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Deeply Disappointing Heavily Abridged Translation
on 8 September 2015
This is not so much a review of Snorri Sturluson's Edda as it is specifically a review of Jesse Byock's heavily abridged translation of the same, published by Penguin Classics.
I was deeply disappointed by Byock's heavily abridged translation, for obvious reasons. Snorri Sturluson's Edda makes no pretence of being a work of literature, and neither in the original Old Icelandic nor in a modern English translation like Byock's does it read particularly well. But it doesn't need to. The Edda's primary value for the modern reader, and the reason why Snorri Sturluson wrote or compiled it back in the thirteenth century, is that it serves as a uniquely detailed and largely coherent summary of the Old Norse mythos, by an author or antiquarian who, born 180 years after Iceland converted to Christianity, was rightly concerned that what had previously been common knowledge of the gods, goddesses and myths of Iceland and Norway (if not the broader Norse diaspora) was fading away into oblivion. In compiling this work, Snorri has done us a favour unique in mediaeval literature: without his Edda we would not know even half as much about Norse mythology as we do, and its only other significant repository, the anonymus Poetic Edda, would be largely incomprehensible. As a result, Norse mythology is as widely known, enjoyed and influential as that of the Romans and the Greeks (whose own mythologies were documented while their religious aspects were still practiced), the significance of which can only be fully appreciated when one considers how much of the prechristian traditions of Europe, not having been documented in a similar way, are forever lost to us. To take only one tragic example, although the Lithuanian peoples were the last Europeans to officially convert to Christianity, as recently as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we nevertheless know very little about what they converted from – their traditions were not written down in any form even remotely comparable to the level of detail of the earlier Norse Eddas, let alone the surviving literature of Mediterranean antiquity.
For all these reasons it should be obvious to anyone that a modern reader, unable to read Old Icelandic and therefore requiring a thorough and meticulously accurate translation, will come to Snorri's Edda not in order to enjoy it as a work of literature (which it was never intended to be) but to savour each and every detail of what its compiler wanted to preserve of Norse mythology for prosperity. But Byock, arbitrarily abridging the second third of Snorri's Edda (Skáldskaparmál, On the Language of Poetry), and wholly omitting the last (Háttatal, List of Metres), robs readers of that possibility. Yes, he gives us a workmanlike translation of the first third (Gylfaginning, The Deluding of Gylfi), in which we are treated to, inter alia, Snorri's accounts of the Norse creation myths, of the Æsir (the Norse gods), of the god Freyr and his love for the giantess Gerðr, of the unlikely partnership of the gods Thor and Loki, of Thor's subsequent fishing expedition, of the tragic murder of Baldr the Good and its aftermath, and, finally, of the Norse Apocalypse, Ragnarök. But this is not enough, and these relatively well-known stories will certainly not satisfy the reader thirsting to deepen his or her knowledge of Old Norse mythology. Who today knows anything about the goddesses Eir, Fulla, Gefjun, Gná, Hlín, Lofn, Nanna, Sága, Sjöfn, Syn, Vár or Vör? Or enough about the gods Hermóðr, Höðr, Hœnir, Týr, Ullr, Váli and Víðarr? As a well-educated and intelligent reader extremely interested in Norse mythology, I deeply resent having Byock's subjective opinions that Skáldskaparmál and Háttatal are pedantic, technical and obscure imposed on me. I can make such value judgements for myself, and, in the (actually unlikely) event that I find any part of Skáldskaparmál and Háttatal pedantic or obscure, I can do the skipping myself, but to be able to do that, I have to have something to skip! And Byock's arbitrary abridgement robs both me of that possibility and his own translation of any lasting value for the interested layman. One can only wonder what the commissioning editors at Penguin Classics were thinking, other than, “Quick, Everyman have a translation of Snorri's Edda out, we need one too. Which hack will collude with us in churning one out as fast as possible?” Shame on you, Penguin Classics! Shame on you!
Footnote about Byock's anglicization of Old Norse names: The anglicization of Old Norse names has long been a contentious topic. Even a purist like me will concede that there are valid arguments for using the well-known modern English forms Odin and Thor (to give only two examples) instead of the actual Old Icelandic names Óðinn and Þórr, though personally I would already prefer the correct Valhöll in place of the erroneous but widespread Valhalla (to give a third). But Byock, like many other translators, takes anglicization to a ridiculous level. There _are_ no modern English forms of Alsviðr, Alþjólfr, Ámsvartnir, Andhrímnir and Andlangr (to take a random fragment of the Glossary at the back), so what is the point of rendering them as Alsvinn (sic!), Althjolf, Amsvartnir, Andhrimnir and Andlang, other than to rob the translation of Old Icelandic flavour? And the absurd lengths to which Byock's irrational anglicization is taken reach their nadir when we come to the subject of the many names of Odin. To take just one example, his secret name Þriði is anglicized as Thrid. But this is patently absurd when you consider that the whole point of this name is that it means “Third” and refers to one of the three aspects of Odin (High, Just-as-high, and Third) doing the deluding in The Deluding of Gylfi. Leave it as Þriði for the purists, or translate it as Third for the layman, but rendering it as “Thrid” is just being stupid!