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

by Bertil Falk

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

The only Stalinist, as far as I know, who was in the forefront in creating a new literary style was an American, Dashiell Hammett, who wrote hard-boiled stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask. But that had less to do with his being a member of the Communist party in Hollywood than with the freedom he had as an American citizen to convert his experiences as a private eye with the legendary Pinkerton Agency — accidentally today owned by the Swedish company Securitas — into exciting pulp stories. And he did it to make a living.

Literally, the much-decried American culture has been sprouting new art forms since the end of the 19th century. Not least did the oppressed and lower classes contribute to this development.

Music is an extraordinary case in point. Blues, spirituals, ragtime. New Orleans jazz, boogie woogie, and yes, jazz in all its many incarnations like Dixieland, swing, bebop, cool jazz. Furthermore, there were rhythm & blues, rock & roll, country & western, the hits of Tin Pan Alley of which the very best ones live on as evergreens. And now hip-hop and similar phenomena. Add to that the Broadway musical. Such a pyrotechnic display of new musical forms was impossible in the Soviet Union.

And we must not forget the comic strip and the comic book. I have always been surprised that rich Americans have been so bewitched by old and new European masters that they have disregarded their own creative artists like Milton Caniff, Gene Colan, Steve Ditko, Hal Foster, Jack Kirby, Joe Shuster, Jim Steranko and many others.

Furthermore, we have the glorious period of the pulps, when imaginative writers mixed styles and created new literary genres and sub-genres. Everything and anything was possible. Edgar Rice Burroughs not only wrote Tarzan of the Apes, one of the five most familiar hero characters of the 20th century, with Under the Moons of Mars,Burrough more or less created the planetary romance, a new literary genre.

Science fiction, fantasy, sword & sorcery, space opera, horror mixed with realism, westerns mixed with science fiction... You name it: the pulp writers wrote it. Isaac Asimov combined science fiction and mystery by creating a robot who was a detective. And so on.

Taking the long view, Edgar Allan Poe, who died in 1849, turned out not to be an isolated phenomenon but the foretaste of the explosive power of American literary creativity.

The need for entertainment was so demanding during the Depression in the 1930’s that the writers were forced to write more and more inventive stories. Not always was the literary quality first-rate. But fantasy and imagination flowed as never before.

There was the phenomenon of “sense of wonder.” Writers like Alfred Bester, Otto “Eando” Binder, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Edmond Hamilton, Jerry Siegel, Stanley G. Weinbaum and many others did not know of any literary boundaries of the kind that were so common in Europe.

Hardboiled writers like the mentioned communist Dashiell Hammett, the cynical Raymond Chandler and the right-winger Mickey Spillane were not bad authors. We don’t have to share their opinions to appreciate their stories. I read almost all of them when I was young — in Swedish. And the greatest suspense-writer of them all, the unobtrusive Cornell Woolrich with his fear of being buried alive did not write for nothing the most hair-rising stories that Alfred Hitchcock embraced.

And with that we have arrived at the dream factory. For we can not possibly overlook Hollywood, the film noir, the brilliantly colored MGM musicals, dramatic epics, corny trash, comedies, westerns, sentimental soaps and lousy TV serials.

I could go on forever describing this ongoing surge of franticly rotating ideas that were minced together in an unceasing maelstrom into a golden age of creativity in the 20th century. Mankind had never before seen its like.

This vigorous and vital output possessed and still possesses something human and universal that struck home in Europe, in Latin America and in the Third World. The fact is that the attractive force of American culture strongly affects even radically different cultures that have their own unique entertainment, like the Japanese, Chinese and Indian cultures.

The case of Charlie Chan is significant. Warner Oland — an actor who translated August Strindberg from Swedish to English; he was fluent in both languages — played the Chinese detective Charlie Chan in a series of Hollywood movies in the 1930’s. The movies were very popular in China. When Oland (actually Ölund) went there, the Chinese were surprised that he did not speak Chinese. Can my point be better illustrated?

American culture may well be belittled over and over again, and its appeal may bewilder left-wingers, middle-wingers and right-wingers alike. But the enticement is there. Why should a young Swede see a dull Ingmar Bergman movie with lousy dialogue — sometimes it would be a blessing not to understand Swedish — now that Spiderman honors the silver screen with impeccable dialogue?

The existence of a powerful and infectious culture is however not enough to explain the enormous and universal impact of the American culture. There must also be ways to spread “the disease”.

The third reason

And here we arrive at the third reason for my statement that in order to travel well, a text should be written in English. This third argument has to do with the infrastructure that is now more than a century old and yet continually growing, one that makes it possible to sell, distribute, and market American culture after it has done its bit at home.

Instead of exiling the music, the movies and the cartoons and the literature to collect dust in a lumber room, inventive entrepreneurs realized that the productions were not junk that at best could be recycled but resources that actually could be re-used. They placed the productions in a surplus stock.

