Books in Translation
Fiction from Afar becomes an honorary Booktrailer
Duncan Beattie is the man who knows. He knows all about crime fiction in translation as he reads books from every country he can get his hands on. Now, this is a man I thought would be good to be on The BookTrail. This is a booktrailer of another name. Fiction from Afar is what I love to read so, I decided to have a chat with the man himself…
Why are you a reader?
I’ve always been around books. My mum was a librarian and my dad has always been a keen reader too. As a child I used to visit the library a lot and take out many books. Roald Dahl was an early favourite, as were the CS Lewis stories and I read the Hobbit at quite an early age. Probably the first specific crime novels I read were the illustrated novels of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle. The House Of The Baskervilles was one of them and I still have the book on my bookshelves. I did my high school English dissertation on 3 Graham Greene novels.
Have you always been a reader?
I haven’t always been a reader, in fact there was a big stage of my life when I barely read a book. Those were generally my student years, although I was studying for some of the time. After graduating I worked in Paris for a couple of years and read quite infrequently then although I did read some bilingual novels with English text on one side and French on the other but at the time I didn’t have the discipline to really develop my French reading.
What is your reading preferences and why?
I’ve always been a keen fan of music and reading would often take a second place or lead to my reading of musicians’ biographies. I did though find myself gravitating to crime novels and thrillers and read some of the early titles by Simon Kernick and Peter James but I often found these weren’t quite what I was looking for. I’ve always felt that reading is escapism and I couldn’t quite get excited by the locations the novels were set in, while sometimes I felt the baddies could be a bit one dimensional.
Suddenly I was drawn to Nordic authors and television series. I had caught a couple of the Swedish Wallander movies on BBC Four but watching The Killing “Forbrydelsen” when it first appeared on the channel in 2007 fascinated me. Back then there was no possibility to binge watch the series so this did stimulate my reading.
After Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, I read Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole, Jussi Adler Olsen’s Department Q series and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. The internationalism of the books appealed to me, as did the social critique as well as the unusual settings. For a while I would spend my time looking for other Nordic authors who I would enjoy as much, not always with success, but Yrsa Sigurðardóttir was another fantastic discovery.
Later though I thought why restrict myself to Nordic novels and as I discovered authors like France’s Pierre Lemaitre and Keigo Higashino from Japan I realised that fantastic stories could be told whatever the location. Now I actually prefer to read novels from southern Europe, Latin America and the Far East to Scandinavia as they are usually less common and often the differences between their society and ours are larger.
I believe crime fiction can tell you so much about people. As Jo Nesbø has written:
“Crime fiction is a genre for writing stories about people – about conflict, about guilt, about passion, about the human condition.”
So if it can tell you a lot about people in your own society, imagine how much you can learn from reading crime fiction from other places.
“Crime fiction is very good at giving a sense of place,” Ian Rankin has said, explaining further. “If I want to know about any country in the world, I will go to its crime-fiction section. You immediately learn about the society, the culture, the problems they might have, the history of the place and something about the nature of the people.”
I fully agree with that. Learning about the social fabric of the society in which the story takes place is often just as interesting, sometimes more, than the story itself.
Which country or place have you been to because of a book?
For my fortieth birthday we took a holiday in Denmark. Part of the holiday was at Legoland in Billund but the bulk of it was in Copenhagen and that choice was largely due to my interest in The Killing, Borgen, and Jussi Adler Olsen novels such as The Keeper Of Lost Causes. We did take a trip over The Øresund Bridge where The Bridge was filmed to Malmo on the day of my birthday. On the day we visited the Danish Parliament were were buying snacks when Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Katrine from Borgen walked into the shop! I had read how cool the inhabitants of Copenhagen were to famous people so I didn’t say hello or try to get a photo but really wished I had done!
This year I visited northern Spain and this was definitely influenced by reading Eva García Sáenz’s The Silence Of The White City and other Spanish authors like Javier Cercas, Victor Del Arbol and Delores Redondo, although I didn’t go to any precise places featured in their novels.
Tell us why you love translated fiction?
Much of the very first fiction that we ever learn has been translated, whether it is comes from Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. There is no writer of English language who could ever compare to them. Growing up I read Asterisk and Tin Tin, later YA fiction like The Hostage by Anne Holm, a story about the kidnapping of the Danish prime minister’s son and watched the dubbed from German television series Silas. So it always felt quite normal to enjoy stories from other countries. As a child all my cousins lived in overseas locations so I was used to spending holidays outside the UK.
I always found myself curious about the world we live in and life in far away places. My dad used to buy a broadsheet newspaper. I remember always reading about far away conflicts in Peru, Nepal or Angola.
I was fortunate to spend two years living in France and I am a Europhile. I believe it is so important that we and our future generations retain our connections. Furthermore, we have to expand our understanding of different cultures and develop our knowledge of other languages.
Developments such as Brexit and Covid lockdown has further pushed me to widen my reading locations ever further. I was lucky enough to join a crime fiction from around the world in early 2020 and their past list of book titles really formed my reading list during lockdown reading authors like Deon Meyer, Leonardo Padura, Simone Buchholz and other titles particularly from Bitter Lemon Press, Orenda Books and Pushkin Press. My enjoyment of these encouraged me to start writing book reviews. I also set up the Crime Fiction In Translation Facebook group Crime Fiction In Translation | Facebook which has become a great place to share recommendations and reviews.
Last year I was approached to become a judge in the Crime Writers Association Crime Fiction In Translation Dagger.
I’m in the lucky position that I get sent around 80 crime fiction novels and then choose a long list, short list and eventual winner with the other 4 judges. I will be hosting at least one panel of authors at this year’s Newcastle Noir in December and I’m keen to keen to host further talks at other book festivals with authors in translation and translators.
I have always had a huge respect for the art of translation. It allows us to know so much that we would otherwise never learn. All in all, I believe that being able to understand a novel that was originally written by the author for his/her own domestic market is very powerful.
Where do you want to go to because of a book?
I would love to go to Latin America overall and specifically Buenos Aires in Argentina and this has been inspired by the Verónica Rosenthal series by Sergio Olguín particularly The Fragility Of Bodies, as well as other Argentine authors such as Claudia Piñeiro and Eduardo Sacheri. It’s true that there is a lot that is unjust or imperfect with their society,. However, I really feel a fascination with the stories set there and some of the country’s recent history.
Why should people read translated fiction?
I believe the best thing anyone can do to open their minds and expend their horizons is to travel widely. However the costs of that can make it difficult, so becoming an armchair traveller is the next next option.
Essentially inhabitants of English language counties share the same culture whether they live in Melbourne, Vancouver, London or New York. So, we can either fully absorb and reinforce a dominant culture or we can explore what differences and similarities exist in the rest of the world. While I don’t claim that reading crime fiction is particularly high brow I do feel that reading translated fiction is extremely enriching.
As Anthony Burgess is quoted as saying:
“Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”
I blog as Fiction From Afar due to my preference for novels from elsewhere in the world. Yet I have the suspicion that if perhaps one day I leave Scotland for a warmer climate, I’ll become a keen reader of Scottish crime fiction. Just like my aunts, uncles and cousins around the world! 🙂
Thank you Duncan! More from Duncan soon but I wanted to introduce this very special blogger friend right now. Inspirational!
BookTrail Boarding Pass: Fiction From Afar