Friday, 11 May 2012

The Joys of Translation

Carl von Linné – or Linnaeus as the world outside Sweden remembers him – was what we would now call a “control-freak”. And like all control-freaks, he was often frustrated by the unwillingness of people, animals and the natural world in general to do as they were told. Even as a boy, he would order his younger siblings around:

Follow me! Do as I do! … Copy me! Say after me! …”

But his brothers and sisters would go about their business unheeding.

The future taxonomist’s curiosity about the natural world had started at a young age:

Earlier, there was another, smaller garden and a boy’s passionate interest in plants.
What’s that called?” “What’s that called?”
Carl walked in that garden with his father.
What’s that?” “What’s that?”

His father, pleased by the boy’s thirst for knowledge but tired of his forgetfulness, spoke harshly to him and issued a threat: that he would never again tell the boy the names of the plants if he forgot them after they had once been named.”

Now, the little boy is a professor at Uppsala where, God-like, he names the flora and fauna and everything in Creation and tells his students, the “disciples”, that nothing has changed and nothing new has developed since God created the world. But his students bring him strange hybrids they have found on their nature walks, and his uneducated gardener has insights into Nature that leave Linnæus at a loss for words:

The gardener points to a tree.
A pine,” says Linnæus.
The gardener points to another tree.
A spruce,” says Linnæus.
The gardener points to another tree, which resembles a pine and resembles a spruce.
Linnæus tries to see if the tree is a pine or a spruce.
It’s an intermediate form. Linnæus is silent, unwilling to discuss this with a gardener. Such things are uncertain.
The gardener asks if the pine and the spruce haven’t interbred.
Like a horse and a donkey make a mule.”

The gardener likes to sit in the garden on hot days and make music on his rather unusual stringed instrument. His friends simply enjoy the music, but Linnæus the taxonomist is tortured by the need to classify, to name:

When the sounds reach Linnæus’s window, he usually comes down and asks the gardener to tell him how the instrument came into his possession and how the sounding-board comes to have seventeen strings.
Linnæus also usually asks the gardener after a little while to explain how the relationship between the melody strings and the drones is to be understood and why the latter cannot be shortened.
After a while, Linnæus also usually asks whether the instrument is called a zither or a dulcimer …”

Linnæus plants a Siberian garden, which attracts the unwelcome attentions of a neighbour’s goats. He has a stone wall built round it, but the goats vault it at night. He runs down in his night-things with a whip and chases them away, but when he is back in bed he hears them in the garden again:

Late August. The goats seem to relish the Siberian peony and the Siberian aster. At night the Siberian garden is full of goats.”

He dispatches his “disciples” around the world with instructions to send him samples of all the exotic flora and fauna they encounter. Only Rolander comes back, ill and spitting blood, with news of his fellow-students and their various fates:

Sparschuh? Fell downstairs, dead. Wetterman? Burnt to death. Grufberg? Cut his throat with a razor, dead. Baeckner? Died of fever in Paris … Gisler? Mad, murdered three people. Edvall? Buried in Canton … Björnståhl? Died of plague at Litocoro, Greece. Lundborg? Drowned. Salomon? Drowned. Luut? Drowned. Wennerberg? Drowned. Söderberg? Drowned.”

Finally, Linnæus is felled by a mystery illness resembling a stroke and, with dreadful irony, the supremely articulate and knowledgeable scientist who tried to name and define the created world is reduced to an incoherent wreck:

Yet Lövberg understands. Linnæus has his own words in place of the usual ones. He has forgotten all the usual ones, one after the other. … First, the nouns. Monandria and Tetradynamia, gone. Buttons, buttonholes, waistcoats, gone. Weasel, fish, knife, cheese – gone. … Now Linnæus is saying nothing but “To ti! To ti!”

*   *

Linné/Linnæus is the central character in Magnus Florin’s quirky little novel Trädgården (The Garden), which was published in Sweden in 1995. Shortly afterwards I was commissioned to translate extracts for Swedish Book Review and the now defunct cultural magazine Artes International. I always assumed that someone would finish the job and that the book would be published in this country or in the USA, but it hasn’t happened, so I’ve finished the job myself and shown the translation to a couple of publishers. One lives in hope!

The book has had another incarnation, as an opera performed in the beautiful Drottningholm Palace Theatre – the best-preserved 18th-century theatre in the world. The palace of Drottningholm, on the island of that name in Lake Mälar, near Stockholm, is the permanent residence of the Swedish royal family.

The author Magnus Florin is a well-known novelist and playwright in Sweden and also works as chefdramaturg – roughly, literary director – at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, a post once held by Ingmar Bergman.

Magnus Florin

When I first translated extracts from this book, back in the 1990s, I felt a bit handicapped by my ignorance of horticulture, botany and zoology. However, we now live in the age of Google, God bless it, and I soon found that Googling an unfamiliar, often dialectal word used by Florin for some Swedish plant would yield a Latin name which I could then Google in its turn to get an equivalent English name. I’m still not exactly a candidate for Gardener’s Question Time but my ignorance of horticulture is perhaps not quite so complete as it was.

While I wait to hear whether The Garden will make it into Britain’s bookshops or not, I’m bracing myself for the next assignment. IB Tauris have just commissioned me to translate a brand-new biography of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat abducted in Hungary at the end of WWII and allegedly imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag, although the Soviets denied this throughout the Cold War, poisoning relations with Sweden. The author, Bengt Jangfeldt, is a specialist in Russian language and culture, and has had access to hitherto secret KGB files, so his book should be an interesting read. It hasn’t even appeared in Sweden yet, so IB Tauris are obviously keen to cash in on any publicity it gets there when it appears later this year.

I have already translated several of Bengt’s books, including a prize-winning biography of Axel Munthe – author of The Story of San Michele and supposedly “the most famous Swede of all time” – and more recently a literary biography of the Russian Futurist poet V. V. Mayakovsky (still awaiting a British or American publisher). 


Being a translator means being on a permanent learning curve. The Munthe book taught me more about the island of Capri than I ever expected to know, and one of the perks of doing the translation was a week’s free holiday at Easter-time in the Villa San Michele itself, with spectacular views over the Bay of Naples.

Thanks to reading and translating the Mayakovsky blockbuster, I became an overnight authority on the literary culture of the Bolshevik revolution (most of which I have managed to forget since), and I now look forward to becoming an instant expert, at least for the duration of this translation, on the Cold War in the Baltic region.

Harry D. Watson

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