On Reviewing – Translations and Other Things

There are several controversies/discussions/debates swirling around my Twitter at the moment which are at least partly related. There are issues about how to review translations, what to do if you think a translation is flawed or poor, and about whether to publish bad reviews at all. I don’t yet know whether I can collect my thoughts on these matters into something coherent, but my brain won’t let go so I’m going to try.

I’ve written a bit about Reviewing Translations before, but things have moved on since then, and if the “Translators’ Toolkit” that Susan Bernofsky talked about has appeared, I haven’t seen it. Katy Derbyshire has been writing about this too, recently, in response to a couple of other blog posts: On Appreciating Translations. I want to echo this, and something I quoted from Kate Briggs in This Little Art:

I think we owe translators, and perhaps also ourselves, some recognition of what it might have meant to have handled every single word (space and punctuation mark) of the writing-to-be-translated, to have taken a decision in relation to its every single word (space and punctuation mark), and indeed to have written every single one of its parts […], which might in turn be another way of saying each and every one of its risks.

The decisions that we take when we translate are sometimes conscious, agonised, wrestled over for anything from minutes to months, and sometimes more or less automatic as we fall back on default options or when a text is (seems?) simple, or when we’re up against a tight deadline. Sometimes these defaults can be misleading, and this can lead to the kind of error that a reviewer might spot. Or they might just make the text boring. Or they might be perfectly fine. And when we’ve wrestled with a sentence and finally feel that we’ve done it justice, we’d like that recognised in some way, but a reviewer might not feel that they have the tools to do so…

Well, if you enjoy a translated book, think about the fact that the words you’re reading were written in your language by a translator in response to the words written in another language by the author. If you don’t enjoy it, why is that? It’s important to distinguish between a good translation of a book that’s not to your taste and a poor translation. While it can be hard to be certain, it’s worth wondering whether the writing is deliberately awkward or just stilted: is the translator aiming to replicate an effect? That’s probably more likely than just missing the point or being unable to write, at least in a properly published, well edited book, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, there’s the question of whether bloggers should publish bad reviews at all. Some people feel that there’s something dishonest about only ever blogging about books you love. Other people feel that it’s hurtful or harmful to the author to berate a book that you hated. Some people want to engage with whatever they read, and others to provide a recommendation service. Personally, I want to write about books when they prompt some kind of response. Usually that’s because I’ve enjoyed them, but sometimes it isn’t. I don’t want to be unkind, just to be fair and honest. There has to be room for a range of approaches, and a place for balanced, constructive criticism. I guess, like with so many things, it comes down to a big fat “it depends”. It depends who you’re writing for, and why. I’m not writing for a huge audience, and it’s mostly about putting things into words when they’re buzzing around my head.

I can’t quite get behind the idea of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. The test I often propose to my kids is to think whether what they’re about to say is true, and if so, is it kind, or helpful? Perhaps the way we’re inclined to review comes down as much to personality type as anything else. Are some of us just incurably honest, or overly inclined to see both sides of everything? Hmm. Anywhere, here are some questions that I think are worth asking around critique:

  • What purpose does it serve to criticise a book?
  • Is it me trying to maintain my sanity within a long tradition of parents applying adult logic to cartoons for humorous effect (for example)?
  • Is there something harmful in the way a book depicts a character?
  • Is it perpetuating stereotypes, falling into lazy tropes such as victim blaming in crime fiction?
  • Is a mistranslated word important in the overall scheme of things? If it changes things significantly, then it must be possible to point that out.
  • If it doesn’t, is there any need to nit-pick?
  • Is this a mistake, or an issue, that the author/translator/others can learn from?
  • If so, is this the best venue to raise that?

Is there anything I’ve missed? I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts.



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The Orenda Roadshow – Nordic Authors and the Beast from the East

It’s been a bit nippy in the last week, if you hadn’t noticed… Obviously, this had to be the week of the Orenda Roadshow – a large gaggle of brilliant authors from the UK and Europe travelling from Aberdeen to Liverpool to Nottingham to Warwick with one-woman publishing powerhouse Karen Sullivan, who is Orenda Books.

