Book review: Welcome to America (Välkommen till Amerika) by Linda Boström Knausgård

Linda Boström Knausgård is an award-winning Swedish author and poet. She is also the ex-wife of the now infamous Karl Ove Knausgård. Mr Knausgård’s six-book autobiography proved, once again, that readers relish the dredged-up inner musings of self-centred, troubled intellectuals. However, I do not find the lack of female voices in this genre coincidental. Men are thinkers and women are doers, right? Men have time for philosophy, while woman make the world go round. This is cliché, of course, but tradition is stubborn. Forgive me for having limited pity for mentally troubled middle-class white men. Yes, I have pity, but limited. At least their stories are told.

Enter this heady peek into an extraordinary female mind.

The narrator is a young unnamed girl who has stopped speaking. Wrapped up in darkness, silence and solitude, she withdraws from life. She is a contrary person in many ways, who admits that even when she used to speak she lied all the time anyway. She describes the world around her with intense pessimism and irony.

“No one really wants their wishes fulfilled. It disturbs the order of things. The order people really want. We want to be disappointed. We want to be wounded and forced to fight for survival. We want to get the wrong presents on our birthday.”

Her older brother spends most of his time locked in his room, ignoring his family, urinating in bottles so that he doesn’t have to come out.

Their mother is described in sensual and idyllic terms as a beautiful, all-comforting creature of sweet scents and light. Light above all. The mother repeats many times that they are “a family of light”, a phrase which works its way into many of the narrator’s musings. The narrator loves her mother fiercely, though it is a dark love, based largely on despair at being a constant disappointment and not being able to make her happy.

“My insides blazed when she cried… I felt like I was inside her suffering, as though entangled in threads which I tried to unravel one by one… but my presence didn’t help, because those tears were so much stronger.”

We learn at the very beginning that the father is dead, but we see him in memories and visions throughout the book. He was mentally ill and had a history of alcoholism and violence. His family were all afraid of him. His death comes as a great relief.

The father’s descent began when he was forced to leave his simple life up north to follow the mother to the capital when she chose to study drama and become an actress. Lost in the city, he becomes increasingly physically abusive towards his wife and she kicks him out of the house. He shows up periodically, supposedly to kill them, though the narrator is clearly unreliable in this respect and we do not know his real intentions or actions. The narrator talks to her dead father in her mind. She sees him sometimes too. Reality, memory and hallucinations are blurred. At times it is also unclear what is conversation, what is thought and what is narration.

Sometimes the narrator’s refusal to speak upsets her mother so much that she wishes she were dead so that her mother might be happy. She thinks of killing herself, and prays to God to let her die. One day there is a fire at the school, and she is convinced that it is her fault, and that the fire came about as a result of her prayers for death. When she gets home she writes a note to her mother to tell her about the fire, and she is overjoyed at this first communication from her daughter. The narrator admits it felt good to write something down and wonders if she will write again. But soon she feels vulnerable and over-exposed, which leads to even more depression and hallucinations.

“Then the days that followed the nights were ablaze with light, a light so strong that I had to keep my eyes closed. I stayed in bed from morning to night with my eyes closed. The light stung. My father got in through my eyelids and sang his Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome, with the bells chiming all the while. I tried to get rid of him, but he danced around like the blue dots behind my eyelids.”

The narrator’s teachers call her mother into school to discuss her progress. Ellen, as we eventually find out she is called, cannot progress to the next school year if she continues to refuse to speak. Her mother is angered and whisks her daughter away. Something about this rebellion frees Ellen, to an extent. She will not go outside, but decides to spend time on the balcony. There, with graphic novels and cigarettes, and her mother listening to music inside, she realises that she actually feels happy.

But, like all good things in Ellen’s life and world view, this happiness is fleeting and illusory. She thinks about happy memories of her childhood and the true darkness that lay underneath. The book concludes with a memory of the whole family fishing. Her brother insisted they pull aboard a fish that he believed was alive, and the family were horrified when they saw the reality – that the fish was dead and half-eaten by seagulls. Yet they carry on regardless, acting, as ever, like a family of light.

This is foremost a book about depression, mental illness and complex family relationships. Light and darkness are recurring motifs, as are death and God. The narrator feels that she has “access to God” and prays to Him a lot, as the only outlet for her silence. She prays for her father to die. She prays for her mother to be happy. She prays that she will die in order for her mother to be happy.

The crossover from childhood to adulthood is also recurring theme and the line is often blurred. The narrator is convinced that God won’t make her live until adulthood, as though killing her young will be a blessing. She cannot imagine herself as an adult and finds growth and change repugnant, especially when she notices her brother becoming a man. She is nostalgic for the simple passivity of infanthood, when nothing was expected of her, and she could be silent all she wanted, safe under her mother’s watch.

This book is more about streams of consciousness and subjectivity than story line, so I didn’t want to like it, but in fact I found it an extremely enjoyable and rewarding read. Despite its dark and heavy themes, there is a simplistic beauty to it, and a surprising lack of pretension. The author blends emotion with image, and poetry with the prosaic, in a smooth and flowing style that urges you to read on. It is easy to sympathise with the characters, and read personal experiences into theirs. A harsh light is shone on the festering memories of an unhappy childhood; there is sense of healing, as though thoughts too dark to put into words have finally been released.

In style and genre I am reminded of: Karl Ove Knausgård’s solipsistic autobiography; Ali Smith’s easy flow between action and memory; and the unsentimental self-pity of existentialist female writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Sylvia Plath.

Välkommen till Amerika is published by Modernista and English language rights are available from Copenhagen Literary Agency.

