Someone whose first language is Swedish is not what most people would expect in a Spanish language interpreter. But that is Fred Svensson.
Born in Sweden, Svensson, 41, moved with his parents to Latin America as a boy, attending American schools in Venezuela and Mexico where he learned English and Spanish. His father was an electrical engineer who worked at project sites away from Sweden for years at a time.
The family moved to the United States, first to Oregon for three years and then to Los Angeles for one, before winding up in New Berlin, where Svensson finished high school.
Svensson graduated from UW-Madison with degrees in business administration and international relations. He briefly moved back to Sweden, where his parents once again lived, to look for work. He returned to Madison, spent time in San Francisco and was on the road in South America, but by 2001 he was back in Madison for good. During his years here he also worked for Centro Hispano, a social service agency that helps the city's Latino population, but is now a full-time freelance Spanish language interpreter for the county and federal courts.
Q: When you moved back to Sweden to find work, how did you end up back in Madison?
A: Unfortunately at that time in Sweden in 1995 it was the toughest year in modern history as far as unemployment goes. I applied for about 100 jobs and got some interviews but I didn't get a job. Winter set in and darkness. I longed for Madison because my brother was still in school here. I fell in love with a girl and stayed here, and when that broke up I went to San Francisco for a year.
Q: You have degrees in business administration and international relations. Why are you an interpreter?
A: When I moved back here after living in Sweden I started working at Centro Hispano. People would approach Centro Hispano with all kinds of needs from the most drastic family situation to how to pay an MG&E bill. Back then the court system actually called Centro to schedule interpreters for people. The hospitals did, businesses did. At Centro Hispano we were like the clearinghouse for interpreters.
When I came back from South America I was asking myself, what am I going to do? (Svensson was soon recruited to do Spanish interpretation in the courts by then-interpreter Lou Velarde, who died soon after.) Me and Victor (Delgado) would hide out on one floor each (of the courtroom floors at the City-County Building) and I started doing it. I just thoroughly enjoyed it so much.
Q: What do you like about it?
A: Of course there's being in the courtroom where you hear all these courtroom dramas and it's very intriguing. There's a lot of sadness in all the stories and being an interpreter I actually get to shut things out when I go home. Sometimes I continue thinking about things when I go home but there's nothing I can do. Oftentimes people thank me afterward because I've done a service for them by facilitating their understanding. The courts are thankful that I was there and I feel very needed and useful and that makes me feel very fulfilled in my own life.
It's a very exciting kind of work. It's a new profession, even though there have been interpreters since the days of Pocahontas and the early settlers. But the odd thing is it's not until very recently that it's become professionalized.