Tomorrow we begin our journey into Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter!Over the past few days, I’ve been reading Brad Leithauser’s Introduction in an attempt to acquaint myself with the book, and now my head is full of thoughts before I’ve even begun Part I: The Wreath.
First, a note on translations. Tiina Nunnally writes that in Norwegian,
Sigrid Undset writes in a straightforward, almost plain style, yet she can be quite lyrical, especially in her descriptions of nature. The beauty of the mountainous Norwegian landscape is lovingly revealed in Undset’s lucid prose.
She also comments on the Charles Archer translation, rather ungracefully, in my opinion. What a testament it is to the power of Undset’s novel, says Nunnally, that in spite of “a severely flawed early translation”, Kristin Lavransdatter has been so beloved by generations of readers. I disagree – not ‘in spite of’, but mostly ‘because’. Translating might seem an unglamorous job, but really, aren’t translators artists too? I don’t think it would be possible to translate a novel – no matter how linguistically talented you are – if you didn’t have some sort of passion, or vision. I don’t care what Nunnally says; I think Charles Archer’s vision and dedication had something to do with Kristin Lavransdatter’s ascension to ‘cult classic’ status. After all, no matter how archaic or inaccurate it is, no matter how many scenes deemed ‘socially inappropriate’ were omitted, Archer was still the one who made Undset’s work accessible to English readers. That’s a powerful gift, and one that should be appreciated.
Of course I’m grateful for the Nunnally translation, and I don’t think it’s right for translators to be too interpretive with the books they’re handling, but it was the 1920s. There were far larger ethical issues to be dealt with than inaccurate translations back in those days. Basic concepts of human rights and international law, which we so take for granted, had yet to be properly defined, for heaven’s sake.
As for the Introduction, if you’ve got the Penguin Classics Deluxe edition, or if – like me – you are unfamiliar with Sigrid Unset’s work, then I’d encourage you to read it! It includes a brief biography, lays a contextual foundation for the reading of the novel (i.e. the historical, cultural background in which Undset wrote) and ends on a nice personal note. I feel, time and time again, that reading is such a subjective thing – and one of the things I’m looking forward to most about this readalong is that I’ll be able to compare thoughts with other readers; it’s an opportunity for me to not only enrich my understanding of Kristin Lavransdatter, but also to see books from perspectives other than my own.
p.s. how mesmerizing are Undset’s eyes?