Like Thelma and Louise but with more botany and less death

One of the things I like about my job is the variety.  I don’t do financial or technical translation (because I wouldn’t know what I was talking about and you need your translators to know what they are talking about) and over the years I’ve shifted the focus and specialised until I am mainly doing the creative sort of things that I like, but this still covers a huge range of texts/stuff. And people turn up and ask me to do interesting things. A while back, fellow translator and ITI member Ros Mendy asked me to translate a section of a Swedish book which apparently mentioned an Englishwoman who was the beekeeper to the King of Libya in the late 1960s. Well you don’t get that sort of intriguing commission every day.

The book was Blomman i Cyrene (The flower of Cyrene) by Christina Söderling-Brydolf, published in 1970. The flower in question is silphium, used across the ancient Mediterranean and Roman world but now extinct. Christina becomes interested in it on an earlier trip to Libya, picks the expert brains of fellow Swede Vivi Täckholm, professor of Botany at Cairo University, and a year or so later embarks on a quest to discover what it was and whether it still exists. She is joined in this enterprise by Lullu Björkenheim, a Finland-Swede, who is fired with enthusiasm for spending weeks on end rattling round Libya in a Land Rover in search of a possibly non-existent plant. At this point Christina is in her fifties, Lullu is in her late sixties, and the two of them have barely spent more than a couple of days in each other’s company.

It could all have been a disaster. It isn’t. What it is is a hugely entertaining road trip, and travelogue told with self-deprecating irony, with a mystery to resolve as a peg to hang it all on for narrative momentum, and a growing friendship between two redoubtable women who are unfazed by hairpin bends or the prospect of getting lost in the middle of nowhere, and able to cope with abandoning all other plans to screech to a sudden halt whenever a likely plant is spotted at the side of a road. At one point Lullu insists on digging one up entirely unaided:

Peter [Lieutenant Commander Peter Hughes RN] and Jean laughed heartily and shook their heads when they saw us out in the red field, Lullu with her foot on the spade and me with a firm grip on the bottom of the sturdy drias stalk.

“Miss Brittan wasn’t as mad as that,” said Peter, once they had got out of the car and come over to us. And Lullu and I will argue to our dying day over whether he meant that Miss Brittan wasn’t as mad as people said she was or that she wasn’t as mad as we were.

Mad or not, it’s an entertaining read, even though (spoilers) no conclusion is ever reached on the identity of the plant. I don’t think this matters. It’s the journey that counts. The other interesting aspect, with hindsight, is that all this is taking place practically on the eve of Gaddafi’s coup. Miss Brittan, as our heroines politely call her, although everyone else they meet in Libya refers to her as “the mad English lady” is beekeeper to King Idris. Within two minutes of meeting her, Christina and Lullu diagnose “paranoia and a severe persecution complex with elements of manic depression” but after discussing botany at length, during which two kettles boil dry and the English tea promised fails to appear, conclude “Our hostess was in fact an utterly lucid, sensible and also educated person, indeed she was the only person we had met in Libya at all who was aware of the country’s history from the days of antiquity”. I was relieved to find from this post at Perpolis on Miss Olive Brittan, Libya’s last queen bee that Olive Brittan did survive the regime change, although she insisted on a very formal ceremony when reluctantly forced to leave, as described by Sir Peter Wakefield here.

Redoubtable women, all. I may well track down some more of Christina Söderling-Brydolf’s travel writing.

New premises

Well OK they are not that new. To tell the truth, I have been here a year now but I needed to make sure it was working and permanent. It is definitely working and it is definitely permanent as far as I am concerned.  Rather than working full-time from home, which was proving a little fraught amid three children under 13, I am now working in rented studio/office space a ten-minute walk up the hill. It is brilliant. The buildings used to be part of the Victorian brewery and look like this:

IMAG0769What they are now is a community apple pressing space (because I live in the sort of community that has a community apple juice cooperative) and nine rented studios. There are other people to say hello to in the morning and sometimes to have cups of tea with. The problem of having a job you love is knowing when to stop, and separate workspace makes it easier to set yourself sensible working hours. The walk is enough time to switch from work mode to home mode, and if it isn’t I can take a scenic (and muddy) detour round some fields and/or hills on the way, work-life balance is immeasurably improved and the boundaries between who is in charge of the domestic side when are much much clearer too.

The building has been sensibly converted, retaining as much of the old industrial architecture as possible. 20130627_165800Some of the offices have the metal beams running along the floor, which is very industrially Victorian  of them, but I chose one that doesn’t because the ones in the corner at the end of the corridor give me more headroom for my bookcase.  You need to get your priorities right.

