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The Joys and Pains of Translating Scandinavian Literature into French
Philippe Bouquet

This article appeared in the 2006:2 issue.

After over a quarter of a century in the trade, I have been asked to write about the situation of the translation of Swedish literature in France at the present moment. It is a matter dear to my heart – perhaps all too dear and I have some difficulty looking at it with an objective mind. But försöka duger, as they say up there: It is worth trying.

The situation as seen over the past half-century is rather simple, in fact. In the fifties, there was only one company which published any Nordic literature in French at all: Stock. I know it very well, since I was delighted, when I began studying Scandinavian languages in my late teens, at the existence of its Bibliothèque scandinave (part of the “Cabinet cosmopolite”). I swallowed every volume I could find (all too few, for my taste). I know very well too, to whom I owe what would later become my life-time passion: his name is Lucien Maury, a former French lecturer in Scandinavia who was virtually the only one in the country to know what was going on over there in the field of literature. The series ultimately included over fifty volumes, all of the best quality (Andersen, Kielland, Kinck, Kirkegaard, Kivi, Lagerlöf, Lagerkvist, Pontoppidan, Strindberg, Undset...). Unfortunately, it was very much one man’s work and did not survive his death in 1953. The series was discontinued for years – in fact it has not yet been reborn. Nordic literature was at that time poorly represented in such foreign series as Gallimard’s Du monde entier or Robert Laffont’s Pavillons and at Presses de la Renaissance. Nowadays, the tables are turned: there is one publishing house which does not publish any Swedish or Nordic work at all and it is, believe it or not, Stock! Whereas nearly all the others, big and small, have at least one or two Scandinavian authors or titles in their catalogues. Rejoicing? Yes and no, depending whether you think in terms of quantity or quality.

The turning point came around 1980. It was then the French publishers ventured beyond works from the English-speaking world and discovered foreign literature as a whole, realizing that even Swedes or Icelanders could write. Very surprising indeed, considering the sagas and Eddas! The reasons for this were, as I see it, three. First (and foremost?) the paucity of French contemporary literature. Malraux, Gide, Camus and the rest were dead (and Sartre soon would be). No one has succeeded in taking over their role. Our “writers” of today think more of TV appearances than quality writing. Secondly, a great number of countries (both home and guest ones) began to help financing translations – and that made the question of cost much less acute. Thirdly, a number of scholars came round to the view that it was not beneath their dignity to translate foreign works of art (until then, it had been deemed acceptable only if the length of the footnotes exceeded that of the work itself). In the field of Scandinavian literature, this “utilitarian” view (in the best sense of the word) had in fact begun to work its way through in the previous generation. But nowadays, every single French scholar of this literature has translated at least one work, often many more.

The result is as I indicated above: the literature of the North in French is now scattered all over the place. Even an ultra-French publishing company like Grasset now has one Swedish writer in its catalogue: Björn Larsson. We translators have opportunities everywhere, whereas three decades ago we could hardly get past the porters’ lodge – I know this well, because I tried! But it is all a matter of chance; there is no clear editorial line. The publishers’ choice is matter of... of what? That question was often put to me in Sweden and I always refused to answer it, on the grounds that I can’t read the stars. To my fellow translators, I will be daring enough to say that it is a matter of….. money. Publishers all dream of a lucky strike: buying up an unknown foreign writer and making a fortune out of him/her. Let me tell you a story: some twenty years ago, I read a man called Henning Mankell, was impressed especially by his series on Curt Wallander and tried to convince a French company to publish it. After half a dozen failures, I succeeded with one of our greatest names in the field, Christian Bourgois. Unfortunately, the sales of this first volume, Mördare utan ansikte, were so poor that he did not wish to continue. I then thought the idea not worth pursuing and let matters lie. But a few years afterwards, I suddenly discovered part five of the series in a bookshop. My enquiry revealed that the head of Le Seuil had heard that this specific title had sold extremely well in Germany! He then went on with parts six, seven and eight, and recently two, three and four as well. With the result that the ideas behind, and progression in, the series have become blurred: for instance, Wallander leaves Baiba before getting to know her! That’s what you can call an “original publishing strategy”, and one I could never have foreseen.

The ultimate result of all this is the current demand for “Swedish crime”. I was astonished to read the phrase on an advert recently; who would have thought it twenty or even ten years ago? Nowadays the only books I am asked to translate are crime novels. But it is all a matter of quantity and print run. The Swedish crime writers who seem most original to me (Aino Trosell, Kjell Eriksson, Teodor Kallifatides...)* are still unknown here. The people who buy books abroad have only one concern: how many copies over there (as if it could thereby be guaranteed at home)? The quality of the writing does not matter; they have people at home for that (more on this below). One publisher, for instance, had a chance of completing the travel books by Harry Martinson (only the first one, Resor utan mål, was published some 70 years ago), but is backing out, scared of “the risk”. Nobel Prize winners please pass by, you are not wanted, don’t sell enough. Things have gone so far that I am contemplating adopting a strategy of inverted logic: since whenever I am asked to read a Swedish book for a French publisher and judge it to be poor, it is always purchased. So why not enthuse about it (so that it is discarded) and reject the good ones (so that they have a chance of being accepted)?

