Category Archives: Translating

Translator’s Library: Part One

As spring gets underway, the thoughts of translators — at least in Tucson, Arizona — have turned to … books.  That was the subject of discussion at a local lunch that took place at the European Deli on Sunday, April 19.

How-to or “tools of the trade” books such as Morry Sofer’s Translator’s Handbook, with all its continually updated editions, would seem to be obvious candidates for any translator’s attention.  However, that Sunday the group chose to focus on less obvious but still worthy mentions.  Foremost among these were translator biographies.  In that regard, Russian translator Kenny Cargill revealed that he had been reading a biography of Constance Garnett (1861-1946), a noteworthy translator of Russian literature. Some brief facts about her follow.

Based in the U.K., Garnett lived in an era in which women’s roles were closely circumscribed and translators typically tended to be male.  Undeterred, she pursued her education with full vigor and managed to break down gender barriers.  As a translator specializing in the Russian language, she was the first to translate works by Dostoevsky.   A number of other 19th century Russian authors, including Tolstoy, also received the benefits of her translating attention.  She managed to leave behind an enduring legacy in the literary translation field; her translations continue to be reprinted to this day.

To be sure, Garnett has not been without her critics.   Some have charged that her translations deviate too much from the source texts.  Some have even gone so far as to claim that, in taking liberties with the adapting of texts, she sought, in effect, to fill the role of author, rather than that of mere translator.  To judge the matter for one’s self would of course require a good grasp of Russian combined with a thorough examination of original and translated texts for purposes of comparison.  Only then could one determine whether Garnett, in penning her translations, took her adaptation of texts too far or whether she was simply exercising the leeway that applies to literary translation.

When not providing fodder for biographers’ pens, translators of all sizes, shapes, and backgrounds have managed to make it into fiction, a topic I covered during the lunch.  Fictional translators, like their real-life counterparts, have definitely experienced their share of travel and adventure — or misadventure, as the case may be.  A search for fictional translators’ tales at my local public library yielded a rather lengthy list of titles.  Below is a brief look at a small sample of these.

In Nina Schuyler’s The Translator, protagonist Hanne Schubert’s life literally takes a rough-and-tumble turn when she falls down a flight of stairs and consequently develops a rare but real condition in which she loses her native English but retains the Japanese she acquired later in life.  Faced with this new set of linguistic limitations, she takes what would seem to be the most logical step in response; she moves to Japan.  However, once there, her troubles are far from over.  The Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated accuses her of sabotaging his work.  In an effort to get to the bottom of things, Hanne seeks out the actor who served as the inspiration for the author’s novel.  A highly complicated relationship follows.

Georg Polger, a translator eking out a living in southern France in Bernhard Schlink’s The Gordian Knot, has plenty of relationship troubles of his own.  He is approached with the offer of a job as head of a local translation agency — an offer that seems too good to refuse.  Matters quickly heat up, however, when, having taken the job, he falls for the job recruiter’s secretary, only to discover her secretly photographing a military project of a classified nature.  Shortly after this revelation, she disappears.  Georg sets out on a quest to discover not just where — but who — she really is.  In so doing, he may be in over his head.

Meanwhile, not far from the Boston Harbor, Lydia Pallas (featured in Elizabeth Camden’s Against the Tide), a translator working for the U.S. Navy, would seem to be set for life, with all the comfort and security she needs.  However, all that is about to change.  A man on a quest to end the opium trade needs a translator.  Lydia accepts his mission, only to find that her new job is far more difficult and dangerous than she had anticipated.

Anyone with a young reader in his or her life should note that fictional translator tales don’t have to be for adults only.  Sacagawea, the young Shoshone woman featured in Scott O’Dell’s Streams to the River, River to the Sea, was actually not only a real person but also possibly the most famous interpreter in U.S. history.  She owes this distinction to the fact that she served as an interpreter during the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806).  While definitely a worthy subject for plenty of nonfiction writing, she has enjoyed a generous share of fictional treatment as well.

O’Dell’s tale for young adults begins when, at the age of thirteen, Sacagawea is captured by members of the Hidatsa tribe.  As a captive, she becomes fluent in the Hidatsa language.  Enter French trader Toussaint Charbonneau, who wins her in a hand game and makes her his wife.  When they meet up with Lewis and Clark, the stage is set for the pair, accompanied by their baby son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, to join the expedition, traveling from St. Louis, Missouri to the Pacific Coast.

