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Olav Audunsson and Undset Translations

I recently read Vows, the title given by translator Tiina Nunnally to the first book in the tetralogy previously known as The Master of Hestviken, called in the new translation simply by the name of the main character, Olav Audunsson. From the book's brief Wikipedia entry it's not clear to me whether Undset gave titles to the individual books, but apparently the English translators and publishers have felt free to choose their own. I will say that the new title of the tetralogy seems more fitting than the old; if nothing else it makes for an appropriate juxtaposition with Kristin Lavransdatter, as both are principally concerned with one character. And as for Vows, it's as fitting a title for the first book as the older translation's The Axe. I lean toward the latter as being a more potent title, and as you know if you've read the book, an axe is a very significant part of the story, but so are vows, at least as much so.

At the moment other books have taken priority over continuing with this one, or four, but I'll get back to it, or them. Right now I just want to say something about the translations. I sat in on a series of online lectures on Vows last month, and Tiina Nunnally also attended. Of course people had questions for her, and one of them was about titles. Nunnally said she didn't care much for the titles of the earlier translations, which she thought overly masculine. Well, I don't especially agree, but I get her point. Her second volume is called Providence; the older title is The Snake Pit--there's clearly a pretty different sensibility at work. Personally I suspect Undset would have favored the concrete title over the abstract, but obviously that's only a guess, and, again, there's nothing inappropriate or unfitting about Nunnally's title. 

The differing titles, though, are suggestive to me of other qualities in the new translation, qualities which make me unable to be as enthusiastic about it as most contemporaries seem to be. Last spring when I was reading Nunnally's translation of Kristin I made a number of comments on the translation question. They're in three different posts, so I'll repeat the main points here. 


Nunnally's prose is certainly simpler and more clear, but it's also without [distinctive ] character. I don't recall encountering anything in this volume which would be out of place in an ordinary magazine or newspaper story of our time. But neither do I recall lingering over any sentence for its elegance or flavor. I won't say it's clumsy, but I won't say it's graceful, either. Maybe I would think the same of the original; maybe Undset wrote a straightforward and not particularly rich prose. 

Nunnally's simplicity certainly makes for an easier read. Archer's prose can be something of a struggle, but I breeze right through Nunnally's without conscious effort. Whether anything is being lost I really can't say with any authority, but as the two sentences above indicate, there are often differences of nuance: "got leave to go" and "was going to accompany" are not interchangeable. 


In poking around on the web for information about the Kristin translations, I've found that it tends to be taken for granted that the new one (Nunnally) is not just superior to the old one (Archer) but has definitively replaced it, liberating a great novel from a terrible translation. Not so fast, I say. There are many reasons to be grateful for Nunnally's, most especially the restoration of some significant passages mysteriously (as far as I know) omitted from Archer's. But I have reason to think that Nunnally's is also some distance from ideal. I will have more to say about this when I've finished the last volume, but consider the bit I just quoted: "Saint Olav had brought Christianity to the valley...." That sounded off to me. I of course have no idea what Undset actually wrote, but I'm pretty sure that medieval Christians in Norway and everywhere else did not use a term like "Christianity." So I looked at Archer, and found that he says that Saint Olav "christened" the valley. Much truer, I'm sure, to the medieval mind.


I agree that Archer's attempt at an antique effect is awkward at best, and not even historically appropriate.  But I'm not content with Nunnally's translation...

I can't speak to the rhythms of Undset's prose--but Nunnally's reads like ordinary contemporary American English. The word "weight" keeps coming to mind: Harbison's description makes me think that Undset's prose has it, but Nunnally's does not. Maybe that's not Nunnally's fault, or only partly; maybe it's just the nature of the language of our time. But it's light, almost breezy in comparison to Archer. There's nothing much poetical, nothing much memorable, in it, and by that I don't mean that I think it should have some kind of ostentatious lyricism (which I don't like), but only that there should be something there which makes us re-read a sentence or a paragraph, not because we want to be sure we understood it fully or for any other, so to speak, practical reason, but because its language pleases and touches us....

By the way, Nunnally's inclusion of passages said to be too sexually explicit for Archer, which of course arouses all sorts of tingles in the typical contemporary critic or reader, turns out to be a big nothing. The differences are pretty trivial, apparently consisting only of a few sentences. I would not have been able to identify the passages if I hadn't seen a review which quoted them side by side.


