Friday, 31 July 2009

Detective Story - 3

Our analysis of the present situation surrounding the over-large representation of crime fiction among published English translations of new Nordic writing appears to have ruffled some feathers over at Scandinavian Crime Fiction. An anonymous blogger there, who confesses to "not reading any Nordic languages", says that it's "taking me a while to figure out how to respond," and after attempting one or two objections, more or less concedes that the translation of crime writing may not be the ideal field of work for professionally committed translators:

Luckily, I have a day job doing something I love, so I don’t have to read or write anything I don’t want to because my life depends upon it.I imagine full-time translators feel a bit more at the mercy of the marketplace, and it must be dispiriting to find the work on offer trending toward a type of book you don’t like much. But is this really a tragedy? And is genre fiction to blame? I don’t buy it.
The argument sounds a tad cynical, no?

No doubt there will be further responses of this kind in SCF's comments section - but I'd recommend anyone who wants to argue the toss to come over here and continue the debate.

Detective Story
Detective Story - 2


Larissa Kyzer said...

I wrote the article responding to Nathaniel Rich’s piece about Scandinavian crime fiction, and have followed the discussion here and in other blogs surrounding these pieces with interest. The debate over what country or region produces the ‘best’ of any type of literature is bound to be limited (I said as much in my article), but I find myself a bit at odds with the polarization here: those who are for Scandinavian crime fiction and those who are against it. I am deeply interested in Scandinavian literature--including crime fiction--and aspire to translate Danish literature myself one day. I’d hope that one can be a ‘committed’ translator and also foster an appreciation for genre fiction at the same time. (It’s seemed to me that many Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian fiction translators have translated both ‘literary’ and genre fiction.)

While many of the points made by David McDuff regarding crime fiction have raised some important and interesting points—particularly that current Scandinavian crime fiction marks a “continuation of the "radical" movement that produced the socially-committed novels and poetry of the 1970s,”—I wonder at the assessment that the prevalence of this genre within Scandinavian literature is “a tragedy whose consequences it will take several generations to overcome.”

It’s a common enough opinion that genre fiction of any stripe is inherently sub-literary, which is a debate that is perhaps larger than needs be argued here. Suffice to say that I do think that genre fiction merits serious literary consideration for its content, structure, and yes, even prose style. There are certainly many, many poorly written and conceived crime novels, but surely enough there are terrible ‘literary’ novels as well. However, I don't believe that the existence of crime novels can, with any credibility, be faulted with ‘diverting’ Nordic writing talent. Rather, I tend to hope that translation begets translation—that every new Henning Mankell or Karin Fossum novel that is published in English opens the door a little wider for more ‘literary’ Scandinavian authors to be translated as well.

David McDuff said...

Thank you for this contribution to the discussion. While I also don't think there should be a "polarization" of the kind you mention, I do believe that it's important to set some sort of markers as to what constitutes literary culture and what is basically just "reading entertainment". I'm certainly not against the latter, and have translated at least one Scandinavian crime novel myself - but when crime novels become the flagship of a nation's literary production, I think it's a danger signal.

In a later post to this blog, I've been more specific. There I argue (together with the author of the article quoted by the anonymous blogger at Scandinavian Crime Fiction), that of all the Nordic countries it's primarily Sweden where the problem is most acute - in Sweden there is virtually no middle ground between the marginalized avant-garde literary scene and the huge space that's occupied by bestsellerdom, led primarily by trend-following crime novels of various kinds and tendencies. The situation in Denmark is different, as is evidenced by the popularity of the traditional historical novel genre there, for example. Finland presents a similar picture.

So while the problem isn't yet universal, what I have tried to make clear is that it has the potential for a disaster, a tragedy - please read what I wrote in my original post a little more carefully. My caveats are just that: a warning of what may happen, rather than a statement of accomplished fact. The developments that have taken place in Swedish publishing could affect the rest of the Nordic publishing world, too - let's hope that doesn't happen, and as translators let's make some efforts to make sure that it doesn't.