Wednesday, July 27, 2011


I've recently finished reading Arctic Chill by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason  (If you want a review check out my Just Read page). I received it as part of a job lot of freebies for my e-reader and picked it because it was about Iceland, a place I have visited several times and love.

It was interesting to read about a different culture in the words of someone who actually belongs to it, but it got me wondering. Just how much of a flavour of place is lost in translation?  It was, after all, translated by English people, even if they do speak Icelandic.

As an aside: Modern Icelandic is virtually identical to Old Norse, the language of the Sagas, and therefore any Icelander who can read has direct access to their history and legends. It must help with a sense of identity and place and provide a fast link to the past. (Imagine being able to read Chaucer - or even Shakespeare - as easily as Agatha Christie or J K Rowling.)

What I learned from the book about modern-day Reykjavik is very different from the image presented to tourists, (in much the same way that Ian Rankin's tales of Edinburgh probably aren't popular with the Scottish Tourist Board, in spite of how many people visit the city to drink in Rebus's favourite bars) but that was because of the subject matter, rather than the descriptions. I recognised several locations immediately and had clear pictures of them in my mind as I read.

Do you read much translated fiction? Do you think that you have missed anything as a result? Can we ever have a true understanding of an author's intent if we rely on a translator's interpretation?


Ellie Garratt said...

I've never read a translated book before but my current read makes reference to a lot of things that are local to the setting, which I either have no point of reference for or have no clue what they are. It's making it a difficult read!

snafu said...

I recently read some Japanese and over the years have read many other translations, but never from Iceland or any other Scandinavian country. Russian translations abound, have you not read any of these? War and Peace is the classic and is usually given as a long long book and was published in two volumes, but Harry Potter is several times longer and even kids have read that. My most recent Russian translation was Roadside Picnic, a very strange book but well worth reading.

MorningAJ said...

@Ellie I'm surprised that you haven't read any translations.

@snafu. Actually I've never read any of the 'heavyweight' Russians. Maybe I should. I've done other languages (Gabriel García Márquez comes to mind) but mostly I've found them hard work. I gave up on Harry Potter because I found Rowling's work extremely derivative and over-long!

Steve Isaak said...

This series is on my 'to be read' book list (which runs about a hundred-plus books long) - nice to see someone else review it (as well as I plan to). Thanks for that. =)

Steve Isaak said...

Also, to answer your questions:

1.) Do you read much translated fiction?

Yes, particularly Icelandic and Japanese works. (They have an interesting, emotional "crisp" feel.)


2.) Do you think that you have missed anything as a result?

Yes, but I don't sweat it. It's an unavoidable - at least, on occasion - issue.


3.) Can we ever have a true understanding of an author's intent if we rely on a translator's interpretation?

Sometimes, yes. Again, I don't sweat it, as long as I "got" most of what the author was trying to convey. Everybody filters things differently, so it's sometimes unavoidable.