In conversation with... Susan Beard

Hi Susan! Thank you for joining me today. I loved reading The Silver Road by Stina Jackson, which you have translated from the Swedish, and I’d like to ask you a few questions both on this specific book and more generally on translation. So let’s begin…

How did you get started in literary translation?

A: I became a translator by accident while I was working in Sweden and had to translate news copy and scripts into English for my job with Swedish Radio. Contacts made there led to commercial translating work for larger Swedish companies. When I was asked by a documentary film maker to translate an excerpt from his biography I found I enjoyed the experience so much that I knew literary translation was for me. At the same time I realised that some kind of training and qualification in the field was vital, not only to provide me with the necessary skills and confidence, but also to give any prospective clients confidence in my ability. After returning to the UK I gained the Diploma in Translation from the Chartered Institute of Linguists and then, while working part time in a library (most translators need a second job), over the counter came a book of translated short stories published by the British Centre for Literary Translating at the University of East Anglia. I’d had no idea there was such a place! I applied for their MA in Literary Translating programme and they took me on. Continuing the serendipity theme, it just so happened that UEA had a Scandinavian Studies department (sadly now extinct) that published The Swedish Book Review. Fellow translator Neil Smith was editor of the Review at that time and he gave me the chance of translating a couple of short samples for the magazine, which meant I could now call myself a published translator and become eligible to join various professional organisations. Never underestimate the value of this! Networking can lead to all sorts of opportunities. When one member of SELTA (The Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association) offered me a translation he didn’t have time for, that kickstarted my new career as a literary translator, because it just happened to be a children’s book by Astrid Lindgren, which in turn led to ten more new translations of her work, including most recently three Pippi Longstocking books (as yet unpublished).

Without giving too much away, can you please describe a scene that you loved translating or that was particularly difficult to render in English?

A: There wasn’t a particular scene in The Silver Road that was difficult to render into English but I did find the darker episodes emotionally challenging. There was also the question of the occasional references to the Norrland dialect, which I wanted to include to give a sense of place but which were finally edited out. For example, certain characters refer to Lelle’s daughter as the equivalent of ”your lass” or ”your maid”, but we eventually settled for plain ”daughter”. I quite agree that nothing must leap off the page and disturb the reading process, and sometimes it doesn’t really matter to a reader, even though we translators can be precious and insist on pleading our case. The publisher knows what sells and I rely on their knowledge. The Silver Road also has the most beautiful descriptions of nature and it was important to me to replicate Stina’s choice of vocabulary and recreate the atmosphere.

Did you have any contact with the author? In general, how do you find that having access to the author impacts on the translating process?

A: I did have contact with the author in the final stages of editing, when there were a few queries the editor and I needed to resolve. I think it’s extremely helpful to work together with an author and I’m always grateful for their feedback and comments. There are always a few things that can be ambiguous for a translator and need clarifying by the author. On the other hand, I have occasionally had to diplomatically insist that my knowledge of the English language is (I hope) better than the Swedish author’s - not the case with Stina, I must add.

What do you think contributes to a good translation?

A: First and foremost that it reads as if it had been written in English originally - no clunky sentences, strange word order or cultural concepts alien to readers with no knowledge of Swedish culture. That said, I always strive to retain as many foreignizing elements as possible, believing that readers are capable of understanding Swedish names of people and places. One of Astrid Lindgren’s characters, the boy detective Kalle Blomkvist, became Bill Bergson in an early translation, to make it easier for readers… but on second thoughts perhaps it is hard for non-Swedes to know how to pronounce Lelle (short for Lennart) in The Silver Road. Faithfulness to original in terms of plot and style is key, of course, although each translator will produce a different end result.

What are you working on at the moment? 

A: Nothing! I’m resting, as they say. Partly because I have spent the past few years translating nonstop to deadlines and now my brain needs a rest, but also because I haven’t been offered anything else. Due to the number of years it takes to become established as a literary translator I am now of retirement age and can survive on my pension, so I am in the enviable position of being able to choose not to take on a project. I also firmly believe that up and coming translators need to be given a chance and so I pass on work to younger colleagues whenever I can.

What are you reading at the moment?

A: I have just started reading Swedish author Torgny Lindgren’s Bat Seba. It hasn’t been translated yet due, I suspect, to the fact that no UK publisher can afford to finance the translation of a book that is not likely to become a best seller. Only one of his books has been translated into English so far, and I would love to accept the challenge of translasting his Dorés bibel – I have it as a vanity project for later on in my retirement. It would not only be a challenge but an enormous pleasure. 

Is there one genre that you prefer translating? Does this reflect your preference as a reader?

A: I have had two thrillers, two novels for young adults and numerous childrens’ books published, so I suppose I would say I prefer translating books for children of various ages. However, I thoroughly enjoyed translating The Silver Road for Stina’s beautifully evocative prose as much as the compelling storyline. My preference as a reader is for translated books reflecting different cultures and writing styles, and one of my favourite authors is the late W G Sebald. I love American author Marilynne Robinson’s books, as well as those by classic British authors Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, especially Silas Marner. I read poetry too, and always turn to the collected works (in Swedish) of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. 

Many thanks for your time!

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