TRANSLATION Kari Dickson

For Words & Pictures' regular feature on children's book translation, this month we interview Kari Dickson, an award-winning British translator who specialises in Norwegian literature. 

Kari Dickson


Words & Pictures: How did you come to know Norwegian?


Kari: The answer is simple: my mother is Norwegian, and we used to spend summers in Norway with my grandparents and relatives. I realise now how fortunate I was that my grandparents couldn’t speak English, so I learnt Norwegian from a very young age. The language I learned was obviously influenced by their language and the things that we did together. To this day, I have a better vocabulary for mushrooms, berries and fishing in Norwegian than I do in English. When I went to live in Norway for the first time when I was eighteen, I discovered that my language was rather old-fashioned as a result, and very quickly learnt slang, swearing and how to sound like a young person and not my grandparents! 


I went on to do Scandinavian Studies at university, and have since lived on and off in Norway for what must be ten to eleven years. Since moving back to Scotland, I have worked in both languages every day, and go back to Norway as often as I can, usually around three or four times a year. 


How did you become a translator?


I grew up with Norwegian books alongside English, and I remember early on thinking it would be so good to be able to translate some of the books so my friends could enjoy them too.


When I left university, I worked in theatre in London, and I guess because people knew I spoke Norwegian I was asked to do a couple of literal translations of Ibsen, first The Lady from the Sea for the Women’s Playhouse Trust, and then Hedda Gabler for Manchester Royal Exchange. And that was it! 


I then did an MA in translation at Surrey University. My first job as a translator was in-house with the central bank of Norway – inflation reports are probably about as far as you can get from children’s literature. However, the head of the MA at Surrey knew that I was interested in translating literature, and introduced me to NORLA, a government-funded organisation that works to advance the export of Norwegian literature. They are also great champions of translators, and provide enormously generous support in terms of time, advice, encouragement and money. It was with their help that I gradually made the transition to literary translation.


Cover artwork by Øyvind Torseter


What made you want to translate for children?


I feel very honoured to be asked to do this, as I have never consciously chosen to translate for children. And my output has been rather niche. The first children’s book I translated was My Father’s Arms Are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde and illustrated by the wonderful Øyvind Torseter. I originally translated it for the Norwegian agent, and the rights were then bought by Enchanted Lion Books in New York. It was awarded a Batchelder Honor in 2014. Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Enchanted Lion and I share a love for Øyvind Torseter’s work, and I have now translated seven titles for them, all of which are illustrated by Torseter, including Brown, which won the Batchelder Award in 2020. (I did say niche!) I applaud Enchanted Lion; they hold a treasure trove of children’s books, both in terms of the quality of the writing and the illustrations.


There has always been a strong tradition of children’s literature in Norway, from the old classics such as the folk tales of Asbjørnson and Moe, the books of Thorbjørn Egner, Inger Hagerup, Alf Prøysen and Ann-Cath Vestly, to modern writers such as Maria Parr, Arne Svingen, Gro Dahle, Harald Rosenløw Eeg, to name but a few. Children’s literature has always been rich, exciting and bold there, and Norwegian YA fiction is flourishing at the moment (see the article that Lee Randall wrote for Norwegian Arts recently). 



A particular favourite is Arne Svingen’s The Ballad of a Broken Nose that I translated for Margaret K. McElderry Books (which was also awarded a Batchelder Honor in 2017). It is about a boy, Bart, who comes from a challenging background, and his mother sends him off to boxing classes to toughen up, but all he wants to do is sing opera. It’s an incredibly touching, uplifting and optimistic book. It is exactly the sort of book that I longed to share with my friends in English when I was growing up.


I think the fact that three of the books I’ve translated have been picked up by Batchelder is due to the quality of the writing and stories – and the illustrations.


How did this translation 'find' you?


I would say that all the children’s books that I have translated have found me, rather than the other way round. As I said, I have a wonderful relationship now with Enchanted Lion, which has resulted in multiple translations of books illustrated by Øyvind Torseter, but more recently they also bought a title by Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold, Bedtime for Bo, with beautiful, dynamic illustrations in rich colours by Mari Kanstad Johnsen.


When Amazon asked me to translate Agnes’s Place by Marit Larsen and illustrated by Jenny Løvlie, it was clearly because Brown had just won the Batchelder Award.


Most emerging translators from Norwegian, build up their portfolios and reputation through doing sample translations, which in the case of picture books is often the entire book, for the Norwegian publishers and literary agents. And that is how I got my first children’s books and still get most of my work. 


Cover artwork by Øyvind Torseter

Are there cultural things that have to be spelled out in translation?


