Bertil Falk is a Swedish newspaper and TV journalist, an author of mystery fiction, a translator, and a former editor of DAST magazine (a Swedish journal devoted to detective stories, science fiction, and fantasy). His first novel saw print when he was only twenty, but then forty years intervened when he was mostly engaged in journalism and other nonfiction projects. The latest of his nonfiction titles is 2016’s Feroze, the Fogotten Gandhi, which has been described as “a necessary book about a neglected man.” Bertil’s short fiction appeared in EQMM in 2004 (self-translated from the Swedish) and he was the translator for the Ulf Durling story “Windfall,” which appeared in last year’s November EQMM. With so many parts of the world within his ken, and so much personal experience of translation, he is the perfect person to talk about how different languages may be employed in works of fiction. —Janet Hutchings
I have always been interested in language and what we can do with it. For sure, things have been done—and there are extremes: Just take a look at language teacher James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, where he breaks every conceivable linguistic law, using words from every language he knew (and they were not few).
At the end of 2016, the TV series Midnightsun (French title: Jour Polaire)—a coproduction between French Canal+ and Swedish public television—was shown in France and Sweden. The story takes place in Paris and the Swedish province of Lappland, which provides viewers with awe-inspiring landscapes.
The story begins with BANG: A man tied to the rotating rotor of a helicopter; the rotor rotates faster and faster; it is like giving the beginning the form of an O. Henry ending. The man is screaming for help in French and English. Not surprising, the people behind the story have not been able to match the beginning with a similar BANG at the end of the series. The series was a success and reviewers praised it. But that is not the point here.
In this mystery with gory murders, at least five or six languages are spoken: French, Swedish, Lappish (or Sami language), Finnish, and above all, English.
Does it sound messy?
It is not.
Thanks to subtitling instead of dubbing, it worked very well. People speaking different languages gave the story a certain touch of authenticity. That is the way it works in the living life of the real world. So why scrap it from our efforts to describe what happens in that world of ours?
Anyway, a French citizen has been murdered in northern Sweden. A French police officer from a minority group in France travels to the mining town of Kiruna, where she confronts her Swedish counterpart, who is a gay man (with a teenage daughter) from the Sami indigenous population. She on her part has a traumatic relationship with a teenage son. The Swedish police officer can’t speak French. The two must speak English, but her English is not very good.
Kahina Zadi (played by Leïla Bekhti) is the French homicide investigator and Rutger Burlin (Peter Stormare) is the Swedish investigator. Leïla Bekhti had to pick up English in a painstaking way within four months and Peter Stormare had an even more difficult task, since he not only had to pick up the particular dialect of Swedish spoken in Lappland, but he also had to learn the Sami language, which unlike English, French, and Swedish is not even an Indo-European language, but belongs to the Uralic language family.
One of the reasons that young Scandivian people are good at English is the fact that movies and TV productions are subtitled. Anyone who has been in Germany and seen, not to mention heard, Humphrey Bogart speaking German knows that dubbing is a disaster. Bogart’s voice is simply a part of his personality. Similarly, with dubbing, a Japanese movie is sort of stripped of its soul. As a Chinese proverb says: Every language you pick up gives you an extra soul.
Will Midnightsun set a trend? Why not? Or is it, rather, the symptom of a trend? Perhaps. There is more and more cooperation over the borders between TV companies. Globalisation has created new ways of producing things and that affects even the production of movies and TV. And as Midnightsun shows, or perhaps proves, it also points at a healthy way of considering the standing of languages in the 21st century.