From there, the old works were distributed, as they still are by salespersons and agents who channel them to different places in the world, where they can conquer new markets in a translated, subtitled, dubbed or even in the original version. Through different channels such as syndication, American culture has been and still is being spread all over the world.

It did not matter much during the age of the silent movies that films were produced in Sweden by Sjöström and Stiller. Thus we had the so-called golden age of Swedish silent films. But with the talkies, the Americans, who already were ahead in the field, got the upper hand. Actually, both Sjöström and Stiller (bringing Garbo) went to Hollywood even before the talkies hit the market.

When it comes to music, no translations were necessary. American popular music talked straight to people everywhere. Not even songs had to be translated. Instead, they became tools for people who did not speak English to pick up at least some words and sentences.

These means of distribution have been in full swing ever since the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, and this infrastructure has most probably never been as reliable and functional as it is today.

The French were upset by the “American cultural imperialism” long before Yuri Kagramanov wrote his book in the Soviet Union. They fought and some of them still try to fight the cultural invasion both at home and within the European Union. And, it seems, to no purpose at all. Young French people have understood that in order to travel well in the world and make themselves understood, they have to speak English.

French is a wonderful language but it is no good if you want to communicate with people in India or Finland. But English will do. And I remember an enormous pop concert held in Nice in the 1980’s. Tens of thousands of young French people were not only listening to Simon & Garfunkel. Many of them in an enthusiastic way joined in singing about Mrs. Robinson. They knew the English text by heart.

That the ability to distribute is important does not mean that you can distribute anything. It is not easy to spread Egyptian or Kenyan culture through the same channels as American culture. The existing infrastructure can be used, but these cultures do not have universal appeal.

Parts of other cultures may be embraced within American culture, like Indian yoga and meditation, Japanese haiku and sushi, Chinese martial arts movies from Hong Kong, even Swedish smörgåsbord. But as a whole, probably not.

The late vocalist, the divine Om Kolthom is still idolized not only in Egypt but in the whole Arab world. But I can not see how her art could possibly penetrate popular culture on a large scale outside the Arab world the way artists like Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra transcended the boundaries of the American culture. Similarly, I can not comprehend how two of my favorite Indian female singers, the playback vocalist Lata Mangeshkar and the raga singer Parveen Sultana ever would enter the mainstream of global culture.

Taken together, in my opinion these three elements (the spread of the English language through British imperialism, the cultural vitality of American society, and the infrastructure for the distribution of the American culture) have made the English language the lingua franca of the 20th century.

The spread of English has been a continuous process, and it is now proceeding faster than ever. I have experienced a part of that process myself. When at the age of ten I began junior secondary school in 1943 in Stockholm, Sweden, the first foreign language I had to learn was German.

After the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, English replaced German as the first foreign language in the schools. Later on, English became a compulsory subject for all school children, as it is today in many European countries, including Germany for that matter.

After the fall of Communism, English has made its way into Eastern Europe as well. At the same time, the threat of extermination of very small languages has caused alarm in some circles and measures to save as much as possible of this human heritage are taken by groups of dedicated people.

The situation right now is that the spread of the English language seems unstoppable. This in its turn means that an excellent novel written in English not only stands a better chance to travel well than an excellent novel written in Latvian, Kiswahili or Icelandic, it also means that a lousy novel written in English stands a much better chance to travel well than novels written in other languages — no matter how terrific they are.

While most important and a lot of unimportant English language literature finds its way into other languages, more important books written in godforsaken languages will never find their way into English. And one should not forget that many people in the world prefer to read English novels in English and not in translation.

Even though Swedish pop groups singing in English like ABBA, Roxette, Cardigans and others catapulted Sweden to number three after the United States and Britain when it comes to exporting music, young Indians who study English are probably more skilled in English than Swedish youngsters. That is at least the impression I got during my years in India.

The reason for that impression is that Indian school children not only study English as a school subject as they do in Sweden, even the language of instruction is often English. To that must be added that Indians speak English with other Indians. India is permeated with English. And English has a similar status in many African countries.

What is the future of the English language in the world? According to David Graddol, author of The Future of English, English will be spoken or learned by half of the world’s population by the year 2015. After that year, according to Mr. Graddol’s computer projections, the growth will come to an end and begin to “go down the drain.” Around 2050, the “boom” is supposed to be over. Well, let’s worry about that when 2050 comes. Those alive then will see.

My statement here is that as a rule, fiction has an advantage when written in English in order to travel well. Of course that does not mean that it is impossible for stories written in other languages to travel. But the obstacles are many.

In order to translate, it is more important to know one’s native tongue than the language one translates from. It means that in the world there are many people who are good at translating from English to many other languages, but far fewer people are good at translating from their native tongues to English as well as to other languages. The 2,000 books translated from English to Swedish in 1997 speak for themselves.

Copyright © 2007 by Bertil Falk

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