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WRITTEN BY MARY ANN GWINN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
|Finding the Right Words
An award-winning Seattle translator gives voice to writers from other lands
Undset, a Norwegian author, is a national hero in her country. She won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928. She was so loud about her loathing of the Nazis before World War II, the Norwegian government made her flee the country for fear of her being captured or killed.
She gave all her Nobel money to foundations for needy children, and later sold the medal itself to give money to children displaced by the Russian invasion of Finland. Though she was a converted Catholic, the Lutheran Norwegians love her anyway.
But Undset seemed to have last graced the required reading lists of Ballard schoolchildren four, five, even six decades ago. When Nunnally, a Scandinavian language translator, began to read her, she figured out why.
Undset's English translator had managed to turn "Kristin Lavransdatter," Undset's three-volume trilogy about a headstrong, long-suffering medieval Norwegian woman, into something like the literary equivalent of a Monty Python sketch. Except it wasn't funny. A sample:
But elsewhere in the Dale 'twas not the use for the master's womenfolk of the great manors to abide themselves at the sæters. Kristin knew that if she did it, there would be talk and wonderment among the folks.
In God's name, then, they must even talk. Sure it was that they gossiped about her and hers whether or no.
The trilogy is set in the 14th century. Apparently the first translator decided that the way to match the time was to use archaic English language, the more archaic the better.
She has fomented a bit of an Undset revival: Besides the Kristin trilogy, Steerforth Press has just issued "The Unknown Kristin Undset" ($30), a collection of Undset's novella "Jenny," translated by Nunnally, and other Undset works.
Nunnally's accomplishments are a window into the fine art of translation, and how crucial this highly specialized headwork is to bringing non-English-speaking authors to the attention of a world population increasingly dominated by English, and English-language literature.
Nunnally, 49, is fond of saying that she was "born to translate." Her mother is Finnish her parents met in a Quaker work camp, rebuilding Finnish villages destroyed during World War II. She grew up in a bilingual household. (Though her expertise is Scandinavian languages, Finnish does not belong to that linguistic family it's more like Hungarian than anything else.)
At age 17 Nunnally went to Denmark as an exchange student. She didn't hear anyone speak English for a year. That total immersion transformed her, making her "realize that language is very important to identity. It makes your mind more flexible about how people see the world, about how people express themselves."
She studied English at Western Washington University and went on to graduate work in Scandinavian literature. She seemed headed for an academic career, but got sidetracked into a job with Scandinavian Airlines in Seattle, another total language experience as she helped Danish, Norwegian and Swedish passengers find their way.
Nunnally and her husband, Steve Murray (also a Scandinavian-language translator) got into translation out of a passion for the language and literature of their adopted linguistic "home."
Nunnally's first translation came out of her desire to give her friends a chance at a memoir by Tove Ditlevsen, a Danish author who had grown up in working-class Copenhagen. Despite great obstacles, she became a beloved poet. One evening Nunnally told Barbara Wilson, a founder of Seattle's Seal Press, about the book, "Early Spring." Seal Press agreed to publish the translation in 1985. It won a translation prize from the American Scandinavian Foundation.
The book and the prize were Nunnally's "in" to a rarified world, where a very select group of editors and writers make people's reputations by word of mouth. She began picking up more work. She and Murray founded Fjord Press (www.fjordpress.com), which publishes Scandinavian-language works, as well as four novels, including three mysteries ("Fate of Ravens" is the latest) written by Nunnally herself.
After she and Murray translated a young-adult book called "The Abduction" from the Norwegian for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the editor of that book called Nunnally and asked if she wanted to take on a mystery by a Danish writer named Peter Høeg.
"Smilla's Sense of Snow" is about a young Greenland Inuit boy who is murdered and the hard-headed Inuit-Danish woman (Smilla, a "snow expert") who goes after his killer. The story is an irresistible blend of mystery, geography, characterization and science. Nunnally took it on, and it turned out to be a demanding job, full of arcane science and geographical details.
The work paid off. "Smilla" became an international best seller, and won the Lewis Galantière translation prize from the American Translators Association. Høeg's reaction, however, was anything but grateful. He had major problems with the translation, and said so.
Nunnally blames Høeg's unfamiliarity with English, and his nervousness over the stakes involved. "He went from a market of 5 million people to the rest of the world," she said, adding: "It did make his name."
It did not make her any major money. She was paid by the word, and received no royalties from the book, which has sold millions of copies. "It taught me a big lesson about contracts," she says. "I don't sign those kinds of contracts any more."
Nunnally moved on. One day she discussed her distress over Sigrid Undset with Murray. "I said, this is terrible that one of the few women to win the Nobel Prize is so badly represented."
