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Two books by Viveca Sten – thoughts on the translations

May 31, 2020 12 comments

Still Waters (2008) and Closed Circles (2009) by Viveca Sten. French titles: La Reine de la Baltique and Du sang sur la Baltique. Translated from the Swedish by Laura A Wideburg (Still Waters) and by Rémi Cassaigne (Du sang sur la Baltique)

I’d heard of the Swedish writer Viveca Sten from a colleague and she was on the Quais du Polar writers’ panel for this year’s aborted edition. I think it’s the first time I’ve read two crime fiction books in a row from the same series since I had my Agatha Christie binge in 5ème (7th Grade in the US system)

It’s also the first time I read one in English translation (Still Waters) and one in French (Closed Circles). More of that later.

Still Waters and Closed Circles are the two first books of the Sandhamn series by Viveca Sten. Set on the Sandhamn island in the Stockholm archipelago, they feature Inspector Thomas Andreasson and his friend Nora Linde. Thomas works at the Nacka police and Nora is a legal advisor in a bank. Both work in Stockholm and have spent their summers in the islands near Stockholm since they were children. Nora uses her legal knowledge to help Thomas in his investigations. Unofficially, of course.

Sandhamn has become a famous vacation spot in Sweden and, from what I gathered in the books, it’s like The Hamptons in the US or Deauville in France. Nora inherited her house from her grandmother, otherwise she couldn’t afford to buy one. Thomas has a summer house on Harö, a nearby island. The two books are set in July, in the peak season for holidaying in Sweden.

In Still Waters, a body is found on the beach during the summer holidays. Thomas soon finds out it’s Krister Berggren, a middle-aged man from Stockholm who works for the state-run alcohol shops, Systembolaget. He has no obvious link to Sandhamn, what happened?

In Closed Circles, a famous regatta organized by the Royal Swedish Yacht Club (RSYC) is about to start when a participant is shot. The victim, Oscar Juliander is the deputy president of the RSYC and a well-known bankruptcy lawyer in Stockholm. Thomas was already on the scene since he was among the public who wanted to watch the race. He will lead the investigation. Nora is also in Sandhamn for the holidays, with her husband and children.

These two books are part of a series and a key success factor of a series is to hook up the reader on the characters’ private lives. We’re in the realm of all modern crime fiction series, away from Poirot and Maigret who don’t seem to have a life outside of crime investigating. It worked with me since I engaged in Thomas and Nora’s lives and picked up Closed Circles right after reading Still Waters.

Thomas is a Swedish cliché: six foot four, well built, his shoulders broad from years of handball training. He looked just like the archetypal policeman, big and reassuring, with blond hair and blue eyes. He’s divorced and his marriage to Pernilla fell apart after their infant died from SIDS. After almost drowning in sorrow, he’s now slowly resurfacing. After several crime fiction books with alcoholic PIs and detectives, Thomas was a welcome reprieve.

Nora is married to Henrik, a doctor, and they have two sons, Adam and Simon. In her late thirties, Nora starts to think she doesn’t get that much out of her marriage. Henrik spends his holiday on his boat and participates in regattas while she’s left behind with the children. Then Nora’s employer asks whether she’d be interested in becoming the head of their legal department in Malmö. It’s a promotion but one that requires a move. Will Henrik accept to uproot the family for her career?

I wasn’t thrilled by Still Waters, I thought that the writing was a bit clumsy at times (Nora placed the chicken dish on the table and put on the latest Norah Jones CD, her namesake apart from the h.) and I had guessed who the murderer was, which is not a good sign. When I read crime fiction, I let the writer carry me to the ending. I don’t try to pick up clues and outsmart the detective to find out who did it. So, if I guess the ending without trying to find it, in my eyes, the book is flawed. The cliffhanger about Nora’s life pushed me to read the second book, also thinking that the first book of the series isn’t always the best one. Unfortunately, the same thing happened with Closed Circles: I guessed the two main clues of the plot and that’s a definite no-go for me. Plus, the characters’ lives took a turn that didn’t interest me anymore.

