Else Mundal

title.none: Kennedy, Translating the Sagas (Else Mundal)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.009 08.04.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Else Mundal, University of Bergen,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Kennedy, John. Translating the Sagas: Two Hundred Years of Challenge and Response. Making the MIddle Ages v. 5. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. ix, 219. $85 $85 978-2-503-50772-9. ISBN: 978-2-503-50772-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.09

Kennedy, John. Translating the Sagas: Two Hundred Years of Challenge and Response. Making the MIddle Ages v. 5. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. ix, 219. $85 $85 978-2-503-50772-9. ISBN: 978-2-503-50772-9.

Reviewed by:

Else Mundal
University of Bergen

In his book Kennedy aims at giving an overview and an evaluation of translations of Icelandic sagas into English in the period of about 200 years since the first translations of this kind took place. The book contains a preface, 7 chapters, bibliography and index. In the short preface Kennedy states that translations are generally not held in great esteem, and his book is based on the premise that this common attitude belittles the work of the translator who in fact is both an editor and an interpreter.

The title of the first chapter has the form of a question: "Why translate the sagas?" The answer is partly given in the subtitles of the chapter: "Translation for the reader interested in history"; "Translation for reasons of nation and race"; "Translation to assist literary appreciations"; "Translation for the benefit of the student of comparative literature or literature in translation"; "Translation in the service of anthropology"; "Translation to assist readers of the Icelandic text"; "Translation to provide a different or a 'better' version". Most translations will, however, target diverse audiences.

The second chapter is called "The task of the translator." Here the author discusses the choices the translators had to make concerning the style of the translation. He could choose a style which he hoped would produce the effect on the modern audience that the author of the medieval text intended the original to produce on the medieval Icelandic audience; he could aim at having the effect on a modern English-speaking audience that the original text has on modern Icelanders; he could focus on making readers aware that the text translated emanates from the Middle Ages by employing archaic language, and so on. Other tasks of the translator mentioned in this chapter are, for instance, spelling of Icelandic names, transcription of Old Norse letters, how to render concepts which are closely connected to the Old Norse culture and have no good equivalents in modern society, geneaologies--which some translators have shortened or excluded, and skaldic verses--which are in fact untranslatable.

The third chapter is devoted to the pioneer saga translations. It comprises translations into English from the first in 1770 (Gylfaginning) until 1868. The chapter opens with an overview of the cultural background for the translation activity in this period, then comes a list of translations in chronological order followed by comments on the translations of the period seen as a whole. It is for instance typical of this period that most of the translators translated from a third language, Latin or Scandinavian languages, or were more or less dependent on a third language. Another characteristic of the period stressed by Kennedy is that Scottish translators played a remarkable role in the pioneering period. Finally, Kennedy briefly mentions individual translators of the period.

The fourth chapter which deals with translations in the period 18691913, the fifth chapter which deals with the period 191450, and the sixth chapter which comprises the second half of the twentieth century, are built up in the same way as the third chapter. The second period of saga translation was dominated by the translators William Morris and Eiríkur Magnússon who normally worked together. However, these translators who are known for giving their translated texts a genuine Icelandic flavor, have been--according to Kennedy--less influential on contemporary and later translators than normally claimed. The fact that an English- speaking and an Icelandic-speaking translator worked closely together guaranteed reliable translations, and the translations by William Morris and Eiríkur Magnússon represented a big step forward compared with most of the translations in the previous period which were more or less based on a third language. Translations made in cooperation between two translators representing each of the involved languages did not exactly become a norm in saga translation into English, but there are also other examples, for instance Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards who were responsible for a considerable number of translations in the second half of the twentieth century. The period 191450, which included two world wars, was less rich in saga translations into English than the period after 1950. However, in the period 191450 several Norwegian texts, Konungs skuggsjá, ágrip, Tristrams saga, Gulathings Law and Frostathings law were translated into English, some of them even before they were translated into modern Norwegian.

The seventh chapter is named "The Future of Saga Translation" and reflects on the possibilities and the dangers for saga translations in the computer age.

