About Translations

Currently I am working on a young adult novel based on an intriguing character and events set in 999 AD, Vikng era Iceland, Greenland and Vinland. It is based on two of the Icelandic sagas: The Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga. I had been using an anthology given to me by my son Eric and his wife Inga, who live in Iceland, but a friend recommended the versions translated by William Morris in the 1800s. Since I don’t speak Icelandic, I must rely on translations and have learned during research that they can be quite different. The following are excerpts from  Eirik the Red’s Saga.

The tone of William Morris’s writing is appropriately heroic, reflecting a past era where the characters are larger than life, where magic, super human strength and superstitions are part of the fabric, and so is a joy to read. The anthology relies on clarity.

The anthology I have been using is:

The Sagas of  Icelanders: A selection, Preface by Jane Smiley, Introduction by Robert Kellogg, Viking, NY, copyright 2007. Editor: Ornolfur Thorsson. It lists an editorial advisory board of a dozen people from Stanford University, University of Iceland (where my son Eric got his undergraduate and graduate degrees!) Reykjavik Academy, Nordregio/Stockholm, University of Leeds and University of Newcastle.

The William Morris e-book:

Sagas of Erik the Red, Frithiof and Gunnalaug, Edited by J. Sephthon, translated by Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris. March 4, 2009 Kindle E-book edition. Originally compliled in the late 1800s.

Some examples of two versions of the same passage. The square brackets indicate my insertions.

Wm. Morris:

Then he sailed oceanwards under Snoefellsjokull (snow mountain glacier), and arrived at the glacier called Blaserkr (Blue-shirt), thence he journeyed south to see if there were any inhabitants of the country.

The Sagas:

Eirik sailed seaward from Snaefellsnes [a peninsula] and approached land  under the glacier called Hvitserk (White Shift). From there he sailed southwards, seeking suitable land for settlements.

Wm. Morris:

The second daughter of Einar was named Hallveig. Thorbjorn Vifilsson took her to wife, and received with her the land of Laugarbrekka, at Hellvollr (the cave-hill).

The Sagas:

Einar had another daughter named Hallveig. She was married to Thorbjorn Vifilsson and was given land at Laugrabrekka, at Hellisvellir.

Wm. Morris:

…and his wares were earned into a certain outhouse.

The Sagas:

Einar’s goods were placed in a shed.

There is also a significant passage that does not appear in the William Morris version at all. In The Sagas version it is said that when Leif Eiriksson sailed for Norway, his ship was blown off course and ended up in the Hebrides where he fell in love with a woman named Thorgunna, who became pregnant with his child. She wanted to go with him, but he would not take her because she was of high rank and he did not have enough men to fight off her relatives who would certainly chase him to retrieve her. He gave her a gold ring, an ivory belt and a Greenland cape, then left. She told him that she would send the child to him when he was older and she would follow. The child’s name was Thorgils and he did go to Greenland. In the Wm. Morris version that passage is reduced to “…” Ah, the power of an ellipsis to sweep something under the rug!

Another example of the influence of the Victorian era is this: Wm. Morris says in one passage that Freydis isn’t feeling well, while The Sagas version says that she is with child.

I have learned some interesting things by comparing these two stories, so I am grateful to Lance Hidy for suggesting the William Morris versions. I hope that some time I will find a used set of the original versions of his books that is affordable because the tone he writes with is appropriately heroic and the design of those volumes will be something special to own

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