Translating Trevor: the challenging road of bringing Maltese literature to Norway

The Maltese-Norwegian publisher, translator and journalist Kristina Quintano speaks to MaltaToday about the exciting and challenging road of bringing Maltese literature to Norwegian readers, fresh off a visit by Trevor Zahra to the ‘Translated Days’ literary festival in Oslo last month

 Genoveffa in Norwegian: The Norwegian version of Trevor Zahra’s novel Il-Hajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Genoveffa, translated by Kristina Quintano
Genoveffa in Norwegian: The Norwegian version of Trevor Zahra’s novel Il-Hajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Genoveffa, translated by Kristina Quintano

How important is the Translated Days festival in Norway, and what kind of role does it play in the country’s overall literary ecology?

The Norwegian literary festival Translated Days, Oversatte Dager, is one of many literary festivals and they all play an important role in the Norwegian literary ecosystem. The aim of Translated Days is to highlight and spread enthusiasm around the advanced linguistic art of translating. This was the fourth time Translated Days was organised and it is held every three years. In many ways it is quite similar to the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival in August.

The main event we had with Maltese author Trevor Zahra and myself and our talk on how we have worked closely together in the translation of his book Il-Ħajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Ġenoveffa, was almost full. In the audience there was a large group of Maltese readers who live and work in Norway. Many of them had never thought about the idea, or the need for translations between Maltese and Norwegian, or about ever being a market for this work. If we can recruit new readers that might become, or create new generations of translators, then we have succeeded.

Having Trevor Zahra invited to Translated Days was an acknowledgement from the festival committee that they had noticed and were curious about Maltese literature, and it was a great chance to collaborate further with The National Book Council Malta and Mark Camilleri who also came to Norway for the festival to meet with local publishers in further promoting Maltese literature.

What were some of the main factors that helped Maltese writers finally gain recognition within this sphere, and what kind of challenges did you face when trying to make that possible?

The main factor is undoubtedly the Norwegian Arts Council and their different funding and distribution programs. Proper distribution and ensuring a sale before printing, is very important when it comes to taking chances in publishing new, unknown, translated fiction.
Getting any title into the ”mass market” is as difficult in Norway as it is in Malta.

Arts Council Norway has a unique distribution system that Norwegian publishers can apply for, especially for books not translated from English or the Scandinavian languages. If it’s granted, the Arts Council buys 542 copies of a translation, including 40 licences for e-publication. The books are distributed to all Norwegian libraries and provides the financial security a publishing house needs in order to take the chance on an unknown writer.

Without this support and the financial security it provides the publishing house, I don’t think it would be done.

The main challenges in promoting the literature from Malta in Norway in general has always been that I have to start from scratch every time. Norwegian readers or publishers don’t know a lot about Malta so I always have to start by explaining the two-language practice and the Arabic influence before I even start talking about the Maltese literary scene.

The same week that we launched Trevor Zahra in Norway, I brought 10 Norwegian travel and culture journalists, and a Norwegian literary agent, over to Malta for one week and invited them to The Book Festival and to meet Trevor Zahra. This has already resulted in Merlin Publishers’ plans of publishing the first children’s book ever translated from Norwegian into Maltese and all the journalists went back home and wrote long travel articles from Malta in some of Norway’s most important publications. This press trip was in cooperation with MTA (Malta Tourism Authority) and was a part of my idea that promoting Maltese literature also has to do with promoting the culture, the food, the wine, the language and all the sides of the island that we are proud of. We cannot simply introduce Maltese books to a Norwegian audience and expect them to be interested. The way I see it, it’s a spiral, and it is all connected.

Kristina Quintano, Trevor Zahra and National Book Council Chairman Mark Camilleri in Oslo during the Translated Days festival last month
Kristina Quintano, Trevor Zahra and National Book Council Chairman Mark Camilleri in Oslo during the Translated Days festival last month

You have translated Trevor Zahra’s Il-Hajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Genoveffa into Norwegian yourself. How did you first get involved with this project, and what made you think that the book would resonate among Norwegian audiences?

From a young age I have read and enjoyed Trevor Zahra’s work. It was crucial for me as someone living with one foot in each country all my life that I kept reading my second language as much as possible. It was quite natural for me to choose to start by publishing a work by Trevor Zahra. It was my mother who gave me the idea about starting out with Il-Ħajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Ġenoveffa, and I immediately thought that this would be a perfect way to introduce Maltese literature and Maltese culture.

My advantage, after having worked in publishing for so many years, is, of course, that I know the Norwegian audience well, and by being as active as I can in the Maltese book sphere, I have a pretty good overview of modern Maltese literature. My professional relationship with both Trevor Zahra and his publisher Chris Grupetta has been eminent and present the whole time.

The story about a woman that could have been any of our grandmothers and that gives a clear and easy introduction to Maltese history and village life, including cooking and family life, was just what Norwegian readers wanted. I don’t think publishing a Maltese classic or poetry collection would have gained the same interest.

The work on the publication of Nanna Genoveffas hemmelige liv, the Norwegian version of Il-Ħajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Ġenoveffa, has been exemplary.

The book was published by one of Norway’s most esteemed publishing houses for translations, Solum/Bokvennen, and received every support possible; first the full translation grant from the Norwegian Art Council, that ensured my having the time and capacity to take time off from my full time work as a publisher to do this, then the distribution grant, ensuring the book in hardcover distributed to 500 libraries across Norway, then the good reviews.  