L to r: Matt Johnson, Su Bristow, Thomas Enger, Michael J. Malone, Antti Tuomainen, Louise Beech, Steph Broadribb, Louise Voss, Lilja Sigurdardóttir, L.V. Hay, Simone Buchholz, Karen Sullivan

Team Orenda (L to R): Matt Johnson, Su Bristow, Thomas Enger, Michael J. Malone, Antti Tuomainen, Louise Beech, Steph Broadribb, Louise Voss, Lilja Sigurdardóttir, L.V. Hay, Simone Buchholz, Karen Sullivan

I had the opportunity to meet up with them in Nottingham, and then join the party as far as Warwick, and it was fortunate that we’d arranged it that way as I’m not sure I’d have made it out of Norfolk on Wednesday. Luckily, there wasn’t nearly as much snow in the Midlands as at home, and although it was very cold, there was no real disruption to the trains.

Simone Buchholz reading from Blue Night

Simone reading from Blue Night in Nottingham (on her left Louise Beech and Johana Gustawsson, on her right, Matt Wesolowski)

It seems that the book-lovers of Warwick are hardier than those of Nottingham, where the audience was decidedly depleted, but those who braved the conditions seemed appreciative. Each author gave a brief “elevator pitch” summary of their book, followed by a one-minute reading, then audience questions, refreshments and book signings.

It was lovely to meet so many of Team Orenda, and particularly Simone Buchholz so that we could celebrate the publication day of my translation of her book together. Yes, Blue Night is now out in paperback. And I now have a much longer wishlist of Orenda books to read.


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Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

The boys had book vouchers to spend over half term, which prompted a whole set of agonising – first Son2 wanted to buy Lego models instead, and then to spend his share on Star Wars encyclopedias, and then Son1 wanted to buy Wimpy Kid and Tom Gates books… This leaves me very conflicted, because in theory I agree that everyone has the right to read and re-read what they like, but in practice we have borrowed almost every Star Wars-related book in existence from the library lately, and Son1 has loads of Tom Gates books already, and his teachers want him to read more challenging books, and it would be good for him to stretch himself, and and and…

So anyway, after much agonising, we ended up with a suitably mixed bag of books to please everyone.

Wed Wabbit, Toto the Ninja Cat, The Iron Man, i-spy on a car journey in France
Son1 ripped through Toto the Ninja Cat and the Great Snake Escape by Demot O’Leary and enjoyed it hugely, but it’s the kind of celebrity author, funny fluff with

random big words for no reason

that makes my heart sink.

Wed Wabbit, by Lissa Evans (David Fickling Books), on the other hand is the proper good stuff. Fortunately, Son1 agreed, and devoured it within a day. So then I had to read it for myself!

Fidge is having a bad week.

She’s been flung into a bizarre world alongside three companions: two are deeply weird and the third is her awful cousin Graham.

She has to solve a series of nearly impossible clues, defeat a dictator who can’t pronounce the letter ‘r’ and deal with three thousand Wimbley Woos (yes, you read that sentence correctly).

And the whole situation – the whole, entire thing – is her fault.

Wed Wabbit is in a fine tradition of children’s books that tackle big emotions like fear, grief and guilt through humour and fantasy. It’s set largely in the world of the Wimbley Woos, who come in a range of colours, each of which has one apparently defining characteristic, and who always speak in rhyme. There are familiar elements from other stories – toys that come to life, a world being drained of colour and emotion, and the Pythonesque difficulty of being taken seriously with a speech impediment.

