Work from Home if You Can – the New Normal?

COVID-19 has had several impacts on our lives, including on how and where we now work. In a recent policy brief, the International Labour Organization states “An important measure taken by governments across the world to contain the spread of COVID-19 is to encourage those who can work from home to do so.”[1]. Only 5% of the UK workforce mainly worked from home last year, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS)[2]. Since the UK lockdown began in March of this year, the percentage has grown considerably, with over 46% of workers doing some work from home in April 2020[3]. Not everyone can work from home, but many can and are doing so.

For some office staff, the sudden shift to homeworking has meant they have had to request resources from their employer or share equipment with their homeworking housemate or partner in order to carry out their usual tasks. ONS found that 96% of households had internet access in January this year[4]. So, in-person meetings have become online calls with some businesses even considering remote working as a viable long-term option.

The Challenges

One disadvantage of working from home is that your work and home life could become blurred, especially if you lack space. With no commute, it may feel like there is no time to switch off or have a change of scene. You may be missing out on team bonding events, sociable lunches and face-to-face meetings. Poor home office equipment could mean an uncomfortable working environment. Distractions from other members of your household, particularly if your role included home-schooling at the height of the UK lockdown, could prevent you from working at full capacity or mean you have to shift your working day into the evening.

A Translator’s Perspective

From my own experience, working from home offers several advantages. You can have more flexibility in your working hours. I find I can concentrate on tasks at my own pace without distractions from colleagues. Academics at Cardiff and Southampton universities have found that remote working could improve productivity[5]. No commuting gives me more time for friends, family and hobbies outside office hours. It also saves me money, as I do not have to pay for my travel or lunch. I often simply eat at home. Many of my professional networks already had online forums and webinars for networking and continuing professional development (CPD) before the pandemic started. Our in-person events have now also moved online, offering virtual coffee mornings, quizzes, conferences and workshops at the click of a button – a great source of solidarity and CPD!

Whilst translators have adapted to this workstyle (or are naturally inclined to homeworking), other professions and personalities may find it difficult. Technology has enabled some of my interpreter colleagues to undertake work online rather than in person during this pandemic, but many have lost work due to conferences and in-person meetings being cancelled or postponed.

Finding Solutions

As a long-term homeworker, I can recommend setting regular hours for your work. This gives you time to focus and time to relax. Most importantly, your clients know when to contact you. Having your own office is ideal: a well-equipped space to concentrate and avoid distractions. If this is not possible, setting aside a specific area of a room for your office space is helpful. Networking with colleagues online and in person is essential both for your own wellbeing and to discuss work-related issues. Most of my clients are in mainland Europe. So, we rarely meet, but we communicate by email frequently. Hobbies which keep you fit and give you the opportunity to meet and make friends are very important. Sadly, my choir cannot function in person during this pandemic, but staying in touch has been very beneficial.

The New Normal?

It will be interesting to see if office work continues to be carried out at home in the post-pandemic future. Could this see office space being turned into homes? Will city centres become less important than suburbs? Will some professions have a post-pandemic future, whilst others fade away? Will theatres turn into subscription-based streaming services and holidays become virtual reality experiences? Personally, I believe we will want the thrill of live music and theatre performances alongside travel and sightseeing. We will still want to meet in person and visit each other. We might simply do so less often during our office hours.







CIOL 2020 – Life’s What you Make It!

Moving beyond “Members’ Day”, the Chartered Institute of Linguists held its first 2-day conference on 6th and 7th March. Presentations offered aimed to develop our business skills, writing and working with technology. The challenges for linguists, particularly for those in a post-Brexit Britain along with the rise of the machines, are bad omens – but we have the tools to counteract them.

With the coronavirus on everyone’s minds, the UK-based institution’s choice of BMA House, home of the British Medical Association, was an apt venue. Ellie Kemp of Translators without Borders, which engages linguists to help tackle emergency situations, showcased what happens when an ebola epidemic strikes. Linguists have to learn cultural and linguistic sensitivity to communicate as clearly as possible to prevent further cases and heal those affected – a matter of life and death!

BMA HouseBMA House, London [photo courtesy of CIOL]

Other sessions I attended also stressed the importance of communication, reflection and the need to adapt. For example, your career profile can change over time to fit a market need, as described by Anna Ostrovsky, a linguist and digital product manager. We are here to solve problems.

