Translation tales

16 September 2011

The German translation of Frozen Out/Assets, published by Bastei Lübbe as In Eisigem Wasser, hits the shelves today. It’s a step into the unknown, not so much because Germany is a new and highly important market, but because of the fact that although I failed a German ‘A’ level thirty years ago, it’s a new language.
I’ve flipped through the couple of dozen pages of In Eisigem Wasser to be found as a taster on and elsewhere, and it’s an eerie feeling seeing so much that’s familiar in new language. Everything’s there, I think, but tantalisingly just beyond reach.
In Eisigem Wasser, as the book is called in German, is translated by a lady called Gabi Reichart-Schmitz, who I gather is a somewhat prolific translator, but it’s unnerving to be entirely in someone else’s hands. Translation is a skilled and frequently undervalued profession.

Many years ago I translated a book by my friend Guðlaugur Arason, into English. Initially I did it for the challenge as much as anything else, and while it’s a marvellous book, it completely failed to attract an English-language publisher.
My Icelandic is good enough to do some translation into English, and colleagues at Winch Monthly sometimes send me a URL or a snippet of information and ask for a ‘quick translation’ as if that’s something automatic that’s done without needing to be thought about. These days I tell people that I can do a translation, or not. If you want a quick translation, try google and hope that it hasn’t confused the past tense of a verb with an obscure noun to render the text either incomprehensible or entirely misleading.
Germany is a hugely important market for Scandinavian books in general. Europeans are big readers, and unlike Brits and Americans, they aren’t afraid of translated literature. A tiny fraction of books available in English are translated – although the appearance of Stieg Larsson in the bestseller lists has probably skewed the figures – while European catalogues are stuffed with books that have already had an outing in their original language. Many of the Nordic crime writers who haven’t appeared at all in English yet have had significant sales in Germany and France.
As far as Icelandic crimewriting is concerned, English language readers are aware of only two – Arnaldur and Yrsa. Yet there are a dozen to choose from in German, plus a couple of outsiders, the Nordic pretenders.
So I’m now in Gabi Reichart-Schmitz’s capable hands and have to trust her entirely. As far as I know, she’s already hard at work on Cold Comfort as well while In Eisigem Wasser (hopefully) climbs the German charts.

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