Although 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.

Little 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.

The first few paragraphs read:

            

INTRODUCTION: Foulavecker

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”.
     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”.

            

A 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.

Most 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 websites, The 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.

Sincerely,

Linda Schenck

PS Perhaps I should have given you Astragalus Arenairus as well.

            

The next morning there was a reply:

            

Hello!

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”.

Sincerely,

Arne Anderberg.

            

I 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:

            

Dear Sven-Eric,

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!)”

            

Then followed Anderberg’s letter, and a question from myself:

            

I note 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?

            

(Before 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.

A day or two later I received this:

            

Dear Linda,

My colleague Gunnar Broberg in Lund is a Linnaeus expert. Here comes an elucidation from him. I have spared you some details:

‘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 spontaneous.

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.

            

Liedman 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:

            

Instead of:

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 to figure.”

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.

            

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.

Linda Schenck

2002 Translation Supplement Contents page