writing in response to the question: Why are so few Swedish
books published in English each year? I'd like to start
by expanding the question: Why are so few books from
the entire Scandinavian/Nordic region published in English
each year? I can't claim to have a definitive answer
(does anyone?), but I offer some reflections for whatever
observation that far more Swedish (and Scandinavian)
books are published in various European languages than
in English suggests there must be something about either
the English-speaking "market" or English-language
publishers that is different from the market and the
publishers in other countries. I'm sure that's true.
the English market is divided among several countries;
there are very few publishers with efficient distribution
in all the major English-speaking countries; and those
publishers tend to be either large commercial ones that
are not very interested in serious literature or anything
without bestseller potential, or university presses that
do not publish fiction or poetry. (I don't know to what
extent Spanish publishers are set up to distribute in
Latin America, but I suspect they have a more efficient
arrangement than UK publishers have for distributing
in the US, or vice versa - which is why rights are often
divided and two publishers are needed for North America
and UK. Even the Canadian/US border is a barrier, and
I know an agent who specializes in dividing rights for
those two countries.) I don't think I need to explain
why the large commercial publishers in the US have much
less interest in serious books than the small presses
do. This is a fact no one is likely to change, so we
must merely keep it in mind.
is also worth keeping in mind that in some European countries,
publishing is subsidized in various ways, directly or
indirectly. In Norway, for example, "innkjøpsordningen," although
it does not apply to translated fiction - it does apply
to translated poetry - is a considerable benefit to publishers
for almost all their Norwegian titles, and thus increases
their capacity to take risks on translated books.)
in most English-speaking countries, the percentage of
the population that buys and reads serious books is much
smaller than in most European countries - in fact, it
is vanishingly small. Lest anyone in the UK imagine that
this statement applies only in the philistine, anti-intellectual
US, I will paraphrase a letter sent by a venerable independent
UK publisher to a UK agent who at one point was trying
to place my translation of Erland Josephson's novel En
berättelse om herr Silberstein. The publisher
wrote: The translator is right; the book has a very European
ethos. Unfortunately there is no longer a market for
such books in the UK. (The novel was eventually published
in the US by Northwestern University Press.)
could write a book - and someone should - on why the
readership for serious literature is so small in English-speaking
countries and how it might be expanded. I happen to think
that it could be expanded; but doing so would
require long-term commitment and expenditure in several
areas, including education and media. So for the time
being, the question is how to increase the interest in
Scandinavian books among the readers who are out there.
together, my first two points add up to what amounts
to a paradox: one of the potentially largest book markets
in the world - the sum of all those who can read literature
in English - is one of the smallest markets from the
point of view of most publishers, because the reading
percentage of the population in any given English-speaking
country is low and the publishers lack efficient means
by which to reach those sparsely distributed readers
with information about books and with the books themselves.
seems like a situation that could be fruitfully addressed
by creative use of the Internet. I will come back to
that. But before I do, I'd like to reframe the original
question by posing several related questions. English-language
publishers don't merely publish fewer Scandinavian books
than European publishers do; they publish far fewer translated
books, period, no matter which source language/culture
one cares to consider. This has been widely noted and
sometimes bitterly lamented (for example, by Michael
Hoffmann, writing in the London Review of Books a
couple of years ago). My first additional question is
why this should be so. I think I've answered that above,
but wanted to change the perspective by putting the question
anyway, because it is worth remembering that Scandinavian
books have lots of company in their failure to penetrate
questions. Is there any sub-category of Scandinavian
book that does do fairly well at getting published in
English? (Yes: children's books. Why? And what can we
learn from this?) Are there some European countries that
do much better at placing books with English-language
publishers than Scandinavian countries do, and if so,
why? What do they have in common? What do countries that
almost never manage to place books with English-language
publishers have in common, and can we learn anything
useful from the answer to that? I can't comment on children's
books, but here are some thoughts on the other questions.
European countries seem to do better at getting their
literary books published in English?
and Germany loom largest, and the main reason for this
is obvious. Of all the non-English-speaking countries,
these two have the longest traditions of promoting their
cultures abroad, the largest networks of institutions
for doing so, and the greatest ongoing commitment to
this activity. Additional factors in the case of France
may include vigorous critical attention to literature
in French media and the fawning admiration of US academics
for almost anything French. Additional factors for Germany
may include a reading public that routinely generates
strong sales for serious books (including books translated
into German); vigorous critical attention to literature
in German media; Germany's role in WWII and the many
issues of continued relevance that flow from it; interest
in those issues among English-speaking readers.
translation and publication of Russian books in English
seems to have been supported by longstanding (often self-congratulatory)
interest in the West in what life is/was like in the
heart of the Evil Empire; by the importance of writers
like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in the West's perception
of the novel; and by a large, literate emigré community.
would be trivial to remark that countries that do much
less well include Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Greece,
Turkey. Poland and the Czech Republic probably occupy
middle positions. But I think it is most interesting
to ask why Italy and Spain do not do better than they
do. I invite others to comment on Italy. Spain, as distinct
from Spanish-speaking countries, seems to lie on the
periphery of English-speakers' literary consciousness.
