A Fan’s Perspective. Petrona Award translators – part 3.

I had an enormous pleasure to hear from Don Bartlett and Victoria Cribb about their translation experiences. Now, Anne Bruce takes us on the journey from reading a Norwegian book in the original to translating it into English.

Jørn Lier Horst and Anne Bruce

‘I was a fan before I was a translator. As a reader, I came late to crime fiction, and soon headed in the direction of Nordic Noir, starting with Miss Smilla and moving on through Wallander and Martin Beck to the Norwegian writers I could access in the original – my favourites then being Gunnar Staalesen and Anne Holt. My voracious consumption of translated titles as well as writers not yet translated into English prompted a (perhaps naïve!) belief that this was something I could do, turning my love of the Norwegian language into a practical endeavour that would benefit other readers as well as myself. And so, a translator was born.

I bought and read a few of Gunnar’s crime novels on a visit to the Norwegian book town of Fjærland and went on to read his truly impressive Bergen Trilogy (now a quartet), set in one of my favourite Scandinavian cities and involving a crime and mystery across the time frame of an entire century. I was keen to pitch this to UK publishers but found little interest in such a magnum opus. I went on to try my hand at sample translations and received generous support and encouragement from the staff at NORLA, the Norwegian government’s agency for Norwegian literature abroad as well as Gyldendal’s publishing house in Oslo.

One of the first new writers I came across was Jørn Lier Horst, not yet published in English, but already making a name for himself in Scandinavian crime fiction. As an enthusiastic newly fledged translator, I was keen to help by translating excerpts, blurbs and reviews in an effort to persuade UK publishers to pick up his books. In 2011, Sandstone Press in Scotland agreed to publish Dregs, number six in the Wisting series but the first of his novels to be translated into English. The book garnered positive reviews, and one of the first bloggers to write in glowing terms and go on to champion the author’s writing was Petrona, aka Maxine Clarke, whose particular focus was ‘intelligent crime fiction from around the world’. Her reviews were always astute and insightful, so accolades from her were highly prized.

The series continued in English, with Closed for Winter, which won the Riverton Prize in Norway, and The Hunting Dogs marking a real breakthrough by winning the Nordic Glass Key Award. Both enhanced Horst’s reputation as a masterly exponent of Norwegian crime, underpinned by his wealth of knowledge of the police and their procedures as a former chief inspector himself. He says himself ‘Not many people are allowed behind the police barricades, and that’s my advantage. I’ve been to many crime scenes. It’s where I like to bring my readers. And at crime scenes I often met people who were victims of crimes, or those left behind in murder cases. My job was to talk to them. I came face-to-face with anger, grief, despair, and I think that’s what brings an authentic spark to my books.’ As his translator, I’ve been able to follow the progression of the writing and the characters over the years. The thorniest problems with the translation have, oddly enough, come from the titles rather than the text. Some of the English titles are completely different from the Norwegian ones – Blindgang became Ordeal, Det innerste rommet became The Cabin, Ilvilje became The Inner Darkness and Sak 1569 is published as A Question of Guilt. There was some discussion of how to translate Jakthundene some years ago, but when I realized the title also referred to a constellation of stars, it had to be The Hunting Dogs.

By this time, Maxine had sadly died and the Petrona Award was inaugurated in 2013 in her honour and memory. Of course, given her early backing for the Wisting novels, it was especially gratifying that the fourth book in the English series, The Caveman, was awarded the prize in 2016. I like to think Maxine would have approved!

Since then, of course, Jørn and his hero Wisting have gone on to the dizzy heights of TV fame (The Caveman featured in the first Wisting TV series) and the Petrona Award judges rewarded his prolific output with a second prize in 2019, this time for The Katharina Code. One of the aspects of Jørn’s Wisting series that particularly appealed to me was the Stavern setting, familiar from holiday visits, and Wisting’s foray to Hamburgsund in The Caveman had special resonance too, as I had just holidayed on the west coast of Sweden, part of a trip that took in Wallander’s Ystad and Läckberg’s Fjällbacka. Of course, Line’s trip in the novel was rather more dramatic!

