Removing the Grime from Scandinavian Classics
Translation as Art Restoration
In today’s world, translators act not only as interpreters of factual information but also as cultural messengers. By bringing the literature of different parts of the world to us, they open our eyes to traditions and customs and points of view that we might otherwise encounter only in very superficial ways—through news clips or television sound bites.
Through fiction we can experience life in the Vesterbro district of Copenhagen or in ice-bound Greenland or in a little mountain village in Gudbrandsdal, Norway. And we can move back and forth in time. In Henning Mankell’s detective books we see the world of Inspector Wallander as he wearily plods from one murder case to another, all the while commenting on the demise of the social system in modern-day Sweden. In The Royal Physician’s Visit, by Per Olov Enquist, we can follow the author into the sexy political intrigues of eighteenth-century Denmark when a mad young king, a conniving religious fanatic, an intellectual reformer, and an English princess all vie for power.
Over the last twenty years I’ve often thought about the role of the translator—what it is, and what it ought to be. Since I realize that many people consider translation to be a mysterious process, I’ve tried to come up with some analogies that are easy to understand.
Lately I’ve found it useful to compare literary translators to musicians. The translator has to “interpret” a novel or a short story just as a musician plays and interprets the work of a composer. I like the image of the translator sitting down at the computer keyboard the way Vladimir Horowitz or Fats Domino or Diana Krall might sit down at a grand piano. Of course, each of them would interpret the same piece of music in a different way. This is also true for translators, and that’s why translation is an art, not a science.
A translator is also like an actor, inhabiting the voice of the author and giving up her own personality to play the part. It’s important not to insert too much of your own voice into a translation, although it’s impossible to make yourself 100 percent invisible. Every translator brings her own cultural background and experience to the work.
Recently I’ve found myself playing a different role. Although I’ve translated many books by contemporary authors, I’ve also done new translations of several classic Scandinavian works. And in this case, I’ve begun to think of myself as an art restorer. I’ve specifically had to address the issue of “grime”—all that soot and dirt and dust that can accumulate over decades or even centuries on a work of art.
Just think about the dark varnish that covered one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings for so many years. It masked the true character of the painting to such an extent that Sir Joshua Reynolds gave the untitled work a completely inaccurate name: The Night Watch. Restoration has shown that Rembrandt had actually painted a daytime, not a nighttime, scene.
Or think about the residue from burning candles and incense that ended up coating Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It wasn’t until a major restoration was undertaken that we discovered what vibrant colors the artist had actually used.
Literary works can also suffer from the same fate through an inadequate, censored, or outright terrible translation. To illustrate what I mean, I want to talk briefly about the work of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen and the Norwegian Nobel Prize-winner Sigrid Undset. Recently I’ve done new translations of thirty of Andersen’s fairy tales, and I’ve also completed a new translation of Undset’s medieval trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter.
In discussing both restoration projects, I want to look at three issues: (1) What was wrong with the earlier translations? (2) What had to be done to remove the soot and grime? (3) What has been the reaction of readers to the new “look” of these classic works?
So let’s start with Hans Christian Andersen. Now, as you may know, 2005 was the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Andersen, and to celebrate the event, Viking Penguin decided that it was time for a new English translation of some of Andersen’s fairy tales. There are plenty of earlier translations, so we must ask: What was wrong with the old translations, and why was it important to commission a new one?
In Jackie Wullschlager’s biography of Andersen, she describes the fierce competition that arose in the mid-nineteenth century among people who wanted to be Andersen’s English translator. In an earlier Andersen biography, the Danish scholar Elias Bredsdorff devotes an entire chapter to this topic of early translations. He also wrote an article on the subject titled “How a Genius Is Murdered.”
The fact is that Andersen’s style of writing is extremely difficult to translate. He uses colloquialisms, slang, and special idioms. He is also very fond of puns and wordplay, and he loves to make up words and strange sounds. Andersen’s stories are written in a familiar, conversational tone that was quite radical for the literature of his day. He fills his stories with irony, scorn, and ridicule. And, of course, he is also very funny, and humor is one of the hardest things to translate from one language to another.
Most of the early translations done in the nineteenth century were terrible. Many of Andersen’s early translators didn’t even know Danish! They based their work on German versions, which were often very poorly done. Others who claimed that they did know Danish had such a limited understanding of the language that they made outrageous mistakes. For example, one translator decided that the Danish word sommerfugle meant “summer birds” when it actually means “butterflies.” And she translated the phrase den bløde jord as “the bloody earth” when it actually means “the soft ground.”
