Kristin Lavransdatter: Prelude

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?


19 thoughts on “Kristin Lavransdatter: Prelude

  1. I agree with what you said about Archer’s translation. It’s much like how I feel with Moncrieff on Proust. Critics are quick to judge them now but we should actually give them a lot of the credit.

    I’m also very excited to begin!! Have been staring at my copies all day ha ha. I especially love the painting in the Part 1 cover of the black Penguin. I’ve yet to read the introduction. (Still finishing up on 2666.)

    Love Undset’s pic. I imagine Kristin L must look a little bit like her. :)

    1. Ooh, if ever I get around to reading Proust, I’ll definitely read the Moncrieff. His translation sounds wonderful, from what I’ve read on your blog.
      Hahah, same! I’ve been staring at my copy, which is sitting on my desk right now. And sort of glancing at it, picking it up, just flicking pointlessly through it, then putting back down. Even seriously contemplated carrying it with me to uni, but alas, it’s much too heavy. Please don’t say ‘I told you so’, though, because I really do love the Deluxe edition ;)

      1. The Deluxe edition indeed looks gorgeous! I just hated my Tale of Genji so much for its weight though. I was supposed to join Matt for his read-along but didn’t get to. I’ll have to try one day, though, as I don’t want my copy to end up being an actual doorstop haha.

  2. Normally I don’t read intros to books I’ve never read before because so often there are spoilers lurking within them! But perhaps in this case it is more an instance of setting the scene for modern readers so they can be in the right frame of mind while reading?

    I have to admit, I keep having moments where I am so strongly tempted to join in with the read-along… but then I remember how long the book is and how many other books I have that are languishing and think that maybe this is one I would be best saving for later. But I am so looking forward to everyone’s thoughts and impressions!

    1. Hmm, I don’t think I mind spoilers, as long as they are well-explained spoilers! And yes, Penguin does an excellent job setting the scene for modern readers. After I read their intros, books that had felt so far away/inaccessible are somewhat humanized. That’s probably the wrong word to use, but hopefully you get what I mean.

  3. I’m with Steph in being strongly tempted to join this read-along, but I know I don’t really have time this fall. That said, I’m excited that you are getting some “fun” reading in!

    1. Rebecca, it’s so funny to hear you saying that it’s fall b/c Australia’s just gone through winter, and I’ve been looking forward to summer for so long! For a moment there, I was like ‘oh no, autumn, grrr’ then I remembered it’s actually spring..

      Heheh, I’ll definitely get a whole lot more of ‘fun’ books in my life once semester ends!!! Only about a month to go until the summer holidays :)

      1. duh! I knew that you’re in Australia! Two years ago that was me too! How could I say something so silly. I’m so glad you have summer holidays in the near future! I’m very cold already.

        1. Well, at least you get the full blast of things – golden-red leaves, then snow (maybe snow? Does it snow where you live?). We just get retardedly fluctuating weather (e.g. yesterday it was 18, today it was 31 deg. celsius) and nothing to mark the seasons at all! Not that I’m complaining; can’t say no to bright & clear blue skies :)

          1. Do we get snow?!?! It comes in November and doesn’t melt until March. It stay below freezing for five months. Literally below freezing. Many days below 0 deg. farenheit.

            I LOVED Melbourne weather. Didn’t miss the seasons. It was absolutely perfect. Sigh. Would be nice to be going in to summer. (although we did visit Victorian High Country which was chilly enough for me.)

  4. I don’t know If I said it already but …Great site…keep up the good work. :) I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, :)

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  5. how mesmerizing are Undset’s eyes?

    Totally mesmerizing. I’d only seen the photo on her Wikipedia page, which is decidedly less flattering!

    As for translators, I’m of two minds. I definitely agree with honoring and respecting their work, and I agree that they’re artists…but it REALLY rubs me the wrong way that a translator would actually expurgate passages on moral grounds. I’m not down with censorship, regardless of the censor. I mean, the 20s weren’t so long ago, literature-wise. Lady Chatterley’s Lover came out in 1928, after all as did The Well of Loneliness. Proust’s Sodome et Gomorrhe was published in 1921-22, at exactly the same time Kristin came out in Norwegian (and I’m willing to bet that Undset has WAY less homosexual sex and S/M than this novel). So, I don’t know. It’s not like there was no literary precedent for pushing the envelope. I have to admit I get kind of pissed at Archer whenever I think about it. Luckily, at this point he’s probably not too bothered by my criticism. :-)

    1. LOL @ the wikipedia photo!

      Well, I’m not defending Archer on moral grounds. Actually just re-reading my post now, it sounds like I’m saying leaving chunks out, etc is okay, but really that makes me angry too! I’m just equally irked at how casually Nunnally disregarded Archer & his work. Tiina, give the guy some respect, you know?

  6. I have now read The Bridal Wreath in both translations, and to say that Archer made the book accessible is true only in the sense that it is not in Norwegian … completely.

    I definitely agree with you it is not modernist.

    The Introduction in the Nunnelly translation is full of spoilers. I think that is unconscionable.

    1. Ah well, I still think that making it accessible in something other than Norwegian is good thing! At least the guy tried? I don’t know why I’m defending him so much; I don’t normally have this much patience for crap translators. I guess it says a lot, though, that I won’t ever be reading Archer. Hahaha!

      Hmmm, yes spoilers, but I don’t mind spoilers! I love reading Introductions – particularly Penguin ones – because they give me a lot to think about as I read :)

  7. “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.”

    I’m a little troubled by that statement. Just because there are larger ethical issues at hand doesn’t mean we neglect the smaller ones. There are huge issues still unresolved today. Does that mean we shouldn’t be criticizing, say, the blatant anti-feminism of the wildly popular Twilight series? Or going after the fashion industry for promoting poor self-esteem and unrealistic beauty ideals?

    I did like your analysis of Modernist v. Not. I love the Modernist era and was looking forward to discovering another one of its masterpieces, but ended up disappointed in that regard. It just felt like typical historical fiction to me.

    1. Extremely late reply, but I only saw this post now!
      Yes, you’re right about my grand, sweeping statement about the post-War era – it was a pretty stupid thing to say; of course the majority of people continued to deal with the ‘smaller issues’ and get on with their lives in the midst of all the chaos (which we probably only see in hindsight).

      I do maintain my point that translations seem to oscillate between two alarming extremes – interpretive ones with a great deal of poetic license, and ones that are literal almost to the point of being unreadable (Pevear and Volkhonsky would be a good example of that, I think). Morally speaking, I’m not sure where I stand in terms of these things, because one of my favourite translators of Russian literature is Constance Garrett, and she’s definitely not known for being completely faithful to the original works in terms of style and diction, and those sorts of nit-picky things which are important in translation.

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