Was that a Dagger I saw before me?
Bob Cornwell thinks the CWA’s proposed rule change is wrong – on all counts

For whatever reasons, it was always clear that the shortlist for this year’s CWA Gold Dagger, with its four translated European crime novels, would be controversial. It was also predictable that the first response (Bookseller, 4 November) would come from a section of the publishing business mainly concerned with promoting British and American crime writers. Not quite so predictable was the flat-footedly commercial perspective of the attack from Selina Walker (Random House, Transworld division). Did anyone apart from Selina Walker (to be fair, representing, I assume, a common view in the publishing business) seriously expect the shortlist, any short-list, to be “a selection of this year’s top-selling crime writers”? And would such a list really “represent the extraordinary breadth of crime-writing today” as, again, she clearly believes. Then to go on to attack this years short-list for being “very narrow” was indeed breathtaking. The article was roundly denounced by Pete Ayrton (Serpent’s Tail) in the Bookseller (18 November) as “the worst kind of cultural chauvinism.”

Of course Mr Ayrton is not without his own special interests, not only being the UK publisher who first established in the UK (and has maintained ever since) the reputation of Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, but one that has continued to publish innovative crime fiction from such as Didier Daeninckx, Daniel Chavarría and, most recently Thierry Jonquet. But his more general point is right. The crime writing available today in English has been immeasurably enriched by the arrival not only of Montalbán but also such authors as Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Daniel Pennac and Henning Mankell.

But then crime, fiction has always been enriched by the contribution of non-English language authors in translation. Most historians of the genre would cite not only Edgar Allen Poe, but also Émile Gaboriau as the founding influences on the form we know today. That key French influence would continue through the work of Gaston Leroux, Maurice Leblanc and others. More modern influences would include Georges Simenon and those Swedish masters of the police procedural, the writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Thus when the time came to draw up its rules for what would become one of the most prestigious prizes in the crime fiction world, the CWA did not seek, as it could so easily have done, to fend off such influences. Instead, with a few fumbles on the way (for several years in the 60s there was a ‘foreign’ fiction prize – awarded to John Ball (for In the Heat of the Night), Sebastien Japrisot, Patricia Highsmith and Rex Stout!), they, along with their counterparts in the Mystery Writers of America, idealistically and rightly chose to embrace them.

Now it appears that those rules are to be changed. But was it just that crude commercial pressure that I mentioned above that has brought this about? Apparently not. The first hint that other considerations were at work came from Front Row, Mark Lawson’s Radio 4 arts programme, broadcast on 14 November. Christopher MacLehose (of Random House, Harvill Secker division publisher of three short-list nominees, including the winner) put the rational case for keeping the competition as wide as possible. Mark Billingham (Lifeless, 2005) in response put forward the rather surprising view that books such as those by Indridason, Fossum and Vargas should not be allowed to compete because, in the process of translation, so much of their “nuance, tone, atmosphere, subtleties of language” had been lost, that we were not comparing like with like.

A similar point came from Val McDermid (The Torment of Others, 2004) in a letter to the Independent (17 November). She cited the quality of the American translation (by Tiina Nunnally) of Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (published as Smilla’s Sense of Snow in the US) which, she felt, if published in the UK would have sunk Hoeg’s chances here (he eventually won 1994’s Silver Dagger, but in F.David’s translation). There is support for the first part of this argument on US Amazon from a Danish/ English translator who preferred the British translation to the American, mainly on grounds of atmosphere. But the second part of McDermid’s view is surely more dubious. That American translation, complete with any possible lost “nuance, tone, atmosphere and subtleties of language”, nevertheless received almost unanimous acclaim (the New Yorker, that American arbiter of fine prose, for instance , said of the book that the writing was “bitter, changeable and deep-fathomed as poetry...it demands to be read aloud and savored.”) The book was garlanded left right and centre and was later short-listed for the Edgar (losing, finally, to Minette Walter’s The Sculptress).

Similarly the four translated books in this year‘s shortlist presumably had enough in the way of remaining “nuance, tone , atmosphere and subtleties of language” to outpoint the English and American competition. Or, more importantly, given that we are dealing with the crime novel, did they also outpoint the competition in areas such as plot, structure, theme and characterisation?

That the translator’s art was in question was also later confirmed by the CWA’s Philip Gooden (Bookseller, 18 November): “To what extent is a translation the work of a translator and to what extent is it the work of the originator?” he asked. But, given the importance of plot, structure and so on, surely you might equally ask of some English language crime fiction “to what extent is a book the work of an editor (if, of course, you are lucky enough to have one) and to what extent is it the work of the author?” The whole point is surely that no matter what influences the author has absorbed, the final test is in the reading of the finished book.

Here I should declare my own special interest. I am a reader and reviewer of a wide range of crime fiction who has found his own tastes more completely satisfied in recent years by crime fiction in translation. But this is not to the exclusion of the native product. I admit to blind spots (much historical crime for example) but I am full of admiration, not only for Ruth Rendell (particularly when she is writing as Barbara Vine), P.D. James, Ian Rankin and, indeed many of the authors on Selina Walker’s list (including Mark Billingham and Val McDermid at their best, just in case this is beginning to sound like a personal vendetta). My tastes also take in the disparate talents of Robert Wilson and Lee Child, Sarah Diamond and Laura Wilson.

