Nichola Smalley

Nichola Smalley interview: ‘I listened to the music the characters in the book listen to'

With A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, the translator talks about why it’s good to see a funny book being taken seriously – and the authors that have inspired her career

Read interviews with all of the longlisted authors and translators here

Publication date and time: Published

How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023 - an award which recognises the art of translation in such a way that the translators and author share the prize money equally should they win - and what would winning the prize mean to you? 

It feels fantastic! It comes just as I’d made the decision to focus on translation as a full-time career (a decision I made partly as a response to being longlisted for the International Booker Prize back in 2021), and it’s a real confidence booster to have such a ringing endorsement! Winning the prize would be not only a huge boost to me, but I would also be heartened by the recognition that funny books about messy human emotions can be taken seriously as feats of literary brilliance. 

How long did it take to translate the book, and what does your working process look like? Do you read the book multiple times first? Do you translate it in the order it’s written?  

Oooh, it took me two years! And I was ludicrously over-deadline when I submitted my manuscript, because I was working simultaneously. I read the book before translating it, after being asked to do a reader’s report, and I’m glad I did, because so much happens later in the book that influenced decisions I made about translating elements of the earlier parts. I do generally translate a book in the order it’s written, yes. I need that flow, I think! 

What was the experience of working with the author like? How closely did you work together? Was it a very collaborative process? Were there any surprising moments during your collaboration, or joyful moments, or challenges? 

Amanda [Svensson] is fantastic: she was really generous with her time and answered my very boring and basic questions with grace and patience! It helped that she had some notes that had been sent to her by translators who’d already worked on putting the book into other languages - there were a few questions we had in common, and some questions they had that highlighted things I hadn’t even thought about but which made my translation better. 

Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation? 

Not writing so much, but imagery: I spent a lot of time with the photographs of Francesca Woodman, whose work runs like a thread through the book. I also listened to quite a lot of the music the characters in the book listen to, though I must confess I’m still not a big fan of Bright Eyes. 

Nichola Smalley

If we’re only looking at the feelings of those who speak our language, we’re limiting ourselves

What was your path to becoming a translator of literary fiction? What would you say to someone who is considering such a career for themselves? 

It was long and very slowly trodden! I did my first translations (mainly arts/copywriting and financial translation) when I was doing my undergraduate degree, but knew right away that I really wanted to work with literature. During my PhD I was introduced to more literary translators, and attended the BCLT Summer School, which was a really wonderful opportunity to geek out for a week, and around the same time I was doing sample work for Foreign Rights agents in Sweden, off the back of which I got my first book translation (my PhD supervisor was not very happy…). Then I worked for the great indie publisher And Other Stories for several years, during which time I translated at weekends (one year I did three books in my spare time! Not something I’d recommend). My best advice to people wishing to get into translation themselves is to talk to and build relationships with other translators, and to read read read! It’s the best way to improve your practice, aside from just translating more. 

Why do you feel it’s important for us to celebrate translated fiction? 

Stories are life! They both tell us about how others feel, and help us understand how we feel - and if we’re only looking at the feelings of those who speak our language, we’re limiting ourselves - both in the sense that we’re not learning about other ways of thinking, but also in the sense that we’re not seeing the things we have in common with others - the ways we might think similarly, despite being in a different place. 

If you had to choose three works of fiction that have inspired your career the most, what would they be and why? 

Reading the Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s debut novel Ett öga rött (One Eye Red - it’s never been translated, and I actually think it would be impossible to translate, for many, complex reasons) when I was learning Swedish taught me how varied and flexible a language can be, and how the very act of utilising that flexibility can create new meaning. 

My absolute hero in life is Anne of Green Gables, the wildly imaginative and chaotic orphan created by LM Montgomery, so I guess I could attribute some of my acceptance of my own chaotic way of doing things to reading those books when I was a child! 

Lastly, Lisa Dillman’s translation (and Lorna Scott Fox’s editing) of Yuri Herrera’s brilliant gem of a novel Signs Preceding the End of the World showed me that with a little courage, playfulness and lateral thinking, what seems untranslatable can indeed be captured in another language, and can become an enchanting and beautiful thing in its own right. 

Amanda Svensson