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Interview with the translator: The Year the River Froze Twice

Following the publication of Inga Ābele’s Duna in English as The Year the River Froze Twice, we sat down (remotely!) with the translator, Christopher Moseley, to discuss his experiences of translating this work for a non-Latvian readership.

Norvik Press is known for promoting Scandinavian literature (although there are some notable exceptions, particularly some novels from Estonia, including your own translation of Pobeda 1946. What led to this project to translate a Latvian classic into English?

It’s the first Latvian novel I have translated, although I have worked on short stories before, including the Norvik anthology From Baltic Shores. I gained experience in Latvian during 19 years at BBC Monitoring, as a news translator. This particular project came about when I met the author at a summer school for translators at UEA. While working together on translating one of her short stories, we got to talking and I introduced her to one of the Directors of Norvik Press. At that time, Duna was Inga’s most recently published novel. I completed a sample, got hooked on it, and was lucky enough to get accepted to translate it for Norvik with support from Latvian Literature. These kinds of meetings at UEA and (pre-COVID) at Riga, are important for translators of Latvian fiction into English – there aren’t many of us!

Duna is included in Latvian Literature’s list of 10 Saddest Latvian Books. Did translating the novel take an emotional toll on you?

Yes, it did – it’s a pretty grim story. I consider myself hard-nosed, cynical, but it moved me to tears at times. It’s centred on a researcher interviewing a man, Andrievs, whose experience of life has taught him that horses are more trustworthy than people. He’s quite cynical himself, having suffered at the hands of the Soviet system – he’s a bit of a recluse, restrained, reserved, he doesn’t give easily of himself, but the researcher gradually gets him to open up. She really has to draw him out – he’s learned that talking too much gets him into trouble – and that’s what’s interesting about the novel, we learn the information alongside the researcher. Andrievs is emblematic of all those others who suffered. It’s a road trip novel too – the researcher takes him back to earlier scenes from his life, along the Daugava River – there’s a map included in the book – and most of these flashbacks are painful. Intriguingly, the researcher remains nameless – it’s very much Andriev’s story.

What challenges did you encounter in translating the novel from Latvian into English?

Big translation challenges! I was constantly asking the author for advice. Latgale – the province in eastern Latvia, bordering on Russia, that the story leads towards and where horses are famously bred – has its own dialect of Latvian: Latgalian. It’s close enough to Latvian to be understandable but tantalisingly different too, so difficult for the translator!

There were two further translation challenges: the terminology of communism, and the terminology of the trotting track. There are lots of communist terms that Latvians of a certain generation would be familiar with (the book is set around 1949, with flashbacks to the Second World War), but which need explaining for younger generations. And I’m not an expert on ‘the track’, so I had to learn fast! Involvement in the trotting track is Andriev’s main occupation and it’s also through this that he is inveigled into making a mistake that is a crime in the eyes of the Communists. The Communists actually attempted to control the betting system on the track – even winning prizes had to be socialised via Moscow. Andrievs is a victim of this. It makes absolutely no sense, he’s arrested for something he doesn’t really understand, but this is part of the interest of the novel: it’s political.

How did you exercise creativity as a translator?

My role in the creative process is to try and capture the voice of the author as closely as I can – the creative part is trying to make the book sound as if it’s not translated, to capture the author’s voice. In this book, footnotes are used to contextualise its events for non-Latvians, which could have a distancing effect but in this case reflects Inga’s voice, how well-researched the book is, by highlighting the extensive knowledge Inga gathered. I’m sure that even native Latvians would learn a lot from this book [Duna was originally commissioned as part of the historic novel series We. Latvia. The 20th Century to celebrate the centenary of Latvian independence]. As just one example, after I’d finished the translation, the author sent me what had been a highly secret protocol that is now being released under the Latvian equivalent of the Official Secrets Act. This document reports on the events of 25 March 1949 – the year the river froze twice! – when there was a mass deportation to Siberia of Latvians who were considered a threat to the system. It’s from the Latvian KGB to Moscow, and it’s written in Latvian – not Russian, as one might have expected. I translated this too and it’s bloodcurdling to read. Inga’s mission is to reveal the truth to a new generation of Latvians before it’s forgotten or erased. I think that’s what’s most important about this book.

A lighter note to end on: what are some of your favourite Latvian words?

I’m so fond of Latvian, my favourite word is usually the last word I saw! But I particularly like the word for ‘history’: vēsture. The word for ‘wet’ is delightful and sounds like exactly how it should sound: slapjš. I teach Latvian and I enjoy telling my students the tongue-twister word for ‘railway’: dzelzceļš.