Translating Fantasy Literature part 2 – The Techniques

Successful fantasy is a balancing act. The translator’s job to uphold the equilibrium.

The translator is the ambassador between the author’s intentions and the reader’s expectations. The translator serves neither author nor reader (nor publisher, nor critic), but the text itself. And the text? The text serves the equilibrium of the world within it.

In order to do this, the translator needs to not only suspend their disbelief, but do away with it completely. Insecurity is the worst thing that can happen to a text. Like Bastian in The Neverending Story, we step into the world of the book. Like John Cusack in Being John Malkovich, we wear the characters’ skin. Like Peter Pan, we believe in fairies. We need to understand the logic behind the magic in order to re-cast the spells, sometimes literally (well, almost). As the mage’s apprentice learns the words of a spell, the translator channels the magical power of the original words into a recreation with the same effects.

Of course, as with any literary translation, fantasy requires a certain amount of sensory recreation. How can you translate a passage describing the sights and smells of a town without experiencing it in your mind’s eye and mind’s nose (yes, I’m sticking by that coinage)? In re-telling our sensory experience of the story, we are actively taking part in the storytelling process, and join the ranks of the many storytellers who have gone before us in the oral tradition.

Wafty though this may sound, it manifests in a thousand concrete decisions. The weight of every word must be respected. As well as creating an enjoyable and evocative piece of literature, the language style and word choices of the translator have to respect the genre and the internal logic of the world. As a drop of water is a reflection of the sea, every word is a reflection of the entire story and its world. Hence high fantasy tends to have ‘lands and realms’ rather than ‘countries and continents’; characters called Myrrowen and Arkan, rather than Stacey and Jeff.

Translators should always be aware of not only the denotative function of a word, but also the connotative, i.e. not just what it means, but what it implies. When working within genre fiction this can be particularly troublesome, not least because fantasy and sci-fi fans are a notoriously unforgiving readership when it comes to consistency (think comic book guy from The Simpsons) and approach each new book with a plethora of references to others. No story exists in a vacuum. Authors and translators alike have to be conscientious regarding the subgenre in which they are working, and fantasy has plenty: high fantasy, gothic, contemporary, fairy tale parody, comic, mythic… Readers have expectations of what each genre should deliver, and authors have intentions regarding the extent to which they want these expectations to be satisfied or subverted.

What do I mean by subversion in this context? Take Maria Turtschaninnoff’s Maresi (Pushkin Press, 2016). Like Turtschaninnoff’s other novels, it can broadly be shelved in the young adult high fantasy section. It is a solemn and dramatic tale of magic and violence, where the brave young heroine seeks her higher purpose in a brutal pre-technological world. However, it is a decidedly feminist novel, in which women and girls form their own tight-knit community and depend only on themselves for sustenance, education and spiritual work, worshipping a three-fold mother goddess. So, when faced with the decision of how to translate the names of the buildings in their complex, it occurred to me that the names ‘House of Knowledge’ (Kunskapshus), ‘House of the Hearth’ (Härdshus), though certainly grand and other-worldly in their connotations, made me think of too many other books I’d read before about formal patriarchal societies, and the accepted format of fantastical wording that has been the norm throughout decades of male-dominated fantasy literature. How much softer and more homely it sounds to translate the names as ‘Knowledge House’ and ‘Hearth House’. A radical feminine community needs no pomp in its language.

Genre and subgenre often guide, or indeed dictate, choices in style and register, but so too do the supposed epoch and geographical basis of the story. Even fantasy realms are often based on real times and places, such as Games of Thrones, a fantastical interpretation of the War of the Roses in 15th century England. When translating Naondel I found myself juggling a variety of influences in the invented realm of Karenokoi, which smacked of ancient Japan and the Ottoman Empire in its descriptions of customs, architecture, agriculture and weather, and yet was not truly either. So, when choosing titles for the monarch and his right-hand man, the Germanic word fursten and Arabic visir became the ‘Sovereign Prince’ and his ‘vizier’ – words without too much of an affiliation with any one country, a slight hint of the Middle East, and no relation to the kings and queens of Europe.

My brain hurts, I hear you cry. Can we get some sort of practical summary to all this theory?

Yes. Yes, we can.

Questions to ask yourself before approaching a fantasy translation

  • Who is the author? What is their intention? What are their influences?

  • What mood/genre/world/atmosphere are they invoking? Where does the story sit among the wider library of its genre and subgenre?

  • Does the author have a political or other allegorical message?

  • Who are the audience? How old are they? What are their expectations?

  • To what extent should the reader’s expectations be satisfied/subverted?

  • What is the supposed epoch and geographical basis?

Now let’s put everything I have said so far into practice. Never have I felt the weight of an individual word so much as that of the Swedish word kraften in Naondel. Swedish to English dictionary definitions include: force, power, strength, efficacy, virtue, spirit, vigour, might, energy, potency. In Naondel it is used frequently to denote the underlying power of the earth and elements, primordial, magical and divine. It evokes a certain animacy, a feminine divinity or mother goddess, but is without identity and essentially beyond good and evil. It exists within the background of nature, felt only by the few who know how, and employed to do the bidding of fewer still. Female characters interact with kraften throughout what is an unashamedly feminist book, and this power is at odds with the more brutal masculine power of political authority and violence, as symbolised by the power-hungry villain of the story. So how to translate this recurring and vital word?

Power? No, used frequently in the book to describe political power; too masculine and aggressive.

Energy? No, too New Age.

Force? No, Star Wars ruined that one for everyone else.

Spirit? Too intangible.

Strength? Too physical.

Vital principle? Too wordy.