I couldn't shake the feeling that Nunnally lacks some kind of basic sympathy with Undset's view of the world.  In Olav Audunsson I found something that rather brought this home to me. I neglected to mark the passage, so my quotation may not be precisely accurate, but it's something like "Suddenly the foetus moved vigorously inside her." 

I don't know Norwegian, contemporary or ancient, so I suppose I could be wrong, but I find it hard to believe that a medieval Norwegian would have had such a clinical word, or that Undset would have used it. The earlier translation has simply the natural word, "child." I can't hear the use of "foetus" as anything but an anachronism at least as egregious as "I trow," and moreover reflective of the political-cultural controversies of our time. I don't accuse Nunnally of being deliberately ideological here--perhaps it's just the circles she moves in--but the term is certainly loaded; to say "foetus" instead of "baby" is a deliberate choice for many people, for reasons which I don't need to go into.

So, to sum up: one translation is fusty, giving us an attempt at antique dialog that's really more of the 19th-century than the 13th, like a tea shop in 1900 calling itself Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. (To me it's mainly the dialog in the older translations that often sounds stilted and unreal; the narrative and descriptive passages don't have that problem, and indeed are often richer.) And rightly or wrongly many contemporary readers find it too difficult; one young attendee at that online series I mentioned thanked Tiina Nunnally for "making it possible for me to read Kristin Lavransdatter."

And the other translation is all too much of its time. One owes too much to the 19th century and perhaps earlier, one is too much of the 21st. Why do I harp on this? In part I suppose because I think I may be missing something, that neither translation really does the best possible service to Undset. And even if I wanted to learn Norwegian it's a bit late for me to get started. There will certainly not be another translation in my lifetime, probably not until 2100 is a lot closer than 2000, and who knows what the cultural and linguistic condition of English will be then? 

I feel rather churlish in complaining about translations that certainly involved an amount of labor and knowledge that I can't really imagine doing and possessing, and which may very well have, as the person I quoted above said, "made it possible" for people who otherwise would not have known the work of a great novelist to do so. I really am grateful for that. It's just...well....

By the way, the earlier translations of Kristin and Olav are not by the same person. One is Charles Archer, the other Arthur Chater. But they are similar, though I think Chater's has less of the questionable antique in the dialog. 


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Conversations about translations are so much fun. I have only read the Nunnally translation of KL so have nothing other to go by. But from what you say I believe you are correct; there is not much in the way of flourish there, pretty straightforward prose.

Last night I was delving into a part of the novel Tom Jones by Henry Fielding for fun. It is one of my all-time favorites. I couldn't imagine it being written in contemporary English so that the young person who thanked Tiina Nunnally could also read it LOL. I love Fielding's archaic voice from the mid-1800s.

That said, I do believe all published translators are likely very talented, and the remuneration for their efforts and expertise is probably not great. Nunnally lives in New Mexico too, so she must be a good person. ;-)

Correction: Tom Jones was published in 1749, so mid=1700s, or what I meant to write, mid-18th century.

I do that all the time--saying NN hundreds when I mean NNth century.

I'm sure Tiina Nunnally is a good person. :-) And you're probably right that she doesn't get paid all that well. She mentioned that she's translated around a hundred books. I'm in awe. I guess if you know both languages well enough and the book is straightforward it's not as difficult as it sounds to me.

I think many translators get royalties on the books they translate. If that was the case with Nunnally's husband, he must have made a bundle because he translated Stieg Larsson's Millenium series.

I didn't know that about her husband. And I'd be surprised if translators don't get royalties, though I don't know. So yeah, even if the royalties were a small percentage he must have done pretty well.

I think Undset was fairly fluent in English, so I don't see why she'd have approved the Archer translation of Kristin if it didn't reflect the style of the Norwegian text. I've been looking for something about the Norwegian version, but so far have found only this in the journal Scandinavian Studies:

"[The characters in the book] speak what is essentially modern Norwegian. The debt her language owes to the vocabulary and syntax and cadences of Old Norse is never intrusive but the archaizing modulations work. They sound authentic, not strange."

The whole article is interesting and can be read for free on the JSTOR site:

I am trying to remember if you have read the tetralogy before. I think you have? I read all four volumes in a very short period of time. I even surprised myself. I could not stop reading once I started and I am pretty sure I like it better than Kristin, although I found Olav just as frustrating as Kristin.

I have only read the Archer translations. I think I will keep it that way.


I'm 99% sure you've said that you like Master of Hestviken better than Kristin. Yes, I have read it, in the old translation, and liked it a lot. Liking it even more this time.

