Thursday, January 10, 2008

Putting Words in a Dragon’s Mouth

Just before the Christmas holiday, I was fortunate enough to read a novel that quite literally blew me away, captivating my imagination and haunting my thoughts: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Part 1 of the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy,” Dragon Tattoo is being released in the UK this week, in its first English-language translation, by aborning Quercus imprint MacLehose Press.

In light of the Crime Writers’ Association controversy of a few years back, concerning works translated into English, I was interested to discover some details about the translation process for Larsson’s novel. Note, first, that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published posthumously in Sweden in 2005--after Larsson died from a heart attack the year before--under the title Män som hatar kvinnor (The Man Who Hated Women). The original advance copy I received for review in December was a hardcover, inside of which was found the credit “Translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland.” I decided to do some digging, and in the course of it found that Keeland was not happy--not happy at all, it seems--with the final edit of his translation. As Keeland remarked in an exchange with a Danish reader identified as Louis Hersom:
Since Stieg Larsson’s novel “The Girls [sic] with the Dragon Tattoo” will only be published in January 2008, I obviously have not read it in English. But I just finished reading the Danish translation, and I have to say that this is one of the best mystery/thrillers I ever read. Once it is published--BUY IT!!! Additional good news is that Larsson’s two remaining novels with the same main characters are in the process of being translated. And all three of them will now be made into major motion pictures. ...

[Y]ou may be a bit disappointed when reading the English--I translated it into fluent American English, and the British publisher has edited and rewritten it so severely that I had to take my name off it. Caveat emptor--read it in Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, German, French, Spanish, or whatever, if you can. This one is no longer the work of the author, who is sadly no longer with us to defend his work! They didn't even keep his original title, which he used for a very good reason: Men [
sic] Who Hate Women. Well, I tried.

But the 2nd and 3rd novels are even better stories! Yours truly, “Reg Keeland.”
Then, just the other day, a paperback promotional review copy of Dragon Tattoo landed on my doormat. And sure enough, Keeland’s name is no longer inside the cover. Instead, the credit reads “Translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray.” Readers of translated works will no doubt recognize that name; Murray is an American who has previously translated fiction by Helene Tursten, Karin Alvtegen, Henning Mankell, and others.

Regardless of who did the English translation of Dragon Tattoo, though, this remains one hell of a fine novel. Apparently, when it was published in Denmark, it outsold the Bible! And already, three million copies of Larsson’s remarkable book have been purchased. I shall be interested to see if it catches on with audiences in America (where it’s to be published in the fall by Viking) as enthusiastically as it is with British readers.

In response to a message I posted in the forum section of author Val McDermid’s Web site--and in which I noted that Larsson generously mentions her 1995 novel, The Mermaid’s Singing, in his own book--McDermid gives Dragon Tattoo her thumbs up: “It’s strange, complex, entertaining and very haunting. It’s got to be a good early bet for the [CWA’s] translation dagger!” Blogger-critic Maxine Clarke followed up with her own detailed and incisive review at Euro Crime:
I very much enjoyed this powerful book which combines a good story with haunting characters and a crusading message.

The book is the latest in a fine tradition of Swedish fiction begun in the 1960s by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in their Martin Beck series, and continued by Henning Mankell and other excellent authors. THE GIRL [WITH] THE DRAGON TATTOO is in the same vein as two other recent Swedish books: the superb PARADISE, by Liza Marklund, which covers similar themes of investigative journalism, financial mismanagement and racist violence against women (particularly immigrants), and Asa Larsson’s SUN STORM, an intense story about a young woman unable to function in society after being ostracised by her family and community for her alleged rebellion. All three of these sad stories resonate in the mind long after the last page has been turned.
Finally, author-critic Peter Guttridge devoted his entire column in last Sunday’s Observer to Larsson’s novel, writing in part:
Tattoo is the first of his Millennium Trilogy to be published in the UK. It is a violent thriller that focuses on a complex financial fraud and a powerful family’s sinister secret. ...

Larsson, a leading expert on right-wing extremists and neo-Nazi organisations, was editor of Expo, the magazine for a project he had set up to combat racism. He began writing the trilogy after work each evening in 2001. He claimed he enjoyed it so much that he was partway through the third before he even considered sending anything to a publisher.

This is a striking novel, full of passion, an evocative sense of place and subtle insights into venal, corrupt minds. It’s sad that a potentially great crime-writing career was ended almost before it began, but at least UK readers can enjoy this and look forward to the succeeding two novels in the trilogy.
I know that I can be an enthusiastic (and at times excitable) reader and reviewer, but only on a few occasions in the past have I been this passionate about a new book. I remember having the same reaction to Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs that I did to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Just when you think you’ve read and seen everything within the genre, a book of this power comes along and smacks you in the face. And, to adapt a line from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, when you’re slapped like this, you take it and like it.


Reg said...

Hi, this is Reg. Thanks for the nice review, Ali. I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have, and I'm glad you enjoyed the book. They just keep getting better.

Ali Karim said...

Reg -

Thanks for the comments - can't get this book out of my head -

Email me offline Akarim1462[at]



Maxine Clarke said...

Very interesting article. Good digging!
Thanks very much for the generous mention, much appreciated.
Will you be at the launch of MacLehose press on Tues? See you there if so -- Karen is coming also.
Best wishes

Uriah Robinson said...

As someone who cut their teeth on Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo over 30 years ago, I am never surprised at the brilliance of Swedish crime writering. It must be something to do with those long dark winters, and the herrings.
I am going to resist the temptation to move the Stieg Larsson up on my tbr list and just admire the book on my shelf in anticipation.

Uriah Robinson said...

Sorry that should be writing not writering!

Ali Karim said...

Thanks for the feedback Maxine / Uriah and Reg - another review in from Barry Forshaw :-

This is one helluva book - I mean it - Miss it at your peril -


Anonymous said...

it appears that Reg Keeland is actually Murray's pseudonym...

Reg said...

You got that right, Fiona.

And Uriah, I confess I like "writering" better!

rea said...

I would certainly prefer to read more foreign fiction which were translated from Danish translation to english, or in any languages.Because in that way I could have an idea what do people think,feel or their culture is.When we read books from a foreign country it seems like travelling in that country through the stories plot.We could recognize how they have been living afar from our own culture.