Tag Archives: in translation

“Gunnloethe’s Tale” by Svava Jakobsdottir

This Icelandic novel was written in 1987 and translated into English in 2011. I’m glad I read the Translators Afterword FIRST. (Come to think of it, I would always advise reading the translator’s notes before starting a book, if you know the work was written in another tongue.)

Translation aside, this is already a twice told tale, being a classic (authorless) myth that was “codified” in writing in a thirteenth century treatise. Svava Jakobsdottir brings the story to modern Iceland, for a third expression of the ancient story line.

A young Icelandic woman steals an old and very beautiful chalice from a Danish museum. Nothing about the crime makes sense. How did she lay hands on it? What motivated her? The explanation she offers is so bizarre that an insanity plea is considered. Her mother, traveling to Denmark, loses her “ultra modern professional woman” identity and falls in to the company of strangers. Mother and daughter begin to relive events from the Icelandic saga of Gunnloethe, with its themes of gifting and betrayal.

There are two voices in the story, the modern voice of the mother and a older “mythic” narration on behalf of the daughter. I liked the modern voice, which was vigorous and straightforward. The “mythic” voice seemed stilted.

The author used an interesting plot device to “date stamp” her book. The mother, in Copenhagen, suddenly finds herself in an unruly crowd. Later she learns about the explosion at Chernobyl (in Ukraine, Soviet Union) that released radioactivity across Scandinavia. Protests and disorder ensued. The plot of the book NOT really being impacted, I believe the author included this unmistakable historic event so that future readers will know, without question, that the book was written after 1986. The Chernobyl disaster was a modern glance into the open gates of Hell, the underworld that figures so prominently in Scandinavian mythology.

Sagas are a great source of literary inspiration. This one is well worth your time. Serious/academic readers should seek scholarly interpretation – I’m not well qualified to comment on this book.

PS: Later comment! Prowling on the page after the title page of Gunnloethe’s Tale, I found the following statement: “The translator’s moral right to be identified as the translator of the work has been asserted.” I’ve never seen this before. But I accept it, and have added the name of Oliver Watts to the tags on this post, hoping to increase the chance he will be found by those who might seek him. I can’t FIND Oliver Watts. There’s only one such person in Wikipedia (the first place I looked) and plainly it’s the wrong man. I occasionally contact authors and others, especially when I feel their work suffers from lack of well deserved exposure. I’ve got two more leads – Norvik Press and The Icelandic Literature Fund.

And, by the way, I couldn’t figure out how to get an unlaut (the double dot) over the “o” in Gunnloethe, so I settled for jamming in the extra “e”. Sorry if this complicates anyone’s search process.

 

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“The Power of Light – Eight Stories for Hanukkah” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

I thought I might have a chance to read a story aloud at a holiday party, so I browsed my shelves and found The Power of Light, which was published as a children’s book. I picked out two stories. One (“The Parakeet Named Dreidel”) was relatively contemporary, placed in Brooklyn around 1960. The other (“Hershele and Hanukkah”) took place much earlier, in Poland or Russia.

Hanukkah is a time for stories about miracles. There’s no “miracle” in “The Parakeet Named Dreidel”, only what most of us would regard as happy coincidence. “Hershele and Hanukkah” has a different feel. A village woman longs for a child, and is told by a poor, wandering holy man that her child will be conceived after an animal (unspecified) enters her house. She is directed to name her child after the animal. During Hanukkah, a tiny fawn appears at her door, freezing cold and hungry. The family cares for it until spring, and later a healthy boy is born and named Hershele, the Yiddish word for “fawn”. The deer revisits the family year after year, but the wandering beggar is never seen again. The narrator identifies the wanderer as the prophet Elijah, who usually shows himself in the guise of a poor man.

I’ve read enough of Singer to know that not all his stories are warm and fuzzy, but this collection is a delight and I recommend it to all, especially those who have the opportunity to read to children.

Happy Holidays to all!