Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind: 360° translation special


Nightblind is the second novel in the ‘Dark Iceland’ series to be translated into English by Orenda Books. Set in the fishing village of Siglufjörður high in the north of Iceland, it traces Ari Thór Arason’s investigation into the shooting of a fellow policeman outside a deserted house late one night. A gripping police procedural with excellent characterisation and a vivid sense of place, it’s a truly absorbing read (I sat down intending to sample the first three chapters and was rooted to the sofa for hours). Like all of Orenda’s novels, it’s beautifully produced, and includes a couple of maps, which is always a bonus.

Translating Ragnar Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland’ series

Today, as part of Nightblind’s Orenda blog tour, Mrs. Peabody is delighted to bring you a 360° translation special, which provides some fascinating (and hilarious) insights into Dark Iceland‘s journey from Icelandic to English.

Three individuals play a vital role: author Ragnar (who has himself translated a number of Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic), translator Quentin Bates (also the author of the ‘Gunnhildur‘ Icelandic crime series), and Orenda Books publisher Karen Sullivan, armed with her mighty red pen. Without their dedication, energy and hard work, we wouldn’t have the pleasure of reading this series in English. Here, in their own words, is what the process involves…

Jokes, idioms and swearing (Quentin)

Nightblind 2

Translator Quentin Bates

It was something of a jump to translating crime fiction after the stuff I had been used to. News and technical material doesn’t leave a great deal of elbow room for interpretation; what’s required is precision, not anything fancy. Fiction is very different, not least because it’s a long text to work on rather than a handful of pages, so a book means you can become absorbed in it long before reaching the end.

The fun, challenging part of the shift to translating fiction, working on Snowblind, Nightblind and now Blackout, is precisely the stuff that doesn’t occur in bare-bones technical material. It’s the idioms and jokes, as these are the things that are often untranslatable, plus there are odd words in every language that don’t have a direct equivalent in English, or maybe not even in any other language. Oh, and there’s the swearing as well.

Frequently things can’t be translated faithfully. Especially with jokes, this leaves the translator with the dilemma of translating the jokes exactly and remaining faithful to the original text, or departing from it to go out on a limb with something different and retaining the author’s meaning rather than the author’s words.

Sometimes that’s not an option. In Snowblind there’s a nursery rhyme that contains an element of a play on words, playing on the name of one of the characters. That time I had to go down the faithful route, as there’s no comparable rhyme in English and in any case, trying to link it to that character’s name would have been stretching things too far for comfort. A more or less direct translation of Ugla sat á kvisti seemed to be the best way.

Nightblind 7

Then there’s the swearing… Icelandic and English cursing are so different that you have to go back to bare metal. Everyday Icelandic swearing is largely blasphemous, while in English it tends to be biological. Icelandic has no real equivalent of the F-word or the C-word in English, nothing that carries the same one-syllable punch. That’s not to say you can’t be properly offensive in Icelandic, because you can, but it’s more of a roundabout route and not something that’s dropped with such careless abandon as we do in Britain.

If you were to translate an Icelandic curse directly into English, it would sound ridiculous, just as if some English epithets were to be translated directly into Icelandic. It just doesn’t work. Instead, go back to the character. Ask yourself what word would a vicious thug in his thirties choose in English – that means the F-word, no question, while a senior police officer in late middle age would go for something milder.

Old Icelandic

10 points for spotting the Old Icelandic for ‘murder’… (http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~kurisuto/germanic/oi_zoega_about.html)

Also there’s punctuation that’s surprisingly different. Icelandic fiction tends to use short sentences that don’t render well into English. The result can be staccato, almost childish sometimes, so sentences often need to be rolled together. A full stop in English is just that, while an Icelandic full stop is a more elastic beast and it’s up to the translator to keep the full stops and sharp-ended sentences where they work with the story, or decide if that particular full stop should become a comma or a rare semi-colon.

All the same, a translator shouldn’t give in to the temptation to improve the author’s work – that’s an editor’s job. Once the translator has finished, the editor can get to work with a hammer and chisel if he or she feels so inclined.

All this is a delicate task, and a good translation should do justice to a good book. An inspired translation (and I can think of a few) can make a good book into something special, just as a poor or hurried translation can ruin a decent book. All this has to be done without crossing a line into editor territory, and the line shifts and changes all the time.


The original Icelandic cover of Nightblind

There’s a play on words in Ragnar’s next book, Blackout. A translator into another language simply left that particular slab of dialogue out, so I know he’s interested to see how I’m going to deal with it. I’m not going to reveal it here, but it needed a bit of thought before the solution popped up. Like the best ideas, it came to me while I was doing something completely different.

Translation isn’t a process that takes place only when your fingers are hovering over the keyboard. It’s great exercise for the grey matter, sometimes as good as the most fiendish crossword.

