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50 Different Words for Murder: Crime Writers on their Translated Works

July 24, 2012

Camilla Lackberg and Deon Meyer

As the author of Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Barry Forshaw was the perfect moderator for a panel on translation which featured two of the most successful Swedish crime writers working today, Camilla Läckberg and Liza Marklund, and also the South African crime writer Deon Meyer and Spain’s Antonio Hill. Actually, very little of the conversation focused on translation. Läckberg and Marklund both stated they were very happy with the job translators and editors do with their work. Antonio Hill said he has barely been consulted with the translation into English of his debut novel El Verano de los Juguetes Muertos, aka The Summer of Dead Toys. Meyer’s work has been translated into twenty languages, but as he writes his crime novels in Afrikaans, he lamented that some things are just impossible to translate as they are specific to the language. However, he stated that Britain’s long held fascination with South Africa mitigated this problem to an extent, where more social explanation was needed when he transitioned to other markets. Marklund discussed how different social attitudes can be the most difficult to convey through translation, but when done successfully, the results are personally satisfying. In socially conservative Italy, her liberated Annika Bengtzon character is very popular with Italian women, who are fascinated by the idea of a man staying at home to take care of the children. Both Läckberg and Marklund noted that since their novels are not published in chronological order, it leads to contention with German publishers who prefer a more straightforward rendering,  a comment which led to a rather tetchy response from a German member of the audience.

Liza Marklund

The conversation broadened into other crime fiction related topics. Marklund argued that the best crime fiction is produced in Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and the United States because crime writing can only thrive in established democracies. People want to read about ‘the black spots on the white canvas’. She stated that on a visit to Kenya, people were baffled that she wrote crime fiction. In a country with quite a few problems, it is just not part of their culture. Hill and Meyer commented that crime fiction only emerged in their countries after the end of the Franco regime and apartheid respectively. The creative expression and dissident thinking necessary for writing crime novels is not possible in dictatorships. Forshaw commented that the success of writers like Läckberg and Marklund had robbed us of the belief that Scandinavia was a social democratic paradise. Marklund said that where she was born in northern Sweden people can be quite insular in their beliefs. She joked that Scandinavians believed that the problem with other nationalities is that ‘there not Scandinavians’. Hill said there were still lingering problems leftover from the Franco regime, and the ongoing Eurozone crisis is particularly harsh in Spain. Forshaw tried to conjure a dystopic reverse scenario; in light of recent scandals, has freedom of the press gone too far in Britain? Has it spawned a whole new level of corruption? Meyer responded that this overlooked the fact that Britain still produced some of the best journalism in the world. Läckberg said that sleazy tabloid journalism does not exist to the same extent in Sweden. She herself had been the subject of some unwanted media scrutiny in her home country, but the tabloids were nowhere near as intrusive as their British counterparts. The German woman, who I mentioned earlier, made a eloquent comment during the Q and A session. She said she lives in the US where the social problems should not be underestimated, and in Germany where democracy is still a relatively recent introduction, crime fiction had become a phenomenon. She finished by saying we needed to look at each societies fascination, or lack thereof, with crime fiction on a case by case basis. Meyer had the last word: poverty and corruption exists everywhere, only in different areas of life and society from one country to the next.

Judging from this insightful comment, and the fascinating topics all four writers discussed, it seems that crime writers will not be running out of material any time soon.

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