Lost in Translation: why the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain changed its rules

There is a story – probably apocryphal – about a Hungarian diplomat who addressed his English-speaking audience: “I am not wanting to talk for too long tonight,” he began, “as I am knowing your old English saying: early to bed and up with the cock.” The hazards of translation are legendary.

Today, translation is big business in crime fiction. A glance at the shelves in book stores, or a check through recent awards for mysteries shows this clearly: crime fiction in translation is increasing in popularity in the English-speaking world. Books by Henning Mankell, Fred Vargas, Karen Fossum and Boris Akunin have all grown in popularity.

In 2005, the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain excluded works in translation from its major award and established a separate award for these books. This decision was vociferously condemned by a high-profile and highly vocal minority, and the committee were branded en masse as Little Englanders. Sadly, none of these commentators asked the CWA why the decision had been made. Instead, they spread a lot of misinformation, some of which was speculation, some of which was wilful inaccuracy. Some of this is still circulating.

So let me put the record straight. I have been a member of the CWA committee for four years, and I was the Chair of the committee when the translations decision was made.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In 2004, changes in the management of the then sponsor of the Gold and Silver Daggers, the major awards for crime fiction in the UK, removed their support without warning. When I took over as Chair, our search for a sponsor had been unsuccessful. We couldn’t afford to continue funding the Daggers ourselves. This meant that 2006 would have been the last year the Gold and Silver Daggers were awarded. A literary award that had been made every year since 1954 was about to come to an end.

In my four years on the committee, the search for a sponsor had been our major focus. The Daggers were getting less and less recognition and the CWA committee had little or no time to work on other, important aspects of the organisation. The Daggers needed a serious rethink, and I set my goal for the year to be the re-launch of the Daggers with a major, long-term sponsor.

This meant that there had to be changes. We took advice from various people involved in the book trade, and moved the date of the awards to the early summer. But we were aware of an anomaly that had often been noted in relation to the Gold Dagger — unlike the other major literary awards, it included books in translation.

Translations are tricky as the unfortunate diplomat can attest. As a linguist myself, I am very aware of this. Translating literary texts is one of the most difficult things to do, because meaning doesn’t depend just on language – culture and context are fundamental. Meaning can be tricky even between English-speaking cultures. Add a different language to the mix, and the situation becomes very complex.

But mistranslation isn’t the main problem. It is more fundamental than that. A novel is more than its narrative; it is the context of the narrative, and the way the writer presents it to the reader. A work of fiction develops atmosphere, evokes sound, recreates an entire world from words on the page, and different languages create these effects in different ways. Is it the role of the translator to be faithful to the original text, or to work more creatively to evoke the effect of the original?

Crime fiction often uses the language of the streets, it is often idiomatic, terse and regional. The writers do this to create certain cultural ambiences, to get meanings across that are clear to people who share the code, but are opaque to outsiders.

To give an example: in inner-city London, a new multicultural dialect is emerging. A mystery author writing a book based in this location might well have characters who use this dialect. Dis my yard, innit. Is nang, you get me? Don’t chat to me. That was deep.

How does a translator work with this? It isn’t just a matter of translating the surface meaning – the selection of this dialect tells the reader about the characters who are using it and the nature of the society in which they live. The translator has to work out an equivalent from the target language that will carry all the social connotations – very difficult in any circumstances, particularly if the target language comes from a culture that is less diverse than inner-city London.

The job of the translator is to recreate that meaning and that ambience in the target language, without moving the cultural context of the book. This is a skill which often has nothing to do with the direct translation – the translator has far more creative input than that, which is the reason why so many literary awards exclude works in translation – the text no longer belongs exclusively to the original author. The translator has had considerable creative input, and the success of the final text depends on the skill with which he or she has worked.

The CWA committee decided that if we were able to find a sponsor for a new award that carried a much higher prize, we would also take the opportunity to change the rules to exclude translations and award a separate prize that would be divided between the writer and long unrewarded translator.

However, our critics didn’t choose to fight the battle on these grounds. They dismissed the role of the translator as a red herring and were determined to see a more sinister motive. What matters,one critic said, is that the book is a good read. For readers, this is true. A good mystery should be just that: a good read. But for awards, the question of provenance can’t be so easily dismissed, unless we all agree that mysteries are not books to be taken seriously, and the skill of the translator can be largely ignored. I don’t accept this, and neither does anyone on the CWA committee.

We were first accused of taking sponsorship from a major retailer and altering the rules to ensure that the writers they wanted would win. This is simply untrue. Our new sponsor, the Duncan Lawrie private bank, is not involved in the book trade at all We have never approached a major retailer for sponsorship, and never would. Such a sponsor could have compromised the independence of the award.

The Duncan Lawrie private bank have a long association with literary awards and organisations, particularly the Arvon Foundation, a writers’ charity founded by among others, the poet Ted Hughes. Duncan Lawrie are sometimes referred to as the writers’ bank because a great many of their clients are writers. One of the things that attracted them to the CWA Awards was their independence. They played absolutely no part in the translations decision. It was made before we approached them.

We now have in place the Duncan Lawrie Dagger which offers a prize of £20,000 for the best crime novel of the year written in English and published in the UK, and the Duncan Lawrie International, offering a prize of £5,000 to the writer and £1,000 to the translator for the best crime novel translated into English and published in the UK. The difference in prize money recognises the number of books likely to be entered for each prize.

The CWA committee made a brave decision last year. It has given crime fiction the highest prize available for popular fiction in the world and ensures that two books of different types will be recognised – there will always be a translation and there will always be a book written in English.

As someone who was instrumental in the translations decision, I’m more than happy to be challenged about this. I believe that there are arguments to be made on both sides, and debate is healthy. I also believe that the CWA got it right. But I want this argument to be based on fact, not on false rumours or abuse.