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Last published at August 9, 2009 at 6:16 AM

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Lit Life

'Dragon Tattoo' fans, meet Reg, who made your obsession possible

Meet "Reg Keeland," the translator of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." He's none other than former Seattleite Steven T. Murray, translating under a pseudonym. Why? Read on.

Seattle Times book editor

Sorry for the pun, but one of this August's hottest books is "The Girl Who Played With Fire" (Knopf), the follow-up to 2008's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

These two thrillers, currently number 4 and 5 on the Seattle Public Library's "most requested" fiction list, are by the late Stieg Larsson, a Swedish journalist and human-rights activist. Larsson died of a heart attack at age 50, just after completing the manuscripts for these two books and a third in the trilogy. "Tattoo" features an eerily intriguing heroine — Lisbeth Salander, a lone-wolf computer hacker with a tortured past and an uncanny knack for worming her way into anyone's data banks. Larsson wrote the books in Swedish. Like most complacent English readers, your Lit Life correspondent gave not a thought to Reg Keeland, the translator who has brought these books to gazillions of English readers.

That is, until she got a note from Steven T. Murray, former Seattle resident and Scandinavian languages expert, who confessed: "Just thought I'd alert you that I'm the mysterious Reg Keeland," he wrote.

Local bibliophiles fondly recall Murray and Tiina Nunnally, his wife and fellow translator — these two have translated dozens of Scandinavian-language books. In 2002 the couple and their cats moved to Albuquerque, where the sun always shines and the property values are friendlier to a translator's salary.

Murray's note prompted several questions, not the least of which is — why the pseudonym? I got a story that offers a peek into the world of translation and publishing.

After Larsson died (he had a "60-cigarette-a-day habit and was a workaholic," Murray says), his publisher was contacted about making a movie of the books. But the English screenwriter couldn't read Swedish. So plans were hatched for a translation, both for the movie and for the English-speaking reading public.

Murray got the manuscripts for all three books. From the first page, he was hooked, and in 11 months, he translated all three — 2,700 manuscript pages.

Murray has worked on a lot of detective fiction. But Larsson's work was, in its own way, extraordinary. Though Murray read the books far more slowly than the average reader, he understands their appeal: unlike many formulaic thrillers, "the characterization is extremely good; She [Lisbeth] is one of the most original characters in crime fiction."

But then came what Murray calls a "miscommunication" with Larsson's English publisher. Long story, but Murray was able to vet only 130 pages of all three books. Since he couldn't be sure how the books would come out, he told the publisher, "the only solution is to take my name off it."

Thus "Reg Keeland," translator of all three books, was born.

There were changes, and Murray thinks his version of the stories would have been better — "there are things that don't match with the way Stieg wrote it. They're still gripping, but there are little details that I wish were different." Fortunately, Steven T. Murray should still get the royalty checks. "They're selling like hot cakes in India, South Africa," and other countries in the English-speaking world, he says.

The Larsson books will help ensure Murray's future in translation, a field that has been transformed by the wide reach of the Internet. One trick he has learned to stay abreast of a tide of etymological change; he picks up the latest meanings of Scandinavian slang by reading Swedish teenagers' blogs. "Now they're starting to shorten their words" in the service of texting, he says. "Language is changing daily."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at www.king.org/pages/

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