In the past few posts, translator Ken Schubert shared some of his ideas about translation and translators with us. While talking to him about literary translation, he mentioned an interesting view on the differences between Swedish and American literature and film.
KS: Breaking into the Swedish-English literary market is very difficult. Only a handful of books are commissioned each year by a British or American publisher for translation. If you manage to land one of those jobs, you'll get paid, but it's not enough to live on.
BJE: Why do you think there is so little interest in books from Scandinavia, or in translated literature in general? Are Americans against translated work (lack of interest in foreign cultures, etc) or do they simply have enough writing there as it is?
KS: Beyond the fact that people would rather read non-translated works (for good reason) and there is an enormous output of literature in the US, I think Americans would generally be put off by the more complex and less identifiable plots in Swedish fiction. Plus Swedish authors are not as well edited as American authors, so it's more difficult to maintain a consistent voice.
BJE: In regard to "the more complex and less identifiable plots in Swedish fiction" – you apparently see a major difference between Swedish and American (English too, perhaps?) literature. Can you name some examples of this? Or offer a theory of why this is? Also, why is there less editing in Sweden?
KS: In recent years, I've been more a student of Swedish film than literature, so I can talk about that more easily. Swedish film, regardless of quality otherwise, is most often based on a psychological issue. The plot is secondary. A good example are the Martin Beck police films, which aren't even considered particularly artistic. What you always remember about them is the interactions between the main characters and what is going on in their own minds and lives in relation to the particular crime. If a policeman is investigating domestic violence, his own past relationships with women come up, etc. When it comes to editing, I think it's the same phenomenon that we face as translators of business texts. Swedish workplaces are more decentralized than in the Anglo-Saxon world, so there is often not someone with ultimate responsibility for individual tasks.
BJE: So, to be extremely general and stereotypical, I can summarize what you just said as American films are more about action and Swedish films about thinking, and this is perhaps true of literature, too. Do you have any theories about why this difference might have arisen?
KS: I don't know that much about American films anymore, but having grown up in America, competition and individual achievement are key cultural values. In that context, action is a more natural expression of those values. Sweden is more of a collective, consensus-based culture, so that the more general psychological sources of agreement and conflict among people become more relevant.
What do other translators think about this? Are there similarly pronounced differences between the U.S. (or other English-speaking cultures) and other countries?
If there are such differences, shouldn’t there to be more translated literature, rather than less, so that readers (or film viewers) can learn about another culture?
Let me know what you think about this interesting topic.