Dr Binghan Zheng, an associate professor at Durham University, concluded the first day with his lecture on how the brain functions when translating. Various experiments reveal how your eyes and brain track a text in many ways, far beyond reading.

On day 2, translator Oliver Lawrence showed with fun examples how we can engage our readers. We’ve got rhythm, we’ve got music, but some clients do ask for something more. We can offer that too. Know your text and know your audience. Keep it snappy or mellifluous depending on your client and their product or service.

CIOL’s Chair of Council, Judith Gabler, proposed embracing its support and, most importantly, achieving Chartered Linguist status to future-proof our profession. A final panel discussion was chaired by experienced linguist Michael Wells. The discussion emphasised that, whilst businesses recognise the importance of learning and working with languages, professional linguists have low status and poor pay. This, combined with work mostly being outsourced, provides a hostile environment for translators and interpreters in particular.

However, by enhancing our skills of writing and communication with our clients, we can and should assert ourselves. Asking for feedback and thanking your clients are simple, but effective ways both of making you stand out and of realising your own value. After all, we are here to help and improve business, justice and life itself.

International Translation Day 2021 – What Does a Translator Do?

International Translation Day falls on 30th September each year, the feast day of the famous translator St. Jerome. To celebrate, I thought I should reflect on the work of translators – those of us who turn documents from one language into another.

From contracts to birth certificates, academic reports and press releases, translators help so many individuals and businesses. During the many lockdowns, besides locally-produced TV films and dramas, “foreign” entertainment often featured with subtitles provided by translators. How would we discover new stories and comedy in books without the aid of translation?!

As travel eased, we have found airport guidance and sightseeing recommendations appear in our own language as if by magic. Have you bought a property overseas? A translator would most likely have helped with your conveyancing documents. Inventions and innovations, such as vaccines and medical treatments, have become widespread thanks to translation.

[St. Jerome in his study, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

Those translators who also work as interpreters (translating spoken language) have enabled online conferences and business meetings to take place, just as they helped in-person events in the past. Some interpreters also work in far more dangerous situations helping military forces overseas. Interpreters provide a vital service in medical situations and court proceedings for health and justice respectively by speaking the words of those unfamiliar with the language required. Translating and interpreting can smooth the path to getting the correct compensation you deserve after an accident or theft.

Without translation, we would miss out on so many opportunities and discoveries. If you want to find out more, check out the websites of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting ( and the Chartered Institute of Linguists (

Translation comes at a Price or How my Love of Languages turned into the Art of Calculation (with apologies to Dr Strangelove)

When I started translating professionally, translation agencies offered me their rates. A common request is per 1,000 target words (the resulting translation), but a source word count is sometimes used. So, you need to be aware of the likely difference between source and target word counts. This depends on the type of document. There are certainly differences between languages as well. For example, compound German words become longer phrases in English. Will cultural/historical references require an explanation in the target language? Can a long instruction in the source language be turned into a snappy expression in the target one?

Minimum versus maximum

Of course, if a document is quite short, such as one page (300 words or fewer), you could offer a minimum fee. This is a flat rate. Whatever you charge, you need to know how long it takes to carry out each project in advance. In this way, you will meet your deadline and charge a fair price. Other rates used are per word, per question (for a quiz machine, for example) and per certificate. Here, you need to consider the time it takes to reproduce formatting.

It is also common practice to charge an hourly rate for revision, i.e. checking a translation against its source text and correcting it for translation errors along with grammar and spelling mistakes. A pace of 1,000 source words per hour is expected. If proofreading a text without reference to its source document, then 2,000 words per hour is reasonable. An hourly rate is also appropriate when there are some sections for translation and revision alongside others where only proofreading is required.

Different (key) strokes for different folks

A price per line may also be quoted for a translation. A line is not a number of words, but 55 characters with or without spaces, based on the source or target text(!)

Having a variety of clients over more than two decades means that I have been paid in Australian dollars, German marks, Austrian schillings, Swiss francs, euro and pound sterling, to name a few. Currency converter websites are, therefore, a helpful guide to establishing a rate for your quote. This will not necessarily mean that you receive the same rate once you are paid though, unless you insist on payment in advance – exchange rates fluctuate and there may be bank charges. So, it is a mathematical jungle out there.

“Simplify, simplify” – Henry David Thoreau

In recent years, I have found several of my clients are happy with an hourly rate for proofreading, revision and translation. This works well. Be clear regarding the time required so that you can agree on a fair price. It takes time and experience to know what you can achieve in any timescale. Besides this, you also need unpaid time for admin, CPD, networking and holidays – remember to take a break!

