Welcome back to our amazing Greatest Women in Translation interview series, dear readers!
We’re already half-way through the year, huh? Hope everyone’s doing fine so far.
Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Swedish and Norwegian translator Nicky Smalley, nominated by Jen Calleja.
1. Being Brazilian myself, I cannot help it but start by asking about your English translation of Jogo Bonito, by Henrik Brandão Jönsson, a Swedish book about Brazilian football. What an interesting combination! Could you tell us a bit about your experience?
Ha! It was great! I’m not much of a football buff, but I spent some time living in Brazil a few years ago, and one of my best experiences while living in Rio was seeing Botafogo play Flamengo at the Maracanã. I speak some (very imperfect) Portuguese, so it felt like combining two of my interests – Sweden and Brazil – while learning a lot about football and its role in Brazilian society. Unfortunately, I have to admit to a terrible crime: the murder (or perhaps manslaughter, since there was no intention!) of a former Brazilian president – I mistakenly translated ‘avgå’ (to leave one’s job) as ‘to pass away’ (in Swedish ‘avlida’). I had some accomplices though – neither the author, editor, copy-editor nor the proofreader caught my mistake, so it ended up in the printed book, and only got discovered by a Brazilian journalist who was reviewing the book…
2. You currently live in London, but have previously lived in Berlin, Stockholm and Rio. How long did you live in Rio? How was your experience as a Swedish and Norwegian translator into English? Have you ever translated from Brazilian Portuguese?
I only lived in Rio for a few months – this was at the very beginning of my translation career, when I was working freelance, translating finance texts (oh how I hope I never have to translate another annual report!) for a big multinational. It seemed like the perfect excuse to go and hang out in a tropical country, to dance, to explore, and to drink amazing fruit juice every day! I was also studying Portuguese, which was amazing – I love the language, and it’s a dream to one day speak it really well, maybe even to the extent I could translate it, as there’s so much great writing in Portuguese.
3. Are you translating any book at the moment?
Ahhhhhh… there’s the rub! I should be dedicating all my free time to translating an incredible Swedish book called Eländet (working title ‘Wretchedness’) by Andrzej Tichý, one of my absolute favourite writers. I’ve done half of it, but I’m also expecting my first child, and so my priorities and energy levels are a little all over the place. You could say the human baby I’m nurturing has made it tough to make time for the word baby I’m nurturing!
4. Besides being a translator, you are Publicity, Marketing and Sales Manager for And Other Stories. What exactly does it entail?
Lots and lots of emails and building relationships, be that with authors, translators, journalists, sales reps, booksellers, other publishers, and most importantly, readers! It’s my responsibility to ensure that And Other Stories’ books get talked about in the wider world – in the media, in bookshops, online, in book groups, in homes! I love the books we publish, which makes my job easier, and it’s a really fun challenge to excite people about books that are outside of the mainstream. But my job is so hugely varied – there are certain yearly cycles, but every single day is completely different. I might be writing copy in the morning, pitching authors for interview by lunch, checking sales mid-afternoon, and administering our subscription scheme before home-time. I also work remotely (And Other Stories is based in Sheffield), so there’s lots of self-reliance, which is a skill I developed as a translator.
5. I loved this article you wrote on the reasons why we should read more women in translation! Since you love Swedish and Norwegian literature, what books from those languages, translated (preferably by women, why not?) or not, do you recommend?
Ooh, such a tricky question! My knowledge of Norwegian literature is not as extensive as I’d like (I’m only just starting to get into translating Norwegian (my first Norwegian book – An Unreliable Man, by Jostein Gaarder – is out this autumn with Weidenfeld & Nicholson). One recommendation I can most wholeheartedly give is for people to seek out Gunnhild Øyehaug. A collection of her short stories called Knots was published by FSG last year, and it’s truly excellent. The excellent Kari Dickson translated it, and you can be sure she did an excellent job.
As far as Swedish writers go, I lovelovelove Lina Wolff (coincidentally, she’s a writer we publish at And Other Stories). Working on her novel Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs (translated by Frank Perry) has been one of the highlights of my time in publishing – she’s really funny, as well as being razor-sharp and uncompromising in her criticism of the male canon we’ve all been brought up reading. I’m really looking forward to her next novel, The Polyglot Lovers, coming out next year in the wonderful Saskia Vogel’s translation – I’m expecting big things for it! When I first read it, I was laughing so much on the train that the man next to me stopped me reading and asked ‘Is it really that funny?’ I think he was jealous he couldn’t read it himself. Other Swedish loves of mine include Agnes Lidbeck, who’s written two novels, neither of which has been translated into English, despite my best efforts (she’s very much about the invisible and not-so-invisible tensions underlying relationships, something English-language publishers are often wary of, as they don’t see it as being that marketable in an English-language context).
I’m also a big fan of Mirja Unge’s short story collection It Was Just, Yesterday, which was published by Comma Press a few years back (another Kari Dickson delight!). I used to run a book club for contemporary Swedish fiction, and that was one of my favourites of the books we read. One of my all-time favourite books in Swedish is Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater (translated by the great Joan Tate), which is a super-smart thriller set in rural northern Sweden – it’s creepy as hell, but also really gets under the skin of a very different way of life. Speaking of northern Sweden, another author I’d absolutely love to see translated into English (but who might well be untranslatable), is Stina Stoor, whose debut collection Bli som folk (literally ‘Be respectable’ or ‘Be like everyone else’ or something – the titles in itself is untranslatable!) transfixed me, but is such an astonishingly rich portrait, both linguistically and socially, of the kind of isolated community in Sweden’s far north where Stoor lives, that no one would go near it. It would just be too hard to effectively render its extraordinary dialectal voices, and without them, so much of the magic would be lost. Still, I think it’s nice sometimes, that a language gets to keep its writers to itself, because they’re just too special to be shared (at least I tell myself that – though if someone was brave enough to publish it, I’d leap at the chance to be the enabler of that project).
6. For your PhD in Scandinavian Studies at UCL, you wrote a thesis titled “Contemporary Urban Vernaculars in Rap, Literature and Translation, in Sweden and the UK.” Could you tell us more about it, since it sounds rather interesting?
Do I have to? Only (half-)joking.
I was researching the way in which the everyday language of contemporary cities (in particular London and Stockholm) is influenced by the multilingualism that characterizes them, and the way in which young people in particular use that multilingualism creatively – both in innovating the everyday language they speak to one another, and in codifying that informal language in creative forms like rap. In turn, I looked at the way contemporary writers take inspiration from that informal language, and the rapping that’s born out of it, to create literary representations of life in today’s cities. I also looked at how translators go about taking that writing into other languages – and found a lot of people trying really hard to create their own innovations in order to capture the innovative writing they were working with. It was fun, and the topic is fascinating, but I’m not a natural academic, so let’s just say my scholarly days are behind me!
7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.
I nominate Ginny Tapley Takemori, a translator from Japanese, based outside Tokyo.