on October 17, 2002
When I was about 12 I tried to read Kristin Lavransdatter, and gave up quickly. The Archer translation was filled with "difficult" language: medieval archaisms seemed to slow down the language somehow. Kristin was written in the 1920s and takes place in the middle ages, but the archer translation (the one most readily available) alienated me from it so much that I gave up. Nunally's language is fresh and clear. It doesn't have the artificial ring of a translation. I don't know Norwegian, but I feel like she stayed as close as she could to Undset's original syntax and language.
Oh, and the story is great, too. The timeless problems of forbidden love, children born out of wedlock, and familial conflicts are presented through the eyes of a perfectly ordinary woman: Kristin Lavransdatter. It's been said she was the first perfectly real woman in all literature. In "The Wreath," the reader encounters Kristin's early life to her marriage and the difficult decisions she makes. Nunally writes of Kristin's actions without condemnation, but with compassion. I think this impartiality gives the book more power. THe reader is left to judge Kristin. Also, this is not one of those overwrought books in which every sentence must be analyzed for symbolism. One can read into Kristin Lavransdatter on many levels, but it does not consist wholly of linguistic capering as so many modern novels do. At the very least, it's just a great story with some extremely memorable characters.
Undset was the first woman to win the Nobel prize for literature, and largely because of Archer's *hesitation* LOUSY translations, she's fallen into obscurity in the USA, at least. Hopefully with the advent of Nunally's fresh new translations of Kristin Lavransdatter and Jenny, Undset will once more reappear on the literary landscape.
on September 17, 1998
At last we have a readable translation of the first volume of KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER, THE WREATH, one which is faithful to Sigrid Undset's style in Norwegian. I have to admit I could never read the old one all the way through because of the creaky, pseudo-medieval style the translators adopted -- it sounds like a bad Sir Walter Scott parody. I do read Norwegian myself, and can vouch for the faithfulness and accuracy of Tiina Nunnally's translation. Her style is fluid, clear, and lyrical, reflecting Undset's style perfectly. Readers who have struggled through all the archaic lingo such as 'tis, 'twas, wot, trow, and methinks are in for a treat. Volume 2 of the trilogy, THE WIFE, will be out in 1999.
KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER is a historical soap opera par excellence set in medieval Norway. The headstrong heroine does not always do what is "best" for her by the standards of this quite strict Catholic society, and her love affair with the dashing Erlend Nikulaussøn gets her in plenty of hot water with her family -- not to mention her betrothed, Simon Darre.
I predict this new version will banish the old one to dustbins and library sales once all three volumes are released. And let's hope that Penguin Books will see fit to publish them all together in a handsome clothbound edition.
on February 29, 2000
Pay no attention to anyone who says the book is "slow" or "hard to read", unless they were talking about some other translation. Tina Nunnally's translation lets Sigrid Undet's genius shine through at last. (The previous translation was dreadful.) The first volume of "Kristin Lavransdatter" brings you the full spectrum of medieval life, from the constant threat of violence to the ambiguous attitudes on sexuality, the hyper-religiosity at odds with a still-thriving pagan sensuality that wants to legitimize itself. The character of Kristin shows all these conflicts and how they might have played out in the soul of a woman who will not let herself be treated as property in a patriarchal society. Make sure you buy this translation! I cannot wait for the third volume to be published in April 2000.
on July 6, 2002
If you like historical novels, this is the book for you. Sigrid Undset meticulously researched life in Norway during the Middle Ages, and she brings that world to life for us in her classic trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter. The story is great to boot. Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature, and this is her finest work.
The Wreath is the first novel in the series, and in it we follow Kristin as she comes of age. She is a passionate girl, and this is the story of her passion. We might want to read the tale as the story of a girl overcoming the obstacles of her era to realize her dreams, but there is more to the story than that. Kristin's romance with Erland Nikulausson creates havoc in all the lives around them. Undset was a convert to Catholicism, and this is a Catholic novel. Kristin finds her true love, yes. But will it bring her true happiness? Undset presents the heroine's plight with sympathy, but she presents the consequences of her choices with honesty. This first novel sets the stage, and in the next two we will follow on Kristin's journey to know herself and the world around her. It's a great novel about a great life.
While Kristin is the focus of the novel, Undset also fully brings to life her family and friends. We meet some great characters along the way. From Arne Gyrdson, Kristin's devoted childhood friend to Fru Aashild, the wise woman who teaches her much about the ways of the world, to Brother Edvin, the saintly monk who offers her spiritual direction, we meet characters that we will long remember. The relationship of Kristin's parents Lavrans and and Rangfrid is especially poignant.