Other English translators took it upon themselves to “improve” Andersen’s writing, substituting more flowery words for the plain prose that he usually preferred, or embellishing the stories, using three sentences where Andersen uses only one.
Here is just one example from an earlier edition of “The Nightingale,” as translated by Alfred Wehnert:
Five years had now passed over, when the whole land was unexpectedly thrown into the deepest distress, by the startling news that the old Emperor was so seriously ill that his death might momentarily be expected, for all were sincerely attached to their magnanimous monarch, by whose decease they would in fact gain nothing, but might be much worse off under his successors.
Here is my translation of the same passage:
Five years passed, and the whole land suffered a great sadness, because everyone was truly very fond of their Emperor. Now they said he was ill and about to die.
As you can see, the earlier translation presents quite a different tone and style.
These early English translations did great damage to the way in which readers have perceived Andersen’s stories and his style of writing. And the huge number of “adaptations” and “retellings” and “versions” hasn’t helped matters either. Disney’s overly sweet interpretation of “The Little Mermaid” has very little to do with Andersen’s terrifying story of the little mermaid who must sacrifice her tongue and voice to the sea witch in exchange for a potion that will give her legs and a chance for a human soul.
Even with the more accurate later translations, there has been a tendency to “smooth over” Andersen’s style, to make his sentences more flowing than they are in Danish. He actually writes in a somewhat jolting manner that can be rather disconcerting, but it’s very effective. And that is what I wanted to capture in my translation of his work.
Now let’s look at Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset. In this case, there is only one previous English edition to consider, but I must say that it is one of the worst translations I have ever seen. For some reason the first translators (Charles Archer and J. S. Scott) decided that since the book was set in the early fourteenth century, the language should sound medieval. They created an artificially archaic style of stilted dialogue and convoluted sentences, which they imposed on the author’s wonderfully clear prose. The old translation makes the novel read like a bad imitation of Sir Walter Scott—full of such words as tis, twas, thee, thou, methinks, hath, and doth.
There are also numerous deletions and some rather serious omissions that clearly fall under the label of censorship. For example, here is the dramatic passage when Kristin and Erlend make love for the first time (first in the old translation):
Kristin shook—it must be because her heart beat so, she thought—her hands were cold and clammy. As he kissed her vehemently she weakly tried to push him from her. Erlend lifted his face a moment—she thought of a man who had been given food at the convent one day—he had kissed the bread they gave him. She sank back upon the hay. . . .
Note that the last line ends with an ellipsis. Here is how I translated the same passage:
Kristin was trembling—she thought it was because her heart was pounding so hard—and her hands were clammy and cold. When he kissed the bare skin above her knee, she tried powerlessly to push him away. Erlend raised his face for a moment, and she was suddenly reminded of a man who had once been given food at the convent—he had kissed the bread they handed to him. She sank back into the hay with open arms and let Erlend do as he liked.
Later on, when I translated Undset’s breakthrough novel Jenny, about a female painter from 1911, I also found censored passages in the previous English translation. Hailed by critics as a courageous work, the book caused a scandal when it was published because of its honest depiction of a young woman’s love life. The previous English translators chose to delete from the text any mention of breasts or double beds or a possible abortionist in Paris.
So this was the kind of “literary grime” that I found sullying the earlier English translations of works by Andersen and Undset. But unlike people who restore paintings, I could not physically scrape away old varnish or layers of dirt. Instead, what I had to do was pay close attention to the original text. I had to listen to the voice of the author and look for hints to the author’s style.
For instance, while I was working on the fairy tales, I began noticing that Andersen has a great love of repetition—he’s especially fond of the word lovely—and I tried to keep this repetition in the English. But the real challenge was to figure out when he was being sarcastic or humorous and to try to match his wordplay and rhymes.
I also noticed other things. For example, in “The Ugly Duckling,” the word ugly doesn’t actually occur until halfway through the story—before that, Andersen uses words like hideous and awful. And in “The Nightingale,” Andersen indicates with only one word that the bird is female. Andersen also had other stylistic idiosyncrasies. For instance, he purposely used French words whenever he wanted his characters to sound especially snobbish!
As for Undset, I was truly shocked to see how the previous translation had muddied and obscured her lucid prose, hiding her true voice under archaic phrases and strange syntax. My goal was to match her clear and straightforward style and to make her characters sound as natural in English as they do in Norwegian.
Nowadays, authenticity and faithfulness to the original tone and style are both expected and required from a translator. It’s important to try to match the “sound” of a text. Undset is not a great stylist in my opinion, although she can be quite lyrical in her descriptions of the beautiful mountainous landscape in Norway. I think her real gift as a writer is in her understanding of human relationships and in the power of her storytelling.
