A translator's trials and tribulations

Things will inevitably slow down here on the blog now, as the main part of my impossible project has now been dissected and discussed from beginning to end, with the last three posts being some kind of abstract presenting you with the most important and the greatest short stories of the genre.

There will be follow-ups where I try to see what would happen if I were to try to create my own anthologies of the material, but so as not to burn myself out (nor any patient reader of this blog) on the impossible mystery genre - as if that could happen! - such follow-ups will have to wait.

So, what instead? Well, to begin with we'll go on a tangent from this project. During the course of my postings here you'll probably have seen that I am also in the process of translating the bulk of these stories. This translation project is entirely for myself - at this moment.

I've been doing this translating thing since at least the late 90s, when I began by translating all Agatha Christie short stories into Swedish. All her novels were already translated, and there were maybe 50 short stories or so that hadn't been translated. I just thought that they really should be, if for nothing else than just so I could read them in my own language.

This means that it is something done entirely for my own pleasure, and I try to make it as pleasurable for myself as well. After all, if it's something I'll probably never see any kind of remuneration from, I don't want it to get boring as well...

Not that I'd mind if someone would give me some...
What I try to do is to vary my translations a bit, skipping from a story by one author to another. I also try to have two different stories going at the same time, so I can switch over when I've grown tired of one author's particular writing tics. This is to the advantage of my peace of mind, but to the detriment of speedy translations. Because if I'd concentrate on one author and translate all their stories and then move on to another, I'd get more and more used to that author's shtick and that would make translating it easier. But more boring, as I said.

My main problem as a translator is that I'm too faithful to the original English text, which means that some turns of phrase sound less idiomatic in Swedish than they would if they were originally spoken or written by a Swedish speaker. It's not a huge problem, because most Swedes speak English rather well and their speech and writing is quite influenced by English anyway. Still it's something I'd like to move away from more.

Swedes are generally better at English than this
How does this translating lark work then? Well, I sit in front of the computer with a word processing programme (I refuse to use the word "app" for things I have on my computer - apps are for smartphones and tablets) with the English story in front of me on the desk. I'm fairly proficient in the English language (I hope you'll agree), so generally I just go along merrily. When I stumble on a word I'll just go over to Google translate and in 99 % of all cases they'll help me out so I can continue. The remaining 1 % - often specialised words that don't feature in a general thesaurus - can almost always be solved by some extra googling and/or visits to Wikipedia.

I'll shamefacedly admit that sometimes I will actually skip translating a word if it hasn't been solved by the above measures. After all, some words have no importance in the big picture of telling the story, they just add colour to the whole thing. This is just a last resort though, and of course it doesn't apply when the word in question actually has an importance to the plot.

The hardest thing to translate are word clues, particularly riddles and clues for some kind of treasure hunt. Sometimes it's possible to make them into Swedish ones, but problems arise when a clue is supposed to be interpreted in more ways than one in order to create false leads. It has happened that I had to give up and just used the English clue as is.

This was fairly hard to translate, for example.
Another fairly interesting and difficult thing which arises from translating mystery stories is the fact that sometimes things are revealed in a story that are later shown to have a very different meaning. Because I am translating the stories on the go, without actually re-reading them immediately before starting - another thing I do to keep the work less boring - sometimes I will notice that something I translated a certain way earlier on will have to be changed now to comply with the intended meaning of the author.

Translating a regular short story (say between 10 and 15 pages) takes me two-three days. Of course that's not eight work hours a day. The way I work with the translations - and the fact that I actually hold a real job as well - means that I'll just put in at the most a couple of hours translation work with a particular story a day. I might do four or five pages in one sitting before moving on to doing some real work or simply to another story or just some regular procrastination. And one such sitting will probably take between half an hour and one hour. And I don't do any translating during the weekends.

As I've been doing this translating thing for quite a long time now, any time I read a story in English I will invariably find myself translating everything in my head as I read it. It makes for a quite annoying reading habit...

What am I translating at the moment then? Well, I just finished James Yaffe's "Department of Impossible Crimes" yesterday. It was a fairly easy translation, where the only potential problem lay in the crossword puzzle clue. But since that was a very straightforward clue I didn't need to do any restructuring and could simply focus on translating it as is. I'm also in the middle of translating Joe Commings's "X Street Murders", which hade a few boring ballistic related terms that I shortened down, and as I've finished the Yaffe story I'll soon start on to Ed Hoch's "The Problem of the Pink Post Office".

Anyway, time to round off a fairly useless placeholder post. I hope you found it moderately interesting to consider what a translator has to go through, even if it's just a hobby.


  1. A rather unique hobby you have there, Christian! Do you share your translations with others? Do you ever re-read them?

    On a different note, are there some authors or styles that are harder to translate than others, in your experience? What do you attribute that to?

    1. Well, a couple of the translations are under consideration for Deckarhyllan - the publishers I've mentioned before here on the blog - at least I believe so.

      But otherwise, they're mainly for my pleasure. And yes, I do re-read them. And sometimes I wince at my clunky translations, while other times I enjoy having a quicker read in my mother tongue than having to readjust my brain to the English language.

      I'd say that generally it's harder to translate when an author has a very distinctive voice - or belongs to a different time. It's harder for me to translate a story from the 1800s than a more modern one, because there are words that are used slightly differently, or have fallen out of use.

      If I compare some of the well-known mystery authors, I think someone like John Dickson Carr is harder to translate than say Ellery Queen or Edward D. Hoch, simply because Carr tries to build up so much suspense and gloom with his language, something that doesn't come naturally to me in my writing (and also something that I find hard to take in my reading as well...)

      My days of translating Christie are long past, since I finished them all in the early 00s, but I remember her as being fairly easy to translate. (So it was probably good that I had to begin with her.)

      Meanwhile, Edmund Crispin could sometimes be a bit harder because of his erudite language and academic in-jokes. I'd imagine someone like Michael Innes or Nicholas Blake would be the same, though I've never had to translate anything by them, IIRC.

    2. Thank you for the detailed and thoughtful answers.

  2. Hi,
    You are my soulmate. TRanslation is also my hobby. The only problem is that I type 100000 characters instead of 10000 cuz I can't type (too late to learn), plus it isn't my main job, just at night and at the weekend. I have researcher's mind, I look up everything on the net (if i am not in a hurry). Every translation is a journey into a new world. Best regards
    Erika (HUngary)

  3. and funny story about the translator's mind: Almost couldn't get off the train travelling in the special carriage delivering bikes because I was tanslating the "how to open the door" instructions instead of trying to open the really complicated lock and door. Luckily, my husband saved me from the outside tearing off the carriage door (it was an old type of sliding door but with some bolt or a bar)