But the recently translated work by Dominique Manotti, Jean-Claude Izzo, Gianrico Carofiglio, Arnaldur Indridason, Tonino Benacquista, Karin Fossum, Hans Werner Kattenbach, Jörg Hauser and Rafael Reig, has added to my reading a whole new range of subject matter not to mention an unusual cultural framework or two. In fact, I grew curious about the whole process of translation and was intrigued enough to seek out and question some of the translators involved. The results can be found (in precis) in CrimeTime issue 44 and (unedited) at www.crimetime.co.uk

One thing is clear from these researches. It is that rendering every bit of “nuance, tone, atmosphere, subtleties of language” as accurately as possible is the major objective of every translator, not to mention the publishers involved. As Mike Mitchell (translator of the short-listed In Matto’s Realm by Friedrich Glauser) remarked: “If the original is a thrilling adventure story or a sparkling comedy and what comes out in English...is not a thrilling story or a sparkling comedy, then it is not a ‘faithful’ translation.”

Of course, some translators are more successful than others. It is fortunate that in Bernard Scudder (another of my interviewees), Arnaldur Indridason has found an ideal translator who works closely with the author to ensure that his original vision (which let us not forget has won Indridason in two successive years The Glass Key, a prize competed for across five Nordic countries each year) is realised as closely as possible.

But were such literary arguments really at the centre of the CWA’s deliberations? Sadly, and disappointingly, the answer appears to be no. That same edition of Front Row was to reveal the existence of a possible new sponsor for the award. Even later (Marcel Berlins in the Guardian, 16 November), the possibilities narrowed. The new sponsor was “a major book retailer.”

But which major book retailer was in the frame? Sufficiently suspicious of the corporate progress of Waterstones, even a cynical observer such as I cannot bring myself to believe that they would impose such a blatantly chauvinistic condition on a major book prize. Could it, ironically, be W H Smith? Would that be the same W H Smith who would not stock Henning Mankell until after he won the Gold Dagger of 2001?

I have some sympathy with the CWA in its search for relevant sponsors. But the best sponsorship deals result when the ideals of the event or award coincide with the marketing objectives of the sponsor. To start a sponsorship deal by compromising long-held ideals surely works to the benefit of neither side of the negotiating table. Prestige is ceded to the American Edgar as the one major remaining truly international award whilst leaving the way open in the UK for some rival organisation to create a more wide-ranging prize.

And for the CWA to cite the Man Booker and Orange prizes (Bookseller, 18 November), as if to regain the high literary ground, is to evade the issue. Those awards are clearly subject to similar pressures, hence the recent addition to the main Booker prize of its International award, thus making American authors eligible for the first time, coincidentally an important territory for the sponsoring Man Group. The prize is also open to “widely translated” authors from the rest of the world, again for the first time. But, if a sympathetic sponsor cannot be found, perhaps the CWA should give some thought to managing the prize without any of its current attendant fripperies.

What is surprising is that the CWA has not pointed out that the majority of crime fiction prizes in Europe also favour their home teams. Perhaps this omission is because many CWA members (along with their counterparts in the Mystery Writers of America) benefit from the dominance of, yes, translated English-language crime novels in those markets. Visit book shops in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands and you will find that the shelf space is dominated by a raft of British and American names. Rightly so perhaps, given the strength of our respective current and back catalogues. But to the point that, in the Netherlands for example, even with all those flaws in “nuance, tone, atmosphere and subtleties of language”, English-language authors take about 95% of the market? Even France with perhaps twenty or so prizes for crime fiction in its various forms – a handful open to all comers, along with one for translators! – manages to retain only about 50% of its home market. And in the UK? Well in 2004 (figures from Mike Ripley), 583 new crime titles were published, of which around 10% came from outside the UK or (north) America. I’d be surprised if actual ‘foreign’ sales figures reached even that 10% number, leaving over 90% of the market to the home, English language side. Small wonder then that the CWA move will be widely seen across the world as a protectionist and needlessly selfish measure.

One other point to bear in mind: it appears that that rule change is still only proposed, not final. The CWA Dagger guidelines for 2005-06, says Pete Ayrton, state “If the CWA Gold Dagger is superseded by an award under our new sponsor, only books originally written in the English language will be eligible for entry.” It is not too late then for CWA members to be balloted on the issue. The issue is clear. On the one hand principle and a willingness to be judged against the best the rest of the world can offer (to the ultimate benefit to the health of the genre, and therefore to both author and reader); on the other, protectionism, chauvinism and the prospect that the genre will wither and die in “a sea of serial killers,” (as Pete Ayrton so succinctly put it).

Mark Timlin (Answers from the Grave, 2004) is the latest to contribute to the debate. His Independent on Sunday column (20 November) has no doubts. “If the combined crime-writing talents of Britain, America, Australia, New Zealand, Africa and the Indian sub-continent – indeed anywhere with authors who choose to write in English– can’t come up with the goods, then best of luck to anyone else who can!” Can the CWA bring itself to take the same enlightened stance?

Bob Cornwell © 2005