I was fated to become a translator. At four I was exposed to my first foreign language, Tagalog, in Manila, followed by Spanish in Mexico City at seven. Back in the San Francisco Bay area, I took Latin and then German in school. Eventually, I attended Stanford-in-Germany, and soon returned to Europe to study in Denmark. It was obvious I had a talent and passion for languages.
For fun I began translating poems and stories from Danish, then Swedish. I was attracted to avant-garde stories in the early 1960s and wanted my friends to read them. In 1976 I translated two Norwegian science fiction stories for an anthology. The authors kindly forfeited their advance of $25 each to pay me, and I was finally a published translator.
My day job was in technical translation, doing breakdown reports from Swedish nuclear power plants, as well as foreign-language typesetting. I decided to start a small press (nobody warned me about the printing bills and distribution nightmares), and in 1981 Fjord Press was born, ostensibly to publish my translations. That didn't happen—instead, I ended up publishing fiction by Werner Herzog, Horst Bienek, and other German authors. In 1984 I met Tiina Nunnally and moved to Seattle, and Fjord ventured into Danish fiction, including our first thriller, Leif Davidsen's debut, The Sardine Deception. In 1989 we published Martin Andersen Nexø's Pelle the Conqueror in time to take advantage of the Academy Award for the movie. But our biggest hit was Niels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen, and we're proud to say it's now a Penguin Classic.
When I decided to stop losing money publishing books and let the big houses pay the printer, I morphed into a full-time freelance literary translator. This is what I've been doing to earn a living since the early '90s.
Translation is usually piecework. The advance is based on the number of words in the final English manuscript. But the translator is an essential partner in the creative process and should always share in the success of a book, whether a bestseller or a classic novel that will sell steadily in backlist. So I always require a small royalty in my contracts, which costs a publisher nothing if a book never earns out. Getting a royalty check is a rare occurrence for a translator, but always a nice surprise. A publisher who balked at paying a royalty once told us to "sit back and enjoy the good reviews." To this I can only quote the immortal R&B songwriter Lazy Lester: "The publicity was good, but you can't eat a publicity sandwich."
I typically translate four to five books a year. Once a book translation is finally printed, I sometimes can barely remember doing it. But occasionally a really good book will stay with me, like Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. To me that's the mark of a brilliant writer.
I'm happy to share the stories in languages I can read with people who otherwise wouldn't have been able to read them at all.
Steven T. Murray is the real name of Reg Keeland, translator of Stieg Larsson and many other authors from German, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian.