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Swedish Literature in Germany - A Success Story, Only Slightly Flawed

Paul Berf

This article appeared in the 2010:1 issue.

Paul Berf, Swedish Literature in GermanyThere was once a golden age of literary relationships between Sweden and Germany, it is now a century behind us. August Strindberg’s expressionistic dramas were tailor-made for the experimental theatre established in Berlin by Max Reinhardt; and nowhere else in the world did Selma Lagerlöf attract such a large and loyal readership as in Germany. Berlin was a natural point of reference for many Swedish literary figures. Numerous books were translated into German – almost all, in fact. By the time I made my first timid attempts to pitch Swedish books to German publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the early 1990s, however, precious little was left of that close contact between the two literatures.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Wherever I turned I met lack of interest, prejudices and stereotyped attitudes. Swedish novels were perceived to be too full of gloom and doom, always set in dark, endless forests, with characters exhibiting about as much humour as the films of Ingmar Bergman (nobody seemed to recall that Bergman had also made comedies). I was informed that quite simply, Swedish books would not sell; nobody wanted to read them. If a work of contemporary Swedish literature ever did manage to find its way into German, publishers were keen to ensure it was marketed in a way that impressed their own views and prejudices on readers. So, for example, the German edition of a book embodying a positive attitude to life, Göran Tunström’s Juloratoriet (Christmas Oratorio) was given the ponderous title Solveigs Vermächtnis (Solveig’s Bequest), and a cover design depicting a foggy, rain-soaked forest.

It is true, of course, that even then there were houses like Carl Hanser Verlag and Suhrkamp Verlag that regularly published Swedish titles, albeit with only modest success. However, it was not until the mid-nineties that the bulk of German publishers began to change their attitudes; a few Scandinavian (not only Swedish) books became unexpected bestsellers – to name but four: Jostein Gaarder’s Sofies verden (Sophie’s World), Peter Høeg’s Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), Henning Mankell’s Den femte kvinnan (The Fifth Woman) and Per Olof Enquist’s Livläkarens besök (The Visit of the King’s Physician). Nowadays it is often claimed that in a number of countries, Stieg Larsson opened the door to Swedish literature, but this was categorically not the case in Germany. When Stieg Larsson appeared on the scene in Germany, all the doors were already wide open.

I think this is an important point, because the range of Swedish books published in Germany since the mid-nineties has extended beyond crime novels to cover the whole spectrum of genres. Swedish literature generally, not just crime fiction, is now well established as an integral part of the German book market. Swedish books in translation were formerly the preserve of a small number of German publishers and only a few authors such as Per Olof Enquist and Lars Gustafsson were represented, whereas nowadays numerous publishing houses with widely differing profiles go out of their way to incorporate Swedish titles into their programmes. It is more or less impossible to ignore Swedish literature. And as a result, Swedish is now one of the languages most frequently translated into German: no other Scandinavian country can compete with Sweden when it comes to the number of titles on German publishers’ lists.
For anyone whose work brings them into regular contact with publishing houses, it soon becomes evident how this position was reached, and why such success is not merely a temporary phenomenon. Once publishers finally realised the potential of Swedish literature, they began to appoint staff with relevant linguistic skills. Numerous German publishing houses now employ editors fluent in Swedish, and hence with a vested interest in including Swedish literature in their lists. Moreover, I am personally acquainted with a number of people in publishing who have been so impressed by the success of Swedish literature in Germany that they have enrolled on courses to learn Swedish. And since Scandinavian Studies is currently a popular course in German universities, publishing houses are in the enviable position of attracting a large number of job applicants with qualifications in the Swedish language.

I shall attempt a brief overview of books currently being translated from Swedish into German, and how successful they are – but I shall exclude books for children and young adults as I know very little about that particular field. In general terms, however, it would be fair to say that Swedish books for children and young adults in the spirit of Astrid Lindgren have traditionally played an important part in German reading culture, and continue to do so.
Crime novels must take pride of place, of course. The first wave of success began with Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, but other authors such as Håkan Nesser, Liza Marklund, Arne Dahl, Inger Frimansson and of course Stieg Larsson have been, and continue to be, extremely successful. The list of Swedish crime novelists translated into German is so long that with the best will in the world, it would be impossible to mention them all here. But other forms of light fiction also go down very well in Germany – for instance, books by Kajsa Ingemarsson and Marie Fredriksson appeal to many female readers.
Nevertheless, what I find even more encouraging is that works with literary ambitions and books by young authors with less commercial potential are also finding their way into Germany: as a result, in recent years I have had the opportunity to translate such writers as Ellen Mattson, Jerker Virdborg, Fredrik Sjöberg, Aris Fioretos, Håkan Bravinger and Carl-Henning Wijkmark – something that would have been totally unthinkable at the beginning of the nineties. In the same period, colleagues have translated books by Lotta Lotass, Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Sara Stridsberg and Anne Swärd, to name but a few. On the other hand, there has been little sign of experimental prose texts, plays or lyric poetry. The last of these does manage to survive in hand-to-mouth fashion in literary magazines, but this is a fate Swedish poetry shares with its German counterpart.

My account thus far has been of a Swedish success story, but I would like to end on a critical note. It seems to me increasingly problematic that Swedish literature in Germany is largely regarded by the reading public and also by critics as synonymous with Swedish crime fiction. Readers are apt to seek out only Swedish crime novels, and too rarely take the next step into exploring other sorts of Swedish books. In my view this reduction of Swedish literature to a single genre, especially as it is a branch of light entertainment, has had a negative effect on the appreciation of Swedish literature by critics in the leading literary supplements. As Swedish literature is associated so closely with one genre, they tend to turn to the output of the USA, UK, France and Eastern Europe for books with more exalted literary aspirations. That is a pity, and it does a particular disservice to young Swedish writers, who do not always receive the attention they deserve from the German literary establishment.
Despite this critical comment and the paucity of Swedish poetry on the German scene, it has to be said that Swedish literature in Germany has not enjoyed such prominence since the time of August Strindberg and Selma Lagerlöf. The number of books translated remains constantly high, and staff developments in German publishing houses have ensured that Swedish literature will continue to be prominent for some considerable time to come. The next step is for Swedish literature to be given an adequate opportunity to win over the hearts of literary critics and the literary establishment in Germany.