31 January 2009

"I need a dump truck, baby, to unload my head"

One occupational talent that is indispensable for a translator is to learn how to forget. Working simultaneously in technical translation and foreign-language typesetting, and later book design and typography, this essential skill developed over 14 years. The drawback is that once a book translation is finally printed, you can't really remember doing it. A lot of the time that's a blessed boon. It takes a really good book to stick in your head, and Stieg Larsson's do, even two to three years later. I'll leave it to the academics to figure out why. To me that's the mark of a genius writer.

30 January 2009

How I learned Swedish

[This picture is from Malmö]

Besides the early days of going to Helsingborg [spelled Hälsingborg back in those days, can any Swede tell me why?] to buy books and eat "glass" [ice cream] and "varm korv med potatismos" [hot dogs with mashed potatoes/sausage and mash], in 1974 I discovered that there was a field called technical translation. Having always been a good student in chemistry in college, I thought I'd give it a try.

I rifled through the yellow pages in major cities across the U.S. and sent out query letters to about a hundred translation agencies. Nothing. About a year later I got a call from the Institute LanFranco in San Francisco, asking if I could translate an article from Norwegian about aluminum rolling mills. "No problem." I got the 5-page document in the mail and then read the entire article on aluminum in the Britannica, dusted off my Norwegian-English dictionary, and produced a believable article -- anyway, there were no complaints. [And this was before instant answers and diagrams on the Internet.] I think I was paid 1.5 cents per word. Wow, this wasn't so hard.

So for the next year I survived mostly by doing translation, since my previous attempts to interest publishers in avant-garde Danish fiction, and even a Danish fantasy novel about the national hero, Holger Danske, at the court of Charlemagne and fighting the Saracens, had come to naught. I hooked up with one of the best agencies in the States, AD-EX, and was soon their go-to guy for translating Swedish nuclear power documentation for an American company that was selling them reactors. This lucrative gig lasted until 1980, when in the wake of Three Mile Island, Swedish voters passed a referendum to cut back on nuclear power. End of gravy train, but by that time I was pretty freaked out about working in this "evil" industry anyway.

[Barsebäck Nuclear Power Plant – now closed]

I had acquired some typesetting machines in 1976-77 in order to supply AD-EX with foreign-language typography for their corporate clients. Besides doing the standard Spanish, French, and German jobs for them, Arabic was big at the time because the Saudis and Gulf states were spending money like crazy with American companies. So I took an Arabic course at UC Berkeley and started doing Arabic rub-on press type for headlines on brochures. Then I bought an IBM electric typewriter that went from right to left and learned to type on the Arabic/Farsi keyboard. This was all fine as long as the copy to be "typeset" was already typed. Unfortunately what the agency received from their translators was usually handwritten. As anyone who has studied Arabic will know, the penmanship of the average writer leaves much to be desired. In fact, if you don't know the language well you have no hope of guessing what many words are.

So that's how I learned Swedish, beyond just reading novels. In addition to nuclear power, I learned lots of vocabulary from many scientific, industrial, and business fields in all 3 Nordic languages and German. I even did a 100-page book from Dutch "proving" that the probability of a nuclear meltdown in Holland was less than a 747 crashing into a stadium during the final game of the World Cup. Turns out it was all great training for doing crime fiction. How many times does a translator have to know whether the safety-relief valve will handle the proper volume of feedwater flow after a LOCA when blowing down to the pressure suppression pool without significant cavitation, anyway?

Nuts & bolts of translation (1)

I have a query from Marco in Italy about exactly how long a book translation usually takes.

My wife Tiina Nunnally and I work together on every translation. One of us does the rough draft and the other edits the manuscript. The one who does the rough draft gets the credit on the book's title page. Generally we go over a highly literary work 3 to 6 times, polishing it to a high sheen. Most crime fiction doesn't take quite as much effort.

When we first started working together back in the days when we ran Fjord Press, the translator would read the English aloud while the other would follow along in the original language. This was very time-consuming but damn good training. And you'd be surprised how easy it is to drop a line or even a paragraph, especially if there are similar phrases in similar positions on the page. We are proud that our translations at Fjord Press were remarkably error-free, compared to most books today, now that publishers are cutting back on copy editing, or eliminating that step altogether.

As for the time it takes to do a book, we usually allow 3 to 6 months, depending on the length and difficulty. Of course we have several projects going at once, so these deadlines take into account all the "free" work we have to do after the final translation is turned in to the publisher: querying authors on troublesome phrases, looking at proofs (which usually have to be turned around fast and cut into translating time of the current book in progress), even translating, suggesting or correcting cover copy and blurbs.

