The Summer of Kim Novak by Hakan Nesser translated by Saskia Vogel, book review

A hollow whodunnit that gets lost in translation
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The Independent Culture

The Summer of Kim Novak by Hakan Nesser was first published in 1998 in Sweden, where it is considered a minor classic. It is the tale of an idyllic 1960s summer that turns nasty, as narrated by a 14-year-old boy, Erik, who fancies himself as a bit of a Holden Caulfield. For this to work in English, the translation needs to be razor sharp, conveying Erik's wit and foibles and empowering his voice with enough character to drive and shape the novel. This takes guile: the translator must occasionally veer away from the original words and structure in order to control the tone and rhythm of the voice.

If Swedish idioms are translated literally – "I knew that Rogga Lundberg wasn't anything you'd want to hang in the Christmas tree" – there is no way the English reader can know whether Erik is a fond user of popular sayings or an eccentric speaker of gobbledegook. In Swedish, you may well tell the time by saying "it's five to half six", but in English this just sounds odd. Throw in an uneven mix of British ("bloody", "geezer"), American ("recess", "Chinese checkers") and who-knows-what ("I'm a Tarzan with omelettes"), and reading The Summer of Kim Novak is enough to give you vertigo.

I've read short stories translated by Saskia Vogel before and they were perfectly adequate; one can only assume this sorry outing was badly rushed, ill-conceived or loosely edited. The publisher is World Editions, a London-based Dutch publisher set-up in January 2015. Despairing at the lack of English translations of Dutch novels, Eric Visser, a publishing veteran in the Netherlands, decided to found a publishing house dedicated to releasing English translations of international literature – mostly Dutch, but there have been Swedish and Icelandic novels too.

A seemingly commendable venture. The website declares: "Publishing house World Editions aims to make the most promising international literary titles available for the greatest possible audience. Truly remarkable authors will be brought to the global market by translating their work into English. This way, new literary work of high quality can be read all over Europe and beyond."

So who are World Editions' books aimed at? Not pedants like me, obviously, nor lovers of the beauty of literature. Not even native English speakers, necessarily, but rather the legions of people who speak, or read, English as a second language, and for whom this book is carelessly presented in some sort of Global English. In which case World Editions, rather like The Summer of Kim Novak – a coming-of-age novel that turns into a hollow whodunnit halfway through – stops seeming such a bright little enterprise and becomes something altogether more mysterious.