Kristin Lavransdatter Readalong Introduction

I signed up for the Kristin Lavransdatter Readalong, sponsored by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos and Emily from Evening All Afternoon.


Here is Emily’s write-up on the readalong:

Starting in October and continuing through December, we’ll be tackling the three volumes of Sigrid Undset’s classic Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, one volume per month. … Set in medieval Norway, its three volumes track young Kristin from early childhood through marriage and into old age. In the process, Undset portrays a Scandinavia in the process of transition from old belief systems to Christianity, and populates it (so I hear) with a host of interesting, complex characters. The books are often called “modernist” (they were originally published in 1920-1922) which fascinates me because I’ve never read modernist or experimental fiction set so far in the past. Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, and Kristin is her best-known work, so I’m looking forward to giving it a try.

We’ll be reading the Tina Nunnally translation, which won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month-Club Translation Prize in 2001 and apparently restored a number of the more experimental passages, which had been excised from the original English translation. It’s available from Penguin in both omnibus and three individual editions.

…People will all post their reviews of each section around the end of the month, and we can compare notes. The casual schedule is as follows, with pagination from my omnibus edition, pictured above:

October: The Wreath (pages 1-291)

November: The Wife (pages 295-697)

December: The Cross (pages 703-1124)

The first thing I did was get Volume One of the trilogy, sold separately. I struggled through it, not realizing I had a translation other than that being used for the Readalong. Mine was a 1923 translation by Charles Archer and J.S. Scott. As the Introduction to the Nunnally translation points out, “the translators [of the earlier edition] chose to impose an artificially archaic style on the text, which completely misrepresented Undset’s beautifully clear prose.” The Introduction also alludes to “convoluted syntax” and “incomprehensible” writing. I was glad to hear that, because it had taken me about five hours just to get through the first ten pages of that edition!

Nevertheless, I finished the volume, but then bought the Nunnally (which has all three volumes in one) and re-read Volume One. What a difference! If you ever want to compare the effect a different translation can have on the readability and meaning of a text, these two translations offer a wonderful example.

While I was at it, I also re-read Dooms Day Book by Connie Willis, because I wanted to be able to compare these two award-winning books that both take place in the Middle Ages.

So that’s where I’ve been: reading the same book twice, in two different translations (so that it wasn’t like reading the same book again at all), and then reading a third book for purposes of comparison. At the end of October, all participants will be posting their first impressions. I might even get a few other books read in between!

Note: There’s still time for you to join the “the encircling, embracing metaworld” (Michael Chabon) of read-a-longers. Follow the link to Richard’s blog given above, sign up, and above all, make sure to get the Nunnally translation!


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21 Responses to Kristin Lavransdatter Readalong Introduction

  1. Translation is really important and I’m glad that you found one that you really enjoyed. I can’t wait for your reviews of those books when you’re done.

  2. Marie says:

    Wow, that’s really a great idea.
    I haven’t been posting many reviews lately either- all this other stuff going on! I’m so far behind I probably don’t have to finish another book for a month and a half- but you know i will 🙂

  3. Steph says:

    My book reviews have been on a bit of a hiatus too because I’ve been reading Jane Eyre which is just a tad longer than most other books, and I’ve been really enjoying reading it slowly and fully appreciating it. Also, I was at a 3-day conference this week, which has also wreaked havoc on my book blogging!

    I don’t think I’ll be participating in this read-along as I have so many books that I already need to read, but I checked out the first few chapters and compared them between the two translations and the Nunnally is definitely far more accessible (and comprehensible!). As you know, I recently read Madame Bovary and while the translation I had was serviceable, it also felt a bit “off” for me, and it definitely highlighted in my mind the importance of selecting a translated work carefully!

  4. Alyce says:

    The only time I’ve had a bad experience with a translation was in college when our professor wanted us to read Homer’s Iliad in a particular, which he admitted was plodding and hard to read. I have no idea why he put us through such torture. I found it online – it was Richard Lattimore’s translation and here’s what is said of it:

    “…Lattimore struggles to at least fit the six stresses into each line. He also tries to stick closely to the Greek text. The result is something that sounds more like what Homer’s listeners heard but makes for slower reading.”

