Steven T. Murray and Tiina Nunnally: On Translating and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

by Joanne Matzenbacher

Steven T. Murray and Tiina Nunnally are a husband and wife team who make their living as literary translators of Scandinavian languages into English. Steven (using the pseudonym Reg Keeland) is well known for translating the Millennium series, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Tiina has translated over forty books, including works by Vidar Sundstøl (Minnesota Trilogy), Sigrid Undset, and three novels by Klas Östergren. Both Steven and Tiina have translated Henning Mankell and Camilla Läckberg, as well as other crime fiction authors.

How did you become translators? How did you find a publisher?
Steven: I studied German in high school and college and then attended Stanford’s program abroad at the campus in Germany. I was disappointed that the American students didn’t have an opportunity to speak more German, so I was impressed when I met students staying in Denmark and Sweden who had really learned the language. I ended up joining the Scandinavian Seminar program and studying at a Folk High School north of Copenhagen. That’s how I learned to speak fluent Danish. Eventually I started my own publishing house, Fjiord Press, which Tiina and I ran for 20 years. We published mostly German and Danish titles in English translation, and our books got lots of reviews in the major newspapers, including The New York Times. That was how we established our reputations as translators of Nordic literature.

Tiina: I spent a year in Denmark as an exchange student, and no one spoke any English with me, so I had to learn to speak Danish! I fell in love with the country and the literature and wanted to share the books I was reading with my English speaking friends. The first book I translated was a wonderful memoir called Early Spring by Tove Ditlevsen – the story of a working-class girl growing up in Copenhagen in the 1930s and yearning to become a poet. I was lucky enough to meet the publisher of Seal Press at a party in Seattle, and she asked to see the translation. I was thrilled when she decided to publish the book!

What are some of the most difficult parts of a book to translate?
Steven: – Slang is always difficult, but the Internet is a big help. If I can’t find a word in my dictionaries, I Google the word on teenagers’ blogs in Scandinavia, to see how the kids are using it.

Tiina: Humor is always difficult to translate, because something that’s funny in one language may not be funny at all in another language. And swear words always present a problem. For example, in the Scandinavian languages, the worst epithets have to do with the devil. But in English, a curse about the devil wouldn’t have much impact. Most of our swear words have to do with God or sex. I once translated a Danish author’s novel that was filled with swear words. When he looked at my translation, he sent me an email saying: “How did all these Gods get into my text?!”

How long does it take to translate a novel?
Steven: The Millennium trilogy took about 11 months, but that was fast work on my part, because each book was more than 900 pages in manuscript! So that was actually equivalent to translating six regular sized novels. Generally, we each try to do about four or five books a year. We’re both full-time literary translators.

Do the authors you translate know enough English to read the translation? Does anyone ever say to you that the nuance or feeling isn’t exactly right?
Steven: I agree. Sometimes authors think that just because they have the ability to speak English (however fluently) they also have the ability to capture all the nuances in writing. Two very different skills.

Tiina: Some authors get more involved than others. Most Scandinavians speak good English, but writing English is a whole different matter, especially when it comes to writing fiction. We’re always happy to work with an author on the final version of a translation. It’s especially helpful if we can email him or her questions. But authors have to trust the translator. And our first loyalty is always to the author and the text – we realize that we have a big responsibility, because we are the author’s voice in English. Accuracy and artistry are both essential.

In any language there are certain words that just don’t translate well. How often do you encounter the dilemma of “just how do I say that?”
Tiina: A word-for-word translation will never convey the nuances or depth of a literary text. It takes more than linguistic knowledge of two languages to be a good translator. We often say that we’re like musicians who have to “play” the text for the reader. We’re also like actors, who have to give up our own identity and inhabit the voice of the author. Every translator brings his or her own experience and talent to a text, but it’s important not to insert too much of yourself into the translation. We want the translation to read as if the book had originally been written in English. Translation is an art, not a science.

In Swedish and other languages, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is titled Men Who Hate Women. Who changed the title for the English market, and why?
Steven: The British publisher acquired the world English rights to the trilogy, and I guess he thought the books needed titles that would have greater commercial appeal. So he changed the titles of books 1 and 3 and created what some people are calling the “Girl” trilogy.

