Saturday, March 5, 2011

Aquí Se Habla Crime Fiction*

If you’re a crime fiction fan, then you know that crime fiction is written in lots of different languages. So most of us need to rely on translation sometimes to enjoy a favourite author’s work or experience a new author. When the translation is skilled, we may not think about it very much. That’s because the translation’s been good enough that we’re focusing on the story and we’re not pulled out of it. But here’s the thing; translation isn’t easy. Trust me. I confess I haven’t translated novels, but I’ve translated stories and legal documents and it’s not an easy task, even if one’s got native fluency in both languages. It’s not enough to convey the events in the story so the reader can follow what’s happened; the translator also has to convey all of the nuances that the author intended. Otherwise, readers may miss important clues, humour and lots more.

Agatha Christie’s books, for instance, have been translated into more than 40 languages. Several of her books, including Cards on the Table (Cartas Sobre la Mesa) and Murder in Mesopotamia (Asesinato en Mesopotamia) have been translated into Spanish by Ángel Soler Crespo. In Cards on the Table, finding out who killed the eccentric Mr. Shaitana depends crucially on understanding the sort of murder it was – that is, the psychology behind the murder. That’s chiefly because there are only four suspects, each of whom had a motive and each of whom could have killed the victim. So Poirot has to rely on subtle cues from comments that the suspects make, from their histories and from tallies on their bridge scores. All of that requires a real understanding of the nuances of communication, and Ángel Soler Crespo does an effective job of conveying those nuances.

In Murder in Mesopotamia, Poirot is on the trail of the killer of Louise Leidner, who was murdered while she and her husband were at an archaeological dig in Iraq. In this case, finding the killer depends heavily on an understanding of the victim’s personality. Since she’s already dead when Poirot arrives on the scene, he learns about Louise Leidner through his conversations with others at the expedition house and through what he learns from her possessions. While timing is certainly a part of what helps Poirot find the killer, the real clues lie in the interplay of personalities and some events from Louise Leidner’s past. Conveying this in another language takes a skilled translator, and Ángel Soler Crespo has done an effective job of it. Another aspect of this novel that adds to its appeal is that the investigation is seen from the outside, so to speak. The story is told from the point of view of Amy Leatheran, a nurse whom Dr. Eric Leidner had hired because of his wife’s increasing fears. Crespo conveys Amy Leatheran’s practical yet somewhat idealistic personality, as well as the sense of watching the events unfold as a bystander.

High quality crime fiction also depends on a solid sense of place and culture. Not only does that context engage the reader, but it also can play an important part in the mystery at hand. That’s certainly the case in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s series that features Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. In Last Rituals and My Soul to Take, Thóra investigates murders that are related to Iceland’s history and mythology. The killings, though, take place in today’s Iceland, and that culture, too, is important. But those aspects of a novel can be hard to convey effectively without a novel becoming somewhat of a travelogue, especially in a translation. Bernard Scudder, though, succeeds in sharing with readers Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s subtle ways of placing the reader in Iceland without overdoing it.

Scudder also does something even more difficult for translators: conveying the author’s sense of humour. There is a solid sense of humour that runs throughout these novels but of course, each culture is different, so when it comes to wit, translating the original intent of the author can be very tricky. Scudder does this quite effectively. For instance, as My Soul to Take begins, Thóra gets a visit from a client who’s very upset because new postal regulations require that his mail slot be moved to a particular height from the ground. If it doesn’t change, he won’t get his mail. As Thóra and her client discuss what to do about the notice he’s received about this, we see the humour in the situation. Thóra’s client wants to take on the national postal service in a lawsuit because he doesn’t want to go to the expense of buying a new door or mailbox or the bother of putting in a new slot in the door at a different place. For her part, Thóra tries to explain how much more difficult it would be to get involved in such a lawsuit. Scudder conveys the humour of this scene so that English-speaking readers can see the absurdity of it.

Stephen Sartarelli accomplishes the same thing in his translations of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series. Camilleri writes with a great deal of wit that would be difficult to convey in other languages without a skilled translator. For instance, in The Snack Thief, Montalbano scores heavily against his deputy and thorn-in-the-side Mimì Augello. Augello is always looking for chances to “grab the glory,” and he’s excited when he’s assigned to investigate the killing of a Tunisian sailor who was working on an Italian fishing ship when he was shot. The case has made headlines, and Augello is determined to get as much publicity as he can. For his part, Montalbano’s been assigned the much less glamourous investigation of a retired businessman who was murdered in the elevator in his apartment building. Montalbano is none too pleased about it, but he exacts revenge by getting Aguello removed from the sailor murder case and getting the case transferred to the harbour town nearest to where the murder occurs. When Montalbano hears the news, he’s all too happy to let Augello know:

“‘Here, Mimì.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘It means the investigation of the killing on the fishing boat has been transferred to Mazàra. You’re left empty-handed while I’ve still got my elevator murder. One to nothing.”

Sartarelli’s translations also share the distinct personalities and quirks of the characters. For instance, Sergeant Catarella has a unique way of speaking that Sartarelli shares with expertise. Here, for example, is a snippet of a ‘phone conversation he has with his boss in The Snack Thief:

“‘Whoozis I’m speaking with?’ [Catarella]

‘Tell me first who you are.’

‘This is Catarella.’

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Sorry, Chief, I din’t rec’nize your voice as yours. You mighta been sleeping.’”

Trust me, that takes skill.