If I lean back in my chair at my desk and look up through my skylight, I can see the high, narrow brewery tower in the picture above. If I look sideways through my skylight, I can see the other former brewery tower that towers above the skyline for miles.20130627_165311 It has been converted into a flat and beneath it is an antiques shop. As my son put it, “Two towers! It’s like Mordor!” Translating amid the forces of evil, that’s me.

When I lived in Bristol, I worked in part of an artist’s studio in a converted stable block at the end of the artist’s garden and this has a similar feel. I even have a friendly artist working downstairs. On Tuesdays in the autumn, the rest of downstairs is full of people pressing apples and it smells fantastic. Although the Victorian buildings are no longer a brewery, there is still a local brewery next door so the rest of the time the air is filled with the smell of beer. Fortunately I don’t object to the smell of beer.

I was recently interviewed about freeelance workspace solutions that aren’t sitting in your back bedroom for The Linguist magazine and Miranda Moore’s article is in The Linguist 53,5 here. Several of us recommend getting out of the house and working in a separate space.

Wilt thou quite destroy us?

I am a competent second alto* and sing in a choral society. This term we were performing Mendelssohn’s Elijah and in dull moments during rehearsals, while the conductor was bashing the sopranos into shape, I was reading the introduction to the score, which provided background information about the history of the oratorio, including a chunk about its translation. The relationship and the correspondence between Mendelssohn and his English translator William Bartholemew is a thing of beauty, mutual esteem, respect and recognition of each other’s fabulous talents.

When their works are going to be sung in translation, composers need good musically-minded translators. I once sang in a performance of Dvorak’s The Spectre’s Bride, where the English was so dreadful (“ho my darling look at me, jump into the cemetery”) that we sang it in incomprehensible Czech instead.

Mendelssohn and his performing choirs over the decades since were better served and he and Bartholemew seem to have worked as a courteous and mutually admiring team, respecting each other’s advice. It was Bartholemew the translator who suggested adding an overture, which Mendelssohn did, and when Bartholemew pointed out that had Mr Mendelssohn noticed that the aria “oh rest in the Lord” began with the same tune as the Scottish folk song Robin Gray, Mendelssohn immediately decided to ditch it altogether, until Bartholemew suggested changing one of the intervals instead: “If you omit it, and especially upon such a reason as my hint may have afforded, I shall be very much pained”.

For his part, Mendelssohn went through Bartholemew’s translation in great detail, consulting backwards and forwards on emphasis and slurring and fitting the notes to the new English text, plus a few authorial objections: “I like all the passages of the translation you send me with but two exceptions. In No. 30, ‘that Thou would’st please destroy me’ sounds so odd to me—is it scriptural? If it is, I have no objection, but if not, pray substitute something else”. The other one he objects to is the addition of “water thy couch”, on which I have to say I agree with him. What was Bartholemew thinking?

“I do dislike this so very much, and it is so poetical in the German version. So if you could substitute something in which no ‘watering of the couch’ occurred, but which gave the idea of the tears, of the night, of all that in its purity. Pray try!”

Well quite.

Oh it is a lovely author/translator relationship.

Much of their correspondence can be found in The History of Mendelssohn’s Oratorio “Elijah” by Frederick George Edwards on Project Gutenberg. Chapter II “The English Translation” includes a picture of William Bartholemew, “chemist, violin player, and excellent flower painter” and man with impressive hair.










This first letter quoted shows that for all the esteem in which he was held by his client, some of the sufferings of translators today had their parallels in 1846.

2, Walcot Place,

Hackney, London, June 23, 1846.

“My dear Sir,—I have at last, after toiling day and night, got through the first portion of your noble oratorio. I wish I could render words more worthy of such music. My endeavour has been to keep them as scriptural as possible; and in order that you may be able to judge how far I have succeeded, do me the favour to refer to the verses notified in an English version of the Bible. When the second part, or the parts of that, as they are completed, are sent, I hope we shall have the words in the score written in letters which are readable to us. I know not how so bad a scribe as he who penned the libretto could have been found; words, nay even sentences were omitted, and words changed: leben was written for beten, and there were no references to where the verses might be seen in ‘The Book.’ All these caused me much perplexity, trouble, and, what is worse than all, loss of time. These, too, enhanced by my journeys to Hobart Place, and the necessity of copying by my own hand all the vocal portion of the score for the engravers, and those parts which you will receive through the medium of Mr. Buxton for your perusal and decision, have rendered my toil, although a labour of love, incessant. The choral portions will this day be in the hands of the engravers; and I trust you will send by every packet each of the pieces yet forthcoming—one at a time(52)—never mind how short, for the time is short—and I want all the time to enable me to do it as well as I can. And the choralists want all the time to rehearse it as often as they can, for the more often it is rehearsed the better.

