You would think that a movie called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would render the tattoo the way the author of the book on which the story is based had described it. But the late Stieg Larsson’s actual Swedish language description of Lisbeth’s Salander’s tattoo was apparently not the one filmmaker David Fincher used to apply to the naked body of actress Rooney Mara in the recent film.
Fincher’s tattoo is actually closer to Larsson’s than the one described in the English-language version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in that it is significantly bigger and covers more of her body than the tattoo described in some parts of the translated English versions of the books–yet it is still not as large and prominent as Larsson described it in Swedish.
If you read Swedish, you will understand Larsson’s original intent and the original drama of the tattoo–even though he never titled the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and never wanted it called anything but Men Who Hate Women (the actual Swedish title, properly translated into English). The title change occurred at the UK publisher’s office, and was retained in the American and many other book editions as well.
For purists among Larsson fans, we cite below excerpts from a commentary by noted critic and translator, John-Henri Holmberg, from one of his several important contributions to our book, The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time (Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer, and John-Henri Holmberg, St. Martin’s Griffin).
Now, what about the tattoo?
What does the actual dragon tattoo on Lisbeth Salander’s body actually look like–and where does it reside physically? In fact, she sports different dragon tattoos in Swedish and English. In the first two novels, the tattoo is mentioned and described four times. All four descriptions are different in English than in the Swedish original. We’ll compare just two of the English versions to their original counterparts.
The description in the first and second paragraphs of Book 1, chapter 23, in English reads:
He looked down at the dragon on her shoulder blade.
He counted her tattoos. As well as a wasp on her neck, she had a loop around one ankle, another loop around the biceps of her left arm, a Chinese symbol on her hip, and a rose on one calf.
The Swedish text reads quite differently. Instead of having a “dragon on her shoulder blade,” the Swedish Lisbeth has a dramatic tattoo indeed:
He looked down on the dragon stretching across her back, from her right shoulder blade down to her buttock.
He counted her tattoos. Apart from the dragon on her back and the wasp on her neck she had a loop around one ankle, another loop around her left biceps, a Chinese sign on her hip and a rose on her calf. Except for the dragon, her tattoos were small and discrete.
In other words, the author is stressing that the tattoo is huge. It runs “from her right shoulder blade down to her buttock.” Given the size and prominence of this tattoo as described in Stieg Larsson’s version, re-titling the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might even seem reasonable.
But in English, the dragon has shrunk remarkably. For some reason it is now merely a small tattoo just “on her shoulder blade.” A feature so important as to give the book its English title is thus all but obliterated.
Near the end of chapter 5 in The Girl Who Played With Fire, we find Stieg’s most complete description. In English, the tattoo is described as follows: “…the tattoo on her back—it was beautiful, a curving dragon in red, green and black.” But the original Swedish refers specifically to the “large” tattoo on Lisbeth’s back and then goes on to say: “It was beautiful, a long, slithering dragon in red and green and black that began on her shoulder and whose slim tail continued down over her right buttock to end on her thigh.”
Why this change? Did someone feel that Stieg went too far, and had to be curbed? Or is the reason as pedestrian and pathetic as that the novel’s British publisher had already commissioned the cover art, discovered that the tattoo on the covers was fairly small, and decided to make the author’s text fit the covers?
Sadly, this seems most plausible. The result is that Lisbeth Salander is not the same person in Swedish and English. The dragon tattoo is both important to her self-image and a feature striking to those she allows to get close to her. (Both Blomkvist in Tattoo and the doctor in Hornet’s Nest have scenes where they behold this large, back-covering dragon and reflect on it.) The Swedish Salander really is the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” But the English Salander is more demure—with only a small dragon tattooed on her shoulder blade.