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Translation trouble

May 13, 2010

By a bit of an odd coincidence, Vikingaheimar has two theatrical projects going at once. One is the full scale production of a play aboard Íslendingur, which will premier this Friday night. Here is the facebook page for that event. A group of theatre professionals are putting that together, led by a woman who also staged the Icelandic version of Mama Mia recently. We expect her directing of the Journey of Guðriður to be dramatic and beautiful.

On a more modest scale, I have been “producing” an Icelandic translation of a little bit of theatre I originally scripted when I worked at the Smithsonian. One of the unique features of Icelandic archaeology is the close association it has always had with the written sources describing the Viking Age settlement of Iceland, the Icelandic Family Sagas. In the case of the Viking exploration of North America, there was written evidence in the form of the Saga of Eirik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders long before there was ever archaeological evidence. This presents a number of interpretive challenges for both archaeologists and literary scholars, but I want to mention here the way in which it presented a museological challenge to us at the Smithsonian.

There is no way to adequately talk about the Vikings in the New World without talking about the Icelandic sagas. But other than borrowing the preserved 14th century manuscripts which contain copies of these sagas, how could we “exhibit” narrative tales? We did borrow the manuscripts, with special permission from the Icelandic Parliament, but in one of our exhibition meetings we were all sure this would not be enough to really capture their importance for understanding the Vikings travels to North America. So I suggested we should make an audio program with the Vinland saga tales. Ornölfur Þórsson helped me out by suggesting the story should be told as a conversation between a monk and a seasoned oral performer, with the idea the monk would listen to the story and then write it down. Joe Madeira, the exhibition producer, and our designers (MFM design) then put a ton of work into the logistics and technical aspects of such an audio display. We decided there should be subtle visuals to accompany the audio program, kind of like shadows on the wall. So I wrote a script, 10 minutes in length, by combining the elements from the known sagas into one condescend narrative, and our designer came up with figurines that lit up in time with that script. We also made two mannequins, one to be the monk and the other one to be the storyteller. Then Joe had a section of a long hall made, where visitors to the exhibition could sit down and listen to a portion of the story, while seeing the lit up figures. We were all pretty happy with the result.

When that component came here to Iceland for display in Vikingaheimar, I was worried we would not be able to use it, not only because the system was all designed on 110 voltage and Iceland uses 220, but also because the text is all in English. Indeed people in the cultural sector here in Iceland have been a little dismayed that sagas originally written in Icelandic are not being told in Icelandic in Vikingaheimar.

Today we take a major step towards rectifying that. Gísli Sigurðsson from the Árni Magnusson Institute was kind enough to take a look at the English script I had made, and rewrite it in Icelandic, using much of the wording from the original sagas. The the cultural minister in town arranged for one of the most distinguished actors in Iceland, Gunnar Eyjolfsson, to record the part of the old storyteller, and found a suitable actor for the young monk. Today we are all meeting in a recording studio in Reykjavík, and I am really excited. It will be so nice to hear these sagas told in their original language.

Hopefully installing the Icelandic audio will go smoothly. That is next week’s challenge.

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