Fidge (short for Iphigenia) is 10 and the sensible one compared to her zany mother, impossibly cute 4-year-old Minnie, and cossetted cousin Graham. After her father’s death, she is trying to hold everything together for her family when her little sister is hit by a car and taken to hospital. Fidge blames herself, and when she gets to her aunt and uncle’s house, she is so angry that she kicks the bag of Minnie’s toys down the cellar steps in the storm, a course of events that catapults her into her sister’s favourite book, along with Graham, Dr Carrot (Graham’s transitional object) and Eleanor Elephant. Together, they will have to solve riddles, rescue the Wimbley Woos and get home so that Minnie can be reunited with Wed Wabbit. Both Fidge and Graham learn a lot about themselves, and have to face up to fears and dangers, both real and imagined.

There is plenty of humour for grown-ups to enjoy, such as the take on the brightly-coloured, soppy Teletubbies/Fimbles, the strain of always having to speak in rhyme and the send-ups of a certain type of over-anxious parenting. There are also lots of laugh-out-loud moments for kids – at least judging by Son1’s reaction and joyful repetition of certain lines. It would be a lot of fun to read aloud and will make you think as well as laugh.

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The Taming of the Queen

A lot of energy has been expended by other people in wondering why we remain so fascinated by the Tudor period. It’s one I mainly know through historical fiction and TV documentaries, like many of us, and I’ve enjoyed most of Philippa Gregory’s retellings over the years.


The Taming of the Queen (Simon & Schuster, 2015) tells the story of Katherine Parr (or Kateryn, as it’s spelled in the book) who, Gregory believes, deserves to be better known, not just for being a survivor and an outsider, but also for her scholarship. I knew (mainly) from Jean Plaidy’s The Sixth Wife about her attempts at the delicate balancing act of championing religious reform at a time when Henry VIII’s court was swinging back in favour of “the old faith”. Maintaining tension when the reader is likely to know more or less what’s going to happen is always tricky, and Gregory manages this by playing on the psychological terror of the increasingly paranoid court and Kateryn’s emotions as her friends are accused and, in one case tortured and burnt for heresy, and she faces the same charges herself.

Portrait of Katherine Parr

Katherine Parr (Wikimedia commons)

I also knew a little about her studies, but not that she was (probably) a published translator. A book called Psalms or Prayers, which is an English translation of Bishop John Fisher’s Latin Psalms was published anonymously, but Gregory accepts the view taken by some historians that Kateryn was behind it. She also suggests that Kateryn worked with Cranmer on translating some of the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. How accurate this view is, I don’t know, but I loved the way Gregory writes about the translation process. She sees a chain of the Psalms from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English. There are little moments where she hesitates over a word, caught between poetry, clarity and slight oddness. And then there’s this:

Thomas Cranmer has worked constantly on his liturgy, he brings it to the king, prayer by prayer, and the three of us read it and reread it. Cranmer and I study the original Latin, and rephrase it, and read it again to the king, who listens, beating his hand on the chair as if he were listening to music. Sometimes he nods his head approvingly at the archbishop or me and says: ‘Hear it! It’s like a miracle to hear the Word of God in our own language!’ and sometimes he frowns and says: ‘That’s an awkward phrase, Kateryn. That sticks on the tongue like old bread. No-one will ever say that smoothly. Rework it, what d’you think?’ And I take the line and try it one way and then another to make it sing. (p. 127)

The tension between meaning and music in translation is something Ros Schwartz talks about a lot, and it’s a very familiar one to those of us who do this thing regularly. But it’s lovely to see it set out in a novel like this, maybe catching the attention of someone who’s never thought about it before.

There’s a proto-feminist reading of Parr and her scholarship, rather too much dramatic irony about the future careers of the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth, not to mention Little Lady Jane Grey, and clumsy shoehorning-in of the “weak and feeble woman with the heart and stomach of a king” bit not once but twice. All the same, and despite the usual caveats, it’s a fascinating account of a fascinating woman, who was married to a wife-killer against her will but became a loving stepmother to three future monarchs.

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On the Improbability of Butterflies

I don’t know whether the similarities between Hanni Münzer’s Solange es Schmetterlinge gibt and Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love (Bloomsbury, 2015) would have struck me so clearly if I hadn’t read them one after the other.

