translation has been one of my main occupations for some twenty-five
years, I never cease to be amazed by the fact that it is impossible
to know what it will be like to translate a given work before I
begin. Usually, in fact, I do not know until I have made a fair
dent into it. What follows is an English translation of a Swedish-to-English
translation experience, and a case in point, although the unexpected
fun began on the first page of the introduction.
did I know what an adventure the day would contain, when I sat down
one morning recently to begin a sample translation of a book that
had fascinated me so much – and left me completely convinced
that it would make a fine book in English as well – that I
had decided to translate some extracts “on spec”. Appropriately,
though, the book is entitled An Endless Adventure. It is
a book of non-fiction, written by Sven-Eric Liedman, a Swedish professor
of the history of ideas, but for the general reading public, on
the subject of man’s search for and relationship to knowledge.
first few paragraphs read:
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
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
The other surprise was a kind
of grass, closely related to timothy grass, which Linnaeus
had encountered earlier when studying in the Netherlands.
It was also new to Sweden, or as Linnaeus put it, “today
it became a new recruit to our Swedish flora”.
reader may readily be absorbed by the pastoral scene with the scholarly
botanist from Uppsala, guided by a small group of local farmers,
eagerly explaining to him that the name of the rare Astragalus was
“foulavecker” (Linnaeus’s transcription of their
dialect, with “foula” undoubtedly meaning “bird”
[“fågel” in standard Swedish] and “vecker”
meaning vetch [“vicker” in standard Swedish, cf. Latin
Vicia and known in the contemporary Swedish flora as “sandvedel”].
Linnaeus, however, did not allow himself to be seduced by idyllic
moods. He never abandoned his mission, or forgot his instructions
from the national Parliament to take stock of the natural resources
of the province of Skania. Neither a milk vetch nor a timothy grass
would be an asset to the national coffers. But his eye was soon
caught by a less uncommon herb that might very well be. This was
a medicinal plant found in other sandy Skanian fields as well. He
noted indignantly that Swedish pharmacists tended, indefensibly,
to “prescribe the kind from foreign lands” instead.
Here he could propose a way of cutting costs.
of us, when we see a meadow in flower, observe a medley of colors.
It’s lovely. There are species we can identify and thus distinguish
from the general conglomeration of plants, we can give them a name
and a meaning. The meadow becomes a richer place to us, because
we can read it.
Linnaeus was able to read the entire Swedish landscape, and more
than that, he could distinguish a species that he, a botanist and
a scholar, had not noticed in Sweden before. He captured this herb
with all five senses and established that it was not one the Swedish
flora contained. As if leafing through an enormous mental index
he was also able to establish that this downy little plant was already
known in England. There was only one thing that stumped him: how
could it have made its way from there to eastern Skania?
This simple scene tells us something about knowledge. It describes
intensive interaction between sensory impressions and previously
stored knowledge. It is also an example of precisely the kind of
logic Linnaeus was striving to codify in his taxonomy. And moreover,
it requires the elusive quantity we call attentiveness, one that
is intimately intertwined with another, equally difficult-to-pin-down
quantity: interest. Attention and interest are subjective, and reminiscent
of the light that illuminates a scene. Without it, we would see
nothing. There’s a meadow in flower. Aha. So what?
I went on drafting the translation of a few more pages. Later in
the day, I reread what I had written, and turned to one of my favourite
Virtual Flora (URL, also appropriately: http://linnaeus.nrm.se)
to satisfy my own curiosity as to what this Astragalus might be
in English. To my surprise, the very reliable source of information
offered names in various languages, but not in English. I looked
elsewhere on the Internet, but to no avail. So I clicked on the
name of the person whose work the site is, an Arne Anderberg, and
wrote him a short email:
Dear Professor Anderberg,
I am a translator into English, living in Göteborg, and
I am looking for the English name of a plant called “sandvedeln”
in Swedish. I have failed it turn it up on the Virtual Flora
and elsewhere, and wonder if you might assist me? Linnaeus
himself wrote (from Vittskövle) that it came from England.
With many thanks in advance.
