16.06.14, Painter, trans., Faroe-Islander Saga

Main Article Content

Kirsten Wolf

The Medieval Review 16.06.14

Painter, Robert K., ed. Faroe-Islander Saga. A New English Translation. Jefferson: McFarland, 2016. pp. ix, 160. ISBN: 978-1-4766-6366-1 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Kirsten Wolf
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Færeyinga saga, the Saga of the Faroe Islanders, dates from around 1200 and tells of the rivalry between Faroese chieftains from around 950 to around 1050, the conversion of the islanders to Christianity, and the relations between the leaders of the Faroe Islands, notably the pagan Þrándr í Götu, and Norwegian kings. The saga has to be pieced together from sections incorporated in Snorri Sturluson's Óláfs saga Helga (both the separate Óláfs saga and the one included in Heimskringla) and Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta. The main source of the saga is Flateyjarbók, which contains a continuous history of Norway by combining the biographies of individual Norwegian kings and sagas that in some way concern the lives of the kings. Færeyinga saga has been edited four times: by Carl Christian Rafn (1832), Finnur Jónsson (1927), and Ólafur Halldórsson (1987 and 2006). Ólafur Halldórsson's 1987 edition is a semi-diplomatic edition of the saga as represented in Flateyjarbók, AM 61 fol., AM 62 fol., and Kringla with variants from other manuscripts. His 2006 edition presents a normalized edition of the manuscripts.

Prior to Painter's Faroe-Islander Saga, the saga has been translated into English five times: by Frederick York Powell (1896), A.C. Muriel (1934), G.V.C. Young and Cynthia Clewer (1973), George Johnson (1975), and Völundur Lars Agnarsson (2012). Powell's and Muriel's translations are in Painter's view "either archaic or rather out-of-date" (27), Young and Clewer's translation is "[h]ard to find" (27), Johnson's is "stilted" (27), and Agnarsson's is "designed primarily for students of the language wishing to read the saga in the original" (28). Painter maintains that his translation differs in that he "tried to capture this sense of intrinsic energy and dramatic storytelling from the Old Icelandic original," which he thinks "was diluted or lacking from those rare, previous translations of this saga into English" (3). Painter assures his readers that "[t]his translation is fully original and dependent on none of the previous English translations," and that with this translation he "hoped to provide a fresh take on this lesser-known classic of the canon of the sagas, something that was stylish and readable to a modern audience while still very faithful to the letter and spirit of what the saga-writer intended" (3).

The translation of Færeyinga saga is introduced by a 22-page introduction. The first part provides a brief account of the history of the Faroe Islands from the first mention of the archipelago in the North Sea by the Irishman Dicuil to the late thirteenth century, when relations between the islands and the Norwegian Crown were formalized after the islands had been one of the Norwegian "skattlands" for almost a century, and it concludes with a short passage detailing post-Viking Age features of the Faroese language and the fate of the Faroe Islands (which in 1380 became a province of the unified Danish-Norwegian kingdom and now belong to the Danish kingdom, though the islands received home rule in 1948). The overview is based exclusively on literary sources. There is no mention of botanic research (which suggests settlement on the islands as far back as 600-650) and archaeological research (which shows no evidence of settlement before 900). The next section provides some characteristics of the sagas in general and traits in terms of style and structure that give Færeyinga saga a distinctive character. It is argued that the saga has "a focus on drawing out characters' motives through their actions, a compression of time and events to drive the dramatic narrative, and a plot where one event is the stimulus for the next, so that the entire story arc unfolds as a natural progression of a jagged fault line stemming from a single epicenter. The structure of the present saga can be described as episodic with blocks of chapters focusing rather neatly around each generation of several families" (19). The introduction concludes with a synopsis of the saga and notes on the translation, which is based on Ólafur Halldórsson's 2006 edition. Following the model of the saga translations produced by Magnus Magnusson, Hermann Pálsson, and Paul Edwards, Painter has added chapter titles and appendices "for the ease of reference and to provide a sense of the contents of each chapter for the reader" (27). In terms of orthography, the Icelandic diacritical marks have been omitted, and the digraph "æ" is rendered as "ae"; however, the umlauted vowel "ö" has been retained. Icelandic "þ" and "ð" have both been rendered as "th"; this reviewer would have preferred to see "ð" rendered as "d." The "r"-ending of masculine vowel stems in the singular nominative has, curiously, been rendered by the modern Icelandic "-ur" (e.g., "Sigmundur" rather than "Sigmundr" or "Sigmund"), whereas, in contrast, the "r"-ending of feminine vowel stems has not been retained (e.g., "Thorgerd" rather than "Þorgerðr" or "Þorgerður"). As for place names, Painter explains that they are given as simple transliterations from the orthographic values supplied by the text, except where a particular location is historically significant, e.g., the Earl's home at Lade (not Hlað). Thus the names of the Faroe Islands generally appear in their archaic form, e.g., Old Icelandic Austurey versus Faroese Eysturoy" (29).

The translation is paraphrastic, and Painter has taken quite some liberties in order to make Færeyinga saga read more like a modern novel than a medieval saga. The words "ok" and "en" ("and" and "but") are typically omitted, when introducing a sentence. Moreover, adverbs have been added, and the syntax has been rearranged. The following randomly chosen phrases may serve as examples:

Footnotes providing information on, for example, casting lots, the village Gøta, Haraldr Gormsson, the notion of luck, the word "hundred" in Old Norse, wergild, and "iron-carrying" accompany the translation.

Following the translation, there are five appendices: 1) a translation of chapters 31-33 from Jómsvíkinga saga, since the account of the invasion of Norway by the Jomsvikings and their defeat is incomplete in Færeyinga saga but preserved in Jómsvíkinga saga; 2) a brief discussion of the temple of mysterious pagan goddess mentioned in chapter 23 of Færeyinga saga; 3) an explanation of technical terms, such as "thing," "lawspeaker," and "outlawry"; 4) a chronology of events; and 5) genealogical tables. "References and Further Reading," an index of proper names, and a general index round off the volume.

Painter has managed to produce a very readable translation of Færeyinga saga, and McFarland has produced an attractive book. While the translation will not attract interest from the serious scholar or student of Old Norse-Icelandic literature, it will most certainly appeal to those who wish to get a sense of the history of the Faroe Islands in the Middle Ages. Quite a few errors were noted. These include, but do not comprise, the Old Icelandic word for sheep, which is "fé" and not "fær" (6); the Old Icelandic word for lawspeaker, which is "lögsögumaðr" and not "lógsógumaður" (14); Ari Þorgilsson's Islendingabók, which should be Íslendingabók (77); the Old Norse word for a ruler/bailiff/chieftain, which is "valdsmaðr" and not "valdsman" (81); and Olaf Tryggvason, whose name should, according to Painter's treatment of proper names, be Olafur Tryggvason. Finally, it would have been wise to stick to the original title of the work: The Faroe Islanders' Saga (rather than Faroe-Islander Saga).

Article Details