Irma Nordvang was a poet and a translator. Birgitta Trotzig listed Irma Nordvang amongst the figures who made particularly significant contributions to Swedish literature: “What would the story of the development of Swedish literature be like without Hagberg’s Shakespeare, Erland Lagerlöf’s Homeros, Ellen Rydelius’ Dostoyevsky, Warburton’s Joyce, Irma Nordvang’s Musil?”
Irma Nordvang was born in Söder, Stockholm in 1905 as Irma Ingeborg Lundin. She was the illegitimate daughter of Elin Matilda Lundin. Her childhood was probably partly spent being raised by foster parents and her formal education consisted in five years of public school followed by studies undertaken, during the 1921–1922 period, at Påhlmans Handelsinstitut (business college).
Irma Nordvang’s name first appears in that form in the residents’ register for 1940, but her first poetry publication dates from 1932: a collection entitled Med sträckta händer. Irma Nordvang’s use of erotic and religious themes and a strictly bound form led reviewers to refer to Karin Boye and Hjalmar Gullberg as her literary role models.
Irma Nordvang’s primary activity came to lie within the sphere of literary translations of German works. 1934 saw the release of her first two translations: Ernst Wiechert’s novel Färjkarlen and an anthology entitled Från George till Kästner: Modern tysk lyrik which contained her own translations as well as those by Johannes Edfelt and Bertil Malmberg, established poets and lyrical interpreters. That year Irma Nordvang made one of her rare public appearances, giving an interview to the Nya Dagligt Allehanda newspaper in which she championed the so-called ‘Front Generation’ of German literature – namely authors who had experienced the shock of the First World War, became Hitler sympathisers, and then found their wings following the Machtüberahme (coming to power) of the Nazis in 1933.
Irma Nordvang supported the Oxford Group movement, later known as Moral Re-Armament (MRA), during the 1930s and she translated several of their writings. Instead of working for the major publishing houses during the war she translated now-forgotten authors on commission by the German-financed Dagens Böcker. She contributed to the 1941 Swedish pro-Nazi publication entitled Det kämpande Tyskland, which included work by Sven Hedin, Fredrik Böök, Rütger Essén and others, in which she championed the campaign against “Degenerate Art” and spoke warmly of German authors who were finally being heard following the “banishment” of the Weimar period. During the 1938–1943 years she regularly had poetry translations published in the Sverige-Tyskland journal, to which she also contributed articles on new literature emanating from the Third Reich. She became responsible for all of the translations into Swedish of works by Ernst Wiechert, an internal exile in Nazi Germany, apart from his 1939 book Das einfache Leben, which was subject to official German criticism. It was published in Sweden in 1940 as Det enkla livet in a translation by Birgitta Hammar. The last of Wiechert’s books to be translated was I dödens skog (Der Totenwald), published in 1946, which portrayed the author’s experiences as a concentration camp prisoner.
After surviving a case of tuberculosis in 1944 Irma Nordvang suffered from poor health for the rest of her life. Following the Second World War she came to feel that she was victimised due to her pro-German sympathies, but she did eventually return to working with the major publishing houses again. Her first translation was the aforenoted I dödens skog by Weichert, and this was followed up by works of lesser-known English-language writers. She worked on both older and newer interpretations of Hermann Hesse in a selection edited by Johannes Edfelt, a publication inspired by Hesse’s being awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1946. As a respected poet in her own right Irma Nordvang was put to translating poems within prose translations by other people and she also reworked Walborg Hedberg’s translation of Thomas Mann’s Huset Buddenbrook (Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie) published in 1952.
Irma Nordvang published her second and final poetry collection in 1949. The reviewers noted that the 1940s seemed to have passed her by without leaving a trace. Her position as a leading poetry translator was confirmed by the fact she was one of six poets to contribute to the Poesis journal 1948 inquiry entitled “Att tolka lyrik”. The others were Bertil Malmberg, Johannes Edfelt, Erik Blomberg, Ilmar Laaban, and Bo Carpelan. Her translations of the poetry in Hesse’s Glaspärlespelet (Das Glasperlenspiel), published in 1952 with prose translated by Nils Holmberg, reveal her use of more archaic rather than modernised language instead in Hesse’s poems. The tone of her translations is somewhat convoluted and she stuck strictly to the plural verbal forms, sometimes lengthening a poem by a few lines in order to maintain the rhyming scheme. During the 1950s Irma Nordvang wrote to one of her colleagues at Bonnier publishers saying that she had received 1st prize in a German competition for the translation of a Herman Hesse poem entitled “Nach dem Lese in der Summa contra gentiles”. According to Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach, however, no such prize was ever awarded.
Despite Irma Nordvang’s own conviction that her true calling was to be a poet, it was her translation of Robert Musil’s great novel, Mannen utan egenskaper (Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften), part 1 appeared in 1961, part 2 was published in 1963, and part 3 was released in 1970, that became her most lasting contribution to literary translation work. This work was interrupted by periods of illness and took thirteen years to complete. The translation remains close to the original, taking strict cognizance of Musil’s complicated paragraphs which sometimes run for several pages, whilst also carefully reflecting the particular use of irony which courses through each sentence.
Irma Nordvang discussed her strenuous and all-encompassing toil with Musil’s book in personal letters written to Hjördis Karhunsaari, one of her colleagues at the Bonnier publishers’ translation department. She referred to Musil as “Musen” (the mouse):
And although it is usually claimed that witching hour falls between midnight and one in the morning Musen never appears before three or four am. That is when he suddenly walks in with his slightly derisory laugh to stand behind my chair and dictate, and I write as fast as my stiff fingers will allow. And the next day I find that nothing needs correcting. […] They talk of cats playing with mice but this is the opposite: it is the mouse who plays with the poor cat. (One of my nicknames is in fact “Katten” (the cat), or “Murre” (puss), so the whole Musen thing is predestined!) The mouse literally eats the cat from within so that all that’s left is a hollow hide, if even that.
Irma Nordvang’s work with Mannen utan egenskaper was surrounded by difficulty. Following the completion of part 1 in 1961 and part 2 in 1963 she suffered from a variety of personal problems. A group of students from Uppsala raised a unique petition in 1966 calling on Bonnier publishers to continue the publication work as it was suspected that the publishers were delaying, perhaps for financial reasons. Bonnier and Georg Svensson, the publisher, took the criticism on board but remained silent and loyal towards their translator, who was too exhausted to translate. Part 3 was finally published in the autumn of 1970. Part 4 of Musil’s work was not published until after Irma Nordvang’s death in 1983 and this was a translation by Lars W. Freij.
Mannen utan egenskaper received an overwhelming response from reviewers. In a feature article published in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper on 9 May 1972 Lars W. Freij, who later completed the Musil translation work, referred to Irma Nordvang’s output as a “cultural achievement and spiritual feat of strength”. Her translation has been reprinted several times: in 1983, 1998 and 1999, and in the autumn of 2010 it ran as a serial on Sveriges Radio.
Irma Nordvang was a member of Svenska Översättarförbundet (Swedish Association of Professional Translators) although she was not an active participant in any of its engagements. She was awarded the Sveriges Författarfond prize for individuals deserving of literary credit in 1965 and in 1974. She also received The Nine Society’s prize for translation in 1970.