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THE FAROE ISLANDERS' SAGA and EGILS SAGA* Canadian publishers have quietly gained a reputation in Old Norse circles for issuing lively and elegant translations of Icelandic sagas. The University of Toronto Press began its series in 1963 with George Johnston's The Saga of Gisli and reached new heights last year with Grettir's Saga by Denton Fox and Hermann PaIsson. Two more titles have now appeared. Both are close and accurate renditions of their medieval originals, yet manage to reflect two rather different attitudes towards saga translation. George Johnston's achievement is probably the more distinctive. Much of the saga takes place in the Faroes, a small cluster of steep, windswept islands in the North Atlantic, settled by Norwegian emigrants in the ninth century. Johnston, a poet himself and Professor of English at Carleton University, is sensitive to the kind of prose in which Icelandic narratives were composed. It is a use of language we tend to associate with verse: economy of expression, density of meaning, an alluring, siren rhythm which catches and holds the hearer. Professor Johnston seeks to follow every nuance of his original, copying the word order, phrasing, and sometimes even the sequence of clauses within a sentence. He preserves the abrupt shifting back and forth from past to present that is characteristic of saga style and familiar from other traditions of oral story-telling: With this he tried to pull her to him and he put his arms around her and she pulled his cloak with the straps on it toward her, and at this the door came open and out ran a man with a drawn sword, and this was Heri Sigmundsson, and when Sigurd sees him he wriggles down outof the cloak, and so he got loose, and Thurid was left holding the cloak. Then more men come out and Sigurd runs down across the field. [p 110] The same sense of oral immediacy in reporting a rapid succession of events, a sense of being directly coaxed and manipulated by the story-teller, is not found in the new Egils Saga translation, which 'corrects' according to modern English rules for graded tenses (in the following quotation, verbs which are in the present tense in Old Norse are italicized): Egil had had his ship launched, and the cargo carried on board before he went to the Assembly, and now Egil went to where the merchant-ship was and they went aboard, while the pinnace floated, steering-oar shipped, between the land and the ship, with the oars in their loops. In the morning when it was scarcely light, those who kept watch became aware that great ships were rowing towards them. [p 94] This is accurate and readable, but not especially vivid or quivering with suppressed emotion. Johnston's efforts, in contrast, produce a vigorous, highly individual style which avoids archaisms and Latinisms yet never sounds contemporary . One never gets the comfortable feeling of being back with the morning newspaper: It happened in the evening when it was dark and Thoralf and his men were getting ready *The Faroe Islanders' Saga, trans. George Johnston. Ottawa: Oberon Press 1975. Pp 144. $7·95 cloth, $3·95 paper Egils Saga, trans. Christine Fell. University of Toronto Press 1975. Pp xxxi, 221. $12.50 FAROE ISLANDERS' SAGA and EGILS SAGA 179 for bed that Thora!f went ashore and another man with him. They were looking for a place to shit. [p 86] When the need for clarity and the need to preserve a mood conflict in Professor Johnston's text, it is clarity that goes. Translation, he suggests by his practice, is not to be confused with explanation: better - even in the opening sentence - to risk having your audience wonder where King Harald Finehair ruled and what country is fled than to add 'of Norway,' thereby diluting the reader's sense of being part of the old story and among Icelanders. He never over-interprets: it would be wrong to make a too tidy unity out of a narrative where diversity, accident, and darkness were key elements in its author's vision of reality. Christine Fell of the University of Nottingham has attempted to render the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 178-180
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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