To translate is to go on a journey

a conversation with translator Ingrid Wikén Bonde

The afternoon of the last day of september in 2021 I had the honour of meeting and interviewing Ingrid Wikén Bonde. A translator who has been the recipient of both Dutch, Flemish and Swedish translator prizes, among them the Martinus Nijhoff prize in 1979 and the Swedish Writers Union’s prize for literary achievement in 1980, but also having been awarded the grade of officer of the order of Orange-Nassau from the Dutch queen Beatrix in 1999. Beyond her more than 40 translations from Dutch to Swedish alone she has also translated some of the works of Sigmund Freud from German, been one of the few having translated from Afrikaans to Swedish, not to mention her work to establish the academic status of Dutch studies during her long-standing tenure as senior lecturer at the University of Stockholm.

Interview with Ingrid Wikén Bonde

We begin our conversation on the topic of special experiences she remembers from her long career and any particular works that have been the most rewarding or the most frustrating to translate. One of the favourites that she mentions is working on Minoes (Missan in Swedish) by Annie M.G. Schmidt, because of the pleasant memories associated with the translation.

“We were on our boat and I sat in the cabin and translated a good amount each day, while my husband and the children were swimming outside so as not to disturb me”, she remembers and laughs.

In addition, she mentions the honour she felt getting to translate Schmidt, due to her status as the greatest children’s book author in the Netherlands. But what about more difficult projects?

“I do not translate anything I do not like”, she states conclusively.

A translation that she however describes as particularly challenging was Het huis van de moskee (Huset vid moskén in Swedish) by Kader Abdolah. One of the book’s biggest challenges was Abdolah’s sprinkling of quotes from the Quran, of course leaving out which particular sura they are from. A big part of being a successful translator is being able to find pertinent information and Ingrid explains how she solved this conundrum by simply procuring both of the modern Swedish translations of the Quran and reading them through until she found the right quotes. Another challenge lay in how to handle all the Persian names and words found in the text, drawn from the author’s native language.

“The idea was that it should sound like a Swede reading a text in Persian, since that’s what he had done in Dutch. So, I went down to his home in Delft and asked him to record everything on tape, and he did!”

She continues by explaining how she feels that the relationship between translator and publisher has changed.

“They used to send me the book, then you would write what you thought of it and then they would ask: ‘Would you like to translate this?’”

Sometimes she was also asked to suggest a work to be translated. One such suggestion led to her Swedish retranslation of Multatuli’s Max Havelaar from 1979. Her first translation, De kapellekensbaan (Lilla kapellets väg in Swedish) by Louis Paul Boon, also originated as a suggestion by her.

“These days the publishers rely on their connections at different book fairs. Academics aren’t that important anymore.”

The publishers decide what to translate for their own reasons. These include asking themselves: “Is there a good book out there on the market, dealing with a topical theme, that we can sell?”, she says.

Then I ask if there’s a particular Dutch-language book that she feels is missing in Swedish. A name that comes up is Arthur van Schendel, in particular his book De waterman from 1933 that depicts the life of a bargeman in the early 19th century. Out of all the works of van Schendel, only his piece of maritime fiction Het fregatschip Johanna Maria (Fregatten Johanna Maria in Swedish) is available in Swedish.

“I can’t remember if it’s from Het fregatschip Johanna Maria or De waterman but van Schendel describes an episode where the man returns home, having had a child while he was gone. And he strokes this little child on the cheek and the cheek is so smooth that he can’t feel anything with his callous fingers. It’s very moving and a little sad.”

I ask, considering her experience translating from other languages to Swedish, if there’s anything that makes Dutch translation stand out.

“In my experience it’s much simpler translating from Dutch than German, French or English”, she answers.

She elaborates that this has a lot to do with the fact that Dutch is reasonably similar to Swedish, with its lack of long rows of complicated subordinate clauses, that you would rather find in the German of Sigmund Freud for instance. She also makes a point out of the flexibility of the Swedish language; it’s usually possible to stay reasonably close in a translation while retaining multiple options. In an example from a translation course she gave at the university, she describes how ten different students could present ten different translations of a single word, without her being able to tell which one was necessarily the best. The most important thing is being able to find the right tone for every situation, particularly for students who come across idioms and expressions.

“Occasionally you come across something that can’t be translated directly, in which case you need to find another way of expressing it. Then you try different things while you detach yourself from Dutch and you think of how you would phrase it if you tried saying it to your mother.”

”The translations led to the thesis which led to being qualified to supervise PhD students

so that the Dutch Department at Stockholm University could survive.”

Martinus Nijhoff Prize

Ingrid Wikén Bonde, fot. Robin Lindqwister Viker

Being awarded the Martinus Nijhoff Prize in 1979 for her translation of De kapellekensbaan helped her get the confidence to mentor the next generation of Dutch translators. Many of her more than 40 translator’s credits are co-translations done with then-students, many later becoming successful translators in their own right. She explains that this came about for two reasons. The first being to secure the future for translations done by competent translators with real expertise in the Dutch language and thus to avoid translations done by dabbling German-specialists who mistakenly translate het meer as “the sea”. The second reason was to give the students an opportunity to see the value in having studied the language and at the same time let them get a foot in the door of the publishing world.

“Then we started translating together and sometimes the first 30 or so pages made me think: ‘God help me, what have I done?’ But then after 30 pages it just flowed from there!”

The experience of having translated so many books also helped her when it came to her career in academia. In 1997 she could, with the help of her insight into the literary world, write her doctoral thesis Was hat uns dieser Gast wohl zu Erzählen?, on the subject of the reception of Dutch-language literature in Sweden, including a detailed bibliography over works translated between 1830–1995. After her doctorate she could eventually become associate professor at Stockholm University, allowing her to start supervising the PhD students that became her eventual successors.

”The translations led to the thesis which led to being qualified to supervise PhD students so that the Dutch Department at Stockholm University could survive.”

Towards the end of the interview, Ingrid leans forward to check if there’s anything left on my list of prepared questions. Having determined that not to be the case, she concludes with a closing comment on the subject of translation:

“Translating is fun, you learn a lot. It’s a journey that you get to go on, without having to get on a train.”

Further information

Ingrid Wikén Bonde’s page on the DBNL (Digitale bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse letteren), including her doctor’s thesis as well as multiple scientific papers: