Archive of Issues
Archive of Narrations
Syndic Literary Journal

Notes From The Translator

Written / Narrated by Clayton McMillan


Iceland is famous for summer nights in which it never really gets dark and winter days in which the sun is barely up before it starts to set. Since its discovery by Vikings in 860, this island in the North Atlantic has produced many great writers. Hunkered down in sod houses buried beneath the snow and cold of brutal winters, they developed the great art of storytelling known as the sagas. The tradition of the sagas is carried on in modern Icelandic fiction. Thanks to gifted translators, Icelandic stories are available to enthusiastic readers around the world. Translation requires great skill, even if it’s just turning a foreign language menu into English. The translation of its stories into English put Iceland on the world map.

Many governments sponsor post-graduate fellowships in other countries as a way of fostering peace and understanding between peoples. One of the most prestigious from the US Government is the Fulbright Fellowship.

In Notes from the Translator, Peter has a Fulbright to research the sagas and does translation on the side. He spends most of his time in an institute in the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik. There he meets  a German academic, Freja, who is researching a well-known Icelandic author. Together they stumble upon a major literary heist.


It was disturbing.

He was alone. Looking out the window, he saw a bit of newspaper fluttering down the street, its flickering shadow dancing along the walls in the midnight sun. The chairs in the study hall were neatly arranged. His papers were spread across the entire table, as if he were the only person in the institute.

He examined the page; his words had been crossed out with red ink. He ran his fingers over the red along the margin. Was it a threat? An insult? A phantom hand was editing his work. Improving it, in fact.

As a rule, he spoke Icelandic with everyone. When he approached the night watchman’s door that night, Peter asked, “Was there anyone else in the building tonight?”

“Einn eða tveir aðrir.” One or two others.

“When did they leave?”


Peter’s project was researching the Icelandic sagas, but he had become obsessed with translating into English before anyone else did Halldór Laxness’s Descendant Proud. After Laxness, his ambition was to write his own fiction, but there was no time now. Working at the Institute in close proximity to the ancient manuscripts gave him the feeling he was fulfilling his Fulbright obligations. He was now already halfway through the fellowship.

He was usually one of the last to leave and the night watchman was always there. “You’re American?” he asked gruffly one night, swinging the door open for Peter.

“Yes. Is my accent that obvious?”

“Not bad. It’s better than when you first came.”

A few months earlier, as the days had started getting longer, Peter had asked the watchman, “Is there any possibility I could stay after closing? I’ve found I can really get a lot done in the quiet.” For weeks, he had hesitated to ask. There was something about the night watchman; something had happened to him, or he had done something. On his rounds he would pass through the study hall in which Peter worked. He moved quietly, and the sudden discovery that he was standing there could be quite unnerving. If Peter turned around, the night watchman would nod in his perfunctory manner and move on.

“Perhaps,” the night watchman replied to Peter’s request.  He did not refer Peter to the administration as Peter had expected. Instead, his eyes ushered Peter out the door as usual. The bolt fell loudly into place behind him.

After several weeks with no mention of the request, the night watchman said simply, “It’s been approved.” He did not unbolt the door. He did not step aside to let Peter out. Peter hesitated. A long pause ensued, but the night watchman stood motionless, his arms crossed, blocking the door. Peter felt a momentary panic, but the night watchman did not move as politeness demanded. Finally, he returned to the study hall. It was his first all-night session at the institute. When he left the next morning the night watchman was gone.

On the night that someone had tampered with his work, Peter walked the streets of Reykjavík. He didn’t want to go back to his basement apartment. The bright nighttime light was comforting. The page with the writing in red ink fluttered in his hand. He had been struggling with a particularly important passage in Laxness. He sensed there was something missing in his reading of the Icelandic, and this was reflected in the flatness of his version in English. Two days had gone into translating a single sentence and it still wasn’t right. The phantom hand had crossed out Peter’s sentence and written in the margin a different translation. It was similar, but now it conveyed perfectly in English the sense and mood of Laxness, the history of Iceland, the struggles of the Icelandic people that Peter now recognized in the original. He was seeing something he had never seen before. It was marvelous. He walked calmly home as early morning commuters began to emerge onto the streets. The basement apartment suddenly seemed cozy. He slept better than he had in months.