    I think that saying it was slow reading was being generous. I’ve always wondered if I would have liked it more if I had read a different translation.

  5. Darlene says:

    I have this big volume on my shelf. I would have liked to read along but the timing is really off. I look forward to seeing everyone’s impressions at the end of the month.

  6. Alyce says:

    I have you know that I have been singing “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” for most of the morning since reading this post. 🙂

  7. Amy says:

    I am very impressed that you read volume one twice and happy for you that you found a better translation than the first one you read. It’s amazing the difference a translation can make. I remember covering this issue in a college class many years ago!

    I’m looking forward to your reviews. I would love to have participated in Richard and Emily’s readalong but it’s not a good time for me.
    Enjoy your reading!

  8. Sandy says:

    Hats off to you. That is an ambitious project. I get really twitchy and grumpy if I don’t have a steady stream of reviews. Which is just wrong. Who says we have to post all the darned time? I don’t like to think of the wonderful tomes I’m missing out on because of this phobia,

  9. Valerie says:

    Oh, good, you’re participating in this read-a-long also! I have the first volume (yes, translated by Nunnally) but haven’t started it yet. I have about three books I’m *almost* done with and then I’ll start this reading one. I’m looking forward to it.

    I recently discovered for myself that a good translation is important when I looked at two different versions of “The Arabian Nights”.

  10. Belle says:

    “So that’s where I’ve been: reading the same book twice, in two different translations (so that it wasn’t like reading the same book again at all), and then reading a third book for purposes of comparison.” Ever since I discovered you actually like to read Ulysses FOR FUN, I’ve been in awe of you. This merely pushes up the awe quotient to the next level.

  11. Aarti says:

    Wow, I’ve never even heard of those books before, but I am really interested to read your reviews. I always wonder how much is lost in translation, as well- especially in “condensed” epics.

  12. I’m with Belle in the “awe” category when it comes to your reading. I so admire your ability to read this type of literature for enjoyment. I say: Good for you and keep going!

    To tell you the truth I hadn’t noticed that you haven’t posted book reviews. I just come and read what ever you post. You should cultivate more naive readers like me. lol

  13. BooksPlease says:

    I read about the Kristin books on Danielle’s blog A Work in Progress and thought they sounded good. I’m looking forward to your reviews. That first translation sounds a nightmare – I’m impressed you read to the end.

    Reading long books always means less posts, unless you post whilst reading. I did that with Les Miserables and it worked well.

  14. Bookjourney says:

    Great book goal! This book looks amazing…. 🙂

  15. JoAnn says:

    I definitely agree – the difference between the Archer and Nunnally translations is huge! My first copy of The Wreath was Archer, and I couldn’t get past page 75! I bough the newer translation and flew through the first two volumes, and loved them! Decided to take a little break and now here I am… it’s two years later and the details are fuzzy. I need to reread before I can complete the trilogy!

  16. Staci says:

    You are so brave!! I fear I would collapse under the sheer weight of that book and perish there!! Flat forever. Good luck on this one. I’m loving your posts, especially the food one!!

  17. JoAnn,
    I’m glad to hear someone else had as much trouble with the Archer as I did!

    It sounds like your translation of the Iliad also was “challenging”!!!

  18. Ti says:

    There was a panel at the LA Time Festival of Books that touched on the importance of good translation. It can really make or break a book for sure. Especially when you think of all the double meanings that words tend to have.

  19. tuulenhaiven says:

    Wow, impressive! I think it’s pretty cool that you have two translations to compare – are you even remotely thinking about continuing with both? That might be interesting. 🙂

  20. Tuulenhaiven,

    I am definitely continuing with the Nunnally – in fact, I am almost done!

  21. Pingback: Review of “The Bridal Wreath,” Volume I of the Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy by Sigrid Undset and Translated by Tiina Nunnally « Rhapsodyinbooks’s Weblog

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