Translation in the Nordic countries

From a global point of view, few people speak the Nordic languages. Translation is therefore an everyday necessity for many Nordic people who do business and exchange ideas with those outside (and to some extent inside) the region. This has led to a healthy translation industry. Often up to 60% of books published by Nordic publishers are translated texts. Membership associations and certification bodies have grown up to support translators and verify their work, and further education institutions provide relevant theoretical and practical courses. Outside the region, Nordic literature in translation remains limited, often to the genre of crime fiction.

Black and white photo of stacked books

What languages are spoken in the Nordic region?

The Nordic countries do not only have their own tongues – i.e. Danish, Faroese, Finnish, Greenlandic, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish – as their sole languages. They also have a range of minority languages, both those that are official and those that are simply unofficially accepted, including the various Sami dialects, Romani, Yiddish, Meänkieli (Tornedal Finnish), Kven (the language of an ethnic group in Norway descended from Finns), German, Karelian, the various sign languages, and, of course, other Nordic languages (such as Finnish in Sweden or Danish in Iceland). In addition, the languages of certain immigrant groups, such as those from Arabic-speaking countries or the former Yugoslavia, are in some places recognised as unofficial minority tongues. Furthermore, there are many dialects of the Nordic languages, which each have their own connotations; examples might include the immigrant associations of Rinkebysvenska or the supposed happiness of certain Norwegian and western Swedish dialects. Many documents are translated to and from these languages, and there are also radio broadcasts and subtitles on TV programmes in some of them.

Translation and interpretation studies

To train translators and interpreters in all of these languages, in addition to other world languages, a number of Nordic institutes and universities have programmes in translation; for instance, the prestigious Tolk- och översättarinstitutet (the Institute for Interpreting and Translation Studies) at Stockholm University was founded in 1986. Translators can now get BA, MA or MSc, and even PhD degrees in translation studies. Such programmes in the Nordic countries suggest that translation as a subject is now being taken seriously and that translation is being viewed as a profession with recognised qualifications. Students study translation theory, the history of translation, genres, languages, and other topics in order to learn more about translation strategies and the role of the translator and to be better able to make conscious, careful decisions when translating. Examples of other programmes include those at the Copenhagen Business School, the University of Joensuu and the University of Tampere (FIN) in Finland, and the University of Agder in Norway.

Many of those who teach at these institutions are scholars in the field of translation studies. One of the earliest was the Swede Göte Klingberg, who focused on the translation of children’s literature and offered practical advice on how to do it (as well as criticism of those he perceived as not doing it well). More recent contributions have been offered by, among others, Riitta Oittinen, who is Finnish, Andrew Chesterman, an Englishman based in Finland, Ástráður Eysteinsson from Iceland, and Birgitta Englund Dimitrova from Sweden. Their work is primarily published in English, so has the capacity to influence translators and scholars in other countries as well. Perhaps due to the strong children’s book industry in Scandinavia and/or the presence of renowned institutes such as Svenska barnboksinstitutet (the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books, founded in 1965), translation studies in the Nordic countries is particularly influential in regard to research into the translation of children’s literature.

Associations and certification bodies

To support all this translation work and scholarship, there are a number of associations or at least sub-groups for translators within larger organisations. Many were started in the 1970s or later, although a notable few, such as the Danish Authors’ Society, have been around since the nineteenth century. Also, while most are located in the Nordic countries themselves, a few others, such as Swedish Translators in North America, are aimed at supporting Nordic translators who live abroad. The organisations include the Swedish Association of Professional Translators, the Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association, the Norwegian Association of Literary Translators, the Norwegian Non-Fiction Writers and Translators Association, the Danish Association of State-Authorised Translators and Interpreters, the Association of Danish Authorized Translators, the Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters, the Union of Finnish Writers, and the Writers’ Union of Iceland.

Promoting Nordic languages abroad

There are a few major cultural organisations that aim to support the translation of their national literatures into other languages, such as Norwegian Literature Abroad, the Swedish Institute, the Danish Arts Agency’s Literature Centre, the Icelandic Literature Fund and Finnish Literature Exchange. Most of these associations offer their members e-mail lists, regular conferences, magazines, and access to advice and advocacy, all of which can make the task of translation, often undertaken by people who are self-employed, a little less lonely. There are also places such as Översättarcentrum (The Translators’ Centre) on Gotland in Sweden that offer translators short-term residences where they can work on their translation in peace and solitude.

The Nordic countries also publish large numbers of translated books. The Nordic region is made up of smaller nations where literary imports in translation figure more prominently than in other countries. The percentage of translated books published in the Nordic countries is thought to be between 40-60 per cent per year, including books translated from one Nordic language to another. These works range across all genres. Unfortunately, however, it is less common to see Nordic books in translation.

Popularity of translated Nordic literature – crime fiction

Crime novels are the primary type of writing translated from the Nordic languages, as evidenced by Swedes Stieg Larsson, Håkan Nesser, Henning Mankell and Camilla Läckberg, Norwegian Jo Nesbø and Icelandic authors Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason. Crime is also the genre of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, the international bestseller by the Danish writer Peter Høeg. Positively received by English-language readers, it paved the way for more literary works by Høeg in a different genre such as The Woman and the Ape and The Quiet Girl.

Despite Høeg’s success, however, many literary authors still have trouble getting their works translated from the Nordic tongues into English. In 2006, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize went to Out Stealing Horses by the Norwegian author Per Petterson, and this perhaps holds out the promise that the subject range of Nordic literature of interest to at least a British readership is gradually widening. Other Nordic non-thriller writers who have been published outside their native region include the playwrights Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, and the authors for children Hans Christian Andersen, Astrid Lindgren, and Tove Jansson, along with Jostein Gaarder who has also written works for children. The smaller languages, such as Icelandic and Faroese, are seriously underrepresented when it comes to translation.

Interestingly, some major Nordic translators have even made a career of publishing not just their translations but also commentaries on their translations. Sweden’s Erik Andersson is a prime example of this, having written books about his work translating J.R.R. Tolkien and James Joyce. This suggests a growing interest among the public in what translation is and how it is carried out.

Further reading:

B. J. Epstein, ed., True North: Literary Translation in the Nordic Countries (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2014)

Erik Andersson, Översättarens anmärkningar (Stockholm: Norstedt, 2007)

Riitta Oittinen, Translating for Children (New York: Garland, Inc., 2000)