To enter gingerly into the translation wars, I have read both versions. For myself, I prefer this one. The archaic language of the Archer translation does give us a sense that the book is about a different world. The problem is that the people in the middle ages would not have sounded archaic to themselves. By presenting the language in a modern vernacular, we have the chance to encounter these people on their own terms. And that allows us to enter into the true difference of Kristin's world - which lies in the difference in values and attitudes. Undset does this almost seamlessly... we are so drawn in that we don't quite realize that we are seeing the world in a very different way.
on August 29, 2002
(Note: My review is of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy as a whole work, rather than about Penguin's three individual volumes. I felt very much caught up in the forward movement of these stories and didn't really see them as separate "books". And, of course, the original Kristin was published in one volume of three sections.)
As a reader who has more than once during the past 40 years tried to read the clunky Archer version of this wonderful work, I can only add to the praise given the Nunnally translation. I just this summer finished the final volume of Kristin Lavransdatter, and can recommend it to anyone wanting to be immersed in a terrific, panoramic medieval tale full of all those things that make for a great story: love, hate, valor, treachery, sin, redemption, etc.- all that good stuff.
Kristin and husband Erlend form the core around which this remarkable story is built; they are believably human, noble, fallible. Undset's special strengths are her characters, narrative thrust and, finally, in her wonderful descriptions of the wild, beautiful landscape of medieval Norway.
Yes, this is one of those daunting, big fat historical novels. However, this newest incarnation does justice to a wonderful work of world literature; to my mind, anyone willing to invest the time in reading it will be rewarded many times over.
on July 5, 2001
I'll go ahead and enter the debate about the new Nunnally translation. Kristin is one of my absolutely favorite books, so when I recently discovered that a new translation had been published, I was eager to read it. I am amazed at how much more clearly the characters and their motivations shine through in Tiina Nunnally's translation--it felt as if a mirror that had gathered dust and grime for years had suddenly been wiped clean. I'm also shocked that Charles Archer took it upon himself to alter the language of the book so dramatically by giving a pseudo-medieval feel to it that Sigrid Undset did not intend. Since I don't read Norwegian, I can't give a fully informed judgment, but the clarity of this new version does a great service to Kristin Lavransdatter and its incredible characters.
on January 25, 2003
I find it interesting that most of the division on this book still stems from the translation. Nunnally is an excellent and faithful translator of Norwegian. To answer the one reviewer as to how some of us feel qualified to judge, there are some of us who do read Norwegian. I was shocked at the liberty Archer had taken with Undset's works, going so far as to change the titles (the original titles do in fact translate as The Wreath, The Wife and The Cross, not as Archer's overwrought titles). Nunnally's translation returns dignitiy and immediacy to the work. One reviewer noted that the story need not have taken place in the middle ages but in almost any century. This is one of the main points and the Undset's use of a contemporary idiom enforces this impression. Finally we can read this novel not just as some medieval costume drama but as a timeless story of love and morality and judge it on its literary merits. It is also heartening to see that Nunnally has now also given us a new translation of Jenny. Finally Undset is some much needed attention.
on January 21, 2005
The first book in Sigrid Undset's trilogy recounting the life of Kristin Lavransdatter, "The Wreath" is an insightful coming-of-age story set in Norway during the Middle Ages. We follow the spirited and headstrong Kristin through her childhood and young adulthood, up to her marriage to Erlend Nikulausson of Husaby. Along the way, Kristin must traverse the confusing realms of love and religion, learn to accept responsibility for her decisions, and face the consequences of her actions. Undset clearly has a marvelous grasp of human psychology, and the exploration of Kristin's emotional and intellectual development is fascinating.
Though Kristin is the protagonist in the story, the narrator does not focus solely on her, but also gives us glimpses into the lives of those around her, including her parents, her beloved Erlend, a kindly monk named Brother Edvin who counsels Kristin in spiritual matters and how she must maintain honor for herself and her family, and Fru Aashild, a wise woman and Erlend's aunt, who gives Kristin advice on both spiritual and day-to-day life, and how she can find peace for herself. The relationship between Kristin's parents is particularly stirring and thought-provoking, offering a striking contrast with Kristin's own romantic experiences.
