Joan Tate: A Survey of her Life and Work
Laurie Thompson
This article appeared in the 2000:2 issue

Joan Eames was born in Tonbridge, Kent, on 23 September 1922. Her father was a housemaster at Tonbridge School, but Joan was educated at the progressive, co-educational Frensham Heights in Farnham, Surrey. She was an avid reader from an early age, but liked to claim that her main achievements at school were athletic. In the autumn of 1939 she travelled to Sweden with the intention of staying for three months with a pen-friend near Gävle and learning to ski and skate, but the Second World War broke out and Joan was trapped in Sweden until 1942. Faced with having to survive in a foreign country, she moved to Stockholm, and to temporary work as a child-minder, house maid, gardener, and reading English literature aloud for an upper-class Swedish lady, the amiable widow of an actor. Joan borrowed copies of Vecko-Revyn and taught herself to understand written Swedish as well as immersing herself in the spoken language, and eventually graduated to borrowing full-length books by Verner von Heidenstam and Selma Lagerlöf. In the autumn of 1940 she enrolled on a course at the CGI (Central Institution for Gymnastics) and qualified as a teacher of gymnastics in the spring of 1942. She had been earning her keep by giving English lessons, but was now offered a post by the press department of the British Embassy, scanning Swedish newspapers. One autumn night in 1942 she finally found herself aboard a British courier aeroplane, and after a bumpy flight landed in Scotland the next morning, and was eventually reunited with her family. Joan spent the rest of the war as a uniformed air raid warden, and also worked in schools, youth clubs and summer camps. She married Clive Tate, an agricultural adviser and later a conservationist, in November 1944, and the couple had three children: Jane, Sarah and Peter. From 1953 onwards they made their home in Shrewsbury. Besides continuing to read avidly, both in English and Swedish, Joan began writing books for teenagers and stories for English-language books in Sweden, and also developed an interest in puppetry, especially south-east Asian shadow theatre. She built up a substantial collection of shadow-figures, and travelled to Indonesia and Thailand to see performances. This interest led her to write an as yet unpublished book on the subject. Joan re-visited Sweden in the 1960s, and besides continuing to write her own books, she embarked on translating books of all kinds from Swedish, and later also from Danish and Norwegian. She also became one of the most frequently used freelance publishers’ readers, advising on Scandinavian literature. Her translating gradually took over completely, and she was rarely able to find time to write books of her own. Joan’s output was prodigious: she noted in an article published in 1995 that she had translated 186 books, while data discovered by the family in her computer suggests the total was over 200 by the time of her death. The names of authors Joan translated reads like a roll call of all the important Scandinavian prose writers of the modern era, and includes Kerstin Ekman, Sara Lidman, Astrid Lindgren, Sigrid Combüchen, P O Enquist, P C Jersild, Ingmar Bergman, Agneta Pleijel, Sven Lindqvist, Per Wästberg and Kjell Espmark, to name but a few of the Swedes on her list. And Joan didn’t only translate their books: in many cases she became close personal friends with them. Among the many awards she received was a major translation prize from the Swedish Academy, and she was made an Officer of the Order of the Polar Star. She was a founder member of SELTA (the Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association) and on the editorial board of Swedish Book Review, besides being active in other translators’ organizations, the Arts Council, PEN International, and a large number of more local causes dear to her heart — in the 1960s and 70s, for instance, when Shrewsbury found itself without a bookshop, Joan rallied local support and pestered potential funding providers until she and her friends in the Shrewsbury and District Arts Association could start one of their own. In 1999 Swedish Television broadcast a programme about Joan and her translating career, made by Karl Haskel at the Tate home in Shrewsbury. She worked with tireless energy and discipline even after being diagnosed as suffering from cancer in the spring of 2000, and carried on translating until she died on 6 June, 2000.