PS Perhaps I should have given you Astragalus Arenairus as
next morning there was a reply:
The species “sandvedel” does not occur in England
and is not listed in their modern floras. The “vedel”
family is known in English as “milk-vetch”, so
if you were to fabricate a name it might be “sand milk-vetch”.
sent a quick note back thanking him for his insightful (not everyone
would know that sometimes a translator has to make up a credible
name) and prompt reply, after which I emailed Liedman, forwarding
Anderbergs’ letter with the following introductory comment:
There are things that make life fun, funny and above all interesting
for a translator. Yesterday I began working on your book,
and found in the course of the day that the excellent Virtual
Flora I find an invaluable source of information, had no English
name to offer me for “sandvedel”.
This led to the following exchange (you can imagine what a
lifeline email is for a translator!)”
followed Anderberg’s letter, and a question from myself:
that Anderberg says “their modern floras” and
wonder if he is implying that he knows something else about
the floras from Linnaeus’ day. Perhaps you will want
to continue corresponding with him?
signing off I also assured him that I had no intention of troubling
him with this kind of problem on an everyday basis).
Liedman answered that his curiosity was indeed piqued, and that
he knew precisely the right person to enquire of.
day or two later I received this:
My colleague Gunnar Broberg in Lund is a Linnaeus expert.
Here comes an elucidation from him. I have spared you some
‘As to Linnaeus in Skania. I hesitate to answer because
I hardly know how to put it. You have discovered a whole new
field of research! (Well, not really.) Yes, it is true that
in Vittskövle he found a plant not previously recorded
in Sweden. Spontaneously, he asks himself how it got here
from England. No, it probably doesn’t exist there. Sven
Snogerup (2000) commented: “Something of an unnecessary
question, it is a widespread species although its habitat
in Eastern Skania is the only one in the Nordic countries”.
It is readily found, however, to the southeast. One point
to bear in mind here is that the passage you quote isn’t
in Linnaeus’ original diaries, but was added to the
published version from elsewhere. Another is that Linnaeus
makes other comparisons with England, for instance when he
writes about shifting sands and about sandstone formation
(in the section on Malmö). His thinking may be based
on the fact that our countries have the same latitude and
thus similar vegetation – which is true in many respects.
But, as I said, his exclamation in Vittskövle was quite
Another source of confusion is that we know very little about
what Linnaeus did see in the couple of weeks he spent in England
in 1736. He spent most of the time in Oxford, where he invested
a great deal of effort in charming his host, the elderly Dillenius.
Legend has it that Linnaeus waxed lyrical over the furze on
an English (sandy?) heath. Toward the end of De Profundis
Oscar Wilde writes: “Linnaeus fell on his knees and
wept for joy when he saw for the first time the long heath
of some English upland made yellow with the tawny aromatic
blossoms of the common furze; and I know that for me, to whom
flowers are part of desire, there are tears waiting in the
petals of some rose”. And in his own diaries, Linnaeus
recorded a similar experience near Travemünde in April
1735 rather than in England in August 1736 (at which time
of year the furze is no longer in bloom). The more one looks
into the question of what Linnaeus saw, what he wrote, what
nature permits, and so forth, the deeper the mystery becomes.
The adventure goes on, endlessly.
What you asked about was “sandvedel” so I suppose
that last paragraph will do you no good. There may be an intermediate
clue to be found in Species plantarum or some other document.
The fact that the man was a botanist often irritates me and
makes me insecure. There are as many Linnaean details as there
are shifting sands at Vittskövle, and I have probably
missed some potential explanation. But I have tried. And I
hope my meagre results will not impede the translation.
concluded his letter to me by commenting: “Meagre
my eye. I find this most interesting and sufficiently rewarding,
don’t you?”, and by informing me that he will
be making some small amendments to his book as it is now going into
a fourth printing (since its publication in August 2001).
Later the same day, I received another communication from him, with
the following changes to the Swedish text:
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.”
the text will now read:
Apparently Linnaeus believed it had already been found
in England, as he added: “How it was able to make its
way from England to Vittskövle is extremely difficult
and instead of:
As if leafing through an enormous mental index he was
also able to establish that this downy little plant was already
known in England. There was only one thing that stumped him:
how could it have made its way from there to eastern Skania?
the revised text will read:
As if leafing through an enormous mental index he also
seemed to recall that this downy little plant had previously
been identified in England. On that point, however, he erred:
the “sand milk-vetch” was not found in the flora
of Great Britain. Not even Carolus Linnaeus knew everything.
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.