Soon Peter’s schedule began to align with the night watchman’s. Though the nights were short, there was some darkness now. Peter dismissed his vague feelings of trepidation about the night watchman. Sometimes they would leave the building together, just after the sun came up. At first, they nodded as their ways parted just past the door, then they began to exchange a few words, then they walked together a few blocks in casual conversation. At one point the night watchman extended his hand. “I’m Erik. Erik Einarsson.”


Einarsson spoke in a sort of working-class Icelandic, like the fishermen Peter sometimes overheard at the harbor. On occasion, though, he would say something in a way that belied this social position.

“Translation is an enormously difficult problem, isn’t it?” Einarsson asked one morning out of the blue as they left the institute.

Peter stopped short, surprised. “How did you know I’m working on a translation?”

“A lot of people at the institute are doing translation.”

Peter stiffened. “Laxness?”

“Could be. I don’t know what they work on. But I think it must be very hard. You know, to get the real feeling and reproduce it in another language. It must take a special way of thinking.” Then Einarsson nodded and headed off without a word.

Peter watched him vanish into the light of the just rising sun. He suddenly realized he was cold. Autumn was coming. The next night Einarsson greeted Peter in his usual manner. There was no mention of translation. Peter labored on.

He had forgotten about the unknown editor until it happened again. Returning with a coffee from the automat he found his translation replaced with a better one, again in red ink in the margin, a beautiful capturing of the Icelandic into English. The thrill at being able to grasp that passage in a remarkable new way invited alarm. He was being watched.

In autumn it was dark by closing time. A young woman also stayed after hours. He’d see her crossing from one room to another at the end of a long, dimly lit hallway. The lighting in the corridors, driven by motion sensors, gave her movements an eerie sense of floating. She would turn towards him if a board squeaked underfoot, but then vanish silently down a side corridor. Particularly in the very early morning after hours of silence, seeing another person created a sense of unease.

Again, he found himself struggling with a passage. Turning the corner into the study hall one night with a fresh coffee in his hand, he stopped dead in his tracks. A figure was standing at his table across the room, back towards him, leaning over his papers. It was 4:00 am and a church bell around the corner chimed… one… two… three… four. For an instant the hair stood on the back of his neck.

He  calmed himself. “You’re being ridiculous, Peter.”

As he approached, he recognized the figure as the woman he had seen at the end of the corridor. She did not turn around at the sound of his footsteps, even after he stood close enough to reach out and touch her shoulder. Peter cleared his throat, but still, she did not seem to notice.

Finally, in a friendly way, she looked over her shoulder at him as if she was reluctant to take her eyes off his work. “Hæ hæ, Peter.” Hello, Peter.

” Hvernig veistu nafnið mitt?” How do you know my name? There was an edge in his voice.

“It says right here,” she answered in English, smiling, pointing at one of his papers.

Peter tensed on seeing again the red ink scrawled over his translation. Now he had caught the person in the act!

“This is a very nice translation, don’t you think?” She pointed at the red ink.

Peter relaxed. She had a warm smile that radiated sincerity. Her eyes were filled with the gentle brightness of day even though it was frozen darkness outside. Although he was usually indifferent to perfume, hers pulled him towards her. And he knew immediately that she was not the one changing his translation. She was not a native English speaker, nor was she Icelandic. She spoke fluently in both languages but translating one foreign language into another with ease was a virtual impossibility for even the best translator. That excluded her from suspicion.

