#95 The Swedish Connection
This week, we dive into the mysterious lure of Sweden and its literature.
As a lover of languages, I have long been fascinated with the art of translation. I am delighted to have Henning Koch on this week, who has translated Fredrik Backman's work including A Man Called Ove, as well as the acclaimed Every Moment We Are Still Alive. In addition to working as a translator, he's also a writer himself and has published two books. We explore Henning's beginnings in translation, the relationship it gives him with language, and why he can't possibly write and translate at the same time. We also touched on something that has become a phenomenon recently: the worldwide obsession with Swedish crime fiction.
In order to explore the topic of Swedish crime further, this week's episode continues with the couple that writes together under the pseudonym Lars Kepler: Alexandra Coehlo Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril. Their book, The Sandman kept me up at night for days, furiously turning pages. We discussed how they came to write together as a couple, what they believe makes Sweden uniquely capable of writing dark crime stories, and their incredible method of writing together.
I love these two conversations as a pair because both of them center on finding connection with others through language and the love of books. If you've ever dreamed of seeing your work appear in another language or considered collaborating, this episode is for you.
Discussed in Episode 95 The Swedish Connection:
Part 1: Henning Koch
One day picked up a book from his shelf that he had loved as a child and decided to translate it from Swedish into English. He pitched it and got lucky.
“I fell into all the traps.” On diving into his first translation.
First book took him around four months.
SWELTA publishes a magazine that gives translators a place to do shorter translations and excerpts. A place to build translating skills.
Translators very, very rarely have any say in what books are translated. Publishers select books via their own criteria and then approach translators.
But he did manage to bring one book to a publishing house that they decided to go ahead with.
Primarily translates from Swedish to English.
“You have to recognize the cultural distinctness of the work you’re translating.” On bringing the personality of one language into another.
“You have to just show people, and keep showing them all the time, ‘hey, this is happening in another language.’” On the art of translation.
But the new language has to be familiar enough to the reader so that they can fall into it.
“You have to respect the distinctness of the work.” On not trying to mask the provenance of a story.
“When you read Dostoyevsky you want it to feel Russian.” On the pleasure of reading translated work.
“If I’m translating I don’t do any writing whatsoever.” On keeping his own writing separate from his translation work.
“It’s all writing.” On translators being writers.
“Being a translator is a bit like being a studio musician.” On how translators need to be able to fill a role, instead of inventing one.
Has finished his most recent novel and is in the process of shopping it around.
“So I really just felt like a berserker.” On giving himself a writing window and leaping into it, ready to write.
Most translators don’t translate their own work.
Part 2: Lars Kepler
Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril: husband and wife team writing together under a pseudonym. Their Joona Linna series sold 12 million copies in 40 different languages.
Alexander wanted to be a big painter in his youth.
His first novel was picked up when he was only 19. He wrote 9 novels, 20 theater plays and 1 opera libretto before writing as Lars Kepler.
Alexandra wrote 3 historical novels before writing under Lars Kepler.
Both were successful novelists independently before decided to collaborate.
“It is very lonely to be a writer because you know you can’t let anyone else into what you’re doing until it’s finished.” On the joys of collaboration.
Collaborating wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be.
“We can laugh at it now, but we had a lot of failed attempts before finding the key to collaboration. The key is Lars Kepler.” On learning how to collaborate.
“It wasn’t until we invented Lars Kepler that we could bring our styles together into a totally new author.”
Lars Kepler has a whole identity and habits. He used to be a teacher, then experienced tragedy and became a very shy and lonely person before he started writing.
Alexander and Alexandra are novelists writing the novel of Lars Kepler who is then writing the books.
They always find their ideas through conversations and then can write the plot. After the plot is completed they start to write, sitting side by side and emailing their texts to each other to fill in the gaps.
“After a while when the book is finished we don’t know who wrote what because there is not a single sentence in it that only one of us has written alone. And that’s when we say it’s the work of Lars Kepler.” On the process of writing together.
“When the story comes alive is a magical moment and you have to follow the characters.” On creating a story from their plot notes.
“Having taken down this wall of loneliness is the most enjoyable thing we’ve ever done.” On why they love collaboration.
Each book has its own rhythms and tones. They want their readers to experience a roller coaster of emotions in each novel.
“Empathy is the most important part for us when we write. You have to understand all the characters when you write. Even the bad ones.” On character development’s essential role.
They aren't interested in describing a character as a monster. They want to know how and why the character became a monster.
“It is always a journey from chaos to order.” On writing crime fiction.