The Door Handle is Depressed – Ten Years Translating the Nordic Crime Wave

5 Jan

At the end of the 1990s, the London scene for Nordic translation had lost whatever sheen it once had, which was never more than a flash of reflected light from the window of a passing car. Kerstin Ekman’s “Blackwater” was one of the few Swedish novels that had actually entered into the English vernacular, evading the lethal tag of being an obscure or substandard translation. The Danish novel, “Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow”, also outgrew its imported status and was accepted as “an English book.” But apart from these two and a handful of others, there was a realisation that even the most glorious translations of Estonian poetry or Finnish experimental novels would never sell very well in England. Certain high-brow types bewailed what they described as English parochialism, until they understood that educated people all over the place, in all countries, were rejecting proper literature, which no longer seemed suitable for general consumption. By that, I suppose, I mean that it did not have an easily marketable quality except that it was very profound and important. The writers tended to be old, ugly, serious, decrepit, snowy-haired professorial types, or willowy left-of-centre rebels keen on sexual adventurism or demolishing authority wherever they saw evidence of it. Such authors were never going to appeal to marketing departments or the general public. What was needed here were slick operators who knew how to string a few words together in the correct order, keeping strictly to exciting and/or terrifying subjects. Of course we always had thrillers, but somehow the thriller which also used to be more simply known as “the bestseller” was out of fashion, and even Frederick Forsyth was little more than a funny old ex-secret service chap, in a Burberry raincoat, spouting on about the Cold War, which was long over.

Meanwhile, gawky translators were hanging about in bookshops or inundating publishers with letters in which they were forever “looking forward to hearing from” someone, learning as they went on that no one ever replies to polite individuals who look forward to being replied to. It’s one of the rules of publishing and, some would say, a fundamental rule of all commerce. And so it was that, by the end of the 1990s, if one entered a room filled with translators, one could faintly make out a background noise of whinging and moaning, also of grumbling bellies. Public money was the only thing that kept us alive in those days. Grants issued by the Swedish Arts Council were regularly doled out like disaster relief to any fool willing to have a go at translation.

Sweden, being a small country with a modest ego, appreciated from the very beginning that it had to export itself in the field of the arts no less than in industry. It had to become virtual and pervasive, and it had to define itself. England, while physically an even smaller country, had a very large ego and plenty of weighty history to compress its freedom of manoeuvre, but more important still, England felt that its literary heritage made translated imports an irrelevance at worst and a bit of fun at best. While its empire had certainly diminished alarmingly, the English language was still swaggering and showering spittle all over the world’s smaller nations and their piddling cultural output. And for all these reasons and more, translators were regularly wheeled in by the Swedish consular authorities, given a few medals, stuffed with prawn toast and gravlax and chicken satay sticks and sent home with jiffy bags containing free books, publishers’ catalogues and a sufficient quantity of smoked cod roe to keep them alive for a few weeks. Mid-range wine was consumed in large quantities at these functions, while ambassadors and cultural councillors shook hands and surreptitiously checked their watches. The translators, their heads spinning with glory, were sent back to their dingy suburbs, where another year would pass locked into the intricacies of translating 1940s Surrealist poetry or perhaps a classic nineteenth century novel about iron ore mining north of the Arctic Circle?

The English public had a resistant view of Nordic literature in those days. It was considered earnest and slightly unsophisticated, like a wooden clog in a museum – either too folkloric or too politically aware. Scandinavia had not yet been changed by the digital era. Its countryside was a farmyard, and its cities were meat markets. Its young peasants were not yet smart or technological, more about hubcaps than Apps. In the background, if you strained your ears, you could just about make out the creaking sound of a rope in a kitchen, where a hanged man swung gently in the draft. Even more distantly, a faint, anodyne beat was thumping from a nightclub where happy, buxom blondes had danced the night away and were now going back for a sauna with a few chosen males. Plenty of uncomplicated sex was on offer, of course. And here was the strange marriage of Sweden: the depressive streak affectionately holding hands with hedonism. The wild club dancers had one pocket full of condoms and the other stuffed with Prozac. How was literature ever going to appropriate such extraneous territory? The only way, as we have seen, was by sticking religiously to genre, because genre is a narrow corridor through which we see everything – or even the long lens of a telescope, picking out the required details at the expense of all else.

