Tuesday, March 31, 2009

#5: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The idea of reading books in translation has always gotten me hot and bothered. I'm keenly aware of the rhythms and colors of words; I have to be careful, in my own writing, to prevent style from dragging substance along by the scruff of the neck. Many's the time I'm scrapped precision or truth in favor of some tempting turn of phrase -and I can't even dredge up much guilt about it.

To me, translated books -and don't even get me started on translated poetry- are like island nations with fragmented, unstable systems of government. There are too many would-be dictators: overarching issues of plot and narrative, the rhythm and play of the words in English, and of course the question of fidelity to the original text. No matter how good the translator, the finished prose always seems to have the awkwardness of a shy woman playing strip twister. It feels contorted, stilted, ashamed: someone with a fake smile and her rear end higher than her head.

The issue of translated writing cuts to the heart of why we read. Is it for the details of story and plot? Is it for the glimpse into someone else's mind, life, or culture? Or is it for the pure pleasure of the press of words against the skins of our minds? Ideally, it's a combination of all three, but I find that without a good, solid foundation of words, reading palls. I've read a number of translated novels for school and a fair amount of translated poetry: nothing I've ever read in translation has stuck with me for longer than it took to put down the book and go hunting for cheese.

Yet, every time I admit to my prejudice, I feel like a backwoods literary bigot. There's that obvious counterargument: isn't it better to read stories and authors in translation than not at all? If you restrict yourself to languages you can read, you've walled yourself off from whole cultures, rich streams of thought.

To which I say: Good thing I'm doing my year of reading dangerously. My fifth pick (actually my sixth, but I haven't gotten around to reviewing number 5 yet) was Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland. Larsson, a left-wing journalist, died of a coronary event in 2004. He left behind three finished mystery novels he'd completed in his spare time, all three of which are being published posthumously. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first of the these.

According to Wikipedia, the Swedish title of the novel was Men who Hate Women, and I can see why. Larsson's hero, left-wing journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and his strange, traumatized heroine, computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, stumble across a veritable viper's nest of men who prey upon women. Using the 30-year-old disappearance of heiress Harriet Vanger as a starting point, Blomkvist and Salander investigate whole generations of wrongdoing. There are two or three mysteries here, some of which overlap and some of which slither off toward their own corners, but all of them trace back to gender-based violence. I enjoyed the MI-5-style descriptions of information gathering, as well as the off-hand details of Swedish life. How can you fault a book that describes bacon pancakes with ligonberry jam?

Still, there was that troubling stiffness to the prose. Characters seemed awkwardly drawn, as if a pencil was lifted from the paper every few millimeters and set back down. I couldn't quite get a handle on the tone of the book: one of the hallmarks, to me, of books in translation is that their linguistic atmosphere seems to shimmer from color to color, never quite coming to rest. Was it off-hand? Formal? Racy? A smattering of all of these?

Its faults aside, this was a big (465 pages), meaty, overflowing mystery novel in the tradition of Elizabeth George and Sara Paretsky. (Interestingly, we witness Blomkvist reading books by both authors, along with several other notable crime novelists: the man has good taste!)

Also, I started the thing at 8:00 AM and finished it by 3:00 PM. They say actions speak louder than words. And there's no need to translate.

No comments: