First, let’s get this out the way: Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson. There, I have evoked his name so no one can say I overlooked him.
Mr. Larsson’s successful works notwithstanding, everyone loves a good mystery and I’m no exception. Humans are hard-wired to try to solve puzzles and problems, a survival skill basic to understanding one another and trying to get along so we don’t kill each other.
Beyond that basic hard-wiring though, I have a particular attraction to mysteries translated from another language. When I see an author’s name that is clearly not English in origin, I’m inevitably enticed to pick up the book. The draw for me is that I know that there, between those inviting covers, will be a story that comes from another culture, split off from my own if not by geography then at least by language, one that has the potential to open a rich treasure chest of human experience and a different world.
I first became interested specifically in translated mysteries from watching the International Mysteries series on the MHz network. I was introduced to the first of Swedish author Henning Mankell‘s Kurt Wallander series, Faceless Killers (with the amazing Rolf_Lassgård), and to the Martin Beck mysteries—a product of the Swedish husband and wife team, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. (If you haven’t read their book, The Laughing Policeman, you simply must—even if only for one scene, with character Gunvald Larsson, that is so funny you should not drink a glass of milk while reading it.)
While I would admit that people are the same everywhere, their reactions, particularly their manner of expressing their reactions, are shaped and honed by the culture’s norms. Characters in a Swedish novel react, well, like Swedes. When I see that, in my reader-mind, I feel like I’m having a nice little visit in Sweden without the airfare, jetlag and monetary exchange. How true is the author’s account of the culture? There is always the coloring and shading of the lens of the author’s own experiences as well. Still, foreign characters feel new to me, sometimes subtly, other times strikingly. So, I’m never bored.
More than just armchair-traveler-reading, I crave the author’s voice, and this can be difficult in translation. I always wonder, how close am I really to getting Mankell’s genuine voice when it’s been translated? I definitely notice the difference in feel between the various translators of his books (and happen to prefer the translations that were done by Laurie Thompson over Steven T. Murray or Ebba Segerberg). In my quest for the voice of Mankell, I purchased One Step Behind in French (Les Morts de la Saint-Jean, translated by Anna Gibson) to see if another language might bring an epiphany. The thing I got from that was the realization that the feeling I was missing in English was hearing the character of Kurt speak in Swedish (he should sound Swedish, no?). So giving him a French voice in my head didn’t help, but was an interesting experiment. Apparently I’m just afraid I might miss out on some small nugget of the goodness of an author when I don’t speak their language.
Unfortunately, without translators in our heads, we’re dependent upon publishing houses taking the risk to bring these works to us in English. There is always the lag between finding the work in a foreign language deemed sufficiently successful, then the business decision that it will pay off in English, getting it translated, et cetera. As an example, Faceless Killers was published in Sweden in 1991, then came out from the not-for-profit The New Press (NY) in 1997. (I am forever grateful to them for searching out and bringing us foreign works.) Another Mankell work, The Dogs of Riga came out in 1992 in Sweden, but we couldn’t read it in English until 2001. That’s quite a while to wait.
Then again, the high quality of translated mysteries has been largely assured because of the very fact that publishing houses would only pick the best of the best to bring to a translated market. I guess another way of looking at it, is that you can be pretty sure when you buy a translated mystery (or thriller) it’s going to be good because it has passed more tests. So maybe it’s worth the wait?
A couple of my other favorites, for your consideration:
The Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell (a non-Wallander mystery)
What about you? Who keeps you up at night?