By Kay Kendall
The Winemaker Detective series has a huge following in its native France. To date there are twenty-three mysteries in the series, and a New York-based publishing house, Le French Book, is now translating all of the titles into English. Its founder, translator Anne Trager, has a passion for crime fiction equal to her love for France.
BACKSTABBING IN BEAUJOLAIS, published in English on November 19, is ninth in the series by French authors Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen. The tenth mystery—Late Harvest Havoc—comes out in December, together with a collection of the first three mysteries, The Winemaker Detective: An Omnibus.
Here, translator Anne Trager talks with The Big Thrill about bringing this beloved French series to an English-speaking audience.
Each book in the Winemaker Detective series is not only a mystery but an homage to wine and the art of making it. Has the series’ growing number of international readers begun to influence the mysteries’ plots?
For both authors, Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, the main character has always had an international vocation. Benjamin Cooker is an expert winemaker whose father was British and mother French. He and his young assistant solve mysteries in wine country. The initial mysteries translated so far all take place in France, but next year, one will take place in Hungary. The authors confirm that their intention has always been to have the protagonist travel to wine countries around the world, and the growing international audience makes that choice more and more pertinent. The mysteries have been adapted to television, attracting an audience of over 4 million in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. The authors write two books a year and just told me they will be picking up the pace because of the French television series. We too are picking up the translation pace.
Do Alaux and Balen themselves read English well? If so, do they ever quibble with your translations in any detail?
The authors and the French publisher all read the translations before they come out in English. We adapt the translations, bringing them into the present time, because some were first published in 2004/2005 and much has changed in the wine world since then. Furthermore, we work to make the stories more accessible to an international audience. We do this hand-in-hand with the authors and have developed a high level of trust.
As the translator of the Winemaker Detective series, you are responsible for bringing these mysteries successfully across the Atlantic to American readers. What are the challenges you have faced in bridging the two cultures in your translations?
The main challenge is pinpointing the parts of the story, background, dialogue, etc. that are easily understood by a French reader, but that a foreign reader might miss. Once we’ve found these, we adapt so that no reader misses out. Any story is rooted in the author’s culture and background and references, so this editorial work is part of any adaptation to another language. It’s the fun part.
For example, Cognac Conspiracies is set in Cognac country, in Jarnac, birthplace of former French president François Mitterrand. While French people know that, we had to find ways to inform readers not in the know, but also to use only those references that really served the plot for non-French readers. Our fabulous translation editor—Amy Richards—helps us with this.
You are an American by birth but have chosen to live in France for more than two decades. How has that influenced your choice of books to introduce to the United States?
Yes, by all means. It means that I am an outsider looking at France not from the outside in, but from the inside out. It’s like Peter Mayle’s, A Year in Provence. What made that book work? In part, it was his British perspective on French culture. Our publishing house Le French Book is like that. I have lived in France for a very long time, but I’m an American. And the choices of the books we translate comes from this double perspective—one of knowing France very well, and the other of being American.
Is there a difference in how American and French readers respond to these mysteries? Do different aspects of the novels appeal to one culture more than another?
I remember a long time ago watching Friends with a bunch of French friends. It was a real eye-opener because we laughed at different places. It was so fascinating. So yes, readers respond differently. French readers are more indulgent about things like backstory and sexual innuendo, for example, where American readers of this series respond really well to the descriptions of France. And all readers seem to love the food and wine references. As Jean-Pierre Alaux says, wine seems to be a great common denominator.
Benjamin Cooker is the winemaker turned sleuth and his assistant is Virgile Lanssien. How would you characterize each of them and what is their working relationship like?
Benjamin is old school, and Virgile is new school. Benjamin has a British stiff upper lip, with a slight rough French edge that comes out from time to time, while Virgile is more insouciant, uninhibited and happy-go-lucky. On the outside, it’s almost a father-son relationship, but as the series goes on it becomes much more complex, with both characters growing in respect and understanding of each other, and learning from each other.
You have described this series as cozy. How do you balance the need for drama with the need to keep the plots on the far side of gory?
Cozy, yes, but French cozy. Where else can sabotaging a barrel of wine be as serious as murder? In Treachery in Bordeaux, the first in the series, there isn’t even any bloodshed, but there is drama. Our job as translation publishers is to get those stories to a wider audience. A good story is a good story, whatever label you put on it. If the stakes for one or more characters are high enough in a believable way, then you don’t need the gore.
Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, wine lover and music lover respectively, came up with the idea for the Winemaker Detective series while sharing a meal, with a bottle of Château Gaudou 1996, a red wine from Cahors with smooth tannins and a balanced nose. Anne Trager has a passion for crime fiction that equals her love of France. After years working in translation, publishing and communications, she founded Le French Book.