Sonja Bergvall was one of the most valued translators of English literature into Swedish of the late 20th century.
Sonja Bergvall was born on Fårö. Her parents were the adult education teacher Edvin Bergvall and his wife Agnes (née Gäfvert), who was a junior school teacher. When Sonja Bergvall was six years old the family move to Södertörn. After gaining her school-leaving certificate in 1926 Sonja Bergvall studied at the Frans Schartau Handelsinstitut (a business school) in 1927. She then worked at Stockholms Enskilda Bank from 1927 to 1929. In 1929 she was employed by the Natur & Kultur publishing house, where she remained in post until the autumn of 1933. She then began to work at the Albert Bonnier publishing house and she stayed with them until she retired in 1971. In the early 1940s she became head of advertising for the publishers, a post she held until 1949. She then was put in charge of contacts with foreign publishers, with a view to making Swedish literature available abroad, and it was not long before she became head of this section. She was involved in launching Harry Martinson, Vilhelm Moberg, Ivar Lo-Johansson, Eyvind Johnson, Sara Lidman, and others.
When Sonja Bergvall began translation work in the 1930s it was more of a hobby. At that time it was largely her translations of Dorothy Sayer’s detective novels which attracted attention for “their ingenious resolutions, amusing ironies, and light-hearted implied teachings”, as Madelaine Gustafsson writes in her article on Sonja Bergvall in Svenskt översättarlexikon. During this period Sonja Bergvall also translated several important modernist novels, such as E.M. Foster’s Credo and Virginia Woolf’s Mot fyren.
It was only after retiring that Sonja Bergvall became a fulltime translator. During the 1970s she translated a series of English and American novels in swift succession, including works by Jane Austen, Muriel Spark, Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Vita Sackville-West and Lilian Hellman. Above all she made Doris Lessing’s works, as well as those of Margaret Drabble and Anne Tyler, accessible in Swedish, along with other authors who were significant for the new women’s movement.
Sonja Bergvall largely translated from English into Swedish but she also did a selection of translations from German, Norwegian, and Danish. When she received the Elsa Thulin translator’s prize in 1981 the reason given was this: “For a substantial professional contribution of translations of an unusual breadth across a long time period with emphasis on particularly demanding English-language literature.”
For Sonja Bergvall being responsive to the author and producing a faithful translation of the text was fundamental to the translator’s role. One of the things she said in an interview with Lena Rydin was that: “One has obligations to the readers, one does. But one is most obliged to the author. It is he that must take prime place.” In this interview, and in others, she also spoke enthusiastically of the importance of understanding the author’s references, of knowing Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson and the like.
Sonja Bergvall belonged to the first generation of translators who consciously worked to obtain better conditions and improved standards for translators. She was a driving force in setting up Svenska Översättarförbundet (the Swedish translators’ association) in 1954.
Sonja Bergvall’s translations were highly valued and she was awarded a series of prizes and scholarships. In addition to the Elsa Thulin translation prize in 1981 she also received Tidningen Vi’s literature prize in 1971, Rabén & Sjögren’s translation prize in 1974, and in 1975 she was given the Trevi prize for her translations of the first four parts of Doris Lessing’s books about Martha Quest. In 1979 she was also awarded the Swedish Academy’s translators’ prize.
Sonja Bergvall died in Stockholm in 1989.