A book from each country – Norway, Sweden, and more

As with Slovenia, I realised fairly shortly after we arrived in France that our Scandinavian plans were doomed. So rather than carry my Norwegian book all the way home with me unread, I thought I’d read it here.

Norway

After my French book, which I read in both English and French, and felt, in English, slightly patronised by the translator (more of him later) giving me all sorts of information that wasn’t in the French original, here I had to eat my words (in whatever language they were).

Will and Testament, by Vigdis Hjorth and translated by Charlotte Barslund, is about, in the sense that is about anything, an inheritance dispute between an estranged daughter and the rest of her family. The problem is, and this may be just because I’m a private client lawyer, so if there is one topic I know anything about it is inheritance disputes, it didn’t make sense to me. I wanted a brief primer on Norwegian inheritance and gift tax law because without it the actual reason for the argument was meaningless. There were tax implications that everyone got very het up by, but if you don’t understand the tax rules in question it is perhaps difficult to empathise or indeed understand.

But that is perhaps both not the point, and also not true for the majority of readers who aren’t private client lawyers. I could see why it won awards – Berglot (I wish someone had told me how to pronounce her name too) is a very believable character, perhaps because at times her narration is so unreliable, contradictory and, indeed, unbelievable. Something awful has happened to her, years ago (and I did believe that, although not everyone in the book does), and she is still trying to process it. She goes over and over both it and the actions she has taken as a consequence, taking decisions that she then doesn’t follow through on, and repeating herself, but changing the facts as she does. We all know people like that. We are all like that, although hopefully without the trauma. I felt very sorry for her, while finding her hugely irritating. I am ashamed to say that I suspect in that situation I would have been one of her sisters. If you read it you will see what an admission that is.

Sweden

I didn’t bring this with me. It was here already. In fact I had read it before, although had forgotten. But it is Swedish and it was in English and it was nice and tightly plotted with a neat resolution at the end. I’m not a fan of gruesome murder (give me a tidy Agatha Christie where they all gather over a cup of tea in the drawing room at the end) but this passed the time. I thought the title was anoying though. Wallander kept saying that he had been Sidetracked but it seemed to me that what he was actually doing was reasonably following clues. This strikes me (from a position of absoutely no knowledge) as being more Sensible Policing but I guess that’s not such a snappy title.

All, and none, of the above

David Bellos

Top title. And what wouldn’t I give for a bit of Douglas Adams…?

In one of my many parallel universes (there’s one where I’m a doctor, one where I own a cake shop, one where I don’t have any children. There’s coronavirus in none of them) I am a literary translator from French. (There’s another one where I’m a literary translator from French and Russian but that’s so far-fetched as to be almost beyond even the parallel worlds theory).

Anyway, the point is that I am in a very small minority of people who think that literary translation is a cool thing to do. I actually remember fondly (no really) my finals paper which required us to translate a page of Tintin. If I’d had more confidence maybe I’d have expressed that interest to my lecturers…. I didn’t though, and here we are…

Anyway, after my mini-rant about translation, my brother sent me this book. It is all about that dark art of and is, not entirely conicidentally, by David Bellos, the translator of the French book I took slight issue with.

I found it fascinating. There are times when he was, to my taste, too philosophical on the question of the difference between what translation is and what it does, and he was occasionally a little disingenuous, bolstering his argument by reference to books he himself had translated. I also found the (it seemed to me) entirely random use of italics in the chapter headings extremely irritating. Maybe I was just missing something.

But hot on the heels of my frustration at not having the knowledge of Norwegian tax law necessary fully to appreciate Vigdis Hjorth’s book, and living in a country where I sort of speak the language, but not quite well enough, I found most of it riveting. How do I make myself understood and what am I missing when I fail to catch one word in twenty? How much of an “original” is “lost in translation”? What does that even mean? It was interesting too to have the difficulty I have found in obtaining English translations from minority languages put into numbers: in the decade to 2009, 80% of all translations from seven major world languages were from English. 8% were into English. No wonder I couldn’t find a Slovenian book. Wish me luck with Kyrgyz.

The UK and other anglophone places

And now we’re into “I need something to read, what can I find to read? Oh no, that’s a book I brought here and left three years ago and I didn’t much like it then” territory. So I am reading what I can get my hands on, and writing about it here as much for something to do as anything else.

I read this.

I should have known really. I wanted something light and easy and look at the cover. The Daily Mail said it was “wonderful”. It is certainly wondrous that it was a bestseller.

From the ridiculous to the sublime

This, on the other hand, was excellent. A friend sent it to me, with a pile of books for the children too. I’m usually much more a reader of fiction (the cliché of the middle-aged, middle-class woman) but this I thought really was “wonderful”. It’s hard to say that I “enjoyed” it, as it’s a series of horrific stories of lives undervalued, abused and wasted, even before they were brought to an end by brutal murder. It made me think a lot about who we value, and why, and about naming the perpetrators of crimes. It did feel, in places, rather speculative, which is no reflection on the clearly enormous amount of scholarship, and mounds of archives that Hallie Rubenhold has clearly gone through, but more that these lives weren’t valued enough to be recorded. So we can never know what happened to these women for periods of months or years, or how they felt or what they said. It is understandable therefore that there were some sections that felt perhaps too presumptive of what “must have” happened.

This notwithstanding, I came away convinced that whatever they were or did (and three of them were not and had never been prostitutes – and in any event even if they were that should not then, or now, have mattered), or where they went and who with, they deserved to have their stories told.

From real murder to fictional. Nicci French is (are? She is really a husband and wife team) hugely popular but I had never read one of her novels before. Parts of this I thought were brilliant. There is a minor character who talked about anxiety and panic in a way that rang terrifyingly true. But I felt let down by the denouement. Perhaps, in this uncertain time, I just wanted a resolution, but it felt as though she didn’t bring the plot to an end because she knew there was another book coming (and another, and another). As I won’t be reading any of them, I felt slightly cheated. Ironically, if she had resolved it, I probably would have picked up more of her books in future. But now I’m cross. So I won’t.

Where next?

Both geographically and literarily: who knows? I do still have my Russian book (Anna Akhmatova), my Uzbek book (The Devil’s Dance) and my Japanese book (The Pure Land – the only one not actually written by someone from the country, but given to me by a friend as a leaving present) but I am still, perhaps foolishly, hoping that I may one day read those in their countries and so haven’t picked them up yet. That may change.

For now though, it’s more of whatever I can find.

Harriet

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3 Comments

  1. I love your posts about books! You’re almost making me want to join a book group (not something I’ve ever wanted to do before). Let us know if you’d like us to send anything else.

    And it turns out you can judge a book by its cover …

  2. Great information. Lucky me I ran across your site by chance (stumbleupon).

    I’ve bookmarked it for later!

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