With best wishes, in these difficult times, to all my clients and colleagues.

Friend or Foe? – German Coronavirus Terms to Confuse or Bemuse You

The German language enjoys borrowing English words. For example, ‘Manager’ and ‘Job’ are often used instead of ‘Leiter’ and ‘Arbeitsstelle’. Other English-sounding words, such as ‘Handy’, also exist; this means ‘mobile phone’, even though no English-speaking person would use this to describe their phone – a false friend indeed.

The COVID-19 crisis has created a vast array of terms in the UK and the German-speaking world. The Leibniz Institute for the German Language has compiled a list of vocabulary, available at: This includes a number of English-sounding words. Just as with the virus, we need to approach some of these with caution though.

When it comes to living under strict restrictions, where England has Tier 1, Germany calls this ‘Lockdown light’. A ‘Megalockdown’ is the opposite of this with the most extreme restrictions, such as ‘Tier 4’. Restrictions might arise not only from governmental legislation, but also be forced on you by prolonged snowfall with the rather delightful ‘Flockdown’.

For appearance, Germany insists on a ‘Mask-have’ (a mandatory face mask) with this being ‘Coronafashion’. If you have to manage your own hairstyle, this is referred to as a ‘Coronacut’.

(One of my own masks, above)

While ‘Zuhause’ means ‘at home’, domestic work and entertainment have happily adopted ‘home’. So, ‘Homeclubbing’ means ‘dancing at home to music via the Internet on a video call with friends’. Why not? Confusion might start though when asking about how things are going in the ‘Homeoffice’ – not a UK governmental department, but the official German term for homeworking.

If you can leave your home, you might like to cycle on a ‘Pop-up-Bikelane’ (the term ‘Pop-up-Radweg’ is also available). When the option of long-distance travel is no longer possible, you might like a ‘Holistay’, more commonly known in English as a ‘staycation’.

A recent term, which might be added to the official list soon, is ‘Impfluencer’. With ‘impfen’ meaning ‘to vaccinate’, an ‘Impfluencer’ is someone who can influence others to get a COVID-19 vaccine. While we wait to be vaccinated or have to shield, both German and English speakers will have to continue ‘Social Distancing’, but can also indulge in a few ‘Quarantini’.

From Fact to Fiction: Translators get Creative

Published writers Ros Woolner and Alison Layland recently guided a group of translators along a path towards creative writing at a fun and lively workshop. Alison translates fiction and creative texts from German, French and Welsh into English. Ros translates marketing materials and children’s books from German and French into English.

The Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI)’s West Midlands Group organised this workshop for translators, held at the Birmingham & Midland Institute on Saturday 29th June 2019. Below, our venue for the day:

IMG_20190629_094528234_Birmingham & Midland Institute

As translators, the source text provides us with a template for our translations, but we may focus too much on the facts. Playing with words and being creative can enable us to find solutions to difficult translation issues. When it comes to creative writing, Ros emphasised that the first copy is only for you and that you should think how something sounds not just how it looks. Word games were used to help us form a sentence and then a short story. Bouts of concentrated writing were followed by some of us enthusiastically reading our attempts to the group.

We explored imagery whereby a tangible object, such as a remote control, could have an emotion or a person attached to its description, bringing an inanimate object to life. We discussed character. Alison stated that we don’t want too much open description. We need to have empathy. We were challenged to describe a character on a journey/in a waiting room through his/her observations and what happens. Then, we had to introduce a different/opposite character.

After lunch, Ros read some of her poems from her book On the Wing and Alison read an excerpt from her second novel Riverflow. It was great to hear these texts voiced by their creators.

Returning to our writing, we then had to consider the setting for the characters we had created earlier and describe a favourite place where we feel happy.

Next, we arrived at the music of language. Ros introduced this as re-writing Shakespeare one word at a time. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” uses iambic pentameter and is the first line of a sonnet. We could change words, e.g. “Shall I entice him to my caravan?” We could then write another line, repeating the rhythm and/or rhyme, using different authors as inspiration.

Finally, we selected picture prompts and were asked to write a few lines of poetry or flash fiction (150-250 words). My picture prompt was a postcard of a werewolf by the Estonian author and illustrator Priit Rea. Printed on the reverse was the quote “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, for this is the only method of study nature has given us.” This summed up the experiment of creative writing very neatly.