How different everything is now from those primitive days! The lubrication of money shifted the axis of writing in Sweden. By 2011, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy had sold 65 million books worldwide. Henning Mankell was not far behind, although his sales were obviously spread across a larger number of books: and yet, total sales of 40 million books cannot be explained away. A pack of minor, though still massively selling authors, joined the irresistible tug of crime book production. Liza Marklund fought herself clear of lesser wolves, and “The Postcard Killers”, her recent collaboration with the bestselling American writer James Patterson, was the world’s first e-book to shift more than 5 million units. She was also the first Swedish woman to top the New York Times Bestseller List. One could mention other names such as Jo Nesbo (the “Harry Hole” series has sold more than 20 million copies) or Arne Dahl (“A-team” Series, 2.5 million copies and counting). The trend, when discussing the Swedish crime writing wave, is already evident in this brief introduction. We are not so concerned with the actual literary quality of the books. The accepted assumption is that books selling in such vast numbers must be good. Whenever one reads anything about crime writers, their sales are mentioned as credentials of their worth in much the same way as literary prizes used to be bandied about. Whereas “John Smith”, Winner of the W.H. Smith Prize, used to be an attractive proposition, we are now much more delighted to hear that he has sold almost so-and-so many million copies in 62 countries. Democracy has gone wild. Unfortunately, as translators know all too well, the assumption that excellence leads to good sales is often about as wrong as anything can be. Translators are frequently asked to convert ridiculous, superficial, hackneyed nonsense into another language, only to be challenged by publishers daunted by the sheer ridiculousness, superficiality and hackneyed nonsense of the property they have just bought. Experienced translators and publishers, on the other hand, rest assured: they know that crap sells.

The sheer impact of the gruesome imaginings of Sweden’s assiduous crime writers on the world’s reading public cannot be denied. Just as an English gentleman in many parts of the world is still believed to be a polite, well-mannered fellow in a tweed suit, so a Swede is increasingly considered to be an unshaven, hung-over police inspector at his kitchen table, possibly weeping as he/ she reads a frayed, old letter from his estranged daughter/ son, before getting into his car and driving off into a gloomy, punishingly cold morning. Somewhere, the reader knows, a person lies dead, bludgeoned, strangled, electrocuted, boiled, poisoned, extorted, cut into pieces, raped, drained of his blood, beheaded, drowned, plasticized or in some other ingenious way robbed of his/ her precious life. It’s unjust, it’s unreasonable. People deserve to be safe, people deserve better than death. But what are you going to do? There are dark forces out there. Swedes know the reason for this problem. The agents of darkness do not vote for the Social Democrats, nor are they concerned about the health service, maternity leave or global warming. They have private health insurance. Women don’t have children, they have careers, thank God. Global warming is not on anyone’s radar. These dark folk have simple goals; they either want to get rich fast, or they have an obscure need to get even with someone; and in many cases, worryingly, they are just ordinary folk pulled into the matrix of crime by circumstances beyond their control. Judging by the success of Swedish crime writing, we had better hope the Swedish economy keeps doing well. Imagine the potential danger of millions of impecunious Swedes? Crime would become our bread and butter.

My own view, fantastical though it may sound, is that Swedes made a decision at some point to revive their ancient Norse mythology; in fact, to demonise themselves. Sweden had been a secular society for years, and a time came when it seemed expedient to harness Old Nick to aid our cause. Frost giants are once again duelling over the hills; in still nights we can hear their mighty hammers. Below, in the valleys, law-abiding folk are eating sausage sandwiches and soured milk yoghurt and getting ready to go to their ordinary jobs in offices, warehouses, and factories. Soon they will sit down with their colleagues for their morning coffee and cinnamon buns. Their soft-spoken voices will relate what they had for supper last night, or how much they managed to bench-press at the gym. Such ordinary people are under threat, the world is crumbling around them. A greedy criminal is waiting to commit an outrage. He/ she is a representative of chaos, he/ she is a person intent on breaking the rules and making honest people’s lives miserable for no proper reason. If the criminal wasn’t so twisted, he/ she would just find an ordinary job and get on with taking snuff, eating soured milk yoghurt, going to the gym three times a week and the nightclub on Saturdays, then fornication? But alas, life is not so simple. In many instances the greedy usurper is simply a Capitalist intent on destabilising the reasonable and equitable social model that grew out of the looming poverty of the early 20th century, still remembered with a shudder all over Scandinavia. And so the problem of evil goes on, and has been going on now for thousands of years. We still can’t explain it. Where do these unpleasant people come from, why do they rape, maim, kill and torture, or exploit others? Why don’t they make love, heal, have children and give pleasure to others? Well, as any literary expert will explain, it’s because they’re either foreign, most likely Russian or Serbs or at least dark-haired people with guttural accents; or, they’re just very individualistic types who don’t believe in a caring society.

