An Impossible Craft: Sanna Hellberg Interviewed by Al Brookes

4 December 2016


To close off my little series of interviews with the people behind the Swedish edition of The Gift of Looking Closely, I asked the author Al Brookes if there was anything she wanted to know about my translation process. You can read my answers below.

I started translating The Gift of Looking Closely when I studied literary translation in 2015. I had been dreaming of starting my own publishing company for a while, since I had read so many fantastic books in English that I knew would be difficult to get published by any of the big companies, but it wasn’t until the translation was nearly finished that I decided to turn this dream into reality.

It is difficult to stand out as a tiny publisher, but I will never regret that decision. It has been such an exciting journey so far, and no matter how many readers the book will reach, it is wonderful to know it finally exists.

AB: How does it feel for you to know that the author will never be able to appreciate your translation as she doesn’t speak any Swedish at all?

SH: It is a pity, of course. Not just because it would be nice (albeit a bit scary) if you could have read your novel in another language, but also because it would have been so much easier to solve translation problems if we could have discussed different solutions together. Instead, I have done my best to look at the translation through your eyes, asking myself ‘How would Al have written this in Swedish?’.

AB: Did you ever feel tempted to change the story or a character trait (even just a little bit)?

SH: Not that I can remember. I like unpredictable books. Not in the sense that the plot needs to surprise me, but I love when a dialogue or a character or a description of a place makes me stop and think ‘I would never have thought of writing about this in this way.’ There were many moments like that when I read The Gift of Looking Closely for the first time, and to me, it made the novel so complete. I can’t think of anything I would have liked to make different.

On a more detailed level, as a translator, I am sometimes forced to make small adjustments in order for the text to make sense in Swedish. For example, I had to replace some of the words that Claire reads in her father’s dictionary with different words from the same pages in a Swedish dictionary that still had the same effect in the story.

AB: When did you know that the translation was finished? (I ask because it was very hard for me to know that I had finished writing it!)

SH: I know what you mean, and I could probably have edited the translation for an eternity or two if I hadn’t set a clear deadline for when the manuscript should be ready for proofreading. This is probably often the case with creative tasks like these, where there are no clear solutions or rights and wrongs. A text can be edited over and over again, but eventually, you just have to decide it’s finished.

AB: What to you makes a good translation?

SH: Generally, I don’t like translations that feel like translations. I rarely read translated books simply because it’s so frustrating when they are too close to the original and I can hear the echo of the original language in every other sentence. When I studied literary translation, on the other hand, I realized that my years as a non-fiction translator had given me a habit of ‘smoothing out’ my translations a bit too much, since I was so focused on writing a fluent text in Swedish. I learned that it is okay for a translation to be a little rough in places if that is what is required to retain the unique voice of the author – or rather recreate a Swedish version of that voice.

After the end of the course, I sent my first novel translation to another publisher, and ironically their only general point of criticism was that I stayed slightly too close to the original in places. Obviously, there is a fine balance between fluency and proximity, where neither should be exaggerated.

In a way, translation is a fundamentally impossible craft – at every fork in the road, there are so many factors to take into consideration that you always need to compromise in one way or another. The trick is to compromise in the best way possible and immerse yourself so deeply in the author’s original voice that you can guess how they would handle the Swedish language.



Into the Unknown

30 November 2016


Three weeks ago, I went for a morning walk through brittle fields and forests to say goodbye to my new surroundings. This was my seventh home since I moved out at eighteen, not including the temporary homes abroad or the stopovers at my mother’s house in-between. I have grown into my father’s restlessness and curiosity. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever settle down, but then I remind myself that it doesn’t matter. Home is wherever I am present.

In a month, I will be heading to Scotland to volunteer at the edge of the Highlands. After four years of overworking, I am letting myself slow down for real. Less but more regular hours of volunteering and only a little freelance work with generous deadlines. Finally, there will be time to write, explore and breathe without the guilt of constantly falling behind.

