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Child Wonder: A Translator’s Address

This Wednesday, at a lunch at the Norwegian Ambassador’s residence to mark the publication of Child Wonder, Don Bartlett, who co-translated the novel, rose to offer a few words of admiration for Roy Jacobsen, the author. It was a rare occasion for a translator to tell an author in person exactly what he thinks of his work. It was a day to reflect on the pleasures of translation, so often overlooked in favour of highlighting the pains.

Mr Ambassador, ladies and gentlemen, Roy. I have been invited to say a few words on the occasion of this book launch. Normally, I would run a mile to avoid such an invitation. However, the chance to speak to you, Roy, about the two books I have co-translated with Don Shaw is too good an opportunity to miss. It is strange to think that I have never spoken to you about the experience of translating you, and much stranger that I have never expressed an opinion to you about The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles or Child Wonder.

My first contact with your writing was when Christopher MacLehose asked me to write a reader’s report on what was to become The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles. I read it in one sitting, and I had that experience of joy you have after reading a book you love. I think I concluded the reader’s report with: “This is a gem”. Later, when asked to translate it, through pressure of time, I asked Don Shaw to read it as well, and he had the same experience. It’s a gem, he confirmed. And why? First of all, because of the theme: one of society’s outcasts, the village idiot, teaches invading soldiers about survival skills, civility, morality, being decent. Next, the structure: a neat switch between first-person narrative for the story and third-person for the post-Winter War peace. And a grim humour. And not one cheap trick in sight. Most of all, though, it was the language that did it for me. Unsentimental, pared down, sculpted, succinct, precise, calibrated, varied, not a word too many, not a word too few. Longish sentences that move to their own rhythm and their own rules. And this was the challenge of the translation. Could the same be done with English? We thought so, and eventually Roy’s incomparable style carried the day. And readers liked it. Reviews were good. It was also short-listed for the Impac Prize. In a way, though, the apogee of your success took place in this very room. At a dinner, here, the previous ambassador’s wife told me that she had read the translation and was so enthusiastic that she went out and bought two more copies, so that, as she said, she could put a copy in each of the guest rooms to prove to her guests how good modern Norwegian literature is. I look at The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles and still feel it is a gem. I like all the books I have translated, but in my opinion this is the best.

Or at least it was. Until Child Wonder came along. This book has a very different theme, of course, but there is the same uplifting message of basic decency, there are new, wonderful characters, and it is packed with humour and keen observation. And there is the same unsurpassable attention to linguistic detail, with a wide range of register, grammatical structure, sentence pattern and vocabulary. Again the writing is concise, pared, meticulously trimmed and crafted. And our editors have the experience and horizon to cope with a non-traditional style. But there are the same translation problems. Where some writers might take a page and a half to describe a scene, you might do the same in one sentence, and it works. It works really well. However, this is not good news for the poor translator. Translating you, Roy, is no walk in the park, as I am sure you must know. You have to read very, very carefully, take the compressed sentences or compact images apart and then reassemble them. Test how the parts fit. Test the rhythm. It takes a lot of time and thought. And two heads in these circumstances are definitely better than one. This might sound like a complaint, a translator’s moan, but it is not. Because I, or we, have only the greatest respect for your skill and quality. Working on this book has been challenging, arduous, exhilarating, at times hilarious, intellectually rewarding and a huge pleasure. Child Wonder is a rich, heart-warming book with universal appeal that I hope will serve to enhance your reputation in English-speaking countries even further. You deserve it. You set standards.

I couldn’t finish without thanking Roy for his kind help and also mentioning that the most serious dispute he and I have had is over the correct nomenclature for certain red berries to be found in Norway. Apparently, my first choice ‘cranberry’ doesn’t do them justice. I have therefore flirted with cowberries, whortleberries, mountain bilberries, foxberries and lingonberries, but with some exhortation from Roy – on his Telenor phone – I plumped for lingonberries in the end. In my defence, I would say that Wikipedia indicates there is a long-standing confusion between cranberries and lingonberries …

I would like to propose a toast to Roy and to the success of Child Wonder:

Skål

Don Bartlett, London, 2011

Child Wonder was published this week.