Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Individual concerns

This blog has now been running for all of four months. It evidently has a readership - 2,384 unique visits in that space of time is not bad for a minority interest blog, and Sitemeter shows that the visitors come not only from Scandinavia but also from locations in Australia, Malaysia, the U.S., Canada, Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, among others. But I can't help noticing that it's also almost alone in covering the field of Nordic writing in English translation. Apart from Scandinavian Books/Nordic Bookblog, who seem to concentrate most of their attention on the increasingly predictable area of Nordic crime writing, it doesn't look as though there may be many other English-language sites or blogs devoted to the subject. There are sites like Swedish Book Review, Books from Finland, and FILI, of course - but these mainly represent organizations of various kinds, either state-run or promoting professional interests.

When some of us left the SELTA Google Group discussions back in February and started Nordic Voices, I recall that Tom Geddes suggested that we should set up an alternative association for translators of Nordic - not just Swedish - literature. Yet with several months' experience of the blog now behind us, I can see that this is precisely what I don't want to do. In my opinion, approaching Nordic writing and its translation from an individual viewpoint, rather than as a member of a group or organization, is a more challenging and potentially more creative path to take.

In part I think this is because I feel that what we are trying to do here is detach the field of Nordic literature from the narrow circle of specialists, academics and translators where it normally ends up, and bring it to the attention of a wider public that may have little knowledge of Nordic life and language, or may view the subject of "Scandinavia" through preconceptions. Those preconceptions are often widespread, and mostly have the effect of blocking the realization that Nordic culture and literature are just as diverse and mixed as the rest of the world.

While "Nordic" writers tend to be based in the "North", they may also hail from a whole host of other geographic and cultural reference points, whether it's Hallgrímur Helgason writing about Stalinism from Manhattan, Siri Hustvedt describing life in Brooklyn, or Karmela Belinki, who says:
Karmela is Hebrew, OT, means "God's fruitful vineyard" (Mount Carmel in Israel). Belinki is Russian-Jewish and means "little white", probably from a river, which runs i.a. through Lithuania and parts of Belarus, where my paternal family stems from. I pronounce it Karméla Bélinki I consider myself mainly a Finland-Swedish writer, but I was brought up with multiple languages, Yiddish being one of them. I have also written and broadcast in Finnish, I was partly educated in the United Kingdom, and I am fluent in several other languages as well.
I think in the end this brings me back to the thought I was trying to express in an earlier post, where I said that I saw two strands in Nordic literature, and that for me the important one was the universal - or universalist - one.

We've chosen a particular cultural area (the Nordic one) as the focus for the blog - but the aim is probably a wider one: to present and consider literary work that may be new and unfamiliar to the English-speaking world, and to track the movement of its local essence out into a wider space where it speaks to everyone. I believe that can best be done on a one-to-one basis, through individual efforts rather than as the activity of a special interest group.


  1. I agree with the spirit of this, but would add two thoughts 1. Readers have their agendas, and the reader of translations from not very well known authors of a not very well known literature is quite likely to have some Nordic connection of their own - (my own case of course )- . 2. I do believe in the applicability of many of the themes on this blog to wider questions of international literatures and their transmission. But it's also good to be aware of the peculiarly popular status, even respect, that Nordic artefacts and their creators possess in Britain - a compliment very rarely paid indeed to other foreign-language speaking nations (hence IKEA market their Scandinavian design but not their Chinese manufacture...). Status does not necessarily = popularity, but in this respect the reception of Nordic literature would certainly seem untypical to e.g. an Egyptian or Punjabi author. To a certain extent the appeal of Scandinavia as a setting for crime novels matches those Mills and Boon parodies in which the hero was always a flying doctor from somewhere clean and bracing, New Zealand or Scotland for preference. While the emphasis maybe on gloom and cold weather, it is a most hygienic, tasteful, discreetly moneyed sort of gloom. But these popular stereotypes, though less often confessed to, are just as influential on the reception of "high" literature from the Nordic zone - the way we read it and the kinds of enjoyment we look for in it.

  2. I don't disagree with what you say, and of course there's a specific "Nordic" essence which can be caught in writing, and is indeed often caught by both writers and readers.

    I'm only expressing my own position, which is really just a preference for the internal meaning of a culture rather than its outer specifics.

  3. I think that if Scandinavia, as a whole or discrete countries, is embraced for what it is, it will attract universality. In other words, seeing universal issues through a localised / regionalised prism highlights the interesting tension between things belonging to one area alone, and things universal.

    One problem is preaching to the converted, versus preaching to the as yet unconverted. I love writing things for, for instance, the Swedish Book Review, but have the sneaking suspicion that my articles, reviews and translations will be read mostly by people already "converted". I am consciously, here and on the World Literature Forum, trying to get more ordinary readers to read things from the Scandinavian and Baltic languages. We don't need a Scandinavian reading clique. It would be healthier to bring Scandinavia to the average reader.

    My only plaint so far is that Latvia and Lithuania are not included. Estonia is certainly tied in with Finland. But the Baltic countries do have many aspects of recent history in common. Their literature is fascinating. If we can embrace the whole of Scandinavia, disregarding language background (e.g. with Finnish, Lappish and Greenlandic), we could perhaps take on board the other two Baltic countries. If we have visitors from the Baltic states, maybe we could take on board all three.

    As for organisations, I think that this blog is nicely independent. We don't need a "party line" to follow, and a lot of meetings whose justification is to provide minutes to be reviewed at other meetings. If I decide I'm interested in a particular author one week, and no one reads my part of the blog now, it'll still be there later on. Personal enthusiasms can sweep others along in the way a "flavour of the month" right across the board may not.

    I personally, am not interested in crime writing, except as a) the odd bit of relaxation, and b) the odd bit of income. I think the whole genre has been dishonestly fetishised to provide a further source of publishers' income. Those promoting crime writing would promote crime writing from Sicily, Ghana, or Alaska. They have no interest in where the book comes from as long as someone kills someone and the brave detective solves the mystery. That's why Smilla (as a film) disappointed me. The Inuit ethnic bit was artificially tacked on. There were no scenes in the film affording insights into life in Greenland.


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