The case of the missing translation: Konop’s No Kaddish for Sylberstein

A fellow crime researcher and friend recently read a cracking little French crime novel called Pas de kaddish pour Sylberstein and recommended it to me as one I would enjoy. I duly trotted off to find the translation but came up against a sizeable problem: it’s not available in English.

The novel, by journalist Guy Konopnicky (aka ‘Konop’), was first published in France in 1994,  and went down extremely well with the critics at the time. It was also adapted for film as ‘K’ in 1997 – as I found out courtesy of the Swedish Film Database. And yet not a sniff of it in the UK or States.

However, I then discovered that the novel was available in a German translation entitled Kein Kaddisch fur Sylberstein (btb, 2004). This was a lucky break for me, as I read German a lot better than I do French, and so I was able to sample its delights after all.

Kein Kaddisch für Sylberstein.

This meandering little journey got me musing on the logic (or simply luck) that results in some texts being translated while others are not. There are a couple of good reasons I can think of that would explain why Sylberstein was translated into German. Firstly, some of it is set in Berlin and explores 20th century German history. Secondly, Germans have an insatiable appetite for both homegrown and international crime fiction (another crime researcher colleague of mine was telling me in all seriousness the other day that Swedish crime fiction sometimes appears in German before it has even been published back in Sweden). So there’s an extraordinarily huge market for crime in Germany, as this article on the Deutsche Welle website explains (in English :)).

Here in the UK, fewer translations make it through to the English-language dominated market, although there is of course a very healthy international crime fiction scene now, thanks to visionaries such as Christopher MacLehose at MacLehose Press – not to mention the good folk at Bitter Lemon Press and Arcadia.

It looks like my Konop novel slipped through the net, but perhaps (ahem) one of the above might be interested in picking up this little gem? Here’s a taster from the blurb on the inside cover of the German btb translation:

‘Paris, 20th district. Jewish antiques dealer Simon Sylberstein shoots and kills a German tourist, whom he recognises as his old tormentor. He then hands himself into the police and dies of natural causes shortly afterwards. But Police Inspector Samuel Benamou, originally from Algeria and also Jewish, can’t let go of the case: he travels to the newly reunified Berlin to continue the investigation himself. Once there, Benamou quickly realises that he’s not the only one interested in Sylberstein and his story…’

All in all, I found No Kaddish for Sylberstein an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. Darkly humorous and entertainingly over-the-top at times, it also succeeds in addressing the serious theme of post-war justice (and its lack) following the Second World War and the Holocaust. If you’re lucky enough to speak French or German, it’s available online for a reasonable price.

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20 thoughts on “The case of the missing translation: Konop’s No Kaddish for Sylberstein

  1. You raise an interesting question about why some books are translated and some not. Related to that is the question of why a series is not always translated in order. I know that sometimes it has to do with publishing contracts. Those vary and probably depend on available skilled translators and expected marketability. I’ve got a set of my own questions, though, about the way books get translated.

    • Thanks, Margo. Yes, my post touches on only a tiny portion of what could be said about the subject. Hadn’t thought about the series angle, but of course that’s true. Have you addressed the issue of translation more widely on your blog? Will pop over to take a look…

      • I do address it in a bit of depth here, actually. However, the topic is broad, and I know I could do a lot more with it. Time to revisit the issue soon, methinks.

  2. Australian author Michael Robotham said at an author event I went to that it’s a toss up between the Germans and Dutch as to who will translate first, with them often competing and occasionally releasing his book before it is released in English. He’s been told that they have relatively little genre fiction written in their native languages and the translation “industry” for want of a better term is well established for a wide variety of purposes that simply don’t exist in the English speaking world. Sadly we are drowning in genre fiction written in English so I guess there is just not the demand and we have to rely on intelligent publishers like those you mention. I’ve also heard authors say that there’s been a reluctance to translate in the past if the US market was in doubt for the title and until fairly recently that market has been pretty insular.