Perhaps the most interesting question to put here is
how and why the "Latin American Boom" happened
in the US. I have heard it said that it resulted from
about twenty years of support and promotion by the Ford
Foundation. It would be interesting to know if that is
true, and if so, the total amount invested. Certainly
it is also important that there are so many Spanish-speaking
people in the US.
does all this tell us about the situation of Scandinavian
works in the English-language publishing market?
Scandinavian work has not been seen as important in shaping
English literature. This is probably wrong, but it is
a widespread perception. Auden lamented it; Seamus Heaney
probably laments it too, though he may not put it that
way. But there it is: not only the Scandinavian background,
but the Old English one too is slighted in favor
of the influence of France and Germany. Ibsen and Strindberg
are the two names most likely to pop into English-speakers'
minds if they are asked to name major Scandinavian writers.
And it will be Strindberg's plays that they will mean.
(And drama is in an even weaker position than poetry
when it comes to book publication in English.)
the US, the Scandinavian emigrant community was large
enough and was for a long time sufficiently interested
in the home countries' cultures so that it formed a base
of readers that made the publication of translated works
commercially feasible. Anyone who, wandering around library
stacks or used book stores, has come upon volumes from
the series of translated works issued by the American
Scandinavian Foundation in the first half of the twentieth
century must be amazed that such a publishing project
was once possible - and found readers.
of the persistence of something called Norwegian America
in the US (and to some extent, corresponding "communities" that
are called Swedish, Finnish and Icelandic - the Danes
seem to have cultivated roots rather less, or perhaps
less collectively), there has been a tendency, I think,
to cling to futile hopes and outdated approaches in promoting
Scandinavian work in North America. Yes, there are still
Scandinavian Studies programs at a fair number of universities
in the US and Canada (some under threat, some more robust),
though more and more students who study Scandinavian
literature do so in translation (perhaps an advantage
from our point of view!). But the "community" as
a whole is much more interested in recipes and sweater
patterns than in literature, and Norwegian America manages
against all odds (and in spite of visits to Norway) to
maintain an idealized and outdated image of the home
country that would be threatened by too much contact
with the contemporary reality of Norway.
don't think the market for Scandinavian literature -
and thus the prospects for its publication - can ever
be strengthened in the US (or in other English-speaking
countries) unless it is developed among general readers
who are not of Scandinavian descent. I don't mean to
imply that that the Scandinavian countries should abandon
or neglect university programs in Scandinavian Studies,
which are very important. I mean they need to broaden
their view and their goals. What they are doing now often
amounts to what they do on vacations abroad: find a few
other Scandinavians and sit around in a corner. "Niche
market" is just a buzz euphemism for "ghetto."
here are my prescriptions.
the Scandinavian countries truly want to see their cultures
in general and their literatures in particular known
and valued in the English-speaking world (their behavior
often suggests ambivalence on this score), they will
have to act together, they will have to invest
significant sums, they will have to accept the conditions
that exist in the target countries, and they will have
to plan for the long term.
is at present a good deal of energy and money devoted
to trying to distinguish one Scandinavian country from
another in the mind of the English-speaking reader. This
is largely wasted effort. Scandinavia, like Latin America,
is an established and digestible concept. It should be
exploited rather than resisted.
the Nordic Council of Ministers we already have an organization
that could play an important role if it would decide
to look beyond intra-Scandinavian projects more often.
recently issued Norwegian report on international cultural
policy asserts in italics: "There is hardly anyone
today with thorough knowledge of the field who thinks
that the public resources devoted to this area bear a
reasonable relation to its importance and to the possibilities
it holds for the new Norway." (Oppbrudd og fornyelse:
Norsk utenrikspolitikk 2001-2005, ed. Mette Lending [Oslo:
Norsk Utenriksdepartmentet, 2000], p. 75. Available on
the Web at http://odin.dep.no/ud/norsk/publ/rapporter/032005-994032/index-dok000-b-n-a.html ;
see part VI - if you can manage to load the page without
crashing your system. This report gives a valuable overview,
both historical and current, of international cultural
activities undertaken by all the Nordic countries, as
well as by France, Germany and the UK. Aside from general
references to cooperative projects, however, it does
not make a case for Nordic joint ventures.)
at promotion of Scandinavian culture in the US have often
been under-funded. I was in New York City briefly in
October 1999, when the Danish Consulate there was in
the midst of trying to promote Danish artists, writers
and musicians in a program called The Danish Wave. (The
Consulate deserves much credit for launching this local
initiative and no blame for the limits on its resources.)
