Loosed in Translation discussion

Halldór Laxness
This topic is about Halldór Laxness
109 views
Which Translation is Best? > Halldór Laxness

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Abi (last edited Aug 03, 2010 01:59AM) (new)

Abi | 6 comments Laxness has had three translators into English (as far as I know).

J.A. Thompson, who did the superlative Independent People.

Magnus Magnusson, who did The Fish Can Sing, World Light, Under the Glacier, The Atom Station and Paradise Reclaimed.

Philip Roughton, who did Iceland's Bell and The Great Weaver from Kashmir.

For my money, J.A. Thompson is the best. Magnusson is solid and, from what I can tell, matches the sentence structure and so forth of the original very well. Sometimes I find him a little confusing, especially in the dialogue, and I'm not sure whether the original Laxness was supposed to be so surreal, and he tends to use quite basic vocabulary most of the time. Thompson's vocabulary is so rich, and the style and dialogue feels so natural to me. I think he was more liberal, but I can't help wondering whether World Light and The Fish Can Sing would have been even better if Thompson had tackled them. Unfortunately, he found Independent People such a time-consuming project that it is the only book he ever translated. Which is such a shame, because he produced some of the most gorgeous English prose I have ever read. I like to believe that he was channelling the true spirit of Laxness - Magnusson I always sense is a little more pedantic and less talented as an actual writer.
Not that World Light, etc, aren't fantastic novels. They just don't quite reach the heights of Independent People, in my opinion, and I think that might be partially to do with the translation.

Edit: Just checked Laxness' page (which I actually did most of the editing on - apparently I have a poor memory) and there are three more translators of Laxness into English - F.H. Lyon (Salka Valka), Katherine John (The Happy Warriors) and Alan Boucher (Quire of Seven). I haven't read any of these, though, since they are no longer in print.


message 2: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy (jimmylorunning) | 140 comments Mod
This is very useful info. Thanks to you both.


message 3: by Abi (new)

Abi | 6 comments I love The Fish Can Sing with all my heart, but for me Independent People is the perfect book. It's just exactly my cup of tea.
Do you not think sometimes the dialogue in Magnusson's translations is a little bit odd? I can't ever feel as close to those characters as I do to those in Independent People. It seems more self-consciously literary somehow - a lot of the time I can't imagine somebody saying the things that they do, whereas I believe every single character in Independent People. It's still beautiful, of course, and about a thousand times better than most other books, but I'm definitely more aware that I'm reading fiction; it's more like a poem perhaps, even though the language is often plainer. Maybe Laxness just got steadily odder as his career progressed - it's true some of the conversations in The Atom Station or Under the Glacier, for example, are completely bizarre in a way that can't have anything to do with the translation.


message 4: by Abi (last edited Aug 05, 2010 06:51AM) (new)

Abi | 6 comments Well, I wouldn't call it a saga, although the sagas are very important in the book, since that word means something quite specific in Icelandic literature. (In English that is, the Icelandic word saga is much broader.)

You're right - The Fish Can Sing certainly is surreal. A lot of Laxness is like being in a dream, a bit confusing in a way, but lovely to let yourself float around in. I notice that female characters are often particularly unfathomable. I think maybe a lot of that in Fish comes from the fact that its narrated by Álfgrímur, a naïve child who doesn't exactly understand everything that's going on around him. The same is true actually of World Light, with the childlike Ólafur as the main character, and Under the Glacier, narrated by the permanently bemused Embi, and The Atom Station, with the innocent Ugla from the North.

Independent People is a bit different as a Laxness novel in that the narrator is more omniscient, and the reader is not allowed nearly so much into the characters' minds. I think, though, Laxness was very interested in that sort of innocence, almost naïvity, of children or childlike characters - in IP we can see it in the character of Nonni (my absolute favourite character). To me, The Fish Can Sing is like a novel about Nonni, if he had lived as an orphan in Brekkukot rather than in Summerhouses. There are so many similarities between Nonni and Álfgrímur, don't you think?

I think there is still a lot of magical realism in IP, though, and the language is incredibly poetic. For me, the whole novel is one long poem, with the perfection of the character arcs of Bjartur and Ásta Sóllílja - it's not realistic in that sense. Maybe I shouldn't have used the word poem, because of course poetry can still feel real. Dream is better, everything's sort of out of focus in a lot of Laxness' writing. I prefer IP because, although the language and the plot are absolutely dripping with poetry, the gorgeous imaginative and surreal elements (like the ghost in the barn, or Nonni's dreams, or Ásta Sóllílja's longings) are described in such a way that I feel that these are real people, not mythological creatures as many Laxness characters are. It just cuts closer, if you know what I mean; the dreamlike atmosphere keeps the emotion less distinct for me, so that I cried at the beauty of The Fish Can Sing, but I cried for the characters of IP because I felt that I knew them, and I sympathised with them, although sympathy is not nearly a strong enough word. Álfgrímur does not mean as much to me as Nonni, because I don't understand him so well.
World Light is like a mix between the two - it's sort of a struggle between Ólafur's world of poetry and the harsh reality that he finds himself in. He's a lot like Nonni as well (or that sort of character in Laxness, the innocent poet). Under the Glacier is a good number more steps in the Fish Can Sing direction. It's super odd.

It's such fun to discuss Laxness! Nobody I know has read him.


message 5: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy (jimmylorunning) | 140 comments Mod
I just bought two Laxness novels while I was on vacation last week... The Fish Can Sing and Under the Glacier. Which should I read first?

The local bookstore has Independent People. I should pick it up, but I wanna read one of these first, so I don't end up with 15 Laxness books and then figure out (too late) he's not for me.


message 6: by Abi (new)

Abi | 6 comments Jimmy wrote: "I just bought two Laxness novels while I was on vacation last week... The Fish Can Sing and Under the Glacier. Which should I read first?

The local bookstore has Independent People. I should pic..."


The Fish Can Sing, I would say. Under the Glacier is super weird and could be off-putting if you're not in the right mood for some extreme magical realism. The Fish Can Sing, meanwhile, is a thoroughly charming novel about childhood, growing up and innocence/experience.


back to top