So, no more Viveca Sten for me, unless I want something easy to read. That said, reading two books from the same series, one in English and one in French was an interesting experience.

I had the English rhythm of Sten’s writing well in mind when I started the second book in French. It didn’t have the same vibe and it took me a few chapters to get used to the French translation. The English one felt neutral and smooth, the French one felt a bit contrived and inaccurate. The translator overdid it when he translated the scenes at the Nacka precinct, lowering the level of language of the police team, as if they needed to sound more NYPD Blues to sound true.

In the English version of Still Waters, the police chief is introduced like this: The old man was the head of criminal investigation in Nacka, Detective Chief Inspector Göran Persson.

Then, he’s called Persson in the rest of the book. In my head, he was close to retirement and a bit quick-tempered. In the French translation, he’s called le Vieux. (The Oldman) I was really surprised and downloaded an extract of the English translation of Closed Circles. Chapter 5, we’re at the precinct:

Göran Persson, the head of the criminal unit of the Nacka police, couldn’t keep his anger under control.

Göran, chef de l’unité criminelle à la police de Nacka, surnommé le Vieux, ne parvenait pas à contenir sa colère.

Where does the “surnommé le Vieux”, (“nicknamed the Oldman”) comes from? And then, he becomes le Vieux in the book. A few lines later, about Carina:

Carina Persson, the chief’s daughter sat beside them. For the past two years, she’d worked as their administrative assistant while trying to get into the police academy. She’d finally been admitted this fall. A côté d’eux était assise Carina Persson, la fille du Vieux, qui travaillait depuis deux ans au commissariat comme assistante administrative, tout en préparant le concours de l’école de police. Elle allait enfin le passer à l’automne.  

The “chief’s daughter” becomes the “Oldman’s daughter”. In French, le Vieux is more derogatory than Oldman in English. You never know what was the publisher’s order regarding the translation, they may have asked for this and the translator had to comply. We’ll live with this.

But inaccuracy has nothing to do with the publisher’s requests. In the quote before, “She’s finally been admitted this fall” becomes in French “She’ll take the exam in the fall”, which is not the same at all and it happens to be an important detail in the story.

And then there was the victim’s profession. Oscar was a bankruptcy lawyer. I have no clue how it is said in Swedish but I’m sure that Viveca Sten, being a lawyer herself, used the right term. In French, the proper term in administateur judiciaire, not un administrateur de faillite like in the translation. A little research would have prevented that.

I usualIy don’t read English translations of books. Why should I make my life more difficult and read in English when I could read in French a translation made for a French reader? But I had the opportunity to get Still Waters for a cheap price on my e-reader and went for it. Reading Closed Circles in French right after Still Waters in English was eye-opening.

The writer doesn’t sound the same way in the two translations and the French one, on top of its translation flaws, sounds a bit old-fashioned. The publisher’s probably partly responsible for it, if you look at the translation of the titles. La Reine de la Baltique (The Queen of the Baltic Sea) and Du sang sur la Baltique (Blood on the Baltic) sound a lot more sensational than Still Waters and Closed Circles, which are, according to Google translate, the right translations from the Swedish.

What can I say? Readers, the publisher matters. Le Livre de Poche is not Rivages, Actes Sud or Gallmeister as far as translations are concerned. I wish they’d paid more attention to it or spent more money on it. In my opinion, they have no excuse as this book was meant to sell well: it’s crime fiction, a hugely successful genre in France, it’s Nordic crime, a bestselling sub-genre and Sten was already a success abroad. What was the financial risk on this one? We, readers, deserve a better translation than that. Maybe Gallmeister changed me into a spoiled princess, sensitive to every little pea in my crime fiction translations.

Meanwhile, if I ever read another Viveca Sten, I’ll get it in English.

Teen Spirit by Virginie Despentes

April 29, 2015 11 comments

Teen Spirit by Virginie Despentes. (2002). Not available in English (unfortunately)

Despentes_teen_spiritThis is my second Despentes after Apocalypse Bébé. (available in English, this one) and before Vernon Subutex, her latest opus which is sitting on my shelf.

