An interesting discussion by Linda Schenck, a Swedish-to-English translator, of some problems she encountered in trying to translate Ett oändligt äventyr [An Endless Adventure] by Sven-Eric Liedman. The book begins (in her translation):

In 1749, Carolus Linnaeus journeyed to study southern Sweden. He arrived at Vittskövle, in the eastern province of Skania, on the evening of May 26th. There, he noted, the sand pinks spread a lovely scent and “the nightingales performed all evening”.

Linnaeus spent two days in Vittskövle. May 28th was a Sunday. Before going to mass he made an excursion to the sandy fields that still open out toward the sea east of the village, known today as “the Mölle mound”. He made some remarkable discoveries there. The first and most astonishing was an Astragalus Arenarius, an herbaceous plant “no one has previously found in Sweden”. Here it grew abundantly “between the grove of firs and the dunes of sand”. Apparently it had already been identified in England, as he added: “How it was able to make its way from England to Vittskövle is extremely difficult to figure”.

Since the plant came from England (according to Linnaeus), she quite naturally wanted to know how you say sandvedel (modern Swedish for Astragalus arenarius) in English. The rest of the piece recounts the saga, and the surprising discovery, that ensued; she concludes:

This mini-adventure into the realms of knowledge took place between 26 and 29 January 2002, all thanks to the “information technology” that on other days and for other reasons is the bane of my existence. Twenty-five years ago this kind of correspondence and research might have taken weeks to accomplish. Difficult to say whether that would have made it more or less exciting, but I do feel extremely privileged to be party to these erudite exchanges on subjects a life without translation would never open up for me. There are also translations I take on today that I would have found too daunting from the research point of view in the days before the Internet. I suppose, too, there are books written because the research can be done much more expeditiously than ten years ago. Perhaps to some small extent those advantages balance the verbiage the information society generates. On my good days, I believe so.

I apologize in advance for the ugly white-on-brown graphics, but the story’s worth it. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. I recently finished my translation of Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle into Spanish. It would have been impossible to translate those three books without the web.

  2. Ian Myles Slater says

    There seems to have been a long history of confusion over Astragalus in England. Thomas Johnson’s 1633 revision of John Gerard’s “The Herbal, or General History of Plants” contains the editorial complaint (page 1239):
    “I should be glad to know which or how many of these our Authour heer affirmes to grow wilde in England; for as yet I have not heard of, nor seene any of them wilde, nor in gardens with us, except the last described [Astragaloides], which growes in some few gardens.”
    (Personally, I would be glad to know the current Linnaean names for the plants, but I haven’t taken the time to try to identify them. I indulged myself in the 1975 Dover reprinting over a year ago, after making do with skimpy abridged editions, and mostly have just browsed, admiring the prose style and the 2705 illustrations.)

  3. Wow, PJorge, that’s quite a task! How long did it take you?

  4. What’s with this “Skania” hybrid form? “Skåne” or “Scania”, take your pick.

  5. I found the essay on translating Harry Potter (at the same site) very interesting:

  6. Ingeborg S. Nordén says

    John Cowan: Amen. Even though Swedish is only a second language to me, I refuse to call the provinces by any name but their local ones. (Latinate versions like “Scania” and “Dalecarlia” sound pretentious and outdated in my opinion. Besides, since most foreigners haven’t heard of the places to begin with, what’s wrong with using Swedish names for parts of Sweden?)

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