Having survived a number of hardships and dangers on their journey, the group ultimately meets up with members of the Shoshone tribe.  It is during this encounter that Sacagawea, who has had no contact with her people since being taken captive, is reunited with her brother, now a chief.

Some background is in order concerning the Lewis and Clark approach to interpreting.  Modern-day interpreters serving at functions involving two or more nations or tribes typically speak multiple languages between them and can rely on headphones and other technology to speed the communication process.  By way of contrast, the interpreting that took place between the Shoshone and the English-speaking members of the Lewis and Clark expedition involved going through a long, arduous series of steps.  The Shoshone chief (or other  tribal spokesman) would communicate his message.  Sacagawea would then translate the message into Hidatsa, the language she had picked up as a captive.  Her husband, Charbonneau, long fluent in Hidatsa since he had frequently done trading with members of that tribe, would then translate the message into his native French.  An expedition member fluent in French then translated the message into English — the final step of the interpretation process.  When members of the Lewis and Clark party wished to communicate messages of theirs to the Shoshone, the whole process, of course, was repeated in reverse.

It should be noted that, regardless of circumstances beyond her control, Sacagawea was not merely the passive recipient of events that befell her.  On the contrary, O’Dell depicts her as a strong, independent individual and thus definitely a worthy and admirable character for modern-minded readers, whether male or female.

Rounding up this brief look at fictional translators, nine-year-old British girl Maddy, featured in Brian Falkner’s Maddy West and the Tongue Taker, has the amazing ability to speak every language in the world.  Her mother, at first wary upon discovering Maddy’s unique ability, soon finds ways to capitalize on it.  Once Maddy appears on a talk show, word spreads rapidly of her language abilities.  A certain professor seeks her out in the hope that she can translate some ancient scrolls located at a monastery in Bulgaria.  The professor seems trustworthy enough, and getting her parents to approve the trip does not prove difficult.  At first Maddy is thrilled to be embarking on this adventure abroad.  Evidence soon surfaces, however, that the professor is not quite all she seems.  What is her real motive in requesting the translation of the scrolls?  It would seem that they contain not benevolent information but evil spells.  Events take a sinister turn when the young, adventuresome translator finds herself kidnapped.  Her only hope of escape lies in turning to her friends, including a young, aspiring ninja, for help.

Two themes here will definitely ring true to real-life translators with a bit of age and experience under their belts.  First, the profit motive is alive and well in the world of translation, and the linguistically gifted can and do face the very real risk of exploitation.  However, on a brighter note, if one finds one’s self in a bit of a jam, beset by circumstances that threaten to overwhelm one’s problem-solving capabilities, the right kind of teamwork can make all the difference in the world.


Non-Fiction:  Biography

Garnett, Richard.  Constance Garnett:  A Heroic Life. — London:  Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991.  402 pp.

Adult Fiction

Camden, Elizabeth.  Against the Tide:  A Novel. — Minneapolis:  Bethany House, c2012.  362 pp.

Schlink, Bernhard.  The Gordian Knot. — New York:  Vintage Books, 2010.  246 pp.

Schuyler, Nina.  The Translator:  A Novel. — Newburyport:  Pegasus Books, 2013.  320 pp.

Young Adult Fiction

O’Dell, Scott.  Streams to the River, River to the Sea:  A Novel of Sacagawea. — Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1986.  191 pp.

Children’s Fiction

Faulkner, Brian.  Maddy West and the Tongue Taker. — North Mankato, Minnesota:  Capstone Young Readers, 2014.  355 pp.

Online Resources

Pima County Public Library catalog search results for translators in fiction:

Lewis and Clark Expedition entry in Wikipedia:

Sacagawea entry in Wikepedia:


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Where Are the Swedish Radio Commercials? A Look at Radio Funding in Sweden

P4 Stockholm, my “adopted” Swedish radio station, may be noteworthy for its news, music and other programming, but one feature the listener won’t find here — or indeed, on most Swedish radio stations — is advertising. One might listen to this or any number of other Swedish stations by the hour without hearing a single commercial.

If Swedish radio stations, by and large, never air commercials, how do they get the funding they need to stay on the air? Sveriges Radio AB, originally founded in 1925 as AB Radiotjänst (radio service company) and serving as the Swedish counterpart of the UK’s British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), plays a key role in this. A public limited company, this entity receives its funding through a licensing fee determined by the Swedish Riksdag (parliament). Under such circumstances, advertising through Sveriges Radio is neither needed nor permitted.

Moreover, public service media, including radio stations, get their funding not through the kind of National Public Radio-style pledge breaks with which public radio fans in the U.S. have long since become familiar but through a tax imposed on all who own a TV or radio receiver.