Ros and Alison asked us to send some of our completed writings to them so that they could make a compilation. Throughout the day, we were given examples of published prose and poetry. We were encouraged to write in any language and share anything we wished. Overall, it was a very inspiring experience.

The Creative Art of Translation

A new year is a chance to reflect. One highlight for me of 2018 was a workshop I attended in Germany. It took place in Greifswald, the birthplace of Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th century romantic artist. This was a fitting setting to discuss

“Translating the Arts – The Art of Translation”.


“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich

(image taken from wikimedia commons)

The light in Friedrich’s works gives an air of magic. Landscapes dominate and people are in the shadows or depicted as a “Rückenfigur” (with their back to the viewer). A translator is similarly in the shadows, but reveals the landscape of a text to the reader in a different light.

Translators play a crucial role in the creative arts and literature. Here, style is important, not just content. “It’s not what you say, but the way that you say it.” In German, this becomes “Der Ton macht die Musik”, literally “The sound makes the music.” Sometimes, this can lead to odd expressions. For example, something was gained in translation when “break a leg” came to mean “good luck”, as the original phrase was misheard. Being familiar with proverbs and sayings is important. Otherwise, a literal translation would not make sense.

The magic of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books has been translated into 70 languages. Invented words, riddles and anagrams create great challenges to a translator. Tom Marvolo Riddle is Harry’s nemesis Voldemort. His name is an anagram of “I am Lord Voldemort”. On translation, his moniker has to change:

Tom Vorlost Riddle (German) = ist Lord Voldemort

[is Lord Voldemort]

Tom Elvis Jedusor (French) = Je suis Voldemort

[I am Voldemort]

Marten Asmodom Vilijn (Dutch) = Mijn naam is Voldemort

[My name is Voldemort]

Tom Gus Mervolo Dolder (Swedish) = ego sum Lord Voldemort

[I am Lord Voldemort] Here, the translator opted for Latin rather than Swedish.

Tom Dredolo Venster (Norwegian) = Voldemort den store

[Voldemort the great]

Without subtitles, film and TV fans might miss out on great drama and comedy from around the world. Good subtitles seamlessly express dialogue whilst allowing time to enjoy the images. Subtitlers have to compromise though, as a maximum of two lines appears on screen. Sometimes, text is shortened; a passive phrase becomes active; an indirect question, direct; a double negative becomes positive; or the viewer is simply provided with the sense of the dialogue. There is a stark contrast between accuracy and the art of a translation. The viewer wants to understand not just what characters are saying, but subtle nuances, which also reveal their emotions.

Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, an instant success in late 18th century Vienna, only became popular in the 20th century in the UK when translated by Edward Dent, then Professor of Music at Cambridge. Translating opera for performance means the music has to come first. The libretto (the words) must be singable, make sense, be natural and respect the rhythm and rhyme of the original. Some translations are “Textbuch” (textbook) while others are “Textbruch” (they take liberties).

From Wagner’s use in “Siegfried” of modal incongruence, where words or actions contrast with the music, to neologisms such as “Wunschmaid” (“wish-maiden” or “wish-daughter”), the translator faces many challenges, most recently tackled by Jeremy Sams’ 2005 translation. Alfred Kalisch’s 1912 translation of Richard Strauss’ “Rosenkavalier” is still the most frequently used. Hofmannstal’s invented language, known as “Sprachkostüm”; formal and colloquial Austrian dialogue; and a mix of tragedy and farce feature here. An example captures the rhythm of the original:

“Heut oder morgen oder den übernächsten Tag” (literally, “Today or tomorrow or the day after tomorrow”) is translated as “Now or to-morrow: if not to-morrow, very soon.”

In these examples, the translator remains hidden. A successful translation flows effortlessly and the audience feels at home as if the words being viewed or heard were original and not re-conveyed. Jeremy Sams perhaps makes the best conclusion: “Translation is an interesting paradox. Sometimes things have to radically change in order to seem the same.”

With thanks to Jadwiga Bobrowska and Stephanie Tarling of the Chartered Institute of Linguists’ German Society for organising this weekend workshop in June 2018 along with Professor Harry Walter of Greifswald University (proverbs); translator Nick Tanner (Harry Potter); subtitler Andrea Kirchhartz (subtitling); and translator and poet Sandy Jones (libretti).

