Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Shop talk

Discussing the current state of translated Nordic fiction with a publisher in the field recently, I ventured to suggest that a good deal of the really interesting, original and creative new writing from Scandinavia doesn't make it into English at all. The field as a whole is clearly marked out. Specialist houses like Norvik Press cater to the market in translations of Nordic classics, where the readers and buyers are often ethnic Scandinavians who have forgotten or never learned their mother tongue. The larger companies - Harvill Secker, Vintage, Orion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Random House, etc. - look for bestsellers, whether crime novels (from Henning Mankell to Kerstin Ekmnan) or cult fiction of the Saabye Christensen type. In the middle are smaller publishers like Arcadia or Graywolf Press, who do try to publish Nordic writers who fall outside these major categories, but whose sales and distribution are - of necessity - strictly limited.

The publisher with whom I was talking told me that, especially where serious literature is concerned, he thought the "Nordic" label almost by definition implies a specialized minority readership - one for which it's important that the books that are translated and published should be identifiably "Scandinavian" in character. I mentioned two recent examples of Scandinavian novels where most or all of the characters and settings don't meet those criteria - Olli Jalonen's 14 Knots to Greenwich and Kristina Carlson's Mr Darwin's Gardener. It seems, however, that while these books may be very well-written and deserving of being read, they wouldn't have much appeal to the general reading public, as they're not set in Scandinavia.

In the the field of poetry, the situation is a little more encouraging. The work of major poets like Tomas Tranströmer, Paavo Haavikko, Roy Jacobsen, Gösta Ågren, Pia Tafdrup and many others has been able to reach an English-speaking public largely outside any specfic Nordic context, as voices in the universal language of poetry. It's this kind of freedom in relations between author and reader that's currently lacking in the sphere of prose fiction, where the message is often lost in exotic details and carefully-mapped journalistic agendas. One wonders, perhaps, whether a writer like August Strindberg - who held wildly changing views on society and human beings but at the same time possessed an authorial sweep and magnificence of writing style that made such considerations appear irrelevant - could achieve an international reputation if he were producing his works in today's literary and publishing world.

David McDuff


Alberto Oliver said...

Perhaps because poetry seems to be a more independent way not specifically focused in depicting a history linked with a landscape or culture but rather an inner feeling, something that can be clearly understood as some kind of universal language by the most of the people no matter where they are. In the other hand is very dangerous to attach a label like "Nordic, Latinoamerican, etc" as it may stablish a prejudice or an sterotype for the people not so inmersed with literature, (that is, the big market which decides if a book becomes a bestseller or not) It may be good for a book compromised with an ideology or a political agenda but it is absolutely unnecessary with any other genres. Nowadays the big wave of Swedish detective books is a clear example, the big masses are expecting a pre - fabricated product plenty of clichés including depression, alcoholism and lonelyness. Once the fashion has gone away, market will move its interest to another point, that will be bad for sales, alright, but if we see it on an objective way, will be health for the swedish literature to develop again.

David McDuff said...

Thanks for your comment, Alberto. I particularly agree with your reflections on the inherently "inward" nature of poetry. But I just wonder whether Swedish literature will recover again in the way that you suggest. The media-and-publicity-related and commercial forces involved sometimes appear too strong to be resisted, both by authors and by their translators. But perhaps I'm too pessimistic...

Alberto Oliver said...

Unfortunately I got to recognize that I share your pessimism. Being sincere, What the mainstream pursuits is to sale as much as possible, it doesn´t matters if they have to surf on the wave of a fashion for doing so, altough common sense teaches that every fashion owns an ephimere nature, I bet they will exploit the fashion until its last consequences. "Scandinavic" or "Nordic" adjectives in literature should be for the potential readers from my very personal point of view, nothing but a label of its origin or at least, of a certain quality and variety standard, a breeding ground for great writers (as indeed i think nordic world are) not a prefabricated bunch of stereotypes. Imagine for someone reading LeClezio, for example, and waiting to find something about baguettes or croissants (sorry for being sarcastic). Thanks and have a nice day.

Eric Dickens said...

There should be a healthy balance, in both prose and poetry between the universal and the regional. Too much universality can be anodyne, too much regionalism parochially quirky.

When set books from France or Germany are selected for school pupils to read, part of the reason for selection will be that they belong to French or German literature and show some characteristics from those countries (not necessarily baguettes, Bratwurst, or strings of onions...). So the same can be true for books from Finland, Iceland, Sweden, etc.

As has been suggested by both of you above, mainstream literature is moving in the direction of the advancement of profit margins rather than promoting culture as such.

When choosing what to translate, I try to tread my own path and, if I can find a publisher (!), choose what I think is worthwhile rather than lucrative. But this approach means that I'm less likely to do work for the larger publishers who can pay more for promotion. So, inevitably, the people reading my translations will not be many.

With poetry, I agree that there is a tendency towards the universal, but if I read a poet from Scandinavia, the thoughts of the landscapes there will be at the back of my mind (unless the poet is writing a suite about Ancient Greece or modern Tunisia).

With prose, I agree that too much of a travelogue dimension can turn reading a novel into a feature-spotting exercise. But surely those of us attracted to Scandinavia in general would not want all national or regional reference to be omitted. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to epoch. Too many costumes spoil the drama, but hints at period matters can do no harm.

David McDuff said...

>>But surely those of us attracted to Scandinavia in general would not want all national or regional reference to be omitted.<<

I don't think anyone would want to see the omission of all national or regional references, Eric.

I guess what I'm arguing is that poetry, by its very nature, tends to surmount geographic and cultural barriers better than some fiction does. In the case of Scandinavia, those barriers can sometimes be very restrictive.

Perhaps in part it's because not much is known about the Nordic countries in the world at large, and cultural myths and prejudices about Scandinavia still persist in some quarters.