Dr Anne Ryden is a Danish-English translator, and a senior lecturer in Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University where she currently supervises post-graduate students in creative as well as professional writing. She has a BA (Honours) in literature and cultural studies, and a doctorate in literary translation. She grew up in Denmark (Europe), lived and worked for several years in England, the Faroe Islands, and France before migrating to Australia some 25 years ago. She continues to negotiate her identity and sense of belonging across two and sometimes more languages, two cultures, and three families.
Tell us a bit about your career as a translator. How did you get started, and what languages do you translate?
This is going to sound made-up, but I promise you it isn’t: I knocked on the door of a Danish publisher, told them I’d lived in England for a few years and asked if I could translate something for them. And then they gave me a whole novel to translate! I was stoked and shocked in equal amounts as I walked away with a hardcopy of the book I’d been given – with no instructions and no actual idea of how to translate anything.
I did have a reasonable grasp of English at that point though because I’d been learning it as my first foreign language since I was twelve and I had eagerly supplemented what I was taught in school by some dedicated reading of English-Danish/Danish-English dictionaries for many years. Reading dictionaries was like finding little independent worlds – each word gained more meaning by also having a function, a slightly different function, in the other language.
I have translated from Danish to English, and in all directions between Danish, English and French, but commercially only from English to Danish.
What is the translation process like? How do you get started when translating a piece of literature?
I had to work this out for myself – and I know from other translators that each of us have our own way in. Because of the very haphazard way I initially got into translating, my ‘method’ developed quite organically and without any clear objective other than to shift the text at hand from English to Danish.
On a very practical level, for my first translation I simply read the book, then sat down with a pencil and a ruled pad, a selection of dictionaries, and a solid dose of can-do! I wrote out the whole translation in long form, marking out passages that I couldn’t resolve in the first instance, and then worked through it again, and again. And again. I had a separate note pad for terms and concepts that I needed to research to better understand them – plants, for example, don’t always have a name in Danish if they don’t grow there. Finally, I typed the whole translated text and in doing so essentially re-read the book in Danish, before printing it out to proofread it. I proofread aloud which helped me identify any passages that didn’t actually sound Danish.
Looking back, the method I devised worked as my training ground and I got a lot more efficient as a translator – eventually simply working off a manuscript reading it in English and typing it up in Danish with highlights for passages that needed to be carefully revisited.
Once a piece is translated into English, do you go through and edit it yourself, or is that job passed along to someone else?
Because I’ve translated for a publisher, they have some in-house editorial support. But I will always edit and proofread the translated text before submitting it and then one of the publishing editors reads it and sends me any queries. This part is really no different from working with an original text as an editor where you send queries back to the author. With a translated text the questions just go to the ‘author’ of that text, i.e. the translator. I should note that some translators work with the author so the translation is more of a dialogue which is something I’ve never had the opportunity to do, but I reckon that would be a lot of fun.
When translating, do you get the opportunity to be a little creative? Or do you just translate word-for-word, rather than simply capturing the essence of what is being said? Can this be a challenging task?
Translating is fun and it is very time consuming. There’s a lot of different schools of thought about what a ‘good’ translation is and, again probably because of my entry into translating, my take on that was pragmatic rather than academic. My approach was to create the same reading experience in Danish as I had when reading the book in English. So I have never simply translated word-for-word; instead I have tried to render the story and experience of the original by attempting to capture the tone and rhythm of the original author’s work, the feeling that the words and phrases create when reading them.
Translation to me is challenging in the way a riddle is challenging – the text gives you the clues to how you must proceed, but because of the complexity of any text, you have to try different combinations and approaches to find the right one. The right one for me is the one that feels, says, and does the same (or something very similar) in Danish as it did in English. Of course, this means translations (mine at least) are likely to be very subjective; however, I don’t think that is really a problem because the original text would not have been written as a purely rational, cerebral piece of work; that’s not how creative writers tend to write. So why would you attempt to translate that way, right?
Why do you think a lot of English works get translated into other languages, but not so much the other way around? Do you think there’s anything that can be done to promote translated works better?
Well, as a sheer numbers game, there’s more English speakers than speakers of other languages so you could imagine there might be more English writers and publications too so that might play a part. Translations are also costly although that cost could be recouped easily by publishing into a large market like the English language market. In actual fact, it is probably more to do with reader interest, and that has been shifting. In recent years, the old measure of 3% translated literature in the UK has shifted to nearly 6%; and there’s a similar upward trend for translated work here in Australia.
One of my favourite publishers, And Other Stories, is doing a wonderful service not just to translating, but also to editing and publishing more generally. They run as a subscription service where you pay for books that are yet to be published (and you get your name in the back of them, so there’s an incentive if getting great books weren’t enough!), which allows them to pay their translators and editors properly because they don’t have to rely on the market delivering a profit first. This means that there’s some great international works in fantastic translations into English out there, and slowly the readership is expanding.
How do you become a translator? Did you seek out freelance work or did authors/publishers approach you?
There’s translator training available in Australia via several TAFE and university courses, and NAATI provides accreditation, although that is more for business translation rather than literary translation. I know there’s some translation degrees too, but you’d want to start with a solid grounding in another language and then add a wider understanding of translation and translation theory.
My own trajectory eventually landed me in a higher degree by research where I studied the theory behind what I’d been doing for years as a freelance translator and thus formalised my knowledge and experience in literary translation. And ironically, that was also the last full translation I’ve done. Doing this interview, though, is making me want to translate again.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to become a literary translator?
This is going to be very unsurprising: read lots! In your native language and in any other language you are learning. Maybe even read the same book in two different languages – I gained a wonderful insight into the finer details of translating when I read Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, a Danish novel in the English translation. Everyone was raving about it, but I didn’t think it was very good. Only years later, when I read the Danish original did I find a way to enjoy it. That’s not to say the English translation isn’t good – it must have been because all the people who were raving about it were English academics. But for me, the places in Denmark, the way the characters moved, rang hollow in English.
Apart from reading, writing will also be really useful to becoming a translator. Learn about languages, grammar, history, culture – like editors, translators need an endless supply of knowledge. Learn about genres and styles. Eat food from lots of different places. Talk to people about what interests them. Read some more.
And then, when you feel you are ready, go knock on a publisher’s door – it’s worked once, so it may work again!
Lastly, we always ask our interviewees for book recommendations! What have you been reading recently?
Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8 – a very clever and moving work of fiction that is grounded in facts about battery hens and some very real considerations about activism. It is a liberation story, a coming of age story, and it features a very brave Leghorn named Bawaak.
Yuri Herrera’s Signs preceding the end of the world (Spanish, translated into English by Lisa Dillman and winner of the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for Fiction) – one of my absolute favourite books for a long time, it captures so much about translation of the self in and through language. In fact, this is a must-read for any budding translator.
And I’m taking Liz Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People with me on holiday next week.