Anna Gustafsson Chen fotad framför vit tavla
Anna Gustafsson Chen with a book written by Nobel Laureate Mo Yan that she has translated. Photo: Annika Sundin.


“At first I thought of becoming a teacher in Latin. But since the demand for Latin was not high, they did not take many students. Fortunately, I had to pick another line. I didn't really know what to choose but thought the East Asian studies seemed fun.”

Anna Gustafsson Chen says that she wanted to go out into the world and travel "a little further away than Piteå". The fact that she was admitted to Stockholm University was a coincidence when her then boyfriend also got a job in Stockholm.

“But at first I was a little disappointed when I came because that was not what I had intended. Then I realized that it was much better to study Chinese than Latin because you don't have a lot of verbs. So, it was a good choice even if it was not planned. China and East Asia were so far away at that time, it felt exciting.”

Translating sad novels

Her first job after completing her studies was as a secretary at Taiwan's representation office in Stockholm.

“This was also random. I had been studying for a semester in Taiwan and was in their office to pick up some papers when they said they needed someone. So, then I worked there for a while.”

After further studies followed a longer period when Anna Gustafsson combined work as a librarian with translation. During this period, she was part of, and started Trasten, which publishes international children's literature, and is a subdivision of the book publisher Tranan.

“Trasten lay dormant for a while before we started again last year - and this year we got an Alma Prize winner (Baek Heena from South Korea) who we released last fall!”

Today, however, she is a full-time translator and is currently working on a novel written by a female writer born in the 1970s.

“It is a different novel from those previously translated into English and Swedish. It has mainly been male writers born in the 1950s-1960s who depict rural and translated politics. This novel is a family drama in an industrial environment and could play out here as well. But it is sad, like all the novels I translate.”

One of the most famous Chinese authors Anna Gustafsson Chen has translated is Mo Yan, born in the 1950s, who received the Nobel Prize in literature in 2012.

“It was a lot of fun, of course. I was busy and could not see the publication but then my workmates came running and told me. It was really fun.”

"The biggest challenge is finding Swedish expressions"

The great challenge of translating Chinese prose, Anna Gustafsson Chen thinks, is to find the right terms so that it is understandable in Swedish and that at the same time catch the mood. Finding the right tone can be difficult.

“What I'm most afraid of is if everything I translate sounds like me, that you put in your own word choices too much. If you translate writers who have completely different styles than you, do not want it to end with them all sounding the same in Swedish, that is horror. And it can be hard to see for yourself.”

Another challenge is the differences in how we formulate.

“Chinese people are very good at making neat abbreviations of things that sound good in Chinese but that are incomprehensible in Swedish. Then you have to think about whether you want to explain in a statement or whether it should be a footnote.”

"Language skills are about endurance"

Many who study languages testify to the importance of staying for longer periods in the country. But even though Anna Gustafsson Chen translates prose from Chinese, she has never lived in China. The intention was that she would go there for a year on a scholarship from the Swedish Institute, but it was 1989 and the massacre at Tiananmen Square made the situation unsafe so the trip was canceled.

“I've lived in Taiwan for a semester. It's probably the longest I've been in a Chinese-speaking country. Now my husband is from China so I can practice on him!"

Instead, it is tenacity that has enabled Anna Gustafsson Chen to translate full time today.

“You may have some talent but it is mostly about being persistent and constantly building on experience. When I think back to when I started studying Chinese, I thought it was slow and that everyone else was so smart and learned quickly. But everyone is different, some learn quickly in the beginning and end up on a plateau while others slowly climb up all the time. It's about staying on and fighting.”

A translator's book tips

Anna Gustafsson Chen believes that her career may seem confusing but that the unifying link is that she wants to share good things with others, either as a librarian to find books for others or as a translator where she translates things that others may enjoy reading. She recommends the novel "Living" by Yu Hua to those who want to start reading Chinese authors.

“It is a fairly thin and easy to read book with straightforward and simple language. You follow a man from the time before the revolution until the 1990s. A mini story about modern China. It has been filmed, placed on the bestseller list for twenty years in China and selected by the Swedish Cultural Council. It is easy to absorb. And sad!"