When Literature Travels Well:
On the Global Impact of the English Language

by Bertil Falk

Part 2 appears
in this issue.
part 1 of 2

Living within a limited speech area — only 9 million people speak Swedish — I have now and then like so many other people had reason to reflect on, not to say ponder over languages, literature and translations. The questions involved brought matters to a head when I was asked to be on a panel at the Bouchercon in Philadelphia in 1998, discussing the subject “Common Denominators: Detective Fiction that Travels Well: Transcends Cultural Differences, Crosses All Boundaries.”

The reason that I was asked to participate was probably not at all that the organizers considered me to be an expert possessing special knowledge of the subject. It was rather the brutal fact that I was the only participant who came from Sweden. (There was of course Elvy O’Brien, married to Charles O’Brien, who in 2001, according to Publisher’s Weekly raised the bar for historic mysteries with his debut novel Mute Witness, but I guess that the organizers did not realize that Mrs. O’Brien is fluent in Swedish.)

It turned out that the participants on the panel besides me were from Austria, Cuba and Denmark, and it dawned on me that the organizers most probably considered us as having at least some minority angles of approach to the problems involved in the chosen subject.

Our task was to throw light on what is needed for detective fiction to travel widely. Since I in this specific context could not see any tangible difference between mystery fiction and other fiction, I lumped all kinds of fiction together. And I did it from the narrow outlook of my Swedish point of view.

On the flight on board Scandinavian Airlines from Copenhagen to Newark, I read an article in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet about Søren Kierkegaard, the man who invented existentialism long before Jean-Paul Sartre even was a bunch of prospective twinkles in his 16 great-great grandparent’s 32 eyes. The article exposed that it is springtime for the Danish philosopher. Kierkegaard societies are being founded all over the place. His books are being translated into more and more languages, into Japanese as well as into Romanian.

Using the article as a point of departure, I established that not all authors who live within a limited speech area like the Danish are translated into a bunch of other languages during their lifetime, much less, as in the case of Søren Kierkegaard, 150 years after their death. My line on the panel was that in order to travel well, a text, any text should preferably be written in English.

As a rule, that is. For with all due deference to Søren Kierkegaard, he is an exception. It so happens that best-selling books in non- English-speaking countries are translated into English thanks to their regional success. That has been true about Knut Hamsun (Norway), Astrid Lindgren (Sweden), Yukio Mishima, (Japan) and many others. But as we know, bestsellers are in themselves exceptions.

* * *

I had three reasons for my statement that in order to travel well a text should preferably be written in English.

The first reason

The number one reason is British imperialism. About 1.2 billion people —probably more — around the world speak English in one way or another. At the same time 1.2 billion people speak Chinese. That was what I cited at Bouchercon in 1998. Four years later there were new figures. According to Time magazine, 1.9 billion people could make themselves understood in English in 2002. That is one-third of the world’s population. At the same time, perhaps 800 million people out of 1.3 billion Chinese citizens have Mandarin as their mother tongue.

But while English is spoken all over the world, Chinese is a regional language, geographically restricted to a comparatively small part of our planet. Outside that area, Chinese is not much to write home about.

We have Hindustani — Hindi and Urdu — spoken and/or understood by perhaps 800 million people or more on the Indian subcontinent. Even that is a comparatively small geographical part of the world. Furthermore, there is a considerable number of other languages spoken on the subcontinent. We have the Indo-European languages Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, etc. And the Dravidian languages like Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.

English is used as a link-language and is often spoken in the Lok Sabha, the Indian Parliament; and there are many daily English-language newspapers. As a matter of fact, India is supposed to be the third largest English-speaking country in the world after the United States and Britain.

Or maybe not. Recently, I saw a statement that more people speak English in India than in the United States (!). Since I have spent a couple of years of my life in India, I would not be at all surprised if it is true. When it comes to the amount of books published in English every year, India is number two after the United States. Britain comes in third.

There are some literary observers stating that the best fiction published in English today is written by Indians. They do not mean old favorites like Mulk Raj Anand, Ruskin Bond or R.K. Narayan. They talk about a wave of Indian authors like Anita Desai, Amitav Gosh, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth to mention a few. They are often nominated for supposedly prestigious international literary prizes and they frequently win them. They write in English, and their books are translated from English into other languages.

In other words, the high status of Indian authors is a consequence of their abandoning their mother tongues. Do you believe that Salman Rushdie would have been translated to so many languages today if he had written in Urdu? He would hardly have been translated into Swedish.

Now all the above mentioned Indian writers have been translated into Swedish — from English. Books are not regularly translated from Kiswahili, Tibetan or Gujarati to other languages. As a matter of fact books are not very often translated from large speech areas like Chinese, Hindi or Arabic.

“But look at Satyajit Ray (West Bengal, India) and Taslima Nasrin (Bangla Desh),” someone objects, “two Bengali-speaking writers, who are translated to other languages.” Again, they are exceptions proving the rule. Satyajit Ray is one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century. The fact that his science fiction and detective stories have been translated into English is partly a function of his celebrity status and partly a function of the fact that his stories are loved in West Bengal.

While Ray is an excellent storyteller, Taslima Nasrin is far from considered as being a great writer. The reason her works are being translated into many languages is that she has celebrity status due to persecution by Islamic fundamentalists. And for at least some time she went into exile in Sweden. That made her a female equivalent of Salman Rushdie.

In 1997, more than 2,000 books were translated into Swedish from English. Danish came second with more than 100 books translated into Swedish. Two books were translated from Chinese. Not one single Indian language made the list. Apart from English and Danish, no other language — not even German and French — got one hundred titles translated into Swedish. A similar English dominance is to be found year after year within other limited speech-areas as well.

The strong position of the English language in the world is no doubt due above all to British imperialism. It is not by chance that cricket is played all over the world in former British colonies, where English is used as a business- and a link-language. English as well as cricket are functions of Rule Britannia imperialism, and today English is valued in these countries as an asset in a world of globalization.

Suppose history had taken another turn and America had been settled by a majority of German-speaking people. Would American culture have been as successful — let alone the same — if German had been the standard language of the United States?

I don’t know. But it is certain that Indo-European languages of the North Germanic branch, like German and Swedish, are harder to handle than English, which is West Germanic. And perhaps it was something like what Dzimtars Sodums thought of when he translated Joyce’s Ulysses (1960) into Latvian, an Indo-European language of the Baltic branch. His reason, if I remember it rightly, was that there was a need to solve the translation problems in order to bring the Latvian language up to date and make it more able to express ideas that otherwise were difficult to convey in Latvian.

The second reason

The fact that English, rather than another language, was chosen as the standard language for the United States brings us to my second reason for the importance of and the dominance of English. It has to do with the place that American culture has and maintains in today’s world. Above all, both left-wingers and right-wingers in Europe have talked about and still talk about “American cultural imperialism”.

In 1988 a small pamphlet called American Cultural Invasion in Europe by Yuri Kagramanov was printed in Moscow. He talked about the dangers, horrors and terrors of the American mass culture that stands for “the breeding of a taste for the stereotype.” The print of his book had barely dried when the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, and today the former Soviet bloc is flooded with American mass culture.

Now, the Soviet Union and the United States were the two superpowers of the 20th century. But the former Soviet Union neither created nor developed one single new art form.

In contrast with American democracy, the Communist system accepted only inoffensive art forms. Heavily made-up ladies in folk costumes danced folk dances. The circus, with its harmless ways of expression, was at a premium. Old Russian operas could be performed as long as those in power did not feel threatened.

At the top was Swan Lake, the adored stereotype of stereotypes, the most harmless of all petrified ballets. Regarded from a technical point of view, the Russian ballet dancers were the best in the world. But socialist realism prevented creativity when it came to new ballets. The Soviets had no Martha Graham.

What about Kandinsky, Mayakovsky, Stravinsky, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak and others? They either belonged to a common European tradition including trends like futurism from the days before the Revolution, or they were forced to go into exile, or they were silenced. If they did not commit suicide when they understood which way things were going, they were sent to the gulag or forced not to accept the Nobel Prize for literature from the Swedish Academy.

To the extent that art and culture of lasting value was created in the Soviet Union or there were trends — unknown to me — to develop new art forms, it happened in spite of the system, not thanks to the stereotyped socialist realism of Marxism-Leninism in its Stalinist version.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Bertil Falk

Home Page