Magic? Too many connotations of very different forms of power.

Decide for yourself. Or read my translation (!) to find out what I went with in the end. Or if you really can’t bear the suspense, email me and ask. That would make my day.

Next time you read a piece of sci-fi or fantasy literature and you come across an unusual word or phrase, ask yourself: why did the author/translator choose it? What does this drop of water tell me about the ocean at large?

Translating Fantasy Fiction part 1 – The Rules

Presently the mage said, speaking softly, “Do you see, Arren, how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it. When the rock is lifted the earth is lighter, the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown the circuits of the stars respond, and where it falls the universe is changed. On every act the balance of the whole depends. The winds and seas, the powers of the water and earth and light, all that these do, and all that the beasts and green things do, is well done, and rightly done. All these act within the Equilibrium… But we, in so far as we have power over the world and over one another, we must learn to do what the leaf and the whale and the wind do of their own nature. We must learn to keep the balance.”

Ursula Le Guin, The Furthest Shore (1973)

By some fortuitous universal alignment, I have gained a reputation as a translator of fantasy, sci-fi and young adult fiction. There is great creative satisfaction in this type of work, partly because it’s fun and appeals to my daydreaming inner child, and partly because I perceive a clear template to follow in order to create a successful piece of fantasy writing.

What makes successful fantasy?

Mediocre and unsuccessful fantasy is not our concern. For the purposes of this article we are dealing only with texts of quality (a fantasy indeed). So what is it that makes fantasy, in any language, in original or translation, be it in film, book or graphic novel form, successful?

Successful fantasy is equilibrium.

The most important aspect of this equilibrium is the balance between magic and logic. Fantasy and science fiction have no bounds in regards to time, space or the fundaments of reality as we know it. In Philip K. Dick’s Counter-clock World, time runs backwards; people are born from the grave, get younger, and then are absorbed into the void in the womb. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, people traverse near-identical parallel dimensions through gaps in the subtle borders between universes. Et cetera. If you can imagine it, you can write it. But in order for readers to accept it, there must be a certain integrity to the internal logic of the invented world. Each one has a set of guiding principles, and any magic or horror or miracle in the plot has to work within these rules. Fantasy is not an excuse for anyone to wave a magic wand and say ‘Alakazam’ to instantly remove any obstacle. Not only would this irk the conscientious reader, who requires consistency of cause and consequence, but it is simply bad plotting. Magic, that glorious catch-all, needs to be complicated and effortful. Mages must be trained; witches go into a magical trance, fairies need their fairy dust. Take this example of ‘realistic’ magic from my translation of Maria Turtschaninnoff’s Naondel. In this extract we see Garai, a high priestess from a nomadic clan with a powerful connection to the elements, leaving her physical body to fly on the wind.

I plunged my fingers into the wet earth, feeling twigs and leaves crumble apart. There was a powerful odour of life and decay. I shut my eyes. I heard water gently dripping from the branches of the trees. Mist crept slowly over my cheekbones, my eyelids. A barely perceptible breeze rustled through the crowns of the zismil trees. My breathing was calm and even. There was a pulsing murmur in my blood. I surrendered my body. I was completely free. Nothing was tying me to this place. My spirit became light and I started to rise into the air. First I saw my body way down on the ground, then it became obscured by the canopy below me. I saw the ocean in the south, Areko in the east. The fields and spice plantations in the south and west. Paths like narrow ribbons streaking across the green landscape. A flock of geese stained the sky with their black bodies, and I followed them northwards as they flew. Mountains, lakes, rivers below us. The wind beneath our wings.

Maria Turtschaninnoff, Naondel (2017), Pushkin Press

This works because it shows the concentration necessary for her to leave her body; it shows her connection with and attention to the earth and wind; it gives vivid sensory descriptions so that we can experience the flight along with her. What is more, there is a soothing rhythmic tempo to the paragraph that suggests falling asleep or slipping into a meditative state, therefore invoking a sense of physical disassociation that most people can relate to. With this set-up, the reader will accept anything that happens. The reader is onside.

Another aspect of the fine balance between reality and imagination is the right proportions of rollicking adventure and realistic 3D characters. No matter how spectacular a plot – and fantasy literature is surely second to none when it comes to mind-blowing plots – a story becomes hollow without a human heart. We must believe in the characters and be invested in their fate. Ultimately, readers will buy anything, as long as they can empathise with the human (or humanoid) reactions to the other-worldly circumstances. We relate to the hobbits’ love of green pastures, and good food and ale, before we agree to follow them to Mordor.

Then there is the balance between truth and imagination in a broader sense. No matter whether authors are writing about suburban housewives, 25th century space explorers, or rainbow-haired mermaids, the authors are humans, and they will tell human stories. Indeed, the central philosophical and moral themes of fantasy do not necessarily differ greatly from contemporary fiction. The themes of fantasy and sci-fi tend to be large-scale, universal and timeless: good vs evil; what it means to be human; do the ends justify the means?; the ethics of playing god; integrity in the face of corruption…

Commonly, fantasy employs metaphor and archetype to address these issues. It can be argued that this form of fiction is truer than truth (as it were) because, rather than telling you directly what it means to say, it speaks to the unconscious and allows for personal interpretation. Rather than attempting to draw a box around facts, it points to the wordless truths just beyond the horizon. Platonic forms, fairy tales, and Jungian psychology all proffer the theory of essential, immaterial truths being revealed only through manifestation in ideas.

