Home of the best stories you've never heard

Translating Contemporary Nordic Young Adult Fiction or Trying to Second-Guess the Youth

in Ark Review/Essays by

Young Adult Fiction, or YA as it is commonly known in the publishing world, is a particularly fascinating genre for translation studies. It is, strictly speaking, neither children’s literature nor ‘literary’ literature. It is not considered explicitly pedagogical and it tends not to be included in the classical canon. The designation points first and foremost to a commercial genre but also to a transitionary age-range that inevitably raises the question, to what extent is YA educational? Given that this is a question of purpose, translators are inevitably faced with a somewhat tricky methodological decision.

We could take children’s literature as one end of the spectrum, to refer to books that are commonly understood to have an explicitly pedagogical purpose. Here we find that translators often choose to rewrite cultural references and place names in the target language to match the reality of the young readers rather than the reality of the original text. Given that wordplay, rhyming and idioms abound in children’s books, the challenge for a translator is always how to recreate these inventive, informative and witty passages in another language. Rather than preserving the integrity of the source text, translators of children’s books find themselves grappling with the difficult task of conveying the desired effect and honouring the needs of an audience for whom literacy and moral instruction are a significant part of the reading process.

Generally speaking, translation theorists refer to this approach, which privileges the supposed needs or tastes of the target audience, as ‘domestication’ and it is far less common (though not non-existent) in what we typically refer to as ‘literary’ translation. In the latter case, the integrity of the original text is of paramount importance and the text’s purpose is considered more within the bounds of “art for art’s sake” than within the realm of instructive parables and fairytales. Rather than conveying a particular ethical quandary, literary translators are more often concerned with conveying the prose style, the imagery and the ideas created by the author as faithfully as possible. In other words, a novel or poem is generally considered a work of art and therefore not to be assimilated in any way, shape or form to any given target audience.

This binary, which is, of course, less black and white in practice, is intimately tied to ideas of purpose and fidelity. Wherever there appears to be a clear purpose there is widespread agreement that the translation must fulfil that purpose in the target culture. In the case of advertising, children’s literature or user manuals for example, translators will have as their first priority to ensure consumer appeal, moral instruction and the safe use of equipment. When we enter into the literary sphere, however, where the text is no longer considered to be fulfilling a specific function, fidelity, more often than not, becomes sacred.

How dextrously, I wonder, has the translator conveyed the complexities of Greenlandic colonial history alongside the coming-of-age and coming-out stories of the characters in the book for whom colonialism remains a reality?

How then, are translators to approach the murkier border-land of YA? If we, for arguments sake, consider YA to be in some sense heuristic as opposed to didactic, how should this purpose be addressed in the translation? And to what extent should we second-guess young adult readers in terms of what they will and won’t understand, benefit from or be interested in? My question, I suppose, is whether target audience or original text should be the starting point for YA translation? Whether purpose or fidelity should govern the translators approach?

To explore this just a little further, we can look at Greenlandic author Niviaq Korneliussen’s debut novel from 2014 HOMO sapienne, which is due to be published in English at the beginning of May. The book is an unabashed collage of prose, poetry, letters, text messages and song lyrics sent between a small group of teenage friends and siblings all living in the capital of Greenland, Nuuk. Korneliussen originally wrote the book in both Greenlandic and Danish as two separate publications, which reflects a key social aspect of the narrative, namely that the younger Greenlandic generation speak predominantly Danish to each other and Greenlandic at home with their families. The narrative centres on themes of queerness and trans identity precisely where these themes intersect with the history of colonialism in Greenland. Nuuk is therefore a site of post- and present colonial influence, power, damage and change. ‘Home’ is perhaps the central theme of the book, whether that be feeling at home where you live or within yourself or with the people you love. The intersection of queerness, trans issues and colonialism is therefore a very powerful lens through which to explore the theme of ‘home’ and incredibly relevant for young Danish and Greenlandic readers.

Danish Cover

But how will these themes translate to a UK audience? There is no question that these themes have relevance for young readers in the UK but if the purpose of YA is to be tacitly educational, do these themes need a UK context? I am intrigued to see how the English translator of HOMO sapienne has chosen to handle the political aspects of the book, which deal explicitly with the particularities of shared Danish-Greenlandic histories and taboos in Greenlandic society. How dextrously, I wonder, has the translator conveyed the complexities of Greenlandic colonial history alongside the coming-of-age and coming-out stories of the characters in the book for whom colonialism remains a reality?

The following passage is exemplary of the poetic style and linguistic hybridity of the book. The combination of Danish, Greenlandic and English along with heavy connotations of suicide, coming-out, existential homesickness and solidarity colour the novel throughout:

Slutningen af juli

Jeg opdager, at det er tid.

