Those Taciturn Swedes

Prepping for my spring course “How to Translate Anything,” I came

across this insight from David Bellos in his Is That a Fish In Your Ear?:

Filmmakers dependent on foreign-language markets are well aware of how little spoken language can actually be represented in on-screen writing. Sometimes they choose to limit the volubility of their characters to make it easier for foreign-language versions to fit all the dialogue on the screen. Ingmar Bergman made two quite different kinds of films — jolly comedies with lots of words for Swedish consumption, and tight-lipped, moody dramas for the rest of the world. Our standard vision of Swedes as verbally challenged depressives is in some degree a by-product of Bergman‘s success in building subtitling constraints into the composition of his more ambitious international films.

p. 137

Then he takes this “Bergman effect” and explores an argument made by Steven Owen, in a 1990 review of Bonnie McDougall’s translation of Bei Dao’s The August Sleepwalker, regarding how some contemporary poets from China write in a way that presupposes the translation of their work into English. Though the film example begins with a formal constraint (how much one can represent, and how much an audience can take in, in a single frame), it is a very nice insight to see these as part of the same general phenomenon, which has two components: (1) an anticipation about reception by an audience, and (2) a resulting shaping, in ways that the audience might perceive as somehow “natural” or “authentic,” of the content and expression itself.

It is obviously also a global phenomenon not limited to Swedish filmmakers or Chinese authors, and the implications are worth thinking seriously about, especially as our ideas about cultures are so thoroughly influenced by literary and film representations.

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