18.05.10, Crawford, The Saga of the Volsungs

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Adam Oberlin

The Medieval Review 18.05.10

Crawford, Jackson. The Saga of the Volsungs with The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2017. pp. xxxiii, 147. ISBN: 978-1-62466-633-9 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Adam Oberlin
Princeton University

The enduring popularity of Viking and Norse history and literature in television, film, graphic media, and other formats ensures that new translations, particularly of the most famous Old Norse-Icelandic texts, will appear at least once a generation (indeed, as John Kennedy quipped in his survey of Völsunga saga translations, at increasingly frequent intervals). From the earliest full translation of William Morris and Eiríkr Magnusson in 1870, through those of Margaret Schlauch (1930), R.G. Finch (1965), George Anderson (1982), and Jesse Byock (1990 and 1999) to the diplomatic edition with facing translation by Kaaren Grimstad (2000, 2nd ed. 2005), Crawford's contribution joins a chorus of earlier voices retelling the medieval Scandinavian version of the Sigurd the Dragon Slayer legend. While other printings and pairings of Morris and Eiríkr Magnusson with introductions and additional translations by other scholars, sometimes with only Morris' name attached, have proceeded unabated to the present, it is Byock's translation that appears in the Penguin Classics series, which considerably increases its reach within and beyond the classroom. For this reason, where comparison is useful, the following review will draw primarily from the Byock translation. The introduction provides the standard supplementary and explanatory material: a genealogical chart, description of the dramatis personae, and summary of the saga, alongside an overview of the saga world and historical sources for the two translated texts. This section accomplishes a rare feat: its language is approachable yet thorough in depth and breadth for such a brief introduction to a major literary tradition spanning multiple texts, also extending beyond the textual to archeological sources and modern reception and adaptations. Likewise, the following pages on "Culture and Values" outline the most significant elements of the saga; should there be a revision in the future, this section would benefit from an entry or two on the saga form and the world that birthed it in the suggested reading list at the end of the introduction, which currently includes only primary sources.

In describing orthographic conventions and pronunciations, the introduction veers into a lengthier discussion than that found in Byock and Grimstad, while Anderson provides an outdated guide and Schlauch none at all. Three choices in this translation's orthography stand out: first, the decision to keep eth in names but represented by a straight-backed roman d with crossbar without additional commentary. One is left to wonder why it was retained, particularly given the frequency of the name Sigurdr, which has a common and (of course relatively) well-known anglicized form Sigurd, while thorn is rendered th as expected in English translation. Second, the inclusion of long vowels, which results in spellings such as Gudrún instead of Gudrun. These choices strike a balance between Old Norse-Icelandic orthography and anglicization, but it is not clear that they provide anything other than perhaps a sheen of exoticism. They can certainly make reading more challenging for a general audience. The third choice, that a pronunciation guide is needed to parse the orthography, is a consequence of the first two and others. Anglicized names generally suggest anglicized pronunciation, while a hybrid system or simply importing the original forms do not; given the mixed system found here, the primary decision is between modern Icelandic or the less commonly used reconstructed Old Norse-Icelandic pronunciation. Crawford has chosen to present the latter, to which the present reviewer cannot object on academic grounds. However, in terms of readability for the non-specialist, these naming conventions are somewhat distracting in what is otherwise a welcome idiomatic translation.

Because the length, relative difficulty, and significance of the text in the canon renders the original version--or at least excerpts from it--common fare in Old Norse-Icelandic language courses, the value of a Völsunga saga translation lies in its accessibility for a general audience. As in the larger and typically more contentious world of verse and prose translations of Beowulf, choices for rendering the saga into English can influence interpretation of the text beyond tone. Chapter 31 in Crawford's translation ("The Death of Bynhild") will serve as an example for comparison to the original text and other translations; note that chapter divisions are not even between translations due to which edition of the sole manuscript (Copenhagen, Royal Library, MS Nks 1824 b 4o, 1r-51r; Ragnars saga 51r-79r) was translated, or the manuscript itself, and whether the translator has made their own alterations to headings and breaks. The source consulted here is Gudni Jonsson's and Bjarni Vilhjámsson's 1943 edition, vol. 1 of Fornaldarsögur nordurlanda. In the first line, which does not correspond to the first line in the edition (which has moved to the end of the previous chapter), a syntactic shuffling of the direct address to Gunnar frees the rest of the sentence: Thá mælti hún: That dreymdi mik, Gunnarr, at ek átta kalda sæng, en thú rídr í hendr óvinum thínum (directly: "then said she: That dreamed I, Gunnar, that I had a cold bed, and/but you ride into the hands of your enemies") becomes "Brynhild said, 'Gunnar, I dreamed that I slept in a cold bed, and you rode into the hands of your enemies'" (62). The sentence does not end there in the original--Crawford alters the often hypnotically paratactic reading experience by inserting breaks as well as changing repetitive dialogue tags, as here, to highlight the speaker and vary the beginnings of sentences. The verb in the complement clause of dream, "slept", has been inserted whole cloth (cf. the literal "I had a cold bed" in Byock (91) and similar "my bed was cold" (195) in Grimstad). These preferences are effective in aggregate: as is the often-stated goal of most saga translators, the sentences are direct in a way that imitates the saga style in contemporary English prose, but with the additional benefit of not always adhering to the original syntax and word choice. (As the concatenation of sentences beginning with 'and' on pp. 63-64 in this chapter attests, Norse parataxis is not avoided systematically or as a general rule.) When done well as in this line, the elision of ubiquitous conjunctions and addition of practical but more interesting full verbs where the original offers light verbs produce a flowing English text in a style more familiar to contemporary readers. Given that other translations of the saga offer prose closer to the original, these stylistic choices are also useful for comparative reading in the classroom.

