Ever since Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy hit international bestseller lists, readers have been eager for mysteries in translation. From the Nordic region to Japan and beyond, countries all over the world have long traditions of thrilling literature. And since January, Le French Book has been publishing translated French crime mysteries. Today we are visited by four French authors whose award-winning books are now available in the U.S. thanks to Le French Book's CEO/translator/editor Anne Trager. Readers will hear from Sylvie Granotier, an acclaimed master of French crime fiction and author of the prizewinning The Paris Lawyer, Frédérique Molay, the author of The 7th Woman, which was won the 2007 Prix du Quai des Orfèvres and Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, authors of Treachery in Bordeaux, the first in an ongoing 20-book series that is being adapted for French television. And then keep on reading to learn more about Anne Trager's passion for bringing great French stories to the masses.
What authors have inspired you and your writing?
Frédérique Molay: There are so many authors that have led my imagination to wander and have inspired me to write: Enid Blyton, Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson and Michael Connelly all sharpened my taste for suspense. I love literature and understanding the invisible thread of ideas that links writers throughout history. For example, Voltaire, the philosopher from the Age of Enlightenment, inspired Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and The Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle, in which unrelenting suspense unveils a reflection about society that leads to tolerance… It’s dazzling.
Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen: It is hard to pick just a few authors of the authors who have inspired us directly. Perhaps the first to mention is Georges Simenon, because he was an expert in the art of creating mysteries with atmosphere in few words. Even today, rereading Simenon is a pleasure unlike any other. His work is timeless. But our references also include other classic authors such as Maupassant, Mauriac and Balzac, along with such foreign authors as Henning Mankell and Andrea Camilleri.
Sylvie Granotier: For me, the present tense applies to this question. These authors accompany me. Sometimes they guide me, and they always help me. Grace Paley is one of them, of course, both as a person and a writer [translator’s note: Sylvie began her writing career translating Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute into French and spent time with her in Paris]. Others include Georges Sand, whose correspondence is as rich and interesting and funny as Virginia Woolf’s, full of day-to-day anecdotes and more general considerations. I appreciate Stendhal for his quick pace, Dickens for his horizontal and vertical “vistas,” Melville for his structural variety, Gaddis to the ear, Chekhov for his humanity, James Caine for concision. The list is actually infinite. Then, in all modestly, you have to find your own “tone” as precisely as possible.
European mystery and thriller novels have found a lot of success in foreign markets. What is it about the genre that makes the story translatable to other cultures?
Sylvie Granotier: It seems to me that European mysteries and thrillers had to free themselves from the very powerful American model, and by reaffirming a specific cultural identity, they have found a universal quality. I am convinced that the more personal a story is and the more it comes from intimate emotions and feelings, the more it will touch people who are the farthest from the author. It is a paradox that is constantly being proven accurate. When a crime fiction novel is genuine, then the more exotic it is, the more people like it everywhere. Today, there is phenomenal diversity in European crime fiction, which is appreciated because it is different.
Frédérique Molay: The search for truth and the fight between good and evil are universal, just like you find with superheroes from Marvel Comics. What changes is where the plot takes place. This is certainly one of the reasons crime fiction crosses borders, allowing readers to travel and discover other cultures. European mysteries and thrillers have their place on the American continent, just as novels by English-language authors have brought pleasure to French readers for decades.
Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen: Our books are set in the world of wine and winemaking. Wine by definition is a drink that brings people together. The history of humanity is intertwined with the fruit of the vine. Rare are the cultures that have not given wine some place of honor. Also, it is not a coincidence either that our central hero Benjamin Cooker is part British. Haven’t the British been one of the best ambassadors for Bordeaux wines? It seems natural that a wine-base mystery series will find a place in all countries where wine plays a role in the culture.
What makes your novel quintessentially "French"?
Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen: Well, France is the world’s top producer of wine and has a long-standing reputation in this area. Wine may be made throughout the world, but France still holds more than its share of top estates and names in the business. And the stories about legendary wines are deeply rooted in France, in Bordeaux and Burgundy. Our hero benefits from vast knowledge in this area, and France’s cultural heritage, both the vineyards and architectural sites, adds a dimension to these books that stimulates the imagination. Who doesn’t start dreaming when they read about the countryside around Medoc or the Yquem fortress surrounded by morning fog?
