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Behind the Book: Annie Prime

Posted 9th Jan 2017

On this week’s Behind the Book we met the wonderful Annie Prime, wordsmith extraordinaire and translator of our brilliant YA title Maresi, now out in paperback. Read on to find out about Annie’s unusual translating routine, her love for Leonard Cohen and the two-letter Swedish prefix with five meanings.

Do you have a particular translating routine?
On first reading I let myself experience the text without much thought of the work to come. I notice which words and images shape the overall themes and leave a lasting impression. These are often the last things to find their final English form as their true effect only becomes apparent with time. Then I do three drafts of translation. The first is very literal and technical, wrenching the meaning from the words and exposing the bones of the text. Then I shape it into basic English, with reference to the original where necessary. On the third draft I try to make it beautiful and fluid, and faithful to my initial sensory reactions to the text. This is my favourite stage – when I can stop thinking and start playing.

This, at least, is my technique. I do not have a daily routine as such. I am much more likely to be found working at a pub on a Friday night than an office on a Monday morning.

Where are you at your happiest?
In bed, dreaming.

What is your current favourite word? (In any language you like!)
I have been thinking about this for literally weeks. I finally decided on a prefix rather than a whole word. The Swedish prefix ur denotes several seemingly disparate qualities. It can mean ‘ancient’, ‘primal’, as in urväsen (primeval creature) and ‘basic’, ‘unspoiled’, as in urskog (virgin woods). There is a sense of origin, source, creation and ancestry, as in urfader (ancestor), as well as ‘out of’ or ‘away from’, such as ursinne (frenzy, lit: out of one’s mind). In this way it denotes coming from something both in terms of being created by it and breaking away from it. It is also a colloquial term for ‘very’, ‘extremely’.

All these nuances point to something that is nothing in itself and yet contains the seed of everything, whether in its presence or absence – the source of all, the ultimate. The foundation and the zenith, the underlying enabler, the still-present origin. I find this interesting.

In Maresi I came across an urconundrum with Urmodern (ur + mother) and ursystrarna (ur + sisters). Both instances needed to be translated with the same word despite embodying different aspects of the prefix. The former is ur in the sense of the divinity of first cause, referring to Goddess and Mother Nature. The latter are ur in a more ancestral sense, referring to the human women who lay foundation to the Red Abbey. After much thought, I translated these as the First Mother and the First Sisters, respectively.

Which person (living or dead) would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?
Canadian folk legend Leonard Cohen. I know all his songs so we could sing to pass the time. He’d sing low and I’d sing high.

What does being a translator mean to you?
Personally speaking, it is a great privilege. Whenever I read or watch a good story I feel frustrated that I’m not in it. I do not like being a passive consumer. A good book opens up a new world in my mind and I want to climb in and walk around. Translation lets me do just that.

More widely speaking, translation is an exercise is empathy. Perhaps nobody will ever really understand anyone else’s mind or culture or experiences, but translation, like all language and art, is an attempt to bridge this gap and get closer to knowing the Other.

Which book do you read over and over again?
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Anyone who has read it will understand why. And The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula LeGuin, especially the last volume Tehanu. I am a sucker for stories of women and magic, with intelligent allegory and clean prose.

Get your copy of Maresi, out now in paperback.