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About the Sagas
Vikings in America
The Complete Sagas of IcelandersDr. Jenny Jochens in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 12: 1997
[...] With the set of five volumes under consideration here, English now outstrips German, French, and even the Scandinavian languages in translations of the sagas of Icelanders, the flower of medieval Icelandic literature. For the first time the extant forty sagas of Icelanders as well as the forty-nine shorter tales (pettir) are presented in a comprehensive, coordinated, and eminently readable English translation. The project is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least for its speedy appearance. Icelanders have been known for a lack of pace with which collected enterprises appear, but this work, launched in earnest at the Ninth International Saga Conference in Akureyri in 1994, was displayed at the following Conference in Trondheim in 1997.
The readability is ensured by the expertise of the thirty translators consisting of Old Norse specialists and native speakers of English. (A handful came from Canada and Australia and the rest divided almost evenly between England and the United States.) Each chose his or her own text as well as the edition from which to work. The editorial board which in addition to Vidar Hreinsson consisted of Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz, and Bernard Scudder, provided general guidelines. Archaisms were to be avoided as well as the historical present, and a list of key terms were supplied to provide consistency throughout. Italicized, these terms are explained fully in a Glossary at the end of Volume 5. These principles enabled the translators to create a uniform and cohesive collective work out the many texts which, despite differences, form a cultural unity. The final polish was added by circulating the individual texts between the translators and Old Norse scholars who as native speakers of modern Icelandic had special insight into the old language. The third remarkable feature of this collection concerns the organizing principles underlying the division into volumes. The standard Icelandic edition, Íslenzk Fornrit, uses a geographic distribution, moving clockwise around the country and grouping the sagas in the areas where the action takes place and/or the texts are believed to have originated. This principle works well in Iceland but is not suitable for the international audience for whom the translations are intended. Instead, the editors have been inspired by a recent classification by Vesteinn Olason in which he combines dating with a thematic approach (in Íslensk bókmenntasaga, II, 1993). Less interested in dating than in the themes, the editors have refined Vesteinn's approach by adding the two categories of biographies and feud sagas, as suggested in a forthcoming work by Ornolfur Thorsson. [...]
The last remarkable feature concerns the translations of the stanzas and/or poems embedded in almost all texts and supposedly composed by the poets or skalds portrayed in the prose. In the past, translators have gone to great trouble to convey the complicated rules of rhyme, poetic imagery (the kenning system), and word order of skaldic poetry, often losing their readers as they work their way through the ornate and artificial language. In this case, however, the editors encouraged the translators "to create an independent English-language poem" (I, p. xix) by adopting some of the Old Norse rhyming rules such as alliteration, assonance, and half-rhyme, using a strong beat and short words, maintaining normal English word order, and retaining as much of the imagery or metaphors (kennings) as possible. The results are always easily readable, often felicitous. I shall offer just one example taken from the first of the two stanzas in which Kormak declared his love for Steingerd. About these Bjarni Einarsson has stated that "no translation can convey an inkling of the sublime beauty of the language" ( To skjaldesagaer p. 42), but in Rory McTurk's translation the stanza sounds as follows (I, p. 181): "The bright light of both / her cheeks burned onto me / from the fire-hall's felled wood; / no cause of mirth for me in that. / By the threshold I gained a glance / at the ankles of this girl / of glorious shape; yet while I live / that longing will never leave me."
The collection is prefaced by a succinct and perceptive essay by Robert Kellogg in which he sketches the international setting for Old Norse literature, provides a brief overview of the various genres, and discusses the difficult problem of the interplay of history and fiction in the sagas of Icelanders by comparing the society described in these narratives with that of the eighteenth-century Europe which produced the realistic novel. In addition to the Glossary, the last volume contains a Note on Poetic Imagery, several maps and diagrams, and a useful index of characters who appear in more than one saga. The vexing problem of rendering Icelandic names and nicknames is handled well. The typography is exceptionally beautiful, and readers accustomed to Icelandic books will be grateful that the ubiquitous glossy paper has been replaced with a matte quality that is easy on the eyes. [...] Readers weaned on Hermann Palsson's translations may find the genealogies burdensome; relegated to footnotes by Hermann, here they have been rightfully reinstated.
Critics have often considered the sagas of Icelanders (or family sagas) as the single range of mountains in the literary landscape that intervenes between the slopes of Greek drama and those of Shakespeare, whereas others regard them as forerunners of the realistic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England and France. Regardless of their position, it is obvious that the Icelandic stories must be counted among the treasures of Western literature. Outside the small nation of Iceland and the even smaller number of Old Norse specialists, access to and appreciation of these narratives have been limited by the availability of translations until now. Bringing together for the first time and in a coordinated fashion the entire corpus in a readable and idiomatic English devoid of archaisms, this handsome set of five volumes is good news for all interested in the Western tradition. It is a pleasure to congratulate the publishing house of Leifur Eiriksson-established for just this purpose-on its achievement. The set belongs in every library in this country, and, it is hoped that a paperback edition will soon bring it within reach of all lovers of literature.
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"Critics have often considered the sagas of Icelanders (or family sagas) as the single range of mountains in the literary landscape that intervenes between the slopes of Greek drama and those of Shakespeare"
"Bringing together for the first time and in a coordinated fashion the entire corpus in a readable and idiomatic English devoid of archaisms, this handsome set of five volumes is good news for all interested in the Western tradition."
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