Poor Mr Bartholemew, he’s got the lot. Illegible source text, source text failing to cite references to enable the translator to track down quotes, requesting part delivery due to being squashed between the schedule of the composer and the schedule of the performers, acute time pressure and the nineteenth-century equivalent of having to liaise with the people doing the DTP. And from the later letters, it is clear that Mendelssohn would not stop tinkering with the thing and kept sending him updated versions of the source text. William Bartholemew, we salute you. 

*and on occasion an emergency tenor


It’s a new tax year in the UK (well it was yesterday) and a new financial year for my business. I’m taking time off over Easter to recover from the busiest March I have ever had, and seeing as March is Scandinavian Annual Report Season, that is pretty busy. I don’t translate accounts, I hasten to add. Being originally taught translation by someone who was a qualified accountant convinced me that my talents definitely lay elsewhere, but the thing about March is that either you get to translate the interesting bits of the annual reports while someone else gets the parts with all the numbers in (which I am sure they, being expert at it, find utterly fascinating) or you get all the work that isn’t annual reports because everyone else is fully booked translating them instead. And some years you get both at once.

And now I am breathing, recovering and taking the time to copy even more things over to my lovely new work computer (I do know enough about accounts to get my business expenses in before the end of the tax year), completing my accounts for the year, analysing income and client breakdown and taking stock for the future.

I have also updated the layout of this blog. The tiles in the header are from a photo I took at Tyntesfield, where we went a couple of weeks ago. I love the idea of sitting translating in a tiled pagoda in a rose garden but I fear it might prove a little draughty in practice.

You know Scandinavian crime is a hit in the UK when people start making their own

This brilliant video crossover between Wallander, The Killing, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Midsummer Murders was made in the depths of Croydon.

“No, I am the Swedish Wallander. I am much uglier and more miserable.”

It has cheered me up greatly after an extremely hectic autumn of translation. I especially like the invisible Wallander dog.

Hürda Gürda Mürder


I am five episodes behind on series 2 of The Killing, which is what happens when the BBC show it late at night two hours at a time but am hoping to catch up over Christmas.

Alan Plater and translators in popular drama

Playwright Alan Plater died on 25 June. I grew up with The Biederbecke Affair, Big Al, Little Norm and Medium-sized Mrs Swinburne, suspiciousness of people with forward-facing haircuts and Peterson, the man with no name. He also wrote the screenplay for the 1982 adaptation of Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles that had Alan Rickman as the most slitheringly sinister Mr Slope you ever saw.

But I most recently encountered him as the writer of the episode of Lewis, Your Sudden Death Question, which had me dashing to the internet to find out who was behind the line:

“Are you aware of the hourly rate a Russian translator will charge at the weekend?”

Hooray for telling the Great British Public (if they were listening) that getting the entire contents of the victim’s computer translated from Russian into English might come a tad expensive. And that getting a translator to work over the weekend might be even more expensive still.

The fact that the murdered Russian literary translator had also interpreted for negotiations over a construction contract with dodgy Russian businessmen was a rather more unlikely portrayal of the profession but possibly there is only one Russian speaker in Oxford.

It’s not often that translators feature in TV drama. The BBC’s long-running radio soap The Archers featured Siobhan Hathaway, a German – English translator for quite a while but she wasn’t that great an advert for the profession either as she had an affair with Brian Aldridge (who has those little gold chains on his shoes) and then died leaving poor long-suffering Jennifer Aldridge to bring up her love child.

It would be nice to see more translators in prime time TV drama but next time it would be great if they weren’t either obnoxious or dead.


In which some people enjoy spending a sunny afternoon arguing about punctuation.

At the end of May I went to Ros Schwartz’ translation workshop at Crimefest in Bristol, which was brilliant. I decided I might as well go for the whole day rather than just the workshop in the afternoon so went to 2 morning panels, one on what happens when people’s books get filmed (having to rewrite the whole thing around Caroline Quentin being pregnant, apparently) and one on “forgotten authors” (including John Buchan, who isn’t that forgotten from where I am standing, but I daresay experiences vary).

And in the afternoon about 20 people met for a literary translation workshop. Ros Schwartz got us into groups to retranslate the first page of Dominique Manotti’s Affairs of State, which I will now have to buy so I can find out how it ended, or indeed what happened on page 2. It was very well organised for specialist and non-specialist participants, with copies of the  French and a word-for-word English draft to work on, and groups assigned so that each one had at least one French speaker and one professional translator. My group had a range of French-English and German-English translators, generalists as well as people specialising in chemistry, finance and marketing/copywriting, me, and a man who had read Stieg Larsson and been so impressed he wanted to know how translators did it. He was a great asset because he kept asking basic questions and made us think about things we were doing automatically, but I think he left a bit bemused, partly because he now thinks translators take 2 hours to translate half a page.

