Harriet Alfons, née Josephson, was a publisher and translator during the second half of the twentieth century.
Harriet Alfons was born into the Swedish Jewish cultural élite. Her family on her father’s side was descended from the trader David Josephson who came to Sweden in 1780 in the first wave of Jewish immigration. Her father Ragnar Josephson was a well-known art historian. Harriet Alfons was born in Uppsala in 1923, but when her father was made professor of art history at Lund University, the family moved there. Her mother was Gabrielle Abramson, also a well-known name in the Jewish context. In Lund, Ragnar Josephson founded what later became known as The Museum of Sketches, in 1934. He was made a member of the Swedish Academy in 1960. Josephson’s brother Gunnar was a bookseller and chairman of the Mosaic Congregation in Stockholm. Gunnar Josephson’s son was the actor Erland Josephson. For a number of years around 1950, Ragnar Josephson was the Director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten).
Harriet Alfons matriculated at the Cathedral School in Lund and continued with her studies in the history of literature, English and the history of religion, taking her B.A. degree in 1944. She thus chose her own path into Swedish cultural circles, with a solid academic foundation. In Lund, she met the artist and author Sven Alfons, whom she married in 1945. He had been her father’s student in art history. Sven Alfons came to belong to the forties’ generation and was inspired by the surrealists.
The Alfons couple settled in Stockholm and Harriet Alfons’ first appointment was as an editor at the publishers Natur & Kultur. The Director Johan Hansson started a new type of anthology for children – Min skattkammare – and Harriet Alfons was its first editorial secretary. Along with Annie Löfstedt, she had to start up this children’s literature project, which was not at all easy for her at first. Together with her husband Sven Alfons, she socialised with the literary circles of the 1940s. This is why the adult element in the first anthologies was noticeable. One important contact in this context was Britt G. Hallqvist, who, as Harriet Alfons discovered, was an excellent author for children.
After several years as editor at the publishing houses Albert Bonniers Förlag and Forum respectively, Harriet Alfons transferred in 1955 to Svensk Lärartidnings Förlag with the series Barnbiblioteket Saga as her first publication. Signe Wranér had run the enterprise since the mid-1930s and Harriet Alfons perceived it as being outdated. She remained at Saga for the longest period of her professional life – a total of eighteen years. She was sometimes called Mrs Saga.
A new epoch in Harriet Alfons’ career commenced in 1973 when Natur & Kultur wanted to initiate an investment in Min nya skattkammare. She was made responsible for its publication and was actively involved at Natur & Kultur until 1988. After her retirement, Harriet Alfons continued to publish anthologies under her own direction but at the Bergh Publishers, in collaboration with her colleague Margot Henrikson.
Harriet Alfons’ extensive translation career (almost one hundred titles) only actually speeded up towards the end of the 1950s. Her daughter Rebecca Alsberg and Karin Strandberg have written about this in Svenskt Översättarlexikon (the Swedish lexicon of translators). Most of the translations were from English which she had studied. Harriet Alfons translated children’s books for Saga, but started translating adult literature more and more as commissioned by Bonniers and Forum, later Alba and Trevi. Her breadth was impressive, from children’s books to Nobel Prize-winners.
However, fiction attracted her most, especially women authors like for example Doris Lessing. In several translations, Harriet Alfons collaborated with Jadwiga P. Westrup, and in others with her daughter Rebecca Alsberg. She also made important contributions by translating Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West and Edith Wharton. During the 1970s, she translated a number of works on child psychology. Her interest in art showed for example in her translation of Rudolf Broby-Johansen’s Liv i konsten, in 1990. These translations she did alongside her demanding publishing work. They had to be accomplished in evenings and on weekends.
Harriet Alfons’ achievements as a publishing editor during the half-century 1940s –1990s constitute an important building block in the emergence of modern Swedish children’s literature. She was one of all those competent, culturally active women who gave children’s literature its backbone. As project leader for Min skattkammare in her first publication in the 1940s and above all Min nya skattkammare at Natur & Kultur from 1973, she set her stamp on which texts were chosen and can later be regarded as canonised in the Swedish history of anthologies. A closer study of that pioneering publication remains to be done. Harriet Alfons’ selection of illustrations and contacts with authors would also be worth studying more closely. As a translator, she was a child of her time, making a significant impact on the women’s literary movement that was growing strong during the 1970s.
Harriet Alfons had a long life. She died in Stockholm in 2015.