Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Connecting across languages

Craig every second Tuesday. 

Kia ora and gidday everyone.

Before we dive into today's piece, I wanted to pause and acknowledge my fellow Tuesday contributor to Murder is Everywhere, Cara Black. Last week Cara was named as one of five nominees for the 2021 Hammett Prize, a prestigious award that has long been one of my favourite book prizes (in fact when we established the Ngaio Marsh Awards in 2010, we modelled them somewhat on the Hammett Prize). 

Cara Black and her Hammett Prize nominated book THREE HOURS IN PARIS

Run by the International Association of Crime Writers, North America, for the past thirty years this annual prize has celebrated 'literary excellence in crime writing', which is pretty awesome. It's open to genre and non-genre novels which examine crime or the effects of crime. Past winners include Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Margaret Atwood, William Deverell, Martin Cruz Smith, Megan E. Abbott, and George Pelecanos. Past nominees also include Cormac McCarthy, Walter Mosley, Laura Lippman, and Normal Mailer. So quite the cadre of excellent crime storytellers - both recognised 'crime writers' and authors from other spheres who've written books strongly entwined with crime. 

Here are the 2021 nominees. Some excellent novels and authors: 

  • IN OLD BOMBAY by Nev March (Minotaur): Based on a true story, in 1892 a soldier recovering from wounds investigates a murder.
  • THE MOUNTAINS WILD by Sarah Stewart Taylor (Minotaur): A New York detective revisits the disappearance of her cousin in Ireland two decades ago.
  • THREE HOURS IN PARIS by Cara Black (Soho): In World War II, a young female sniper is sent to Paris to assassinate the Führer.
  • WHEN THESE MOUNTAINS BURN by David Joy (Putnam): A father in Appalachia confronts the opioid epidemic in an attempt to rescue his son.
  • WINTER COUNTS by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (Ecco): Vigilante Virgil Wounded Horse investigates the spread of heroin on the reservation.

Connecting across languages: the impact and importance of literary translators

Another thing that happened last week was the (online) book launch for HOTEL CARTAGENA by Simone Buchholz, translated from German by Rachel Ward, and BOUND by Vanda Symon. Two terrific crime novels from opposite ends of the earth. 

I had the pleasure of compering the launch, which was both a great night and also caused me to reflect on a few things. Not least of which was the fact that the very last public event I attended before all the COVID lockdowns and restrictions kicked in last year was the in-real-life book launch for Simone and Vanda's previous books (along with Stephanie Broadribb) at Waterstone's Victoria in London. So, more than a year with everything online. 

Germany, New Zealand, and the UK combine for a 2020/2021-style book launch

Another thing last week's launch prompted me to reflect on was the importance of literary translators. It was great that Rachel Ward was able to join us onscreen for part of the launch (a few minutes after the photo above was taken by an audience member). Rachel gave some really interesting insights into the art of crime fiction translation. In recent years I've become more and more conscious of the huge role that literary translators play in allowing keen readers like myself to enjoy a diverse array of stories that originated in a wide range of languages. While at the same time it feels like translators - a little bit like illustrators of kids' books, perhaps - go a little underappreciated by the reading public at large. 

A couple of years ago I wrote a large feature for an American magazine, Mystery Scene, about crime fiction translation, interviewing several translators as well as translated authors. It was fascinating to get some deeper insight into the collaboration and all that goes into bringing stories to readers who speak different languages. Interestingly, crime fiction translation is in some ways even more difficult. 

"Found in Translation" - my feature in the Fall 2019 issue of Mystery Scene

Here's a snippet from that feature: 

While translating any story into another language has its challenges, mystery and detective tales contain extra fishhooks for translators, says Karen Seago of City University London, a widely published expert on the translation of fairy tales, feminist translation theory, and crime fiction translation. The way an author writes – not just what they write – can be used to disguise clues, take advantage of shared assumptions, and more deeply engage readers with the solving of the mystery, says Seago. Translators must tiptoe along a tightrope when choosing which words, phrases, and rhetorical devices to use in the ‘new’ version of a story ... Mysteries can be a game of bluff and double-bluff between an author and reader, says Seago. Translators have to be careful not to make a choice that has negative flow-on effects in the translated version, such as making a hidden clue too obvious, obscuring something that later plays a key role, or clarifying something that was intentionally meant to be confusing or vague and therefore make the reader think and engage more deeply.


