Monday, 2 January 2012

The Mystery of Translating Crime Fiction

It is my view that in order to translate a literary text, it is necessary to have some understanding of its genre. Given that conventions can differ between cultures, a translator should ideally have read a number of texts from that particular genre in both the source and target culture before beginning to translate.

Crime fiction is a genre which has been hitting the top of the bestseller lists for a while now and novels of this kind from Scandinavia in particular have seen an impressive rise in popularity. Translated crime fiction, therefore, currently fills the shelves in bookshops and in libraries. So it seemed to me, as an aspiring translator, important to consider the characteristics of crime fiction and some of the challenges involved in its translation.

What did I already know about crime fiction before I began reading about it academically for the Case Studies module? As a library assistant, I know only too well that crime books are extremely popular. Not only that, people who read crime fiction do not generally pick up one book with a yellow ‘CRI’ sticker on the spine and then head for a different section of the library. They select a stack of crime books. They read an entire series from start to finish. They read every book ever written by one author then move on to the next author ‘who writes like’ the first. Crime fiction is addictive and this I have learnt from experience. I was brought up to read about and indeed watch Hercule Poirot exercising his “little grey cells” and have recently devoured twenty novels about M.C. Beaton’s middle-aged amateur detective, Agatha Raisin. And this was all before I was introduced to the unputdownable chilling thrillers by Sophie Hannah.

In fact, crime fiction has long been criticised for its formulaic nature and as a result has traditionally been classed as ‘low’ literature. However, as I have already identified, crime fiction is a popular genre and I would even argue that this could be due to its formula as readers step into the detectives’ shoes and attempt to solve the riddles, which they know will undoubtedly be solved by the end of the final chapter. It could be that readers are most attracted to the charismatic nature of the hero or the gripping plotlines with their anticipated unexpected twists and graphically violent scenes.

Or perhaps the popularity of these works of fiction stems from the honest and often brutal portrayal of real life. As B.J. Epstein discusses in the article ‘Girl with the Dragon Translation: Translating Thrillers and Thrilling Translations’, through the portrayal of crimes and the reactions to them as well as the specific language used by crime authors, the reader is given an insight into the ideology and mindset of the culture in which the novel is set as well as those of the author. The boom of Scandinavian crime fiction has previously been put down to the loss of faith in the welfare system and at a recent conference called ‘Crime across the Continent’, Dr. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen similarly mentioned its “emphasis on social realism and critique” whilst Barry Forshaw, who has written extensively on the subject, talked about the fact that Scandinavian crime writers are now regarded as “social commentators.”

As crime fiction is so deeply rooted in and reflective of a specific culture, the translator is faced with a number of difficult decisions to make such as those regarding names, places and cultural references. The language of crime fiction has been discussed at great length, for example by Epstein, because the use of slang, dialects, swearwords and jargon feature heavily in such novels and the usage of such language varies between cultures. Should the source culture be reflected as closely as possible in the translation? Surely this would enable the target audience to learn about different cultures and ideologies whilst remaining faithful to the original intentions and voice of the author. On the other hand, the translator could change aspects of the original text in order to make it more accessible to the target audience but with the risk of losing in translation elements of the source culture which are important to the text. However, in this case, what is likely to be gained instead is an insight into the ideologies of the target culture and indeed the translator. In addition to cultural and linguistic aspects, the translator must also take into account the translation of suspense whilst being careful not to provide the target audience with any additional hints which did not appear in the original.

It is safe to say that the translation of crime fiction is challenging as I have learnt from my own attempt to translate a section of The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah into German. However, it is also extremely rewarding to solve the puzzles we are faced with in such translations. In fact, I believe that translating crime fiction is of great importance because, as Porter suggested, the novels which are popular within a certain culture can tell us a lot about that culture and, as a reader of crime fiction, I hope that it could help the so-called ‘low’ literature of today become the classic literature of tomorrow.

Fiona Hayter translates from German, French and Spanish into English. She is currently studying the MA in Literary Translation at UEA where she is also undertaking an internship at the British Centre for Literary Translation. You can contact her at

1 comment:

  1. Crime fiction is definitely addictive and as a translator I would love to be commissioned to translate my favourite German crime authors. What an indulgent thought ! Really enjoyed reading your piece and it has given me some thoughts for further research. Thank you.