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Penguins on Parade: Sigrid Undset!

By (May 30, 2013) No Comment

penguin-colophonSome Penguin Classics get the royal treatment – whether they deserve it or not. By ‘royal treatment’ I of course mean not only induction into the Classics line itself, honor enough though it is for one lifetime, but the bestowal of one of Penguin’s gorgeous “Deluxe” volumes, extra-sized, deckle-edged, supremely aesthetic re-packagings that not every Tom, Dick, and Diderot gets.

penguin kriistinThe Deluxe Classic in question today is the one Penguin published in 2005 of Sigrid Undset’s famous historical fiction trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, with a new translation by Tiina Nunnally and an Introduction by Brad Leithauser. The translation is meant to replace the much earlier one done as a hobby by the indefatigable Charles Archer in the 1920s because, as Nunnally somewhat astringently points out in her Translator’s Preface, “Accuracy and faithfulness to the original tone and style are both expected and required” in modern translations. So when old Lavrans takes his young daughter on a pleasant ride upland, Nunnally gives us this:

High up on the grassy slope they came to a small hut. They stopped near the split-rail fence. Lavrans shouted and his voice echoed again and again among the cliffs. Two men came running down from the small patch of pasture. They were the sons of the house. They were skillful tar-burners, and Lavrans wanted to hire them to do some tar distilling for him. Their mother followed with a large basin of cold cellar milk, for it was a hot day, as the men had expected it would be.

“I see you have your daughter with you,” she said after she had greeted them. “I thought I’d have a look at her You must take off her cap. They say she has such fair hair.”

Whereas Archer gives us this:

High up the mountain-side they came to a little croft. They stopped by the stick fence; Lavrans shouted, and his voice came back again and again from the mountains round. Two men came running down, between the small tilled patches. These were both sons of the house; they were good men at the tar-burning, and Lavrans was for hiring them to burn some tar for him. Their mother came after them with a great bowl of cooled milk, for the day was now grown hot, as the men had foretold.

“I saw you had your daughter with you,” she said when she had greeted them. “and methought I must needs have a sight of her. But you must take the cap from her head; they say she hath such bonny hair.”

Setting aside textual considerations (Archer omitted some passages, all of which Nunnally implies are crucial to the trilogy), I don’t have much hesitation as to lucy reads undsetwhich I prefer, and even gentle Leithauser can’t be completely condemnatory:

Nunnally unquestionably brings us closer to the heart of the book than Archer did. While I have a lingering fondness for the Archer translation – he was the museum guide who first led me to the tapestry – on the grounds of lucidity and authenticity the nod must go to Nunnally, who has surely done as much as anyone in recent years to bring Nordic literature to this country.

“It’s the fate of most long books never to be revisited,” Leithauser writes, and he’s sadly correct. Deluxe format or no Deluxe format, it’s permissible to wonder just how many new Undset fans Nunnally’s artlessly accurate translation (one short, bald declarative sentence after another, like rocks pelting a wall) created. Certainly Archer’s version – florid ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s notwithstanding – created quite a few. Who knows? Maybe one day that translation will get a Penguin Classic of its own, far from the power-washed asphalt of expected and required. It would have lots of fairly distinguished company. George Chapman could make the welcoming toast.