Why did you choose to use a translator pseudonym?
Steven: We strongly believe that translators should get credit for their work, which means having their names on the cover and/or title page and getting mentioned in PR for the book. But if the editor or publisher makes major changes to the text without the translator’s permission, so that the final English version no longer reflects our work, then we sometimes (reluctantly) choose to use a pseudonym. In the case of the Millennium books, I wasn’t given enough time to go over the final editing, and I also didn’t agree with many of the changes that had been made. For example, in one scene where Blomkvist is at his sister’s house, she asks him how he’s doing. Larsson wrote, “I feel like a sack of shit,” but this was arbitrarily changed to “He told her he felt as low as he had in life.” These kinds of changes alter the tone and flow of the writing, and I didn’t want to be blamed for such things.

Do you read the book cover to cover before starting the translation?
Steven: We usually don’t read the book before we start translating, especially if it’s a crime fiction novel. We like to be as surprised by the story as the reader will be, and it helps to keep the translation as “fresh” and exciting as possible. But of course we go back and revise many times after finishing the first draft.

Tiina: I was interested to read that Gregory Rabassa, who has translated so many amazing novels from Spanish, doesn’t read the text in advance either. And by the way, he has written a fascinating memoir about his life as a translator called If This Be Treason.

Did you like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo from the start?
Steven: As soon as Lisbeth Salander appeared on the scene, I knew it was going to be a great book.

JoanneMatzenbacherJoanne Matzenbacher does email marketing for independent bookstore Bookworks. She also reviews books that she’s currently reading plus those new to the marketplace in a monthly column titled “It’s About Books.” Joanne retired from Dex Media as a trainer/sales manager and now lives in Denver where she keeps in constant communication via computer with the Bookworks store in Albuquerque. Books are her best friends and companions for life, so she considers this to be her dream job.

This interview was originally published on the Bookworks blog and in the October 2010 issue of SouthWest Sage. It is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Related Article:
“Tiina Nunnally Receives Knighthood” by Gayle Lauradunn
October 2013, page 1, SouthWest Sage

3 comments on “Steven T. Murray and Tiina Nunnally: On Translating and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
  1. John A Stotesbury says:

    May I ask a single question that has intrigued me about your translation of Philip Teir’s novel The Winter War? Since the novel is by a Swedish-speaking Finnish novelist, you have evidently chosen to retain the vast majority of the Swedish-Finnish place-names, street-names, etc., with the exception of “Helsinki” itself (and perhaps one other that has now escaped my notice!). I should like to know whether you chose to retain the Swedish names in order to retain a sense of the “otherness” of the Swedish-Finnish identity of the novel, or was the choice largely governed by the relative familiarity for anglophone readers of Germanic, rather than Finnish, place names — aided, no doubt, by the popularity of Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish fiction.

    I should explain that, as an originally British academic, I have lived and worked in Finland since 1970, and of course find it interesting to gain access to the insights of contemporary writers in this country — and largely because I worked for almost 40 years at the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) in the city of Joensuu, my contact with the Swedish language has been quite sparse. Hence, I was initially somewhat surprised by your choice. Although Swedish obviously enjoys full equality with Finnish, the dominant language here is obviously Finnish, and one might suppose that most anglophone readers with some acquaintance with Finland will have encountered it predominantly through the majority-Finnish “norms”, i.e., the Finnish place-names — most will have to search the map for the Swedish-Finnish alternatives (although I would be the first to admit a fascination with the strongly different names of cities such as Åbo/Turku, Villmanstrand/Lappeenranta, and — even more so — Jakobstad/Pietarsaari!

    Since a small group of us (all of the others native Finnish speakers, and all retired academics from the UEF) will soon be discussing this novel in a friendly reading circle, it would be nice to be able to contribute a small comment on this aspect to the discussion as a whole. (It goes without saying that I would happily report back to you on the general on the aspects raised in the discussion as a whole!)

    I do hope this strikes you as a sensible, if minor, question, since translation — especially of contemporary writing — is undoubtedly an important task and one that too often takes the role of the translator for granted. My best wishes for your ongoing work — and many thanks for this splendidly readable version of Vinterkriget.

  2. Michael Daly says:

    Wikipedia lists Steve Murray, the translator author, as having died in 2018! Is this true? I was a personal friend of Steve’s and knew him in the 1960’s & 70’s.

    • KL Wagoner says:

      I just confirmed that Steve did pass away. Being a personal friend, you must have special memories of him — I hope they ease your sadness.

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