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?