Birgitta Hammar was one of Sweden’s most prolific literary translators.
Birgitta Hammar and her three younger sisters were the children of Christian Lovén, head of office for Byggnadsstyrelsen, and his wife Hillevi. Birgitta Hammar grew up in a well-to-do and cultured home in Östermalm in Stockholm. She and her sisters all attended a private girls’ school for eight years, but only Birgitta Hammar continued on to high school and she obtained her school-leaving certificate in 1931 from the Lyceum school for girls. She got very high marks, particularly in the humanities. Following graduation she went to Paris to study French for a year, and then she enrolled at Stockholm College where she spent a couple of years studying languages. However, the courses there did not appeal to her.
Despite this, her years of language studies were not wasted. They proved particularly useful when Birgitta Hammar was hired in 1934 as an editorial assistant for the liberal newspaper NU: världshändelserna inför världsopinionen. This was published weekly from 1934 to 1946 and mainly contained articles originating from the French, German, and English-language press, which were then translated into Swedish by the editorial board. In 1936 Birgitta Hammar married Albert Hammar, a businessman. She continued working for NU until 1939, which was just after the first of their three children was born. A long time later Birgitta Hammar revealed in an interview just how important the demanding but fascinating work she had done at NU had been for her subsequent work as a translator.
Birgitta Hammar’s career as a literary translator began in 1939, right after she had provided an excellent test translation for the Albert Bonnier publishing house. She was immediately given several new commissions and went on to work as a translator for about 50 years, working mainly with English-language fiction but also works in French, German, Danish and Norwegian, as well as some textbooks. Her total output comprises about 170 works.
Birgitta Hammar is probably best known to the general public as the translator of the British humourist, P.G. Wodehouse, as well as of the American writer J.D. Salinger’s well-loved novel The Catcher in the Rye from 1951, where teenaged Holden Caulfield is the lead character. Birgitta Hammar’s translation of the latter, titled Räddaren i nöden, dates from 1953, but despite significant changes in youth language her translations holds up well compared to the more recent translation by Klas Östergren, published 35 years later.
By the late 1930s, when Birgitta Hammar set to translating the language virtuoso P.G. Wodehouse’s work, twelve different translations had already been published. When Birgitta Hammar finished her final Wodehouse translation in 1991 she had single-handedly translated 45 of the author’s books and gained a reputation for not infrequently exceeding the master in his own art of expression.
Another facet of Birgitta Hammar’s professional output was her translations of plays. Between the years of 1949 and 1965 she translated ten plays, of which Albert Husson’s Trasiga änglar and William Gibson’s Två på gungbrädet are still available. Three of the more serious plays she translated were Arthur Miller’s Utsikt från bro, T.S. Eliot’s Offentlig person, and Françoise Sagan’s Luftslott i Sverige. The latter translation was used as recently as 2010 when the play was staged at Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern (Royal Dramatic Theatre) in Stockholm.
Birgitta Hammar was also an active trade unionist and sat on the board of Svenska Översättarförbundet (Swedish translators’ association), in the years 1955-1963 and 1965-1967.
Birgitta Hammar was awarded several prizes: the Swedish Academy’s translation prize in 1959, the Swedish Authors’ Fund’s award for individuals in recognition of literary service in 1965 and in 1974, and Elsa Thulin’s translator’s prize in 1992.
Birgitta Hammar died in 2011 and is buried at the Norra cemetery in Solna.