Da det er tid, opdager jeg, at solen går ned.

Da det er tid, opdager jeg, at mit liv, inuuneq, er ved at ende.

Da det er tid, opdager jeg, at mit liv inuuneq, mit menneske, Inuk, mig selv, er forsvundet.

Men da det er tid, kommer Ivik frem.

Ivik siger:

Find dig selv et hjem, hvis du har hjemve.

Giv ikke op, når du ikke kan finde vej.

Kig dig selv i spejlet, hvis du er ved at give op.

Find dig selv, når du kigger dig selv i spejlet.

Du finder dit hjem, når du finder dig selv; og gå ind.

Solen kommer frem i morgen.

Livet begynder igen.

Inuk, mennesket, vil blive født igen, vil leve igen.

Lev Inuk. Inuugit.

Da det var tid, kom Ivik frem.

Da det var tid, kom mit liv, inuunera, frem.

Da det var tid, kom Inuk, mennesket, hjem.

Echoes and silence, patience and grace

All of these moments I’ll never replace

No fear of my heart, no absence of faith

All I want, is to be home


Jeg er til mænd.

/ Inuk

Kære Inuk

Det ved jeg godt. Du er ikke alene.

/ Fia 1

These stanza-like paragraphs, which make up the end of the second chapter, bring a three-way correspondence between a brother, a sister and a friend to a close. The brother has left Greenland and is deeply conflicted about his relationship to Denmark, Greenland and himself. “Enough of that post-colonial piece of shit. Det er din egen skyld” [It’s your own fault], he says to himself. The rhetoric of responsibility and self-reliance dominates the beginning of the chapter but as the correspondence unfolds, apologies, honesty, reconciliation and declarations of unconditional support gradually change the tone between the three characters both to each other and to themselves.

The combination of languages and the grand themes of ‘humanity’ and ‘home’ are interconnected and function incredibly well in Danish but how would one translate this passage into English? This depends greatly on what the translator is trying to convey. Do they wish to convey Korneliussen’s narrative as faithfully as possible and thereby render the experiences of young Greenlandic people and their relationship to Danish and Greenlandic language and culture in English? Or do they wish to enlighten the young target audience about the wider theme of post-colonialism and belonging and how that relates to everyone irrespective of who or where they are? There are several parallels between the social reality that Korneliussen depicts in HOMO sapienne and that of British society. But for these to be connoted, it seems that the translator would need to somehow convey the multi-lingual sphere of the book into English. In other words, the fact that HOMO sapienne is written in Danish but set in Nuuk and about a particular Greenlandic experience, is an enormously powerful facet of the book and carries a significant proportion of meaning. When you translate it into English, you necessarily lose the Danish and therefore the experience of reading in a culturally dominant language. So how can a translator deal with these practical problems?

As someone who is mad about translation but rather inexperienced, I have absolutely no idea how to surmount these challenges. Would you preserve the Greenlandic words but none of the Danish? Or would you keep some Danish to preserve the relation between the two? Is there a way to preserve the alliteration and visual similarities between the Danish and the Greenlandic? Do you leave the English passages in English? Many literary translators opt for footnotes when there are complex linguistic or cultural connotations that they wish to convey but cannot sufficiently imbed in the translation. Footnotes would, however, seem out of place in such a personal diary-like or epistolary style novel. And even this technique seems to me to be a little too spoon-feedy and removes the opportunity for the individual reader’s curiosity to be independently triggered. If footnotes are too disturbing you can also choose to include a foreword or afterword, which takes up some of these questions outside the parameters of the main text. This method means you do not tamper with the text itself but you are still able to frame it as you see necessary or appropriate.

You could, of course, go for a cruder ‘kids book’ reinterpretation of the novel by making it specific to British colonial history. This is popular practice in ‘TV translation’ where shows like SKAM (Norway) and Shameless (UK) are remade and domesticated to have commercial appeal and relevance for a new market and audience. In the American versions, alternative cultural reference points are chosen so as to convey the same social themes (class, racialisation, sexuality) as they relate specifically to parts of American society. If we look at this franchise approach from a translation perspective, civic education (and making money) rather than fidelity to the artistic integrity of television seems to be the priority. What should the approach be for YA and can it somehow be both? Is it bad to franchise a book like HOMO sapienne for the sake of exposing young readers to important themes in their home countries and is it patronising to assume that young adult readers cannot draw their own parallels between say a Greenlandic and a British context?

