Gunnel Vallquist was an author and a translator who introduced French literature to a Swedish readership. In recognition of her translation work she was elected into the Swedish Academy in 1982, succeeding Anders Österling to seat number 13.
Gunnel Vallquist was born in Stockholm in 1918. She was the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Gunnar Vallquist and Lily Vallquist, also a translator. After attending an all-girls’ school in Skövde Gunnel Vallquist gained her school-leaving certificate as a private student in 1940 in Stockholm. She and her family had moved to the capital city in 1939 following the death of her father. Gunnel Vallquist had briefly been married to an officer named Folke Diulin. She then converted to the Catholic faith in 1939 with the French Dominican sisters at their Sankta Ingridshem chapel on Villagatan. Her first job was a secretarial post for the Swedish Army, in the office of Viking Tamm, then a major. Gunnel Vallquist moved to Uppsala in 1941 in order to read Nordic and Romance languages, along with literature, and gained her Master’s degree in 1946. Gunnel Vallquist’s time as a student at Uppsala deepened her sense of Catholic identity, and her social sphere in the university town included the small intellectual circle which had formed around Joseph Gerlach, a Jesuit priest.
After the Second World War Gunnel Vallquist settled in Paris and began to write reviews for Bonniers Litterära Magasin, whilst also translating French literature by writers including Bernanos, Balzac, Claudel, Descartes, and Weil, for the Albert Bonniers Förlag (publishers). One of her great literary experiences was reading Yourcenar’s Hadrianus minnen, and she was also a great fan ofGeorges Simenon's popular detective novels. She began to translate Marcel Proust’s series of novels På spaning efter den tid som flytt (À la recherche du temps perdu) in 1950 and this became her life’s work. It took her three decades to complete and she then made further revisions until 1992. Alongside this work, from 1956 onwards she published a series of essay collections on spiritual subjects, the first being a book entitled Något att leva för. This was subsequently followed in 1958 by Ett bländande mörker, the 1959 volume Till dess dagen gryr, Vägar till Gud in 1960, Den oförstådda kärleken, published in 1961, and finally the 1963 Helgonens svar.
During her time in France – where for a long time she pondered entering a nunnery – Gunnel Vallquist gradually became convinced that her domain lay within the world of literature and she began to contribute to the cultural pages in Swedish newspapers, initially for Dagens Nyheter and subsequently for Svenska Dagbladet. As a newspaper correspondent on literary and religious matters Gunnel Vallquist conveyed her impressions and experiences of the politically and religiously turbulent era that was the 1950s. At that time France occupied a leading position within the intellectual world. Colonial war was ongoing, people’s conversations were dominated by the concept of existentialism, and far-reaching changes were occurring within the religious world – particularly within the Dominican and Jesuit orders – whilst worker-priests were being introduced into society. Initially the Vatican put up strong opposition towards French church-developments, but these changes nevertheless paved the way for the Second Vatican Council, held between 1962 and 1965. This Council restructured the Catholic Church’s global views, its attitudes towards other Christian communities and towards other religions, and instigated a new era within the history of the church. Gunnel Vallquist spent each autumn in Rome whilst the Council was in session and she submitted on-the-spot reports home to Sweden. These were later collated in a series of volumes entitled Dagbok från Rom, published 1964–1966. Indeed her activism within the church became radicalised as a result of these developments. She formed a strongly critical yet loyal position towards her own church hierarchy and subsequently championed a much more open ecumenical stance in the hopes of tearing down the boundaries between various Christian communities, as revealed in the pamphlet Vad väntar vi egentligen på? Texter om Kristen enhet, published 1968–2002.
Gunnel Vallquist was a member of the state bible commission which was responsible for producing a new translation of the New Testament during the 1973–1980 period. However, she resigned from her position in protest against the principles of translation that were used. She felt these did not take account of the process of change which the text had been subject to or the living tradition which both the Bible texts and their interpretations represented in “the lived word”. Later she would describe the period during which the new translation emerged as a linguistic nadir with “a jaded sense of style combined with a general anti-conservatism”. This description, which she made in the introduction to the Swedish Academy’s classic edition of Den gamla psalmboken, published in 2001, similarly describes her own use of the Swedish language – which is characterised by an infallible sense of style and subtle use of old-fashioned expressions and terms.
Gunnel Vallquist’s own written output continued in a direct line from her earlier essay publications, resulting in her collected volumes entitled Följeslagare, from 1975, the 1982 Sökare och siare, and Steg på vägen from 1983. Her particular views are presented in autobiographical notes, Katolska läroår. Uppsala-Paris-Rom, published in 1995. The government awarded her a professorship in 1981.
Gunnel Vallquist died in Bromma in 2016.