The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo books have spawned movies, sequels, and Hollywood remakes. But author Stieg Larsson (and his estate) isn’t the only one to benefit. Swedish crime novels are hot. And the people who make them accessible to English speaking fans are skilled translators like Laura Wideburg.
Since winning ForeWord Magazine’s Best Translation of the Year Award in 2007 for Inger Frimansson’s Goodnight, My Darling, Wideburg is in high demand.
But as I learned in a recent conversation, translating Swedish crime, culture and literature goes far deeper than a quick cut & paste.
Laura Wideburg: The one I just translated dealt with exporting illegal weapons. So I had to learn about all sorts of weapons. And about the background issues as well.
Kelly Hughes: How much work goes into your research?
LW: When I translated a novel dealing with a nursing school, I had to know all about the Swede’s traditional nursing authorities. Even to the level of finding pictures of uniforms to translate what they looked like. It is very difficult to translate without the pictures in your head.
KW: How specific does the research get?
LW: Well, like the Lars Kepler novel I just translated, there’s an image of a certain score by Bartok. I had to get that measure. The measure they were talking about.
KH: You mean you actually had to see the sheet music?
LW: Yes. I’m a musician, so I can read it.
KH: When people hire you do they have any idea of how deep you go in your research?
LW: No. I don't think so.
KH: You're in high demand with three translations scheduled for publication in 2012:
Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds, Lars Kepler’s The Nightmare, and Inger Frimansson’s The Cat Wouldn’t Die. But is it enough to divert people’s attention from all the Dragon Tattoo hype? To get to the Stieg Larsson level does an author have to go all post-mortem on us?
LW: It's amazing what death does for your career.
KH: Especially a gruesome death.
LW: Every society has a dark underside. And everybody wants to put their best face forward.
KH: What is Sweden’s dark side? How can the country that gave us ABBA produce such violent and depraved crime novels?
LW: Humans have a dark side. And humans need to explore that dark side. And humans need to explore what makes them afraid.
KH: Do you think there is something about Swedish and Scandinavian culture in general that is repressive? That people are friendly on the surface, but don't fully express themselves?
LW: Well, they are not necessarily friendly on the surface. Especially Sweden, which, compared to Denmark, is very emotionally repressed. And the Swedes think that's a good thing.
KH: You mean it’s a way of not sharing the burden with other people?
LW: Exactly. You are supposed to take care of yourself. And if you are not able to take care of yourself, then the state is supposed to take care of you, and there is nothing to complain about. So if you have any problem you better suck it up.
KH: The Swedes are afraid to ask for help?
LW: Yes, absolutely. I would say that if you needed help then you would only ask family, or very good friends.
KH: Well how about their crime? Do you think people are more willing to take justice in their own hands and solve things within the family?
LW: Not now. Maybe in Viking days
KH: So they are not afraid to go to the police for help when it’s a crime?
LW: They’ll go to the police, but they get irritated with the police. And right now there is a perception in Sweden that the police are ineffective. They are not capable of dealing with the new wave of crime that arrived after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
KH: Because of immigration and culture clash?
LW: A lot of culture clash. And Eastern Europe was very poor compared to Scandinavia when the Iron Curtain fell. And there has been an increase in crime. That's just the fact. They are connected by the ferry, between Poland and southern Sweden. The people of southern Sweden were finding out that their summer houses were being broken into, and everything was robbed, and the criminals had left the country.
KH: Do you find that this modern culture clash is being incorporated into modern crime novels coming out of Sweden?
LW: There is a sense of being politically correct. Nobody wants to say it’s the immigrants who are causing crimes. And that's not true either. But the immigrants have a different perspective on the position of women, for instance. Especially if they’ve come from the Middle East. And there have been honor murders in Sweden which the Swedes find absolutely horrifying.
KH: So part of their frustration with the police is the political correctness, that they can't directly address those differences?
LW: Yes. Addressing the differences is very difficult in Sweden. Even more so than here because, unfortunately, we even have a lot of hate speech in the U.S. But in Sweden you basically have a consensus that immigration is good. That message is coming down from the government, and you are not supposed to question it. And that has given rise to extreme right wing movements.
KH: I see.
LW: And if you can't discuss the issue openly, and deal with both the pros and cons of the issue, you really have difficulty.
KH: Does that give Swedish culture a pressure cooker quality?