That holiday in 2013 also included a visit to Fredrikstad and the walled ramparts of its Old Town, so it was a genuine pleasure to find this featured in the next Wisting novel I translated, The Hunting Dogs. (Was Wisting dogging my footsteps as I was dogging his?) I had even gone into the Libris bookshop across from the postbox in the wall that gives Line an aha moment so crucial to the plot. In fact, I bought and immediately read Anne Holt’s controversial latest book, What Dark Clouds Hide – little did I know then that I would translate it some time later! These holiday connections also bring to mind one of my favourite Anne Holt quotes: I always say that if you’re visiting a country you’ve never been to before, you should buy a crime novel from the place and an interiors magazine. Those two things will tell you more about that country than any travel guide. Too true!

The success of the early Wisting translations led to me being invited by Simon & Schuster of New York to translate Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen crime novels. They had decided to publish the whole series from the start in light of the recent success of 1222 in the prestigious Edgar Awards. As a great fan of the books, I was over the moon, and I relished translating these increasingly complex, often dark, thrillers with political intrigue and social criticism at their heart, in the true spirit of Nordic Noir and Martin Beck. In fact, the English translation by Marlaine Delargy was made from Maj Sjöwall’s translation of the book into Swedish, so yet another link to the roots of Scandi crime! The first of my translations was Blessed are Those who Thirst, and the series ended in English with book 10, In Dust and Ashes, though The Eleventh Manuscript has now been published in Norway and book 12 is forthcoming. Continuing to combine holiday travels with translation research, in 2014 I went for a long walk around the east end of Oslo, not normally part of the tourist trail, visiting all the locations from the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. I even called in at Police Headquarters, Grønlandsleiret 44. No one batted an eyelid as I went in, looked around in the foyer and took photographs of the location and the hanging artwork that Hanne ridicules so often!  

Anne’s next series, with Selma Falck as the lead character, was bang up to date with its focus on the world of celebrity and social media, and the second book in the short series, A Necessary Death, caught the attention of the Petrona Award judges and was shortlisted in 2021.

In the meantime, Jørn Lier Horst had embarked on another series, this time with writing partner Thomas Enger, and the first book in this new series was also shortlisted for the Petrona in 2021.

I never did get to translate any of Gunnar Staalesen’s books but can recommend colleague Don Bartlett’s translations of his Varg Veum series. And in fact, I did encounter Varg in one of Anne Holt’s novels – her famous sense of fun is given free rein in the playful links she introduced to her otherwise deadly-serious narratives and I was delighted to see Hanne meet up with Varg in The Lion’s Mouth. Other tie-ins can be spotted by eagle-eyed readers when Hanne makes an appearance in Death in Oslo, part of the Johanne Vik series, when Adam Stubo turns up in Offline, and when Henrik Holme crosses over from What Dark Clouds Hide to Offline and In Dust and Ashes.

Another humorous anecdote connected to Gunnar’s novels is also related to the perils of translation. I’ve often been asked – ‘Do you just put it all through Google Translate?’ I was a bit taken aback when I first heard this, because anyone who has used a digital translator would know that it leads to some spectacularly awful renditions. One I came across was in a newspaper article about Gunnar Staalesen, which mentioned one of his earliest novels, Bukken til havresekken, and stated that it ‘translates, enigmatically, as Goat of Geese’! The journalist had obviously used Google Translate and been led into a howler of an error. For once, I made an online comment correcting the mistake – the book would be called in English Cat among the Pigeons or Fox among the Geese, to come closer to the reporter’s version, but I see on checking it again recently that the uncorrected version is still on the website!

Looking back, it’s clear that my career as a translator has been closely connected with the Petrona Award over the ten years of its existence – its creation gave a tremendous fillip to translated Scandinavian crime fiction and a real boost to the status of translators. A heartfelt thanks to the founders, judges and supporters for that!’   

2 thoughts on “A Fan’s Perspective. Petrona Award translators – part 3.

  1. Sonja van der Westhuizen

    I’m really enjoying these articles on the fabulous translators behind many of my favourite Nordic Noir books! Although, over the years I became familiar with their names, it’s great to read more about their experiences and challenges as translators.


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