Sunday, January 29, 2012

Driving a Reindeer Sled for the First Time

I've finished going over my translation of Emilie Demant Hatt's narrative With the Lapps in the High Mountains and am now working on footnotes. There are many passages I love in this book. Here's one that seems to capture her mix of humor and bravado. It takes place in the late autumn of 1907, when Demant Hatt was on a series of short migrations with the Sami family she lived with near Kiruna, Sweden.  

  "Finally, around November 17, we started moving away from Puollamåive toward the mountain of Tavanjunjes. It was the first time I would attempt to drive a sled pulled by a reindeer. Before we left, Sara ordered me to wear a heavy fur parka. Nikki said when he saw me, “Now you look like other people.” The dogs obviously felt the same; they no longer squinted distrustfully at me, and I didn’t need to do what I had before—to arm myself with a stick before going to the other tents. Lapp dogs have, like other dogs, a sharp eye for clothes, and as long as I wore woolen clothes (summer clothes—the fur parka was so heavy that for the longest time I tried to avoid it) here in winter time, I was suspect.

 "We had to walk the first part of the route away from the tents. Only nine inches of snow had fallen and tussocks and rocks two feet high stuck out everywhere. It was enormous work to plod forward in the snow and bumpy terrain with the physical weight of the fur on me. I felt my body inside this tremendous envelope like a thin pole that’s been loaded too heavily. 

 "In Sara’s string were two driving sleds, one for her and one for me, and when we came to more or less smooth sledding conditions, I was given permission to seat myself in the sled, if I couldn’t make progress any other way. This had to happen while the caravan was moving and the heavy parka didn’t allow me to be quick or graceful. I got myself placed in the little vehicle but the smooth conditions soon ceased and the ride went in uneven jerks between knolls and stones and dense willow thickets, where I felt like a cat whose fur is being stroked the wrong way. To make things even merrier, I had a barrel of salted fish in the tip of the sled to struggle with. It rolled around and pinched my legs while I, with my hands outside, had to hold the boat-like sled on a straight keel. Every once in a while the sled rolled over and Sara laughed when, after a short involuntary stroll, I tried to recover my place inside it with the fish barrel. She consoled me with the fact it could be much worse; once little Nilsa had gotten the sled on top of him, like a lid, and was pulled along under it. Such misfortunes are naturally common and always a subject for hilarity."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Translating Danish

I’m just now surfacing from a long happy period of writing and reading to find myself in 2012. I’ve had good news that the university press interested in my translation of Emilie Demant Hatt’s With the Lapps in the High Mountains, first published in 1913, is soon to make a final decision on bringing it out in English. The two readers’ reports have been positive and encouraging. This has sent me back to checking and polishing the translation of this wonderful narrative line by line.

It’s been a while since I read most of text thoroughly—and many of the changes are simply to insert a comma or a tiny missed word. But here and there I find an embarrassing mistake, for instance writing “apron” instead of “scarf” because I obviously was dozing off when I translated forklæde for tørklæde. Sometimes I decide that I’d like to change the English syntax a little or just use a more interesting word—a great chance to pore through my old Thesaurus. Perhaps it’s just that I’m more familiar with the material, but sometimes I think that my Danish actually has improved (Could it have been all those Leif Davidsen spy thrillers I read during the fall?).

I started out originally as a Norwegian translator. The written languages aren’t so different, but some things still trip me up in Danish—the same word but a different meaning (rar in Danish means pleasant; in Norwegian, rar is strange or odd). Danish seems to me to have longer, more Germanic sentences, a different rhythm. While Norwegian has a staccato speed of shorter or half sentences broken up by lengthier phrases. Demant Hatt’s book is full of paragraphs of independent and dependent clauses and a forest of semi-colons, many of which I transformed into shorter sentences. I tried to keep her wit and marvelous descriptive passages in English. I hope I have. It’s certainly been a pleasure to try.