Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bouchercon V: Remembrance of crimes past

David Liss invoked one genre as a key to success in another at Saturday's panel on crime stories set in the past: "Historical fiction," Liss said, "has more in common with fantasy than we like to imagine."

The remark clicked with me because Liss' novel The Coffee Trader, whose central theme is commodities manipulation in the coffee trade of seventeenth-century Holland, is the most thorough and convincing fictional world in which I have ever been immersed, and creating convincing worlds (and universes) seems to this outsider to be much of what science fiction and fantasy are about.

A second panelist, Kelli Stanley, called into service a concept dear to this blog's heart in discussing the fiction she sets in first-century Rome: "I translate history," she said. Translating Latin curse words, she said, "I would use the vernacular" -- plenty of "Goddamnit!" and no "By Jupiter's nose!" And that get right at the heart of questions a translator faces whether translating a language or a period of history.

Panelist number three, John Maddox Roberts, whose work also includes Roman mysteries, noted that while the Julius Casears and Antonys and Cleopatras of the world are long dead and can't sue him, their defenders and detractors are still around: "All of these people have their fans" -- partisans who honor and embellish their names millennia after their deaths.

The fourth guest, Sharan Newman, who has been honored for her career achievement in historical mysteries, offered a practical solution to the problem of how to integrate necessary information about unfamiliar settings without turning the story into a travelogue or a lecture: Let a character do it. "In medieval mysteries," Newman said, "it's often someone who comes from another country and doesn't understand how things are done in Paris."

Next: God, truth, war and opportunity

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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29 Comments:

Blogger Fred said...

Sorry about this, but I have to disagree with Kelli Stanley. I prefer "Jupiter's Nose" to "Goddamit." There's nothing more disconcerting to me than to encounter 21st century or contemporary expressions centuries in the past when they can't be there.

One of the reasons I enjoy historical mysteries is the work the author puts in trying to bring that era alive. "Jupiter's Nose" does it: "Goddamit" doesn't.

October 18, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

By the way, thanks for the reporting from the convention. Perhaps when one is closer to home, I may attend one myself.

October 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, to be fair, I think she may have been exaggerating for hypothetical purposes. She was making the geenral point, I think, that she doesn't like books filled with archaisms. But your objection would have been well taken and would have gone right to the heart of one of the issues that authors of historicals have to deal with.

October 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

San Francisco next year, St. Louis in 2011, 2012 to be determined later today, I think.

October 18, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Ah, 2012. Will that be scheduled before or after the end of the world? [g]

October 18, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Next Fall in San Francisco?

Hmmm...I have a brother living in Sacramento.

Haven't seen him in several years. Hmmm...

October 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, there were several cracks about delaying the announcement because there might be no need for one.

October 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's not too late to sign up.

October 18, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

I assume they will be optimistic and select a place--just in case.

October 18, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

I'll meditate on it.




v word: derferi

I'll take derferi instead of going around.

October 18, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Does Bouchercon have a permanent web page or does it change every year?




v word: folikle

You can have this one.

October 18, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Yes, it could be an exaggeration. Print loses body language and tone, inflection, etc., of speech

October 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, perhaps Bouchercon 2012's organizers could reassure would-be attendees by offering at least a partial refund in the event that the world ends before the end of the conference.

Ja, derferi across der river, der folikle for der hair.

October 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I know of no permanent Bouchercon Web site, but the Bouchercon 2010 site is up, as is a Bouchercon 2011 blog.

October 19, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Thanks. I guess each group sets up its own web site and perhaps its own blog.

October 19, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

a possible "partial refund"?

I'm sure that would help reassure some of the more thrifty and cost-conscious attendees.

October 19, 2009  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

Peter,

I really enjoy Liss's work as well. I've read The Coffee Trader, A Conspiracy of Paper, and one other by him (the name escapes me). He writes with the benefit of historical hindsight of course, but he also doesn't allow 21st century sensibilities to sneak into the narrative, which is nice. I think that goes a long way in immersing a reader in this "alternate" universe he creates for these period pieces.

October 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That was a good question, Fred. Someone asked me, "Who stages Bouchercon?" and I realized I didn't know. There is a "standing committee" that votes on the location of conventions, but I'm not sure what the group is a standing committee of. The printed program contains organizational by-laws, but I'm likewise unsure what organizations they are by-laws of. I'm not sure if they're on the Web site. There may also be an "About Bouchercon" link on the page that will let you know who's in charge.