Both feature a love story tangled up in a whodunnit, are told from a range of characters’ viewpoints and relate both to the nature of love and to the dark secrets of World War II and the Holocaust. Both also rely heavily on coincidence and feature difficult mother-daughter relationships.

The title Solange es Schmetterlinge gibt translates as “While There Are Butterflies” and it was published by Eisele Verlag in 2017. I translated a couple of sample chapters for the publisher and liked it enough to want to read the rest.

The blurb (my translation):

After Penelope’s life was struck by disaster, she has largely withdrawn from the world. She dares not believe in the possibility that happiness or love could return to her life. But then she meets the octogenarian Trudi Siebenbürgen – a fascinating woman with a mysterious past. Her new neighbour Jason also has a unique role to play in shaping Penelope’s new path. And slowly, Penelope learns that the world is full of wonder for those who will see it.

Now, from that, the cover and what I’d read and translated already, I wasn’t expecting to suddenly find myself reading a mini police procedural in the middle of this book as Penelope and Jason find themselves potential witnesses in a case of kidnapping and murder! I thought I knew where the book was going, and it wasn’t there…

Hanni Münzer - Solange es Schmetterlinge gibt

Judging a book by its cover – does this look like a crime/romance mash-up to you?

Penelope is a primary school teacher who has been trying to slip through life unnoticed and unseen since the tragedy that broke up her family and her marriage. She has a strained relationship with her mother and lives alone with her cat. Then she forms an unlikely friendship with her elderly neighbour Trudi, who has her own secrets and tumultuous past, and enters into a whirlwind relationship with the aforementioned Jason, who moves in upstairs and churns up her quiet existence. All kinds of strands bind Penelope and her family to Trudi and Jason in what Trudi sees as the web of fate. I can’t now find a source for the quote that a novel is allowed one major and one minor coincidence, but Hanni Münzer definitely exceeds her quota!

There is a lot here about the psychology of grief as well as love, and the need to accept and move on from the past. I found these parts moving, mostly in a good way, yet the book as a whole was slightly unbalanced because of the huge range of plot strands. On getting to the end, I discovered that some of the loose ends relate to Hanni Münzer’s Honigtot saga, so although it works perfectly well as a stand-alone novel, that is something to be aware of.  Fortunately, I have just managed to find a copy of Honigtot in the local library (one of about only 5 German books that they stock!) so I will see how they come together.

The mystery element of The Improbability of Love is clearer from the outset:

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

When lovelorn Annie McDee stumbles across a dirty painting in a junk shop while looking for a present for an unsuitable man, she has no idea what she has discovered. Soon she finds herself drawn unwillingly into the tumultuous London art world, populated by exiled Russian oligarchs, avaricious Sheikas, desperate auctioneers and unscrupulous dealers, all scheming to get their hands on her painting – a lost eighteenth-century masterpiece called ‘The Improbability of Love’. Delving into the painting’s past, Annie will uncover not just an illustrious list of former owners, but some of the darkest secrets of European history – and in doing so she might just learn to open up to the possibility of falling in love again.

Now here, if I hadn’t had the book highly recommended by our lovely local independent bookseller and seen the glowing reviews from quality newspapers, or known that it had won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and been shortlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, I wouldn’t have got past the Prologue. It seemed to be nothing but a mass of clunky clichés, and snobbish at that. Those lures were just about enough to keep me reading (that and the fact that I had nothing else to read while waiting for Son2 to finish his piano lesson). In the end, that paid off because the book is entertaining enough.

I wasn’t sure that the love story and the lessons in art history always gelled, and I felt that the plot could have benefitted from some trimming to keep it moving. And I could definitely have done without the sections narrated by the painting itself! Towards the end, I was skimming large chunks so as to find out what happened next. (Maybe on a second reading I’d be able to take it all in better.) Here, there is just the one major coincidence, which happens early on, and about which Hannah Rothschild is sufficiently upfront to get away with.

These are both slightly frustrating, rather sprawling novels, but I enjoyed them both and would recommend either to anyone looking for a novel that’s easy to read yet with a bit of depth.

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On Translating Simone Buchholz’s Blue Night

Blue Night Proof cover.indd

There’s much excitement at the moment because my translation of Simone Buchholz‘s wonderful German noir Krimi Blue Night (Blaue Nacht) is coming out in paperback at the end of March, published by the equally wonderful Orenda Books. It’s already available as an e-book and there are plenty of reviews available via the blog tour, so if you want to know more about it, there are lots of things to look at (and isn’t that cover pretty?!).

I don’t seem to have written much about the actual business of translating, so perhaps this is a good place to start. Or maybe I should go back a bit further to the bit about finding a project, or a project finding me… Or back to the gender imbalance in translated literature noticed in earnest a few years ago, a realisation that led to Women in Translation Month, the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation and various other articles and initiatives. One such project was Lit Hub‘s Women to Translate series.

All these strands came together for this book after I had a meeting with Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books at the London Book Fair in 2016 and we began looking for a project to work on together. Among the books I read and reported on for Orenda was Blaue Nacht, and the German publisher, Suhrkamp, had flagged it up to them as having been included on Katy Derbyshire’s piece 10 German Books by Women We’d Love to See in English, which was exactly the desired effect.

So. Suffice to say that I was hooked. There’s a hard-boiled poetry to Simone’s writing, Riley is an engaging, sardonic, feminist heroine like a 21st-century, female, Hamburg-based Philip Marlowe, and there’s a gripping, fast-paced plot – what’s not to like?

Then, the wheels of international publishing ground on slowly, eventually resulting in a translation contract. Followed immediately by self-doubt. Could I do this? Could I really recreate Riley’s voice in English? One of the things I love so much about Simone’s text is the way every word is precisely placed, carefully chosen, doing its job. Could I really have the nerve to pull off the same trick in another language that works so differently? Would it risk tipping over into a Chandleresque pastiche?

Blue Night has been such fun to work on, and so full of challenges. There are the linguistic difficulties, the cultural differences, the need to convey the sense of Hamburg (a city I’ve never visited, but long to see) and occasional snippets of Austrian and Hamburg dialect. I’ve done my best by the voice and tried to convey the same effects, even if not always by the same means. I’m enormously grateful to friends and colleagues in real life conversation, professional forums and social media for their help, inspiration and flashes of genius, which have found their way into the text, and to everyone who’s read various drafts, especially my long-suffering husband! I’m thrilled that Karen took up my suggestion of including a map so that readers can see how the various streets, cafés and bars etc relate to each other. I’m also grateful to West Camel for his careful and sensitive edits.

Now, having laboured and agonised over every word, and read the whole thing aloud to check for the music of the text, it’s nearly time to release it into the wild and see if English readers share my enthusiasm.

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Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure, by Alex T. Smith

Son2 has been reading more independently lately, particularly Enid Blyton and the Beano, so I haven’t had so many children’s books to write about. We’ve managed to break that streak recently though (variety being the spice of life, and all that). He’s a long-time fan of the Claude series by Alex T. Smith – so much so that he went to school dressed as Claude on last year’s World Book Day – so moving on to the longer chapter book Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure (Hodder Children’s Books, 2017) was a logical step.

Mr Penguin

The publisher’s description “Indiana Jones meets Hercule Poirot … with plenty of slapstick humour, mystery and adventure” is pretty apt, and it’s perfectly pitched to appeal to children of around 8 who find bottom jokes hysterical, while still being fun for grown-ups to read aloud. There’s a cast of entertaining characters, an underground jungle and jewel-thieves to foil before Mr Penguin can finally settle down to a well-deserved fish finger sandwich. Fans of Claude will recognise the characteristic wit and exuberant illustrations. We both enjoyed this very much and will be looking forward to Mr Penguin’s next adventure!

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