Fredrik Tydal on Dos Passos in Swedish Translation

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Fredrik Tydal, Vice President of the John Dos Passos Society in the United States, has written a thoughtful piece on the frustrations attendant with translating Dos Passos into Swedish–U.S.A in particular. Without the multimedia, U.S.A. isn’t a multimedia masterpiece. It’s a shame. The inspiration here is in Tydal’s excellent telling of the tale. Enjoy! Congratulations are in order for Fredrik!


The Curious Case of Dos Passos in Swedish Translation

Dos Passos never developed much of a reputation in Sweden. In many ways, this is surprising, not least since the author and his work have enjoyed enduring recognition in so many other European countries. Most of all, though, there is a sense that the Swedish literary climate should have been ideal for Dos Passos, much like it had been – and would continue to prove – for his American contemporaries on the left. In 1930, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to that tireless critic of mainstream America, Sinclair Lewis. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, publisher Axel Holmström were keeping up with the prolific output of Upton Sinclair, translating almost all of the author’s work to a receptive audience. Meanwhile, other publishers were bringing out more radical voices, like Michael Gold and Agnes Smedley. And as the 1930s progressed, Swedish readers would also discover John Steinbeck, who went on to become canonized as one of the great American writers.

So, in the interwar era, American literature on the left struck a chord with Swedish readers. The reason for this was twofold. At the time, Sweden was undergoing systemic socio-political changes, with the decline of monarchical power and the parallel rise of the social democratic movement, bringing about the welfare state. Second, the last three generations had seen high levels of emigration to America, with over a million Swedes making the trip across the Atlantic. This mass exodus left its mark on Swedish society, and for many of those left behind, it led to an enduring fascination with America – the land of the what-if’s. (Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg later channeled these feelings into his four-volume novel series on Swedish-American immigration, a bestseller as well as an iconic twentieth-century work).

In this context, the stage seemed to be set for Dos Passos – combining, as he did, a thematic preoccupation with America with a left-wing outlook and analysis. Yet for some reason, Dos Passos got a late start in Swedish translation; his first novel published was Manhattan Transfer, and that not until 1931, a whole six years after the original. The timing was less than ideal, as the new decade had brought in a different mood. While Manhattan Transfer had first appeared at the height of American modernism in 1925 (and also helped to define it), the depression had rendered formal experimentation suspect in the eyes of many, as something that threatened to take focus from the more pressing issues of the day. In Sweden, the ideal was turning towards the proletarian, with a strong domestic movement underway. Unsurprisingly, the novel was thus met with mixed reviews in Sweden, but the major literary journal Bonniers litterära magasin was by and large positive, accurately identifying the city itself as the main character (today a critical commonplace). On the whole, then, it was a respectable Swedish debut for Dos Passos, showing promise for the future – especially as he was going in a more explicitly political direction. But then came the misguided decision, bordering on the scandalous, which likely sealed Dos Passos’s lack of a reputation in Sweden.

When The 42nd Parallel was to be translated in 1932, someone, somewhere, and for some reason thought it would be a good idea to cut out all that crazy experimental stuff. Yes, that is right: in the Swedish translation, the Newsreels, the Camera Eye, and the Biographies were all mercilessly excised from the book. Only the fictional narratives remained: the stories of Mac, Janey, Eleanor, J. Ward Moorehouse, and Charley Anderson. The entire symphonic setup, the juxtapositional logic, all contextual value – gone, just like that. “The four way conveyor system,” as Dos Passos himself referred to his unique narrative format, had been closed down to a single file. And those reading in Swedish translation would never know. Or, well, those who cared enough knew, such as future Nobel laureate Eyvind Johnson, who lamented the cuts in a letter to Swedo-Finnish modernist Elmer Diktonius:

What’s left is something that would leave Dos Passos in tears of rage if he read it (I
hope). What’s now being presented to Swedish readers is not Dos Passos’s novel; it is
only samples from [his] novel – impeccably translated, granted, but nonetheless only
samples. (qtd. in Holmqvist, my translation)