And then there’s Laurie Thompson, who’s translated Håkan Nesser’s work into English. Nesser has a spare style of writing, including humourous scenes, and Thompson’s translations maintain that style. Here, for instance, is what I must confess is one of my favourite scenes in Mind’s Eye, in which Inspector Van Veeteren investigates the murder of Eva Ringmar, who was found dead in her bathtub. Her husband Jurgen Mitter is arrested and tried for the crime. Mitter was very drunk at the time of the murder, so the opposing counsel asks him how he knows he didn’t kill his wife. Here’s Mitter’s reply:

“I know I didn’t kill her because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today because you aren’t. Not today.”

Enough said.

We don’t often think about translations unless they’re not skilled, but the fact is, an effective translation can make a very big difference in whether or not a reader enjoys a book. But what do you think? Do you read translated crime fiction? If you do, do you notice clumsy translations? If you’re multilingual, do you think that makes you more aware of translations? If you’re a writer, have you had your work translated? How did it work out?

* Crime fiction spoken here :-)


  1. I definitely notice silly translations - they are one of the reasons why I have almost given up reading English crime fiction in Danish. But I do know how difficult it is to render puns, dialect, sociolect etc in Danish. And I wrote a Danish flash fiction story two years ago which I cannot translate - because it all depends on a pun on toad and thousand kroner.

  2. Dorte - I was actually thinking of you as I was writing this. Your English is so very fluent that I'm sure you notice it if you're reading a translated novel and something doesn't work. And you're right; there are just some things that do not translate well, if they even can be translated. I am in awe of those who skillfully render a book in one language into another without losing any of the flavour of it. It is hard to do.

  3. In one of the books I've written, I added some Italian and I asked many of my critiquing buddies to confirm it was written correctly because mistranslated things are so bad! Great post.

  4. Clarissa - Thank you :-)! I think that was very wise of you to have your critiquing friends' input. As you say, something that's not translated well can completely take a reader out of a book. I'm glad you did that.

  5. The quality of translation is something that I have constantly in mind ever since I was put off 'Madame Bovary' for life after reading it in an edition which may have got the basic story over but destroyed to beauty of the language completely. Up to that point it was something to which I'd only given passing consideration. I'm interested in what you say about the translations from the Icelandic because I've just begun to explore Scandinavian Crime fiction and have been wondering to what extent the rather distancing quality I've been aware of was due to translation or was a part of the original. Do you have any thoughts on this?

  6. Annie - I know what you mean about your experience with Madame Bovary. All it takes is one experience with a poor translation to put a person off a novel. I'm sorry that happened to you. But as you say, it certainly does make one pay attention to translation.

    You ask an interesting question about Scandinavian crime fiction. I should say that except for a little Danish, I don't speak the Scandinavian languages. So I can't say how different the books might be in the authors' original languages. I do know, though, that each culture is different, so it makes sense that each culture's crime fiction is also different. I've certainly noticed differences among the crime fiction I've read from different countries, and that makes sense given the differences among cultures. Crime fiction reflects human life.

  7. I do read some-most the Scandinavian writers. I think the ones I read get the best treatment so I don't notice many problems.

  8. Excellent post, Margot. I read a lot of translated fiction and usually feel that the translation is good - often, someone has really worked to get the jokes to work, and I think Stephen Sartarelli's translations of Camilleri must be the best case, as you demonstrate in your example. But many of the Scandinavian translators are superb, eg Marlaine Delargy and Laurie Thompson (Swedish) and Don Bartlett (Norwegian).

  9. Patti - You've got a well-taken point. When the translation is an effective one, we don't notice slip-ups. In fact, I think an important sign of a well-done translation is when we don't really have to think about particular way that something's been put - when we understand it easily the first time.

    Maxine - Thank you :-). I was hoping you'd comment, since you're so well-read in translated crime fiction. I agree with you that Sartarelli's translations are truly top-notch. He captures every subtlety and nuance. And yes, Thompson and Delargy are absolutely terrific, too. I confess I'm less familiar with Bartlett's work than with that of the others, but what I know is quite good, too.

  10. I concur the way Stephen Sartarelli manages to translate Catarella gives the books something special.
    I have read most of Don Bartlett's Jo Nesbos, and one excellent K.O.Dahl, and they are superb. He is also a nice guy.

  11. Norman - I couldn't agree with you more about the way Bartlett has done with the Nesbøs I've read. That's the only context in which I know his work, so as I say, I'm less familiar with him than with some others, but I completely agree. It's good to hear, too, that Dahl is as nice as he is talented :-).

    And yes, Sartarelli truly adds to the Camilleri books with his wonderful rendering of Catarella.

  12. Margot, as usual a very interesting post. A bad translation can make you put off a book completely. It's therefore very risky. Some Nordic writters have been mistranslated in Spain, probably due to publishers which are not willing to pay adequately for this job. But there are some excelent examples as highlighted on some comments above. They don't confirm the old Italian proverb: traduttore, traditore!

  13. José Ignacio - Thank you very much. I'm glad that you brought up the role of publishers in getting crime fiction translated. You're quite right that it takes talent, effort and money to do the job well. If publishers do not have high-quality translations as a goal, the result is either poorly-translated crime fiction which, as you say, is off-putting, or an entire group of people who don't get to enjoy an author's work. Either way, it's got negative consequences.

    ...and thanks for that Italian proverb: it's very good "Food for thought."