Karin de Laval was a translator who worked out of Russian, English, German, French and Italian. She was also responsible for introducing Russian and Italian literature into Sweden.
Karin Sofia Elisabeth Ljung was born in Vimmerby in 1894. Having gained her degree in Russian language at Uppsala university she then, during the revolutionary period of 1917–1918, travelled to St Petersburg as a member of the Red Cross. In 1919, in Norrköping, she married a civil engineer named Hjalmar de Laval, who was the CEO of the Rome-based branch of Bolinger AB during the 1930s and who subsequently worked for an Italian company which sold boat engines. During the 1930s the de Lavals settled in Rome where they intermittently lived in an apartment on Corso Vittorio Emanuele until their divorce in 1950. Karin de Laval’s time in Rome had a decisive influence on her future career as a literature introducer, translator, and literary agent. She became friendly with a lot of Italian authors, particularly through her attendance at the writer Maria Bellonci’s literary salons.
It was towards the end of the 1920s that Karin de Laval began, sporadically, to translate. The works she dealt with were shorter pieces in Russian, Italian, and French by writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Grazia Deledda, and André Maurois and printed in daily and weekly publications. Her first book translation was released in 1938. This was a work by the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, entitled Lieutenant Gustl. During the period of the Second World War Karin de Laval became known in Sweden for introducing Italian literature to a Swedish readership and she helped to raise awareness of new authors who became established within the expanding literary market of the 1950s and 1960s. Thanks to her friendship with many of the most influential Italian authors of the day she gained the rights to their books which she then sold to Swedish, Norwegian and Danish publishers. In this way Karin de Laval also served as a literary agent for many Italian authors, both in Sweden and wider Scandinavia. In 1943 a significant episode occurred during the German occupation of Rome. Karin de Laval recounted in a letter to the Italian writer Alba de Céspedes that she had sent her husband out into the city to find her friends Corrado Alvaro and his wife, but they had already successfully fled the city. Hjalmar de Laval did come across another pair of writers however, namely Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante, as they were driving around. He offered them protection at his apartment. Karin de Laval was already working as Moravia’s Swedish translator and carried on doing so until her death in 1973. In 1945 the Aftonbladet newspaper described her as a “well-known and skilful translator”. Similarly, Anders Österling, permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy, referred to her in the Stockholms-Tidningen newspaper in 1950 as “the female translator who has so energentically sought to improve our knowledge of modern Italian literature”.
In 1946 Karin de Laval began to serve as a representative of the Italian Agenzia Letteraria Internazionale agency, but this collaboration quickly foundered and in 1954 she was dumped in favour of her rival Karin Alin. The growing competition for commissions and translation jobs led to Karin de Laval increasingly focusing on translating short stories for publication in the daily press and in journals. Her name thus became known to an even broader circle of readers of the cultural pages. She tirelessly sought to disseminate Italian literature in Sweden, whilst her similar efforts to disseminate knowledge of Swedish literature in Italy should also be noted, as evidenced by her 1961 edited collection entitled Carosello di narratori svedesi. This collection of short stories, which she edited, introduced authors such as Stig Dagerman, Willy Kyrklund, Sara Lidman, Stina Aronson, and Eyvind Johnson to the Italian reading public.
Karin de Laval has primarily become known for her translation work out of Italian. She translated work by writers including Luigi Pirandello, Corrado Alvaro, Alba de Céspedes, Dacia Maraini and Alberto Moravia. The latter was the main reason that Karin de Laval quickly became known for translating shortly after the end of the Second World War. Moravia had already been introduced to the Swedish public in the early 1940s and rapidly became the most-read Italian author in Sweden, which naturally meant that his fame rubbed off onto his translator. Swedish reviews make it apparent that Karin de Laval’s translations – at least those of Moravia’s work – were much-liked but informal sources testify to the fact that working with her was not always a simple affair.
Despite Karin de Laval’s great importance to Italian literature she admits in Axel Liffner’s 1954 personal interview with her in Aftonbladet newspaper that it was the Russian language which lay closest to her heart. When her first translation from Russian, Ivan Maisky’s novel Before the Storm, was published in Sweden in 1945, she had already completed a series of translations from English, German, and Italian. Her Russian translation work included the work of the Nobel prize recipient Michail Scholokov’s Virgin Soil Upturned in 1961 and Alexei Tolstoy’s trilogy The Road to Calvary. Karin de Laval was awarded the Soviet order of honour in 1967 in recognition of her contributions. She also translated out of French, albeit to a lesser degree. Her interpretation of Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir from 1946 was reprinted as recently as in 2000 by Natur & Kultur publishers.
Karin de Laval’s life came to a very tragic end. On 11 December 1973 a fire broke out in her apartment on Karlavägen in Stockholm. Karin de Laval died before the fire service could get to her. She is buried at the Woodland cemetery in Stockholm.