Kennedy's book provides us with a good overview of what exists of translations from Old Norse into English. He builds on two earlier bibliographies, Norse Sagas Translated into English by Donald K. Frey from 1980, and "Norse Sagas Translated into English: A Supplement" by Paul Acker, published in Scandinavian Studies, 1993. The topic of the book is translations of saga literature into English, and of course, different cultures had different reasons for translating this medieval literature into their own language. Kennedy states (12) that texts mentioning the Norse incursions into the British Isles were among the first to be translated and that the so-called Vinland sagas have been by far the most frequently translated of all Old Norse prose texts. This is the same tendency which we can see in the Scandinavian countries. Texts which were regarded as important sources for the history of Sweden and Norway were the first both to be published and translated. Sometimes one wishes that Kennedy considered the translation of Old Norse literature into English in a broader context. For instance, did translations into other languages, Scandinavian or German, influence the choices which were made as to what texts should be translated? It is obvious that in the period of pioneer translations when most texts were translated from a third language, the texts for translation into English had to be chosen among Old Norse texts which were already translated into another language. But what about later times? Would translated sagas which were popular in Scandinavia or Germany be chosen for translation into English, or did the English speaking countries--in addition to choosing texts with connections with the British Isles and North America--have their own preferences? Kennedy states (88) that William Morris and Eiríkur Magnússon did not establish a canon, but can we talk about a canon of Old Norse translations into English later? Who decided what Old Norse texts should be translated? Was it the individual translators, or did institutions of different kinds have a say? Questions of this kind could have been discussed, as it is, they are--at best--only touched upon in passing. It would also have been interesting to have had a few more glimpses into the reception of translations from Old Norse. Another interesting question which is not touched upon at all is: how were the view of Old Norse literature, the reasons for having it translated, and the way the translations were done, connected with literary trends and ideals of different periods of literary history, such as Romanticism, Realism and Neo-Realism. Kennedy mentions (87) that the sagas of Icelanders became particularly popular during the period 18691913, and this popularity lasted in later periods. Is it not reasonable to think that the growing popularity of the sagas of Icelanders in the second half of the nineteenth century has something to do with Realism, the period in history of literature in which people all of a sudden recognized the ideals of modern literature in the literature of the past, in the so-called saga realism? Kennedy's book is good as far as it goes, but he could have gone deeper into the material. Many of the subchapters are very short and could have gained from being expended.

Finally, there is one detail that I want to mention. Kennedy's book focuses on translations of Icelandic sagas, but not only sagas, and even Norwegian texts are included. Kennedy discusses (3) the use of the terms Old Icelandic and Old Norse. He prefers the term Old Icelandic because it is more precise than Old Norse which may have the advantage, he admits, of taking into account that a small number of texts are of Norwegian origin. The more narrow term Old Icelandic is of course more precise, but only as long as it is used with reference to literature written in Iceland and the language spoken in Iceland. As soon as Norwegian literature and language are included the term is no longer precise but misleading. It is especially difficult to use the term Old Icelandic correctly when speaking about the language since the language used both in Iceland and Norway was essentially the same for several centuries after the settlement. If, for political reasons, one wants to use the term Old Icelandic with reference to the language spoken in Iceland from the day the first settlers set foot on Icelandic soil, that is fine. However, the Norwegians did not speak Old Icelandic. To use the term Old Icelandic for the common language spoken in Norway would be the same as to call the language spoken in England today American--or for that matter, Australian.

It is easier to distinguish between Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian literature, but it is far from easy. In a few cases the provenience of a text may be disputed, a Norwegian work may be preserved in Icelandic manuscripts only, and Icelandic authors wrote sometimes within a Norwegian milieu, perhaps primarily for a Norwegian audience. We need of course the terms with the narrow meaning, Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian, but we also need a term for the common language and culture and for the literature written in the common language within both countries. Kennedy uses in his book both the term Old Icelandic and--less friquently--Old Norse, but it is very difficult to see how he uses them. It may be that he tries to use the term Old Norse with reference to texts produced in Norway by Norwegians in the Norwegian variant of the common language, but if so, his preference of the "more precise" term Old Icelandic may have misled him to use it when it should not be used. Several times (15, 123) he speaks, for instance, of romances which were translated from Old French verses into Old Norse prose in the milieu around the Norwegian king, Hákon Hákonarson, as Icelandic sagas which were translated into Icelandic. The use of the "precise term" Old Icelandic demands of the author that he is precise.