When Sigrid Undset attempted to find a publisher for her first attempt at a Medievally-set novel in 1904, she was told: "Don't attempt any more historical novels. You have no talent for it" (pg. xi). But she was not deterred, and the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy displays an immense talent for historical fiction indeed, earning Undset the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. Published in 1920, "The Wreath" is a masterfully crafted and captivating story. It can be read on many different levels but, unlike much of classic literature, it is also fully enjoyable and self-standing as a story alone. There is no need to dig for deeper meaning in order to appreciate Undset's work, though material for further analysis can certainly be found if one wishes to take a more critical approach.
This particular edition (1997 Penguin Classics printing, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is beautifully translated. The words flow so smoothly and the imagery is so vibrant and lively that it's hard to believe it wasn't originally written in English. I have not read the older Vintage Classics translation (entitled "The Bridal Wreath") myself, but the students in the European literature course for which I read this book that were unfortunate enough to purchase that version all expressed frustration at how difficult it was to read. I can assure you that the Penguin Classics version isn't challenging at all, and would highly recommend it. Though set in the Middle Ages, the dialogue is presented in more or less modern language, which is easier to comprehend, whereas the Vintage version uses difficult, archaic speech.
"The Wreath" was followed by two more novels that continue the story of Kristin Lavransdatter. "The Wife" (the Vintage version is entitled "The Mistress of Husaby") appeared in 1921, and concerns her married life with Erlend and their children. "The Cross," which delves further into Kristin's spiritual life and her struggle to come to terms with herself and her life, was published in 1922 and completes the trilogy.
on December 20, 2006
I, too, like some of the other reviewers here, was at first disappointed with the "modernized" translation of Nunnally, preferring the quirky "thees" and "thous" and "methinkses" of Archer's translation--until I discovered that in fact Undset wrote in contemporary, not mediaeval, Norwegian. The subject matter is mediaeval; the language is supposed to be 20th century. The Elizabethanized language of Archer reflects his own effort to set the reader in the mood for older times, not something called for by the Undset's Norwegian! (Some of the other reviewers here objected that Vol. II is entitled by Nunnally "The Wife" rather than, as in Archer's, "The Mistress of Husaby." But you will see that the Norwegian title is "Husfrue," as in the German "Hausfrau," or "Housewife." "Wife" is therefore in fact the proper translation.) I have it on good authority from someone who knows Scandinavian languages that Nunnally's translation is superb.
Another merit of Nunnally is that she restores quite a bit of text that had been bowdlerized by Archer. Check out the difference, to cite just one example that I have noticed, between the way Nunnally and Archer portray the key scene when Erlend takes Kristin's maidenhood:
Nunnally: "Kristin was trembling--she thought it was because her heart was pounding so hard--and her hands were clammy and cold. When he kissed the bare skin above her knee, she tried powerlessly to push him away. Erlend raised his face for a moment, and she was suddenly reminded of a man who had once been given food at the convent--he had kissed the bread they handed to him. She sank back into the hay with open arms and let Erlend do as he liked" (p. 145).
Archer: "Kristin shook--it must be because her heart beat so--her hands were cold and clammy. As he kissed her vehemently she weakly tried to push him from her. Erlend lifted his face a moment--she thought of a man who had been given food at the convent one day--he had kissed the bread they gave him. She sank back upon the hay...." (p. 129).
The two are pretty close where Archer actually gives you the text, but he prudishly leaves out some key stuff (I'm assuming Nunnally is not putting anything in that's not there in the original). The ellipses there at the end of the Archer translation are his own, and you find them throughout the text just at the, um, interesting parts. With both translations given above, something is left to the imagination, as Undset surely wanted it, but with Archer's, you are missing text! Undset expected her readers to be perceptive, not prophetic. And this is a pivotal moment in the plot, when just the right measure is needed. Readers of Archer's translation have to wonder why, in the next chapter, Kristin keeps feeling her belly and thinking she must be carrying Erlend's child, until they go back to the ellipses and realize what the translator must have omitted. This is the only clear example of Archer's censoring I've come across, but I am told there are plenty more.
on September 15, 2006
I first discovered Kristin when I was fifteen, in Charles Archer's gummy, faux-Howard Pyle translation (it's also Bowdlerized) While I loved the story, I knew that this couldn't be the way Sigrid Undset wrote it. She was a scholar of the sagas, and their language is plain and direct, not lifted from some Errol Flynn movie.
Thank you, Tiina Nunnally, for giving us the real deal. The stark, direct translation suits the story. This is not a romance novel. This is a story about real people, real passion, and real disappointment and heartache. Even though Kristin gets the guy, she's going to find that 'having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting'. It's been a long wait, but Kristin and her life story finally have their real voice in English.