Consider the power of the following archetypes, and how many memories, images and expectations can be instantly invoked: white-bearded wizard; fire-breathing dragon; the deep, dark woods; the beautiful queen; the orphan child… Repeated imagery is comforting and useful. Tropes have depth beyond their individuality. The white-bearded wizard is already endowed with the qualities of Gandalf and Merlin, meaning the reader has a relationship with him before they meet him. Whether these relationships are confirmed or subverted is up to the author.

Of course, archetypes cannot be leaned on lazily. We are not creating copies, rather variations on a theme. We tell a new story each time, knowingly employing the baggage and techniques of all the stories that have been told before. According to many theorists, notably Christoper Booker in his The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories, there are a very limited number of essential stories we ever tell. This is arguable, of course, but certainly a basis from which to view fantasy fiction.

Formulaic story lines are often looked down upon by those who consider ‘literary fiction’ to be a purer form of art than ‘genre fiction’. But there is a reason why certain things are popular. There is a reason why the hero has to leave home to go on a quest to defeat the evil that threatens their way of life, and there is a reason why they tend to succeed in the end. It is satisfying. It is a story that, for whatever reason, we yearn to be told over and over again. It fulfils a need within us and helps us to live our lives in which good and evil are not always so clear-cut.

Of course none of the aforementioned arguments are an excuse for cliché. Each story has its own reason for being told, despite, or because of, its similarities and reference to others. As any artist knows, far from the crippling freedom of the blank page or canvass, the creative muse is best served within the beauty of constraint. We seek the equilibrium between familiarity and novelty. Perhaps this is why fantastical worlds can thrill us so powerfully: the author overlays our primal experiences with wonders we have never dared dream before.

That’s all well and good, but where does the translator come in? Read part 2 and find out.

Book review: Onda Boken by Kaj Korkea-aho

I am a little behind the game on this one. Onda Boken (The Evil Book) came out in Swedish in 2015. However, I believe it is a real pity – if not a scandal – that it has not been picked up by English publishers.

It is an astonishingly powerful book with a satisfying combination of realistic quotidian narrative, profoundly affecting themes, and just a hint of black magic. Questions of life, death, hope and hell are presented and yet never overpower the storyline. Perhaps the author’s greatest achievement is his sense of timing. The stories of the two protagonists are interwoven and secrets continually come to light, making each chapter more gripping than the last. The plot unfolds perfectly and tension is built up steadily until, after a somewhat slow beginning, it reaches a sense of urgency about half way through which only heightens as the book flows towards a crescendo which made me literally gasp several times.

It is a book about depression, despair, and suicide. It centres around crises of masculinity and a sense of isolation, which is highlighted by the language barrier experienced by the Swedish-speaking minority of Finland. However, the author somehow manages to present the dark themes authentically while never allowing darkness to swallow the entire book. The writing style is witty, allowing the humorous internal dialogue of the protagonists to punctuate the story with a wry, foul-mouthed and amusing take on the world. The book even manages to end with a small but very real glimmer of hope for redemption. There are also many intertextual references which connect the book to other authors, times and places, adding to the underlying theme of the transformative power of literature. All of this, coupled with a sense of catharsis after the intensely dark episodes of the book, adds up to an overall sense of satisfaction and guarded optimism at the end of the book.

The story is set in a small university town in Finland. The remarkably attention-grabbing first chapter begins in a literature lecture with professor Mickel Backman. A stubborn, unpredictable and acid-tongued student, Pasi Maars, announces that he will write his essay on a little known local poet called Leander Granlund, who wrote a book so evil that all who read it were damned to hell. Mickel discourages him, but tells his class the story of Granlund. His poetry was rejected by publishers at the same time as his brother was to marry the woman he loved. His revenge was to poison and kill the publisher who rejected him, his brother and his bride, and eight of their wedding guests. The evil book is his last collection of poems entitled Ur lifvets sorgesamma dunkel (Of life’s melancholy obscurity).

Mickel and his wife Myrna share a stale and passionless marriage in which Mickel is emotionally powerless. Their depressed son Ragnar never visits. Myrna confronts him about a woman he calls Lolita, and he admits to having an affair several years ago with a student called Elsa who he last saw being taken to hospital. Myrna reveals that she also had an affair with Mårten Tanner, a publisher whom Mickel despises and who takes part in an elite and misogynistic cultural club.

The second protagonist, Calle Hollender, is a student at the university and a standup comedian whose girlfriend Helena breaks up with him early in the story. He is a friend of Pasi Maars and is concerned that he is suicidal.

As a response to his desperate financial situation, Calle begins stealing and selling valuable books from the university library. He and Pasi reflect on their hopelessness and uselessness. There are no jobs, no bright futures. Only drugs, procrastination and pointlessness.


Unbeknown to them, the lives of Calle and Mickel are complexly connected. And The Evil Book holds the key to both of their fates…

Schildt & Söderströms, 2015

Book review: Krigstid by Elisabeth Östnäs

Krigstid (Times of War) is the second instalment of YA historical-fantasy trilogy Sagan Om Turid (The Saga of Turid) set in Viking Scandinavia. The story follows the life of a young woman named Turid. Though the daughter of a king, the ‘kingdom’ is long past its glory days and she has enjoyed only modest privilege in arduous village life. From her deceased mother Turid inherited the power to cross over into the spirit world, to communicate with the dead and see shadows of past and future.

The land is being taken over by the varjager, a band of brutal warriors who destroy whole villages and leave no survivors. The book begins in the aftermath of a devastating attack on her village. Most were slain, others fled the carnage, and Turid is left alone with her träl (slave) Unna. With her home destroyed and family killed, Turid sets out on a journey across land and sea, seeking a way forward, unsure of her destination.

