An interview with translator Nathan Large

posted in: Nathan Large, Sven Nordqvist | 8

findusgoesfishingFindus goes Fishing by Sven Nordqvist, translated by Nathan Large is a book for anyone who’s ever got out of bed the wrong side and felt like nothing at all could improve their day, and also for all those who’ve spent time with someone they love who’s under a dark cloud. It’s a story of patience, love, empathy and one crazy cat.

It’s a gloomy autumn day and old farmer Pettson is down in the dumps. He doesn’t feel like doing any of the jobs he knows he needs to do. He’s blue and stuck in a funk. But his loyal and very dear friend, a kittenish cat called Findus is full of beans and just wants to play. Pettson is having none of it and snaps. “I AM IN A BAD MOOD AND I WANT TO BE LEFT ALONE!

How can you bring a little happiness back to someone who is feeling unhappy and depressed? What can you do to bring them a small ray of sunshine when all they have above their heads is a dark cloud? Findus may want to have some fun, but he also really wants to make his good friend feel better and so with a little bit of patience, a lot of thoughtfulness and – because Findus is a bit of a rascal – a dash of mischief, Findus cleverly finds a way to help Pettson back onto his feet.

It’s not sugar coated. It’s not all sweetness and light. There is grunting and gloom aplenty. But there’s also a cat with a very big heart who’s not afraid of persevering even when he’s told to scram. Findus helps us all to find a bit of loyalty and kindness in the face of rejection.

This hugely reassuring story is a relatively quiet affair (certainly by the madcap standards of earlier Findus and Pettson escapades), with muted illustrations in browns and greys perfectly matching the moody atmosphere. But Findus goes Fishing is far from downbeat. There are still many moments to spark giggles (all I’ll say is: Who hasn’t known a child who loves to rock chairs onto their back legs?), and the detailed, rich illustrations are a full of cameos worthy of a spotlight on their own.

An excerpt from Findus Goes Fishing written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist, translated by Nathan Large
An excerpt from Findus Goes Fishing written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist, translated by Nathan Large

I’m a strong contender for the UK’s No. 1 Findus and Pettson fan, such is my love for these characters and the stories Sven Nordqvist writes. Findus goes Fishing is yet another wonderfully enjoyable, funny-yet-not-afraid-of-being-serious story really all about that most important of things: love and how we share it.

To celebrate the publication next week of Findus goes Fishing I interviewed the book’s UK English translator, Nathan Large and started by asking him a little about his background and how he became a translator. “I come from Gloucestershire and live in Stockholm, the home town of my partner, Emilie. I started translating while working as a linguist on a project developing machine translation tools. At first this was for research reasons, to explore patterns that our software could use. But gradually the translating branched out and found a life of its own.

Having briefly worked as a translator myself many years ago I wondered what Nathan found particularly enjoyable about the work and his reply really resonated with me. “If you love language for its own sake, there’s always something to discover or enjoy in the work. If you are a curious person, translation also gives you the excuse to read about all sorts of subjects, making you among other things (un)popular at pub quizzes. Generally speaking, it is no bad thing to help people share their stories across languages.” I couldn’t agree more and this is certainly one of the reason’s I’m so grateful to translators, and publishing houses who seek out books in translation.

So how do the nuts and bolts of translation fit together for Nathan? Where does he begin? “It depends. Sven Nordqvist’s stories are pure fun. I read the book, then translate it the old-fashioned way, page by page. I check the draft against the original to see if I’ve missed anything, then put the Swedish to one side and focus on the English. Reading aloud is the best way to do this — the tongue trips over what the eye ignores.” This idea of reading aloud is really interesting – I’ve heard many authors use exactly the same technique, especially with picture book texts, and perhaps this shared approach is no surprise, as translators really are authors in disguise; translators, particularly literary translators, have to be great writers in their own language before sensitivity to a second language can come in to it.

Looking at the Findus and Pettson stories in particular, I love how they are universal – about deep friendship and kindness – but without losing their particular Swedish identity. What is it, however, that Nathan enjoys about these stories? “I like the interplay between words and images, but most of all I like the friendship between the two characters. This comes out particularly well in the latest book, which of course isn’t really about fishing at all but about Findus trying to get Pettson out from under his cloud.

