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Dolda gudar: en bok om allt som inte går förlorat i en översättning review

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Issue number: 2022:1


Dolda gudar: en bok om allt som inte går förlorat i en översättning

(Hidden Gods: About Everything That Doesn’t Get Lost in a Translation)

by Nils Håkanson
reviewed by Fiona Graham

It’s hard to imagine a book about literary translation garnering the most prestigious national award for non-fiction in any English-speaking country, as Dolda gudar has done in Sweden. In both the United Kingdom and the United States, translated books have been estimated at a mere three per cent or so of all books published. The figure reflects two aspects of culture in the English-speaking world: one positive (the abundance of writers in all genres working in English, including authors for whom English is a second language), and one negative (the self-satisfied insularity which, pace the pioneering independent presses that seek out literature in other languages, continues to afflict much of the ‘Anglosphere’).

Naturally enough, the situation is different in Sweden, although, as we shall see, Håkanson shows there are no grounds for complacency. The Swedish novelist Birgitta Trotzig once described literary translations as ‘half of our national literature’. While it would be hard to verify this statement – what counts as ‘national literature’ and at what point in time do you measure it? – it’s clear that translated works account for a far more significant proportion of the overall book market in Sweden (and the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland) than in the English-speaking world. This has long been the case.

Consequently, Dolda gudar is much more than a study of literary translation: it is also, in part, a social, cultural and literary history of Sweden. The book’s nine chapters alternate between exploring the history of translation into Swedish over five eras (the Middle Ages, the Reformation and Sweden’s ‘great power’ era, the eighteenth century, the industrial age, and the present day), and examining the general theoretical issues that arise in literary translation. Presenting all this material concisely in a form accessible to the general reader is a huge challenge, but one that Håkanson carries off with panache.

The introductory chapter looks at some of the basic features of translation. While the traditional Muslim stance is that translations of the Koran lack the status of the original Arabic text, being regarded as ‘cover versions’, Christians see translations of the Bible as having the same validity as the original. Yet literary translations are both necessarily different from the source text and, where several exist, from one another. Håkanson illustrates this with two contrasting translations from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and three surprisingly different renditions of a key passage from The Hobbit – aka variously Hobbiten eller bort och hem igen, Bilbo – en hobbits äventyr, or Hompen, eller En resa dit och tillbaks igen. (As for the doughty hobbit’s name, that varies in these Swedish translations from ‘Bilbo Secker’ to ‘Bilbo Bagger’ and even ‘Bimbo Backlin’.) Both the Dostoevsky and the Tolkien translations reveal how the first-ever translator felt able to take more liberties with the text; when Walborg Hedberg translated Crime and Punishment for the first time, its author was not considered to be a stylist or thinker of note, and for Tore Zetterholm, the first Swedish translator of The Hobbit, Tolkien was just another unknown English author. Judgements of these authors’ merits have changed over the years, and subsequent translations have paid closer attention to the stylistic features of the originals. This shows that while the original text is invariable, translations are more ‘organic’ and subject to change over time.

It’s impossible, in a short review like this one, to do justice to Håkanson’s scholarly history of Swedish literary translation. but a few general points can be singled out. In medieval times, religious texts accounted for the lion’s share of translations. These were often essentially paraphrases, it being incumbent on the translator to clarify the correct interpretation of Holy Writ for non-scholars reading it in the vernacular. The translators of the first five books of the Bible, for instance, are known as the Penteukparafrastikern, the ‘paraphrasers of the Pentateuch’. Another category of literature much translated in the Middle Ages was chivalric or courtly literature, such as the Eufemiavisorna (a collection of romances). It was not considered important for courtly romances to adhere closely to the source text; regardless of what form the original took, the translations were often in knittelvers, based on rhyming couplets that were easy to recite aloud.  

The translation of the New Testament in 1526 and King Gustav Vasa’s Bible in 1541 marked the emergence of modern Swedish. Disseminated thanks to the new printing press, they were key to the Swedish Reformation. Other religious texts appearing in translation included prayer books, hymns and a sort of handbook on how to identify the work of the Devil, Bock aff dyäffwlsens frästilse (The Book of Diabolical Temptation) – the first book ever printed in Swedish (1495). Sweden’s first ever translator regius (royal translator), Ericus Benedicti Schroderus (1570s-1647), translated a vast array of writings ranging from James VI of Scotland’s treatise on government to etiquette guides and historical works. German was the main language from which he worked.

In the eighteenth century, the novel made its entrance, with works such as Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Jones and Robinson Crusoe, plus a plethora of swashbuckling tales of lesser merit. The nineteenth century saw a rise in the prestige of the novel: but as the cult of the novelist as genius emerged, those who translated such works were increasingly downgraded to a poorly paid, anonymous ‘cultural proletariat’. In the industrial era, literary translators – many of them now women, ‘översättande fruntimmer’ in the belittling parlance of the day – often churned out several novels a year for a pittance.

The twentieth century saw attempts to improve the economic standing and professional status of translators in Sweden. A key moment was the establishment in 1953 of a professional association, Svenska översättarförbundet, driven by the energetic literary translator Elsa Thulin. It was not until the end of the century, however, that a short-lived academic programme for the training of literary translators was set up, at Södertörns högskola: Gothenburg’s Valand Academy has now taken over this function.  

In the last chapter, Håkanson looks at contemporary literary translation in Sweden and concludes that overall quality is higher than ever before. At the same time, he notes that the output of Swedish publishers is extremely biased towards Anglo-American culture: in fact, translations from languages other than English (or Danish and Norwegian) are mostly viewed as necessarily difficult and intellectual. (In the English-speaking world, this tends to be the case for nearly all translated literary works.) A more general concern, Håkanson suggests, is that literature has ceased to provide the shared frame of reference a society needs for its members to communicate with each other at any level above the extremely basic. There is no longer any canon of classics familiar to most people. This comfortless conclusion leaves the English-speaking reader pondering whether literary culture is on the wane in Scandinavia only, or whether Håkanson has put his finger on a more universal phenomenon.

Nils Håkanson in blue blazer in front of woodland backdrop
Nils Håkanson. Photo: Severus Tenenbaum.

Dolda gudar: en bok om allt som inte går förlorat i en översättning

Nirstedt/litteratur, 2021

357 pages

Foreign rights: Nirstedt/litteratur; Sebes & Bisseling

Nils Håkanson is a research editor for Svenskt översättarlexikon (the Swedish Dictionary of Translators), a literary translator (working mainly from Russian), a publisher (Ruin förlag), and a novelist.