Translators are the unsung heroes of the literary world. What they do requires not just knowledge of the language to be translated from but a writerly feel for the language they are translating to. Mary Tannert fits that bill. A former university teacher with a Ph.D. in German, she moved to Germany in 2000 to work first as a translation project manager for Siemens and subsequently as a freelance translator. She began translating crime fiction in 1993 and has contributed twenty-two German-language short story translations to EQMM. In 1999, she and her research partner Henry Kratz published a groundbreaking anthology of translated historic German-language crime fiction entitled Early German and Austrian Detective Fiction: An Anthology (McFarland). Her extensive knowledge of German (and Anglo-American) fiction and her skills as a writer make her one of our Passport to Crime department’s most valuable assets. We think a lot of eyes will be opened by what she has to say about the German tradition in crime writing.—Janet Hutchings
We translators of crime fiction straddle a fascinating divide. On one side is the Anglo-American crime fiction scene—the biggest and most competitive in the world. Nearly every foreign writer dreams of having his or her work translated and published in England or the U.S. On the other side is the richness and breadth of other crime-fiction traditions that have a lot to offer English-speaking readers. This knowledge fuels my dream, common to most crime-fiction translators, of being able to offer readers of English a brilliant translation of a really good foreign crime novel that has them beating down their booksellers’ doors asking for more. Oh, and earns me a million bucks and lets me leave my commercial translator’s existence for a life translating bestselling crime novels, being interviewed by Oprah, and letting my agent negotiate the endless stream of offers from Hollywood while I make guest appearances on this blog from an island in the Mediterranean where I work on the sunny terrace of my beach home, a caipirinha at my elbow . . .
Back to reality—and some background: I’ve been translating both historic and contemporary crime fiction from German to English since the early 1990s. And in case anyone’s thinking that in all that time I must have run out of work, at least of historic crime fiction, let me note that the German-language crime-fiction tradition is at least as old as the Anglo-American, if not older, as witness Adolph Müllner’s 1828 novella The Caliber: a crime novella that represents the very first fictional instance anywhere of the use of bullet caliber to prove a suspect’s innocence. That fact riveted me when I discovered the novella in the late 1980s, and in the process of following it up I stumbled upon a vast 19th- and early 20th-century crime-fiction tradition that would make most English and American crime-fiction writers of that time weep with envy. Novels, novellas, and a newspaper (Die Gartenlaube) that was serializing stories nearly forty years before The Strand began publication. Lay detectives, P.I.s, police detectives, even investigating magistrates. Urban crime, rural crime. Criminals of every social class from the nobility down to the peasantry. Police procedurals, courtroom dramas, psychological novels. You name it, they’d done it.
Then came two World Wars, and a lot of this tradition went up in smoke. Literally. Paper is extremely combustible, as all fans of weekend barbeques know—and when alarmed librarians and archivists scurry to hide their greatest treasures in the fireproof bomb cellar, they don’t typically think of the whodunits on their bedside tables. Hitler did his part by ordering mass book burnings of “decadent” literary genres, to which category he consigned crime fiction. And the landscape changed: The social class system prevalent in Europe, the political and dynastic divisions into principalities, kingdoms, and empires, even the early republics, all these disappeared. The fabric on which Europe’s sense of social justice, of order, of crime and retribution had been printed for centuries was torn apart—and what emerged after 1945 was so different that what had gone before must have appeared, at least as far as crime fiction is concerned, antiquated and irrelevant.
So it took a few decades for a German-language crime fiction tradition to reestablish itself, to re-grow its roots and wings. There were cities to rebuild first, and the untidiness of democracy to get used to. But people went on murdering and stealing and smuggling and spying as they always have, and pretty soon it became clear that the fictional world of European crime shouldn’t be left to non-Europeans like Graham Greene (The Third Man) or John Le Carré (The Spy Who Came In from the Cold). The crime-fiction market in those first postwar years may have relied heavily on translations from French, English, and Scandinavian crime novels (Boileau/Narcejac, Sjöwall/Wahlöö, etc.) but by the 1960s that balance had begun to shift in favor of crime novels authored in German and a tradition of socially-critical crime-writing.
Matters took a step forward when, in 1986, a handful of German crime-fiction writers, led by Fred Breinersdorf, founded DAS SYNDIKAT, the German-language crime writers’ organization and a member of AIEP since its founding. For more than twenty years now, the organization has awarded the Friedrich Glauser Prizes (named for a Swiss crime-fiction writer of the early 20th century who created a popular police detective) for German-language crime fiction in the categories best novel and, since 2002, best first novel and best short story. The prize money for the Glauser prizes is raised entirely by the authors who make up DAS SYNDIKAT and is presented to the winners at the organization’s yearly celebration, Criminale, in battered briefcases containing nonconsecutively numbered banknotes in small denominations. (No, I did not make this up.)
I’ve been to a few Criminale myself and seen the delight on the faces of the winners who’ve climbed the steps to the stage to receive that battered briefcase, gleaming under the stage lights. And as a permanent resident of Germany, I itched to participate in a small way. Partly, it’s the omnipresent internal pressure to help bridge the cultural divide between this nation and my native one, a pressure that many ex-pats experience from time to time. Partly it was my frustration with Anglo-American crime-fiction chauvinism (oh, puhleeze. Spare me the outraged look). And to be truthful, it was also partly the dream of the Mediterranean island and the caipirinha. On the other hand, I have to earn my living, and like most translators I’ve received my share of unsolicited e-mail messages reading, “I’m convinced I’ve written the world’s next crime-fiction bestseller. Attached is the manuscript. Would you translate it for free? I would be sure to mention your name in the kindest of terms to the publisher of the English edition.” (Well, how nice of you to think of me. Excuse me a minute while I run give up my day job . . . )
An opportunity came when IACW’s Mary Frisque brought me together with Janet Hutchings around the time that EQMM’s Passport to Crime series was established. And to make a long story short, since then I have had the privilege—and the great pleasure—of translating, with only one exception, every short story that won the Glauser prize since its inception in 2002, and seeing them all published in Passport to Crime. It’s turned out to be a great deal for everybody. The authors are pleased at the prospect of being published in English without having to organize—or pay for—translation or publication themselves. For them, it’s the double chocolate icing on the cake of winning the Glauser. EQMM gets a good story for Passport to Crime. And it makes a great pro bono project for me because it’s contained—one short story, once a year—so I don’t have to worry about it taking on dimensions that would imperil my paying the electric bill. Working with the authors is rewarding, too; their excitement at seeing their stories in English is palpable. The most recent winner, Nina George, wrote that my translation of her work “… sounds like . . . wow! . . . like a writer, like a different, really good writer. It’s incredible the way you got into my story.”
I’m still waiting for Hollywood to call, and the only Mediterranean islands I see are in the Internet photos I drool over when I get fed up with the press releases, annual reports, brochures, and websites that currently make up my caipirinha-less working hours. But I know it takes twenty years to become an overnight success, and meanwhile I’ve got a whole host of new pals on both sides of the Atlantic and we’re all having a great time with really good crime fiction. Which is, after all, what it’s really about.