At the very beginning of her journey, Turid is attacked by a vicious lynx. By killing the creature and drinking its blood, Turid gains new strength and vision, absorbing the wild spirit of animal, and invoking the ferocity of the goddess Freja. Turid matures into her powers as both völva (shaman and seer) and warrior. Armed with the power of the lynx, and fuelled by despair at the loss of her village, she acquires a spear and learns how to fight and, eventually, to kill.

It is perhaps one of the most interesting points of the story, that during battle with the dreaded varjager, Turid is able to kill without remorse. As enemies, they become less than human. Turid’s allies are helped by a group of half-human hired fighters who transform into rabid beasts in battle. Turid sees no morality in these men, but she needs one of them to act as guide on her way to Ribe, to find her childhood friend and betrothed, Frode. The loyal and selfless Unna makes a deal with the man-beast, that he may use her sexually in return for his guidance. In their communication throughout the journey, Turid learns that the brute of a man is a more empathetic character than he first appears. However, in a vivid portrayal of empowerment and loss of innocence, Turid eventually slits his throat in his sleep. To Unna’s protests, Turid simply replies: “We have nearly reached Ribe. We no longer need him”.

For readers looking to be immersed in a historical world of Vikings, magic and war, Östnäs has created an enjoyably rich backdrop, with many well-researched details of landscapes, beliefs and customs. It is refreshing to experience a fleshed-out Viking world, with all of its everyday drudgery, as well as horror, humanity and beauty, especially as seen from an unsentimental female perspective. Sexual vulnerability among brutish men is an ever-present – and ever relatable – theme.

There are also a few chewy philosophical issues for YA readers, including the co-existence of humanity and barbarity, the concept of honour and ethics, “knowing one’s place” and being aware of one’s own privileges and duties. The loyalty and friendship between Turid and Unna is touching and though-provoking, and teenage girls would enjoy watching Turid’s growth from innocent girl to warrior woman. There is a smattering of romance as well as lashings of magic, battle and gore to titillate the teenage mind.

However, for older readers, or those more particular about plot, there is not always enough by way of storyline. Like many second books in trilogies, it seems over-stretched, acting as a conscious bridge between the first and third instalments. The world is rich and the premise intriguing, but the plot feels underdeveloped and there are sections of the book that feel repetitive and laboured. There is a lot to like about Östnäs’s modern, clipped prose and evocative descriptions of detailed landscapes and historical garments, tools and customs. But I find myself wondering if the trilogy shouldn’t have been condensed into one thrilling book, rather than three slightly diluted ones.

Published by Berghs förlag, 2016

Rights: Susanne Widén, Hedlund Literary Agency,

Book review: Vattnet Drar by Madeleine Bäck

Vattnet Drar (The Lure of Water) is a slow-burning horror story that weaves magic and gore into an otherwise realistic portrayal of a dystopian Gävle. It is both the first of a trilogy and a well-rounded stand-alone story.

The opening chapters introduce a variety of teenagers and twenty-somethings. In a small town that offers few opportunities, they seem to have little in common except their itching youth and the fact that their lives share a grim sort of softcore seediness. Viktor comes from a broken home with an alcoholic father. Calle is a brute who mistreats his girlfriend. Together they break into a church to steal a valuable Madonna figurine. While inside, Viktor finds himself irresistibly drawn to an unusual stone and is compelled to dislodge it from the church floor. It feels warm and light, and fits perfectly into his hand. He slips it into the waistband of his trousers and keeps it there, telling no one.

The disturbance of the stone awakens an ancient evil.

Celia and Beata are best friends and they like to party. After a night out, Celia abandons Beata for a guy she just met – not unusual behaviour for her. But when Beata hears nothing from her for several days, she becomes concerned. When she pays Celia a visit, she finds her enraptured with her new beau in a most unnatural way. Beata finds him instinctively unnerving and knows in her bones that Celia is in danger.

Krister is a sensitive fellow who works in animal welfare thanks to his uncanny knack for dealing with animals. He seems like a normal guy living a quiet life, but starts suffering from strange episodes: water-induced vertigo and blackouts; vivid dreams of a murderous, man-like creature.

A girl is found dead by a lake and a murder investigation ensues, followed by Jäder, local journalist and friend of Krister. Meanwhile, the stone is having an increasingly powerful effect on Viktor, making him feel hot, strong and uncontrollably horny…

Though the novel is billed as crossover fantasy, there are many more threads to it than first meet the eye. Social realism is the backdrop for a slow build-up of eerie tension. A raw energy of sex, violence and the supernatural bubbles just below the surface.

The separate stories unfold and merge in a way that keeps the reader guessing and hungry at all times, and – despite ample forewarning – unprepared for the utter horror that ensues. A dark sort of primal sexual energy takes over the town, bringing with it an animalistic violence. Deliciously vile scenes are graphic enough to titillate but brief enough to shock, as the story slips seamlessly from thriller into horror, with sprinklings of dark fantasy reminiscent of fairy tales.

The interwoven genres strike me as a very Swedish combination: dangerous sprites lurking in the water and woods, discontented youth getting drunk in a small town, and a sparky journalist trying to uncover the trail of a murder. Social realism, horror and fantasy are skilfully integrated to create a coherent and satisfying plot, meticulously timed and, above all, genuinely chilling.

Bäck has also managed to leave just enough unfinished and unexplained that I for one am already looking forward to – and almost dreading – the developments that the second and third instalments of the trilogy have in store.

