Until fifteen years ago it seemed that the majority of publishers in Yugoslavia thought that all Swedish literature worth translating had already been translated. Mainly classics ranging from August Strindberg and Selma Lagerlöf to Harry Martinsson and Astrid Lindgren were available in translation at that time. Occasionally a more contemporary book would break the air of stuffiness that seemed to envelop published Swedish literature. However, those books were usually written by well known cult figures, like Ingmar Bergman’s Laterna Magica.
This is the perception of Swedish literature every translator has to struggle with when pitching books from Sweden even today. It is always necessary to explain that in fact stuff happened after all those Nobel prize winning authors were long gone.
The economical situation changed drastically after the republics of Yugoslavia became independent. With the economy in disarray, the publishing industry was practically non-existent. The end of the 1990s saw a boost to publishing in Croatia, thanks to generous subsidies from the government which led to an unrealistic boom in publishing houses. More books came out than the market could possibly swallow.
On the positive side, this has brought interest for smaller languages and for books that were not typical bestsellers: an interest that, fortunately, continues to this day, even though the number of published titles has decreased.
In the case of Swedish literature it all started, unsurprisingly, with popular crime novels. My first translation job was Liza Marklund’s Sprängaren in 2001, which was the first Swedish book that had come out in years at that time. Two more of her books followed. The publisher was Algoritam (www.algoritam.hr), one of the biggest publishers in Croatia that focuses on commercial titles and has a special section for crime literature. In the years that followed, the interest in popular Swedish books grew, leading to translations of books by authors like Unni Drougge, Marianne Fredriksson and Katarina Mazetti – all of these were published by Izvori (www.izvori.com). Publisher Zagrebačka naklada (www.zg-naklada.hr), which mainly deals with science fiction, published Sam Lundwall’s King Kong Blues. A few Henning Mankell novels have also been published, translated from German, a practice that was quite common in Yugoslavia and unfortunately, still persists to this day. Surprisingly, Mankell did not receive much interest from the reading public.
As with every small language, it is up to the translators to follow the development of literature in the country of their interest and to suggest the right books to publishers in their own country knowing the market, literary tastes and fashion. I have been given quite a lot of freedom by certain editors and was able to promote different kinds of books and show that Swedish literature is not all about crime writers and chick-lit. Publisher AGM (www.agm.hr) published Mikael Niemi’s Populärmusik från Vittula, and two novels by Jonas Gardell. Izvori published Cilla Naumann’s novel Fly and Fraktura (www.fraktura.hr), a publisher focusing almost exclusively on non-English literature, succesfully promoted P. O. Enquist and Carl-Johan Vallgren. Because Fraktura managed to establish such a strong profile as one of the rare publishers of quality European literature, they are the ones that more demanding readers turn to when they want to read literature from non-English speaking countries.
Additional interest in Swedish literature was fueled in 2003 by the Swedish Institute project Switch: Balkan – Norden, which presented young prose writers and poets (L. Ekdahl, C. Gripenberg, B. Hansson) to the Croatian public through a series of readings. This opened the door for Swedish poetry, a development which was succesfully perpetuated this year with Brutal – International Poetry Festival, organized for the second time this year in Zagreb by the cultural organization Brutal, and at which Catharina Gripenberg was one of the guests. By far the most influential literary festival in Croatia is the International Short Story Festival (www.festival-price.profil.hr) organized by the publishing house Profil. I have been working very closely with their editorial board and it appears that Swedish writers will be regular visitors to the festival: this year Mirja Unge is coming, last year it was Hans Gunnarsson. Next year, I will edit an anthology of Swedish short stories (including Inger Edelfeldt, Hans Gunnarsson, Ninni Holmqvist, among others) which should come out in time for the festival. As a part of the festival we also organize translation workshops for students of Swedish at the University of Zagreb hoping to present new potential translators with a diversity of Swedish literature and young, popular writers.
Unfortunately, as I am writing this, Swedish Institute has cut the support for translations which will, without a doubt, hit translators and publishers hard. As the only translator from Swedish continually working on promoting Swedish literature, I fear for the future of Swedish books on the Croatian market. It is just crushing to think that all the work and years I invested in showing that Swedish literature is not only Strindberg and Pippi might be in vain, as any possible future translators will lose interest in pursuing such an idealistic career.
While the future for Swedish literature in Croatia is, at the moment, unknown, the situation now is better than it ever has been, with at least two Swedish books coming out every year. And I hope that this will continue.