The UK, much to my dismay, has an unfortunate habit of neutralising political or controversial or just interesting titles. In 2008, for example, Stig Larsen’s Män som hatar kvinnor (“Men who hate women”) became The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The history of colonialism is still a relatively new subject in schools, and given that in Denmark, state schools are only now beginning to discuss Denmark’s role in the slave trade but still avoid informing young Danes about the relationship between Denmark and Greenland, it is highly unlikely that a young UK readership have much understanding of this context either. (In 2011, the Danish ministry for education launched a new history canon for schools which consists of 29 key subjects. The myth of Denmark as a flag-bearer for the abolition of slavery is included but the history of colonialism in Greenland is nowhere to be seen). So to return to the original question, if translators take Korneliussen’s novel and not the UK audience as the starting point, they potentially risk losing the important intersectional aspect of a book that so masterfully thematises the way colonial histories and taxonomies influence individual and collective ideas of identity, home and humanity. But, on the other hand, if the translator were to take young UK readers as their starting point, they may be tempted to erase the context out of which HOMO sapienne grew and the important particularities and experiences that form the groundwork for these universal themes.

Once again I am setting up some rather brash either/or scenarios and I am certain that experienced translators would have cunning and creative solutions to these translation pickles. Having said that, it is disheartening to see that one important feature of Korneliussen’s book, which captures the complexities of her narrative both thematically and linguistically, has been erased in the English translation. The English publishers have chosen to change the title of the book and completely overwrite the implications of colonialism and gender politics that make the original so fit for purpose. HOMO sapienne, which cleverly genders the taxonomical Latin name for modern man, has been replaced by the far less connotative Crimson. Despite the Latin title functioning perfectly in Greenlandic, Danish and English, the UK publishers appear to have taken inspiration from the title of the first chapter, which is a reference to a hit 60s American rock single – Crimson & Clover. The UK, much to my dismay, has an unfortunate habit of neutralising political or controversial or just interesting titles. In 2008, for example, Stig Larsen’s Män som hatar kvinnor (“Men who hate women”) became The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Title alterations are almost always motivated by preconceptions about audiences and what will and won’t appeal to them. This seems to be a bad starting point as you simply reproduce norms about what is and isn’t culturally palatable. If the target audience are to be the starting point, the question needs to be how best to translate and introduce themes given existing preconceptions not how best to erase themes that are considered irrelevant or off-putting. By thinking more within questions of education and literature and how these are interrelated, you are forced to think about questions such as what is and isn’t an established part of cultural memory? YA taps into an age-range for whom narrative, be that historical or cultural, plays an enormously formative role. Translating YA, therefore, raises a whole host of questions about what new narratives this young audience should have access to or be expected to understand. In my opinion, YA has oodles of translation potential. It can be franchised and made to fit the target context and in this way proliferate important cross-cultural ideas but it can also be a more tacit mirror for the target culture, staying loyal to the original text whilst reaching out beyond the parameters of its own reality in more associative ways. One might say, if one were, for example, a wannabe translator of Nordic YA fiction into English, that YA invites multiple translations and that UK and US based publishers should absolutely fund translations of ground-breaking norm-critical Nordic YA into English.

Works cited:

HOMO sapienne, Niviaq Korneliussen (2014)

English translation of passage taken from pages 73 – 74 (author’s own):

Cover Image of Nuussuaq, the disctrict in Nuuk where the HOMO sapienne is set 

  1. End of july

    I realise that it is time.

    As it is time, I realise that the sun is going down.

    As it is time, I realise that my life, inuuneq, is about to end.

    As it is time, I realise that my life, inuuneq, my person, Inuk, I myself, has disappeared.

    But as it is time, Ivik appears.

    Ivik says:

    Find a home for yourself, if you are homesick.

    Don’t give up, when you can’t find your way.

    Look in the mirror, if you are about to give up.

    Find yourself, when you look in the mirror.

    You will find your home, when you find yourself; and go in.

    The sun emerges tomorrow.

    Life begins again.

    Inuk, man, will be born again, will live again.

    Live Inuk. Inuugit.

    As it was time, Ivik appeared.

    As it was time, my life, inuunera, appeared.

    As it was time, Inuk, man, returned home.

    Echoes and silence, patience and grace

    All of these moments I’ll never replace

    No fear of my heart, no absence of faith

    All I want, is to be home


    I’m into men.

    / Inuk

    Dear Inuk

    I know. You are not alone.

    / Fia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


Latest from Ark Review

The Worst Reads of 2020

Everything Except for Females by Andrea Long Chu Perhaps it’s slightly unfair

The Best Reads of 2020

The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop If this unbelievable year brought something good
Go to Top