Laurie Thompson (1938-2015) was an academic and translator, who introduced Henning Mankel’s fictional detective, Kurt Wallander, to the British public.
Thompson was born in York and named Laurence Arthur. His father, Leslie, worked as a typesetter and later a proofreader with the Yorkshire Evening Press. Before her marriage, his mother Madge had worked as a sweet packer at Rowntrees. Laurie was educated at Nunthorpe Grammar School and sung in the choir of St Lawrence’s church.
Thompson completed an intensive course in Russian, while he was doing his National Service. He also carried out Special Intelligence Duties at the Ministry of Defence in London. His first three translations, done at this time, were books on electronics. After leaving the army, he read German at the University of Manchester; he was the first member of his family to attend university. After graduating he moved to Umeå in northern Sweden to teach English in schools and evening classes. After this, he became a lecturer in English at the University of Umeå.
Thompson met Birgitta Åkerstedt at a student conference in Sonnenberg in the Harz Mountains in Germany. They married in 1963; their son, Eric, was born in 1966. Laurie and Birgitta returned to Britain in 1967; he became a lecturer in German and Swedish at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth. He was awarded a PhD in 1979 for a thesis entitled The works of Stig Dagerman. He moved to St David’s University College in 1983 to become Head of Swedish. He was Head of the School of Modern Languages at Lampeter from 1991 to 1995. He was a brilliant and inspiring language teacher, able to bring literary texts to life for students. His language exercises were infamous. A former pupil remembered that, ‘The sentences could be so ludicrous that the exercise often proved difficult because of outbursts of laughter.’ On the other hand, he was extremely hard-working and expected his students to work hard too. He took early retirement in 1997, continuing as a part-time lecturer until 2000.
However, Thompson was probably best known as a translator, particularly of Scandinavian crime fiction. He was once advised, ‘If you are going to be any good as a translator, you must have the approach of a writer and be able to use the English language like a writer.’ British interest in Scandi crime or Nordic noir arguably began with Henning Mankell’s Wallander stories. These featured a depressive and antisocial but intensely methodical detective, based in Ystad in southern Sweden. Starting with The White Lioness, (den Vita Lejoninnan), Thompson translated five of the books. It was said of him that he had ‘an undoubted knack of turning Inspector Kurt Wallander’s gory investigations into plausible English.’ He regularly consulted a police inspector to ensure that the descriptions of police procedure were accurate. He also translated ten of Manning’s other novels.
Thompson’s success with Wallander meant that his skills were in demand from other leading Swedish authors. He translated around fifty novels in all, including those written by Håkan Nesser, Åke Edwardson, Åsa Larsson and Mikael Niemi. He was able to get under the skin of a story, setting exactly the right tone. However, he was also noted for his rigour. The first series of Wallander on British TV was filmed in Swedish and shown on BBC4 with subtitles. Thompson was irritated by its sloppy rendering of Swedish swearwords. He built up relationships with most of his authors, feeling ‘We translators are playing around with their babies after all.’ However, he also commented, ‘If I have a problem that’s insoluble I can get in touch with Mankell and he will answer. But the bottom line is, he isn’t terribly interested in the translator.’
Thompson was a founder member of SELTA, the Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association. He was also a long-serving editor of its journal, Swedish Book Review; its aim was to reach ‘those with a professional interest in Swedish literature … and an increasing number of ordinary people with an amateur interest in Swedish books.’ He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Linköping in 1986. In 1992 he was awarded the Royal Order of the Polar Star for his services to Swedish literature and culture.
Thompson was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2010; he was determined to fight his illness and to go on working. Ironically, he even translated Henning Mankell’s cancer diaries, when both men were nearing the end of their lives. He died in Glangwili Hospital on June 8 2015. His funeral service was held at the university chapel in Lampeter later that month.
Laurie Thompson – translator who introduced British readers to bestselling Swedish crime fiction such as Wallander. (2015, June 23). Times. Retrieved February 15 2021 from https://infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.uwtsd.ac.uk/resources/doc/nb/news/15625DBF1751F498?p=UKNB
Rees, J. (2006, April 22). While some authors enjoy celebrity status, too often their translators remain unrecognised and unseen. Jasper Rees talks to the men and women who juggle a reader’s sensitivity, a writer’s talent and a publicist’s enthusiasm to bring foreign literatu [sic]. Daily Telegraph. Retrieved February 15 2021 from https://infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.uwtsd.ac.uk/resources/doc/nb/news/11137D0041EB0EF0?p=UKNB
Aberystwyth University. (2015). Laurence Arthur Thompson (1938-2015). Retrieved February 15 2021 from https://www.aber.ac.uk/en/development/alumni/obituaries/obituary-profiles/laurence-arthur-thompson/