Monday, March 14, 2011

Interview with Author and Translator Tiina Nunnally

The Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood would like to welcome author and translator Tiina Nunnally to our blog today!

Tiina proofreading a manuscript -- with 
a little help from her cat.
Tiina Nunnally has translated more than fifty works of fiction from the Scandinavian languages into English, including Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg, and The Royal Physician’s Visit by Per Olov Enquist.  She has also done new translations of Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen and Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. She lives in Albuquerque and makes her living as a full-time literary translator.

What languages do you work with when it comes to translation?
I translate from Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish into English.

How did you get your start in the writing industry?
I started translating in my free time because I wanted my friends to read some of the great Scandinavian books that I was reading. My first translated book was a memoir called Early Spring, written by the Danish author Tove Ditlevsen. I was lucky enough to have it published by Seal Press in 1984. It also won the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize, so that really encouraged me to continue translating. That same year, at a conference on Scandinavian literature in Seattle, I met Steven T. Murray, the editor in chief of Fjord Press. We ended up getting married the following year, and we ran Fjord Press for twenty years, publishing mostly Scandinavian and German fiction in translation. We never made a profit (and always had to have other jobs to pay our bills), but our books received excellent reviews in major newspapers. We met a lot of authors and editors, and we learned so much about the publishing business.

What is the process of becoming a book translator?
Like any art, it requires practice, practice, practice. I always encourage beginning translators to try their hand at essays and short stories, just because they’re a manageable length. And it’s best to choose a work that you really love, with a writing style that suits you. Doing technical translation is also great practice — translating financial, legal, and corporate documents. It teaches you to meet deadlines, to do the necessary research to learn the appropriate vocabulary for the job, and to adapt to different writing styles.  And technical translation pays better than literary translation! In the US there are very few translators who can make a living by translating fiction.

When it comes to translation, how do you get your foot in the door with publishers (in other words, do you query them or do they seek you out to translate specific works)?
The US or UK publisher chooses the translator for any given work. Once you’ve established a track record by having a few books published, editors will seek you out for new projects. By the way, translators don’t have agents, which means that we have to negotiate our own contracts. Over the past 25 years, Steve and I have made a point of requesting a royalty clause in our contracts with both US and UK publishers. The translator plays an essential role in the success of any translated work — so if the book is a hit, the translator should benefit financially.

Do you ever get the opportunity to meet with or have a conversation with the author of a novel you’re working on?
It’s always great if an author is willing to answer questions. These days it’s so much easier, because we can send queries via email — although I’ve worked with one Swedish author who doesn’t “believe” in email! So we’ve had many long phone conversations about specific passages in his books.

What have been some of the most difficult scenes to translate?
Humor is one of the hardest things to translate. Something that is funny in one language may not be at all funny in another language.  Swear words are also a challenge. In the Scandinavian languages, all of the worst curse words have to do with the devil. In English, we usually make reference to God or to sex when we swear. I once translated a Danish novel that was filled with swear words, and the author (whose English was not very good) sent me a frantic email asking me why I’d put all those “gods” in his book!

How does a translator weigh the lyricism/cadence of the original language with the meaning of the words? Is there ever a point where you sacrifice literal translation to try to get the poetry of a passage across?
“Literal translation” has no place in a work of fiction. Translating “word for word” will produce a flat, lifeless text that no one will want to read. Translation is an art, and the translator is rather like a musician who has to “play” the work, trying to get as close as possible to the “music” of the original composition. This involves paying attention to the style and tone. For example, if the book is written in a very colloquial style, you need to match that appropriately in English. You wouldn’t want a 17th-century monk using 21st-century slang! As a translator, it’s also important to understand the nuances and cultural references of the language that you’re translating from — but it’s even more important to be a good writer in your own language.

Is there one specific genre you prefer working with or do you enjoy translating all kinds?
I prefer to translate prose. These days Steve and I both translate a lot of crime fiction, which we enjoy because we get to use a lot of current slang (and swear words!). I’ve also translated a lot of classic novels, which can be difficult because you need to match the tone and style from a past era. In general, I like to take on projects that challenge me as a translator and a writer. I rarely translate poetry, which requires a whole different approach. I usually say that you need to be a poet yourself in order to translate a poem successfully.

Since your husband is a translator as well, do you ever work on a project together?
We always edit each other’s work. After I finish my first draft of a translation, I sit down and read through the whole thing again, making changes and corrections with a green pen. Then Steve reads the manuscript, marking changes in red. I look over his changes, either accepting them or not (using a third colored pen!), and then all the corrections have to be entered in the computer before the manuscript goes off to the publisher. When Steve translates a book, the process is reversed. So you can see that each translation is read at least four times before it leaves our house.

Do authors ever get angry about how their works are translated? Do they have any say before the translation is published?
Some authors get more involved in the translation process than others. Most Scandinavian writers speak English well, which can sometimes create problems for the translator, because the author may want to “correct” the English. We diplomatically try to discourage this type of “help.” It’s really a matter of trust. The author needs to trust the translator to present his or her novel in a way that gets as close as possible to the style and intent of the original. I always say that the translator’s first loyalty is to the author — not to the publisher or reader. It’s my job to “speak” for the author in English, and I take that responsibility very seriously.

