We’re at the mid-point of the Silenced blog tour. (Full details at the end of this post.) So let’s chat with its translator and crime author in his own right, Quentin Bates.
Welcome to the blog, Quentin.
You were first a crime writer before moving into the world of literary translation. What persuaded you to take up the new challenge?
It just seemed like a good idea at the time. I had already translated one book as a one-off project, and had translated reams of technical and news material. Karen Sullivan had just signed the unknown Ragnar Jónasson to her very new publishing venture Orenda Books. We were chatting at a festival, and asked if I would translate the two books she had just signed a deal for. It seemed interesting, so I was happy to give it a try.
Which do you prefer, writing or translating?
I enjoy both. Translation can be very varied, ranging from quite routine to hugely challenging. But it has the advantage of someone else having already done the heavy lifting in terms of plotting and developing characters.
I would prefer to be writing my own stuff, but the books I translate seem to be in much greater demand than mine are.
Do you work in parallel or keep the two activities entirely separate?
I can compartmentalise quite effectively on that, so I can put my stuff away and switch to a translation, and back again without a problem. I can’t easily work on two books of my own at the same time – so it’s a headache when I’m working on one, and the edits for another one come through. That’s less easy to separate. I haven’t tried working on two translations simultaneously, and that probably wouldn’t be a great idea.
Have you ever translated anything that made you think “I wish I’d thought of that!”?
That’s happened a few times! In fact, with Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s books that happens all the time…
What are the advantages of translating from a minority language?
There aren’t very many of us who translate from Icelandic, so it’s quite a small group of us and we tend to support and help each other out. Icelandic is also a wonderfully rich and rewarding language…
Are there any disadvantages?
Not that I can think of. I wish sometimes that I could speak a less minority language, as well.
What are the main linguistic challenges of translating from Icelandic?
There are plenty of them… One is that Icelandic has changed significantly in the last couple of decades – as a living language should – so often it’s the newer expressions rather than archaic ones that pose problems. Part of the job is watching Icelandic TV and listening to the radio, thanks to the internet, as well as just chatting to people to keep up with the nuances and changing idioms.
A further problem, not specifically with Icelandic, but with translating into English, is that there’s a good chance your translatee can read what you’ve done and may well want to cast a critical eye over it. That can present all kinds of problems that call for a diplomatic approach…
Can you give examples of those challenges (or others) in Silenced?
Unusually, there were no problems with Silenced. Sólveig is a pleasure to work with and doesn’t insist on getting bogged down in fine detail. Not everyone trusts the translator implicitly as she does.
In general, the untranslatable words that every language has tend to be challenges, as well as jokes and plays on words. There aren’t too many of those in crime fiction generally, but when they crop up I normally need to think them over for a while and come back to them. Sometimes it can be weeks before the right combination of words comes along.
What does a crime writer and crime novel translator read for pleasure? Any specific recommendations?
I find I’m reading less crime fiction these days, and generally reading less than I would like to. The reading list highlights are Lilja Sigurðardóttir (yes, I’m biased, but her books are genuinely something out of the ordinary), Dominique Manotti, Kjell Ola Dahl, Andrei Kurkov, and recently I devoured a Romanian novel called Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu, the only one in English by this author.
Old favourites are Saki, Anthony Burgess, PG Wodehouse.
You are stranded on the proverbial desert island and you are allowed to take one book for translation purposes. Which would it be and why?
Ideally it would be a currently non-existent Icelandic manual called ‘How To Survive on a Desert Island’ which I could translate, alongside making use of all the survival tips, until a sail appears on the horizon…
Really interesting interview, thanks.
I have read four of Ragnar Jónasson’s books and knew that Quentin Bates was the translator, but had not realised that he also translated Lilja Sigurðardóttir, where I have only read Snare yet.
Both Icelandic authors evoke different locales of Iceland for me (literary tourism, having visited Iceland a couple of times) and create interesting characters.
A wonderful read and I’m awe of Quentin being able to translate out of Icelandic. I’m “good” at languages and studied Old Norse at university for 3 years and 20% of my degree, but I tried to learn modern Icelandic having finally got to visit the country in 2014 (on our honeymoon!) and really struggled (not helped by there not being many Icelandic speakers in the UK or resources: I was almost tempted to track down the Icelandic footballer who played for Villa but that seemed a bit weird). I have Jónasson’s books downloaded somewhere I think. I enjoy reading translated Icelandic stuff but a lot of it is just too dark for me!
I had the same issue with English speakers in Holland. Murderous when you want to learn a foreign language! The same thing has started happening with hotel staff in Germany, but at least I’m confident enough in that language to answer in German – all the time. A conversation with the German speaking English and the English woman speaking German can only be described as surreal!