Promoting Scandinavian Books in English
Roger Greenwald
This article appeared in the 2000:2 issue
In the 2000:1 issue of Swedish Book Review, readers were invited to comment on why so few Swedish books are published in English translation each year. We print here the thoughts this question aroused in Roger Greenwald, who has translated many books of poetry and prose from the Scandinavian languages into English, and teaches at the University of Toronto in Canada.

I'm 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 they're worth.

The 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.

First, 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that are not very interested in serious literature or anything without bestseller potential, or university presses that do not publish fiction or poetry.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.

(It 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.)

Second, 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.)

One 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.

Taken 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.

This 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 English markets.

Further 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.

Which European countries seem to do better at getting their literary books published in English?

France 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.

The 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.

It 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.

What does all this tell us about the situation of Scandinavian works in the English-language publishing market?

Historically, 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.)

In 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.

Because 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.

I 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."

Now here are my prescriptions.

If 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.


There 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.

In 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.


A 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 ; 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.)

Efforts 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.

The 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.


The 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.

The 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 poor.

I 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.

Well, 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.

The 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.

Very 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.

I 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.

I 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.

That 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.


Every 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.

One 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!).


To 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.

Imagine 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.

Imagine 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 exist.

Now 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.

The same old pattern, repeated on the web.

And 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.

Let's 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.

Such 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.)

Reflect 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.

Swedish Book Review does not necessarily agree with all the opinions expressed in the articles by Roger Greenwald and Eric Dickens in the 2000:2 issue, but is pleased to provide them with a platform on which to express them - and we hope the debate will continue in future issues. The topic is clearly an important one, and although there is unlikely to be a straightforward answer to the question posed, the more thoughts and proposals that are put forward, the more possible it is that something might be done to resolve the problem. Please send further comments and suggestions to the editor.