Full Pedal Ahead in Salzburg


Salzburg, the city of Mozart and “The Sound of Music”, recently hosted the European Cycling Summit with the slogan “Radkultur bewegt” (translated as “Cycling culture moves”), welcoming around 400 delegates from across the world ( The pretty Austrian city, popular with tourists, has been increasing its number of traffic-free cycle and pedestrian paths making it extremely pleasant to explore. Salzburg’s cycling strategy encourages mobility for everyone and has already achieved a 20% cycling share of trips and over 180 kilometres of cycle paths.

Prior to the conference, a choice of cycle tours was available to participants. I opted for ‘High culture meets cycling culture’ which covered a number of fabulous sights in the city centre along with the lovely countryside over the course of 2 hours.


The welcome reception, held at the Mirabell Palace, included presentations of what has been achieved to promote cycling in the city and province as well as an ode to cycling by rap-poet Georg Sandner. The conference took place over 2 days in the Salzburg Congress – an excellent venue equipped with interpreting facilities and plenty of space during refreshment breaks to network, talk to exhibitors, attend extra panel sessions and view posters.

Topics included changing mobility routines, cycling culture for children and best practice in urban and rural areas. A panel discussion entitled ‘Cycling Culture in between Politics, Planning and Society’ brought together key players from different countries:

Amsterdam’s Inge Janssen of BYCS believes that cycling is more than transportation: it is transformation. BYCS is a social enterprise driven by the belief that bicycles transform cities and cities transform the world. It has created a network of bicycle mayors to encourage cities around the world to achieve 50% cycling by 2030 emphasising the economic, health and environmental benefits of cycling.

Berlin’s Heinrich Strößenreuther of Volksentscheid Fahrrad (Berlin Bicycle Referendum), which got more than 100,000 city residents to sign a petition for improved cycling conditions and prompted the city government to adopt their demands, argues that politicians do not willingly take away space from car users and the lack of space for cyclists is causing conflict.

Roland Romano of Radlobby Österreich, Austria’s national cycling advocacy, believes “Baut es und sie radeln” (“Build it and they will cycle”). The group promotes investment in infrastructure, research, PR, training, planning and critical mass rides.

Johannes Rauch, a member of Austria’s provincial government of Vorarlberg, feels that improving cycling infrastructure will lead to a chain reaction: cycling culture can be communicated through signage, apps, paper maps, google maps and by offering hire bikes.

Gothenburg’s Michael Koucky of Koucky & Partners AB, a leading consultancy in sustainable mobility, developed the tool Kommunvelometer, which has annually measured the cycling efforts of Swedish cities since 2009. People embrace coffee culture and car culture, but not necessarily cycling culture. Measuring investment in cycling infrastructure, information and marketing are needed.

Brussels-based Piotr Rapacz of the European Commission’s DG Move, its sustainable and intelligent transport unit, discussed a vast array of initiatives which assist cycling: SUMP guidelines, CIVITAS, European Mobility Week, Partnership on Urban Mobility, smart cities and communities, and urban access regulations.

Michael Adler, managing director of tippingpoints GmbH, an agency for sustainable communication based in Bonn and Berlin, gave examples of films promoting cycling in a creative and humorous way.

Delegates took part in a bicycle parade where they cycled from the Salzburg Congress to the Stiegl Keller as a critical mass in rush hour. With a police escort and cheering pedestrians, it was a very positive experience, culminating in an enjoyable dinner.  The summit concluded with a presentation by UK cycling research expert Rachel Aldred, of the University of Westminster, on ‘Cycling Cultures of the Future’.

As many posters dotted around Salzburg state: “Fahr mit einem Grinsen. Fahr Rad” – “Ride with a smile. Ride your bike”:


Slamming it – Translating with an Audience

Working freelance, I often translate for people I have never met with emails being our only means of communication. So, when asked to take part in a German – English translation slam at the University of Bristol, I was both honoured and somewhat overwhelmed.

Having attended other slams, I understood the format: Two translators prepare a translation of the same text in advance. These translations are then dissected with an audience of fellow translators, students and academics while a moderator chairs the event.

Receiving the source text in December gave me over a month to prepare a translation of roughly 400 words – normally a 2-hour task even allowing time to liaise with the client regarding any queries. However, whilst there was a clear brief in this case, there was only an imaginary client: A management company representing two musicians planning a UK tour. The text was a promotional brochure for a four-handed piano duo.

