Thin Ice: Quentin Bates Interviewed

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Author of acclaimed Icelandic crime series talks about his lead character, translating, and plans for this year’s Iceland Noir festival..

After a decade spent living in Iceland Quentin Bates returned to the UK and embarked on a career as a journalist for a nautical trade publication.

In addition to being the author of a series of novels featuring Officer Gunnhildur Gísladóttir from the Reykjavik Serious Crimes Unit he has translated Ragnar Jónasson’s Snow Blind and Night Blind for Orenda Books.

Gunnhildur was a sidekick when you started writing your first novel. Did making her the lead character cause any major story problems which had to be rectified in subsequent drafts?

In the original draft of Frozen Out she was the sidekick to the male protagonist who I fairly quickly realised wasn’t working. He was the archetypal grumpy geezer with a bottle problem and a weight problem. I admit it, I’d been reading too much Wallander and he had rubbed off far too clearly. Fortunately I could see what was wrong with what I’d been trying to do, got rid of the bloke who was so unmemorable that I can’t even remember what name I gave him, and promoted his far more interesting sidekick to the main role.

That happened quite early in the process, so replacing him was quite seamless. I hardly noticed he was gone. What did cause problems came at the editing stage and was to do with Gunnhildur’s age. Originally she was an older character, in her late forties. The publisher wasn’t happy with that and wanted a younger character, someone with a career ahead of her and not with an eye on retirement. They wanted to go much younger, so eventually we compromised. That meant re-arranging the ages of her children and fixing all kinds of conflicts in the plot, and one or two items from the original version slipped through the net.

How thoroughly do you research Icelandic policing methods?

Actually, I don’t research that side of it at all thoroughly. I have some friends in the Reykjavík police force and I can take questions to them, so I’ll ask if you have XYZ, what would you do, or what could you do? I’m more interested in listening to them talk among themselves, hearing how they treat each other, what they chat about, what their attitudes are to various things that may have nothing to do with police work. It’s the incidental details rather than the procedure that interest me. But if there’s anything specific I’m unsure of, I can ask.

You have a long standing connection with Iceland. As a “Scandi-Brit” Is it easier for you to be more critical in your writing about how the country has responded to the aftershocks of the 2008 financial meltdown than would be the case for a native Icelander?

We’re into sensitive territory here. It’s incredibly easy to criticise both the run-up to the financial crash and the aftermath. Both have been pretty disastrous. It has to be borne in mind that a country teetering on the brink of bankruptcy like this is a rare event and it’s virtually impossible not to criticise, especially when, like me, the critic has a vast emotional investment in Iceland. I’m enormously fond of Iceland and it hurt watching the place hit so hard. Friends and relatives lost jobs and homes. It was painfully close to home watching it all happen.

It’s easier to be critical as an outsider as being outside maybe gives you a clearer view. But I’m also very conscious that as both an insider and an outsider, criticism from me is going to be taken badly. I can’t get away with being as openly critical as a local writing in Icelandic for a domestic readership could be. Having said that, when I wrote Frozen Out, I was sure I had gone overboard in describing some of the excesses, but for years afterwards things were still coming to light and in fact I hadn’t even come close.

Icelandic crime fiction is flourishing after years of being overshadowed by by its Nordic neighbours. Why has it taken so long for British readers and the publishing industry to recognise the country’s crime fiction scene?

Ask the publishers, both UK and US. For some reason publishers on both sides of the Atlantic are traditionally wary of foreign stuff and we see a far lower proportion of translated material on bookshop shelves than you’d see in a European bookshop.

To start with there were Sjöwall & Wahlöö, plus a few others, then Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, followed by Henning Mankell’s books. The arrival of Stieg Larsson triggered a rush for Nordic crime stuff, but in reality the bulk of what publisher snapped up in the wake of the Larsson phenomenon was from Sweden, plus some Norwegian books. Danes, Finns and Icelanders stayed pretty much out in the cold, although this has finally started to change now.

There are still only five Icelandic crime writers available in English; Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir who are well established. Then Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson and Árni Thórarinsson were published by Amazon Crossing, although there’s only one of Árni’s books in English (translated by Anna Yates). Then Karen Sullivan came along and took a punt on Ragnar Jónasson, which was definitely the right thing to do.

There are more to come… Lilja Sigurðardóttir (no relation to Yrsa), Jónína Leósdóttir, Ævar Örn Jósepsson and more. The sooner a few more are snapped by by British publishers the better.

Do you regard translation as an art or a craft?

Technical translation is a craft and literary translation is closer to being an art. Translating a novel calls for all kinds of interpretation, especially with those wonderful untranslatable words, swearing, idioms, nursery rhymes, and so on. These things can’t be rendered directly into English so it’s a process of finding roundabout routes and substitutes that equate to what the author would have written if he or she had been writing in English. It’s certainly a fine way of exercising the grey matter.

When translating Icelandic fiction do you have to make concessions for readers who may be unfamiliar with with the country and its culture?

I try not to. In places I’ll add a line or use one of those roundabout routes if something deserves explanation – although the editor has to approve these additions and may well ask for a few more. But I have faith in the readers of translated nordic crime fiction as being discerning, intelligent types who can use google if there’s something they find genuinely baffling, and who hopefully don’t mind being challenged occasionally by something new and unfamiliar.

What are the biggest challenges facing a translator in the age of ebook publishing?

I’m going to stick out my neck here and say that I deplore the number of foreign authors who translate their work into English themselves. I have read a few of these things and I haven’t seen a good one yet – although I’m possibly more critical than many people would be. It’s an exceptional person who can translate out of their native language and into another one. Fair enough, your conversational or business English is good, even excellent. But that’s not quite enough. I know authors who speak outstandingly good English, but who admit that there’s a crucial 2% shortfall they need to overcome to be able to write English themselves.

But still… when I see those words ‘translated by the author,’ that tends to be as far as I get.

Having said that, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov both wrote in English which wasn’t their first language. But they were exceptional. They must have mastered that final 2%.

Do you have a wishlist of books that should be published in the UK?

The one mentioned above, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Jónína Leósdóttir and Ævar Örn Jósepsson are prime candidates. Apart from them, I’d like to see more of Dominique Manotti’s books translated from French as her fiction is outstandingly good. Then I’d like to see crime fiction from more far-flung places, the Balkans, North Africa, Greenland…

As co-founder of the Iceland Noir festival you are currently arranging this year’s line up. What are you able to reveal about the event?

This year we wanted an all-female line-up of headlining authors, and that’s what we have. Our stars are Val McDermid from Scotland, Leena Lehtolainen from Finland, Viveca Sten from Sweden and Sara Blædel from Denmark.

Thin Ice is published by Constable

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