That’s not to say no private commercial radio stations exist in Sweden.  However, in that country they arrived relatively late on the scene; they weren’t even available until 1993.  I have not yet come across statistics on Swedish commercial radio stations versus those free of advertising, but even today the percentage of such stations does not seem to be high in Sweden compared to the U.S.


European Journalism Centre.  Media Landscapes:  Sweden (

Media of Sweden Wikipedia entry (

Press Reference entry for Sweden (

Sveriges Radio Wikipedia entry (

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To Sweden By Radio: Part Two

Fall 2009 – Jan. 2010

“P fyra Radio Stockholm, hundra tre komma tre,” sang the Swedish voices in perfect harmony.  “Stockholms största radiokanal” (Stockholm’s biggest radio station), proclaimed a female voice.  With that, the P4 station representing the Stockholm area concluded its self-identification.  The announcer came on the air to inform listeners that the time was 6:30 in the evening.  My Tucson clock, by way of contrast, read 9:30 a.m.  At that very moment, the morning sun was streaming in through my bedroom window.

Daylight Saving Time, not due to end in Sweden until October 25, meant that Sweden was nine hours ahead of Tucson.  With the end of DST in countries around the world and in U.S. states (excluding Arizona), Stockholm and the rest of Sweden would be a mere eight hours different from Tucson.

Meanwhile, there were news stories to follow. As the weeks passed and 2009 gave way to 2010, weekday programs like “Stockholm idag” (Stockholm Today) and “Klartext” (Clear Text) vied for attention, covering current events not only in Sweden but around the world.  Early on in the new year, the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti took center stage.  Scores died, while damaged and destroyed buildings left countless people displaced.  Aid was desperately needed, ranging from medical services to the transport of food and supplies.  The news stories followed the progress of this and other developments.

Meanwhile, Sweden, if not exactly beset by earthquakes, had to wage struggles of its own against the forces of nature.  In true Scandinavian fashion, the winter of 2009/2010 was proving bitter cold.  In the coldest areas of all, largely in the northern part of Sweden, it was not uncommon for roofs to collapse beneath the weight of the snow.

As I labored to decipher the content of the news stories, oral comprehension proved every bit as difficult as I had expected.  Why take on a task so fraught with stumbling blocks?  As a translator offering professional services since 2007, I had long since grown accustomed to working with documents printed in the languages I worked with — i.e., Swedish and Spanish.  However, I wasn’t content merely to read my languages; I wanted to hear them.  I reasoned that, in addition to the opportunity to practice — and hopefully improve — my listening skills, I would also gain the valuable opportunity to pick up some vocabulary.

As a southern Arizona-based translator living not far from the U.S.-Mexico border, I had no shortage of Spanish-language stations to choose from using my radio dial, but I knew I couldn’t count on accessing Swedish radio stations the same way.  The Internet was my only hope.

At some point — I no longer remember how — I learned of a website that provided links to European live streaming radio stations grouped by country.  In the alphabetically arranged country list, finding the Swedish link was not difficult.  A click on that link took me to a page boasting several dozen radio stations.  (These numbered 90 as of Jan. 23, 2014.)  Alongside each clickable station name appeared the city in which the station was located, a brief description of station content, and options for listening live.  (Note:  Workable listening options are likely to vary, depending on factors such as the speed of one’s Internet connection and the type of live streaming media software available on one’s computer.)  Having sampled several different radio stations, I ultimately settled on P4 Stockholm.

My radio listening experience, however challenging, definitely did not disappoint.  As hoped, new vocabulary words slowly began to emerge from the comprehension fog.  Among other things, I found that, when hearing about earthquakes, terms like “jordbävning” and “jordskalv” were definitely useful to know.  Moreover, for those occasions when what I heard proved especially difficult to decipher, P4’s home page, though all in Swedish of course, served as a handy “cheat sheet” by providing postings of the top stories being aired.

News reports were not the only means for increasing vocabulary.  One could also listen to the music.  I found that the American music scene had definitely made its mark.  Over time, I heard a number of U.S. rock tunes that had been popular from the 1960s to the 1980s.  Doubtless the American influence stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that since the end of World War II Swedish schoolchildren have received English instruction and have thereby also acquired a taste for songs in their acquired language.  However, plenty of songs with Swedish lyrics came onto the air to reward the patient Swedish-language listener.  One song in particular, entitled “En annan du” (Another You) by a male-female duo calling themselves Bara Vänner (Just Friends) proved irresistible.  I ended up purchasing the tune to play on my computer.