There were many jazz concerts by Danish groups; I discovered
this when I was reading the fine print in the newspapers'
events listings to see what I would do with my few free
evenings. I went to two Danish jazz concerts. At both
events the regulars from the venue were joined by some
Danes and their friends or relatives. The logo of the
promotion was displayed. At one event brochures were
distributed. For most of a week I asked people I knew,
both visitors and New Yorkers, whether they were aware
that there was a whole series of Danish events taking
place in the city. These were all people with a strong
interest in culture. Not one of them had any idea what
I was talking about.
fact is that it takes a massive amount of advertising
- and it takes clever advertising - to register
anything in American awareness. This is one of the reasons
why all the countries in the region need to pull together.
The money spent on five ineffective campaigns might be
enough to fund one effective one.
conditions prevailing in the target countries need to
be recognized and accepted. Let's take subsidies as an
example. The Scandinavian countries provide small subsidies
that are intended both to give translators some sort
of minimal remuneration for their work and to persuade
publishers that they will not have to bear "additional
costs of translation." The latter point looks logical
on its face, but is it? In some cases, such as commissioned
translations of novels, I suppose it is, at least in
part (the subsidy does not address the publisher's cost
in acquiring rights). In other cases (most poetry books,
for example), the publisher wouldn't have paid the translator
anything other than a royalty anyway.
subsidy scheme does not address production costs or promotion.
It may be that production costs are addressed,
if only indirectly, in the case of some Eastern European
countries where publishers want to publish translations
of Scandinavian works. It is recognized that some of
these countries are desperately poor and that even obtaining
paper to print on can be a logistical nightmare. It is
not recognized that in the fabulously wealthy USA and
the reasonably wealthy UK, many publishers are indeed
think there is an attitude in the Scandinavian countries
that runs something like this. You are in business as
a publisher; you have to do your part. You have to do
the publishing and promotion as you do with American
or British books; we will level the playing field so
it is just as easy to publish Scandinavian books. We
subsidize publication of our own literature in our own
country; we can't be subsidizing publishers in the USA
and UK too.
how do American publishers, to take them as an example,
manage to publish American books - I mean serious,
literary American works (there are a few!). The answer
is that very often they do not manage. The commercial
presses aren't interested. Not enough profit in it. The
National Endowment for the Arts has been almost destroyed;
financial support for small presses and university presses
from public sources has been cut back drastically (and
university presses publish mainly scholarly books); private
foundations cannot take up all the slack. Many fine books
go unpublished. I'm sure there are more American authors
of great merit that go unpublished in the US each year
than there are Scandinavian authors of great merit that
go unpublished in the US each year.
small presses that have an interest in serious literature
have virtually no budgets for promotion. The university
presses are a little better equipped in this regard,
but they don't publish that much literature.
few Scandinavians have an understanding of these conditions.
If you tell a Scandinavian official that a subsidy of
$5,000 to a US publisher will make the difference between
publication and non-publication of an important Scandinavian
work, he or she is apt to feel that the source country shouldn't have
to provide such a subsidy. But what should be
the case is not relevant. Things are as they are.
have on several occasions made the suggestion that the
Scandinavian countries pool their funds and buy ads twice
a year in the most prominent literary publications, displaying all the
poetry and fiction titles translated from all the
Scandinavian languages and published in English in the
preceding year. This would serve to let a great many
readers know that this work exists in English,
and it might make a few critics realize that there is
beginning to be a body of work from Scandinavia
that is available in English. Right now this work has
no such visibility. One book is published here, one there,
mainly by presses without promotional budgets.
can hear the objections: "But we shouldn't have
to do the advertising for these publishers!" This
is not "advertising for these publishers";
it is precisely promotion of Scandinavian literature. It
may well seem to Scandinavians that American small presses
do nothing, raise no money, and want subsidies
for everything. Wrong! The people who run small
presses are the heroes of American literature. They work
day jobs and subsidize their presses from their salaries;
they fill out voluminous grant applications due 18 months
in advance, just to get a pittance of support. They get
volunteers and student interns to pitch in. Some of them
do their own printing. They build mailing lists and web
sites; they display their books at small press book fairs
that they travel to at their own expense. They lose money
on books they can't afford to promote. They do all this
in the face of a weak reviewing establishment that mainly
ignores their books. They keep the flame alive, and they
do it on a shoestring. They need more help than a check
that goes to the translator.
is the reality, and if the Scandinavian countries want
to see their literature better known in English, they
are going to have to accept it and work with what's there.
