Stepping sideways

27 October 2014

 It seems there’s something of a hiatus in my career as a writer of crime novels. The next novel is pretty much written, another episode in the troubled life of my fictional lady detective who solves crime in and around Reykjavík. It has a title, Thin Ice, that maintains the chilly theme, and I’m fairly happy with it so far.

Of course the eagle-eyed copy editor has yet to get to grips with it, but that won’t happen for a while as my publisher has been going through something of an upheaval after having changed hands, and the list for next year is full. So Thin Ice won’t be out until sometime in 2016. On the other hand, there will be a Kindle-only novella, Summerchill, at some point next year.

I heard some critic jokily point out that Nordic crime fiction always seems to be set in the depths of dark winter, so I thought I’d have a stab at some midsummer crime, just to prove them wrong with a story set in the middle of a summer as hot as summers get in Iceland. Hence Summerchill.

So with a year or so of twiddling my thumbs before Thin Ice finally appears, and by which time I will probably have forgotten entirely what the book is all about, I’m taking a step sideways.
My fellow crime writer and co-conspirator in organising Iceland Noir, Ragnar Jónasson, has reached a deal with a UK publisher for two of his books to appear in translation – and I’m delighted that I’ve been asked to translate his work. It’s a daunting amount of work to do, and there’s a fairly tight deadline. But I like a challenge and a deadline to work to, and it’ll keep me off the streets of the next few months.

This is actually no mean achievement on Ragnar’s part. While the reigning king and queen of Icelandic crime fiction, Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, have been in print in English for many years, only Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson and Árni Thórarinsson have since appeared in English, published by Amazon alongside a few authors of other genres from Iceland. So Ragnar’s having been signed by UK publisher is something of a milestone as he’s only the fifth of a teeming community of crimewriters in Iceland to be published in English. There are others published in French, German, Spanish, Norwegian, Czech and other languages, but not English, and that’s a story in itself. 

The books are Snjóblinda (Snowblind), due to be published early next year and Náttblinda (Nightblind), which should be out in 2016. They are set in Siglufjörður, the most northerly town in Iceland, a fishing port that was a buzzing hive of activity during the herring years up to the end of the 1960s, but which has since gradually declined and stabilised after some difficult years.

Snowblind and Nightblind are being published by Orenda Books, a brand-new venture by Karen Sullivan, who has left Arcadia Books to set up on her own. It’s a brave step and deserves to be successful as Karen brings a huge energy and enthusiasm to the job, as well as having a reputation for fighting tooth and nail for her authors.

Now I have to sharpen my wits, dig out a few dictionaries and get to work. Writing and translation may sound similar but the two are largely separate sets of skills. Writing your own stuff is so much easier in some ways as the author decides exactly where to go, or not go.
Translation means working within a more rigid framework, but it’s a framework that can stretch surprisingly far on occasions. There’s a fine line to tread as the translator has a duty to replicate, as faithfully as the difficulties of language allow, the author’s meaning, but without straying into editing.

The real problems arise when idioms and worse, jokes, appear. A joke that hinges on a linguistic quirk in one language can’t necessarily be reproduced in another and to translate it direct would be to do the author a deep disservice. This is where the flexibility comes in, as the translator has to decide to go for accuracy and rendering a joke precisely, but removing any element of a joke in the process, or substituting a new joke for an untranslatable one, which maintains the feel the author wanted if not the exact text. It’s deciding between the letter and the spirit.

The temptation to improve on the original, however slightly, must be resisted. That said, a suitably inspired translation can make a good book into a brilliant book, while it can work the other way and a poor translation can ruin a fine book.

There has been quite a bit of head-scratching already, a lot of waiting for the kettle to boil yet again while mulling over ideas and alternatives. It’s great mental exercise, it sharpens your command of both languages, and if nothing else, the mental gymnastics are as good as any crossword in keeping the grey matter from going stale.

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