Everyone got very argumentative and excited, as you do when you spend your life doing something all on your own and suddenly get unleashed to talk about all the tiny, fascinating details of it, and we barely agreed on anything. The technical translators kept wanting to turn it all into proper sentences with verbs in (me: “It’s got commas, it’s OK to have commas!”), someone wanted to remove chunks altogether, and I seem to specialise in scanning the whole thing first and spotting all the problems (“What the hell are we going to do with the reference to the Abbé Dubois, oh good she’s provided Google…”) and having firm opinions on punctuation (poor person writing it down, looking at me doubtfully “Are you happy about the colon?” Me: “I am never going to be happy about that colon”). It was good stuff.

The group work was followed by a whole group discussion and a look at the published version. It was a really fun afternoon with lots of food for thought and inspiration. I miss working with a partner and reciprocal proofreading by e-mail isn’t quite the same as getting your heads together and arguing it out on the spot. It also convinced me, not that I need much convinicing, that the creative side is where I want to be and although I do a lot of it, I should aim to skew things that way even more.

That’s the way to do it

Yesterday a client had questions about a translation. Normally an agency coming back with questions from the client results in a feeling of horrendous dread, especially when the e-mail is accompanied by a file in which the end client has completely rewritten the entire thing in a strange version of English which is entirely their own. This time it was different.

1. The agency e-mailed to say the author (it was a non-fiction book) had some questions and would like to discuss them with me over the phone because she thought that would be easier than sending me a file. The agency agreed and wanted to check I was OK with that.

2. I said that was fine with me and gave times between which it would be OK for her to phone.

Bonus points to the author for realising that her changing the text and adding comments, sending it to me, me taking her changes out again and adding more comments, sending it back again, ad infinitum might not be the best use of our time.

Bonus points to the agency for asking me first rather than giving the author my phone number and landing me with a phone call from Sweden out of the blue. Also for not refusing any contact between translator and author for fear I would steal their client.

3. Friendly author phoned up, asked if it was a good time to call, and we went through the text together. The questions were mainly along the lines of  “I don’t understand the word you used there and this book will be read by non-native English speakers so can we change it to something simpler?” “this person wants to be a project leader rather than a project manager, is that OK?” “Can we make this heading shorter?” “Why have you called this organisation by this name that isn’t anything like the Swedish? (answer: because they use it on their website but do ask them yourself if you like).

Bonus points for sensible, valid questions asked in a friendly spirit of collaboration. Unlike some I could mention, not “correcting” my grammar, replacing every occurrence of “which” with “that” or trying to gain status in the company by proving they know English better than the translator does.

Why can’t it always be like this? Please?

New routine

Finally, the now 2 year-old is sleeping all night rather than waking at three, and I am getting back to the work routine that suits me best.

5.30 – 7.15 a.m. Work

7.15-9.30 a.m. Breakfast with children, get everyone dressed, hunt for nursery bag, book bags and shoes that have unaccountably vanished since the night before, put in a load of washing, walk to school and nursery and walk back, through the fields if it’s not raining.

9.30 a.m. – 3.30 p.m. Work, not non-stop, though, unless under dire pressure of deadlines. Husband picks baby up from nursery at 1 and children from school at 3.15.

3.30 p.m. Stop work. Speak to children, wash up breakfast, hang up laundry, make scones, practise school reading, entertain visiting small friends, take people to Brownies, build train tracks…

I am a morning person. I wrote all my university essays at 5 a.m. and before children I used to start work at six. Now that I am able to do that again, things are so much better. I used to view breakfast with the children as a frustrating interminable delay preventing me from getting to the computer until about 9.30.  This did not make for a happy and harmonious home. Now it’s a pleasant interlude (admittedly, with the odd bit of shouting about shoes) after sending out the early jobs and getting a start on longer deadlines. I don’t feel so rushed in the mornings and last week I even had time for a quick coffee with a friend at 9 a.m. because I’d already done all the first thing urgent stuff.

I used to either be working when the children came home, which made them cross, or trying to work in the evenings, which makes me cross. It also makes me extremely slow and unproductive. For me, working after 8 p.m. is like trying to translate through fudge. Getting that time in the mornings back means I get evenings too. I can put the children to bed without feeling stressed at having to get back to the computer or having to choose between work and choir rehearsal.

It helps that many of my clients are in Scandinavia and with 3.30 being 4.30 in Sweden and 5.30 in Finland they tend  to be winding down for the day by the time I stop. My mobile phone downloads work e-mail via the home wifi until 6 p.m. so if something does come in, I know about it, but usually it’s quiet then anyway.

It might not suit everyone – my husband is one of those people who hits his mental peak at about 1 a.m. – but it suits me and I feel better for it.