An obituary for German fairy- and children’s tale researcher, translator, author and publisher, Dr. Walter Scherf.
Elfgift and Elfking were published in 1995/1996. British author Susan Price became widely known by her Sterkarm saga and specialises in children’s and young adult’s literature. When I had both books with me and just received the contract for translating the second volume my research made me doubt what direction the story would take. However, after having read both books I was pretty sure this would be a story not only worth the read but that I would enjoy translating it as well.
The entry at the online catalogue of the British Library sums up nicely, if a bit on the short side, what the book is all about (according to ancient librarian lore):
Elves — Juvenile fiction.
Brothers — Juvenile fiction.
Imaginary wars and battles — Juvenile fiction.
Saxons — Juvenile fiction.
Danes — Juvenile fiction.
Now, I did ask myself the question whether this would really be a children’s story judging from the amount and the level of violence portrayed throughout the tale but then I would never contradict the time-honoured British Library.
What is the story all about? Elfgift, the elf-born, is an illegitimate child of royal descent whose mother is a valkyrie (or even more?) He lives on a farm out in the country. When the king dies and names him successor his half brothers want to see him dead but he is faster and stronger than all others – and loved by the Gods. The old Gods, mind, as the Saxons are Christians, but the Danes are heathens, just like Elfgift, in a country that cannot yet decide what faith to choose.
Nothing can stop Elfgift’s victory as he is under the protection of the valkyrie but as he decides to save the live of his half brother Wulfweard (who had been fated to enter Valhalla) he incurs the wrath of the Gods and is destroyed in the most violent way conceivable – and with him all those who stood by his side.
But Woden would not be Woden without a plan to wreak havoc and revenge on the Christians … and he summons an enemy they did not expect.
Challenges during translation? Susan Price’s writing style is straightforward and bears a certain resemblance to old epic texts – these two books are much closer to Beowulf or norse sagas than most tales considered fantasy literature nowadays. Short, almost brutally short sentences with a staccato pace paint a landscape of violence, superstition and war where only strength will help you and the will of the Gods reigns supreme – and it is them who decide the fate of all beings.
Poems, songs and folklore in general play an important role. See for example the harpist summoning the runes to spellbind Elfgift:
“I bind you, I, who have the power!
With Grave-rune I bind you!
Hear me well!
Chill rain shall fall -”
Heathendom and christianity co-existed after the first Scandinavian attacks on England at the end of the 8th century. The name of the heathen Gods were quite difficult to translate as Price used terms not even quite clear in English usage. I kept “Woden” as the differentiation to Wodan, Wotan or Odin would be unclear to a German-speaking reader as the connotations are different.
Translating the “Lady” as “Freya” was a decision taken because it is only one of the many titles given to this goddess and the literal translation from old Norse – in German the word “Herrin” does not have the same connotation and would be misleading. The leader of the valkyrie who chooses the slain needed a clearer name.
Old norse words such as Miklagard (Constantinople)were left unchanged as changing them would have seriously altered the atmosphere of the story.
What music did I listen to with the raw version? When doing the raw version of a translation I usually listen to instrumental music (there are a few songs with lyrics but only in the background.) My first choice is my favourite music website Magnatune that is strong on ambient and new age albums. In this case I went for Kourosh Dini’s Legends Mist. These wonderful piano pieces followed my steps into mythical worlds where Odin and the valkyrie choose the slain – and who call back the dead to the world of the living to take revenge in the name of One-Eye.
Your assessment? I am fairly sure that both books will appeal to readers who appreciate texts like Beowulf, the Edda, the Kalevala and similar epic works from Central and Northern Europe. The average reader of fantasy literature might find them difficult to read if they are not accustomed to high fantasy by the likes of Tolkien, Williams or George R.R. Martin. There also seems to be an intercultural issue at hand. A book like Elfgift received best marks on Amazon.co.uk; Elfking received 3.5 out of 5 points at Library Thing but in Germany readers’ reviews are not so positive. On Amazon.de one reviewer noted that the “protagonist wasn’t really developped” (a very interesting claim) and another stated that “Elfgift behaves like the hero of the old sagas: he is violent, he is a macho, he is complacent” (again, a very interesting claim. What expectation could you have from an “old saga”?) This is quite a pity because both books are a decent read (hopefully in German, too). Not blockbuster titles, but still worth reading.
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As of today I am being honoured by working as a translator at the Europäische Übersetzer-Kollegium. The EÜK offers professional translators the chance of working in an institution with more than 100,000 volumes of specialist literature, making it unique in the realm of literary translations: It is the first and the largest of its kind.
Right now, I am living in room no. 3 with access to our cute garden and about 1,500 books in my wonderful premises – English literature from John Henry to Nancy Huston. So for tonight my good-night’s-read has been secured: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World will most certainly help me sleep without any troubled dreams…
For the next three weeks I will be staying at the picturesque city of Straelen at the Lower Rhine and translating a short story collection of a female British detective story author of some renown. Who that may be I will disclose before the end of the year…
Please accept my apologies for the low quality of the pictures. I didn’t take a decent camera with me but then everything will change in the future.
My sincerest apologies but this article is only available in Deutsch. If you are interested in a translation please feel free to contact me anytime.