Another note on the translation, which I meant to include in the post: there's a scene where Olav and Ingunn are having an extremely anguished encounter. Olav turns away and leans against the wall with his arms outstretched. That's more or less the way Nunnally describes it. Chater says "in the shape of a cross" or something to that effect. It would be interesting to see a literal translation.

Marianne, when I was reading Kristin last spring (?) I ran across something making that same point about Undset approving the translation. And the thing you quote sounds an awful lot like something I quoted in one of my previous posts, from the introduction to vol 3, by Sherrill Harbison, a scholar of Scandinavian literature. She says Undset:

"...struggled to find ways to give her text a tone of the past while still keeping the sound of natural speech. After much experimenting, she found the effect she wanted by limiting her vocabulary to words based on Old Norse roots, and by retaining Old Norse syntax--the order of subject and verb, arrangement of adjectives, and use of coordinating conjunctions.....[S]he creates a readable, natural-sounding prose with subtle reminiscences of Old Norse, more like a musical undertone than an imitation.

The vigorousness of this style does not translate easily to English.... Translators must strike a balance between the falsely archaic and the falsely modern, while still trying to respect Undset's careful usage. Whereas it is easy to make the English sound too quaintly antique, it is also easy to "correct" Undset's evocative syntax, to flatten her rhythms and make language too modern and ungraceful."

I certainly don't get any "tone of the past" from the new translation. Maybe it's untranslatable, and Archer and Chater just chose what seemed available to them in English as suggestive of the medieval. The contemporary English would have been Chaucer's, which wouldn't really have been appropriate, whereas Norwegian would not have undergone that melding of germanic and romance influences. (At least I think that's the case.)

The thing is, I think I read MoH three or four years ago, certainly a while before Covid, and when I read Kristin last year I like it so much better than I had liked it the first time.

I think my library career is going to put a rapid end to my voracious reading. At the moment I am back to cozy mysteries.

And The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. I have never in my life used the term "soul-searing" but it is. Thankfully it's very short.


There seems to be a James Baldwin revival going on. I see his name a lot. Not surprising I guess. I sort of think I read something by him, not a whole book, in college, but I don’t remember anything in particular. Not really keen on having my soul seared right now.

I read Kristin in the Archer translation for the first time in the early 80, and loved it. I read it again a decade later before the Nunnally translation appeared. I've now read the Nunnally twice. But have not yet started on her new translation of Olav. The discussion above reflects my reaction to the difference between the Archer and Nunnally texts: I would not necessarily recommend the Nunnally even though it has been proclaimed superior. The Archer was the one that hooked me in the first place, while the Chater version of Hestviken hooked me as well. Certainly Nunnally has multiplied the number of Undset readers, and her translations of the two early feminist novels I found very satisfying, and I thank her for all her effort in promoting the work of Sigrid Undset. I wish she would translate the novel 'Spring,' also an early work which remains untranslated.

When I took up the second volume of Olav Audunsson at the turn of this year, it was Chater. I hadn't initially made up my mind not to continue with Nunnally, but I read a few pages and just didn't have any desire to switch. I haven't done a direct comparison between Kristin/Archer and Audunsson/Chater, but I think the dialog in latter may be somewhat less antique. At any rate the Chater translation of the second volume is rich and vivid, and in retrospect the Nunnally translation of the first seems a bit bland. I keep thinking of that last scene, which is really quite important in part precisely because of the crucifixion motif. Seems odd that Chater would have inserted that explicit reference if it was not in the original. But then it seems odd that Nunnally would left it out if it is.

Also, I'm now in a position to say that The Snake Pit seems a much better title for the second volume than Providence.

"I thank her for all her effort in promoting the work of Sigrid Undset. " So do I and I feel kind of churlish criticizing it.

I share your reservations about the Nunnally translation of Undset's novels. They seem to me to suck the life out of Undset's characters, the landscape and the life she evokes. I have more to say on this in the Intro to my complete and unabridged narration of Kristin Lavransdatter on Youtube. You can find it at

Or search Youtube for Wilderness Of Sound.


Interesting project. A labor of love, I'm sure. I don't think I would be able to listen to a reading of the entire novel. Maybe on a long trip....

"suck the life out" is harsh! I'd say that's a bit more than a reservation. I keep thinking about the young woman for whom the Nunnally translation made reading the book "possible." And this was someone clearly very interested in literature. I wonder if the ability to understand the English of any time before the 20th century is disappearing.