Then there were the children’s programs.  The regularly aired quiz show known as “Vi i femman” (We in the Fifth Grade) featured contestants between the ages of nine and twelve years from schools around the country.  Show hosts tested the students’ knowledge not only on academic subjects but also on matters related to popular culture.

Those eager to hear stories could tune in to “Barnradio” (Children’s Radio).  One series of tales featured an intrepid police chief who happened to be a dog.  Known as “Kommissarie Tax” (whose name I would eventually learn meant “Commissioner Dachshund”) he kept busy solving mysteries.  For the really tough cases, he received aid from a motorcycle-riding assistant known as “Petra Pudel” (Petra the Poodle).

In one case, a penguin sought the dachshund’s help.  With an urgent knock on the door, she cried, “Polis, polis!  Någon har stulit min is!”  (Police, police, someone has stolen my ice!)  She could not imagine why her ice kept disappearing.  The police locked up a feline suspect, only to discover that a new hunk of ice again disappeared.  How to solve such a baffling case?  Hint:  A bit of science knowledge comes in handy here.

Another story, Katarina Kieri’s “Det snöar, Astrakan” (It’s Snowing, Astrakan), covers the ups and downs of friendships in the life of an elementary-school-aged girl.  In one particularly telling scene, a group of her fellow-students are studying English, a scenario which would definitely resonate with real-life Swedish school children today.  Yes, English instruction in Sweden begins in elementary school; it doesn’t wait until high school.

Farmboy Ola, the central character in Viveca Lärn’s “Ett djur på fem bokstäver” (A Five-Letter Animal), is a lifelong animal lover.  Animal expert Jack Hanna has nothing on Ola; wherever the latter goes, animal adventures are sure to follow.  Such indeed proves the case when he has the chance to accompany his mother and older sister to Stockholm, where they visit Skansen, the city’s open-air museum.  While there, Ola falls hopelessly in love with some caged lemurs that he encounters.  What happens after that is sure to keep radio listeners (or readers, if one missed the radio broadcast) spellbound.

A nonfictional biography series also aimed at young listeners featured famous U.S. musicians, complete with their lives as children.  American listeners tuning in would doubtless have recognized the names of most if not all of the musicians:  Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, Hudie Ledbetter, Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley.  Listening to this series, one could easily see how young Swedes might acquire a taste for American music, though, admittedly, I would have liked to hear a series on Swedish musicians.

Epilogue:  Jan. 2014 – Present

Some time has passed since my introduction to Swedish-language radio.  Although some amount of change is inevitable in that length of time, much has stayed the same.  “Vi i femman”  and “Barnradio”  are still going strong, as is the news program “Klartext.”  However, the station’s program listing no longer includes “Stockholm idag”.  In its place, one can now hear “Stockholmsnytt”  (Stockholm News), which offers much the same coverage.

No doubt about it; the news stories keep on coming.  When hard pressed to understand what I’ve just heard, I still turn to the P4 home page “cheat sheet” for aid.  In the course of a home page scan one day in early January, a photo posted at the top of the page gave this Swedish American pause.

In recent years, an increasing number of immigrants, including Middle Easterners, have found their way to Sweden.  Once settled there, they have often met with a mixed reception, a phenomenon that must inevitably make the news.  The new year got off to a disturbing start for one Stockholm-based mosque when vandals carved swastikas in the doors to the front entrance.  The photo accompanying this news story, featuring several prominent examples of the dreaded hakkors, provided stark evidence of the deed, if not the perpetrator.

As yet, the police had no suspects.  The search for those responsible would likely prove difficult at best.  It occurred to me to ask myself:  Should they perhaps put kommissarie Tax on the case?

Whatever the outcome of the investigation, one individual at least was not about to sit still.  The coming days brought evidence that anonymous acts need not take the form of vandalism and/or hate crimes.  Within a couple of days, the original photo featuring the swastikas had vanished.  In its place, a new photo, taken of the same mosque, showed, in all their radiant glory, the flowers that someone had placed over the swastikas, thus covering them up.  Given my admittedly pro-Scandinavian bias, I would like to believe this the latter gesture represents the true spirit of Sweden.


P4 Stockholm radio station (  (To hear what is currently airing, go to the upper right corner of the home page and click on the arrow appearing below the term “Lyssna direkt.”)