Next year will be another practice in letting go, with a one-way ticket to Edinburgh and a promise to return by land. Eventually. After the end of February, there are no fixed plans apart from a London theatre ticket and some loose ideas. This time, I want to make room for things to fall into place without interfering.

This autumn stirred me awake. Stripped me bare and dressed me in frost before I could brace myself for the cold. I see the world behind my schedules. Some nights the state of it keeps sleep away, my mind spinning with calculations, grasping for solutions or at least a clue to nudge me in the right direction, to tell me where to go and how to help.

I know I have to let go of this, too. Let go and trust that when I do, I will find out.
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A Nice Place to Get Lost:
An Interview with Joni Niemelä

26 November 2016


In The Gift of Looking Closely, the novel I have translated and published, the main character Claire buys a camera to capture the world from a different perspective.

‘I want to open a window into a place where colours are like jewels.
I want to make small things so big they become a whole world.
I want to surround myself in a peel of bark. Wrap myself in a leaf. See the moss like a forest.
I want an ant-sized view.’

The element of macro photography is like a symbol for the whole novel, which explores new perspectives both through the quite unusual narrative point of view and through the different ways in which the characters look at reality.

The other day, a reader described this so well: ‘To me, the magical thing about this book wasn’t the story as such, but rather what happens beneath the surface. It is a book that calls for you to slow down and really see what happens in the tiny details.’

When I made the cover for the Swedish translation, the author Al Brookes and I agreed to look for a nature-themed close-up photograph, since nature is another important theme in the book. I stumbled upon the extraordinary macro photographs of Finish nature photographer Joni Niemelä around the same time as Al asked if I could find a picture of curled up fern. When I found ‘Unfurling’ we were both hooked.

I have interviewed Joni Niemelä about his passion for photography, nature and the tiny details around us.

dsc_1121_editedWho is Joni Niemelä?

I’m a self-taught fine art nature photographer based in Southern Ostrobothnia, Finland. I’ve been capturing the world around me for over a decade now. Though I like to photograph various things in nature my favourite subjects are the world of macro and those little details that usually get unnoticed.

You started photographing when you were quite young. What made you explore photography as a creative medium?

At first I just wanted to save those moments in nature for myself but after a while I began to share my work and noticed that other people do also like to see my work. Since then my camera has been always been with me in nature saving the details and moments. I think photography is an easy medium to approach for people and you can always find something new to learn about it. Macro photography opened a whole new world to me and I’m still exploring it.

What does nature mean to you?

Nature is a huge part of my life and my photographic works. You can always enjoy it even if you don’t get any images. Many have lost the connection to nature now days so hopefully my images will also make it more interesting for the viewers and that way reconnect with the nature.

How do you think being a photographer affects the way you look at the world?

I’m definitely looking the light and the details around me – not all the time but I do notice it some times even if I don’t carry my camera with me.

Could you share a few of your most memorable moments as a photographer?

I don’t think there’s any single moment but I do remember really well all of those misty mornings especially in the fall. Something familiar can transform so greatly when the thick mist rises and hides your surrounding showing only some details around and near you.

Another one is of course the tiny world of macro. When shooting these kind of images my mind is so focused on the subject that you forget everything else around me. It’s a nice place to get lost.

skarmavbild-2016-11-23-kl-21-01-04Do you remember shooting ‘Unfurling’, the photograph used as the cover image for Det som andra inte ser?

Shooting rising ferns in the spring one of those things that have become kind of an ritual for me. These plants are one of the first ones to rise off the ground after the winter and photographing these is a great transfer from the cold white winter scenes to a more green ones. I remember taking images of this particular plant for over couple of hours from different perspectives and found this one to be most successful one. I’ll maybe release a photo series of these some day when I have enough images of this theme.

What is the most important lesson you have learnt through your creative work?

I think it’s important trying to do your own thing – finding and evolving your style.

What are you looking forward to right now?

Well the summer is now gone and also the fall is coming to an end so I’m really waiting the winter. Hopefully we will have a lot of snow this winter.


