Thursday, April 4, 2013

Icelandic Sagas - Translation: What's Lost and Gained.

Somethings are just lost in translation, we all know that. If you can't read the original, somethings are found by reading translations by different authors.

I'm now reading The Laxdoela Saga, translated by A. Margaret Arent (copyright 1964).  Some of the people in this saga also appeared in The Story of Burnt Njal, however their names are spelled differently. Hauskuld/Hoskuld. Unna/Unn. Snorri Godi/Snorri the Priest. Tongue/Tunga. "Godi" is a title for a priest/chieftain so instead of calling him "Snorri the Priest," she called him "Snorri Godi." Additionally, instead of translating the name of his home to "Tongue," she left it as "Tunga."

So, by reading both translations, the notes, and learning a little history, I learned what his name really was (Snorri Godi) and what it meant to those who heard it in his day (Snorri the Priest). "Godi" (more authentically: goði) doesn't just mean "priest," you have to understand how it was used in the days of the sagas. According to Arent in her introduction, the priests of the old Norse religion had lots of power (to be a priest was to be a chieftain). She further explains that when Iceland became a republic, the goðar (plural of goði) automatically became members of parliament, the lawmakers.

Snorri was one of those men. If you read either name by itself, it doesn't mean a whole lot. One must dig into the notes in the book and the history or Iceland itself.

Time makes a difference in  translation. The sagas were written a long time ago and culture has changed considerably since then. The translators also come from different eras, affecting their translations. Sir George Webbe Dasent lived from 1817-1896 (translator of The Story of Burnt Njal, which was first published in 1861).  We now live in a different era with different customs. Sir Dasent used archaic language in his translation (probably even archaic for his time), including English words that are no longer used but approximated the Icelandic word better than any words we have now.

For example, Dasent used the words "boun" and "busked" while Arent used more current language: "made ready, fitted out."  Instead of saying "Easterling" she informs us the person is from Norway. Dasent used the word "daysmen" which refers to an arbitrator. This word appears in the King James Bible in Job 9:33. The King James Bible is from the 1600s, which is well before Dasent's time.

So, what we've got is a story from nearly a millennium ago, translated by a man who lived two hundred years ago (during the Victorian era) who used words atleast two hundred years older than himself (from Shakespeare's time), read by people of a vastly different era (us).

For more on the archaic words themselves:
Icelandic Sagas - A Cultural Glossary and Location Illuminator

Works Cited:
Arent, A. Margaret. The Laxdoela Saga. University of Washington Press, 1964
Dasent, Sir George Webbe. The Story of Burnt Njal. J. M. Dent and Sons LTD, 1960