    • Thanks for this very illuminating comment, Bernadette. I think what Michael R. says is right – there’s not enough supply to meet demand in many European countries and US/British crime can fill that gap. I think the point about the dominance of the US market and the way that this market shapes publishing decisions about translating foreign language crime is also very interesting. And in the context of TV and film, even when international crime dramas do make it to the States, they are re-filmed with US actors, in spite of the superb quality of the original productions (e.g. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo / The Killing), presumably because it’s felt that US viewers will reject a foreign language / subtitled import.

      I do think that BBC4 here in the UK is breaking new ground through its steady promotion of quality international crime drama. A number of viewers who would normally not have watched subtitled programmes were drawn into The Killing and discovered that the quality of the production overrode any perceived disadvantages of the dialogue being delivered in a foreign language (I’m basing that observation on comments left on this blog). And what I would hope is that the success of such dramas might have a positive knock-on effect – that the buzz around international crime drama is noted by publishers and brings about an increased translation and readership of international crime. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a little mini-boom in Danish crime as a result of The Killing (the recently published Mercy is a case in point, which might already have been in the pipeline but has probably benefited by association from TK). MacLehose’s success in spotting the Millennium Trilogy also shows that international crime can be extremely profitable.

  3. The U.S. crime fiction market is very insular. Go into a big-name bookstore and barely is there any non-U.S. crime fiction, except some British books. The U.S. book-buying public buys nearly all U.S.-published books, barely any books published outside of the U.S. or translated books — except, of course Stieg Larsson and now Jo Nesbo and a few other Nordic noirs.
    Even the independent mystery bookstores have barely any non-U.S.-published books, and if they do they’re from Britain and by British authors.
    The vast majority of movie viewers do not watch subtitled films or European films, unless originally in English.
    I’m loaning translated crime fiction to mystery reading friends which I’ve obtained, and except for Stieg Larsson, no one has seen or read non-U.S. published books.

    • I find this a real shame – the US is missing out on such good stuff! I can imagine publishers might argue that US readers won’t relate to novels set elsewhere, but then again, given the rich ethnic diversity and immigration history of the States one would have thought that there would be some interest. I wonder what impact Larsson and the release of the US film versions will have, if at all. An isolated Scandi phenomenon or something that might help to shift US publishers’ views on the value of international crime?

      There’s a press called Melville House Publishing, based in Brooklyn, NY, which contacted me recently as a reviewer of international crime fiction. Its ‘Melville International Crime Syndicate’ is having a good go at promoting international crime through the publication of titles such as Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin, and the Kayankaya novels by Jakob Arjourni. See here for details http://mhpbooks.com/catalogue.php?category=48

      So there’s some hope yet! Not least due to the interest of US readers such as yourself.

  4. I agree wit you that it’s a shame. But it’s all very insular over here, even the news. One has to read a lot of online media to get a sense of the rest of the world’s happenings and viewpoints.
    But my gripes are often with the library system — and what it does not carry. Not only the budgetary considerations matter, but the availability of global books to readers.
    The major Nordic writers’ works are stocked and some Irish, and, of course, British writers, but not all, and, of course Camilleri and Leon’s books set in Italy.
    I can’t find anything by so many authors whose works are translated. I’m waiting and hoping my library will carry more books eventually. However, I’ve noticed that my library has far fewer books than a year ago; dvd’s are covering many shelves. “Best-sellers” are on prominent shelves, many geared to elementary school reading levels.
    Where are we going here regarding reading? So many young folks are reading on-line, many watch movies and don’t read. And, of course, many play with video games all of the time.
    I worry about this. Learning about human experience through reading, and learning about other cultures, history, ideas, etc., is being chipped away.

  5. Thanks. I had read Phillip Pullman’s absolutely brilliant defense of libraries a few months ago and sent it around to some very pro-library friends over here in the States.
    I’m not sure what to do about libraries and book purchasing. In my city, we’ve had many campaigns to save libraries from cuts in days, hours, staff, children’s programs, etc. And the pressure has worked to some degree.
    I don’t know what’s going on now as I see dvd’s taking over the library bookshelves, with barely any books left in the fiction department, except some best-sellers, which are nothing I would read, and are akin to airport newsstand books. Lots of dvd’s are purchased, not many books, especially global fiction — crime or not. (Or books are put in storage and one copy kept in a main library but does not circulate. I imagine full-time workers or parents trying to get there to do that!
    The public schools have to stress the importance of reading books, and get books that students want to read and imbue a love of reading. Then libraries have to follow through with the books and reading programs.
    However, with budget cuts going on all over the States (and many other countries), libraries are being hit, and even worse, so are public schools, pre-school and daycare programs, etc.
    I guess the rest of us have to sell our souls to Amazon!