Hawthorn Press wants to stay close to Nordqvist’s voice and the Swedish setting is largely left intact, lutefisk and all. However, observant readers may notice that Pettson and Findus drink tea in one of the books, I won’t say which one. Naturally it should have been coffee.” At this point I rush off to gather all my Findus and Pettson stories to track down the missing coffee… It’s amazing how big a smile this puts on my face.

So occasionally there might be textual changes, and this leads me to wondering about changes made in the illustrations. At the moment I’m working with a colleague on a close comparison of a French book, which has been translated quite differently into US and UK Englishes. That different words are chosen (in essentially the same language) is interesting, but what has really startled us is that some of the illustrations have been significantly altered. I’m delighted to hear that this doesn’t happen with with Findus and Pettson stories, other than occasionally translating text that appears as part of a picture.

An excerpt from Findus Goes Fishing written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist, translated by Nathan Large
An excerpt from Findus Goes Fishing written and illustrated by Sven Nordqvist, translated by Nathan Large

Our experience with the French book makes me curious about other translations of the Findus and Pettson stories. Hawthorn Press (the UK publishers of Findus and Pettson) has a policy of letting the Swedish character shine threw their texts, but this isn’t the case with all versions of these stories. “It can be interesting to see what other people do with the same source material. The older US versions take quite a different approach, changing all the names and omitting much of the text. Hawthorn’s editions of Findus and the Fox and Pancakes for Findus are actually slightly edited Gecko translations, so there’s some continuity there.

Ah! Changing names! This is a pet-hate of mine in translated stories, even if in theory I can understand the rationale that sometimes lies behind it (I can see why lovely – but typographically terrifying looking – Nijntje became Miffy for example) but why Findus and Pettson were renamed Mercury and Festus in the US I’d love to know. As to cutting the text, shortening the story, I wonder if this has something to do with different cultural expectations about illustrated books. Those who know different markets would probably agree with Charlotte Berry from the University of Edinburgh that “picture books on the continent tend to be aimed at older children than is generally accepted in the UK and the US and often contain a much higher proportion of text to image” and certainly Findus and Pettson do stand out here in the UK for looking like picture books in size and richness of illustration, but having the length of text at least sometimes associated with fiction for younger readers.

9789129665048_200_loranga-del-1-2_kartonnageThe idea about helping people share their stories across languages and cultures is still swirling in my head, so I can’t resist asking Nathan about Swedish children’s books which haven’t yet been translated into English but which he thinks would bring joy and delight to new readers. “Barbro Lindgren’s books about Loranga, Masarin och Dartanjang: a young boy, his gleefully irresponsible father and a grandfather who lives in the woodshed. First published in 1969-70, the stories are based — give or take the occasional bed-eating giraffe — on Lindgren’s own experiences raising her young family. They are quite unlike anything I have read before. English readers might recognize in Loranga the very opposite of the helicopter parent. With their surreal humour, the books are perfect for reading aloud — to children and grown-ups alike.

I love the sound of these stories… let’s hope a publisher is listening and gives Nathan a call!

My thanks go to Nathan for giving us an insight into how he works, and most especially for bringing us Sven Nordqvist’s brilliant, delightful, heartwarming big hugs which look like books, filled with Findus and Pettson stories. All power to translators and the publishing houses who support them!

If you’d like to find out about other Findus and Pettson stories here are all my reviews:
Pancakes for Findus and When Findus was Little and Disappeared
Findus and the fox
Findus at Christmas
Findus Moves Out
Findus Plants Meatballs
Findus, Food and Fun – Seasonal crafts and nature activities

8 Responses

    • Zoe

      Thanks Holly – I’m sure you could add more to the conversation with you experience of seeing up close the translations between English(es) and Japanese.

  1. Avery Fischer Udagawa

    I love this! Thanks especially for your observation that “translators really are authors in disguise; translators, particularly literary translators, have to be great writers in their own language before sensitivity to a second language can come in to it.” Hear, hear. I am excited to read Findus Goes Fishing in Nathan Large’s rendering.

    • Zoe

      Hi Avery, yes, I definitely believe translators are really authors in disguise. It’s great that, for example the Man Booker Prize feels similarly – now jointly awarding the prize to both the original author and the translator.

  2. Chantal

    Such a delight to see the Scandanavian books translated! We have “A rumpus in the garden” By Sven Nordqvist. Such fun to look at all the pictures, there is so much happening, you see more every time you look. Also great to see an interview with a translator and see their perspective and insights.

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