Dr. Sander Berg is a true Renaissance man. A translator and teacher, he is also a polyglot. He speaks Spanish, English, French, German, Portuguese, his native Dutch and has some knowledge of Italian and Swedish. His translations include an analysis of El Greco, Voltaire's Candide and a classic of Dutch literature entitled Cheese. His studies include a bachelor's degree, two master's degrees, a PGCE and his PhD on the author María de Zayas. In addition, he has worked in schools such as Rugby, Merchant Taylors, Westminster (as head of Spanish from 2013 to 2021 and, briefly, as head of French in 2010-2011). He is currently Head of Modern Languages at Harrow School.
Have you always been in love with languages?
Well, I think so, but without realising it for years. I grew up in a monolingual world, but from a very young age I was interested in English and the varieties and accents in my native language. Then, from the age of 12, I learned English, French and German at school. I was pretty good, but nothing spectacular. When I was 15, I spent a summer in Northern Ireland and came back speaking English very fluently. I thought it was normal; it was only years later that I realised that it wasn't like that for everyone, that I had a certain talent.
You speak several languages, do you know any tricks, or do you have any recommendations for learning them?
Based on my experience, I would say that there is nothing better than spending time in the country where the language is spoken. Total immersion. If not possible, or in combination, spend a lot of time learning vocabulary, reading newspapers and books, watching series and movies, listening to songs and podcasts. The trick is that there is no trick.
How did you get started in translation?
It was a friend of mine. When I was 27, I had a girlfriend who was working on a translation of an old novel into Dutch (Queréas and Calírroe), one of the first novels of our culture. At that time, I was very interested in medieval French and one day I went to talk to my girlfriend's publisher and, after having given him a translation of a jewel of medieval parodic literature (Aucassin et Nicolette) as proof of my competence, he commissioned me to translate Lancelot ou le chevalier de la charette by Chrétien de Troyes. After a hiatus of several years and once settled in the UK, I started again with academic articles, but this time from Portuguese and Spanish into English.
Do you have a translation that you are particularly proud of, and a project that you have not been able to tackle but would like to?
Translating La mort du roi Arthur, a medieval novel about the famous king, was a real pleasure. It's such an interesting romance, and so little known, unfortunately. I'm also proud of my translation of the Dutch novel Cheese. I would like to translate more from Dutch. There are several writers from the late 19th century and the inter-war period who are little known but worthwhile, such as Louis Couperus or Ferdinand Bordewijk.
Do you recommend travelling to learn better? Where would you recommend people to improve their Spanish?
Yes, absolutely. There is nothing better. You can learn Spanish in any Spanish-speaking country. The important thing is to have or establish a connection. The accent doesn't matter.
Do you have a favourite book in Spanish and a favourite film?
It's a cliché, perhaps, but Don Quixote is still one of the books I've loved the most. I also loved Un mundo para Julius by Alfredo Bryce Echenique: a magnificent evocation of a privileged life in Peru in the 50's. And the stories of Borges. Another recent novel I liked is Patria by Aramburu.
For several years you have combined your work as a teacher, sometimes as head of language, with that of translator and articles, as with the Bulletin of Advanced Spanish. How have you organised yourself to have time for everything?
Discipline. I haven't done anything for the school on Sundays for years, which gives me time to work on translations, research, etc. And we teachers have very long holidays.
Finally, what advice would you give to Y11 and Y13 students to help them do well in their final exams at the end of the year?
Read and listen as much as possible (novels, articles, podcasts, etc.) and write down vocabulary and then create lists, for example in Quizlet. There are no shortcuts.