It was interesting for me to reflect on the fact that about a decade before that I had written a large feature for Australian magazine Good Reading on the surge in Scandinavian crime writing, and while I discussed many translated books and authors in that piece, I don't think I named a single translator. 

For too long I was guilty, like so many, of overlooking the very people who ensured I could read these great stories that were first told in languages other than my own. For example, back in 2008 readers in North America and across the world were introduced to Lisbeth Salander, "a ferocious heroine who didn’t want or need anyone to save her and was happy to operate outside legal lines to find some justice". Stieg Larsson's Millennium series became a phenomenon: 100 million sales, hit movies.

But as I said for Mystery Scene, "Here's the thing: while the names Lisbeth Salander and Stieg Larsson became globally famous and tens of millions enjoyed Larsson’s stories, the vast majority weren't reading his words. English-speakers were captivated by Lisbeth as described by Reg Keeland (Stephen T Murray). German readers fell in love even faster; they were reading Winke Kuhne's words."

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish-language film adaptations

Funnily enough, when I reflect on my own reading history, I was actually reading translated fiction from a young age - though I didn't realise it 'til years later. Even before I fell in love with mysteries thanks to the Hardy Boys, the first ongoing series I loved as a young reader was Asterix. I was about seven years old, and my mates and I used to race each other to try to nab the copies of Asterix and the Golden Sickle or Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield from our school library on a rainy day. 

Even at that young age, I was quite aware that the creators Goscinny and Uderzo were French storytellers - but I didn't make the leap to realise that the words I was enjoying so very much on the page (and I still enjoy to this day, more than three decades later) were chosen by someone else. 

The genius of Goscinny & Uderzo was brought to generations of English-speaking readers by the genius of  literary translator Anthea Bell

Anthea Bell had studied French and German at Oxford and become a secretary before shifting into literary translations almost by accident as a young mother, then single mother. She began translating Asterix in 1969, and was responsible for the naming of Dogmatix and Getafix, as well as bringing Goscinny and Uderzo's blend of zany adventures and stories full of satire and puns and wordplay into another language (with all the challenges that incurred). It's astonishingly clever work. 

As Bell said in an interview, "All my professional life, I have felt that translators are in the business of spinning an illusion: the illusion is that the reader is reading not a translation but the real thing".

While translators are a bit overlooked by the general reading public, they're hugely appreciated by publishers and the translated authors themselves. As French author Johanna Gustawsson told me back in 2019, in a way, translators are like music composers who would transpose rock into classical. "They don't just have to translate the story; they also have to translate the musicality of a language, of a sentence, its rhythm and the voice of the author. Translation is a work of art."

Do you read translated crime fiction? What are some of your favourite translated stories - crime or otherwise - and who were the translators? I'd love for you to share some of your faves in the comments.

Until next time. Ka kite anō. 

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 

Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei

(Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain)

A view across to Aoraki/Mt Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand


  1. We've had books translated into German, French, and Italian. It is frustrating that we have to rely on others to tell us whether they've been well done. We've only ever received one email from a translator. I don't remember what the question was, but the lingering memory is that Michael and I had difficulty in understanding it because the translator's English was so poor!

  2. You add so much to his site, Craig. Thank you. Hm, considering your topic for this week, perhaps I should have written that in Greek. Nah, I'll spare myself the embarrassment of my shoddy Greek grammar and just say that the characteristics of a great translator often transition into similar success for the translator as an author. For example, Ragnar Jonasson translated Agatha Christie from English to Icelandic. Now it's his work being translated from Icelandic into English and a myriad of other languages. I wonder who else comes to mind as fitting that scenario?