We’ve all read translated books, the classics perhaps—Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Voltaire—or newer books like Beartown by Fredrick Backman (translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith), Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born), or Spilt Milk by Chico Buarque (translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin), to name a few popular examples.
But is there something inherently good about reading books in translation as opposed to sticking with the vast English offerings?
“There is something really valuable about hearing about other perspectives, beyond the border of the English speaking world,” said Saint Paul based Swedish-English translator Rachel Willson-Broyles.
Willson-Broyles is the translator behind a large number of new Swedish books – one of those practically invisible people building bridges to other worlds so that the rest of us can walk across.
Bridges, yes, but the “foreign” flavor still needs to be there, Willson-Broyles feels. When she translates (approximately four full-length novels a year), Willson-Broyles is careful not to lose what she calls the “otherness.” She wants the readers to remember that they are somewhere else, other than where the book was set. And retaining the “otherness” shouldn’t be done by using strange word choices or weird sentence structures. Translators have their tricks. A simple one is retaining place names in the original language.
Willson-Broyles’ career as a translator is as amazing as her rapid climb in the world of publishing. As a teenager, she heard a band called Ace of Base on the radio and fell in love with their music. When she learned that the band was Swedish, she began teaching herself the Swedish language. She applied to Gustavus Adolphus College south of the twin cities because they had a Swedish language program. And she got in. She continued on to graduate school at UW Madison, where she got a Ph.D. in Scandinavian Studies.
While at UW Madison, Willson-Broyles’ Swedish class was given an assignment to translate works by Jonas Hassen Khemiri (one of Sweden’s most celebrated contemporary authors). When Jonas Hassen Khemiri came for a campus visit, Willson-Broyles’ professor handed the author her translation and he was so taken with it that he told his publisher he wanted her to translate his book. Since then, she has translated many of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s books for the US market.
In addition… translating the difficult language of Khemiri made Willson-Broyles a name in the publishing world and today, she has as much translation work as she can handle.
All because of a now defunct band called Ace of Base.
So how do you translate a book? What does the process look like?
Willson-Broyles reads the book she is about to translate first. Not all translators do, she said, but she likes to get a feel for the book before she begins. Then she simply opens a word document and the Swedish manuscript Pdf, all on the same screen. The first draft, she says, she tries to whip out as quickly as possible, not worrying about solving problems or figuring things out. Then she goes through the manuscript a second time, more slowly this time, line by line, to be sure it’s all there. “I always miss something the first time,” she said.
During this second draft, she does all the necessary research, makes sure she has understood everything correctly, that nothing is out of context. Somewhere along the line, Willson-Broyles sends the book to her dad, who reads, corrects, finds typos, makes sure nothing sounds awkward. Then she finishes up with her own clean-up draft, where she reads for flow.
It’s not over yet. Often, if the book has an agent, the agent will read and give feedback about things that need to be changed. Then the editor goes through it, then the Swedish author. Lots of people weigh in. Some people might have found that annoying but Willson-Broyles is happy about. “I’m not an editor and I like knowing the book’s been edited by professionals.”
Translation challenges abound, words and phrases that just don’t have an equivalent in English, for example. Or having to learn new technical language with hard-to-find terminology. (She is currently working on a legal thriller with lots of legal terminology, a challenge for sure.) And, she said, it is difficult to do the very best translation while also staying true to the original writing. “Sometimes,” Willson-Broyles said, “I feel I could take more liberties with sentence structure and idiomatic phrases. It’s something I think a lot about. I want to find a good balance.”
Struggles aside, and lucky for us readers, translating is clearly Willson-Broyles cup of tea. “I’ve wanted to work with the Swedish language since I was 15 and I get to do it for a day job. I get to meet really cool people, people who make books happen for a living. And there is nothing like going to the bookstore and finding a book I translated there on the shelf.”