Translating Salander: Sarah Death talks to Crime Time

May 10, 2023
Dimitris Passas

NOTE: This article is a republication- Source: Crime Time.

Dispatches from the translation front: Golden-Age women writers and a female perspective for the Millennium series

There has been plenty of Swedish translation action for me in this neck of the Kentish woods lately. I received a surprise commission last year that enrolled me in an elite band I had never imagined finding myself part of, and have relished my linguistic tussles with Millennium 7. This is of course the latest part of the crime thriller series famously kicked off in 2005 by Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (translated by Reg Keeland in 2008) and its two sequels. The subsequent trio of titles was written by David Lagercrantz (translated by George Goulding). The latest author to take up the cudgels is Karin Smirnoff and her first Millennium story, published by Polaris in Sweden last autumn, is called Havsörnens skrik (which translates literally as: The cry of the sea eagle). It will be published in English as The Girl in the Eagle’s Talons by MacLehose Press in the UK and Knopf in the US at the end of August 2023. Blurbs for the book are widely available online and Barry Forshaw has already alluded to the plot here on the Crimetime website, so I am giving no spoilers if I say that this book shifts us from Stockholm to the northerly Swedish province of Norrbotten, to a town where both Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist have somewhat unwillingly acquired extra ties. Meanwhile, powerful shady interests old and new are establishing themselves in the vast expanse of the region as its natural resources start to be exploited in earnest, putting in place all the ingredients for a nerve-jangling eco-thriller.

This new instalment of the Millennium franchise, in common with Smirnoff’s three successful (but non-genre) novels featuring a gritty young Norrbotten woman named Jana Kippo, frequently views life through female protagonists’ eyes. It is quite a few years now years since Stieg Larsson shocked readers, and then filmgoers, with the misogynist brutality of his first novel, and the change of focus feels timely, although Smirnoff’s first Millennium offering has its own fair share of grim violence. Given the perspective shift, it feels appropriate for the translator on this occasion to be a woman, too. What is more, I have had the privilege of working on this project with two inspiring female editors, one on each side of the Atlantic.

The past few weeks have raised my awareness of female crime-fiction writers of an earlier period, after my Swedish colleague Carina Burman kindly sent me a copy of her new book Drottningar och pretendenter (Queens and Pretenders, Albert Bonniers förlag, 2023). Burman is probably best known for a succession of closely researched but accessible biographies of literary and cultural figures in Sweden from the eighteenth century onwards. My own favourite among these is that of bestselling nineteenth-century novelist and women’s rights campaigner Fredrika Bremer. But Burman is also a keen consumer of crime fiction, and in the constrictions of the covid years she found herself with the time to work on a book for a more general readership about her favourite female detective fiction writers of the Golden Age of crime writing.

In her ‘English and Scottish’ list, Burman looks at Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. Her ‘Swedish and Finland-Swedish’ list includes getting on for twenty names, but of these, Maria Lang and Kerstin Ekman are likely to be the only names the average British or American crime-fiction aficionado would recognise. Many of the others have probably never been translated into English. Ekman squeaks into Burman’s Golden-Age category by dint of her pre-1960 detective fiction, but for my money her best-ever crime novel is the multi-faceted Händelser vid vatten, 1993 (translated by Joan Tate as Blackwater, 1995). To do her justice, Burman, too, rates the book highly in her section on Ekman’s writing career as a whole, which she calls ‘The Queen who wanted to abdicate’. Blackwater has just been dramatised for Swedish TV to widespread plaudits, and I really hope that UK viewers will also be able to see it in due course.

As illustrations for this volume, Burman has assembled a selection of gorgeous retro book covers. The book has already been tipped as a likely contender for the non-fiction category of the prestigious annual August Prize.

Reading Burman’s survey reminded me that in the past she has turned her own hand to writing crime fiction. Her story The Streets of Babylon is a romp through Victorian London starring a fearless, umbrella-wielding lady detective by the outsized name of Euthanasia Bondeson, whose encounters with the Great Exhibition and some of the seamier sides of impoverished London draw wittily on the books and letters of Fredrika Bremer herself. It was a novel very much after my own heart, and when I was offered the option to translate it, I leapt at the chance. Streets of Babylon: a London Mystery (Marion Boyars, 2008) is still in print, it seems, and available from several online booksellers. It can be sampled on the publisher’s website: .

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