Letting go… (Ragnar)

Author Ragnar Jónasson

I had the great opportunity to translate fourteen Agatha Christie books into Icelandic during my student years, and into my early law career, before embarking on a writing career. As a fan of Christie, this was something I thoroughly enjoyed doing, although there were of course challenges along the way. My approach to translating Christie was to use a fairly ‘ancient’ vocabulary, some words that would have been used by my grandparents rather than by my generation, to give the books the classic mystery feel of something set in a bygone era. In some cases there were of course also difficulties relating to the English language, especially when Christie had hidden a clue in a word, so to speak. One book that I really wanted to translate was Lord Edgware Dies, but without giving anything away, that particular book contains a clue that is very hard, or almost impossible, to translate into another language. It took me years to gather the courage to tackle it, having tried to obtain copies of the book in other languages to compare how, for example, Scandinavian translators had solved the problem. In the end I did translate the book, even though the clue didn’t have quite the same impact in the translated version.


Having had this experience of translating, I have to admit that I may have been slightly too eager to help Quentin along the way with the translation of Snowblind! When he sent me the first chapters for review, I sat down very conscientiously and compared it almost word for word with the Icelandic version and sent him a very red mark-up, telling him that he missed a ‘snowflake’ here, or a ‘tree’ there … After that I didn’t hear from him in a couple of weeks, so I sort of realised that I had to give him much more leeway in terms of finding the right words in English, even though in some cases the translation would not be word for word perfect.  In other words, I had to let go of the book and give Quentin a chance to adapt it to the English language, with his unique skills – and since then I haven’t looked back!

Enter the red pen! (Karen)

Nightblind 5

Publisher Karen Sullivan

I have massive respect for translators, and try not get involved in the actual process. The last thing they need is an editor peering over their shoulder and making suggestions. For some of my international books, we get early samples to create ‘samplers’ for booksellers and the press, and to tempt readers. I edit these as standalones, and if there are bits that concern me about the tone/voice or the vocabulary chosen, I keep it to myself. All translators get to the end and then go back and hone, polish, rethink. I like to see that final product, and that’s when I get my pen out!

To my mind, even the most successful books can use some editing, and all of my authors have been completely brilliant about revisiting books that they have usually written years ago. I’m aware that readers of international fiction often appreciate being transported to another country, to get a taste of the people, the geography, the culture, the subtle nuances that make a place and its inhabitants unique. So for that reason, I often ask authors to add more. Describe the snow, describe the sea, describe how one character dresses for the cold. What are they eating when they sit down for lunch? Put yourself in the position of a reader who has never been to your country, and give them atmosphere. Obviously authors write first for their own market, and it would not occur to them to include this type of details, nor would it be necessary. I think, however, that it brings a book alive in a way that might not otherwise be possible.


Some Icelandic snow. Image courtesy of Málfríður Guðmundsdóttir via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Even the structure can be toyed with. In Nightblind, the letter that peppers the book, building tension and adding another strand to the plot, was originally at the end. All very Agatha Christie and pat, but breaking it up and moving it around was, I think, better for the overall structure of the book, and a good way to create another set of ‘clues’ to keep the reader guessing. We made some tweaks to the ending, too, and built up the characterisation in places. In Snowblind, we added more depth to the relationship between Kirsten and Ari Thor. The goal is to create a ‘perfect’ book, and with wonderful, willing translator and author on board, it’s absolutely possible.

I generally send back an edited document, with hundreds of queries and tweaks. I too ponder whether a character would use a particular phrase, and by the end of Snowblind I was desperately frustrated that the English language had so few words for snow. Snow, snow, snow! I got creative and made lots descriptive changes to prevent readers from glazing over! The edits go to Quentin first, as he can often answer the majority of queries, and then it hits Ragnar, who gets the first chance to read his book in English. He will add additional material, where required (as he says, Karen, you have an unhealthy interest in Icelandic weather!), adjust anything that does seem right to him (Ragnar’s English is great, so he has no trouble here), and make suggestions of his own. It’s one great big fantastic conversation, with input from everyone, that leads to the final product. It’s a process that I love, and the honour of publishing a fantastic international book, introducing a new author from another country to English readers, is just magnificent!

Thank you to Quentin, Ragnar and Karen!

Nightblind Blog tour

32 thoughts on “Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind: 360° translation special

  1. Fascinating to hear about the process from all three perspectives! I remember Margaret Jull Costa saying that the best authors to translate are dead authors, or those that don’t speak the language you are translating into, otherwise they are tempted to interfere too much.

    • It is, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ve seen a piece that looks at all the three together before in quite the same way. I find Karen’s role particularly fascinating – the notion of translation is a very elastic one to her, which merges with an editing and rewriting process that’s often kept quite invisible. I like her openness when discussing the process.

      Had to laugh at the Costa quote, but Quentin and Ragnar seem to have found a good balance!

  2. This was fascinating. I love the fact that English swearing is more biological and Icelandic blasphemous! And also to hear from the editor that she gets writers to add more for a foreign audience. I love the fact the book has maps. I love a good map in a book since my geography is awful! Much more difficult for the translator if the author is skilled in the language his book is being translated into!

    • We were discussing the issue of biological versus blasphemous swearing over dinner just now. My husband’s theory is that a country’s swearing always takes the most scandalous form possible (so for prudish Brits that’s sex, and for countries with a strong religious heritage like Iceland it’s religion).

      I adore books with maps – it really helps to bring the novel alive and to root it in an authentic sense of place.

      On authors, the general consensus seems to be that they should keep a respectful distance from the translation process…!

  3. Oh, how interesting, Mrs. P.! Thanks! As a person with a language background, I find the process of translating to be particularly fascinating. And there are so many ways in which a translation can fail to capture the original nuances. It certainly takes talent to do it well.

    • I totally agree, Margot. I’ve taught German-English translation and translated professionally on occasion, so found what Quentin had to say particularly fascinating. My own translation mantra is ‘as faithful as possible; as free as necessary’. Having an ear for the nuances of the language (both meaning and cadence) is definitely vital.

  4. *Spoiler Alert* after mordor the hrafns peck at the remains lying in the gras ….very interesting to read about the translations and subtlety required through the process. Thanks Mrs P!

  5. Pingback: Night Blind | Mumbling About Music, Books and other...

  6. Having recently completed an English translation of a Finnish crime novel, I very much appreciated your discussion of the vicissitudes of translation, especially of “naughty idiomatic” expressions..

    • Glad to hear that, Linden. Can you tell us which crime novel it is that you’ve been working on? I love the Finnish crime fiction I’ve read so far (Tuomainen, Hiekkapelto and Nykanen).

  7. Translating must be a great thing to be able to do, and difficult as well to get the nuances of the language the book is being translated into, correct. I read (or tried to) two books from Swedish into English, where the translation had been quite poor (probably confusing is a better word) that I gave up. Your report really brought home how difficult it can be, and that it certainly takes talent to do it well. I’m also a map addict, sometimes photocopying the map at the front of the book so I can keep referring to it as I go along!!! The only Icelandic book I’ve read is Jar City, but I’m going to have a shufty at the ones mentioned. That’ll keep me occupied for a while….

    • Hello Kathy – translation is rather an invisible art, in that you don’t notice it if it’s done well (and subsequently good translators often don’t get as much credit as deserved). Bad translation, as you say, sticks out a mile.

      I totally understand wanting to have a map by your side while reading a book! Nothing finer.

      Hope you enjoy your future Icelandic reading – for a small country, Iceland has produced some excellent crime writers, and there are some extremely good British writers like Quentin Bates and Michael Ridpath, who have written very good series set there.

      • Thanks for that Mrs P. I’ve seen Quentin Bates books on a certain Kindle site, but never thought to check them out before. But I will most definitely have a closer look at his and Michael Ridpath’s too.

  8. I have to admit I haven’t read Snowblind yet. I decided I had to read it at Cardiff’s Waterstones last June, and then I made the terrible mistake of not buying it, so not only do I feel the need to read it, but I haven’t got a copy! I really enjoyed Quentin’s remarks on translation as I am terrible at it. So bad, that actually my translating professor sat me down once and told me ‘Elena, there are two kinds of people in the world: The ones who write, and the ones who translate. You can’t be both, and I’m sorry to tell you you’re a writer.’ Thankfully he was wrong and Quentin is the living proof!

    • That’s a great story, Elena! Yes, hats off to Quentin for pulling both tasks off so beautifully.

      You’ll have to catch up with Snowblind next time you’re in Cardiff 🙂

  9. Fascinating and very timely as I have just made a long train journey with a book “The Preacher” taken at random from one of the “To Be Read” piles. Written in Danish, and translated into English by the danish authors themselves. This was I feel a mistake. The editor was obviously not a native speaker either. There were plain and simple errors (e.g. “spice garden” for “herb garden” and the use of the word “pantry” to describe a utility room with a heating system in it) but also sentences which were at odds with themselves, or contained strange phrases; e.g. a “comely” hairstyle, perhaps confused with “becoming”. Anyway I was left unsure whether the book would have been any good in danish????
    I was glad it had been a charity shop bargain buy and was glad to leave it on the train for someone else to try.

    I can’t wait to get my hands on Ragnar’s new book, (Thanks for alerting me to Snowblind) and realise I shall now have to visit north of Akureyri, when I thought I had probably “done” Iceland………also waiting for “Trapped” on tv, having thoroughly enjoyed the trip to the Faroes and Seydisfjurdur on the Smyril line boat last year.

