Ebba Atterbom was a teacher who taught Italian and a translator. She was the first person to translate the work of James Joyce into Swedish.
Ebba Atterbom was born in 1868. She was the daughter of Ernst Atterbom and Augusta Tigerschiöld and was the second eldest of seven siblings. Her father was a major who was also an engineer. He was also the son of the well-known Swedish poet P.D.A. Atterbom. In 1879 Ebba Atterbom’s family, having lived in various places throughout Sweden, moved to Gothenburg where they put down roots. Ebba Atterbom’s mother took an interest in child-rearing matters and thus educated her daughters to take responsibility for themselves. They attended the Nya elementarläroverk för flickor (school for girls) in Gothenburg.
Ebba Atterbom spent her childhood years living next door to the Salomon family. The daughter of that family, Sophie (married as Elkan), had returned to live with them on becoming a young widow and having lost her only child. The Atterboms, who were a happy and welcoming family, provided a major source of support for Sophie Elkan during her period of mourning. They formed a lasting friendship and Sophie Elkan and Ebba Atterbom went on travels together. It was also often Ebba Atterbom who not only produced fair copies of Sophie Elkan’s manuscripts but also proofread them. Through her friendship with Sophie Elkan she also became friends with Selma Lagerlöf. Ebba Atterbom, who was linguistically talented, spent several years in Florence, Italy during the 1890s learning Italian to fluency. Over the course of her lifetime she made many visits to Italy, often in the company of ladies who had requested a guide to that country.
Ebba Atterbom began to give Italian lessons whilst her work as a translator began during the 1890s. Initially – and unusually – she worked from Swedish into Italian. She translated short stories written by Sophie Elkan, stories composed by Helena Nyblom, the novel Margit by Anna Tengström, in 1899, as well as Per Hallström’s 1901 novel Briljantsmycket.
In 1907 Ebba Atterbom and her father, now a widower, moved to Kungälv. Selma Lagerlöf’s brother, Daniel Lagerlöf, was serving as the town doctor there and from time to time their paternal aunt would come and stay. Ebba Atterbom was sometimes called upon to keep the Lagerlöf’s aunt company. Following the death of her father in 1924 Ebba Atterbom continued living in Kungälv, remaining registered in that municipality until 1937 when she moved back to Gothenburg.
Vilhelm Lundström, professor of classical languages at Gothenburg college, was given permission in 1909 to locate aspects of his teaching to Rome. In preparation for this his corps of students received free Italian lessons from Ebba Atterbom. In 1925 Ebba Atterbom was a founding member, along with Vilhelm Lundström, Anna Ahrenberg, and other Italophiles, of Svensk-italienska Föreningen (the Swedish-Italian association) in Gothenburg. At the very first meeting of the association Ebba Atterbom was appointed vice-secretary and she was a regular participant in all the association’s activities for several decades. When Italian lessons were introduced at Gothenburg college in 1928 Ebba Atterbom’s name could be found for several years on the list of teachers. Her enthusiastic teaching style was well-known.
From 1927 onwards Ebba Atterbom worked as an authorised translator. Her translation output was wide-ranging and included translations not just into and out of Italian but also from English, Norwegian and Danish. The texts she translated varied enormously from tales of adventure and whodunnits to Fioretti. Små blomster. Legender ur S. Franciskus’ liv, from 1924. The better-known English-language authors she translated include H.G. wells and Edith Wharton, as well as James Joyce. Ebba Atterbom translated Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1921 and this work led to a correspondence arising between the two of them. Joyce’s book Finnegan’s Wake contains a play on words connected to Ebba Atterbom’s surname. Nevertheless, despite these successful collaborations, Ebba Atterbom declined to translate James Joyce’s Ulysses. Her translations out of Italian include Musikens Grammatik by Giovanni Tronchi, from 1908, the extensive work entitled The Four Books on Architecture by Andrea Palladio, from 1928, and Världens rosor: italienska kvinnoporträtt från renässansens och barockens dagar, by Giulio Marchetti Ferrante, from 1932.
While translating and editing Aase and Kurt Kirchheiner’s well-known 1938 textbook 100 lektioner i italienska Ebba Atterbom combined her teaching and translating experience, in this case working from the original Danish. The book was published in several editions over the course of the ensuing decades. Ebba Atterbom also translated and edited the Kirchheiners’ two phrasebooks, Italiensk reseparlör, from 1938, and Italienska i dagligt tal, from 1949.
Towards the end of her life Ebba Atterbom lived at Gibraltargatan in Gothenburg and was described as a cheerful, pleasant, and elegant lady. She continued giving language lessons as late as 1959, in which year she was awarded the Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà in recognition of her efforts on behalf of the Italian language and literature in Sweden.
Ebba Atterbom died, aged 93, in 1961. She is buried in the Atterbom family grave at Uppsala cemetery.