Since translation is usually piecework, we get paid by the number of words in the final English manuscript. Our initial rate is thus expressed in dollars/pounds/euros per 1000 English words. We ask for 50% in advance to cover living expenses while working on the book, and 50% on delivery and approval of the translation.

We are firm believers in the concept that the translator must share in the success of any book which goes on to bestseller status, or in the case of classics, will sell steadily for many years, so we always require a small royalty. After a book "earns out" (accrues enough royalties to offset the original cost of the translation), we receive semi-annual royalty statements, and payment of the balance (sometimes minus a "reserve for returns" which the publisher holds in case a large number of books come back from bookstores and wholesalers) is due 90 days thereafter. Most books never earn out, however, so getting a fat or even modest royalty check is a rare occurrence, but always a nice surprise.

We each generally try to do 3-6 novels per year, somewhere around 350,000 to 600,000 words. [CENSORED]

While each of the 3 Mankell novels I did was supposed to be due in 3 months, I recall that we cranked out one of them -- I don't recall which -- in about 4 weeks because the "advance" was 2 months late! That's the publishing business for you.

25 January 2009

How I learned Danish

[I decided to elevate this to a post, since it's not really a comment. Will do new topics in a post instead of a comment from now. Still learning.]

After studying Latin (why?) and German in high school, and continuing with German at Stanford, I went to the overseas campus in Beutelsbach near Stuttgart for 6 months. Coming home on a student ship (!) from Rotterdam I met a bunch of kids from San Francisco State College who'd been studying in Scandinavia. From what they told me about it, it was total immersion in the language, unlike my German experience where all the Americans lived together and had to leave on the weekend to go out and practice German in real life.

I went on the Scandinavian Seminar the next year, which was not really an "exchange" program, because nobody went the other direction. The group of about a hundred students spent a couple of weeks in intensive language training at Holbæk Højskole (featuring teachers such as poets Poul Borum and Inger Christensen -- I still recall them donning their leathers and setting off one evening on their motorcycle for Copenhagen to see the Stones -- and this was 1964) and then dispersed to live with families in the 4 Scandinavian countries, ostensibly for more language practice. Unfortunately I got sent to a farm in eastern Jutland (Hornsyld) that just wanted spare hands for the hay harvest. After a few weeks there learning the local dialect, which would come in handy later in Copenhagen, I was sent off to Krogerup Folk High School in Humlebæk to attend the most intellectual school in the whole system.

The experience of learning a language by total immersion is about as close as you can come to starting over at age 2. People treat you according to what you can say, not what you can understand (which is always much more). So for a couple of months I would go to the daily assembly and sing songs in Danish or Swedish that I barely understood, then listen to a lecture by some visiting bigwig that I understood even less. The sensation was of words literally flying "over my head." But like snowflakes they eventually started to stick, and soon I found myself dreaming in Danish -- and not understanding the words in the dream either! But my brain had duly recorded them and was playing them back.

Because I was the only one in the group who had studied German instead of languages like French or Spanish that were relatively useless in Scandinavia in those days, I picked it up faster, and in about 3 months I could pretty much figure out how to say anything in a roundabout way. My big breakthrough came when sitting around in someone's dorm room trying to tell "elephant jokes" (remember those, anyone?) in Danish. With the help of a few beers we were all cracking up at my wacky mistakes. [Hvorfor går elefanter med røde gummisko på? For at kunne skjule sig i kirsebærtræerne.]

By that time I was participating more in classes, doing book reports in Danish because my teacher in Danish class (poet Erik Knudsen) would assign me to read the English books. Always a translation nut, I started attempting to translate poems into and out of Danish. As Per Olov Enquist once wrote in Lewis resa, "Poetry differed from prose in that it had shorter sentences and was written by slackers." I recall Wallace Stevens being particularly hard, no slacker he.

And my film and Nordic literature teacher (the great Niels Jensen) was screening the best of European cinema for his class in many languages. We all trekked up to the local cinema in Espergærde one evening and had to sit through "Last Year at Marienbad" with actors that all looked like Giacometti sculptures because the theater didn't have the right lens.

Fortunately Krogerup is located right across the Sound from Helsingborg, Sweden, which was a favorite destination on Saturdays. I learned to understand spoken skånska, the southern Swedish dialect, fairly well. And then Niels Jensen started us reading books in Swedish!

[to be continued]

22 January 2009

Reg Keeland on the blogosphere

Hello all you readers of Stieg Larsson in English! Reg Keeland here, and I've finally figured out how to blog. I welcome any comments or questions you might have about the Millennium series, and I'll do my best to answer them. Languages that are welcome on this blog are English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, German, and Spanish, but I'll usually be replying in English.

Step right up, and let the blogging begin!