If a writer wanted to translate his/her own work into a second language, would you encourage them to do so or caution him/her against translating their own work?
It’s usually best to have a professional translator take on that task. A bad English translation can ruin the author’s chances in the US and/or UK market.

There has been some discussion over the original translation of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter after your translation was published in 1997-2000 (published in one volume in 2005). Can you explain a little why the original English translation fails to capture the essence of the story and what Undset was trying to get across to the reader?
Because the book is set in the 14th century, the first translators apparently decided to make the English sound archaic to match their idea of how people would have talked during that time period. The result is a stilted and awkward style that bears no resemblance to the beautifully clear and straightforward style of the original Norwegian. The early translations are also marred by mistakes and misunderstandings, and for some reason entire passages were deleted from the text (especially in the second volume of the trilogy). Sigrid Undset is one of my favorite authors, and I was dismayed to see her work so poorly represented in English. So I was thrilled when Penguin asked me to do a new translation of Kristin Lavransdatter that would restore the missing passages and try to get much closer to Undset’s style.

What novels are you currently working on?
I just finished translating a Danish suspense novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen called The Keeper of Lost Causes, which will be published by Dutton in August. It’s the first in a series (exciting plots, great characters, plus a sense of humor) that should really appeal to readers.

* Join me over at the Random Book Review this weekend where I will be reviewing the first novel in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, The Wreath!

♥ Mary Mary


  1. Great interview, Sister Mary. I thought it was interesting that cuss words are so different in Scandinavian languages. It made me think of Spanish and how the "f" word doesn't have a literal translation--that isn't slang (which happens to be different in every Spanish-speaking country.) Also, this word cannot be used with the same variety and "eloquence" that English speakers display, ha ha! I wouldn't have a clue as to how to translate it!

    Ms. Nunnally said that she doesn't recommend authors to translate their work into English if it's their second language. But what about the opposite? English is my second language, but I write in English. Would it be okay for me to translate my novels into Spanish (my first language)? I'm dying to do it! :-)

  2. Great Interview, Sister Mary, Mary. A very interesting glimpse of the fiction translation business.

    Sister Lorena, it works the other way around too. I have run into such poor translations of great Spanish classics.

    I hear Ms. Nunnally (that´s a lovely cat!), because I have read Kristin Lavransdatter in the Spanish and English translation. None of them, despite the attempts to reconstruct the archaic language, did it justice

  3. Fascinating post! I've always wondered about the book translation process. Thanks!

  4. Lorena -- The translation of curse words doesn't surprise me much. For some reason, Americans tend to think the "f" work is universal (and in many ways I suppose it is) but many languages don't have a literal translation for it.
    As with the question to translating back into your native tongue, I'd have to agree with Violante. As Ms. Nunnally stated, you really have to pay attention to style and tone, not literal translation. I'd take her advice and start with a shorter text and expand with more experience.

    Violante and Samantha -- I agree. I've always wondered about the fiction translation business as well. I don't hear a lot about it, and when I got the chance to interview Ms. Nunnally, I jumped at the chance to gain more insight. Thanks for stopping by, Samantha!

  5. Mmm... I was talking about translating my own novels to Spanish, so the tone and style should be there since I wrote them in the first place, right? ;)

  6. Not really. I have tried translating English pieces to Spanish and a different story came out! (much better, I am afraid)

  7. Once, when I was in graduate school, I had the brilliant idea to kill two birds with one stone. At the time I was taking a music class on the Romantic period and a graduate French course on exoticism and found a topic that would work both for a music term paper and a French term paper. I wrote it all in English first, but when I went to translate it, it was a giant mess. Needless to say, I started all from scratch on the French term paper, used the same topic, but had a completely different result than the music paper. And I should have known better, because that wasn't my first attempt at translation. I really does require a lot of practice to get it right.

    ♥ Mary Mary

  8. Hi Ladies, what a fascinating interview! I've never known much about the translation process, so it's great to hear about how it works.



  9. Thanks for this great interview, Mary Mary! The bit about swear words was fascinating. I'd love to see a book about curses around the world; it says a lot about a culture, what words are used to shock. In Arabic the curses seem to involve either dogs or mothers.

    I've read works in other languages before but I've never been fluent enough to really appreciate the subtlety of the translator. It was great to have this insight. Thanks to Tina for the interview!

  10. Translation is such a very hard job - I have great respect for anyone who works in this field!

    Great interview.

    And off-topic I know, but that quilt draped over the sofa behind Tiina in her picture above is beautiful... (just went to a patchwork and quilting exhibition a week ago which is my excuse for noticing such a random thing!)

  11. Rachael -- Thanks for stopping by and I'm glad you enjoyed the interview!

    Stephanie -- I find trying to translate curses to be sooo funny. It doesn't work well with French either. Each language and culture is different when it comes to what they see as slang.

    Adina -- No worries. I really like the quilt too!

  12. I am reading (and loving) a recent Penguin version of the trilogy "Kristin L" translated by Tiina. It's unfortunate that Penguin didn't include Tiina's own introduction from an earlier version. The new introduction is forgettable and I even doubt the author/critic even really read it! A friend in Norway scanned Tiina's intro and sent it to me. What a difference!


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