"Have you ever read them in Norwegian?" he asked.
Nunnally did, and found a different voice altogether, one infused with knowledge about the life of early Norway and the human condition. "She was writing in a 1920s Norwegian beautiful, straightforward language," Nunnally says.
SIGRID UNDSET was a strange combination of duty and rebellion, passion and repression. In short, full of the contradictions that make for a great writer.
She was born in Denmark in 1882 to a mother from a distinguished Danish family and a Norwegian father, an influential archeologist. The family soon moved to Norway, where little Sigrid got a world-class education, mostly from her father: "She was allowed to handle and examine ancient swords, jewelry and other relics belonging to the museum where he worked," Nunnally wrote in the introduction to the first "Kristin Lavransdatter" book, "The Wreath." Young Sigrid read and reread the great Icelandic sagas, the old tales of the capricious Norwegian gods, and the human heroes and villains who did battle with them.
Her father died at age 40, and the family became impoverished. She went to work for an electrical company to help support them. But, unsettlingly, she found she had "an artist's temperament." She began to write, usually from midnight to three in the morning.
Eventually her works began to be published, and the Norwegian government helped pay for a trip to Italy. There she met an artist, a married man with three children, fell in love with and married him. She tried to be a mother to his three children and three of their own, one of whom was severely disabled. The marriage was annulled after Undset converted to Catholicism.
In this year's New York Times review of "The Unknown Sigrid Undset," literary critic Bruce Bawer tried to explain the contradictions in Undset's personality. Throughout her life, she managed to exasperate people with an ideological bent initially a feminist, she was later kicked out of the camp for her view that there were innate differences between men and women, and that motherhood may be the highest and best use of a woman's life.
Bawer wrote that "one suspects Undset had simply seen so much of reality, so early, that any hint of idealism enraged her." When Undset was forced to flee the Nazis, she left Norway just as her oldest son was killed at the front. She spent five years in exile, returning to her country to live in reduced circumstances before dying in 1949.
She was a tough nut, and her heroine Kristin was much the same driven by passions, eaten up by repentance. She "makes a lot of bad decisions and ends up paying for her mistakes," Nunnally says.
"What I really love about those books is that they're very modern. She knows people. How they act, how they relate to one another."
Nunnally began a new translation of "Kristin Lavransdatter" basically on spec, and when Penguin Twentieth Century classics came calling, she was ready with a sample. Here's her version of the same passage cited earlier:
But elsewhere it wasn't customary for the women of the gentry on the large estates to go up to the pastures. Kristin knew that if she did so, people would be surprised and would gossip about it.
In God's name, then, let them talk. No doubt they were already talking about her and her family.
NUNNALLY AND Murray live modestly in a West Seattle rental home crammed with Scandinavian reference works, language books and folk art. A little group of moomentrolls, the Finnish folk characters that look like serene variations of the Pillsbury Doughboy, sit on a shelf by her computer and watch her work. A photo of a raven, the bird that battled the god Thor for the gift of knowledge and memory, looms over their mantel. Nunnally, a petite, blonde, bright-eyed woman, has a penchant for the jewelry of the gods, favoring necklaces that portray Thor.
Like most literary folks, the couple dream of hitting the best-seller list Nunnally works part time as an office manager for an architectural firm, employment that gives them both medical coverage. Her latest candidate for best-sellerdom is her translation of "The Royal Physician's Visit" by Swedish author Per Olov Enquist, which will be published this fall by Overlook.
It's about a German doctor who took over the court of mad Danish King Christian. The doctor takes the queen as his mistress, puts major reforms in motion, makes a ton of enemies and pays dearly for his trouble. "Sex and politics," says Nunnally, smiling. "It's very hot." Murray is particularly fond of his translations of Swedish author Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander mysteries. They are hugely popular in Europe, but have yet to catch on here.
Translation is intensely involving work, and Nunnally can do it for only about four hours a day before her mind shorts out. "You may have to spend hours looking through old encyclopedias and lexicons to find the proper terms for certain types of architecture or furniture or culture," she told a class of would-be translators. She uses the Internet extensively for research into rare plants or other unusual terms.
She and Murray both say that a good translator has to be an expert both in the culture of the author's language, and in their own. "The translator's role is to be the author's advocate and voice in English," she told the class. "Whether the tone of the original is humorous, melancholy or sarcastic, you need to match this tone in English." Humor, she says, is the hardest thing to translate it's so dependent on cultural nuance.
Finally, she says, a good translator is like a musician who has to interpret the work of a composer. "You may get some of the notes wrong, but it's the overall piece of music that counts."
Mary Ann Gwinn is book editor of The Seattle Times. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine photographer.
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