Translation and Power

I find myself returning to our discussion of Chester Himes while considering this week’s topic of global literature. I’m especially interested in the how the role translation plays in the production of Himes’ crime novels differs from the dissemination of Swedish/Scandinavian works. Himes’ novels, as we established, were often written in French but with the intent of being translated into English (or sometimes vice versa), so that Himes was consistently aware of and catering to his transatlantic audience. This, to use Rebecca Walkowitz’ term, results in literature that is “born translated.”

An important distinction arises when we look at Swedish crime novels, however, because both Beecroft and Berglund would agree that Himes was operating in two languages that are at the “core” of global literature. Both critics posit that there is a hierarchy to language, and Berglund, borrowing from Heilbron’s argument, claims that there are “three levels of languages: central, semi-peripheral, and peripheral” (82). In this model, English is the central language which acts as an intermediary for other, less central languages. Swedish is labelled as “semi-peripheral” (83). I can’t help but see these distinctions as creating (or addressing) a power dynamic that neither critic seems willing to contend with—Beecroft even imagines that we could be headed toward a “borderless world” as “texts begin to circulate more rapidly around the planet” (36). How is that possible if literature is still being filtered through a core language? Doesn’t the very act of translation affirm that there are borders that need to be overcome?

This brings me to my main issue: if there is a hierarchy/power structure for languages and translations, what does it mean for an author writing in a “semi-peripheral” language to appeal to a global audience? Berglund claims that Swedish crime novels (like Himes) are written with an international audience in mind: translation rights are often sold before a novel is even finished (81). If Swedish authors are writing with the aim of reaching a readership in the more “powerful” (in the hierarchy Berglund establishes) language of English, does this necessitate that Sweden/Scandinavia itself become an object of an outside gaze, one that does not belong to the author or the native people? I think this is what Berglund is getting at when he describes the “exoticization” of place within Swedish crime novels. He sees this is a distinctive feature of the success these novels enjoy, claiming that readers are often more interested in the descriptions of place rather than the crime. Drawing on Anderson, Miranda, and Pezzotti, Berglund argues that the setting can be both entertaining and didactic for readers (85). While Berglund sees this as a good thing—the novels are successful, a global audience is learning about a different country—I can’t help but be troubled by what he’s implying. There’s a certain voyeuristic quality in his account, one that requires writers to cater to a foreign language that is higher in the language hierarchy than their own.

With all that being said, I think it’s important to consider where Mankell fits in to all of this. Certainly, we’re reading his book in translation. The cover features a snowy, desolate scene. The novel includes a map, and Wallander describes places and weather patterns throughout. But the central concern of the novel seems to be the danger of foreigners and anxieties about open borders. Wallander often worries about the “newness” of the world. What is Faceless Killers doing, then, with the very specific phenomenon of Swedish crime novels?   

Himes and the Absurd

Johnathan Eburne’s take on Chester Himes is useful in the way that it maps both the author’s biography and development as an artist, but I was particularly struck by the middle ground that Himes seems to occupy within the genre of detective fiction in Eburne’s understanding: his detective novels are neither in the realm of “social realism,” nor “existentialism” (807). Rather, they occupy “absurdity” as “both a social condition and a narrative apparatus” (807). This is especially interesting if we consider this distinction in the larger scope of the course. We have often wrestled with the question of realism in detective fiction (with Sayers in particular), and just last week we were confronted with the existential (metaphysical, if we trust Holquist) detective stories of Borges. What then does it mean for Himes to occupy this middle ground?   

I’m particularly concerned with how Himes’ position relates to the generic codes of detective fiction, especially as there have been several prescriptive accounts of what makes a detective novel a detective novel. A dead body, clues, a logical conclusion, a lack of mystical intervention all seem to be a part of what makes good detective fiction (if we’re meeting the London Detection Club’s standards). Sayers must meet these standards if she wants to maintain the veneer of realism; Borges must include them if he wants to show their failings, thus creating a postmodern experience for the reader. Certainly, Himes’ works meet these rules. Yet his novels and their position in the world of the absurd make these rules less of a focal point. Himes is not writing for the pleasures of ratiocination, nor is he attempting something metaphysical. Instead, Himes is “abandon[ing] any such coherent philosophical position, seeking instead a ‘handle’ on absurdity as a way of describing how racism operates in the American imaginary” (825). There is something larger at stake for Himes, something that can only be communicated via the realm of the absurd: a critique of racism in America.