Yes indeed. It was a labour of love! I did it partly because I was filling in time during lockdowns! But mainly because I love the book so much. I found that the rhythms and cadences of the narration made [some of!] the archaisms less tiresome and allowed the drama and energy and passion of the novel to come to life in a way they never could on paper. Maybe it will find its way to readers too reluctant to deal with Archer's archaisms!

Harsh? Perhaps. But I don't think reading a book like this should be easy. And perhaps I am being a little selfish and defensive. I have read KL 4 times since 1987 and twice at least before that after I bought it in London in 1979. So, yes I have absorbed the style. And I have read the Nunnally translation and it is as you say in your piece ; it lacks 'weight'! I think your word 'breezy' sums it up eloquently.

I have only just found this website and am presently going through it but I must say I found comments labelling Lady Aashild as the 'villain' of KL a huge surprise. Perhaps it is a reflection of a largely Catholic readership. Those conditioned to accept the primacy of faith, the idea of salvation, the notion of a life after death would, I imagine, find Lady Aashild's non-religious temperament a challenge. Her murder by her husband Bjorn and his simultaneous suicide [is that a double murder?] in the same bed would clinch it for them.

I am coming here late--but there actually is an Old Norse word for "Christianity." It is "Kristinn"--sort of like Kristin's name! One of the sagas (title: Kristni Saga) relates that "Christianity came to Iceland..." so an English translation "St. Olav brought Christianity to Norway" wouldn't be out of place.

I think there are problems with both the Archer translation of "Kristin" and the Nunnally. Archer is much too heavy with archaisms, but Nunnally's is pedestrian and also marred with slanginess: "mad at" instead of "angry with." She has no ear. And I gasped when she called the Lapps the "Sami"--a 21st-century PC-ism. It made me wonder exactly how faithful Nunnally was to Undset's original.

We need a third translation, preferably by a English-fluent Norwegian who is a professional writer, not just a professional translator like Nunnally, and thus is alert to the cadences of both Norwegian and English. Most Norwegians speak English quite well these days, but writing elegant English is a rare talent for a non-English speaker. And few native English-speakers know Norwegian.

You seem to know what you're talking about re the Norse equivalent of "Christianity." Still, I would argue that the English word seems anachronistic in its connotations. In today's usage at least it has an abstract, detached, comparative-religion sort of quality. "Islam teaches this, whereas Christianity teaches that." It's from a position outside the faith--even when used by a Christian, it implies a point of view that can see the faith as one religion among others. Which doesn't seem the way a medieval Norwegian would have seen it. I can't think of a word that would be a better translation for "Kristinn," though. I don't think we have a contemporary English word that would explicitly name the thing St. Olav brought as Christian without that detached quality.

So, yeah, ok, I will accept "Christianity" as a valid translation. Assuming Undset used "Kristinn" or something like it.

I did not realize that about the word "Sami." I had the vague notion that it was the word they use for themselves.

I would love to have that third translation you describe. Sigh. Not very likely though. Undset doesn't command the attention that, say, Dostoevsky does, though I would argue that she deserves it, or at least something closer to it. And the books are so long. But yet another translation of Brothers K was published recently!

Does Undset use "child" or "baby" where Nunnally uses "fetus"? Plenty of other times across Nunnally's translations there is mention of the child inside a mother... women who are pregnant "are not travelling alone" or there is mention of "the child under her heart," etc.

in only one passage does Nunnally use fetus, and perhaps fetus is appropriate to indicate Ingunn's feelings of alienation, dismay, and horror at her own situation, even her own child. In other words, maybe the choice of fetus is a feature, not a bug.

Or maybe Nunnally really is putting something there that's not in the text, I don't read Norwegian so I couldn't tell you, but I would not venture to criticize a translator's choice of words if I didn't know the original text.

I agree with you in principle, but not in this case. I don't know Norwegian, either, but I'm doubtful as to whether medieval Norwegian as spoken by ordinary people would have had such a clinical Latinate word.

And as it is very much a contemporary progressive tic to avoid using words like "baby" for the unborn, that connotation can't be avoided in a contemporary translation. It's not even natural to most people today to say "fetus" in ordinary non-medical conversation. The other instances you mention involve an entire phrase, which would pretty much have to be translated rather than replaced with a single word.

If I'm not mistaken Ingunn does at least once express a certain degree of horror about the baby.

I'm also confident that the older translation does not use "fetus." I would have noticed.

Iirc the phrase is usually "the one under her heart." Which I find utterly charming.

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