Many thanks to Christopher Moseley and to Latvian Literature for subsidising the translation. An extract from The Year the River Froze Twice can be read here, and copies can be ordered from bookshop.org.

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Norvik Press launch English translation of Ābele’s Duna

Andrievs Radvilis is a former jockey on the Riga trotting track whose solitary retirement is interrupted when a young journalist comes to interview him about his career. Their meeting leads to a journey of reminiscence across Latvia, never straying far from the mighty Daugava river, which flows through the story as Radvilis recalls his early life. The weeks leading up to the fateful date of 25 March 1949, when Stalin launched his deportation campaign in Soviet Latvia, form the main historical backdrop of this novel. As an independent-minded man who would not engage with Stalinism nor compromise with the truth, Radvilis is imprisoned and blacklisted. Bitter experience of war, love and politics lead him to trust horses more than people.

Inga Ābele was born in Riga in 1972. She studied biology at the University of Latvia, and worked for three years as a trainer on a horse-breeding farm. Her work shows evidence of her rigorous scientific training, balanced with her deep understanding of human motives. Ābele’s prose works are the product of thorough research; she is fascinated by the little-known by-ways of Latvian history and its more unsung heroes.

This translation by Christopher Moseley was supported by Latvian Literature.

You can read an extract of the novel here, and if you’re champing at the bit for the complete novel, you can order it at Bookshop.org or Hive (and support your local bookshop at the same time!).

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Back to university: ebooks and reading lists

Where has the summer gone?! With the reading-hammocks being folded away and back-to-school beckoning, this week we’re highlighting two resources: our new ebook catalogue, and recommendations for university reading lists.

Hot off the (digital) press, our 2020 Ebook Catalogue collects together all the Norvik titles that are currently available for you to download and enjoy instantly on your Kindle or other e-reader device:

Vigdis Hjorth’s PEN award-winning A House in Norway, translated by Charlotte Barslund – a perfect choice for #WITMonth

Ilmar Taska’s acclaimed Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory, translated by Christopher Moseley

Kirsten Thorup’s timely The God of Chance, translated by Janet Garton

Jógvan Isaksen’s Walpurgis Tide, translated by John Keithsson – a slice of Faroese eco-crime

We hope to digitise more of our backlist in future, too.For those returning to campus – in-person, or remotely – we recommend some autumnal poetry: Hans Børli’s We Own the Forest: And Other Poems presents a dual-language text with facing-page English translations rendered by Louis A. Muinzer. This work by the ‘lumberjack poet’ – a phrase I’ve never had occasion to write before! – is ideal for Norwegian classes. Students of Finnish may also be interested in our forthcoming selection of poems by Pentti Saarikoski, A Window Left Open, jointly translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah and also in a dual-language format.

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A summer of Lagerlöf – highlights

For those who couldn’t join the Anglo-Swedish Society’s literary salon celebrating the superb Selma last week, all the readings and discussion were recorded and are now available to enjoy here: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=anglo-swedish+society

You can also read through our live-tweeting from the event on our Twitter feed here: https://twitter.com/norvikpress (posts dated 4 August). If you are now looking to fill a Lagerlöf-shaped hole in your life, we would suggest Lord Arne’s Silver, translated by Sarah Death. This novella makes a lasting impression on its readers and is best read in company and full sunlight. An economical and haunting tale of robbery and retribution, it can be inhaled in a single, nerve-shredding sitting but remains in the mind for a long time afterwards. You can purchase this classic here.

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A summer of Lagerlöf – continued

We have some more pre-reading for you this week, ahead of the Anglo-Swedish Society’s Selma Lagerlöf – A Wonderful Adventure event and Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth).

Part of our Lagerlöf in English series and translated by Linda Schenck, Banished examines what happens to an individual rejected by society, and what happens to a society that realises – too late – that the living are more important than the dead, and that it is suffering a crisis of values and priorities. What does war do to us and to our outlook on the world?

Lagerlöf struggled with these issues throughout World War I and experienced a mental block in writing about them. Then she found an opening and produced a thought-provoking tale of love, death and survival that grapples with moral dilemmas as relevant today as they were a century ago.

An extract of Banished is available to read here, which covers some unexpected guests – thought-provoking preparatory reading if you are Zooming in to the Anglo-Swedish Society’s salon next week, and eerily resonant of these times of post-travel quarantine.

If this has made you curious to add the complete book to your summer reading tower, you can buy it here.

