Thursday, 22 October 2009

Are translated mysteries really better than English ones, and forgotten treasures

From The Guardian internet site, here is a link to an article about the Nordic authors who won the mystery awards at Bouchercon this past weekend. The reason I am linking you is not just because of who won, but because of what the translator of one of the books says:

"The awareness of Scandinavian crime fiction has certainly been building, with Henning Mankell and others softening readers up for Stieg," he said. "Then he came along and was so much better than all the others."

Larsson's British publisher Christopher MacLehose at Quercus agreed. "The crime writers in translation are for perfectly obvious statistical reasons better than English ones, because they are all chosen by serious publishers in their countries of origin and filtered down and down before they get translated into English," he said. "We're translating a tiny proportion so we should be getting the best of the best."

Now, I don't know about you, but this raised my hackles. Excuse me, but just because a mystery has been translated, does not make it a higher quality of writing than a mystery written in English!! And I do not think that Stieg Larsson is so much better than all the other Scandinavian writers! No, no, I think he is a much worse writer than most; he has a fast journalistic style that makes for entertaining reading, and he does write well; but his plot did have holes, his story did have problems. I would take Arnaldur Indridason over him any day, and Henning Mankell. They are far and away better Scandinavian mystery writers than Stieg Larsson. So, Gentle Reader, let me know what you think: do you agree with the speakers in the article? Or with me? I am, by the way, delighted that both won, and delighted that they were good mysteries (at least in my humble opinion!) and that even better, I've read them before they won the awards! As for English writers, Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, Ariana Franklin, Sara Paretsky, James Lee Burke, to name a few, are all better mystery writers than Stieg Larsson, in English. I will say that Larsson tells a good story, and it's gripping and his characters are good. But better than Gorky Park? Mallory's Oracle? No.

The other article from The Guardian is one about forgotten classics, link here. I'm curious to know if you have any forgotten classics that you think people should read, Gentle Reader. The Guardian wants to know, too! It's also about forgotten favourites of time gone past. I think I've read the book the author mentions, Mary Stewart's Touch Not The Cat. Eons ago. Now I want to read it again, just because it was mentioned in the article! It's fun to see what people treasured once, that they have forgotten about and rediscover. Has that happened to you? Do you find yourself discovering an old favourite, or wish that more people would read an older book that you really love? I like this article too because it says that even with all the new books being published every year, one of the joys of books is that we can turn to books from yesterday, last year, 100 years ago, and read them again. A forgotten classic can always be discovered again. And there is nothing like treasuring a book, at least for this bookaholic! So what do you treasure that you think has been forgotten? For tonight, I choose Woman in Black by Susan Hill, and On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers. Just in time for Hallowe'en!!

The Woman in Black I reviewed here last year.

On Stranger Tides I read first 20 years ago. I loved it then. It's one of Tim Power's first books, not as early as The Anubis Gates, but with the same sense of energy and fun. It has pirates, zombies, true love, voodoo, The Fountain of Youth, the's so much fun to read, very enjoyable, and a solid mix of fantasy and horror with doses of humour. It's a forgotten classic that I think is well worth discovering.

Time for tonight's ghost story from Bluenose Ghosts:

Occasionally a single ghost turns up on a ship. This story from Glen Haven is one of my favourites. I would like to think it really happened, and perhaps it did. Ben Smeltzer was a West Dover man and one of the crew of a vessel fishing off Georges in winter. It was snowing and there were no fish, and they were getting all iced up and the captain had decided to take the ship to Boston. At this time Mr Smeltzer went down below and, when he went into the cabin, there was a strange man sitting at the chart table writing on a slate - a large, healthy looking sea-faring man.

For readers who are not accustomed to the sea and its ways, I might mention that it would be impossible in the limited space of a sailing vessel for a person to stow away for any length of time, if at all, and this vessel had been at sea for some weeks.

"Who can this be?" Mr Smeltzer thought. "What does it mean?" He had heard of strange events at sea, and he scratched his head as he went up the companionway to talk it over with his captain.

"There's a strange man below," he said. "Never seen him before."

"You're crazy," said the captain. Then observing that Mr Smeltzer was serious about it he decided to humour him and added in a voice that had in it more than a hint of sarcasm, "What did you say to him?"

"I didn't say anything," Mr Smeltzer declared. "He can't be human."

"Well," said the captain, who began to have misgivings himself, "you come down with me and show me your man." So down they went and there was no one there. However the captain was a thorough man and Mr Smeltzer had stated specifically that the stranger had been sitting at the chart table writing on a slate. He therefore strode over to the table and picked up the slate. The top side was clean, just as he had left it. Without really thinking what he was doing he turned the slate over and there he was amazed to see a message. It read: "Change your course to nor'nor'west and steer so many hours and you'll come to a vessel turned on its side and the crew hanging on it."

He put the slate down and snorted.

