Viveka Heyman was the first translator of modern Hebrew literature in Sweden and the first woman in Sweden to translate the bible. She was also one of a very limited number of female critics within the literary ‘fyriotalismen’ (development of the 1940s) in Sweden.
Viveka Heyman was born in 1919. She was the second child of Stina and Harald Heyman who lived in Uppsala. She was one of five children. Harald Heyman’s job as chief librarian at Carolina Rediviva, Uppsala university library, meant that the family enjoyed a wide social circle. From an early age Viveka Heyman identified herself with the Jewish roots of both her parents and this came to play a significant role in her future work as both a critic and a translator.
The intellectual environment of her parental home influenced the young Viveka Heyman to the extent that she wanted to test her wings in the sphere of academic learning. Her fundamental life direction also originated in her background: in her father’s words, it was important to have decorum, by which he meant to be of ethical, moral, and intellectual standing. Viveka Heyman enrolled at Uppsala university in 1937 in order to study the Romance languages, Greek, and literature. She gained her Bachelor’s degree in 1940 and shortly thereafter approached the Stockholm syndicalist paper Arbetaren, a newspaper she would remain loyal to throughout her life. This paper did not have a cultural page at this time, indeed the paper hardly featured articles on culture at all. Viveka Heyman believed that there was a niche to be filled there and speculatively sent Rudolf Berner, the editor some reviews she had written. He received them with enthusiasm. Karl Vennberg and Stig Dagerman were also recruited by the paper at this time and in 1945 Dagerman became the first permanent cultural editor of Arbetaren.
Viveka Heyman’s output was generated with impressive efficiency and she became the pre-eminent and most proficient literary and cultural author at the paper. Stig Carlson and Axel Liffner joined Arbetaren at the same time and helped make that paper perhaps the most important meeting point for the so-called ‘fyrtiotalister’ (literary authors active in the 1940s). These writers were drawn together by a socially aware, political ideal in which the idea of an author’s awareness of the current global issues was central. Kafka, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus were their leading lights. This tied in well with the idea of ‘decorum’ which Viveka Heyman had been taught by her father.
Viveka Heyman’s critical style equalled that of her male colleagues. Her tone was often harsh, and she did not hold back on her criticism. According to her colleague Edvard Ramström she took and gave “without asking which way the wind was blowing”, and she was no “lover of nuance”. Doubtless this was a survival tactic for a single female critic within both a cultural sphere and a newspaper environment entirely dominated by men. She broke the norms of feminine behaviour both in her manner and as a person. She was “almost always angry”, according to Sven Stolpe and this was not intended as a compliment. Stolpe felt that female critics should resemble Margit Abenius, and display “elements of chastity and feminine values”. Although Viveka Heyman was a feminist in practise she never referred to herself in those terms. Indeed she sometimes spoke out disparagingly about the “dreadfully numerous feminists” who found it funnier to “moan and complain” than to slam their fists on the table and actually do something.
Dagerman gave up his position as cultural editor at Arbetaren just a year into his tenure. Viveka Heyman succeeded him, but she did not last long in that post either. Her desire to deepen her knowledge of her Jewish heritage and to experience the completely newly established state of Israel for herself led to her travelling there in 1949. Her original intention was to remain there during the autumn and write several articles paid for by Expressen. However, she remained in Israel until 1954. She spent the first two years living at various kibbutzim, and then lived in an apartment in Jerusalem. She generated a contact network among Israeli cultural figures, taught herself and mastered modern Hebrew, and eventually began to study biblical Hebrew and the Talmud, whilst deepening her knowledge of Rabbinic interpretations of the Old Testament. She also began her translation activities and started with translating modern Hebrew literature into Swedish. Her first publication was the short-story anthology entitled Killingen som far köpte, published in 1955, which became a major Swedish success with the reviewers who received this first piece of translated modern Hebrew literature with great enthusiasm and astonishment. That same year she published the poetry collection Får jag ha julgran?, and in 1957 she published a poetry anthology called Ingen förnuftig gärning. From the 1960s onwards she translated a range of prominent Israeli authors such as Chaim Hazaz, Amos Oz, Avraham Yehoshua, David Grossman, and the Nobel prize-winner Samuel Josef Agnon. The poet Yehuda Amichai became the subject of a translated volume, Sjungen hoppfullt sånger om Jerusalem, published in 1976.