October 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, The Coffee Trader is not set in an alternate universe, but it does everything it seems to me any kind of fantasy ought to do. It's an astonishing piece of fiction that almost makes a reader forget the massive amounts of research Liss must have done.

October 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, perhaps a mere partial refund seems harsh if the world ends, but the convention organizers do have their expenses to meet.

October 19, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

I can understand that. I think it's the Japanese who have the tradition of trying to pay off all their debts by the first of the New Year.

It would be nice if one could be debt free at the End of All Days.

October 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Those pesky Japanese and their habit of saving money and avoiding debt.

It would be nice if one could be debt free at the End of All Days.

Drop the bomb, and balance the budget.

October 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, here’s a Web site for the Bouchercon standing committee.

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Thanks for the link. I saved it.


v word: subdress

To dress below a standard?

While almost half were overdressed, the rest were subdressed.

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've heard of dressing down. Subdressing is fancier term for the same thing, I suppose.

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks for the coming to the panel, Peter! We were worried, given the timeslot! :)

My point on the translation comment was that many, many readers are put off by historical settings--and my goal as a writer is to try to reach out to them and give them an accurate but non-jargony *feeling* of what living in first century Roman Britain would be like ... in the hopes that they will rethink an anti-history bias.

Fortunately, "goddamnit" isn't an anachronism--it's the modern equivalent of an ancient curse calling down the wrath of a paternal god. Though Greco-Romans were of course not monotheistic,Jupiter/Jove was often referred to as Deus or god.

I scrupulously avoid anachronistic expressions (cards on the table, etc.), and that makes the act of translating cultures more challenging, but also rewarding. And hey, it makes me feel better about all the student debt I raked up in earning a Master's Degree! ;)

Take care, and thanks again for all the fun this Bouchercon!!

Kelli

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelli, that panel was very high on my list. I would not have missed it even if it had been scheduled for 8:30 a.m.

In re anachronism, authenticity and balancing period flavor with readability, I can imagine no more daunting task than that facing historical-crime novelists. Such writers often talk of the freedom they enjoy writing about times before the existence of police forces and professional detectives. The difficulties are less-often discussed.

I would imagine that lead curse tablets of the kind found in Bath could guide writers about the period in their choice of invective -- in addition to being pure delights in themselves.

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Kelli Stanley said...

Absolutely! Curses were a sub-specialty of mine as a scholar. And something else that many people are not aware of is that Latin not only changed dramatically between the era of Plautus to Augustus (and through to the so-called Silver Age, the period I'm writing in, and of course into the later periods as well), but that colloquial or vulgar Latin existed side-by-side with the "proper" tongue.

As I mentioned in the panel, Catullus is a first century poet of great subtlety, power and beauty who also wrote scathingly explicit, almost Ginsberg-like verse that utilized "street" Latin. The street Latin, in my opinion, is best translated in another vernacular--American profanity with which most readers and speakers of English will be familiar.

Translators -- and I've done a lot of actual translating and have won awards for my efforts -- is always a daunting series of choices. To me, absolute adherence to literal translation will often render out the actual meaning of the work, and thus defeat the purpose of translating it to begin with.

But I digress ... and as soon as I get a chance later this week, I'll email you those curse references we spoke about. Gratias et vale! :)

Kelli

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome!

Translators I've interviewed always cite slang, including swearing, as a challenge. Dialect is a bigger one, especially where different strands or levels of the language exist side by side. Stephen Sartarelli, who translated Andrea Camilleri's novels into English, had this to say:

"The Italians’ questions usually boil down to the same one: How could one ever render a proper equivalent of this linguistic stew in English? The answer is very simple: One can’t. But, on fait ce qu’on peut, as the French say. One does what one can. That is, one cannot hope to reproduce, even remotely, in the translation, the same distancing effects—from proper Italian—that one finds in the original. Dialect is inherently local. Montalbano’s world of cops, hoods, lovely ladies and eccentric petit-bourgeois could hardly be made to speak American ghetto jive or Scots or Faulknerian Mississippian or any other geographically specific idiom without appearing absurd. But they can be nudged in certain directions."

October 20, 2009  

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