Arts Desk

Critic Katherine A. Powers: Why Book Translators Shouldn’t Get Short Shrift

Noir fiction started as an American phenomenon, but it didn’t take long to cross the pond. French New Wave directors took plenty of inspiration from authors like David Goodis and James M. Cain, and today the genre arguably lives and breathes most intensely in Nordic countries—thanks especially to the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson, whose Millennium Trilogy has become the planet’s most essential beach read.

Tonight, as part of the Kennedy Center’s Nordic Cool 2013 festival, book critic Katherine A. Powers will interview two translators who are the leading lights in translating Nordic literature: Steven T. Murray, who translated the Millennium Trilogy as well as popular works by Henning Mankell and other writers, and his wife, Tiina Nunnally, who has translated works by Peter Hoeg and Sigrid Undset. Powers answered questions via email.

Washington City Paper: What was your introduction to Nordic literature, and what attracts you to it as a critic?

Katherine A. Powers: Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales captured me at an early age and I still feel in touch with the universe that my young self inhabited when I think of those stories—"The Snow Queen," especially. But when, decades later, I tried to read my childhood copy of the Fairy Tales I couldn't match the experience with my original feeling, which had clearly penetrated beyond the particular words. Now these tales seemed somehow milder. Perhaps I was jaded? Perhaps I was spoiled by criticism? But here translation enters the picture: I picked up Tiina Nunnally's translation of the Fairy Tales and they seemed sharper, and it all came back, the terror and wonder. I was happy (and agreeably scared) but not completely surprised because I had already been bowled over by Nunnally's translation of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter. Now, there was a book, a trilogy actually, that had been absolutely impossible for me to read in the original translation of the early 1920s. The novel had been rendered into a fusty, faux-antique English that made me positively ill and which I learned had no resemblance to the clean, sparkling prose of the original Norwegian—or, indeed, to Nunnally's brilliant translation.

Of all the Nordic novels I've read, Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, Halldor LaxnessIndependent People (translated from the Icelandic by J. A. Thompson), and Frans G. Bengtsson's The Long Ships (translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer) have given me the most pleasure to review, in part because of their sweep and the foreign worlds they brought into being.

WCP: There's been an enormous boom in Nordic crime fiction in recent years, represented largely by Steig Larsson and Henning Mankell—two authors that panelist Steven T. Murray has brought into English. Why have those books galvanized so many American (indeed, international) crime readers, who certainly have plenty of books to choose from?

KAP: That is a very good question. We readers of English (of a certain age) had a wild fling with Maj Sjowall's and Per Wahloo's series of novels starring police detective Martin Beck in the 1970s and early 1980s, but then the Scandinavian crime spree—which was essentially Swedish—sort of petered out until the end of the 1990s when Henning Mankell's Wallander series arrived. According to Steven Murray (who would definitely know), aside from Sjowall and Wahloo, Swedish crime writers weren't really very good at the job, but they got their chops down learning from that pair. We see the result, including the phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy which, as you note, was translated by Murray—though under the pseudonym Reg Kneeland. And therein lies a most interesting tale which I hope he will share with the people who come to see him and Tiina Nunnally [tonight].

WCP: The second translator on the panel, Nunnally, has worked on somewhat less violent fare: Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, Pippi Longstocking, and the historical epic Kristin Lavransdatter. Do Nunnally and Murray represent two separate threads of Scandinavian literature, or does something connect them?

KAP: The two translators are, in fact, connected by marriage—to each other—and both have a wide range, not only of genres, but languages: Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and, in Murray's case, German—and maybe more. They started out by translating Scandinavian classics which were in the public domain. Like her husband, Tiina Nunnally has a long pedigree in crime. She, too, translated one of Henning Mankell's novels, Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow (under the pseudonym Felicity David), the crime novels of Camilla Lackberg and A. J. Kazinski (who is actually two Danish men), and many, many more.

These remarks scarcely scratch the surface of what can be said about Nordic literature and its translation. Stephen Murray and Tiina Nunnally are the real experts and are exceptionally enlightening and entertaining, not least on the vexations of their calling: the tug of war that goes on between translator and editor, and the lot of the translator, which is often enough one of undeserved invisibility and sheer exploitation.

The panel takes place tonight at 7 p.m. at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Gallery. Free.

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