“Polis Polis Potatismos” (“Murder at the Savoy”) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

korvLet’s talk about mashed potatoes. If you are an American, you probably think of them as a delicious side dish served with steak, meatloaf or fried chicken. But in Sweden, a popular combination is korv med mos—hot dogs with mashed potatoes.

Korv is an ubiquitous street food, usually sold from free-standing kiosks instead of carts, as is common in the U.S. The accompaniments on offer would most likely confuse American visitors. Shrimp salad is a thing a lot of Swedes put on their hot dogs. And so are mashed potatoes. As you can see in the illustration, you can get scoops of potatoes on a hot dog in a bun (korv med bröd, or with bread), for the true carb-a-holic; inside a rolled-up flatbread; or on a plate with a couple of bun-less wieners.

Polis Polis PotatismosWhy do I offer you this culinary/cultural lesson? Because it’s important in understanding the original title of Murder at the Savoy, the sixth book in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series of police procedurals. That title is Polis Polis Potatismos, which translates to “Police Police Mashed Potatoes.” (My reviews of the first five books can be found here and here.) This week, I decided to do something different and read the original Swedish novel as well as the English version. I wanted to explore how the translators dealt with something that is essentially un-translatable.

The translation is credited to Amy and Ken Knoespel. This is the only book in the series that they worked on (perhaps they were exhausted after trying to figure out how to get around having to explain the title). Ken is now a professor at Georgia Tech. According to LinkedIn, Amy spent much of her career at accounting firm KPMG. How the two of them came to translate this book is something I was unable to discover online. It appears to be the only novel either of them ever worked on.

Murder at the SavoySo what in the world do mashed potatoes have to do with cops? “Polis polis potatismos” is a take-off on “Polis polis potatisgris” (“Police, police, potato pig”), which was reportedly chanted at anti-police protests in the 1960s. In the novel, the bumbling cops Kristiansson and Kvant are tasked with apprehending a suspect landing at Arlanda airport in Stockholm; however, they fail to get there on time because they felt compelled to deal with “a man riding by on a bicycle [who] shouted insults at us.” Further questioning reveals that the duo were actually taunted by the cyclist’s three-year-old son, who exclaimed “Daddy, this little pig” as Kvant was eating a hot dog.

In the Swedish novel, the child cries “Polis polis potatismos” (“he is just three years old and hasn’t learned to speak properly yet”). Naturally, Kvant was eating korv med mos.

This delightfully absurd twist is much more fun than “this little pig,” but how do you convey that in English without including several paragraphs’ worth of footnotes? It would interfere with the amusement of those just wanting to read a good crime story. But it’s a shame that English-language readers miss out on something so funny and significant to the plot.

I could quibble with a few other minor things, like the way Detective Inspector Per Månsson’s favorite cocktail, the Gripenberger, is described as a mixture of gin and “grape soda”—in the original, he’s drinking gin with grapetonic, which is something very different than the sweet purple drink that the American translation brings to mind. Grapetonic is a grapefruit-flavored carbonated beverage, so the Gripenberger is actually just a variation on the normal gin and tonic.

But on the whole, the translation is fine, and Murder at the Savoy is significant as being the first book in the 10-volume series where the authors’ left-wing political leanings are well and truly on display. The murder victim is Viktor Palmgren, a businessman who is, in the words of Swedish crime writer Arne Dahl’s introduction, “given virtually no redeeming or even human qualities… The extremely predictable depiction of the capitalist circles criticized by the book is unrelenting.” However, as a police procedural, it is very enjoyable, as Martin Beck, Månsson, Lennart Kollberg, and the other by-now-familiar characters on the Malmö and Stockholm forces puzzle through sparse clues in order to discover who shot Palmgren. (Of course, if Kvant hadn’t been eating that hot dog, they would have had a much easier time of it. But as is often the case in the real world, one small human screw-up can have massive ramifications.)

To those of us familiar with today’s Scandinavia, as opposed to how things were in 1970 when this book was first published, the milieu of the book often seems unrecognizable; there’s a mention of how polluted the water is (this was certainly true back then, but strict environmental laws have made a huge difference over the past 30 years or so) and Stockholm is described as “an asphalt jungle, where drug addiction and sexual perversion ran more rampant than ever.” As someone who’s spent a lot of time there over the years, I can attest to the fact that it is a clean, safe city, albeit one that constantly seems to be under construction and, much like my current home of the San Francisco Bay Area, suffers from a perennial housing shortage and sky-high cost of living.

Some things never change, though, like the national taste for hot dogs accompanied by a few scoops of mashed potatoes.

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