to the next one!

If you have any tips to add to those I’ve got here, do share them in the comments.

* For further reading, see: Dr Joanna Dugan, Quality In Professional Translation, Assessment and Improvement,  Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

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Claude in the City: A Rollerskating, Beret-Wearing Accidental Hero

Claude in the City, written and illustrated by Alex T. Smith (Hodder Children’s, 2011), was one of fils cadet‘s birthday presents. It took quite a while to get round to reading it, but fortunately, now he loves it. Perhaps it’s best to let the author’s words introduce Claude and his friends:

Claude in the City, Alex T. Smith“Claude is a dog.

Claude is a small dog.

Claude is a small plump dog.

Claude is a small, plump dog who wears a beret and a lovely red jumper.

Claude lives in a house with Mr and Mrs Shinyshoes.

Claude also lives with his best friend, Sir Bobblysock. Sir Bobblysock is both a sock and quite bobbly.”

There is a real charm to this little series with its quirky illustrations and storylines and a rather Parisian air. (Yes, quirky can be code for irritating, but here it works!) This installment is a story in two parts, or possibly two separate stories. In Part I, Claude takes a trip to the city, where he visits a museum and inadvertently foils a major art robbery. In Part II, Sir Bobblysock gets poorly so Claude rushes him to hospital by rollerskate making “woo woo!” noises. There, he is mistaken for a doctor and once again saves the day by correctly diagnosing the mystery illness afflicting all the patients. There are plenty of silly names (Dr Ivan Achinbum, for example) and a lightly flippant tone that makes it fun to read aloud. It’s also ideal for early readers as it’s chapter book sized but without a daunting number of words per page – perfect for fils cadet, whose attention span is out of whack with his reading ability! The humour is nicely pitched to keep them hooked and there’s plenty to spot in the pictures too, which are all done in black, white and red but crammed with detail.

We’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for the rest of the series.

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To See the Moon So Clearly

My colleague Ian Appleby sent me a copy of his and Simon Geoghegan’s translation of To See the Moon So Clearly by Gai Sever a shamefully long time ago. Sadly, both boys are too inclined to suspicion of new books and authors for either of them to have let me read the stories to them, so what follows are my own impressions only.

For an extract from the title story, see here.

Gai Sever is a philologist by inclination and training, specialising in Horace, Martial, Petronius and the Nine Lyric Poets. He has worked as a web designer and programmer, and also in the publishing industry. He currently manages a small publishing house dealing with new translations of classical works, among them Virgil, Persius, Martial, and Homer. He finds recreation in writing fiction in Russian, and translating from English. Among his publications are two fantasy collections, one science fiction collection, and translations of works by Jerome K. Jerome and Arthur Conan Doyle. At the moment, he is translating Isaac Asimov’s “The End of Eternity”.

The book is a collection of three stories, which in turn form part of a cycle of five novelettes. They have an enchanting, whimsical quality which I enjoyed, and Ian’s translation draws on the English fairytale tradition while preserving a Russian flavour.

In some respects, I found the stories a little disjointed, both in terms of lacking a connection with each other, and because the reader is launched straight into three very distinct worlds without introduction. Perhaps you need to read the entire cycle to really get to grips with them. But then again, perhaps that’s also in keeping with the fairytale nature. Certainly the stories have greater depth than fairytales, and are worth reading as an adult too. They pull you in without the “Hey? What? That doesn’t make sense!” element and prompt you to think about what lies beneath.

I really hope to persuade the boys to read them, and if I do, I’ll let you know what they think. Apart from anything else, there’s a certain Tree Fu Tom-ishness to the story about the wood sprite that ought to appeal.

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The Foundling’s War

After The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon, I was very much looking forward to following up the adventures of Jean as he grew up, so I was very pleased to be sent a copy of The Foundling’s War (also translated by Julian Evans) for review by publisher Gallic Press . It’s taken a while to get round to it, for which many apologies, but here it is.

In the aftermath of French defeat in July 1940, twenty-year-old Jean Arnaud and his ally, the charming conman Palfy, are hiding out at a brothel in Clermont-Ferrand, having narrowly escaped a firing squad. At a military parade, Jean falls for a beautiful stranger, Claude, who will help him forget his adolescent heartbreak but bring far more serious troubles of her own.

Having safely reached occupied Paris, the friends mingle with art smugglers and forgers, social climbers, showbiz starlets, bluffers, swindlers and profiteers, French and German, as Jean learns to make his way in a world of murky allegiances. But beyond the social whirl, the war cannot stay away forever…

A very murky world it is too. It’s a story of survival in difficult times, compromises, dubious decisions and shady dealings. There are collaborators and conscripts, people exploited and hurt, while others seem to smile through and float over the top of the quagmire. I found it rather unsettling, to be honest. Whether or not it is an accurate portrayal of the French experience of WW2 I couldn’t say, but it seemed to lack depth compared to, say, Suite Française. OK, so it’s not dealing explicitly with the treatment of French Jews, but there are people living in commandeered Jewish apartments in an arrangement apparently considered beneficial for both sides. Maybe these deals were hatched. I don’t know. But it jarred.

There is still a lot to like about the book and the writing, and a lot of it was just as entertaining as its predecessor. It is good on human relationships, and the affair between Jean and Claude is painfully touching, but for me it was a rather disappointing sequel. Perhaps it was that the charm wore thin, or perhaps just that it was out of place with the subject matter, but it didn’t grab me in the same way.

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