Why is the detective novel, then, Himes’ modus operandi? The absurd could certainly exist in other genres. Here, I would like to consider Eburne’s careful attention to the language of Himes’ works. He opens his argument by describing the “indecipherable language” of Harlem jazz in Cotton Comes to Harlem, quickly tying it to the language of the novel: “This painful, paradoxical understanding of the world as language not only frustrates the two detectives but also characterizes the narrative logic of Himes’s detective fiction” (806). This frustration could quite possibly be problematic because it goes precisely against what is expected of a detective novel. If the detectives are confused by the language of the world, then the reader is certainly lost. Indeed, this, for Eburne, is what Himes intended: “[his] fiction refuses to relinquish this indecipherability, insisting on, even celebrating, its value as an impediment to idealized solutions to the world’s injustice (807). Himes wants to leave us in an unsolvable world, so that we will be faced with the vicious realities of racism, without the option of escape. Why is this something that is ideally communicated through the detective novel? Is it because we expect authors and detectives to follow the rules of “the game” that we are shocked and confused when the language does not allow us a logical conclusion?  

10/9 Gender and the Reading Public

In the assigned section of  Q.D. Leavis’ Fiction and the Reading Public, there is only a passing mention of the role gender plays in the creation of the reading public. Though Leavis counts Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë among the great novelists, she is not concerned with how gender affects the making of the canon or bestsellers. In fact, Leavis argues that reading habits are created by whatever is most affordable in the marketplace, and thus class-based (an answer for Moretti?). However, the issue of gender does make a striking appearance when Leavis quotes one of the anonymous bestselling authors she interviewed, who says, “‘I imagine the bulk of my readers to be fairly simple people (mostly women) who want to read of romance in a form not incompatible with their own opportunities’” (58). While pondering Leavis’ larger concerns about who reads what and why, I was concerned by the implicit (and seemingly accepted) alignment of women–as both writers and readers–with “lesser” fiction.

Significantly, this “lesser,” commercialized fiction is singled out as detective fiction. Leavis claims that, because the masses enjoy the mental relaxation found in the act of reading, detective stories enjoy a certain popularity: “for the reader of to-day a not unpleasurable way of relaxing is to exercise the ratiocinative faculties on a minor non-personal problem. It is chiefly this use of fiction that has commercialised novel-writing” (50). Detective fiction achieves its association with mass culture, rather than highbrow literature, because of its approachability for the masses, perhaps the “simple” female reader the anonymous author anticipates.

Detective fiction being tied with mass culture carries with it concerns about not only the gender of the audience, but also the gender of the author, something that Andreas Huyssen addresses in After the Great Divide. Taking Flaubert and Madame Bovary as his example, Huyssen claims that the mass culture debate at the heart of modernism is largely concerned with gender: “woman (Madame Bovary) is positioned as reader of inferior literature–subjective, emotional, passive–while man (Flaubert) emerges as writer of genuine, authentic literature–objective, ironic, and in control of his aesthetic means” (46). Highbrow literature is clearly within the realm of male writers, since in this dichotomy, women are not even considered as authors; they are readers only, and readers of “inferior literature.”

All that is to say that Dorothy Sayers is a female author, writing the alleged “lesser” fiction known as the detective story. Herself an incredibly accomplished woman (one of the first to receive a degree from Oxford, multiple translations of Dante), Sayers, in my opinion, seems aware that her readership will have these opinions of her work. So what do we do when one of her characters, Parker, actually says, “‘you’ve been reading detective stories; you’re talking nonsense’” and “‘if this were a detective story’” (20, 29). Is Sayers trying to distance herself from the mass culture that is so often feminized? Or do we see her poking fun at the elitism of highbrow literature?