Translating Mikael Niemi’s To Cook A Bear. Petrona Award translators – part 4.

Deborah Bragan-Turner is a literary translator from Swedish, as well as an editor, working with fiction and non-fiction. She has a degree in Scandinavian Languages from University College London. After a career in academic librarianship in the UK and bookselling in France, she has focused on full-time literary translation since 2012. She was the editor of Swedish Book Review from 2015 to 2020. Most of her published translations have been novels and include, for example, works by Per Olov Enquist and Sara Stridsberg. She enjoys the variety of work translators are offered and having recently translated a film script, she is currently working on a play. When Mikael Niemi’s To Cook A Bear received the Petrona Award in 2021, she was delighted that the novel was so well received by crime fiction enthusiasts. Her only other foray into crime so far has been translating Håkan Nesser’s novella Tom. She has thoroughly enjoyed being involved in both. Here Deborah Bragan-Turner recollects the time she was translating the novel.

“Crime writers and their translators and readers are such interesting and generous people!” 

‘Most books pose interesting challenges of one kind or another for the translator. This book, set in the far north of Sweden, very close to the Finnish border, promised to pose quite a few on a number of counts. The area, the Tornedalen, is a linguistic melting pot, where Sami , Swedish and Finnish are spoken, as well as Meänkieli, which is a local variety of Finnish and recognised today as one of Sweden’s five official minority languages. Mikael Niemi wrote the novel in Swedish and included elements of the other three. It felt essential to reflect that choice and to keep those words in the English translation, as they highlight in a very clear way the cultural as well as linguistic differences in this part of Scandinavia.

My task as the translator was to interpret the mood and style of the original so that readers would hear the author’s voice and picture the scenes he has so vividly created. It meant immersing myself in the mid-19th century so that the English dialogue would sound authentic. Translators can be pernickety creatures at times, and for an avid user of the Oxford English Dictionary, finding appropriate words in use in the 1850s was an enjoyable challenge. I also had a brilliant editor, who was on the lookout for anything too modern that might have crept in.

I like to visualise the topography of the setting when I’m translating and to have a mental map of the geography of a place. In this case I made good use of real maps, getting a feel for the distances Jussi covered on foot, for example, and appreciating just how remote and foreign the rest of Sweden was to the people around Kengis at this time. By coincidence I had visited the area myself some years before, but that was in deep midwinter when every centimetre of ground was covered in thick white snow.

It’s always fascinating when a main fictional character is based on a real person. I needed to find out more about Lars Levi Laestadius and the influence of revivalism on Sami cultural heritage, and to learn about the actual events referred to in the last part of the novel. I was very struck by the compassionate way Mikael deals with his character’s evangelical battle to win over hearts and minds, against the backdrop of an extremely harsh environment and violent unrest. Mikael’s pastor is a deep-thinking man who from the beginning of the book questions his mission, fearing that what he does causes more harm than good.

As well as being a Lutheran priest, Laestadius was also a renowned botanist and wrote a number of articles on plant life in Lapland. And incidentally, it’s through his meticulous eye for the tiniest details in nature that in the novel he becomes an unintentional detective. I love the way the author depicts Jussi’s struggle to learn the Latin names of all the plants the pastor identifies on their expeditions together. Jussi isn’t the only one who had to do a bit of homework on the correct terminology for Arctic marshland flora!

My memories of translating To Cook A Bear include several favourite literary moments, but if I had to single one out, it would be the pastor teaching Jussi to write by scratching letters in the sand. When Jussi learns to read and the power of words is within his grasp, his world begins to change.’

Serendipity is a feature of translation. In 2022 a happy chain of coincidences led me meet the London-based Icelandic artist who designed the cover for the hardback edition of To Cook a Bear, the superbly talented Kristjana S Williams, at an exhibition of her work held at the Galérie Inspiré in the village of Azille in the south of France. A lovely reminder, if we need one, of how many different people and skills go into the making of a book!

One thought on “Translating Mikael Niemi’s To Cook A Bear. Petrona Award translators – part 4.

  1. Elizabeth Gates

    Very grateful to all the translators, who give readers access to wonderful worlds we could never have visited. Thank you for highlighting them.


Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s