A Conversation with Marlaine Delargy

The_Crime_Writers_Association_LogoAnyone who reads this website on a regular basis will surely know what a giant fan I am of the translation work done by Marlaine Delargy. I was pleasantly surprised and a touch embarrassed (see here to learn why) when she paid a visit to the site a few weeks ago. A good translation can make or break a novel, and I personally think Delargy’s are some of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. I was both extremely excited and very grateful when she agreed to do an interview with me via email.


Marlaine Delargy works as a translator and adult learning support tutor. She has translated novels by Asa Larsson and Johan Theorin, among others, and serves on the editorial board of the Swedish Book Review. She lives in Shropshire, England. (Official bio from Random House, Inc.)

TE: How did you get started in the translation business? It seems like it would be a hard industry to break into.

MD: I studied Swedish and German at university, and one of my tutors was Laurie Thompson, who translates Henning Mankell and Håkan Nesser, among others. In the mid-80s he started a journal called Swedish Book Review, with the aim of promoting translations from Swedish on both sides of the Atlantic. I did a few pieces for him, mainly short stories, but didn’t pursue it because I was teaching (German) full time in a secondary school by then, which didn’t leave much time or energy for anything else. In 2003 I cut down my teaching hours, and Laurie kindly recommended me to Bonnier Group Agency in Stockholm. I started to translate novel extracts for them, as well as contributing to Swedish Book Review again. Swedish literary agencies use English translations to sell their books all over the world; Chinese or Korean publishers, for example, will have readers who are fluent in English. I was very lucky – Random House in New York picked up Åsa Larsson’s Sun Storm, and because I had done the extract for Bonniers, they asked me to do the whole novel. And it went on from there, I’m happy to say. I left school teaching in 2004, and worked part time teaching IT to adults until about a year ago. I still do some voluntary work in that area, but am able to survive on the translation these days, I’m very pleased to say!

TE: How long does the average translation of a novel take from start to finish?

MD: Obviously it depends on the length, but I tend to aim for about 40 pages a week, although I can usually do a bit more. Then I need time to forget about the text before looking at it again as a piece of English and doing all the essential proof-reading and revising. So for a 300-page novel I would say about three months from start to finish.

TE: What is the most critical piece that you feel must not be overlooked in order to ensure a successful translation?

MD: It has to read like a piece of English when it’s finished. If you’re aware that you’re reading a translation, then it’s not good enough. That’s where a good editor is essential; a fresh eye is vital. Some of my novels haven’t been edited at all, and it really shows.

TE: Are the original authors actively involved and available to you during the translation process or do you work without their input?

MD: Most of the authors I’ve worked with (Åsa Larsson, Johan Theorin, Ninni Holmqvist, Camilla Ceder, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Anne Holt, Therese Bohman) have been more than happy to answer any questions. I tend to send them a batch of questions when I’ve finished the first draft, rather than pestering them every few days. Sometimes it’s a word or phrase I can’t find; Camilla’s novels are set in Gothenburg, and she often uses language particular to that area. In other cases it’s something I need to change because an English-speaking audience won’t recognise it. For example, John Ajvide has referred a couple of times to a game called ‘kubb’, which is a wooden outdoor game popular in Sweden in the summer. We don’t have an equivalent, so it had to be changed to Jenga, which people here and in Australia will know. (I translate John’s books for Text Publishing in Melbourne.) Song lyrics are also often an issue, either because we can’t get copyright, or because it’s too expensive, or because translating a traditional Swedish song just sounds AWFUL! It’s vital to have the author’s co-operation on something like that. Lars Kepler (Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril) was / were less keen to be involved. Most authors don’t want to read the translation, although I always offer. Ninni Holmqvist did; she works as a translator into English, and had some good points to make.

TE: Who is your favorite author to work with?

MD: Johan Theorin, probably. He’s quite overwhelmed by the success of his novels, and is endlessly helpful. When he won the CWA Dagger for best debut novel with Echoes From The Dead, he sent half his prize money to me, which he certainly didn’t need to do, and gave the other half to the publisher with instructions to buy wine and other treats for all the staff in the Transworld office. He’s a very nice man. I also love John Ajvide’s sparky, weird imagination – some of the short stories in Paper Walls (out next year) are extraordinary.

TE: What’s the most challenging translation you’ve had to work on and why?

MD: Some of the pieces I’ve done for Bonnier Group Agency were quite difficult; I tend not to take on a novel unless I know I can do a good job. If it’s a struggle, it won’t be good. Finding the tone at the beginning of a novel is always a challenge.

TE: Which of the translations that you’ve done is your favorite and why?

MD: Probably Echoes From The Dead – I just think it’s a brilliant story with such a clever twist at the end. I love the atmosphere, the descriptions of Öland, the characters such as Gerlof and Julia, the way he manages to make the reader feel sympathy for Nils Kant – everything works. I have a soft spot for Sun Storm, because it was the first novel I did, but looking back at it now it’s in dire need of editing and rewriting. And Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit is heartbreaking, but in a good way!

TE: How often to do the key elements of a story get changed during the translation process? When things are changed, why? Is it because of cultural differences, publisher interference, etc?

MD: It’s not up to me to make changes, except as indicated above, where the reader will have no point of reference to an activity or object. I occasionally mention that I think there might be too much local detail, which Swedes love, but which can be a bit wearing – he turned left into such-and-such a street, continued to the traffic lights by the bridge, turned right and drove past the theatre and…. Some editors cut, some don’t. There have been two occasions when the editor has felt some elements of a story don’t work, or that a character needs to be developed more fully; in that case it’s up to the editor to negotiate with the author. We did have to make major changes to John Ajvide’s Harbour, because two of the characters spoke almost entirely in Smiths’ lyrics, and we were refused permission to use them, so John had to do a major rewrite at the last minute. I don’t think changes would be made because of cultural differences, although sometimes it’s necessary to add a word or two of explanation.

TE: What do you do when a piece seems untranslatable? How much license do you take?

MD: There’s no such thing as untranslatable, although a play on words is sometimes lost. Laurie Thompson is very good at things like that, which is just as well given Nesser’s fondness for playing with language. I can’t take too much license – I have to be faithful to the original, as well as producing a piece of readable English. Any queries / changes are referred to the author, without exception. Sometimes an author will suggest an alternative.

TE: Where do you translate from? Home? An office?

MD: My study at home, in a small town in rural Shropshire in England, looking out onto a garden full of flowers (at the moment!). Everything is done via e-mail.

TE: What are you currently working on translating?

MD: I’ve just finished Therese Bohman’s Drowned for Other Press in New York, which will be out next summer. The next project will probably be a crime novel, but as the Australian publisher is still negotiating with the Swedish publisher, I can’t count on that one just yet!

TE: What are you currently reading?

MD: I’ve just finished Kate Mosse, The Winter Ghosts, and am about to start Jo Nesbø, The Leopard. I read a lot of crime novels…


Marlaine Delargy’s most recently available translation work includes the new Johan Theorin novel The Quarry and the upcoming (September 15th in the UK) John Ajvide Lindqvist novel Little Star.


About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.

  • http://www.40gigsandamule.com Mike

    Great! Thanks Marlaine — and Aaron.

    When reading books translated from Swedish (a lot lately!), I always find myself breaking out Convertbot on the iPhone to convert kronor to dollars. Otherwise I don’t know how to react to “she found she had only ___ kr left in her bank account…” :)

    –Mike