Sylvie Granotier: Aside from the fact that the heroine in The Paris Lawyer works within a legal system that is extremely French, with its specific laws and tradition, other aspects of the book, such as the love relationships, embody a French spirit. The seduction, the passion and even the break-ups evoke our French way, which has in fact evolved very little since Balzac’s time. Even if the feelings are more or less the same everywhere, the form they take is different. I think that the social rules that regulate the relationships between different classes have subtle and secret codes in France that I like to reveal.
Frédérique Molay: The 7th Woman takes place in Paris, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. In addition to the setting, the police procedure is “made in France,” and the characters are necessarily marked by the history and culture of this old continent. And, of course, there are the French lovers.
What was it about this book specifically that will appeal to American and English speaking readers?
Frédérique Molay: Who doesn’t dream about visiting Paris? The 7th Woman takes you there. And you get to meet Chief of Police Nico Sirsky, an empathetic hero a little like the American-style super lawmen. He comes from a mixed background: His family had to flee Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th century and settled in France, and his mother has a very Slavic personality. He is the fruit of a European-style melting pot. The crime and the love story and the race against the clock should give chills and thrills to American and English-speaking readers.
Sylvie Granotier: I have a cultural background that is both French and fed from the English-speaking world, and I have always appreciated the latter’s writers focus on the reader. I think about that constantly: grabbing the reader quickly and not let them go in the middle of the river, playing with suspense without being artificial, and then giving relief at the end. Efficiency is worked on the same level as the plot and the structure. Being captivating and seductive without being a tramp, with French formalism on top of that.
Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen: Americans have an understanding of the wine world that is only matched by the Belgians in terms of European wines. This knowledge lends itself to enjoying the universe in which Benjamin Cooker works. The series is meant to be both fun and to teach readers something. The places we mention — restaurants, sites and more — are worth the detour in real life too, and all the information about wine is all thoroughly researched and accurate. We are not yet finished exploring France’s wine world. We are Epicurean, and will remain so, and we know that the wine world is an endless source. The more you think you know, the more humbling it becomes. There are so many fine wines to drink, and every year Mother Nature makes something new. This series could go on infinitely.
American translator Anne Trager has lived in France for over 26 years, working in translation, publishing and communications. In 2011, she woke up one morning and said, “I just can’t stand it anymore. There are way too many good books being written in France not reaching a broader audience.” That’s when she founded Le French Book to translate some of them into English. The company’s motto is “If we love it, we translate it,” and Anne loves crime fiction. Here is what Trager has to say about preparing French books for an English speaking audience:
Translation is like getting into another person’s head. When I read, I shift into another perspective and lose myself, and then I carry this over when I start to translate. This ability to see from another person’s perspective comes naturally to me, and the fact that I am the daughter of two linguists certainly contributes to my understanding of language and nuance. Well, that and so many years living, working and founding a family in France.
That said, I like to work with contemporary authors, so I can meet them in person and talk about who they are and their work. I like to share a meal, perhaps a glass of wine, and to talk about their inspiration. Maybe that is because I have spent so much time in France, and that encounter around food and wine is such a quintessential part of the culture, and one that I love. It is a cultural encounter, just like the books themselves are.
This cultural aspect of any book, no matter the language, is one of the very interesting dimensions of translation and one of the most challenging. As Sylvie Granotier describes above, not only is the legal system different, but even the way the lovers seduce each other is. That combination of universal and specific is what makes reading a book from another culture both intriguing and captivating. As a translator, my job is to make sure that the reader grasps as much of this cultural treasure as possible, while not for a minute losing the reader along the way. That means you have to find matches — not exact equivalents — that will give the reader the same experience of emotion, suspense and thrill as you get in the original language. Readers are looking for a good story, an entertaining read, not a course in cultural anthropology. It’s that good story that makes a book universal.
- Anne Trager
Readers can find information about the mystery novels mentioned above as well as other French books in translation at Le French Book's website. And to learn about more gripping tales of suspense, make sure to check out RT's Everything Mystery Page!