    • What an interesting reading experience – but a shame that the translation didn’t do the original justice. The translation sector usually sticks to the following rule: you should translate into your first language wherever possible. It’s a good rule, because you rarely know a second language as well as you know your first, with all of its little nuances and stylistic quirks.

      I’m hugely jealous of your travelling adventures – they sound really wonderful. Will have to check out that boat trip…

  10. “In my mind, even the most successful books can use some editing” – I couldn’t agree more! Having done some translation in the past I have noticed that translating often shows up the flaws in the original. Although I’m sure that’s not the case with this novel! This was a very interesting interview. I was surprised that the original author was so involved in the process.

    • In this sort of case I think it makes sense for the author to be involved in the process, especially as the translation involves some augmentation of the original text for a new reading market. I like Karen’s description of the process as ‘one great big fantastic conversation’, and that that conversation is genuinely inclusive (very much Karen’s style).

  11. OK, trying to keep the TBR list down to a realistic size, but I just added Snow Blind to it. On Iceland books, Arnaldur Indridasson’s books are terrific, of which Jar City is the first. And there’s Yrsa Siggurdadottir. I read that Silence of the Sea is excellent.
    On curses and culture, I would agree that if a country is religious, the swear words are blasphemous.
    I grew up with a father who was reared in an Irish Catholic family. In his adulthood, he never used the more common U.S. curse words at home in front of his family, but he sure did use religious curses after those beliefs were long gone.
    So, my sister and I, who identified with my mother’s secular Jewish family, absorbed our father’s blasphemous — and Christian — swearing habits — and to this day, we use Irish Catholic curses. It confuses the heck out of my friends.

    • I think I’ve given up on keeping the TBR size down. There are just too many good books to resist! I love both Arnaldur and Yrsa’s books (Silence of the Sea is indeed a cracking read).

      Interesting observations about swearing, religion, and the particular legacies parents bequeath us. I’ve kept a couple of my dad’s swear words and phrases going (perhaps a way of keeping his memory, albeit a slight odd one…).

  12. Pingback: Trapped: New Icelandic crime drama airs Saturday 13 February on BBC4 | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  13. I had to consciously drop some of my father’s curses, holdovers from his Catholic childhood. My friends would have been too shocked.

      • Thanks for the Ragnar recommendation I really enjoyed the first one and now have “Nightblind” winking at me on the To Be Read Pile. Also thoroughly enjoyed Quentin Bates’ first Gunnhildur book, “Frozen Out”. What a refreshing treat to have our heroine a “fat policewoman”. Written in a deceptively simple style, so everyday and realistic,with a wonderfully understated humour, that I feel if there was a knock on the door, Gunna might be standing there, and I would easily recognise her. The outsider’s affectionate view of a beloved other home came through, just as it did in Derek B Miller’s “Norwegian by Night”.

        So now it looks as if I need to visit Iceland again to get up to Siglufjordur. Well I do need to go to Reykjavik again to revisit the Art Galleries in the light of the Course on Nordic Art from 1800 to 1950 which I am in the middle of and thoroughly enjoying. It complements the literature perfectly and the background understanding of life and culture that the Nordic Noir has given me , is invaluable.

        So this is really the point here, I shall be visiting Finland in a couple of months to see the Art galleries there, and as my motto is “Before visiting a country read the crime fiction for an insight into the culture”, which Finnish authors should I be getting out of the Library????

        Thanks for all the tips. >

  14. Hello Lynne,

    I’m delighted to hear that you’re enjoying Ragnar and Quentin’s Icelandic novels. Gunna is one of my absolute favourites too 🙂

    Your Finnish travel plans sound like they’ll be a lot of fun, and I like your motto very much!

    There are three Finnish crime writers that I’ve read and enjoyed:

    Kati Hiekkapelto has written two novels featuring a complex young policewoman, Anna Fekete: The Hummingbird (Arcadia Press) and Defenceless (Orenda Books; http://orendabooks.co.uk/book/the-defenceless/).

    Harri Nykanen’s ‘Ariel Kafka’ series features an intriguing Finnish-Jewish policeman. There are currently two in English: Nights of Awe and Behind God’s Back (Bitter Lemon Press; http://www.bitterlemonpress.com/products/behind-gods-back). I reviewed the first here https://mrspeabodyinvestigates.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/23-harri-nykanen-nights-of-awe/

    Antii Tuomainen is a very interesting writer – I particularly liked The Healer (apocalyptic crime): https://mrspeabodyinvestigates.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/apocalyptic-crime-fiction-from-america-and-finland/

    Happy reading and let me know if you find any others that you like!

  15. Pingback: Trapped (Iceland) | Out -Takes

  16. Pingback: Eva Dolan’s After You Die (UK), Val McDermid’s Out of Bounds (UK) and Iceland Noir 2016 | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

Please leave your comment here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.