In 1960 Viveka Heyman’s first translation of the Old Testament was published. It is worth pausing at this point in her activities. She was, and is, the sole woman in Sweden who translated the entire Bible single-handedly. Her translations of the Old Testament saw her truly putting her translation skills to the test. Her ideas of how the Old Testament should be interpreted were similar to the German and English romantics who believed that the interpreter must have a good relationship with the material being translated and must enter the original author’s world view. Viveka Heyman’s first translation was ‘Höga Visan’ (Song of songs) from 1960 in which she sought to highlight the sensual and erotic nature of the original – precisely those aspects which had been removed by the translators (“perfect examples of prudishness”) of the current Swedish translation of the bible dating from 1917. However, according to Viveka Heyman, ‘Höga Visan’ in itself comprised dialogues “which are no less than orgasms, represented like for like” and it was the task of the translator to bring this out. Her translations gained a lot of attention when they were published and were reviewed in almost 30 newspapers and journals. A new Swedish biblical translator had been born: one who was more rambunctious and original than any who had gone before.
Just a year later Ecclesiastes was published. A second edition of ‘Höga Visan’ was released in 1967, followed by ‘Jobs bok’ (the book of Job) in 1969, and ‘Ordspråksboken’ (book of Proverbs) in 1970. Viveka Heyman simultaneously continued to publish as a critic and polemicist. A nasty example was her debate with Kristina Ahlmark-Michanek on her 1962 book Jungfrutro och dubbelmoral in which Kristina Ahlmark-Michanek argued the case for free and unconditional sex. The motto used was sex for friendship’s sake. Viveka Heyman became so indignant that in response she wrote her own book, Vad vet Kristina om vänskap? in which she put forward her belief that Kristina Ahlmark-Michanek was so “emotionally lacking” that the only way she could make friends was to sleep with them. Reviewers labelled this approach as “psychological violence” on the part of Viveka Heyman. This suggests just how ruthless she could be against women as well as men as a polemicist.
In the early 1970s Viveka Heyman once again began to spend time in Israel. At this point she was spending the winter months in Israel and the summer months in Stockholm. Her activism in support of the Israeli state, albeit it at a certain critical distance, remained constant throughout her life, even after many Swedish intellectuals defected to the Palestinian side after the Six-Day War of 1967. She clashed with Karl Vennberg and Göran Palm who criticised “the racist oppression of the victors” which they believed coloured Israeli policy following the said war. Viveka Heyman saw this as anti-semitic rhetoric. Nevertheless, her views on the Israeli state altered somewhat during the 1980s and 1990s when she became more outspokenly critical of the ruling policy. As someone who had been fascinated by the kibbutz system during the 1940s and 1950s she found the Israeli state’s increasingly right-wing approach disappointing. She actively opposed the settlement policy of Israel through the Kvinnor för fred (women for peace) and Kvinnor i svart (women in black) networks.
In 1976 Viveka Heyman was appointed as referee for the so-called ‘Bibelkommissionen’ (Bible committee), which was a government committee set up in 1972 and tasked with producing a new translation of the Bible. Her particular role was to respond to the Bible committee’s trial translations. However, the differences between her ideals and those of the Bible committee quickly became clear. Viveka Heyman believed that the latter were whitewashing the pithy, concrete, and harsh reality of the original text by paraphrasing it and producing an abstract of it. It was not long before she resigned as a referee, but the following year when she published Samuels bok through Cavefors Bokförlag she, without permission, published the trial translation she had seen as a referee. Her intention was to make the Swedish people aware of the cultural murder being committed through the new Bible translation. Given that the Bible committee was a government body she approached the Minister of Education, Jan-Erik Wikström, seeking the disbanding of the committee. She published polemical articles on the topic with headings such as ‘Lägg ned Bibelkommissionen!’ (Shut down the Bible committee!) and ‘Stick, Bibelkommissionen!’ (Begone Bible committee!) in Dagens Nyheter.
Despite this the Bible committee carried on with its work, as did Viveka Heyman. In the early 1980s she published translations of ‘Psaltaren’ (Book of Psalms) and ‘Första Mosebok’ (Genesis), whilst in 1996 she published a two-volume anthology of the complete Book of Prophets from the Old Testament. This represented a veritable feat of translation and the most significant contribution to Swedish literature and cultural history of all of Viveka Heyman’s efforts. Although that side of her activities ceased in 1996 she continued working late into her life. She wrote her final review for Arbetaren in 2004, then aged 84. She was forced to give up cycling during the last years of her life and had to move into a serviced home in Sandsborg. She died in 2003, aged 94 and “mätt av dagar” (replete with time), as she wrote in her translation of a line about Job from 1969. She was buried at Södra Judiska cemetery in Stockholm.