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A summer of Lagerlöf

Ahead of the Anglo-Swedish Society’s event celebrating Selma Lagerlöf – A Wonderful Adventure and Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) in August, we are highlighting our library of Lagerlöf in English.

Anna Svärd is Lagerlöf’s last work of fiction and the final volume in her Löwensköld Trilogy. First published in Swedish in 1928 and translated for Norvik Press by Linda Schenck, it completes the family cycle of the preceding two volumes, The Löwensköld Ring and Charlotte Löwensköld, and combines a compelling account of women’s struggle towards agency with a chilling – and unexpected – denouement.

They laughed loud and long, each one louder than the
next, though at the same time they were embarrassed. It was,
of course, not proper to laugh when the head of the family
and household had been duped. They were decent, well-bred
women and they definitely disapproved of themselves. But
their laughter quite simply came from natural human depths,
and could not be restrained without risk of suffocation.

We have made an extract from Anna Svärd newly available here. This scene is a joy for all: it recounts a practical joke which is particularly fitting for #WITMonth, and may raise a smile in these challenging times. It will also be particularly useful pre-reading for those planning to join the Anglo-Swedish Society’s readings of Lagerlöf’s work later this summer, for which you can order copies of all the texts in our Lagerlöf in English series from your friendly local bookshop.

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Lagerlöf and public health education

This week we’re highlighting two translations from our ‘Lagerlöf in English‘ series: Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden (1906-07), available here; and The Phantom Carriage (1912), available here, both translated by Peter Graves.

This blogpost is adapted from a longer essay by one of our directors, Claire Thomson. If you read Swedish, you can download it for free here.

As we begin to understand Covid-19, this dreadful new disease afflicting humankind, there is some comfort to be found in the thought that within the last century, great leaps were made in the treatment and control of another scourge: tuberculosis. In Sweden alone, half a million people died of tuberculosis between 1900 and 1950. In 1904, the Swedish National Association Against Tuberculosis (Nationalföreningen mot Tuberkulos) was established to coordinate public health education about the disease. One of the association’s founders, alongside Crown Prince Gustav, was the author Selma Lagerlöf.

In its first few decades, a key activity for the Association was to organise peripatetic lectures and film and slide shows educating Swedes about hygiene and other preventative measures against tuberculosis. Money was raised for research and education through the sale of stamps and the majblomma flower pin. But a subtler means of raising awareness was Lagerlöf’s writing; she was encouraged by the Association to write the novella The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1912), a ghost story which lays bare the sickness, poverty and misery engendered by tuberculosis. The novella was adapted for the silver screen in 1920-21 by the great Swedish director and actor Victor Sjöström. A blockbuster of its day, it was one of the first films to use double exposure, and inspired the young Ingmar Bergman to take up filmmaking.

Feature films and literature can, of course, indirectly promote public health messages. But in the days before television and social media, purpose-made short films were widely used in public information campaigns. In 1952, twelve years after her death, Lagerlöf’s writing again played a role in educating the Swedish populace about the fight against tuberculosis. By this time, half a century of research had resulted in effective prevention and treatment, and Sweden had been one of the countries to pioneer a nation-wide screening and vaccination programme in the 1940s (including the use of miniature x-ray machines in buses). The dramatist Martin Söderhjelm was commissioned by the National Association Against Tuberculosis to make a short film reminding Swedes of the work of the Association, encouraging them to participate in medical screening programmes, and looking to the future. The sixteen-minute film, shown in cinemas around the country in autumn 1952, was Medan det ännu är tid: ‘While there’s still time’.

In order to engage its audience, Medan det ännu är tid opens with a tale that every Swedish cinema-goer would remember from their school days: an episode from Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgersson. Chapter XLIV of the epic novel fills in the back-story of two recurring characters, Åsa the goose-girl and her little brother Mats, and the film devotes its first five minutes to the sad fate of these fictional children. Åsa and Mats are from a poor Småland family. Their siblings and mother are infected by a traveller and die one by one, and their father flees. The orphaned Åsa and Mats attend a lecture explaining the symptoms, prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, and they realize that their family died of the disease, not of the sick traveller’s curse. Åsa and Mats embark on their own journey through Sweden to find their father, navigating forests, towns and frozen lakes (see below), and along the way they tell the people they encounter about the need for good hygiene in combating the spread of tuberculosis. The film thus stages the historical phenomenon of travelling public health lecturers, an authentic detail already embedded in the novel by an author who was herself a founding member of the National Association Against Tuberculosis. But in typical Lagerlöf style, public health education is also framed in Nils Holgersson as a kind of mythical or folktale-style wandering across the national map, undertaken by the good citizens Åsa and Mats.