Finishing off this ‘pilot project’ with Trevor Zahra at a Norwegian Literature festival and with extracts of the Norwegian version being read out loud by one of Norway’s most famous audio book narrators was a good wrap-up after having worked on this project for many years.

What was it like to translate from Maltese to Norwegian, and what were some of the most important elements (linguistic, cultural etc) that you felt you had to be particularly mindful of?

Translating is about moving text from one place to another, from one circle of readers to another and from one culture to another. Often in translation, the most important element is first about finding the right ‘voice’. I wanted to make sure the voice and the language of a woman from a small village in Malta sounded like a woman in Norway would have done in 1920-60s.

This is what took most time at the beginning and also where I have my strength in being half Maltese and half Norwegian. I had some good conversations with my own Maltese nanna, with my mother who knows the Maltese language well, and other colleagues both in Malta and Norway. It was important to me that the Norwegian reader would feel that he or she were in Malta at that time but also recognised the language that would have been spoken in Norway.

I had the advantage that I come from a small village in Malta not far from where Genoveffa was supposed to hail, so I knew the smells, the spices, the sounds, the bakery. I know what a kitchen full of Maltese women looks and sounds like. I can smell the Band Club where my nannu used to go. I think these things turned out to be very important. My collaboration with Trevor Zahra was close and we have talked a lot during the time I was working on the translation. Funny discussions about Maltese proverbs that are quite untranslatable, and emails about tempo and tones, and meeting up, as we live near each other in Marsascala.

Although Zahra cannot read the Norwegian version, he says that he feels secure we managed to keep the Maltese feel to it all the way. A Norwegian translator told me reading Nanna Genoveffa was like reading a Maltese version of the Neapolitan Elena Ferrante, and in Norway that is about as good a compliment as you can get. Also, in Translating the short stories by Pierre Mejlak I have worked very closely with the author. It has also been very interesting to discuss certain choices with Mejlak’s translators to other languages. We do not always agree.

In Norway we have a tradition of being extremely close to the original text when translating. Being very aware that ‘I’ am supposed to be an invisible hand in the text, and that a reader should never feel that this is translated, I do not explain or adapt the text to a Norwegian reader. If the character eats pastizzi, I call it pastizzi, writing cheesecake would confuse the reader, and in my opinion not be correct. Of course, one becomes very conscious of a language when translating. Details I have not thought about during my life such as just reading and knowing Maltese.

Translating swearing is almost impossible. No one in Norway would use the swear words we use in Malta. I remember translating something where an elderly person was swearing in Maltese and in Norwegian it sounded like a parody. I changed it to ‘pokker’ with is close to ‘damn it’. Also, all religious and political references are much more present in the Maltese language than in Norwegian. It’s challenging to transform that into plausible Norwegian, but that is what makes it so interesting.

I am translating Walid Nabhan’s novel L-Eżodu taċ-Ċikonji right now, and sometimes I can chew on a sentence for half a day. The trouble of translating between the lines is very present here.

Also, I am in the process of translating the children’s book Il-Qtates ta’ max-Xatt by Clare Azzopardi, with the beautiful illustrations by Lisa Falzon, and it being a children’s book where rhyme and colours and the name of cats are important does not make it any easier.

Kristina Quintano
Kristina Quintano

It has become something of a mantra to speak of literary publishing in doom and gloom language, and perhaps this is amplified when it comes to minority language literature, such as, of course, Maltese. Do you believe that translation can offer tangible opportunities for expansion in this regard?

Yes, when I think about other languages spoken by few, like Icelandic, Finish, and also Norwegian, I am sure that our export of literature is good for our national literature. I think the work being done now in translating some of Malta’s grand national literature is important. I also think the process of making the Maltese publishing industry more formalised and making sure the terms for the artists are as good as they can be, are good, both for producing new literature and for exporting existing works.

What would be the next step in taking Maltese literature to a wider international audience?

It needs to start at home, in Malta, with a close relationship between the author and the publisher. My initial thoughts are twofold. My understanding is that Maltese writers produce more short stories, poetry and also shorter novels than we are used to in the Nordic countries. Short stories and poetry is very difficult to sell even for Norwegian authors, and if they are translated it is almost impossible. We need more of the good, long, well written, well edited, Maltese novels, maybe even something for the mass market, to start awareness of Maltese literature. The flavours, the smell, the bakery, the village life, the sea. Scandinavian readers don’t want to read narrow literature about Maltese politics, or poems. They want to fall in love with the Maltese islands and the smell of honey and cooked rabbit and wine from Gozo. Call me cynical but I know what sells, and translated poetry does not sell well in Norway.

And that brings me to the next thought: A writer needs money (and a room of their own) if they are to write fiction. This still applies for all of us. I admire and fully support the steps being taken over the last years that have been pushing for new structures, funds, festivals getting larger and more visited every year, the immense work The National Book Council of Malta has done on promoting Maltese literature abroad, the steps some publishers have taken to ensure writers rights and all the work the different organisations like HELA has started.

The importance of professionality and solidarity between the different sectors of the industry cannot be stressed enough. Malta still has a long way to go before it is anywhere near Norway when it comes to standardised contracts, associations, editors and literary agents, but something has definitely changed in Malta over the last 3-4 years, and it is highly welcomed. And I do believe that this can have an impact on the export of Maltese literature. I want to underline that, had my first meeting with ensuring the rights for a Maltese book been with a publisher that did not have a very good and professional relationship with, and huge respect for, their authors, then it simply would not have happened.