To sum up, Sweden, one of the safest countries in the world, has become synonymous with brutal crime. The more you think about that, the odder it gets. A Mexican, Brazilian or Honduran crime writing wave would make far better sense – though it might also seem too obvious. It is far more shocking when Sven, not Pablo, whips out his gun and mows down a few innocent bystanders. The underlying reasons of this discrepancy are one of the subjects of this book. But I have also made myself the subject of it: a simple translator far from his country, separated from both snuff and soured milk yoghurt. More than ten years have gone by since those meagre days when no one had heard of Inspector Wallander – and I walked down to Piccadilly to spend my last money on a very expensive Norwegian-English dictionary.

These days I sit at my desk, sighing forlornly as I check my deadlines, and then sneakily escape my duties to set down these thoughts. There is no possibility to rest any more, or to choose. The question is no longer “What book deserves to be translated and published?” but rather “What book can we publish and sell as successfully as the last one?” There was something heroic, if also cute, about the first. Sometimes I miss those days of penny hunting, of canned tomatoes, the crucial oil and garlic, and, naturally, the coarse Merlot, all of which gave one the strength – but only just – to go on a little longer in search of a masterpiece.

Maybe I am being overly confident, even arrogant, but I believe my insights into the Scandinavian fiction crime wave may help put an end to it. Why should I wish to do such a terrible thing? Am I also a criminal, an agent of darkness? Yes, I suppose I am. You see, I have a pin and there is a very large balloon before me. Inside, I see a lot of floating publishers, agents, writers, and translators, all dancing and singing and shaking their hair, or hopping into top-of-the-range Volvos and even the odd Porsche; or boarding their speed boats; or lying on beaches. It’s a fine moment for puncturing a bubble.

I want to see them all covered in sticky gum. I’m vengeful, you see. I believe in art and culture and better things.
When I hear a police car screaming down the road with its flashing lights, I ask myself, “Why doesn’t someone arrest those noisy bastards and put them in prison?”

I don’t like cops, I don’t like crime, I can’t see the point of dwelling on it. In spite of this, like so many other people, I can’t deny that I have cashed in without any compunctions about “proper literature” and the necessity of staying true to the pursuit of masterpieces, unicorns, and the Holy Grail.

But let me begin with a telephone call, thirteen years ago.
I was at home, in London, toasting some stale bread discovered at the back of the freezer and confirming to myself that my efforts at being a translator had amounted to not much. I had recently finished writing a book of my own, an elaborate historical novel set in the wilds of nineteenth century Sweden. It had taken me six years to finish it and I had been quite convinced that this was my masterpiece, until forty-three publishers rejected it. I was fairly sure that none of them had even read it, which made their rejection even more mystifying. And yet, maybe not? My book had not a single crime in it, no one was run through with a scimitar or tortured with hot candle wax and pliers. No women removed their brassieres only to finish off their lovers with sharpened paper knives. No men were seized by a roguish desire to start Biblical cults, set fire to churches and/ or capture wild swans and also set fire to them before releasing them to streak across the sky as a warning to non-believers. There were no hackers or deranged psychopaths with customised torture chambers, no drug-taking nymphomaniac women intent on flashing their underwear, no goggle-eyed drug dealers frenziedly pummelling old ladies with titanium dildos. In my book, not a single drop of blood or any other bodily fluids hit the floor in over four hundred pages. Although no one ever managed to read it, I did not draw the logical conclusion of this, and I never considered editing my book to make it more conducive to the modern mind. Possibly, the problem was that the modern mind had not yet understood its desire to buy tens of millions of paperbacks about criminal Swedes being hounded by depressive, recently divorced and/ or terminally ill detectives. The late nineties were a confused time in literature, a time in which there were some vague longings still in place for the old world, high culture and other such notions. The internet had not taken over, there was no information highway, only primitive dial-up connections that spent minutes buzzing like telephone calls to Botswana.

