Avoiding Getting Lost in Translation

Music & Arts

Avoiding Getting Lost in Translation

Willson-Broyles Translates Swedish Author Khemiri

Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri will stop by The American Swedish Institute on Saturday, April 30 from 10:30 a.m.-noon for a reading of his play “≈[Almost Equal To].” 

Khemiri, a celebrated author in Sweden and throughout the world, has received numerous awards for his work including Sweden’s highest literary award, the August Prize.

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Rachel Willson-Broyles

No one knows Khemiri’s work better then Swedish-to-English translator Rachel Willson-Broyles. Willson-Broyles translated Khemiri’s second novel “Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger” that won Swedish Radio’s Award for Best Novel of the Year and was nominated for an August Prize. The New York Times described the novel as “funny, ambitious and inventive.”

Willson-Broyles also translated Khemiri’s latest screenplay “≈[Almost Equal To].”

We caught up with Willson-Broyles to talk about her career, the translation process and what to expect at the “≈[Almost Equal To]” event.

What an interesting career! Tell us how you became a freelance translator.

I became interested in Swedish at a young age, and translation had always been in the back of my mind, but I wasn’t quite sure how to become a translator. While I was studying at UW-Madison, Jonas Hassen Khemiri visited campus, and my professors encouraged me to show him a brief excerpt of “Montecore” I had translated for a class. As it turned out, he liked my translation, and a few months later I was hired by the publisher, Knopf, to translate the entire novel. All of the work I’ve done since has come out of contacts made during that first translation!

What’s unique about translating a novel? Is it ever difficult remaining true to a character’s original feelings/emotions when translating from Swedish to English? Are there any unique language quirks that make it hard to translate from Swedish to English or vice versa?

I don’t think it seems hard to remain true to a character’s feelings and emotions while I’m translating, but at the same time the translator is like another layer, and necessarily changes the text a little, or a lot – like an Instagram filter! And since every translator will make slightly different choices, of course the resulting text will be affected.

But one thing I do find difficult is translating scenes that are very violent or cruel, in crime novels, for example. That can be emotionally taxing, to have to pay such close attention to something I might skim over a little bit if I were reading the text for fun.

As for tricky things that are specific to Swedish – sure! It’s impossible to get the entire meaning of some of the very culturally-significant words across in English (at least, it’s impossible to do without turning one word into a whole sentence or paragraph!). Umgås is one of those, of course. Fika and lagom are others. One of my favorite things about the Swedish language is the ability to create novel compound words – putting a number of words together to make a brand new word, which people around you will understand from context even if no one ever uses it again. This is often used to humorous effect in literature (there are many examples in Khemiri’s “Montecore”) but it doesn’t work quite the same way in English. To me, some of the humor is lost when you have to de-compound the word for English.

Can you talk us through the process of translating a novel?

Khemiri Jonas Hassen
Khemiri Jonas Hassen

I’m sure each translator works differently, but here’s what I do. Once I’ve got a project to work on, I read the entire book (or play, or whatever it might be) and then do a draft of the entire work. For a novel, this draft might take around two months. Then I take a few days away from that project and then come back to do at least two edits – one where I re-read my translation alongside the original to make sure I haven’t missed anything or misread anything, and one where I go through just my translation to make sure it reads well in English.

For longer projects I also usually send the text off to an outside reader – my dad! – who comments on things that might not sound quite right, or things he doesn’t understand that might need to be tweaked. The translation process also involves a lot of research, much of it online. It is amazing the random things I have learned about as a translator – boat terminology, intravenous drug use, South Africa’s potential nuclear weapons test…

Tell us about Jonah Hassen Khemiri’s latest play. What can audiences look forward to on April 30 at the ASI?

The ASI event is a staged reading of an excerpt from Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s most recent play, “≈ (Almost Equal To).” This play focuses on the preoccupation with money we all deal with in our daily lives, whether we have money or not. Like all of Khemiri’s plays, it uses some unusual tactics to challenge the audience and involve them directly, one way or another. And, in the usual Khemiri way, it is both tragic and hilarious. Following the reading there will be a Q&A with Khemiri and me. I’m really looking forward to it!

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