Take Five with Victor Kayfetz ’66


Victor Kayfetz ’66 recently celebrated 51 years as a Swedish-English translator and editor, a career he traces back to a gap year in 1966–67 at Stockholm University. There he studied Swedish and political science, aided by a Henry Evans Travelling Fellowship from the College, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. After earning an M.A. in history at UC Berkeley, Kayfetz founded an academic summer course for Americans and Swedes in 1970; he ended up living in Sweden for a decade. Aside from translating for Swedish government agencies, organizations and companies, he pursued two other careers — as an educational administrator and a Stockholm correspondent for Reuters news agency and the London Financial Times — and later was a director of the local Swedish American Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco.

Kayfetz currently divides his time between a home in the Oakland hills and an apartment in Solna overlooking Stockholm. His favorite longtime clients are the Nobel Foundation and the macroeconomic research unit of Sweden’s most international bank. He often is a ghost writer, as Swedes — even communication professionals — frequently need help to globalize their local texts.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

Coming from a public high school in a working-class California town, I found the College to be a culture shock, but a positive one. So many smart people! Luckily I was well-organized and quickly found my footing. New York City was not so intimidating, since my parents were from Brooklyn and I had visited the city with my dad, Dan Kayfetz ’37, and had toured campus with a distant relative — a physics major who told me all about the lasers his lab had just helped invent.

I naïvely started as a math major but quickly discovered that the advanced math taught at Columbia was way above my head. So I switched to Spanish, a favorite high school subject. I remember that three classmates and I took out our teacher, Gladys, a young woman from Puerto Rico, for lunch at the Four Seasons. Somehow we all ended up getting As. But I eventually found Spanish literature uninspiring and became a history major with a special interest in politics, although I continued to collect more languages.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I shared a room on the fifth floor of Furnald with a chemistry major who spent every weekend at home in Brooklyn. We had little in common. Instead I bonded with other guys on my floor including an English major, Joel, whose uncle Ted had co-authored Bedtime for Bonzo, one of Ronald Reagan’s best-remembered movies. Ted was researching a book and needed to interview college students, so a group of us sat up way past midnight in Joel’s room answering questions about a wide range of topics.

The following summer I stayed in Manhattan and rented a tiny furnished walk-up on West 109th Street from a Mr. Salamander — my first apartment. I worked at a midtown photo lab, dispatching messengers who hand-delivered large, high-quality photographs to Madison Avenue advertising agencies. In the evenings I took a French class, taught by my undergrad advisor and located in the only Columbia classroom building with air-conditioning. From my apartment window, I could see the New Moon on Broadway and 109th. Later, as a senior, I ate my Chinese lunch there every day, since I never had to choose the same dish from its 220-item menu.

What class do you most remember and why?

The history department had several great showmen whose lecture classes I really enjoyed, but my all-time favorite was Professor Walter P. Metzger GSAS’46’s “America in the Twentieth Century” — even though I only earned a B in the class. Professor Metzger ran a tight ship. No one who arrived late could enter his classroom. His lecturing style was intense, incisive and informative. I also remember that 25 years later, Metzger spoke at a College alumni event in San Francisco for two full hours about the secret diplomacy behind Pearl Harbor, but kept his audience enthralled the whole time. Otherwise he was famous as a pioneering historian of American academic freedom.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Ferris Booth Hall, which no longer exists, is where I spent many happy hours in the Spectator office and darkroom as the newspaper’s photography director, and as an occasional writer. It’s where I got to see Dwight Eisenhower, Robert Kennedy, Norman Thomas and other political celebrities up close. Ferris Booth is also where I was sitting and selling ads over the phone for another publication I worked with, King’s Crown Essays, when BMOC Robert Kronley ’65 walked in and announced that President Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas. I ran back to Furnald Hall, turned on my tape recorder and listened to the horrifying radio news. A few days later, I attended JFK’s funeral in Washington, D.C.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

Not much. Aside from teaching me history and languages, Columbia helped me hone my writing and photography skills and taught me how to do research, long before the internet made it much easier. At the request of the Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library, I recently donated an album of 100 large, archive-quality photos that I took at and around Columbia in 1963–65. At the College, I had the freedom to study almost anything I was curious about, from the Bhagavad Gita to botulism. Amazingly, I also had time to hang out at art movie houses in Greenwich Village, sell cigars at the St. Regis Hotel, ride the Erie Lackawanna Railroad to rural New Jersey with classmates and girlfriends to picnic amid the autumn foliage, and go sailing on Long Island Sound with my uncle the educational movie producer — the man who arranged my first introductions in Sweden.