Tag Archives: novels 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.



Novels that educators should read – lecture and discussion

Richard Trama is Assistant Director of Academic Advising at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. His talk was entitled “Fiction – the Fabric of Our Lives: Twelve Novels that All Educators Should Read”.

For some reason, I walked in with the conviction that if he missed Z N Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God I wouldn’t listen to a word he said. Whew! It is on the list. 

There were two more books on the list that I have read – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (M Spark) and The Line of Beauty (A Hollinghurst). One hit and one miss. I liked Miss Jean Brodie and suspect, after hearing it discussed, that it is worth a second read. I read The Line of Beauty when it was nominated as a Freshman Year “common reading”. I didn’t like it, and couldn’t imagine what students would get from it.

Why does Trama think “educators” should read these books? He was especially speaking to college teachers who serve as “preceptors”. He sees these books as embodying the development of “voice”, as narratives of the journey of growth, and he suggests (stunningly, to me) the a preceptor should “read” a student like a text. One function of education is to help the student find her/his voice and express her/his personal narrative. Reading good literature helps.

What’s a “preceptor”? The intent is to do more than just “advise” the student on how to get through college and maybe get a job. A preceptor fills some functions of a mentor, with an interest in personal growth as well as academic success.

Without re-typing the whole list, a few comments…

Two of the books on the list (Billiards at Half-Past Nine by H Boell and The Assault by H Mulisch) were translated from German and Dutch, respectively. Surely a College that focuses on Global Awareness should encourage students to read works that are translated, and to think about the impact translation may have had on the narrative. (Wouldn’t it be great if students studied languages deeply enough to undertake some translation?) 

This led me to ponder how much (or little) I read in translation. Since I started this blog (ten months ago), I’ve read two short novels by C Aira translated from Spanish. In the past, I read the works of Jorge Amado and G G Marquez. That’s it! I’ve only read works translated from Spanish, which I never studied. (Maybe I will think of something else… I know I’ve read a few books from China.) Should I look for translated works? From the languages I’ve studied, or others? Does “authenticity” translate?

Trama cheated a little with his list. He included three works by Margaret Atwood and two each by Walker Percy and Hilary Mantel. The Handmaid’s Tale scared me so much I never read anything else by Atwood. Maybe now I could handle it. The Robber Bride sounds interesting and was described as humorous. 

Trama said if you want to read a distinctive female voice, try Hilary Mantel, so I put her Wolf Hall trilogy onto my personal list. Can’t get too much historical fiction. 

My teaching and preceptoring days are past, but I spend enough time with teens and young adults to feel that books like these are well worth my while (and I’m always looking for a good read). Thank you, Richard Trama!