One distinct advantage of Sweden as the source of the crime phenomenon was its status as a leading producer of paper pulp. Thus we controlled the entire supply line. We had the trees, we had the paper mills, we had thousands of willing writers, and we had the Foreign office to help market our books all over the world. In spite of our proud custodianship of the Nobel Prize and other distinguished institutions, Swedes proved to be remarkably untroubled by any notions of literature. We are a simple people, believers in egalitarianism and therefore, by definition, convinced that books are, in essence, products written by anyone, no one writer so much better than another – unless it’s Stieg Larsson, of course; Stieg Larsson is the Jim Morrison of Swedish literature. If someone is a nice, switched-on person, and their book is pretty good, then why not read it? This sort of reasoning has now taken off everywhere. Any person with the initiative to sit down and write a book is worth a round of applause in Sweden. The concept of sneering, as practised in England, is not highly evolved in my country. Possibly, cultural journalists may look down on an artist for being uncool or wearing the wrong glasses or shoes, for not having an appropriate music taste or supporting the wrong football team. The worst sin of all is to be elitist and/ or rich. Swedes, with their love of meatballs and boiled potatoes, woke up at some point and understood that this was also how they liked their books: nice chunks of ground meat fortified with breadcrumbs, egg yolk and onion, steaming piles of mashed potato; the whole thing drenched in thick creamy gravy, holding it all firmly in place, without unnecessary slippage in the mouth.

If Henning Mankell and Stig Larsson had not stepped forward with their simple, rugged approach and their instinct for pleasing the gallery, Swedish writers would still be out there in the wilderness, reading poems about stillborn goats or romantic tales of matrimony between gravediggers.

The failure of my historical novel seemed to suggest that I must press on with the side-line of literary translation. Except there was no side-line; there wasn’t a line, and certainly no sides to it either. In fact, the signs were already there of the coming revolution. Kerstin Ekman, in “Blackwater”, had invented the idea of the detective as an ordinary person, the crime story as a focus on common-or-garden folk trying to go about their daily business. She also managed to create a sort of fascination for the Swedish way of life, which everyone now knows is based on the kitchen table and all that passes around it: family niggles, worries about electricity bills, and the repetitious ingestion of black pudding and sour milk yoghurt, washed down with boiled coffee. Or is that just another crime genre cliché taking hold of me? In all the hundreds of books, excerpts, and scripts I have translated, I have always found myself back in the same place, my buttocks soundly on a hard kitchen chair, listening to the sizzling of butter in a cast-iron pan where pancakes, black pudding, or cured pork are being fried, while some nervous old woman wearing compression stockings talks of her fears of excessive electricity bills this year; then, as a slight digression, moving on to a discussion of how to brew a proper cup of coffee and bake cinnamon buns; then an oblique comment on how the streets are not as friendly as they used to be; followed at last by a reference to a spate of murders in the area…

Listening to the signals of that telephone echoing in my cold flat on that fateful morning, I did actually sense a slight rumbling of destiny in the air. I dragged my feet across the kitchen floor, and before I answered, noticed my big toe sticking out of my left slipper.
I heard a brisk, efficient voice at the other end of the line. A secretary. She wanted to know if I could meet the executive producer and co-owner of Yellow Bird Films at the Soho Hotel in Charlotte Street. Tomorrow morning. In the restaurant. Ten o’clock sharp.
No film executive had ever invited me for breakfast before. But, I should add, I had been hired by Yellow Bird about a month earlier as a translator of a new series of ten Kurt Wallander films. Each script would go through a development process of five drafts, which effectively meant that I had fifty scripts to get through over an eighteen month period.

And this was really the beginning of my personal revolution. I see now that my life has very accurately reflected a certain phase of our history, because my fortunes were advanced by the world’s fascination with the spilling of Swedish blood.

I will tell you how it happened. I’ll try not to libel anyone. But I will tell the truth.

Stay tuned for more installments of “The Door Handle is Depressed”…

Please click here to read more about my novel “The Maggot People” published by Dzanc Books.

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