“The Invoice”: Thoughts on Translation and Localization

In my private life, I follow a lot of book bloggers. Sometime last year, at least one of them brought The Room to my attention. No, not Tommy Wiseau’s “masterpiece.” This The Room is a novel by the Swedish Jonas Karlsson. The premise sounded interesting and I looked high and low for the original Swedish edition, only to turn up empty-handed. I shrugged and moved on to other things.

One of those other things was NetGalley. I finally bit the bullet and signed up a few months ago. I could rationalize that decision with “it’s important to stay abreast of literary trends when you’re an editor” but really I just wanted free ebooks. (When you live outside the US and Canada, you don’t get the free physical copies.)

Last week I noticed a new title in the Literary Fiction section: The Invoice, by Jonas Karlsson. I recognized his name immediately and requested the book as a way to give him a test run. I was also curious about how the translation was handled, as my luck with English translation of contemporary Swedish books (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) has been much worse than with English translations of Swedish classics (Doctor Glass). Where would The Invoice fall in this spectrum?

Image courtesy Crown Publishing
Image courtesy Crown Publishing

The answer: somewhere in the middle.

In the case of The Invoice, there was something clunky and choppy about the writing. I noticed it, frowned, and continued reading, because at least it didn’t use any archaic or awkward turns of phrases I had seen elsewhere, and by elsewhere I mean in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (No one uses “anon” anymore; at least, not to mean “soon.”) I eventually stopped noticing the choppiness, but only because something bothered me even more: an uncomfortable mix of American and British English.

I’m all in favor of standardizing English; it would make my job (both as a tutor and as an editor) that much easier. But we haven’t accomplished that standardization yet, and while usage may dictate rules, I don’t think individual publishers deciding on their own “blends” will successfully further the International English cause. When it comes to The Invoice, this blend was:

  • American spelling
  • American punctuation
  • British terms

So we had a character walking into a gray granite building, taking a lift up to the eleventh floor, and talking to a Mr. Something-or-other.

This is a minor quibble on my part, I realize. Once I figured out was going on, I was able to put my discomfort in a box and read the story for the sake of the story. It certainly didn’t hamper my understanding in any way. But I think it’s a point worth discussing: when translating into English, how much should consistency and localization matter?

What we have here is a failure to communicate. // Image courtesy Matthew Hull.
What we have here is a failure to communicate. // Image courtesy Matthew Hull.

After all, I had no trouble understanding the writing. The differences between British and American English have been thoroughly documented, to the point where any adult English-speaking reader (usually) knows there are differences and can (usually) switch between the two without difficulty. And how many people, exactly, really notice those differences? Literature translated into English isn’t done for the exclusive sake of native speakers. There is a huge market for non-native speakers as well; readers who might not be attuned to the differences, or who might prefer “color” and “analyze” but also “lorry” and “dustbin.” Does that make the distinction between conventions nothing more than a shibboleth on par with “rules” about ending sentences in prepositions?

For me, not quite, though I couldn’t give you a satisfactory answer as to why. I just like consistency! (Hobgoblin of a little mind it may be.) If I had been working on this project, I would have favored American terminology and made the appropriate changes, with a comment explaining why.

I asked other editors (informally) and the majority response seemed to be that this was an inconsistency, and one that “should” be rectified, validating my own thought on the issue. A not-insignificant portion replied that they had been instructed to mix conventions in similar ways, or had heard of that happening to other editors. I was surprised to learn that this is something that deliberately happens, but if that’s how a publisher or author wants to roll, that’s what they’re allowed to do.

But something that bothers word nerds might not bother the general public, so I put this question out to you, Internet: how do you feel about mixing different English conventions?

Legal “CYA” moment: in case context didn’t make it clear, I received a free preview copy of The Invoice in exchange for honest feedback and review. The translation issue I described here (in as much as it’s an “issue”) may be addressed by the time the book goes to print.

Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” Wins the Man Brooker Prize; I Daydream About Korean Translations

Han Kang speaking at an event in 2014.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and user Ccmontgom

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has been making the rounds on the book blog corners of the Internet for a while now, so I’m not that surprised to see it win the prestigious Man Brooker Prize. What is more surprising is the story of the English translator:

The book was translated by Deborah Smith, who only started teaching herself Korean in 2010.

She said she initially tried to translate the book for a publisher after only learning Korean for two years, but the translation was “awful”.

However, after publisher Portobello Books asked her if she had a Korean book that would be “right for their list”, she had another go at translating a year later.

Translating can be a tricky business. Even in neighboring languages there are discrepancies—when does “jag orkar inte” mean “I don’t want to,” and when does it mean “I don’t feel like it,” and when does it mean “I can’t be bothered”?—with languages from two different language families, the gulf will only widen. An artful translation that maintains all of the nuances of the original is a difficult task, and it seems like Smith succeeded. (“Seems like,” I say: I leave it to the bilingual readers to determine if she actually succeeded.)

I’ll admit, for a few years now it’s been my pipe dream to foster more translations of Korean literature into English. Smith’s success has rekindled the hopes I have for that pipe dream (there are Korean courses at Stockholms universitet! was my first thought on reading the news) and I find myself daydreaming a little. But maybe the daydream is more about attaining enough Korean fluency to enjoy a whole new realm of literature, and less about actually translating anything.

At any rate, there is certainly plenty of work to be done when it comes to Swedish literature in translation. There is far more in the Swedish literary tradition than Astrid Lindgren and gritty crime novels, after all. It’s a sad state of affairs when Pär Lagerkvist, one of the foremost Swedish authors of the last century and a Nobel prize winner, is still incompletely translated into English. I would love to bring his work, or help somebody else bring his work, to a larger international audience.

Pär Lagerkvist
Justice for Pär!

Again, congratulations to Han and Smith. I look forward to devouring (hah, hah) The Vegetarian in the near future, and I wish them much success, literary and otherwise.