LW: Basically. Because there is a feeling of conformity. You conform to a great deal of societal norms in Sweden. You can disagree within those norms to a certain degree. But you can't be outside of it. Or else some people will say you are not really a Swede. Or that you are not looking at it the way you should.
KH: Perhaps one way to work outside of those norms is to write a crime novel. Some view the Dragon Tattoo series as Stieg Larsson’s attempt at justice after personally witnessing a fifteen year old girl getting gang raped (when Larsson himself was also fifteen.)
LW: And her name, like the protagonist in his novels, was also Lisbeth.
KH: A lot of people don't know Larsson’s actual title for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
LW: Män Som Hatar Kvinnor.
KH: Men Who Hate Women.
LW: I think Stieg Larsson was stating the obvious. There are men who hate women. And women are much more different than men because we are potential victims in a way that men are not. We live in a different world from men, even though we are on the same planet.
KH: If you read the book, you knew any film adaptation was going to have a certain level of violence. But do you think the original Swedish movie lingered too much on the violence against women?
LW: I did not see the movie. I can read about graphic violence, but watching graphic violence would be a nightmare. Men like that violence.
KH: Do you think if they had toned down the violence that they would have compromised Stieg’s book?
LW: Probably. It was very much part of the book because the violence against women is graphic. Real life violence is graphic and horrible and bloody. And it’s not a fantasy. I think in the movie they wanted to bring out exactly how graphic it is. They wanted to be realistic in how violent rape is.
KH: Is rape more violent in a repressed society?
LW: If a woman enters a relationship with a man that's very risky in general. Because the man has more physical power over the woman in general. And that is a tension between relationships between men and women. That is international. Wherever there is a man and a woman.
KH: Lisbeth has become an iconic character.
LW: I think so. People fall in love with her.
KH: Do you think it’s because she's a young woman who reclaims her power?
LW: Exactly. She doesn't stay a victim.
KH: Is it mostly female readers?
LW: A lot of American woman can say, wow, I love Lisbeth. But it’s interesting to me that men really like her too.
KH: What’s the quality they like in Lisbeth?
LW: I think they feel protective of her. I think they understand she is independent, and not just, you know, turning into a ball of victim misery. But they want to protect her from those other evil men. And I think that speaks to many decent men out there who are very protective toward women.
KH: That sounds good, but in reality, there’s a flipside to that. That when a man wants to protect a woman, it implies that she needs his power.
LW: There you go. Because she is not fully independent.
KH: His attraction is still based on her need to be protected. The balance of power is in his favor from the start, whether or not his intentions are noble.
LW: I think we want justice. We want that other person to feel the pain.
KH: Is there a thirst for justice in Sweden right now? Is that why so-called Nordic Noir literature is so popular?
LW: What’s so fascinating is that actual crime in Scandinavian countries is relatively low. Especially murders [aside from Norway's mass murder last July.]
KH: Right. It’s big news if a country like Iceland even has one murder a year.
LW: Sweden isn't that much higher. But if you read Scandinavian crime novels you would think that their crime rate is really high.
KH: What is motivating these writers then?
LW: I'll tell you a little secret. If anything, writers want to be read. And right now in Scandinavia the population is reading crime. So authors are writing crime novels. And very few serious novels will hit the best seller list. And very good writers who otherwise might be writing serious novels have chosen to write in the crime genre in order to reach the Swedes or Scandinavian public. And people will talk about them.
KH: Do you have fans?
LW: Not really. Translators are pretty invisible. Most people don't even think of who translated the book they're reading.
KH: Are you being recognized by the publishing industry? Especially since your award?
LW: Yes. Awards help a lot. And I am coming into my own right now.
KH: When you translate a novel do you feel that you wrote the novel?
LW: Yes. Every word there is mine. My words, my creativity that remains in that. But my job is to make sure the author's voice comes through. It's kind of like channeling.
KH: So how did the popularity of Dragon Tattoo help your translating business?
LW: I can charge more now.
KH: Very good.
Learn more about Laura and her work on her website.
Laura Wideburg’s Bibli-Translation-ography
The Cat Wouldn’t Die (2012)
The Island of Naked Women (2009)
The Shadow in the Water (2008)
Goodnight, My Darling (2007)
The Nightmare (2012)
Night Rounds (2012)
© 2012 Kelly Hughes
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