Bruno is thirty, living with his girlfriend and doing nothing. He’s unable to leave the apartment, out of agoraphobia. He watches TV, smokes pot, hopes to write something one of these days. One day, Alice, his former girlfriend from high school barges into his life and tells him she was pregnant when she left him. So Bruno has a daughter, Nancy, who’s thirteen. Nancy has always lived with her mother, thinking her father was dead and when she discovered by chance that he was actually alive, she wanted to meet him. And she made her mother’s life a living hell, so Alice caved. Bruno is rather shocked by the news but is willing enough to meet his daughter. Nancy enters his life and their budding relationship will help them both.

This sound like a nice little novel with hearts and flowers, you could almost smell roses from the loveliness of the description. Except you’re in a book by Virginie Despentes. So it doesn’t smell like roses but it Smells Like Teen Spirit. Virginie Despentes loves rock music and it permeates through her literature.

Bruno is the narrator of the story and he has a bit of a Peter Pan syndrome. He’s depressed because he doesn’t want to grow up. He has to give up some of his dreams, leave behind his self with the rock attitude to adjust to the world of adults. He’s still grieving the loss of his illusions but he needs to turn the page and move on. Before Alice and Nancy, he was hiding away. Alice made him go out of the apartment to meet her, he couldn’t tell her about his phobia, so he pushed himself. She was the catalyst he needed. Her difficulty to raise Nancy leaves some space for him in Nancy’s life; she wanted to get to know him and Alice welcomes any help she can have with her daughter.

Virginie Despentes captured very well the hesitation of adolescence, like here, in her description of Nancy:

Deux versions d’elle-même se disputaient dans un seul corps. Entre la montre Kitty et le bracelet clouté, elle n’avait pas encore choisi son camp. Two versions of herself were fighting in one body. Between the Kitty watch and the studded leather bracelet, she hadn’t picked her side yet.

Sometimes, Nancy sounds like she’s the adult. Between Bruno whose paternity make him accept to cross the bridge between adolescence and adulthood and Alice who struggles to keep sane, she seems the most grounded of the three.

Despentes also captured well the emotions brewing in Bruno. When I wrote about Apocalyse Bébé, I compared Virginie Despentes to Michel Houellebecq, saying why I thought she captured our world better than him. When I read Teen Spirit, I wondered it was a response to Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles. Indeed, in this novel written by Houellebecq in 1998 one of the main characters is also named Bruno. He’s as much as a loser as this Bruno and also someone who doesn’t want to grow up. Bruno by Despentes is less self-centered than Bruno by Houellebecq. He doesn’t know how to be a father and as he’s not totally an adult, he manages to communicate with Nancy, with slight touches, with hesitation and feeling his way along. The book was written in 2002, Bruno is 30, so he was born in 1972. Houellebecq’s Bruno belongs to the babyboom generation, like his creator. Despentes’ Bruno belongs to the Generation X. In my opinion, this is the first generation of men fully involved in raising children along women. (at least in France) This is the generation of men who change diapers, don’t think that a stroller cramps their style and get up at night when kids are sick. It makes sense that our Bruno in Teen Spirit doesn’t reject Nancy and makes effort to get to know her. This Bruno has accepted this society made of unemployment, consumerism and lives with it, even if he doesn’t approve of it.

Despentes seems to have more faith in individuals than Houellebecq even if both writers share a dark vision of our society. Alice comes from a wealthy family and Bruno is poor. Spending time with her father, Nancy goes out of her protective shell. She discovers Paris on foot and Bruno shares his concerns about money. I heard Virginie Despentes talk about her work. She said she wants her book to show how violent our society is. She doesn’t mean “violent” in a sense of riots and physical threats. She points out the violence of a society with high unemployment, sometimes pressure in the work place and too much interest in consuming.

I liked Teen Spirit a lot. It’s fairly optimistic and I’m not sure it reflects Virginie Despentes’ other books. I enjoy her punchy style, her take on the French society, her insolence, her rejection of political correctness. She rocks!