In another line of Brynhild's speech, she describes the sword he placed between them as a guarantor of chastity as that er eitri var hert. Crawford renders this as an appositive "hardened with poison" (62), while other translations offer "tempered in venom" (Byock 91), "tempered in poison" (Grimstad 195), and "that was tempered in poison" (Anderson 116). Translating harda as 'to temper' is sensible and accurate when speaking about a sword, but 'to harden' is fitting with other, similar choices in this translation. From an etymological perspective, temper entered English from Latin during the Anglo-Saxon period and harden is therefore not significantly more of a 'Germanic' choice than the former, but from the perspective of the non-specialist one is jargon and the other a frank description. At the end of her speech, Gunnar stands, touches Brynhild's neck, and begs her to take financial compensation and live--ok allir adrir löttu hana at deyja. The verb letja means 'to dissuade, to hinder': "and all the others dissuaded her from dying," common to the other translations with minor variations, is rendered here as "and everyone else begged her to live, too" (63). Neither adding nor subtracting information from the original (they do not want her to die either way, whatever nuance may separate 'live' and 'not die'), the translation offers verbal parallelism where there is none otherwise. This type of stylistic decision is delicate: on the one hand, it seems reasonable that parallel verbs might exist in the Old Norse-Icelandic text and the translation therefore misrepresents the original in favor of what might be termed an imagined style, but on the other, it does not significantly change the meaning of the text and the style in English reads well.

Ragnars saga lodbrókar, as mentioned above, immediately follows the text of Völsunga saga in the manuscript in which it survives. Unlike the story of Sigurd, it has hardly been translated, one of them anthologized in Schlauch's translation along with Krákumál, a skaldic poem recounting Ragnar's life while he dies in the snake pit. The same general comments about the translation offered above may be applied to the saga of Ragnar, including orthographic quibbles: writing Lothbrok in the title to avoid potential difficulties in searching for and cataloguing books with non-standard characters is not necessary but nevertheless sensible, but why not the normal anglicization Lodbrok? Within the text itself, Crawford is consistent with the rest of his orthographic choices in writing Lodbrók. An example of rearranged syntax for stylistic effect can be found in the first sentence: Heimir í Hlymdölum spyrr nú thessi tídendi, at daudr er Sigurdr ok Brynhildr becomes "[n]ow the news came to Heimir in Hlymdalir that Sigurd and Brynhild were dead" (85), which produces additional alliteration and avoids archaisms like Schlauch's "tidings" (185). Combining these two relatively short texts in one volume is not only a boon to those reading or teaching the narrative in its wider context, but also a way to reduce expenses. The translation concludes with a glossary of names and terms.

A clear, idiomatic English style that also retains the feel of the original is no easy feat, and Crawford succeeds admirably. What differences arise between the saga and its translation are useful in the medieval literature or Old Norse-Icelandic language classroom, where they may be contrasted with the medieval text or with other translations; for a general audience they are no hindrance to comprehension and in some cases render the text fluid where it might otherwise appear listless in English. While the orthographic choices for names are somewhat confusing given the overall approachability of this translation for the widest possible readership, the front and back matter is well-written and thorough without being cumbersome. Interest in Norse literature today is extraordinarily high and has perhaps not yet reached its apogee thanks to popular media saturation. This translation should serve well those who teach the sagas, their students, and any interested readers, particularly at such a reasonable price.

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