    • You paint a depressing picture, Kathy! In my town, we’re lucky enough to have a great central library – with a fantastic crime section that includes a fair smattering of international crime. There are DVDs and CDs to rent, but the books still very much dominate, and provide a fabulous repository of local history and information as well. The price for that investment has been that some smaller local libraries have gone (including the one I used to take my son to as a kid, which was really just a room, but was a treasure trove for kids and was heavily used by older people with mobility problems).

      Yes, I agree that schools working in partnership with libraries are definitely the key. And parents – instilling a love of reading at an early age through bedtime stories…

  6. I came across this post at some point, and ended up ordering a second-hand copy of this and keeping it in my backpack with my swimming gear this summer. Admittedly, it’s not the most obvious poolside reading, but I did enjoy it. (Although I found the ‘pretend to be a German musician’ scene really uncomfortable.) However, my favourite bit was probably the glossary. I think I frightened the person on the next sun lounge by giggling hysterically, but I found it incredibly amusing. I think the definition of the Hagana as ‘see Paul Newman in Exodus’ was probably my favourite, but it was a close-run race with gefilte fish and the Sephardic/Ashkenazi distinction.

    As far as the plot goes, I’d recommend Arne Dahl’s 4th A-Group novel (it’s not in English yet, I don’t think – I read it as Tiefer Schmerz in German) as a comparison – without wanting to spoil it, there’s a central element that’s not dissimilar, and the same questions are raised, even if the overall feel is quite different.

    • Thanks, Lauren – it’s quite an interesting one, isn’t it? Even though it doesn’t come off in all respects. I couldn’t remember the German musician bit, so went back to have a look: I’d written in the margin ‘it all starts to get a bit daft here’. Thanks for reminding me about the glossary – a minor stroke of genius there.

      I’ve read the Arne Dahl you mention – it’s published in English as Europa Blues (which was actually also the title of the Swedish original). I guessed the solution to that one very early on 🙂 There’s a whole little subset in my collection that use that identity plot device and you tend to recognise them (better not say more for fear of spoilers, but you’ll know what I mean).

  7. Ah, my mistake. I’d lost track of which Dahl had been translated. And yes, the plot twist didn’t exactly come as a surprise. (Mind you, I’d rarely recomend reading Dahl for plausible plotting.) It’s not exactly my favourite plot device, although I suppose it’s not that far-fetched – it just seems as though it frequently comes with hand-in-hand with overdramatic and/or overly gory fictionalised backstories and characters. Is there something else solid in this category that you’d recommend?

    Kein Kaddisch did wander off into the realms of the truly bizarre at times, but it was definitely worth reading. And the last page and a half were very clever. I couldn’t help but wonder what the Rabbi would do then! ( I don’t think that’s a spoiler.) I’m actually going to translate the glossary for a friend’s birthday, so we’ll see what they say.

    To go back to the title of your original blog post, the sheer randomness of what gets translated and what doesn’t never ceases to amaze me. I’m just glad I have two languages at my disposal.

  8. Hi Lauren – I can’t think of anything in that category at the moment, but there’s an older German novel (1977) that plays with those kind of identity issues, and that I would classify as a *very* off-beat (and quite outrageous) crime novel. It’s by Edgar Hilsenrath and is called Der Nazi und der Friseur. Do you know it? I don’t think it’s readily available in translation, although there is an old, out-of-print one out there somewhere (The Nazi and the Barber).

    Yes, having two languages is a huge advantage when it comes to accessing international fiction – especially German for Krimis as it’s such a popular and vast market!

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