The Carver County Historical Society is embarking on a six-month project to post online a new translation of the diaries of 19th-century Swedish immigrant Andrew Peterson, making the work widely accessible to researchers for the first time.
Wendy Petersen Biorn, director of the county historical society, said the translation should be finished and available on the county historical society website by September.
The diaries first were translated by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) after Peterson’s daughter donated them to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1939, but that translation can’t be republished due to copyright laws. Only four copies exist in English, all in the Twin Cities area (at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the Minnesota Historical Society, the University of Minnesota and the Carver County Historical Society).
“If you’re not within a half-hour of those copies, you’re not able to use them,” Biorn said.
The project was made possible by a $2,000 grant from the Swedish Council of America and a $9,782 grant from the Minnesota Historical Society.
Carolyn Spargo, 60, and Sharon Eklund, 76, signed a contract last month with the county historical society to translate the diaries and are waiting for the microfilm to arrive from the Minnesota Historical Society.
Both Spargo and Eklund hail from Swedish families, speak Swedish and have been to Sweden. Before learning about Peterson, they said, they weren’t aware of Carver County’s rich Swedish history. “I was just amazed to think of this book, because [Carver] was always thought to be a German county,” Eklund said. “I think it’s still catching on that there’s a lot of Swedish influence.”
Peterson, who came to Waconia in the 1850s from Östergötland, Sweden, kept a 48-year diary of his journey across the Atlantic, his day-to-day life on the farm and events like the U.S.-Dakota War. He established a farm near Lake Waconia, becoming locally famous for his apple orchards before he died at age 79 in 1898.
In the 1940s, renowned Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg visited Minnesota and used Peterson’s diaries as a foundation for his series of novels titled “The Emigrants,” about a Swedish family moving to Minnesota in the 1800s.
Peterson is better known in Sweden than the United States because of Moberg’s books. “His ‘Emigrant’ novels were the most influential books of the 20th century,” said retired Swedish language professor Roger McKnight.
Spargo and Eklund said they have an advantage over other Swedish translators because their parents spoke immigrant Swedish, something that pops up a lot in Peterson’s diaries when he tweaks an English word to look Swedish.
McKnight studied the use of immigrant Swedish in Peterson’s diaries and Moberg’s novels for his doctoral dissertation before he began teaching at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. He said he remembers the diaries were kept in thick ledger books.
“Just picking them up, they’re damned heavy,” he said. “And there’s six of them!”
Because the diaries relate mostly day-to-day doings, McKnight said the book got repetitive after a while. “It’s not like a novel, which you sit down and read for the plot,” he said.
The WPA translation of the diaries at the Carver County Historical Society fills 1,081 single-side, double-spaced pages. The entire diaries will be posted online, Biorn said, though some of the repetition may be cut in the printed versions due to publishing costs.
“If you have 60 extra pages in there and all it says is, ‘I went to church,’ then you have to make a call,” she said.
But the book is still good at portraying the journey of 19th-century immigrants, as well as the course of early agriculture in Minnesota, McKnight said.
“The thing that sets Andrew Peterson aside is that he wrote a very short diary of their sailing across the Atlantic. And then in 1854, he wrote every day except Sunday until his death,” he said. “The crops that he planted. The harvest that he got. The animals he raised and slaughtered. The products he sold at the market.”
Spargo and Eklund hope they can bring a little more to the translation than just everyday incidents and “capture Peterson’s spirit.”
“We’ll try to put a little bit of his personality into how he’s written it,” Spargo said.
Emily Allen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.