Natur och Kultur, 2016

Rights: Koja Agency,

Finnished! – my translation residency in Helsinki

“Last year I helped triple the sales of Finnish books to foreign publishers. Next year I’m going to increased it ten-fold.” Literary agent Elina Ahlbäck’s Helsinki office is decorated with pink tulips that match her flawless nails and signature jacket. She offers me fresh fruits and dates as we discuss the future of Maria Turtschaninoff’s Red Abbey Chronicles in the UK, USA and beyond. Elina is impressive to the point of formidable and I do not doubt her one bit when she tells me of her ambitions. It is a good time to be involved in Finnish literature.

My stay in Helsinki was generously funded by FILI, the Finnish Literature Exchange, who are also ablaze with plans to encourage the translation and propagation of Finnish literature. So much so, in fact, that they are trying to encourage me to learn Finnish – of which I know exactly three words, if you don’t count sauna. By all accounts, there just aren’t enough trusted Finnish translators to go around.

I have been lucky enough to spend time with two of the bastions of Finnish to English literary translation, Owen Whitesman and David Hackston. Lunch with them gave me an invaluable insight into the small world of Finnish literary translation. Their numbers do not go into double figures, and they seem to be flooded with work. This starts me thinking that perhaps I should make efforts to study Finnish, though there is very little that looks welcoming about the language, beautiful though its bobbing melody is.

But back to where my strengths lie, namely translation from Swedish, it is a fortuitous coincidence that I am here to witness the birth of brand new publishing house Förlaget, which I suspect is destined for great things. It is partially funded by Tove Jansson’s family and the Moomin characters brand who are on a mission to promote Finland-Swedish literature specifically. The director, Fredrik Rahka, is just as impressive and trustworthy as you hope a Moomin representative would be. It is a good time to be involved in Finland-Swedish literature.

During my residency I have been housed on the six-island sea fortress of Suomenlinna. Built in 1748 as a Swedish maritime fortress, Suomenlinna was later occupied by the Russians then used as a Finnish naval base before becoming a world heritage site in the 20th century. It is currently a residential community and global tourist attraction. Suomenlinna has been the ideal environment to get lost in Maria’s far-off, pre-industrial fantasy world. It is an island like no other, covered in centuries-old ruins, stone-walled chambers, dark passages, rocky shores and ancient cannons. Store rooms with low doors under mounds of earth like Hobbit homes. Footbridges over partially frozen inlets. The otherworldly sense of living history is incredible. It is a place for stories to come to life.


This has been especially fitting for working on Naondel, the second novel in Maria Turtschaninoff’s Red Abbey Chronicles. It is a story of castle-building and sea-faring in a forgotten age, where sacred sites offer profound magical powers. The first novel Maresi is actually set on an island fortress, the Red Abbey, a refuge for girls and women fleeing lives of cruelty and servitude, and a powerhouse for knowledge and female community. I would not be surprised if Suomenlinna was Maria’s inspiration for this island world, at least on an unconscious level.


Naondel is the prequel and follows the lives of the First Sisters, the founders of the Red Abbey, before they come to the island. It is the story of the lives of women: their ordeals and suffering; the often tragic consequences of the injustice they have to endure; and the strength it takes to overcome and fight back. The characters of this book are an incredible example of the Finnish notion of sisu (grit, guts, hardiness) with which I have recently become acquainted.

Though the women in the story come from disparate cultures, all of which belong exclusively to the fantasy reality in which they live, their stories are representative and reflective of the tragic lives lived by many women past and present. Often difficult to read, the book makes no attempt to sugarcoat harsh realities, and yet offers such a profoundly empathetic vision of struggle, and such a realistic reality of natural magic, that the reader cannot help but be uplifted. It is a real privilege to be trusted with the English words that will go some way to recreating Maria’s magical world and reanimating the characters she has made so real.

When I haven’t been translating Naondel and appreciating the profound peace and silence of a snow-quilted island, I have had a chance to meet some wonderful people in Helsinki, including several publishers and agents from Finland and abroad at FILI’s publishing event on my first week.

But best of all, I had a chance to spend time with ‘my’ author, Maria Turtschaninoff, and turn our business relationship into a genuine and enduring friendship. I have gone from studying her work at university, to becoming her official English translator, to playing Lego with her son on their living room floor. What could be better.

Maria & me


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Meeting the Author

Maria Turtschaninoff is a fantasy fiction novelist from Finland and I am her English translator. I studied her book ‘Arra’ for my Masters dissertation and, consequently, worked on her most recent title ‘Maresi’, which is going down a storm in the English-speaking market. When she visited London to promote its release, I got to meet her for the first time.

I was waiting for her in the café at Foyles, wracked with nerves for some reason, practising what I was going to say to impress her. What questions would I ask? The main thing I wanted to know was how to pronounce all the names of the people and places that she had invented, but that seemed so flippant.

I didn’t know Maria, but I knew Maresi. I’ve inhabited Maresi’s mind and voice – I have spoken for her, like an actor playing a role. I had to get under the character’s skin. I didn’t know Maria, but I knew her creations: Maresi, Jai, Arra, Anaché… Some say that every character is a reflection of its creator – that each is the personification of a part of their own identity. Every mind is a village, filled with different characters and archetypes: the way we used to be; the way we dream we could be; or fear we are. All these fractions of self are brought out into the light and fleshed out.

So though I may not have known Maria the writer, Maria the mother or the 21st century woman, my intimacy with her leading ladies means I am very well acquainted with Maria the fighter, the dreamer, the leader, creator, magician, feminist. I know that she, like her protagonists, has a thirst for knowledge, and a profound connection with nature and the magic hidden in plain view. I know that she stands up for what is right, that she breaks moulds, brings the extraordinary into the everyday, and vice versa.

