Humanities & Culture

Translation Queen

An alum finds a niche converting Swedish bestsellers into English.

Rachel Willson-Broyles, dressed in dark colors, sitting on a white chair in a dark room, leaning toward the camera.

Willson-Broyles excels at finding the balance between humor and tragedy. Brianna Royle Kopka/B2 Photography

When Rachel Willson-Broyles MA’07, PhD’13 was growing up outside Eau Claire, Wisconsin, she fell under the spell of the Swedish band Ace of Base and decided “to learn about Sweden, because that’s where they were from.”

Some 15 years ago, as she was working toward her PhD in Scandinavian studies at UW–Madison, she took a seminar in translation in the Department of Comparative Literature. Scandinavian studies professor Susan Brantly suggested she translate a page or two of the 2006 novel Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger by a distinguished Swedish author, Jonas Hassen Khemiri, who was going to be visiting the UW–Madison campus.

“I’d already starting translating stuff by myself,” Willson-Broyles says, “articles and things. I really just loved the Swedish language.”

She took Brantly up on the offer, and when Khemiri arrived in Madison, the professor suggested she give the author her translated pages.

“I felt a little silly doing it,” Willson-Broyles says. “My student project.”

But two months later, Khemiri contacted her. He’d sent the pages to Knopf, the publisher with the English rights to the novel. An editor wanted to know if Willson-Broyles was a translator.

She replied, “I’d like to be a translator.”

Montecore was published in English, with Willson-Broyles as translator, in 2011.

That year, Khemiri told the New York Times, “Rachel excels at finding the balance between humor and tragedy, which I sometimes struggle with.” In the years since, Willson-Broyles, who lives in Saint Paul, has translated some 40 books from Swedish to English.

Among the most recent are two novels by the acclaimed crime author Christoffer Carlsson: Blaze Me a Sun — “the first great crime novel of 2023,” according to the New York Times — and 2024’s Under the Storm, which the Times reviewer described as “once more wonderfully translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles.”

As a full-time translator, Willson-Broyles says she can finish a book in about three months. The level of involvement with the writer varies. “Most authors are delighted to answer questions,” she says.

Willson-Broyles’s wish list includes seeing translators get more cover bylines and more consistent royalties — “not only for my career,” she says, “but for everyone who works in literary translation.”

Published in the Summer 2024 issue


No comments posted yet.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *