Ask a translator: Sarah Death on Astrid Lindgren’s War Diaries

The Local Sweden's Book Club has been reading the wartime diaries of Astrid Lindgren, in which the children's author documents domestic life alongside world events. We spoke to translator Sarah Death about her relationship with Lindgren and her experience working with the diaries.

Ask a translator: Sarah Death on Astrid Lindgren's War Diaries
Astrid Lindgren pictured in 1977. Photo: Svenskt Pressfoto / TT

What was your reaction to being asked to translate Lindgren’s war diaries?

I don’t normally ‘pitch’ books to publishers because they like to make their own discoveries, in my experience, but in this case I had actually put some effort into telling the British publisher about this engrossing book and my reaction to it. So of course I was pleased to be asked to translate it.

READ ALSO: Book Club: A World Gone Mad – The Wartime Diaries of Astrid Lindgren

Do you have a personal relationship with Astrid Lindgren’s books?

I vividly remember first being introduced to Pippi Longstocking when a teacher at my primary school read it to us in the mid-1960s. More recently my fondest memories are of rediscovering her children’s books when reading them to my own children, who I think liked Pippi and Madicken (Mardie in English) best.

I relished translating the three Karlsson on the Roof books for Oxford University Press’s series of new editions; he is a gloriously selfish and annoying character. I enjoyed translating some of Astrid’s campaigning articles, particularly ‘Pomperipossa in the World of Money’ in which she complained that in 1976 the Swedish state was taxing her earnings at over 100 percent.

How did your impression of Astrid Lindgren, as a writer and a person, change through the process of translating her diaries?

My respect for Astrid grew as I came to see what a vast reading and recording task she had carried out, primarily for her own interest, and that she had been able to combine this with going out to work, raising a family and coping with an increasingly roving and alcoholic husband, all in the in relatively difficult (even in a neutral country) wartime era.

I was perpetually impressed by her ability to sustain her no-nonsense tone and her wit throughout, and her energy in maintaining a wide social circle of family and friends. 


Photo: Staffan Löwstedt / SvD / TT

Did you get a sense of Lindgren’s talent for writing and observing developing throughout the war?

Rather than a steady progression in her skills I felt it was more a case of fluctuations arising from pressure of events. When family life was not in one of its crisis periods she perhaps had more time to think, write and process her press cuttings.

Naturally she only knew what the newspapers and radio, and her friends and contacts, could tell her, so it is interesting for us in retrospect to see that her perspective is inevitably incomplete at some points. The slowly emerging truth about the horrors of the concentration camps is one case in point. The sense of despair about the world that sometimes shows through in her diary entries was quite harrowing to deal with.

Which part of the diaries was most challenging to translate?

As ever with translating, small things can absorb a disproportionate amount of time. Some of the domestic detail was a bit tricky: unfamiliar products or dishes or cartoon characters from a different period, for example.

Dealing with the entry for Christmas Day 1945, trying to identify the English originals of the books she bought as presents for her children, was quite a task. Then there were things like Churchill’s speeches: Astrid’s source was the Swedish translations in the newspapers, so was I to back-translate them, or to try to track down the originals online?

READ ALSO: The forgotten Nazi concentration camp survivors in the forests of Småland

History dies deep in the woods: The forgotten Nazi concentration camp survivors in the forests of Småland
Photo: Inga Ericcson

The diaries were published posthumously. As a translator do you normally have a lot of dialogue with the author, and is there anything you'd have liked to have had the chance to ask Lindgren about the diaries?

The amount of contact I have with the author varies enormously from project to project. In the case of dead authors, their inability to comment brings me both freedom and frustration.

In this instance I was lucky enough already to know Astrid’s daughter Karin, through the OUP Lindgren translation project, and she was very happy to help. She had physically lived the diaries, so to speak, and was an excellent informant. She also understands the working process because she is a translator herself (from English), although now largely retired. 

If I had had access to Astrid herself, I would have liked to ask her how she had the stamina for all this, and how much domestic help she had on a daily basis. I would also be intrigued to know whether her elliptical way of describing her marital problems was because she felt too conflicted, wretched and perhaps ashamed to do anything else, or because she thought the diaries might at some future date reach the public domain.

Why were many of the newspaper cuttings omitted from the translation, and what challenges did this pose for you?

This was the British publisher’s decision. All the press cuttings were reproduced in facsimile in the Swedish edition. From my point of view, it complicated matters because I was asked, as part of the translation process, briefly to summarize each press cutting in English, to help the publisher decide which to use. 

READ ALSO: Pippi Longstocking parrot dies after reaching 'biblical age'

How did you deal with the task of choosing whether to ‘update’ language or not?

As in other commissions, not only fiction set in past periods, but also non-fiction projects like my recent work on the letters of Tove Jansson (to be published in autumn 2019), I tried to steer a middle course, avoiding obvious anachronism in my choice of vocabulary but aiming not to sound too quaint or archaic.

READ ALSO: 12 'untranslatable' Swedish words

Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

What was your favourite part of the diaries to read?

I liked the domestic detail about shopping, rationing, family health matters, decisions around evacuation of the children, visits to her wider family in other parts of Sweden, and so on. It was fascinating too, of course, to experience the moment in time when she was about to take the leap into becoming a published children’s author.

I was repeatedly struck by her apologetic tone in the diaries as someone in a neutral country not suffering the same privations as those elsewhere. This felt sometimes at odds with her acceptance and enjoyment of the material privileges of middle-class life. I was very intrigued by these tensions, in what – as far as one can tell – was essentially a text intended only for herself.

Sarah Death has worked as a literary translator from Swedish to English for over thirty years and sits on the committee of SELTA (Swedish-English Literary Translators Association). She has an informal role as one of the managing directors and editors of small London-based Scandi-specialist publisher Norvik Press and lives and works in Kent in the south east of England.

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Russia smears Pippi Longstocking author as Nazi in propaganda posters

Russia has launched a poster campaign in Moscow featuring ostensibly pro-Nazi quotes from the Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, the film-maker Ingmar Bergman, and the Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad. "We are against Nazism, but they are not," the poster reads.

Russia smears Pippi Longstocking author as Nazi in propaganda posters

Oscar Jonsson, a researcher at the Swedish Defence University, tweeted out a picture of photograph of a Moscow bus stop carrying the propaganda poster, which has the word ‘they’ written in the colours of the Swedish flag. 

Another poster accuses King Gustaf V of being a Nazi. 

Jonsson told The Local he was certain that the posters were genuine, but suspected that they were intended for Swedish consumption, as at least one of them had been placed outside the Swedish Embassy in Moscow. 

“They’re more of a provocation to Sweden than something for the Russian people,” he said. 

Mikael Östlund, communication chief at Sweden’s Psychological Defence Agency, argued the opposite case, that the posters were primarily designed to justify the war in Ukraine to Russia’s own population. 

“Accusing western countries of Nazism is a part of the justification for their own war,” he said. “This is probably directed towards its own population. This has been one of the justifications for the war in Ukraine as well.” 

Others even suggested they might even be a preparation for military action .

“Are there any limits to these guys? Or are they preparing a ‘denazifying’ operation against Sweden as well?” tweeted Sweden’s former prime minister Carl Bildt

The Swedish foreign ministry said it was aware of the posters, but refused to comment. 

“We have no intention of engaging in a public polemic with the Russian organisation ‘Our Victory’, which is reportedly behind these posters,” a spokesperson told TT.  “In Russia, smears about ‘Nazism’ have been used repeatedly against countries and individuals who are critical of Russia’s actions.” 

At a press conference in Germany, Sweden’s prime minister called the campaign “completely unacceptable”. 

“But it is important to say already right now that Sweden could become the target of an influence campaign by foreign powers,” she said. “It’s important that all Swedes, and not least those of you in journalism, recognise that there is a risk that foreign powers will try to influence the Swedish debate climate.”