Yes. Though, for obvious reasons, I generally try to avoid it in picture books. 


One example that you couldn’t even spell out is The Heartless Troll, which plays on long tradition of folktales about the character Askeladden, or the Ash Lad – the vast majority of Norwegians will have grown up with the stories. But The Heartless Troll does hold its own as a picture book, in much the same way that the film Troll Hunter became a bit of a cult hit outside Norway and was perfectly enjoyable without any knowledge of Norwegian folktales. But if you have that knowledge, you see nods and references to famous illustrations and tales in practically every frame, which gives it an even greater depth and resonance.


An additional cultural complication is that all the children’s books I have translated have been for the American market, so where I might sometimes succeed in adding some of the resonance in British English, that doesn’t necessarily translate, for me, into American.


(An aside: in working with translations for the North American market, I have discovered that roundabouts and pylons are British, and the use of squint as an adjective is predominantly Scottish!)


Do you ever make any choices in favour of 'transatlantic' English?

 

No, I always make it very clear that I work with British English, as I wouldn’t even know where to begin with US English. I leave that up to the publishers and editors, as all of the children’s books I have translated have been published in the USA! It sometimes feels quite odd reading things I’ve translated, when there are turns of phrase I would never use. I guess it’s the closest I’ll ever get to feeling what it must be like to be translated.


Do you find any untranslatable nuances or language play that you had to leave out?


There are, sadly, sometimes things that have to be lost. But then you can often compensate with a word play somewhere else, or find a way to fill in the untranslatable nuances so they are not lost entirely, but either expanded or modified to give sense.


Cover artwork by Øyvind Torseter


Did you find names hard to translate? Or do you translate them?


It largely depends on the book. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. One that did cause a bit of a headache is Brown. The three main characters all take on a superhero character based on their name, which is achieved simply by adding a letter (or two), in the Norwegian, a consonant: Rune-Brune, Atle-Svartle, Åse-Blåse. So I played on the rhyme, which worked well for Jack-Black and Lou-Blue. But Brown was a problem, and I really wanted to retain Brown, because it’s such an antihero colour, and very much part of the humour for that reason. I could perhaps have gone Ray-Gray, but then all the coloured illustrations show brown, so unless the entire book was reworked, that was never really an option. I couldn’t even think of a name that would work by moving the letters around or adding others. And after much discussion with clever wordsmiths and rhymers that I know, I settled for Rusty-Brown. Not the best solution, but it works (though I’m sure now someone will come up with the perfect name!).


Are there other translators you admire?


Oh yes, there are many, but in terms of children’s literature, Daniel Hahn and Sarah Ardizzone spring to mind, for their enthusiasm and knowledge. Danny’s translation Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head is one of my favourite children’s books. And I am in awe of Sarah’s creativity and ability to develop her translations beyond the page into bigger projects like the Spectacular Translation Machine, plays, workshops, translation in schools and gigs. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is also doing amazing things with the World KidLit website, and again, is full of endless enthusiasm. They all are helping to increase awareness and understanding of children’s literature in translation. On the Norwegian front, Guy Puzey’s fun and inventive translation of children’s profanities in Waffle Hearts by Maria Parr are a joy. And Becky Crook’s translation of Inger Hagerup’s children’s poems in Little Parsley, one of my all-time childhood favourites (illustrated by Paul René Gauguin, by the way) is remarkable.  


They all manage to translate the joy and inventiveness of children’s literature, with such apparent ease – though, of course, we know that’s not the case; it’s because they are such fine translators.


Do you have an ideal project?


Kind of, possibly... and there are two aspects that could perhaps be combined. At the moment I’m thinking a lot about music and translation, and rhythm is particularly important for books that are read out loud. So that’s one element that may or may not grow into a project. The other is the Oslo ethnolect, which is used more frequently in literature now. I recently did an extensive sample of a YA book, Hør her'a! by Gulraiz Sharif, called Listen Up!, about a teenage boy navigating two cultures, where the language dominates. I relied quite heavily on rhythm to find a translation that I felt worked relatively well, and the author was happy, but I can’t help feeling you could push more. For a number of years now, I’ve wondered if it would be possible to create a translated language that reflects the grammatical patterns and composition of migration from which the ethnolect has evolved. That would take time, but would be fun.


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Kari Dickson is a literary translator from Norwegian. Her work includes crime fiction, literary fiction, children’s books, theatre and nonfiction. She is also an occasional tutor in Norwegian language, literature and translation at the University of Edinburgh, and has worked with BCLT and the National Centre for Writing. 

*Header Logo by Jess Stockham



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