International Translation Day: Beyond Nordic Noir

30/09/2016 15:28
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The Nordic countries are synonymous with crime fiction -- the bleak and murderous landscapes of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. But the Nordic countries offer a wealth of literary riches in a broad range of genres. For me, some of the most exciting writing from the North is found outside of the detective's territory. These authors explore race, gender, and the relationship between nature and industrialisation. For International Translation Day, these are my top ten modern and historical Nordic books available in English translation.

Montecore, Jonas Hassen Khemiri (trans. Rachel Willson-Broyles)
Khemiri's books are literary gems. Each one is a challenge, a puzzle, and a delight to read. His second book, Montecore, is no exception. As well as being an exploration of artistic identity, it's a personal take on race relations in Sweden. This is one of the most important issues in Swedish politics at the moment, and Khemiri's writing on the topic is essential reading. Rachel Willson-Broyles's translation is a considerable feat of ingenuity, capturing Khemiri's fluid and experimental style.


The Serious Game, Hjalmar Söderberg (trans. Eva Claeson)
This is one of my favourite books. Penned in 1912 by the Swedish author Hjalmar Söderberg, it's a beautiful, lyrical exploration of what happens when love and desire are set against fate. It follows the love affair of journalist Arvid Stjärnblom and his childhood sweetheart, Lydia Stille, set in the turmoil of twentieth century Sweden. With its evocations of Stockholm's archipelagos and acute characterisations, it's no surprise that it became the writer's best-known novel. It's received three film adaptations, one of which came out earlier this year. Söderberg's earlier Doctor Glas is also worth exploring -- the Anchor edition comes with a foreword by Margaret Atwood.

Mysteries, Knut Hamsun (trans. Gerry Bothmer)
Norwegian author Hamsun is better known for Hunger, but Mysteries is the book that captivates me. It's his second novel, written in 1892, and tells the story of a community thrown into turmoil by the intrusion of a peculiar outsider, Johan Nagel. Hamsun was writing when Norway was undergoing rapid modernisation, and Mysteries perfectly captures the sense of a society in flux. I recommend Bothmer's translation, published by Souvenir Press.

The Brothers, Asko Sahlberg (trans. Emily & Fleur Jeremiah)
If you're looking for bitesize fiction, Peirene Press are the best port of call. They only publish novellas in translation, and The Brothers is a wonderful example of a book that reaches beyond the scope of its 122 pages. It's a translucent and allusive work, using an economical style to embed its characters within the stark landscape they inhabit in rural Finland. Its story of secrets and familial intrigue provides as much mystery as the best Nordic Noir.

Niels Lyhne, Jens Peter Jacobsen (trans. Tiina Nunnally)
Death, sexuality, and belief are the subject of Jacobsen's 1880 novel, written after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The author started out as a scientist, and his grappling with faith and science is foregrounded in this Danish classic. Nunnally's exquisite translation is published by Penguin, her rendition capturing the sensuality of Jacobsen's prose.

The Saga of Gösta Berling, Selma Lagerlöf (trans. Paul Norlen)
Lagerlöf was the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Saga of Gösta Berling was her debut novel, published in 1891. It draws on the world of the Icelandic sagas, complete with their formidable female figures. Paul Norlen's translation is available from Penguin.

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, Lina Wolff (trans. Frank Perry)
Wolff is emerging as a captivating voice in feminist literature. Perry's translation of Bret Easton Ellis is an uncomfortable read -- sensuality merges with violence, and the world that Wolff depicts is brutal and cruel. But despite its surreal tint it's recognisably our world, and this is where its power comes from.


Gunnlöth's Tale, Svava Jakobsdóttir (trans. Oliver Watts)
Gunnlöth's Tale merges mythic and modern Scandinavia, centred on the relationship between Dís and her mother after Dís is arrested for robbery. As Dís's mother fights to free her, Jakobsdóttir's experience as a politician shines through into her prose, the story weaving together politics, commerce, and legend. Oliver Watts's translation is available from Norvik Press.

The Howling Miller, Arto Paasilinna (trans. Will Hobson)
This is another tale of an outsider, this time from Finland. The book raises haunting questions about perceptions of mental illness, as the protagonist Gunnar Huttunen is exiled from his community when they believe him to be mentally ill. It's a poignant and gentle book, weaving together human and nature.

I Refuse, Per Petterson (trans. Don Bartlett)
This is Petterson's latest book, and it follows the success of his multi award-winning Out Stealing Horses. I Refuse is every bit as enthralling as the earlier novel, both shocking and heart-breaking. Bartlett's translation is deservedly a TLS and Guardian Book of the Year.