6 October 09 | Chad W. Post

This is a bit of a self-indulgent post, but yesterday I received a copy of the Bog Markedet, a Danish book trade magazine, that contains an article I wrote on the surprising success of Scandinavian literature in English translation. Since most of the people I know can’t actually read Danish, I thought I’d reprint the original English version here. Nothing terribly new to people who regularly read Three Percent, although it was fun using the translation database to uncover some trends . . .

Anyway, here’s the English original:

Surprising Success of Scandinavian Lit in English Translation

The American publishing industry’s overwhelming indifference toward international literature has been well documented over the past few years. From the oft-cited statistic that approximately 3% of all books published in the United States are in translation (a statistic reported by Bowker and included in an informal study by the National Endowment for the Arts) to an article in the New York Times entitled “American Readers Yawn at Foreign Fiction,” most of the news related to international fiction has emphasized America’s cultural provincialism. With the notable exceptions of Roberto Bolano (The Savage Detectives), Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog), and Carlos Ruiz Zafon (The Shadow of the Wind), works of fiction published in English translation don’t get much attention in the mainstream media and almost never make the best-seller lists.

American publishers tend to point the finger at readers to explain this lack of international voices (the basic argument is that readers aren’t interested in reading works from the rest of the world, and the lagging sales prevent publishers from investing the necessary money in getting more works translated), but this is a moot point based on the relative lack of international fiction available in translation. According to the Translation Database I put together for the Three Percent website, in 2008 only 362 original translated works of fiction (280) and poetry (82) were published in the U.S. And in 2009, the numbers are even more dismal: a total of 327 translations came out this year, 272 works of fiction and 55 collections of poetry.

It can be hard to find a bright spot among numbers so miniscule, but there are a few things worth highlighting that provide hope for the future of American book culture—especially in relation to the translation of Scandinavian literature into English.

One thing worth noting is the sheer number of independent and small presses publishing literature in translation. In 2008, over 140 different publishers brought out at least one work of literature in translation. And of all the translations published last year, more than 80% were from independent houses.

The translation of Scandinavian literature is another bright spot: In 2008, 27 works were translated from Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and Icelandic and published in America. In 2009, that number rose by 33% to 36 titles. The most notable increases were in translations of Norwegian literature (up from 6 titles to 11) and Swedish (12 in 2008, 18 in 2009). In fact, in 2009, Swedish is the fourth most translated language into English, ranking behind only Spanish, French, and German.

There’s no single explanation for this significant increase (which is particularly remarkable considering the overall decrease in the number of works being translated into English this year), and not even the continued interested in Scandinavian crime fiction can account for this increase. It’s true that Ake Edwardson, Johan Theorin, Hakan Nesser, Roslund & Hellstrom, Steig Larsson, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo, and Gunnar Staalesen all have books coming out in English this year, but there are also four works of Swedish poetry and two books by Norwegian author Jan Kjaerstad.

Nor are these books all coming out from a small group of publishers. Granted, Norvik Press is doing a great job making Scandinavian works available to English readers, but the other titles are spread out over a range of small and large presses.

Whatever the reason, it’s encouraging to see this interest in Scandinavian literature. And with ventures such as Archipelago, Dalkey Archive, Melville House, Europa Editions, and Open Letter doing more and more translations every year, there’s hope that the numbers—both for Scandinavian works and international literature in general—will continue to increase and Americans will be “wowed” by foreign fiction.


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