Tom Chatfield meets Per Wästberg, chairman of the Nobel committee for literature, to discuss translation, his latest novel, and the remarkable story of his lifeby Tom Chatfield / June 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Captain Cook’s ships in Tahiti in 1776, by the expedition’s artist, William Hodges
The Journey of Anders Sparrman By Per Wästberg (Granta, £18.99)
On 17th January 1773, the two ships of Captain James Cook’s second expedition crossed the Antarctic Circle—the first time in history that Europeans had done so. Among the passengers on Cook’s own ship, HMS Resolution, was the Swedish naturalist Anders Sparrman: ten days later, Sparrman recorded seeing in the sky the “blazing and radiance” of the aurora australis, the southern lights. “Probably never since the day of Creation until now,” recorded Sparrman in awe, had these “appeared before the eyes of a European.”
It was, however, more than the desire to witness new sights that drew men like Cook and Sparrman to the extremities of the known world. Children of the Enlightenment, they were also measurers and recorders. Cook’s three voyages would debunk the long-held myth of a fertile “southern continent,” Terra Australis, as well as mapping (and laying claim to) many Pacific islands for the first time. In addition to Sparrman, a distinguished handful of scientists and artists travelled with Cook: astronomer, William Wales, the naturalists Johann Reinhold Forster and his son, George, and the expedition’s official draughtsman, William Hodges, each seeking to expand the frontiers of European knowledge. The world was a book of wonders which they would, for the first time, translate and classify.
Translation is a central concern for the Swedish author Per Wästberg—trim and softly-spoken at 76—with whom I am sitting on a mild afternoon above a Soho street. We are discussing the English translation of his latest book, a fictionalised biography of Anders Sparrman that appeared in England in April, and this means beginning with Wästberg himself. Chairman of the Nobel committee for literature, author of over 50 books, a prolific polemicist and former editor of Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, Wästberg has been waiting most of his life to tell Sparrman’s story. “At a very early age, I came across Sparrman’s account of his journey around the Cape of Good Hope and around the world with Cook—and I found him humorous and outspoken and readable in a way that surprised me. Then I came to Africa myself on a Rotary Foundation scholarship for a year, when I was 25, in 1959—just the same age as Anders Sparrman was when he arrived in South Africa.” Much as Sparrman’s travels would…