Her stories tell of girls on the brink of womanhood who, finding oppression from the harsh, patriarchal world around them, find their own voice and strength. In Maria’s world, each individual girl’s journey is supported by a sisterhood that extends beyond the realms of time and place. No matter how grown up we may seem on the outside, sometimes we all feel like a child inside, unsure of our power and our place – and perhaps this is especially the case for women. Maria’s books speak to me just as I believe she intended: as proof of the meta-network of support extending from woman to woman, across the generations and across the seas. Passing down truth through story.

So knowing all this, perhaps it is surprising that I was so nervous to meet her. I already knew her. I had occupied her world and her mind and essentially found them to be the same as my own. But meeting her, I felt like that insecure adolescent again, pretending to be competent in the very grown-up world of literary translation.

The result? We gossiped and giggled like school girls. It was as if we had known each other for years. I left feeling incredibly inspired – as a translator, a writer and a feminist. Inspired to be bold, to follow my feet and keep the stories alive.


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My Favourite Words


the meanings lie in the spaces between

To celebrate the release of Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff, I was recently interviewed by Pushkin Press for the Behind the Books feature on their website. I was asked to choose my favourite word – in any language. I thought about it literally every day for weeks. My first instinct was to go for the word I overuse more than any other in the English language: ‘whatevs’ – defined in the online urban dictionary as ‘whatever, for cool people’.

I felt that the good followers of Pushkin Press might despair at such a choice, but it started me thinking about why I enjoy this word so much. Part of it is because I can make an obnoxious W shape with my thumbs and forefingers as I say it. But mainly it is because it doesn’t really mean anything in particular, rather it is purely contextual. And, as any translator will tell you, context is everything.

When studying translation and linguistic theory I came across the notion that there are no true or ‘natural’ equivalents between words in different languages. Noted translation theorist Anthony Pym described equivalence as ‘a social illusion but a necessary one’*. General similarities in meaning can be expressed, of course, otherwise I would be out of a job. I say ‘cheese’ and the French say ‘fromage’ and we all pretty much know what the deal is. However, scratch the surface of this simplicity and it all starts to crumble apart like a mature cheddar –precisely the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the word ‘cheese’: something hard, salty, yellow and meltable. Anything else would need a preceding qualifier: soft cheese, cream cheese, cottage cheese, blue cheese etc. But this is not inherent in the definition of the word ‘cheese’, it is simply what I think of because I am English. Words carry cultural connotations as well as technical denotations. Though the general idea is the same, the default image and the boundaries are different in every language (and perhaps in every individual mind). What is the default image of fromage? Is it something an English person would describe as ‘French cheese’? In Russian творог is used to denote soft, crumbly cheese such as cottage cheese, and сыр is closer to the cheese of my English brain.

Ask for a salad in Russia and you may well receive a gloopy bowlful of boiled potato, peas, mayonnaise and ham. That is not a salad in my book. Ask for a sandwich and a beer in Sweden and you will probably receive one slice of bread towering with toppings and a low-alcohol lager. Riots may ensue!

How are we ever supposed to find the perfect equivalents for complex, culturally-specific and abstract concepts when we can’t even agree on the basics? Take a simple word like ‘table’. How do I really know that my idea of what constitutes a table as opposed to, say, a desk is the exact equivalent of стол, ett bord, una mesa, une table etc.? Do those words include dining tables, coffee tables, writing bureaus, counter tops, dressing tables, or those school desks that double up as book storage? Where does a definition begin and end?

Translation is about negotiating appropriate approximations rather than single-mindedly hunting down the almighty perfect equivalent. Language is fluid and uncertain because it is the expression of millions of human minds. Words are boxes drawn around an arbitrary section of thin air (arbitrary is possibly my second favourite word). It is projecting lines onto blank space and hoping for the best.

So, coming back to ‘whatevs’, I realised that many of my favourite words are ones which don’t even pretend to have fixed meaning, rather which embody innate fluidity, subtlety or even absence. Words which cannot be pinned down, which represent the gap in between two points of certainty. In English these are words like: ‘arbitrary’, ‘elusive’, ‘else’, ‘beyond’, ‘void’, ‘paradox’, ‘empty’, ‘allude’ and, last but not least, ‘whatevs’. My favourite Spanish word ajeno can be translated as ‘other’, ‘different’, ‘foreign’, ‘estranged’, ‘alienated’, ‘belonging to another’ and is used to most beautifully untranslatable effect in the song Maria Lando by Susana Baca (listen here, it’s wonderful), describing the abject life of a poor woman who has no time for anything but work, y su trabajo es ajeno. My favourite Russian word недоумение is generally translated as ‘bewilderment’ or ‘puzzlement’, but break it down into its components and the meaning is so much simpler and wider: не = not; до = up to, reaching; ум = mind, intellect. Something that does not reach the mind.

Ever a fan of the building blocks of meaning, I have recently been thinking a lot about the suffixes which create adjectives. Though slippery does not mean something similar to a slipper and Kentish Town isn’t really anything like Kent, it is easy to invent adjectives with –y, –esque, –able, –ish, –ous or –ian, and each has a different effect. Most words are adjectivable and you can make your speech so adjectiveful it becomes truly adjectivesque.

Swedish is a joyously suffixful (suffixian?) language. My favourites are –färdig, ­–nödig and –sugen which mean to be ready for, in need of, or in want of something, respectively. This means there is one word to say that you are dying for a cup of coffee – kaffesugen – and, hilariously, one word to describe being so nauseous that you could vomit – spyfärdig (literally: ‘puke-ready’).

Anyway. You get the picture. Words are fun, definitions are tricksy, translation is hard. So what about the interview? What did I choose as my favourite word?

