In my previous post on Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Summer Light, and Then Comes the Night, I didn’t mention translator Philip Roughton much, even though his work is what makes the writer’s work such a delight to read in English, but you’ll be glad to hear that there was a reason for this apparent oversight. You see, when I started reading the first part of the book (‘The universe and a dark velvet dress’), I was struck by a dizzying sense of déjà vu, or to put it more accurately, déjà lu. It was a strange sensation, and only lasted for the first few pages, but I had a nagging feeling I’d read this before, and I had no idea how that was possible – until I realised that I actually had…
As it turns out, this brief excerpt of the novel has made it into English before, and yes, I have read it. Back in 2017, I reviewed the short-story collection Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland (edited by Helen Mitsios), and the last story in the book was actually the first seven pages of this twenty-eighty page chapter from the novel (which looking at it now seems a rather strange decision). However, when I went to check my copy, I realised that it wasn’t Roughton’s work, but that of Meg Matich – which provides us with an opportunity to compare the two versions.
From the very first page, Roughton’s effect on Stefánsson’s work is clear:
He had everything going for him, was married to a woman so beautiful that the mere sight of her made some men feel peculiarly bashful, they had two children and we expect that one of them, Davið, will appear later on these pages. (p.11)
He had the world at his feet and had married such a beautiful woman that some people felt peculiar inside when they saw her: they had two children, and we assume that one of them, David, will yet emerge in the story on these pages.
‘The Universe and the Deep Velvet dress’, p.171 (University of Minnesota Press, 2017)
I’ve only presented one sentence from the first page of the story, but already you should be able to see some clear differences. To start with, Matich’s approach to the structure of the sentence is far more straightforward. She uses and had married to join two ideas fairly conventionally and then inserts a colon to keep the sentence neat and tidy. That’s not Roughton’s way of working, though. Instead, he delights in the use of comma splices, with two examples here allowing the sentence to roll on where Matich has corralled it into submission.
There are also clear differences in syntax and lexis choice. Where Roughton opts for a woman so beautiful, Matich goes with such a beautiful woman. Roughton’s the mere sight of her changes to when they saw her in Matich’s version, and she uses expect where Roughton prefers assume. I’m with Roughton on all of these decisions, and some of Matich’s other choices also seem a little clunky. The phrases such a beautiful woman that some people felt and will yet emerge in the story on these pages seem overly wordy and in need of a little pruning, and as for the decision to change Davið into David – well, I think we can all agree that’s a bit of an error…
That’s just one short sentence, though, so let’s move on and try another excerpt, a slightly longer one from later in the text:
When the Astronomer bought the house, it looked like an old, crooked horse, half-blind and dying, but he had the rotten wooden boards and broken window-panes replaced with new ones – imagine if it was just as easy to replace a rotten world view, a dying culture – and then he had the house painted pitch-black apart from a few white dots on three walls and the roof. The dots form the four constellations that he adores the most, the Plough, the Pleiades, Cassiopeia and the Herdsman. The fourth wall is completely black, it faces west, towards the sea, and symbolises the end of the world. (p.17)
When the Astronomer bought the house, it looked like an old, worn-out horse, half-blind and dying, but he replaced the rotting timber with new wood, the cracked windows with new panes. Just consider whether it would be very easy to update a rotting worldview, a dying culture. Then he painted the house coal black, outside of a few white drops on three sides and the roof. The dots are four constellations that he has the most fondness for: the Big Dipper, the Seven Sisters, Cassiopeia and the Herdsman. The fourth side is black. It faces to the west and toward the sea and represents the end of the world. (p.176)
The first thing that catches the eye is the number of sentences making up this excerpt. Where Matich divides the text into five sentences, Roughton only uses three, again thanks to his comma splices, and this feature of his writing (perhaps reflecting the original?) lends the text a rather poetic air. To me, at least, Matich’s version sounds rather clipped, akin to a report, while Roughton appears to be going for a more oral, story-telling effect, almost like an old man spinning a yarn at the local pub.
The next thing that caught my eye was a slight difference of opinion in terms of agency. Roughton uses had replaced and had painted where Matich opts for replaced and painted, which is a fascinating contrast. There’s a clear difference in meaning here, and you have to wonder which version follows the original faithfully and which has given the text a twist – and why. My suspicion is that Roughton has taken liberties here (I prefer the sound of his version), but you’d have to check the Icelandic to be sure.
I was also interested in the way the two translators handled the tangential aside in the paragraph, which is a notable feature of Stefánsson’s writing. Matich has decided to separate it, allowing it its own space in the middle of the paragraph, but Roughton has put it smack in the middle of another comment, giving it the feel of an oral self-interruption, a digression from the main idea, which again harks back to the oral feel of Roughton’s version. What I also prefer about Roughton’s sentence here is the comparison he inserts into it (just as easy to replace). Matich’s version doesn’t have this idea, joining the aside to the main idea, and as a result seems a little abrupt and unconnected.
This longer excerpt also allows us to make a closer comparison of the vocabulary the two translators use. At the start, we have (Roughton and Matich, respectively) crooked versus worn-out, rotten and rotting, and broken and cracked. I actually prefer all of Matich’s choices here, but from that point on I think Roughton selects better options. His picks of imagine over consider and replace over update work better, and in the next part of the text, the choices of pitch-black over coal black, form over are and adores the most over has the most fondness for certainly work better.
Interestingly, even where you might think the two texts would be identical, in the names of the constellations, there’s a divergence in the style, with two of the four named differently. Roughton has gone for the Plough and the Pleiades while Matich opts for the Big Dipper and the Seven Sisters. Given the use of Cassiopeia, I’d probably have gone for Roughton’s choices, but that’s just a personal preference.
That’s where I’ll leave this little journey into translation today, but before we go, I’d just like to add a small caveat lector, a warning to anyone who takes my views as gospel. These are two short excerpts from a text, a very subjective selection of passages that support my view, and I’m fully aware that some may disagree completely with how I’ve interpreted the texts. For me, though, while there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with Matich’s version, Roughton’s simply sings. His work is poetic and spellbinding, and what he manages to bring to the page is a large part of what I love about Stefánsson’s work. Let’s hope MacLehose agree as there are several more of the writer’s books out there, just waiting to be brought into English, and I, for one, can’t wait until the next work appears.