Words Without Borders December: True Crime for the Holidays

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

In unwrapping this month’s edition of ‘Words Without Borders’ focused on true crime, editorial director Susan Harris asks, for the reader, ‘Is this the truth of the case? And if not, how can I tell?’

Igor Malijevský, ‘Petr’s Shadow,’ Čelechovice, 2000. Courtesy of the artist. Image: Provided by Words Without Borders

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Between the Apparent and the Actual’
Those of us who spend the holidays suggesting gently to friends and relatives “Don’t get too comfortable” will be pleased to find that Words Without Borders editorial director Susan Harris is someone who appreciates a good wintry blast.

In this month’s issue, “Criminal Minds: International True Crime,” she has looked into the darkening murk behind the merriment to offer the magazine’s first edition focused on content from the genre. She showcases the work of authors from France, Spain, Brazil, China, Poland, Japan, and the Czech Republic—in that case, a trio of collaborators on a graphic work.

The translations into English are from French, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Chinese, Polish, and Japanese.

And before getting into her opening essay—she invokes Capote in her second sentence—she highlights for Publishing Perspectives an interesting element of the translations she’s chosen this month. They represent, she says, “different stages in crime reporting, offering an international survey of the genre and its tropes: the reporter turned sleuth, the errant spouse, the trapped group picked off one by one. From the discovery of the crime to the interrogation and confession to the reporting of it, the pieces here map the translation of event into prose.”

In her introduction, then, “Forced Confessions: On True Crime Writing,” she tells you that she read In Cold Blood at 10, “just one state over from the gruesome events. I was terrified. I don’t think I ever slept through the night in that house again. I was hooked.”

Admirably honest about her pleasure in the sector, Harris writes:

Susan Harris

“As I grew older and more refined in my reading tastes, I became furtive about my habit. Aside from their lurid wrappings, why was I embarrassed by these books? People surely have less defensible habits, and many of these books are stylishly written and intensively researched.

“Did my shame stem from true crime’s unavoidable overlap with the tabloids and their low-rent reputation?

“Or do my misgivings have their origin in a different sort of discomfort, the uneasy feeling that as readers we’re guilty of voyeurism, of finding pleasure, or at least recreation, in the misfortune of others?”

And as Harris describes her exploration of the genre, she points out one of its challenges: “Beyond the usual tension between writer and subject lies the implicit promise of nonfiction: this is what happened, and why. The true crime reader herself may end up grilling the writer: is this the truth of the case? And if not, how can I tell?”

Those who have never felt fully comfortable even with the reassuring ring of “narrative nonfiction” can thus know that the qualm is understood by the curator of the moment, who writes, “That distance between the apparent and the actual,  between first impressions and ultimate truths, runs throughout the pieces in this issue. In some, the initial assumptions of guilt and responsibility prove inaccurate; in others, the facts of the case turn out to be far more complex than first realized.”

In the end, Harris writes, “Compelling in their interrogations of crime and its depiction, these accounts provide, well, arresting reading. And surely there’s no shame in that.”

Translations in the True Crime Edition

Contributors to the December 2019 edition of ‘Words Without Borders’ are, from left, Cezary Lazarewicz (image: Wojciech Surdziel); Du Qiang; Jake Raynal (image: Laurent Melikian); Marek Šindelka; Marek Pokorný; and Vojtěch Mašek

The set of readings here include excerpts from two graphic novels, four nonfiction pieces, and one work of autofiction—that last form being, in general, a variant of fictionalized autobiography.

  • “Factproof” is a graphic story by Jake Raynal, translated from French by Edward Gauvin. Raynal is known for his many contributions to Fluide Glacial, a number of which have been published in book form.
  • “The Sixth Victim” is nonfiction by Shoko Ugawa, translated from Japanese by David Boyd. Ugawa is a journalist who own the Kabuki Kan Prize in 1995 for her coverage of the Aum Shinrikyō cult.
  • “St. Barbara” is an excerpt of a graphic novel by three writers—Marek Šindelka and Vojtěch Mašek, and artist Marek Pokorný—translated from Czech by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood. Šindelka, Mašek, and Pokorný won the Muriel, the highest honor for Czech graphic novels, for Barbara.
  • “Massacre in the Pacific: A Personal Account” is nonfiction by Du Qiang, translated from Chinese by Nicky Harman and Emily Jones. Du Qiang’s is a journalist whose piece was first published in the Chinese edition of Esquire and went viral; one source mentions 30 million readers.
  • “I Found Out I Was Dead” is the work of autofiction in the group, and it’s by João-Paul Cuenca, translated from Portuguese by Elizabeth Lowe. To explain the conceit of the piece, this is a case in which the narrator discovers that his identity was not only stolen but used on a death certificate. Cuenca is to appear in an interview in the magazine later this month.
  •  “Lusia Murdered” is nonfiction by Cezary Łazarewicz, translated from Polish by Sean Gasper Bye. Journalist Łazarewicz’s That There Would be no Traces: The Case of Grzegorz Przemyk (2016) won Poland’s Nike Literary Prize, the Oscar Halecki Prize, and the MediaTora Prize.
  • “The Pain of Others” is an excerpt from a work of nonfiction by Miguel Ángel Hernández, translated from Spanish by Anna Milsom. Ángel Hernández (Murcia, 1977) is a professor of art history at the University of Murcia and the author of several books of short stories, essays, and art criticism.

And should you be interested in giving translated literature to friends as gifts, there’s a holiday gift guide with some fine suggestions from the Words Without Borders specialists here.

Image: rom ‘St. Barbara,’ one of the two graphic novels excerpted in the December 2019 edition of ‘Words Without Borders’

More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, and more from us on translation is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.