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Ask a translator: what's it like translating a bestselling Swedish thriller into English?

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Ask a translator: what's it like translating a bestselling Swedish thriller into English?
Rachel Willson-Broyles is a freelance translator based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Photo: Private
15:42 CEST+02:00
The Local Sweden's Book Club has been reading Quicksand by Malin Persson-Giolito, a courtroom drama that opens with a shocking mass school shooting in a prestigious Stockholm neighbourhood. We spoke to translator Rachel Willson-Broyles about what it was like translating the thriller.

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What was your personal reaction to reading the book itself, and to the task of translating it?

It's been a few years now, so I don't remember many specifics, but I know I enjoyed Quicksand very much when I first read through it. It's a gripping story, of course. It was my first time translating a courtroom procedural, so I spent a lot of time researching the differences between the American and Swedish legal systems, trying to find the right terms for people and places and procedures in a way that English-language readers would understand. I enjoyed this a lot, because doing research about cultural differences for a translation project is one of my favorite parts of my job.

How much contact did you have with Malin Persson Giolito, and were there any areas where you worked together on the translation?

I was lucky enough to receive a lot of help from Malin Persson Giolito during the process. After I completed a first draft of my translation, I sent Malin a long list of questions. Some of them were instances where I needed more information, or clarification, to render a sentence into English. In other spots, I needed to check if it was okay to make a change: substituting a well-known English hymn, Amazing Grace, for a Swedish one (Blott en dag) that wouldn't be familiar to most English-language readers, for example.

Later on, Malin read through the entire manuscript and made adjustments – especially to the legal terminology, as I recall. I was very grateful for her assistance and care with the translation! Once the translation was finished, I got the chance to meet Malin at the Gothenburg Book Fair.

READ ALSO: Book Club: Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

What can you tell us about the decision to translate the title to Quicksand?

As a translator I am rarely involved in selecting titles. Looking back, I see that the project arrived in my inbox with the English title already set. So I'm afraid I can't tell you much about the reasoning behind the title.

There are several references in the book that are very specific to Swedish culture. How did you deal with the balance of making the book understandable to an international audience without changing the original too much?

To me, it's all about context. If the context tells the reader the general category of a cultural item, then I am very likely to leave the word in Swedish (especially if it's food, like knäckebröd, which appears in Quicksand) or contextualize it with a brief explanation. Typically, when I choose to do this, I have made sure that a very curious reader could easily find out more with a quick Google search.

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Maintaining these cultural references helps give a book a sense of place; they remind the reader that the book is taking place somewhere else, that the characters are not "really" speaking English all the time.
I also feel that I have a responsibility to the text not to erase culturally-specific information for the sake of the ease of the reader. So I have a high tolerance for specific cultural references (which of course don't always make it to the version of the book that is published; sometimes they are removed or changed in conversation with editors).

Readers should encounter new information and words while reading – certainly readers encounter new words in English when they read, so why not new concepts that may be in a different language as well?

Were any parts of the book especially challenging to translate?

The parts that took the most time, and required the most outside help, were definitely the courtroom scenes and when Maja is considering her legal situation.

What can you tell us about the narrator, Maja's use of language?

I really enjoyed trying to capture Maja's voice: sometimes cocky, sometimes vulnerable, always a little blunt and straightforward. I thought she was a very easy character to identify with, despite what she's done and that she starts off as rather unlikeable, and that made it easy to translate her.

Have you watched the Netflix adaptation, and if so, what did you think?

Not yet! It's on my list, and I'm looking forward to it. I've heard you don't want to stop once you start watching it, so I'm waiting for a time when I can binge it all at once.

Rachel Willson-Broyles is a freelance translator based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She received her BA from Gustavus Adolphus College and her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her other translations include works by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Jonas Jonasson, and Mariette Lindstein.

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