"Tricks. Sailors must always be at their tricks," but Mr Smeltzer insisted it was not a trick and he grew even more serious as he too read the message. More to satisfy him than anything, the captain called his crew down one by one and had each one write something on the slate. No script resembled the mysterious handwriting. By this time the crew all knew the story and they were as one in concluding that they should follow the slate's directions. Against his own wishes and judgement the captain changed his course. And sure enough, they had not gone far on their way when they came upon an upturned vessel. Men were still clinging to the hull, and they were in time to save them. They supposed then that the stranger who had appeared in the cabin had been one of the first to succumb and that he had taken this means of saving his fellow seamen.


DesLily said...

considering all of the book blogs that I read it is rare indeed that books that I read long ago (and have reread a number of times) are never books I find being read anywhere. They were and still are books that I always go back too even though I have 100 tbr books! Anne McCaffrey would be number one, with her Pern books. Others such as David Eddings Belgarion seris and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman with their Dragonlance series. I still see the books on bookstore shelves and it makes me wonder where their readers have gone. It took the LOTR movies to bring back Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings.. and how often do you read that someone has read a Charles Dickens book??? I wonder if the books such as Dickens wrote and others such as "the man in the iron mask" have been pushed back in our minds as something we'd like to read because maybe we were "forced" to read them back in our school days. That will put a damper on trying them again!

Aarti said...

I've had On Stranger Tides on my shelf for a while, along with a couple other Powers books (The Drawing of the Dark and The Stress of Her Regard). I'll have to pick them up soon :-)

Eva said...

Fun! I've read two of Elizabeth Bowen's novels now, and I think she's an incredible author that's been pretty much forgotten. My fave of the two I read was To the North. :)

Anonymous said...

Great post, I still havn't read the Stieg Larsson books but I will, there does seem to be a lot of hype surrounding them. I did enjoy Mannkell but then like you I also think there are some very remarkable mystery writers writing in English, like Atkinson and Rankin. Hype seems to be spreading on the subject of Scandinavian fiction and I find it puts me off rather than encourages me to read these works.

Table Talk said...

I haven't read any Scandinavian crime writers other than Larsson so I can't really comment but I do think there is a point about what makes it into translation. Certainly in the Children's Lit world it is only the very best that seem to get through. There is a caveat to this, though, which is that the publishers have to make sure that they get a decent translator. I an think of least one writer I would have dismissed if I'd stuck after the first book, but the publisher obviously realized they'd got it wrong and changed translator between books one and two.

Cath said...

I personally can't think of any reason why translated crime books should be better than untranslated ones. Not that I've read the Larsson books yet but it's a nonsense to suggest they're better than some of the most excellent crime writing around. I've just started a new series by a British author, Martin Edwards, set in the Lake District. The first book was sooooo good! And there are so many more fantastic authors writing in English. I hate these generalisations.

Susan said...

everyone: I apologize, I thought I had left my comments here to your posts! put it down to being distracted, I'm so sorry!

Deslily: I like what you say, that the classics are pushed back because they are what we should read, rather than entertaining stories in their own right. Certainly Middlemarch taught me that classics are that, classics, read and enjoyed for decades, because they are good! I think our publishers are interested in pushing new books always, and its up to us the reader to find the treasures that older books can be too. I confess I still have to read Dickens - I haven't read any yet! *hangs head in shame*

Aarti: oh, please do! He is such a fun writer, and puts together so many different literary ideas. It's fun to see what he refers to in each story, and he still tells an entertaining story always!

Eva: I haven't read Elizabeth Bowen yet either. At least I've heard of her! but must remedy this by reading at least one of hers. up here in Canada she is read - we seem to carry her books on the shelves in most bookstores. I think it's our English ex-pats who support her!

Book-pusher: Thank you! and I know what you mean about the hype around Scandinavian fiction. That said, because it's about an area of the world that I have long been fascinated by, and their winters are like ours, I want to read Scandinavian writers and seek them out. But being pushed to read a book usually makes me run away! thus all those bestsellers I've avoided, even the good (rare) ones...!
and I still think Rankin isn't as widely appreciated as I think he deserves to be.

Table Talk: you are absolutely right in that translation is essential. I've had some time to consider this since I wrote this post, and I really think that the best doesn't necessarily get translated right away - if often does, but in genre fiction, the danger is confusing bestselling works with well-written books. Best-selling books get translated first - name recognition, etc - and the better books sometimes languish before getting picked up by a foreign publisher. But that's the case in general with all books and publishing today, I think.

Cath: as soon as you said Lake District, I knew you were talking about Martin Edwards. I've been trying to find a copy of Coffin Trail over here - finally got it in hardcover out of the library then had to return it before I'd read it! i soo want to read it! and if you like it, well, that just makes me think I'd better check online sources now. If I can find a copy, I might just purchase a copy for Santa to give me under the tree! and to go with our translation theme, I wonder if he has been translated yet? Generalisations is absolutely right. I wish most books would get translated, just so everyone could read as much as they wanted of all the books being published in the world. That would be a dream for us book lovers, wouldn't it?

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