That quest for quantity on the part of the “big” publishing companies (“great” is something else, as we all know) means that quality is now to be found by the small ones, who try their best to defend literature. This explains why it was Viviane Hamy, for example (she is a great name but her company is small), who published Hjalmar Söderberg’s books – the most deeply French of Swedish writers, who remained unknown here until the 1990’s. If you look for what the Swedes call smal (specialist) literature, for example Linné’s Nemesis Divina, you have to seek out the publications of Michel de Maule, and that is not easy. The Swiss company Esprit ouvert has also been daring, publishing Bang, Bargum, Fløgstad, Heinesen, Johnson, Munk, Wijkmark. Gaïa also does a great job (its output includes Moberg’s complete Utvandrarromaner, Nexø’s complete Pelle Erobreren, Leif Davidsen, Jørn Riel’s Tales, Wassmo and Westö). Agone launched a quality range of Swedish authors (Dagerman, Guillou, Johnson, Martinson) but chose last year to publish Aniara as a kind of “poetic feuilleton”. The University Presses at Caen, Lille, Nancy and Paris also have a Scandinavian series which includes not only literary studies but also fiction. Le Castor Astral specialized in the works of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. José Corti published Almqvist, Holberg and Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina. Not forgetting Plein Chant which has tried its best to make Swedish proletarian literature a little less unknown. I can’t name them all. One company even became “big” at it: Actes Sud, which published my translation of Dagerman’s Tysk höst as its first foreign book ever when it was small and unknown, is now one of the largest houses in the country with the biggest sales at the Salon du Livre, and a number of different collections among which Scandinavian literature is less and less conspicuous.

A man named Denis Ballu took a fancy to Nordic culture and literature while watching Scandinavian films in his youth (Bergman, of course, but also Bo Widerberg and others). He then began collecting books translated from the languages of the North, which he could not read, and now owns some two thousand, I think. In his forties he had the eccentric idea of becoming a publisher of nothing but Nordic books in translation. And he did! He now has some sixty-five titles in his catalogue, including five by the other Bergman, Hjalmar. (It is hard to convince people here that Ingmar is not the only one of the name). He is the only one in France to have published books by Mats Berggren, Olle Schmitt, Aino Trosell, Jan Stage, and plays by Bengt Ahlfors & Johan Bargum. As if this were not enough, he published for fifteen years a one-man annual review of all things Nordic published or screened here. But his real feat is to have published entirely of his own volition (nobody asked him to do it and nobody except the Swedish Academy thanked him for it or gave him a little money to help him do so) a comprehensive bibliography of everything that was published in French within Nordic literature 1720-1995. A unique feat, and all the more so in view of the fact that this man is not a scholar and has no academic ambitions. Such people (he is not the only one, although his case is extreme) do not exploit this literature, they make it live abroad

The big publishers have now come to think that they lack control over the contents of their books. Some young editors believe they know what the readers want and, consequently, what a book should contain and how it should be written. Far better than any so-called translator – who desperately tries to convey what is in a book from one language to another – anyway. I was recently surprised, on proofreading my translation of a Swedish crime novel, not to recognize my own text. For example: to try to express the weariness of married life in the sentence Vi har inte kul längre, from a fed-up husband to his wife, I had written: “C’est plus drôle, nous deux” (hoping that it was short, colloquial and slangy enough). And I found that it had become the high-flown “Nous ne nous amusons plus beaucoup ensemble”. On closer scrutiny, I found that only half a dozen sentences in the first chapter had been left unchanged! When I rang the publisher to point out that this was not my text, I got the answer that they had thought it necessary to “improve” it a bit, since it was very awkward. With over a hundred published book translations to my name, I could finally discover how bad I was at translating. Of course, I refused to read and correct something that was not by me and the book has been published under a translator pseudonym. I informed the author, which angered the publisher who claimed I had no right to do that. No right to tell to the person who is most affected by what happens to me and my work. Progress indeed.

But the worst was still to come. Shortly after that, another “big” publisher refused my translation (and to pay the last third of the agreed fee), on the grounds that it was “bad” and contained a number of mistakes. When I received the list, I was staggered to discover that I was censured for having repeated the same verb three times within... 37 pages, and for certain grammatical or lexical mistakes which my “corrector” made himself. I am now feeling extremely disillusioned. I can’t see any point in translating books since the publisher can clearly write them better and more cheaply than some stupid writer/translator without the foggiest idea of what the public (or is it the all-powerful Market) wants. What a pity the source text exists. Since we live in a world of “virtual reality”, why not apply that to literature, too?

I do not know if translating from the Nordic languages has any future in France, but I certainly have none. My future lies backward. It is better than not having any at all, but I pity young translators who share my taste for good literature from the North.

October 2005

* Postscript March 2006: I have been lucky enough to be entrusted with the translation of Aino Trosell’s first crime novel and have some hope of Kjell Eriksson’s.