Home > 2000, 21st Century, Beach and Public Transports Books, Crime Fiction, Polar, Sten Viveca, Swedish Literature > Two books by Viveca Sten – thoughts on the translations

Two books by Viveca Sten – thoughts on the translations

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.

  1. May 31, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Interesting comparison of the translations – I wonder what the reason for the inadequate French one was.Yes, I haven’t had much of an urge to read Viveca Sten – call me biased, and perhaps I shouldn’t write her off without giving her a go, but there are simply too many books out there for me…

    Like

    • May 31, 2020 at 9:14 pm

      I guess they didn’t put enough money on it.
      If you like Camilla Läckberg, you’ll like her. Otherwise, don’t bother.

      Like

  2. May 31, 2020 at 5:30 pm

    Interesting. I wonder at times about translations, but I can’t go check versions. I’m getting pickier when it comes to crime books (at least with the newer ones but there are exceptions) .I’m more interested in the impact of crime

    Like

    • May 31, 2020 at 9:17 pm

      I often wonder about translations too. Here, even without the comparison, I would have been irritated by the “admistrateur judiciaire” mistake.

      I get pickier about crime too and for new writers, I should concentrate on publishers I find good, like Rivages, Gallmeister and Actes Sud.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. May 31, 2020 at 10:26 pm

    I’m not likely to read these as I don’t read much contemporary crime but I found your thoughts on the translation so interesting. What a shame the French translation wasn’t better, especially as you say, it’s a popular genre and bound to sell.

    Like

    • June 1, 2020 at 10:12 am

      I wouldn’t urge you to read these ones.
      Yes, it’s a shame about the translation, especially since it’s a recent one. For older books, the customs of translation have changed, it’s a pity but a heritage. Here, my bet is that they didn’t invest enough money in the translation or gave a too tight deadline to the translator.

      Like

  4. June 1, 2020 at 12:15 pm

    How interesting about the differences in translation. I wouldn’t grab these, as I’ve gone off most modern crime fiction because of the violence. But I certainly would be aggrieved if I’d manage to get the solutions, because I want to be bamboozled until the end…

    Like

    • June 1, 2020 at 8:34 pm

      It was strange, going from the English to the French voice. It really took me a few chapters to get used to the French.

      Re-violence: there isn’t any violence in Sten’s books. In the first one, they find the body and in the second one, the victim is shot. There is no graphic violence in the text. A lot of modern crime fiction books are like this. At least, the ones I read. I’m not into thrillers and books with serial killers. I prefer cold murders done by sane people, it’s a lot more interesting to me.

      And yes, like you, I don’t want to guess the ending in crime fiction. I feel no pride at all for it, only frustration with the writer.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Vishy
    June 1, 2020 at 1:04 pm

    Loved your review, Emma! I have heard of Viveca Sten, but have not read any of her books. Sorry to know that the mystery was easy to solve even when you were not trying. I also enjoyed reading your thoughts on the English and French translations. It is sad that the French translation is not as good as expected. From some of the examples you have mentioned, it looks like the translator may not be experienced. But I am just guessing here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Like

    • June 1, 2020 at 8:39 pm

      Thanks Vishy!

      I was disappointed to guess the ending and these key clues. I don’t know why the French translation is that way. Lack of time? Not enough money put on the table to have quality? I don’t know the translation market and process well-enough to have a fair answer.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. June 16, 2020 at 10:55 am

    Really interesting. Do you know if the French translator definitely made up the nicknamed the oldman bit or did the English translator omit it? Is it clear from the later story that she got admitted in the fall rather than passing the exam in the fall?

    This is exactly why I try to compare translations where multiple are available. Of course for most contemporary fiction there’s just one, and it can be so hard to tell if any issues are in the original or are a product of the translation.

    Anyway, fascinating.

    Like

    • June 18, 2020 at 8:37 pm

      It have no idea whether it was in the original or not.

      It’s clear later in the story that she got admitted because someone is having an affair with her, he wants to break up and thinks it will be easier in the fall since she’ll be at the police academy.

      It’s hard to assess the quality of a translation when you don’t know the original language. I know English well enough to “hear” the English behind the French sometimes. I’m totally blind for other languages. The best is to trust the publishers.

      Like

  1. No trackbacks yet.

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: