A couple of months ago, in the midst of our celebration of EQMM’s 75th anniversary year, our staff received the delightful news that the magazine will be honored for “Distinguished Contribution to the Genre” at the next Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, in Toronto, Canada.
Chairs for the event, editor and anthologist Janet Costello and short-story writer Helen Nelson (both active in Sisters in Crime Canada), have given the upcoming convention an international theme, which is, of course, right up EQMM’s street. The convention’s title is Passport to Murder, an echo of the title of the department that has run in EQMM since 2003, Passport to Crime.
The Bouchercon organization itself has a tie to EQMM by virtue of our common reverence for its namesake, Anthony Boucher. EQMM’s current issue, November 2016, tips its hat to Anthony Boucher with a reprint of one of his stories, “A Kind of Madness.” But Boucher was much more than a writer for EQMM. He was the magazine’s second book reviewer, a longtime friend of Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay (a.k.a. Ellery Queen), and a translator of crime fiction from several languages, some for EQMM. Frederic Dannay is said to have told one of the great writers of the twentieth century, Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges, “You are the man who made me famous.” The story may be apocryphal, but it refers, nevertheless, to an important moment in EQMM’s history, the magazine’s publication of Anthony Boucher’s translation of Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the first work of Borges’s ever to appear in English.
The fact that EQMM is to be honored not only at a convention named for Boucher but one whose theme is international is truly gratifying, and it shows how much the world of crime fiction has changed over the past couple of decades.
In 2003, when EQMM launched Passport to Crime, our monthly translation series, there was far too little crime fiction from other countries seeing print in English.
Getting up and running with the series was a challenge. Fortunately, we had the assistance of the International Association of Crime Writers, which was founded in 1986 and had, by then, established branches worldwide that could help us to identify authors, readers, translators, and literary agents in the countries they served. As in most business ventures, one connection led to another, and pretty soon we knew of translators’ organizations, yearly mystery awards similar to the American Edgars in several other countries, and Web sites that our translators could use to scout for new authors. The series remains a challenge, since we want to try to keep adding new countries and authors to the list, rather than repeating our earlier finds, and unfortunately, there are many countries that have no writers’ organizations we can tap into, though we suspect they may have a thriving literature of crime fiction. We hope the 2017 Bouchercon will afford opportunities for us to connect with writers from those less familiar crime-fiction communities.
A lot has changed on the wider crime-fiction scene since EQMM began actively seeking stories to translate. There’s been a virtual explosion of interest by English-language book publishers (especially in the U.K and the U.S.) in bringing out translations, and crime and mystery fiction seems to be a significant category. It’s easy to see why, for however introspective or character-driven a mystery may be, a strong plot is almost always present too, and such plots can provide strong hooks for marketing to a new audience. Besides, mystery fiction, with its procedural aspects (involving police and other organizations) seems uniquely positioned to give readers a sense of how other societies function.
Still, why has interest increased only now? Many non-English-speaking countries have crime or mystery writing traditions that go back at least a hundred years, and the percentage of books making it into translation for the U.S. market was, until a decade ago, negligible.
Several years ago, I posted on our Web site forum some information I’d discovered about the increase in the number of English translations being done of foreign crime fiction. A July 2, 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Fiction’s Global Crime Wave” cited the share of translated books coming out in the U.S. as 3%, which was, of course, small, but it was (according to other sources) threefold what it had been only a few years earlier.
What was perhaps even more telling was the Journal article’s reference to a fall in sales of U.S. crime novels in overseas markets: down 25% in Germany, 15% in France, and 90% in Scandinavia. The reason for this was speculated to be that publishers in those countries had come to have so many good home-grown mysteries to draw from that they didn’t need as many U.S. imports. Other countries, in other words, especially in Europe, seemed to be experiencing a great upsurge in creativity in our field. And perhaps it’s the availability of so many outstanding new foreign titles that is fueling the interest of American, Canadian, and U.K. publishers in translations.
I could not find any data more recent than that for English-language crime-fiction translation. But I did chance upon a 2016 article in Publishing Perspectives, by Dennis Abrams, entitled “Translated Fiction Outsells English Fiction in the U.K.,” in which Fiammetta Rocco, administrator of the Man Booker International Prize, was quoted giving figures that show the average number of copies sold of translated literary-fiction titles as more than twice that of literary novels written in English. Since translated titles amount to only 1.5 percent of all books published in the U.K., the total number of translated books sold is, of course, much smaller than the total number of English-language original books sold, but when comparing the average sales of individual titles in each of the two categories, the translations won.
It would be interesting to know whether this remarkable development in the field of literary fiction is mirrored in crime fiction. I suspect that it is, and I hope to learn more about that and related topics at the Toronto convention, where I’m sure Janet and Helen have a revealing lineup of panels and events planned.
EQMM is being gifted with a table at this convention—a place where our authors and readers can gather and find us. We hope to see you there!
Thank you, Bouchercon, for this special opportunity!—Janet Hutchings