It’s Not a Crime: Reading and Analyzing Translated Thrillers

By B.J. Epstein

Crime fiction is a popular and pleasurable genre, but it’s also an educational one, especially if you read translated crime fiction.

In my role as the schools and libraries liaison for the British Centre for Literary Translation, which is based at the University of East Anglia in England, I give talks to a wide range of groups, encouraging them to read translated literature. Translation tends to intimidate general readers, for a variety of reasons, so I do my best to explain and demystify the process for them. In fact, I’ve recently started encouraging people to read translated crime novels in particular. This might seem like a surprise, since the genre is supposedly more entertaining than literary. But in fact, many of the issues you should consider when reading, say, Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer or Aharon Appelfeld’s Blooms of Darkness are applicable to thrillers too. And besides that, there are a number of important and interesting points of discussion that are especially relevant when it comes to thrillers.

First of all, whenever we read a translation, we want to find out about the cultural and historical context—of both the author and the translator. It’s the latter part that people tend to forget. So we should ask questions such as: Who is the author? Where is s/he from and what time period did/does s/he live in? How does that influence the writing? Who is the translator? Where is s/he from and when did/does s/he live? Does that influence the translation? What are the author and translator’s educational, cultural, historical, and political backgrounds? How might the political/cultural/social situations have influence, helped, and/or hindered the writing/translation? What movements are the author and translator involved in? How have their texts been received and critiqued?

We also want to explore what a given translated work says and what it can tell us about the culture it comes from. What words, phrases, idioms, and concepts seem to be source culture-specific? What information about the original culture do we need? Do we have to do some research on, for example, the current political regime in the source country? What are we learning about how people live and behave there just from reading a book written and set there? If we happen to know the original language, we can also compare the original work to the translation to see what has happened in translation and if any changes, deletions, additions, shifts, and so forth tell us something about the source and target cultures, or about the translator or editor, or the perceived market.

We can take all this a step further if we focus on crime fiction. Popular literature is generally popular for a reason. Readers want to read work that speaks to them in some way. And popular novels reflect popular culture and the views of the time; they can be considered a sort of combination of gauge and mirror. From the very popular crime novels, readers can get a sense of what people in a specific culture fear, what they are anxious about, what they look forward to, what they desire. In short, who they are and how they got that way.

So questions we can ask while reading thrillers include: What types of crimes are committed most often in this country/culture and why? What do people seem to fear or worry about? Is it violent crime, terrorism, drugs, legal intrigue, espionage, out-of-control bacteria, the Mafia, kidnapping, or something else entirely? How are different groups (criminals, police, lawyers, forensic scientists, doctors, prostitutes, gangs, and so on) portrayed and what does that suggest? What about how men versus women are depicted, or foreigners versus those who are native-born? Who is solving the crimes—is it amateurs or a highly trained, specialized police team? What does that say about who is trusted and looked up to? What subjects are focused on and what current events have influenced the work? What ideologies play a role and what beliefs are at stake? How much violence are people apparently prepared to accept? Is it individuals who are blamed for crime and society’s decay, or specific groups, or is it the government?

Such analyses can be made even more specific depending on the source location and/or language. For example, in a recent interview with readers who deliberately choose to read translated texts, I asked them what they learned from reading and analyzing Scandinavian thrillers. The answers varied from being impressed by how modern the technology is in Scandinavia to appreciating the contemporary design featured in film or TV adaptations of Scandinavian crime novels, from learning about the bad weather and long winters up north to realizing that people in other countries aren’t actually that different from us in their feelings and experiences, although there was general agreement that Scandinavians must be darker and more depressed than English-speakers, not least because of all the crime fiction they produce. Some readers also thought that women in Scandinavia seemed stronger and more independent than women in the US or UK.

Meanwhile, moving around the globe, readers of work by Joshua Sobol, for example, are interested to know how religious (or not) contemporary Israeli society is, and how omnipresent the difficult political situation appears to be in everyday lives, while the audience of Mehmet Murat Somer likewise is interested in Turkish politics and the Muslim religion. Readers of Andrea Camilleri are curious to know if Italy has moved away from its image as a Mafia-run country and whether his work encourages or challenges that stereotype, and those enjoying a book by Young-ha Kim might ask questions such as what the typical foods are in Korea and what it means to have the threat of North Korean constantly looming.

In sum, while reading any translated text can tell us about both the culture it was written in and the culture the translation was produced in, reading thrillers in particular provides us with many extra clues to a society. Also, of course, studying the choices a publisher makes tells us something about our own society. Publishers continue to publish translations of thrillers, but are less likely to publish non-genre, literary novels, in large part because they say readers do not want them (of course, many cultural organizations hope that crime novels will be a gateway to other kinds of novels, as well as to poetry, drama, and creative non-fiction, but this is not happening yet). Why are English-language readers so interested in crime but less likely to want to read other texts? Is it because we’re still scared and overwhelmed by translations, so a fast-paced read won’t remind us that we’re reading one? A librarian recently told me that 99% of the people who check out translated thrillers aren’t actually aware that they are reading translations, which perhaps suggests that readers are just looking for good, exciting reads. So maybe we are just really keen on crime. If so, why? What does that say about us? It’s time to turn the microscope on ourselves.

It’s not a crime to love reading thrillers, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it can be viewed as both educational and entertaining, because reading and analyzing translated crime novels can offer you significant insight into the world at large. So go ahead and pick up a work by any of the authors who write crime fiction in languages other than English. And while you read, play detective, and see what you can puzzle out about society.


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