The secretive nature of translation slam preparation means that queries cannot be discussed with the client nor with colleagues, and especially not with your fellow translation slammer.

My approach

The source text was marketing material for a unique partnership between two pianists. After researching information on the performers, institutions and music mentioned, mostly online, I drafted my translation in English. I checked it for accuracy, read it and spellchecked it. I had assumed British English, as the management company initially wanted to put together a UK tour. So far so normal, but I then annotated my translation to clarify why I had translated as I did since I could be asked to justify any part of it.

Mainly translating in the legal field, where contracts and court proceedings require a high degree of accuracy and a style close to the original, my approach had to be different here. A free style used for press releases, interviews and marketing texts had to come into play. Facts should appear in a lively and engaging way, grabbing the attention of the reader.

Although the text was short, the need to create a truly robust translation whilst working in isolation meant it had to be revised several times. So, the translation, revision and annotations took 16 hours to produce over a couple of months. Some of the source text would have been very impenetrable if translated literally. Several ideas were often crammed into one sentence. So, I broke the text down into more sentences to give the impact a marketing text deserves.

The original audience for this text would have been Austrian and so there were subtle differences between Austrian and standard German as well as institutions more familiar to an Austrian audience scattered throughout the text. The source text was ambiguous at times, which made it seem intriguing. This raised the question of how to achieve this tone in English whilst also making the message clear.

The day of the slam – 15 February 2018


Once the audience of over 40 people had arrived, I realised that the real work was only just about to start. The discussion was lively and the panel took it in turns to answer questions relating to our respective translations, displayed section by section alongside each other. Over the course of two hours, the audience asked about everything from the nature of the musical collaboration involved to our choice of vocabulary, punctuation, style, word order and the time we had spent on our translations.

It was potentially a nerve-racking experience. When queried, I needed to explain my choices while respecting those of my combatant. Usually, we had come up with alternatives, but it was difficult to determine which was better. Several differences were discussed such as the use of quotation marks as opposed to italics, both being acceptable in the context. Snappy titles competed with explanations. Sometimes, the emphasis in a sentence differed.


Despite the two translations being very different at times, the key points were that the information was correct and engaging. We agreed that what’s important is to understand the gist and relay that in a creative, but clear way. A version produced by machine translation provided to the audience highlighted the weak points of using such a tool for a very idiomatic text.

Working in isolation, a translator can consult the client or agency involved and even discuss issues with colleagues online, but rarely has to justify choices made to an audience. If we consider the audience for our translation, we will be more aware of why and how we make our choices and the impact this will have on our readers.

Thanks to Sandra Mouton of ITI’s Western Regional Group for organising this event along with Dr Lucas Nunes Vieira of the University of Bristol, my fellow translation slammer Dr Seiriol Dafydd, our moderator Dr Lindsay Bywood of the University of Westminster, fellow translator Alex Reuer for reading the source text before the discussion and, of course, our audience.

[Photos courtesy of Dr Kiron Chatterjee]

Not just sweaters – “In from the Cold: Northern Noir” Europe House, London on Wednesday 18th October 2017 [full programme below]

Oslo NN photo

A symposium on Northern crime writing, crime fiction translation and criticism attempted to define this recent phenomenon. The packed day of events was curated by Dr Karen Seago, Prof Amanda Hopkinson and Dr Minna Vuohelainen of London’s City University with six prominent authors from Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Finland and the UK; translators Don Bartlett and Kari Dickson; Rosie Goldsmith of the European Literature Network; and also Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, Senior Lecturer in Scandinavian Literature at University College London.

The term “Nordic Noir” was first coined in 2010. Whilst ‘noir’ has been appropriately applied to modern crime fiction given its dark, cold nature, the works vary widely, even geographically to include countries beyond the Nordic region. So, the term “Northern Noir” was adopted for this event, although the label for Northern European crime fiction was debated throughout the day.

Firstly, where do these stories take place?

With Estonia’s Indrek Hargla favouring medieval Tallinn and Norwegian authors Torkil Damhaug and Kjell Ola Dahl modern-day Oslo, settings may be different both in terms of location and time. Finnish author, editor and journalist Karo Hämäläinen offers global stories which even feature London’s The Shard.