Both in Lagerlöf’s novel and Söderhjelm’s film, the fight against tuberculosis thus emerges as a collective undertaking for Swedish society, a battle that is fought not only by scientists and medics, but by ordinary people doing simple, everyday things – like washing their hands.

* * *

For Peter Graves’ translation of Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden, Norvik Press commissioned original illustrations from the illustrator Bea Bonafini. Bea comments here on her illustration for chapter XXV, which depicts a dramatic episode in Åsa and Mats’ trek through Sweden:

Possibly my favourite image, I chose this tragic moment for its visual power, as well as for how poignantly Lagerlöf depicts the race for survival of the brother and sister. I imagined the aerial view of the running children, seen from the perspective of the gander and the boy as they direct the children out of the maze of cracking ice. The image evokes the precarious balance between life and death as the children try to avoid running into dead ends while making their way across. It is the first inverted image I use, where the picture of the iced lake fills a negative space, causing an initial sense of disorientation appropriate to the nature of the image.

‘The Ice Breaks Up’, illustration by Bea Bonafini for Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden
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In solidarity: Pride 2020

Although in-person Pride marches originally planned for this summer are now postponed or re-envisioned online due to the pandemic, there are lots of alternative ways to support the movement. This week, we are highlighting two titles for your LGBTQ+ and ally reading lists.

Crisis by Karin Boye

Karin Boye’s Crisis is a queer modernist masterpiece. Recently published in a translation by Amanda Doxtater, it defies stylistic conventions through its innovative use of voice and has even had a love letter written to it! You can find an extract here, and order the full book while supporting your friendly local bookshop via Hive here.

Statue of Boye, Göteborg. Photo by Per-Olof Forsberg.

Bang: A Novel about the Danish Writer by Dorrit Willumsen

Bang by Dorrit Willumsen, translated by Marina Allemano and a Nordic Council Literature Prize awardee, re-works the life story of the pioneering journalist, author and dramatist Herman Bang in a series of compelling flashbacks that unfold during his last fateful reading tour across the USA. Bang (1857–1912) was a key figure in Scandinavia’s Modern Breakthrough. Having fled his birthplace on the island of Als ahead of the Prussian advance of 1864, he was later hounded out of Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna, and Prague by homophobic laws and hostility to his uncompromising social critique. You can read an extract from the first chapter detailing Bang’s memories of his childhood here or order the book through Hive here.

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Not Going Out

Fear of strangers, of the danger lurking outside the safe walls of home –  this is a feeling many have become familiar with in recent weeks. In Ilmar Taska’s dramatic novel Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory, the fear is of a more tangible enemy, as resistance workers hide from the Soviet occupying forces in Estonia just after the Second World War. A young boy is entranced by the sudden appearance in his street of a shiny new car – and then tricked into betraying secrets he does not know he holds. 

Translated from the original Estonian by Christopher Moseley, Pobeda 1946 is a candidate for the Human Rights Book Award – HRBA and on the 2020 longlist for the International Dublin Literary Award (for which it has recently featured in a video highlighting Estonian literature here).

Baltic Station, Tallinn. 1945. @retrofotod / urbem.ee

Curious? You can read a taster extract, or order a copy.

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Memories of Mårbacka

There are times over the past twelve weeks or so when our semi-isolated living situation has made us feel we’ve been transported back to an earlier age. Living in a rural area in particular, and seeing the busy – if socially distanced – local community interactions and the empty roads, you can almost feel as if you’re a resident of Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford. Or indeed of Selma Lagerlöf’s Mårbacka, where families struggle, to be sure, and life can be physically and mentally tough, but the pace of things is largely determined by the slowly changing seasons and the length of time it takes to get anywhere on foot, or in a horse and gig along the winding, hilly roads round the lakes of Värmland province.

In the lockdown months we’ve all come to appreciate the value of a full larder, and in that we have much in common with the housekeeper at Mårbacka farm, who prides herself on a full storehouse to keep the large household going. Read our evocative extract here.

Tina Stafrén/imagebank.sweden.se

Explore the world of Selma Lagerlöf not only in Mårbacka but through our whole series ‘Lagerlöf in English’, translated by Peter Graves, Linda Schenck and Sarah Death. This great Swedish storyteller brings you tales of everything from love in sickness and in health, via romance and betrayal, hauntings and untimely deaths, salty sea air and valiant derring-do, to family life with its fractious and funny moments and its small delights.