THE LONG TERM
few years one or the other of the Scandinavian countries
decides to put on a program of events that lasts for
a week or a month or a year. Then quiet. Then the next
program. One initiative has nothing to do with the next;
there is no framework, no long-term plan, no coordination
among the several countries as to when these programs
will be mounted or how they will be run and promoted.
What is needed is a conspiracy. Formulate goals.
Breathe together. Synchronize watches.
of the things that needs to be done over the long term
is to assist as many critics, book reviewers and cultural
journalists as can be found in possession of some interest
in Scandinavia to visit the countries, learn the languages
if they care to, and enjoy extended stays. Only sporadic
and minimal efforts have been made in this area. But
it is important. A single influential critic or author
with a strong interest in Scandinavian literature could
accomplish a great deal. Brad Leithauser's championing
of Halldor Laxness's An Independent People has
had a noticeable effect: not only has the book been reissued
in English, but general readers have now heard of it
and bought it (some may even have read it!).
end this ramble I will return, as promised, to the Internet.
Here is a medium ideally suited to reaching people with
common interests who are widely dispersed geographically.
The potential readers of Scandinavian literature in English
constitute such a population. How could they be reached?
And since I am talking about potential readers,
it is worth remembering that the question is also how
to increase their numbers.
that there is one web site where anyone can find
out about all the Scandinavian books available
in English (including out-of-print books that are probably
still available from libraries). For that matter, it
could contain sections for many target languages, but
I will stick to English here, since that is the difficult
area that the question in SBR addressed to begin with.
This site could contain archives of those ads that the
Scandinavian countries acting in concert are going to
place in journals every six months; and the brief listings
in the ads could be linked to a database of reviews in
English, including reviews from print journals with small
circulations and from online journals. (The reviews should
be acquired and stored at the central Scandinavian book
web site so they will not disappear; they can have links
to the home pages of the source journals, so that the
journals will have an incentive for contributing them.)
Having excerpts from the books online would help too.
also that this single web site is widely and cleverly
promoted for five or ten years. This is an absolute necessity.
People do not visit web sites if they don't know they
go to the web and see what you find. Damned if each country
isn't running some sort of web site supposedly promoting
its own books, or in any case informing the world about
all its wonderful literature - which unfortunately isn't
available in English. Some of the pages are in English;
most are in the source languages. Some of these sites
belong to journals (such as Books from Finland);
some are run by consortiums of various agencies (such
as Dansk Kulturnett). Their existence and their locations
are known mainly to those who already have some interest
in or connection to Scandinavia.
same old pattern, repeated on the web.
now a final leap. Print-on-demand has begun to be a reality.
As I write this, the Xlibris project is well under way,
with full-page ads in literary journals and a well-organized
web site. Xlibris will make a book available in both
hardcover and paper at no cost to the author (unless
the author wants optional design services). It prints
and ships on demand at a reasonable cost to the customer.
Xlibris and the author each get 50% of royalties. All
the author has to do is somehow make potential readers
aware that the book exists and is available from Xlibris.
imagine that the Scandinavian countries as a group decided
to take advantage of this system. They could save the
funds that I suggested they spend on addressing the production
costs of publishers and could concentrate on promotion
instead. They could work out a standard scheme as follows:
in exchange for its promotional efforts, the Scandinavian
promotional organization gets 10% from the 50% royalty
not taken by Xlibris; the remaining 40% gets divided
between the translator and the holder of rights to the
underlying text on whichever basis they may agree on.
The more effective the promotional organization was,
the more of its money it would recover from royalties.
an arrangement depends on the willingness of rightsholders
to participate. I am of course familiar with the grounds
for hesitation. Most of us like books as physical objects
(I am told that Xlibris books are quite all right in
this respect, but have not examined any of them). We
fear that print-on-demand books will never be reviewed
- ignoring the fact that most small-press books are never
reviewed either. We want our books in libraries and wonder
if libraries will buy print-on-demand books. We are afraid
of the taint of vanity publishing. These fears and reservations
are all the more reason why a concerted effort with official
backing is desirable. (One could even come up with a
design that would make all Scandinavian books published
this way instantly recognizable as part of a series;
within this series there might also be a distinctive
design element for each country, just to keep the chauvinists
from dying of despair.)
on this for a moment: the Internet might manage to reach
potential readers of Scandinavian literature in English
translation in, say, India. It might also be possible
to get an Indian print-on-demand operation to make Scandinavian
books in English available at a locally tolerable price.
That seems to me to be a future worth contemplating.
I wonder if the Nordic Council of Ministers will add
it to the agenda of their next meeting.