I finally decided on a prefix rather than a whole word. The Swedish prefix ur denotes several seemingly disparate qualities. It can mean ‘ancient’, ‘primal’, as in urväsen (primeval creature) and ‘basic’, ‘unspoiled’, as in urskog (virgin woods). There is a sense of origin, source, creation and ancestry, as in urfader (ancestor), as well as ‘out of’ or ‘away from’, such as ursinne (frenzy, literally: out of one’s mind). In this way it implies coming from something both in terms of being created by it and breaking away from it. It is also a colloquial term for ‘very’, ‘extremely’.

All these nuances point to something that is nothing in itself and yet contains the seed of everything, whether in its presence or absence – the source of all, the ultimate. The foundation and the zenith, the underlying enabler, the still-present origin. I find this interesting.


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*Pym, A., 2009, Exploring Translation Theories, Routledge

So you want to be a freelance translator: Part 2 – Getting started

So by now you have:

  • At least one strong language pair
  • A working knowledge of CAT tools
  • A badass CV complete with references
  • Some fallback money
  • A gutsy go-getter attitude

Are you ready for the humiliating process of applying to hundreds more jobs and agencies than will even get back to you? Selling yourself as the best wordsmith since Dr Seuss and yet getting absolutely no validation? Bring it on!

Spread yourself around

Now is not the time to be coy. Even if you find the idea of networking and self-promotion abhorrent, you have no choice.  When it comes to confidence, it is a case of fake it until you make it.

Search every possible translation agency and send them a friendly, to-the-point message including all the relevant information (rate per word, CAT tools, areas of expertise) and a CV. Join a translation portal or two (,, etc.) and apply to everything within your abilities. Jobs are listed every day. They are competitive and often poorly paid but all you need at this point is some real experience on your CV. There are also general freelance websites such as Elance and Upwork. Someone at some point will give you a chance. I must stress that none of these websites are a good way to continue your career, but they are a good way to start it.

At this point it is essential that you are available and online during working hours, respond promptly to emails and job announcements and are ready to take on work at any moment. Your first jobs are likely to be rush jobs.

Write to established translators and offer to help them when they are overloaded with work.  Tell everybody you meet that you are a translator. Shower business cards from a hot air balloon. Approach businesses who never even knew they needed translation and offer your services. If you look and sound reliable, it will all come back to you eventually. And when it starts, it snowballs.

Make sure that you come across as reliable and professional in all your correspondence. Someone could have the best CV in the world but if they respond to an email 3 days later with typos they are not as likely to get the job as someone who responds immediately and impeccably.

You never know what is going to lead to work so act like a fantabulous professional at all times!

Attempt to maintain your dignity

At some point you will be offered a tedious job on a topic you do not understand, to be completed in an impossibly short time frame, probably over the weekend, and the pay will work out to little more than minimum wage. You will probably accept it and be grateful, once or twice, just for the experience (and, quite frankly, the validation). But you cannot and must not make this a habit. It is exploitative, it devalues the entire profession and you deserve better.

These kinds of jobs might make sense if you live in a hut on the beach in India and have very little overheads, but you cannot make a decent living this way, and even if you could, why should you? These sorts of employers don’t expect or merit quality, and you should always strive for quality in your work. Why? Well, apart from the obvious, quality is not as replaceable as mere availability and willingness. If you take yourself seriously (lord knows it is difficult at the beginning) and hold out for better jobs and better pay, then you will produce better work and build a good reputation.

So, instead of taking any scrap of work that is thrown to you like meat to starving dogs, try to figure out what makes you special. What is your angle? Where is your place in the market? You have something to offer that most other people do not have. Find out what it is and tell the world.

We are all forced to work for lower rates than we would like at times, when times are tough or a project is particularly interesting or to help out a friend. But know your worth and know that you have a choice.

Meet other translators

At some point you will need to actually leave your hovel and step, squinting, into the outside. There are translators out there and you need to meet them. I am a Londoner so I have had translation events on my doorstep. You may not be so lucky, but the very least you can do is find an online community. Get to know people and share your experiences.

Even newbies have a lot to teach each other in this game, and symbiotic working relationships are easily formed. For example, on the occasions that I have been too busy to take a job, I’ve recommended people I have met at various translation conferences and meet-ups. This makes the client happy, makes me look good and helps out another emerging translator. They may not return the favour, but who knows, maybe they will. I recently got offered an incredible job on the basis of the recommendation of a fellow Russian student at Manchester University who I hadn’t seen in 6 years!

It is a good idea to join professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Linguists, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, the Translators’ Association, all of which cost money to join but open up professional communities for you to learn from. The Emerging Translators Network is a free forum for young upstarts and can be very useful indeed. Investigate which associations and communities will be most useful for you.

Make the most of your free time

If you have flung yourself headlong into the freelance job market you may find yourself frustrated at the amount of time you have on your hands. But trust me, future you is envious of present you. If you use this time wisely it could reap many benefits in the years to come.

It is a good idea to have your own website and blog. This takes time that you will not necessarily have when you start getting more work. So start writing a collection of blog pieces on slow days, that way you will have a backlog to release on your website periodically.

You can also try to send articles, book reviews and opinion pieces to translation journals and websites. Why not? Do some literary translation for fun and practice. Enter translation competitions. Join forums and debates. Volunteer for international charities who need your awesome multi-lingual skills. Read novels and newspapers in your source language. Expand your vocabulary. You could make a full-time job out of being an unemployed freelancer. And none of this experience is wasted. A successful freelance translator has their fingers in many pies, so get poking.


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