Nordic Noir, bringing Translated Literature in from the Cold?

English is the world’s most translated language. Indeed, tens of thousands of books are translated from English every year. Despite this, there has historically been little demand for translated literature in English-speaking countries. Whilst the translation of English-language literature can be highly lucrative, only 2-3% of literature published in the English language are translations. Despite this, Scandinavian crime literature has found an increasingly large UK audience in recent years. Could it be that the “Nordic Noir” craze signals a reversal of English-speakers’ aversion to foreign-language literature?

“Nordic Noir” is a term commonly used to refer to detective and crime literature set in Europe’s frozen north. The genre may be described as dark, gloomy, violent and slow-paced, with strong female characters and a focus on societal themes and criticism. The prime example of the genre’s success is the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, which has sold more the 75 million copies in 50 countries.” Jo Nesbø, a Norwiegan crime author, topped the UK bestseller list with his novel “Police”, with other authors, such as Henning Mankell and gaining popularity amongst British readers.

The success of “Scandi” crime fiction has not been limited to the page either. Indeed, the first book in the Millennium series was subject to an English-language screen adaptation, in which Rooney Mara starred alongside Daniel Craig as the titular “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. The reception of home-grown Swedish and Danish television detective dramas by British viewers has not been frosty either. “The Killing” (Forbrydelsen) and “the Bridge” (Bron/Broen), which both feature female detectives as their lead characters, have gained both popular and critical acclaim. Indeed the opening episode of “The Bridge 3” was watched by 1.8 million British viewers. The availability of these series on the on-demand streaming service Netflix will ensure that they reach an even-wider audience. 2015 even saw a “Nordicana” festival, celebrating Scandinavian TV and film, taking place in London.

The question must be posed, what makes these artistic works so appealing to British readers and viewers? Perhaps it is their flawed protagonists, the appeal of melancholy and dark humour, or their heavy focus on character? In any case it is unclear whether the growing popularity of such literature in Britain is causing social change, making readers more open to authors from other cultures, or is the result of it. Regardless, there has been a boom in literature translated into English, with literary translations growing 18% in the last 20 years. However, some stop short of proclaiming a revolution within English-language literature, with the translator and academic, Lawrence Venuti, pointing out that translated works still make a tiny proportion of the Literature published in the UK, especially when compared with other countries, such as Spain, France or Italy. In any case, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for English-language literary translators.

Sources: TheGuardian, PublishingPerspectives, BigIssue, TheGuardian, BBC, Sweden, Nordiskfilmogtvfond, TheBookSeller and Lawrence Venuti, the Translator’s Invisibility- Venuti, L. (1995) The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. London, New York: Routledge

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