But here is just one small example of the archaic language used by the previous translators in the first volume, The Wreath:
Ay, now I see the word that has gone about concerning this little maid of yours was no wise too great—a lily-rose she is, and looks as should the child of a knightly man. Mild eyes hath she too.
I chose to translate the same passage like this:
Now I see that the rumors did not exaggerate about your little maiden. She’s a lily, and she looks like the child of a knight. Gentle eyes she has as well.
Again, it’s evident that the style is quite different in my translation. But the archaic language is not the only problem with the old translation of Kristin Lavransdatter. I discovered other omissions, especially in the second volume, that did not involve censorship but may have had to do with the length of the text. I don’t know whether the deletions were made by the translators or the publisher, but a total of eighteen pages, spread throughout the book, were actually cut. Some of the omissions are crucial scenes that explain the psychological motivations of not only Kristin but also of her husband, Erlend, and his brother Gunnulf. Long passages about childhood jealousies and religious ruminations were omitted.
The restoration of major art works often can be quite controversial. Some people object to the stripping away of what they call the “natural patina of age.” When the restoration of the Sistine Chapel was unveiled, many found it to be appallingly garish and gaudy because no one in the twentieth century was used to seeing this famous work of art in such bright colors. Everyone had gotten used to the muted tones—that was how they expected Michelangelo’s paintings to look.
The same thing often happens with the arrival of a new translation of a classic work. People have learned to associate a certain “music” with the stories they love. Any new rendition, no matter how much closer it is to the author’s true voice, may sound too jarring to some readers.
So far, the reviews of my Andersen translation have been very positive. Critics have called it “authentic,” “forceful,” and “crisp and lively.” And that makes me very happy, of course.
Surprisingly enough, my translation of Kristin Lavransdatter has prompted much greater controversy. Ever since the publication of the first volume of the Penguin edition in 1997, a lively—and sometimes vitriolic—debate has been raging on Amazon.com about the two different translations.
Readers seem about equally split as to which translation they prefer. Some have called the earlier translation by Archer and Scott “lousy,” “stilted,” and “unreadable,” whereas others have vehemently objected to my new translation. (Keep in mind that most of these readers do not know Norwegian and cannot compare either of the translations to the original.) The strongest response came from a reader who found my translation to be “utterly bereft of all poetry” and “such a violation of [the trilogy], for those of us who hold it very high, that it approaches desecration.”
I find this debate about the two translations fascinating, since it so clearly reveals the power that a book can have over its readers. The debate also demonstrates that a reader’s loyalty toward and preference for a particular translation is often directly related to how the “music” of the text sounded as it first entered the reader’s consciousness.
Still, a translator’s primary loyalty is not to the reader but to the author. It is my job to speak for the author in English and to match as closely as possible the tone and style of the original work. It can be a daunting task that requires hundreds if not thousands of decisions. And no translator is ever totally satisfied with the result. But occasionally, when I’m able to clear away years of dirt and grime, a patch of color may suddenly emerge that looks as bright as when the author first wrote it. And then the whole meticulous, time-consuming process of literary translation is suddenly worth it.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Some of the material for this essay appeared in a slightly different form in the “Translator’s Note” to my translations of both Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group USA, copyright © 2004 and 2005 by Tiina Nunnally.
Andersen, Hans Christian. Fairy Tales. Deluxe ed. Tr. Tiina Nunnally. Ed. Jackie Wullschlager. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.
Bredsdorff, Elias. Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work, 1805-75. New York: Noonday, 1975.
Undset, Sigrid. Jenny. Tr. Tiina Nunnally. South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2001.
———. Kristin Lavransdatter. Tr. Charles Archer & J. S. Scott. New York: Vintage, 1987.
———. Kristin Lavransdatter. Tr. Tiina Nunnally. Intro. Brad Leithauser. Deluxe ed. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.
Wullschlager, Jackie. Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller. London: Allen Lane / Penguin, 2000.
Tiina Nunnally is known for her many award-winning translations of Scandinavian fiction, including The Royal Physician’s Visit, by Per Olov Enquist, and Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Høeg. Her translation of The Cross, the third volume of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Award. Nunnally was also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship in 2004. Another “restoration” project, her translation of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne, will be published by Penguin Classics in 2006, and her new translations of Astrid Lindgren’s stories based on the characters of Pippi Longstocking, Emil, Lotta, and Karlsson are scheduled for release in fall 2007. A longtime contributor to World Literature Today, Nunnally served as a juror for the 2006 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, nominating Per Olov Enquist for the award.
“From the September-October 2006 issue of World Literature Today (80:4), pages 38-42. Copyright 2006 World Literature Today.”