Henry Sutton, Senior Lecturer in prose fiction at UEA, and founder and director of the crime writing festival Noirwich, has coined the term “North Sea Noir”, as he sets his novels in Norfolk. He contrasts his abstract locations with more realistic crimes. More specific places would make the ending seem cosier. Sweden’s Håkan Nesser has been writing for 30 years and does not feel part of a collective. His focus is on Northern Europe and he also uses North Sea locations such as Shetland and Orkney.

The fact that fewer Baltic than Nordic novels have been translated into English is also a factor as regards locations. Indrek’s novels are more often translated into French or Finnish than English.

Who is involved?

As a psychiatrist, Torkil’s work is character driven. Suspense and confusion are often added by simply naming characters as “the visitor”, “the woman” or “the nurse”. He subsequently adds the plot and structure “like carving a stone sculpture”. He is concerned with outsiders, politics, cultural influences and sub-cultures. Characters with a mental illness are common here – a good person with a flaw. Empathy can be the basis for evil, as concern for others may lead to unintended events.

Indrek’s criminals are not good characters with a flaw, but definitely evil. His main question is who not why. Nordic Noir or modern crime novels tend to concentrate on why. The criminal is a “victim of society”, but Indrek writes that the murderer is evil. He doesn’t feel pity for the murderer.

Female characters are important in this genre appearing as gangsters and detectives. Indrek writes about smart women. Håkan sometimes writes from a woman’s perspective. There are also several female Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Icelandic writers of this genre.

In Karo’s post-recession financial crime thrillers, bankers in a crisis are like wild animals, losing everything in which they have faith. His themes are global, as there are many international investment banks in Finland. There are always ethical questions in crime fiction. Unlikeable characters raise questions about entrepreneurs and risk takers. There can also be dark, absurd humour because it is comical when someone thinks they’re important.

Kjell’s Detective Frank Frølich, who is upbeat, and Chief Inspector Gunnarstranda, a sarcastic pessimist, investigate different types of crime in Oslo from drug politics to white-collar investment crime. He believes that the story will decide how it will end up. Characters can be their own worst enemies. In contrast, Håkan feels that the story should be the focus and not police officers. His well-known compatriot, Henning Mankell, was very political and left-wing, whereas Håkan did not intend to write about society. His latest novel to be published in English is a family drama and a slow burn. An inspector doesn’t appear until page 184. According to Håkan, if a good guy commits murder, it is more interesting than if a bad guy does.

What is the inspiration?

Indrek was inspired by Agatha Christie and explained that women have an important status in his novels, portrayed as being both literate and numerate. Karo also cites Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as inspirations. He doesn’t see a conflict between crime writing and high-brow literature. He regards crime fiction as a musical due to its popularity. Crime stories are now highly developed and very complex. Torkil believes that a good crime novel is a good novel. It draws interest from other authors. He prefers characters not just action.

Henry described literary noir as stories steeped in emotional and often literal darkness. Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock” is a fine example of this grim, unflinching style. He claims “crime fiction is the novel of our times” with a form, shape and purpose. It is insightful, intelligent and entertaining. The literary novel is the “poetry of our day”. The crime novel has more influence than the literary novel. It is dramatic; things happen. You can’t say that of every novel.

Kjell’s biggest influence is Henrik Ibsen due to his introspection. Today is influenced by the past. Kjell has also written about true crime. He believes that Nordic Noir does not have one definition.


So, it seems that Northern Noir could take place in a central or remote location, be global or insular, modern or medieval with flawed or down-right evil characters, driven by the characters or the plot. Can this be a genre at all? Suspense and dark crimes are the common elements. According to Torkil, there are common Nordic experiences: the weather; sparsely inhabited landscapes; never-ending summer night; melancholy; things are stable at the surface, but “aren’t what they seem to be.” Karo thinks “Nordic Noir” is a marketing term, but the rainy weather and mood of the characters are similar. Authors write very differently from each other. Financial thrillers are different from family drama.

Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen stated that Nordic crime novels enchant the most mundane social experiences, such as the family. Crime fiction is “a lightning rod for collecting social anxieties.” The borders between the detective and serial killer become blurred. He queried whether Danish dogma was the origin of Scandi/Nordic Noir with 1994’s TV series “The Kingdom”. Long before that, Victorian Gothic may have acted as an inspiration.

If Northern crime fiction could give way to another genre, what would it be? Cornish noir and fantasy noir already exist. Suggestions included Facebook noir, retro noir, classic noir and literary noir. Of course, without good translations, the English-speaking world’s access to and appreciation of modern Northern European crime fiction would be far more limited.

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