10 February 2018

Back to the Classics 2018: A Classic in Translation

Kristin Lavransdatter, part 1 The Wreath
Sigrid Undset
Penguin, 1997 translation by Tiina Nunnally
Norwegian original "Kransen", 1920
297 pages

If you hated "Kristin Lavransdatter" when forced to read it in school, put off by all that archaic English, there is Good News! This stalwart classic has been reborn in easily readable English, translated by Tiina Nunnally, an award-winning translator from Seattle, Washington.

In an interview in the Seattle Times, Nunnally says of Undset "She was writing in a 1920s Norwegian — beautiful, straightforward language." And thus this translation is in beautiful, straightforward modern English.



Kristin Lavransdatter is a young girl in Norway in the early 1300s. The publisher's blurb on the back cover sums up the plot nicely:

"...The Wreath chronicles the courtship of a headstrong and passionate young woman and a dangerously charming and impetuous man. Undset re-creates the historical backdrop in vivid detail, immersing readers in the day-to-day life, social conventions, and political undercurrents of the period".

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found the story engaging enough that I plan on reading the other books in the trilogy, "The Wife" and "The Cross". The story of Kristin Lavransdatter and Erlend Nikulauss√łn is timeless and I can imagine it being set in many times and places, much as the play "Romeo and Juliet" is sometimes set in other eras. Sure, their beliefs, laws, and wedding customs might be different from those in the modern western world, but the human tale is enduring. Sometimes young people do make bad life choices, but how they deal with the consequences speaks to their character.

I also liked learning about life in the Middle Ages in rural Norway. Nothing is made to seem quaint or archaic; there is no condescension from a modern point of view. All is perfectly reasonable within the customs of the time. Undset must have been an observant nature lover, for her descriptions of the Norwegian countryside are quite vivid and detailed.

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1928 was awarded to Undset "principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages", according to the Nobel Prize's web page.
"Sigrid Undset - Facts"

The publisher of this translation, Penguin, has a short reader's guide for the trilogy online:
Kristin Lavransdatter Reader’s Guide

For anyone interested in the process of literature translation, the above-mentioned Seattle Times article about Nunnally is quite interesting. The interview is by Mary Ann Gwinn, who is featured in the Bookmarks segment of PBS's “Well Read: A Series for the Serious Reader” and is herself a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.
Finding the Right Words
An award-winning Seattle translator gives voice to writers from other lands

All in all, a satisfying read for me, one which I'd recommend!

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