Johnson makes an important point: for all intents and purposes, Swedish audiences would have been reading a different novel. And for anyone used to the English original, it is hard to imagine exactly what that reading experience would have been like. Suffice to say, it would have been a less demanding one. For although the fictional narratives feature layers of complexity, such as the use of free indirect discourse and simultaneity, they do adhere to a general realist mode of representation that is not too dissimilar from that of, say, Theodore Dreiser. Perhaps this was also the underlying intent: the combination of radical outlook and formal experimentation inherent in his work had always put Dos Passos in a curious, in-between position. By removing the formal complexities, the Swedish publisher was effectively turning Dos Passos into a different writer – that is, someone more like Lewis, Sinclair, or the emerging proletarians. Indeed, in his Swedish foreword, Sten Selander emphasizes Dos Passos’s left-wing commitment (“if he belongs to any particular party, it would be the communists”) as well as the realist mode of the book (“[i]n the entire novel, there is not a single inert, belletristic, [or] contrived character; . . . [t]he people in the book are not particularly sympathetic, but they live”).

In the Dos Passos papers at the University of Virginia, there is a good deal of correspondence with foreign publishers, but nothing concerning the Swedish translation. There is the possibility, of course, that something exists in Swedish archives, but that would be something for future research to show. Thus, it remains unclear whether Dos Passos was aware of the heavy-handed abridgement or not. What we do know, however, is that British publisher Constable tried to do almost the same thing for their edition of The 42nd Parallel. According to Virginia Spencer Carr, the company were “convinced that the ‘Newsreel’ and ‘Camera Eye’ chapters would confound their readers,” and so asked Dos Passos for permission to omit these sections entirely. To this, Dos Passos responded in the strongest way possible: first issuing a cable saying “ABSOLUTELY NOT,” and then going to London to argue the case in person. Afterwards, he even insisted on reading and correcting the proofs himself, to make sure nothing was left out. This reaction does suggest that Dos Passos would have been enraged, as Eyvind Johnson speculated, had he known the crime perpetrated on his work in Swedish translation. But there is also a chance that he did know and simply thought it best to pick his battles, after the ordeal with the British publisher. Again, there is future research to be done here, especially comparatively – that is, to see if other foreign publishers attempted to curb Dos Passos’s experimental side for the ostensible sake of readability.

Eventually, however, someone at the Swedish publishing company realized their mistake – but then it was too late. For when 1919 was translated, it was rendered in full and with all four narrative modes intact, but it did not come out until 1939. Seven years had passed, and by that time, any momentum created by The 42nd Parallel would have been lost. In addition, tampering with the formal apparatus of the work had also weakened the continuity between the two novels, and as a result, it would not have been immediately apparent to Swedish readers that 1919 was even a sequel. It comes as no surprise, then, that the novel was not a hit. In fact, it evidently fared so poorly that the publisher never even bothered to finish the trilogy: The Big Money did not appear in Swedish translation until 1983 – that is, over forty years later. In other words, Dos Passos’s masterwork was never available to Swedish readers in its entirety during the author’s lifetime. While this simple fact alone should account for his lack of a reputation in Sweden, it would all seem to stem from that initial bad judgment in 1932, when scissors were taken to one of the most finely wrought novels in Am erican twentieth-century literature.

Works cited

Carr, Virginia Spencer. Dos Passos: A Life. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1984.
Dos Passos, John. 42:a breddgraden. Trans. Sonja Vougt. Introduction by Sten Selander.
Stockholm: Albert Bonniers, 1932.
Holmqvist, Ivo. “Eyvind Johnson och John Dos Passos: En jämförande läsning.” TijdSchrift
voor Skandinavistiek 24.1 (2003): 93-116.
Svensson, Georg. “Manhattan i ljud- och stumfilm.” Rev. of Louis Bromfield’s Twenty-Four
Hours and John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer. February, 1932. 72-75.