List of Sweden’s radio stations online (

Kieri, Katarina, Det snöar, Astrakan [It’s snowing, Astrakan] (

Lärn, Viveka, Ett djur på fem bokstäver [A five-letter animal] (

Petrén, Elsie, Kommissarie Tax samlada mysterier (Commissioner Tax collected mysteries) (

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To Sweden by Radio: Part One

New Year’s Eve afternoon was bright and sunny in Tucson, the southern Arizona town I call home.  I looked at the clock.  It was about twenty minutes to four.  If I timed things just right, I should soon be able to hear the New Year’s countdown in Stockholm.

Stockholm?  Yes, that’s right.  Given the time zone difference, Stockholm, Sweden was eight hours ahead of Arizona.  In other words, while we Arizonans had the rest of the afternoon and evening to get through before we could finish up our old year, Swedes, including Stockholm residents, would be starting their New Year’s Day in just twenty minutes.  There was but one way an Arizonan could fast-forward the process and start the new year as soon as everyone in Stockholm and the rest of Sweden — through a form of radio-inspired time travel.

I sat down at my computer and pulled down my bookmarks menu.  Scrolling down to the radio stations folder, I instantly found and clicked on the link for P4, the Stockholm-based radio station that had long been my favorite Swedish station.  After a brief interval, the sounds of P4 soon issued forth from my computer.

I found — by no means for the first time — that a number of songs played on the radio station were in English.  I recognized the melodies of rock tunes I’d heard long ago.  No doubt the songs had been chosen with a young, English-speaking audience in mind, since the younger crowd had the strength and stamina required for staying up until midnight and seeing the new year in.  Since the end of World War II, English has been taught in Sweden to children as young as elementary school age.  No doubt the radio listeners currently tuned in to the Stockholm station had all gotten A’s in English.

The minutes passed.  With midnight in Sweden now just moments away, the radio station’s mood underwent a major change.  The rapid approach of the new year had not escaped the notice of the good folks at P4.  The music, for the time being, had come to an end.  A bell was ringing.  As it rang, a man began to read a poem.  The poem’s focus was “Nyårsklockan” (New Year’s bell). The verses spoke of ringing out the old and ringing in the new, about the death of the old year but also about new beginnings.  It was indeed a solemn occasion, a time for reflection on the events of the year rapidly drawing to a close, as well as a time for wondering what the new year would bring.

The man concluded his reading of the poem.  And then I heard the first Swedish song to go over the airwaves since I had tuned in.  Swedish voices broke into the strains of “Du gamla, du fria,” Sweden’s national anthem.  On that patriotic note, Sweden’s new year began.

No doubt about it, my Swedish radio-style New Year had been a moving and unforgettable occasion.  Feeling inspired, I posted a brief account of my radio listening adventure on LinkedIn, along with an accompanying Happy New Year’s message.  I also fired off an email about it to a local Swedish-American friend.

Having sent out those messages, I still felt a need to do something more.  Curious, I decided to see what online information I could dig up on the poem.  I learned that the poem bearing the title “Nyårsklockan” was actually a Swedish translation of the English “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” originally penned by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  The poet had probably little dreamed that his poem, published in 1850, would inspire Swedes to start an annual tradition.  However, that was precisely what happened.  To this day, the Swedish “Nyårsslockan” poem is recited annually in Sweden as New Year’s Eve draws to a close.

As for my Swedish-American friend, reading my account of the P4 listening session brought back old memories.  Having spent her growing up years in Sweden (she immigrated to the USA as a young woman in the 1950s), she recalled well how, during her childhood and teenage years, she got to stay up until midnight and hear the poem read on the radio.

No doubt about it, listening to radio stations based in far away places exposes one to far more than just foreign languages; one can also pick up priceless tidbits of information about a country’s culture.  One never knows what one might learn when listening to the radio!


P4 Stockholm radio station (  (To hear what is currently airing, go to the upper right corner of the home page and click on the arrow appearing below the term “Lyssna direkt.”)

“Ring Out, Wild Bells” Wikipedia entry (,_Wild_Bells)

“Nyårsklockan.”  Author:  Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  Translator:  Edvard Fredin.  (

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Blog for indexers and translators

Greetings from a freelancer who offers both indexing and documents translation services.  Items I index are mostly books, but I’ve also indexed journals, tackling widely varied subjects ranging from history and medicine to (of course) linguistics and language learning.  I love the subject variety, because that’s a large part of what makes indexing fun!

On the translation front, I work with both Spanish and Swedish documents, translating them into English.  My translation subject specialties include medical and legal translation, although I’m willing to tackle other subjects as my schedule and expertise permit.

I’m going to wrap this up now, but I hope to add more soon.

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