You can find more of Joni Niemelä’s work on Instagram and Facebook, and all of his photographs are available as a prints or for commercial licensing on his website.



18 November 2016

We grow like trees,
blanket the earth,
interlace our roots
through the storm.

Catch the winter
with bare branches.
Grow another layer
to stay warm.



I Want You to See What I See:
An Interview with Al Brookes

16 November 2016

portrait-3In the autumn of 2014, I read the first pages of The Gift of Looking Closely and fell in love with Al Brookes’s way of looking at the world. Two years and hundreds of hours of work later, my translation of her novel is slowly finding its way to Swedish readers. A few weeks ago, I did a short interview with Al for a book club guide, and I thought I might share it with you.

You wrote The Gift of Looking Closely in second person, daring the reader to really look at the world through Claire’s eyes. In which ways was it different to write a story from this perspective? Did it make the story more intense for you as a writer as well?

It felt like a very natural way for me to write, much more natural for me than the more common first or third person. As for making it more intense – yes. Writing ‘you’ all the time made me feel intensely connected to the reader as I was writing it. Like I was telling the story intimately, to just one person.

The forest and the nursery where Claire works are important settings in the novel. What does nature mean to you and how has it influenced your writing?

There is nothing more beautiful than nature, is there? Especially close-up. So I’d say nature has challenged me to find the words to share how I see it. I want you to see what I see.

When did you decide to include the element of ghosts in the novel? Did you plan this from the beginning or did they turn up along the way?

I hadn’t planned the ghosts. Nanny Bee turned up first and then the others followed. To be honest, even after finishing the novel, I am still undecided about whether Claire actually sees the ghosts or simply invents them – might they be the strange imaginary friends of an only child? I don’t know.

What were the greatest challenges and joys of writing The Gift of Looking Closely – and why did it take ten years to finish it?

The hardest challenge was that I was already working as a freelance writer, meeting deadlines, often under pressure. It was often very difficult to summon up the creative energy to do even more writing in my free time. That’s one of the reasons it took so long to write. Another was that as it was my first novel – and I had no experience of finishing a novel before – I don’t think I ever really quite believed it could be finished… Or perhaps I wasn’t ready to become the person who had written a book, rather than the person who was still writing one. Finishing it was a great joy. Hearing from people who loved reading it is a great joy.

Around the time you finished The Gift of Looking closely, you were given a diagnosis of cancer. What was it like to release a book while fighting cancer?

Having cancer was a big motivator for me. I didn’t want to leave the planet without making my book real, without sending it out into the world. I’m grateful for the way the diagnosis focused me on what was important. I’m grateful to be completely well again now.

Could you tell me about your writing group and in which ways you support each other?

The group came together because we had all been studying creative writing together on a two-year course at Sussex University. When the course ended, we were very keen to carry on supporting one another, and we’ve been getting together now for about 15 years. We write together, taking turns to come up with exercises. And we listen to one another’s latest work. I have to admit that we don’t work as hard at it now as we once did – we used to rigorously critique each other’s work. Now we tend to provide encouragement more than criticism, cheering each other on to write as much as possible!

In which way has your relationship to writing evolved over the years?

I remember writing as a child as a much easier process – the words came readily and I was unself-conscious. Writing for a living really stifled that spontaneity. Every word had to be considered and reconsidered. I managed to unlearn some of that whilst writing The Gift of Looking Closely, but I feel I have some way to go in the process of reclaiming a more risky, less considered voice. I’m hoping to give that freer reign in the second novel.

What are you looking forward to right now?

I’m excited about the next book – I love the plot that is revealing itself and the quirky characters. I’m looking forward to finding it easier to write than the first one!


Al’s writing desk

You can read more about Al Brookes on her website and  The Gift of Looking Closely can be purchased as a paperback or an e-book on Amazon. My Swedish translation of the novel, Det som andra inte ser, was published in September 2016.

Next week, I will share an interview with Finish photographer Joni Niemelä, who shot the beautiful cover photo for Det som andra inte ser.