I should know better...

19 April 2012

This is by way of an explanation rather than an apology... We all get a lousy review now and again. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not something you can do a lot about, and you have to accept that the stuff you write isn’t going to appeal to everyone. So far Frozen Out and Cold Comfort have attracted some thoroughly decent reviews and I’m not complaining on that score. When a stinker of a review shows up, it’s not worth engaging with the reviewer. A dignified silence serves best.
But the world is full of... OK, I had a lousy review from an anonymous online reviewer. Without wanting to shoot back bile in that person’s direction, I have to admit that this reviewer has (quite possibly inadvertently) made some valid points, especially in regard to his/her chagrin that Cold Comfort uses British idioms and the headaches that are part of setting your work in another country and a different language. A few other reviewers on the other side of the big pond have made the same point, albeit in a rather more constructive manner.
Cold Comfort and Frozen Out are written in a British version of English that sounds alien to an American ear. Well, I’m English, I write for myself and a primarily British readership. I’m not going to apologise because my UK publisher struck a deal with a US publisher to sell the book there. In some instances an American publisher will produce a US edition, carefully edited so that disgruntled American readers aren’t offended by references to pavements instead of sidewalks. Soho didn’t do that, for whatever reason. I have no idea why, but it’s probably a money thing.
That particular reviewer’s gripes also highlight the difficulties of rendering the idioms of one language into another, and it has to be borne in mind that a great many phrases and expressions are not directly translatable. I could just translate and use the Icelandic expression that hardly any of my readers would understand, but that defeats the object of the exercise. I recently read a book set partly in Poland and while it’s a great story that rattles along at a tremendous rate, the author has littered the text with Polish terms that I’m not familiar with. While it looks like this author has done plenty of homework and has a thoroughly convincing knowledge of Polish, it also means that I have to run to google two or three times per chapter, which isn’t ideal.
I could use Icelandic idioms, but that would look awkward, to my way of thinking. The term drengur, which means ‘boy’ has rather different connotations. Drengur can be used affectionately while ‘boy’ doesn’t fit the bill in English, especially in American English. The affectionate term ‘my’ added to someone’s name, as in Jón minn, doesn’t translate at all. It sounds, well, a bit limp-wristed if you call someone ‘my John’ as a term of address. Using the term góði/góða, as in jæja, góði is fraught with dilemma. Translated literally, it would be ‘well, good person’ and sounds laughable. There’s no choice but to fall back on ‘mate’, ‘pal’, ‘chum’, etc.
Bear in mind as well that everyday spoken Icelandic is an enormously rich language, littered with with peculiar expressions that simply don’t lend themselves to direct translation. It’s a delight to immerse yourself in the oddities of expression that Icelanders come up with. A favourite expression is það liggur í augum upp í which translated literally comes across in English as ‘it lies in the eyes upstairs’, a truly wonderful expression that has to be translated as ‘it’s as clear as day’ or something along those lines.
Likewise swearing. Icelanders don’t swear like we do. English/American terms of abuse tend to be reproductive, while Icelandic (and other Nordic) swearing generally tends to be blasphemous. In Icelandic you can call someone a drullusokkur (shit-sock), a kvíkindi (beast) or even a djöfull (devil), all of which sounds pretty tame in English. Conversely, if you were to call someone a rassgat (arsehole), it doesn’t sound at that bad in Icelandic, it just sounds stupid. In fact, it’s almost a term of endearment. ‘What a sweet little arsehole’ is something people coo over babies, rassgat being a term closer to affection than abuse, not what you’d snarl at someone who’d just cut you up at the traffic lights.
So some latitude in rendering these commonplace figures of speech into English has to be used. The end result is that, yes, sadly, Icelanders end up talking like Brits, or, if your publisher decides to have a US version, they talk like Yanks. The reality is that Icelanders talk like... Icelanders. They don’t talk like Brits or Americans. As I write for a primarily Brit audience, Icelandic idioms have to be translated into something else and that’s what works for me. When I wrote Frozen Out, I had no idea that it might be published in the US and when it was, it took me completely by surprise. In writing Cold Comfort, I made an effort to weed out overt Britishisms, but clearly not carefully enough.
So, anonymous reviewer, whoever the andskotinn you might be, there’s more to this than you might imagine. But I’m not going to lose a second’s sleep over his/her indignation that I should be so impertinent as to write in my own language as I see fit, although I might be inclined to take it more seriously if he or she were to post under his/her real name instead of behind an odd soubriquet.

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