30 January 2009

How I learned Swedish

[This picture is from Malmö]

Besides the early days of going to Helsingborg [spelled Hälsingborg back in those days, can any Swede tell me why?] to buy books and eat "glass" [ice cream] and "varm korv med potatismos" [hot dogs with mashed potatoes/sausage and mash], in 1974 I discovered that there was a field called technical translation. Having always been a good student in chemistry in college, I thought I'd give it a try.

I rifled through the yellow pages in major cities across the U.S. and sent out query letters to about a hundred translation agencies. Nothing. About a year later I got a call from the Institute LanFranco in San Francisco, asking if I could translate an article from Norwegian about aluminum rolling mills. "No problem." I got the 5-page document in the mail and then read the entire article on aluminum in the Britannica, dusted off my Norwegian-English dictionary, and produced a believable article -- anyway, there were no complaints. [And this was before instant answers and diagrams on the Internet.] I think I was paid 1.5 cents per word. Wow, this wasn't so hard.

So for the next year I survived mostly by doing translation, since my previous attempts to interest publishers in avant-garde Danish fiction, and even a Danish fantasy novel about the national hero, Holger Danske, at the court of Charlemagne and fighting the Saracens, had come to naught. I hooked up with one of the best agencies in the States, AD-EX, and was soon their go-to guy for translating Swedish nuclear power documentation for an American company that was selling them reactors. This lucrative gig lasted until 1980, when in the wake of Three Mile Island, Swedish voters passed a referendum to cut back on nuclear power. End of gravy train, but by that time I was pretty freaked out about working in this "evil" industry anyway.

[Barsebäck Nuclear Power Plant – now closed]

I had acquired some typesetting machines in 1976-77 in order to supply AD-EX with foreign-language typography for their corporate clients. Besides doing the standard Spanish, French, and German jobs for them, Arabic was big at the time because the Saudis and Gulf states were spending money like crazy with American companies. So I took an Arabic course at UC Berkeley and started doing Arabic rub-on press type for headlines on brochures. Then I bought an IBM electric typewriter that went from right to left and learned to type on the Arabic/Farsi keyboard. This was all fine as long as the copy to be "typeset" was already typed. Unfortunately what the agency received from their translators was usually handwritten. As anyone who has studied Arabic will know, the penmanship of the average writer leaves much to be desired. In fact, if you don't know the language well you have no hope of guessing what many words are.

So that's how I learned Swedish, beyond just reading novels. In addition to nuclear power, I learned lots of vocabulary from many scientific, industrial, and business fields in all 3 Nordic languages and German. I even did a 100-page book from Dutch "proving" that the probability of a nuclear meltdown in Holland was less than a 747 crashing into a stadium during the final game of the World Cup. Turns out it was all great training for doing crime fiction. How many times does a translator have to know whether the safety-relief valve will handle the proper volume of feedwater flow after a LOCA when blowing down to the pressure suppression pool without significant cavitation, anyway?


  1. When I was a young student of English, I dreamed of translating fiction (just like many of my fellow students). Later I got a teaching job just by asking, and found out how lousy wages most translaters got - so here I am. I was quite surprised a couple of years ago, however, when I was asked to translate a non-fiction article how much better that was paid. Not really fair, I think. In my opinion it takes much more to translate great fiction properly.

  2. Tak, Dorte, I agree completely. When I was doing a lot of technical translation, I enlisted my wife to help out on a rush job one weekend. (They're usually on weekends or holidays, when the executives & lawyers who ordered them are out on their yachts.) She did a rough draft and I checked it. I said, "Why are you using synonyms for these technical terms? It's not fiction -- you have to use the same word every time. That's how you make money."

  3. As long as you don't get my toaster instruction leaflet wrong!

    I think that long before my time it was actually Helsinborg, because in my childhood the e-spelling felt very old fashioned. Which should mean that the spelling with an ä was modern. Now I believe it's being internationally streamlined which matters.

  4. Thanks for the info -- I miss the ä! Looks too Danish now that they're trying to make Örestad into one big city.

  5. I have friends in Svensk Finland who have helped me with my Swedish. At a Lutheran church conference I met some Americans from Minnesota who were completely bi-lingual. They spoke Swedish at home and English at school, college etc. They would have found translation much easier than you, but you have done an outstanding job. Well done. Fint!

  6. Hi Rev, I guess having read Swedish since 1964 helps! Haven't mastered all the modern slang yet though.

  7. I worked for LanFranco Translation Agency as office manager and in-house translator for German for six months in 1985-6. Some of their practices were pretty unethical, so your story doesn't surprise me.

  8. Hi Laura,
    Yeah, that Federico was something else! (That was his name, wasn't it?) Were they still in the funky old building on Market Street then? Marble floors and old-fashioned doors with glass panels and gold lettering?