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"It will raise a scandal, I am certain"

In December it was once more time for the International translator conference on Långholmen in Stockholm. 33 participants from different countries met during four intense days to network and discuss translation of Swedish literature. One of the seminars focused on Liv Strömquist’s comics.

It will raise a scandal, I am certain, says Julia Kolesova, translator of Swedish literature to Russian.

She means that Liv Strömquist’s comics The Fruit of Knowledge will cause a debate if it is published in Russian, since the sexuality issue is so controversial in the Russian society. Several other seminar participants see the same tendencies in the countries where they work.

It is not yet published in Croatia, but it will surely raise a scandal there as well. There, the comics is published by a more activist and feminist publishing house. They have not published comics before, but decided to do this one, says Zeljka Cernok, translator from Swedish to Croatian.

She is one of the three translators sharing their experiences from translating The Fruit of Knowledge in a common presentation during the Thursday afternoon at Långholmen. The experiences from translating to the three languages, Galician, Croatian, and Czech, are similar in many ways – but have their differences as well. Marie Voslárová, translating from Swedish to Czech, says that she too believed that there would be a scandal. But when the book was published in the Czech Republic it was well-received.

The book has been successful, but when we talked about translating more of Strömquist’s comics, the answer from the publishing house was ambivalent, she says.

A working difficulty, mentioned by all three translators, are to find the right nuances in the language. When it comes to words concerning body, sexuality, and gender there is a risk of ending up with translations with a sexist or medical significance.

Marie Voslárová found a way to manage the difficulties through discussions with colleagues. She had frequent contacts with another translator, working with the Dutch translation of the book. They met at the Göteborg Book Fair and had frequent contact throughout the work.

For Zeljka Cernok it was important to ask others for advice. At one place in the comics, menstruation is described with the expression ”Cousin Red”. Zeljka asked her mother how women talked about menstruation in the previous generations and it resulted in an expression with the same feeling as the Swedish one. When she was looking for words for female genitalia with the same tone as the expressions Strömquist use, she turned to her girlfriends.

It goes to show that the twenty girlfriends I asked had just as many nicknames for their genitalia, she says.

In addition to finding the right nuances, a common challenge in translating comics is the fact that the storytelling is based on pictures. Some metaphors in words and pictures – for example the sword and sheath, illustrated in The Fruits of Knowledge – cannot be transferred to every language.

A possible solution, mentioned by several of the seminar participants, is to use footnotes to explain pictures that are connected to a certain cultural context. For example, in the Czech translation, this entails a footnote explaining the background to Latin Kings, and the song “Det är dej jag vill ha”, which is mentioned in the comics.

But how do you fit the text into the speech balloons? asks one of the seminar participants. Some languages require more and longer words to explain parts of the content – is it not difficult to make room for the text without redrawing and make the speech balloons larger?

No, it is rarely an issue of getting the text to fit, means Guilherme da Silva Braga, who participates in the discussion and has translated around 200 comics to Portuguese. To fit, the letters can be smaller than in the original comics. But it is important to realise that it requires time to write the texts in the speech balloons all over again. Strömquist writes by hand, and it is a matter of finding a graphic artist who can write the text in the same manner. The objective is for the translation of The Fruits of Knowledge to give the reader the same experience as the original.

– Essentially, this is what the comics is all about – to describe body, sexuality, and gender just as it is. And not to gloss over or give the words another meaning than the one they really have, since that will change the meaning of the comics, says Zeljka Cernok.

FACTS/The translator conference

This translator conference was held December 4–7 on Långholmen in Stockholm. The program included, among other things, workshops on translation of non-fiction literature and comics, lectures about Swedish literature, author meetings, as speed-dating with publishers and agents. The conference is open for translators of Swedish literature.