Find another short review by Marina Sofia, here

 

Noir Désir

January 21, 2012 27 comments

Un homme accidentel by Philippe Besson. 2007. Not translated into English, very sadly.

Jack m’entraînait là où aucune rémission n’était possible, où aucun pardon ne serait accordé, où la survie n’était envisageable qu’à condition de mentir, de se cacher, où les jours toute façon seraient comptés puisque la vérité finit toujours par nous rattraper. Et j’acceptais ce sort. Mieux, j’allais à sa rencontre. Jack was dragging me to a place where no remission was possible, where no forgiveness would be granted, where survival was possible provided that we lied and hid, where days were numbered because truth always catches up with us. And I surrendered to that fate. Better, I was heading toward it.

Our Narrator has no name and relates the events that blew his life away. One year ago, he was married to Laura. They were expecting a baby. They were in love. He was a lieutenant at LAPD, in Beverly Hills, a quiet job according to him. Life was good until June 15th 1990, the day Billy Greenfield got murdered and dumped down on the manicured lawn of a rich man’s house. Billy was a prostitute. Searching his apartment for clues, the Narrator finds a notebook with the names of Billy’s clients. Among them, Jack Bell, a famous young actor. On June 17th, the Narrator pays a visit to Jack, to investigate the murder.

Then things get out of control when Jack and our Narrator fall in love.

Love at first sight, you say in English. It conveys a sweet image of a romantic encounter between a starry-eyed young girl and her righteous beau. Only the French can describe what happens here. Coup de foudre, lightening stroke. It has everything in it: the suddenness, the blinding quality, the violence, the fire, the storm and the destruction it brings in their lives. Coup de foudre.

Besson excels in describing the whirlwind love between the two men. Our Narrator discovers his homosexuality; he recounts his fatal attraction to Jack and their summer of love. The Narrator doesn’t hide or doesn’t try to find excuses. He doesn’t want pity. He takes full responsibilities of his actions and accepts their consequences. With a little hindsight, he deciphers the key moments, the tiny seconds of hesitation, of flawed decision-making. A hand that lingers too long, a look a little too insistent and the wrong words at the wrong moment. Still he doesn’t complain. No should-haves or would-haves here. He quietly unravels the events, not concealing that he had a choice and purposely headed to disaster, blown away by his relationship with Jack.

The LA setting is well-described but you can tell it’s not written by an American author, that he knows the city as a foreigner. Sometimes his comparisons betray his nationality. I can’t imagine an American novelist writing this:

C’étaient des paroles ordinaires, des choses de presque rien, comme en disent les couples qui s’arrêtent sur des aires d’autoroute, le jour des départs en vacances. These were ordinary words, small talk couples make when they stop on a motorway rest area when they go on holiday.

When I read this in French, I see the flow of tourists on the French motorways on August 15th. I see families pick-nicking on wooden benches between the gas station and the children playground, not a couple in California.

Despite this minor flaw, I couldn’t put this book down, Besson is a sensitive writer. He builds his style around short and forceful sentences, creating a plausible flow for a confession. There’s a music behind the words, a gift for little observations.

Je l’ai observée quelques instants avant de me signaler. J’ai toujours aimé observer Laura sans qu’elle s’en rende compte. C’est beau, une femme qui ne fait pas attention, qui se coupe du monde, qui n’est concentrée que sur son geste. I observed her for some time before showing up. I’ve always loved watching Laura, unnoticed. It’s beautiful, a woman who doesn’t pay attention, who shuts the world out, who only concentrates on her movements.

Or

Dans les étreintes, il y a tout ce qu’on abandonne. In our lovemaking lays everything we give away.

An accidental man. The title says everything. Falling in love is an accident. Meeting Jack is an accident, two parallel worlds colliding. Homosexuality is accidentally discovered. The murder is an accident. The Narrator’s life is accidental.

This novel isn’t translated into English, this is why you get my translations for the quotes. If I’m being honest, reviews are far from unanimous. Some hated it, some loved it. I loved it, but I guess you know that by now.

PS: the soundtrack in my head was A l’arrière des taxis by Noir Désir.

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