He leaned his head over her shoulder to get close enough to read the text. He could feel the warmth of her body. A wisp of her hair brushed across his cheek. It had been a long time since he had stood so close to another person. Reading the text in red ink several times, again, the thrill rushed over him.

“Yes,” Peter acknowledged. “It’s beautiful.” He paused. “Did you write it?” He knew that she had not.

“Of course not! I could never do a translation like this into English. I’m German.” She smiled, and so did he. Then his expression grew serious.

He asked: “Have you seen anyone else tonight?”

“Ingólfsson. Do you know him? He left hours ago.”

As he surveyed the translator’s red ink, she said, “Want to go get a real coffee? I’m ready to get out of this place.”

“At four in the morning?”

“I know an all-night café. It’s not far.”

Exiting together, he asked, “What’ your name?”


“A Norse goddess. I like that.” They both smiled, a little embarrassed.


As previously, Peter incorporated the phantom translation of that night into his text. That proved to be the last time he struggled with Laxness. He was suddenly enormously productive. Descendant Proud is a long, dense work reminiscent of the Icelandic winter, an early 20th century saga of grand proportions. Peter had already been working on it for eight years. Now, he wrapped up in a mere few months the last quarter of the novel. Finding a publisher was not hard. The translation was received warmly throughout the English-speaking world as Laxness, who had won the Nobel Prize five decades earlier, was “discovered”.

Peter began to receive offers of other translation work, from which he could make a decent living. Although he could not work in Iceland as a freelance translator – and the economy was in shambles –Parliament annually granted citizenship to 20 or so exceptional foreign contributors to Icelandic culture. Peter was among them that year, a great honor.

Consequently, he continued the nightly routine at the institute, completing his Fulbright obligations, albeit a few months late, and translating several other works. He sketched out plots to his own works and even wrote chapters. Nothing was finished though.

Erik Einarsson surprised Peter one night as they headed out of the building. “We’d like to invite you over for dinner,” he said in polished Icelandic. It was now the dead of winter, and the sun wouldn’t be up until 10:00. “My wife and I,” he added in response to Peter’s questioning look.

“You have a wife?” 

Peter found Margrét to be charming, a counterweight to Einarsson’s dour nature. Erik must have been about, or overdue to retire and Margrét was his age. They lived in a small villa on the south side of Reykjavik overlooking the water. Margrét must come from money, Peter thought. They had an extensive library. Peter’s translation of Descendant Proud lay on the coffee table in the sitting room. In that one evening he learned more about Iceland than he had in his two years there. Both were enormously knowledgeable about the sagas, literature, everything Icelandic.  When they saw each other the next day at the institute, Peter was taken aback. Erik was speaking again in his working-class Icelandic.

A new routine developed. Peter and Erik sometimes met at a pub before the night watchman’s shift. On occasion Margrét joined them. Conversations were far ranging, and the Einarrsons seemed to be well informed on any topic. At first Peter had a hard time reconciling this literate, elderly couple with the night watchman at the institute. But soon the two apparently dichotomous individuals were easily separated in his mind; the watchman was only present inside the walls of the institute, the literati outside.


“So, tell me, what’s so hard about translation?” Freja asked teasingly.

They had been going to the all-night café together a few times a week since the incident with the phantom editor. There was a bohemian corner where they could stretch out among the cushions and sometimes Freja sat so close that their shoulders touched. Since that first night Peter had wanted to take her hand, to kiss her, to cross the threshold. But translators are quiet loners, not bold actors. So, they frequently ended their all-night work at the institute in the café, faces close enough that Peter could feel her breath on his cheek… discussing their projects and ambitions. He liked to recite Icelandic love poems; and not knowing what to do next, he analyzed them.

Freja’s project was researching an early 20th century Icelandic author, Anna Sigurðardóttir, who had been unheard of until 50 years after her death, when the one known novel she wrote was translated into English and then reissued in Icelandic. Sigurðardóttir had become an international sensation. Freja had a two-year fellowship and was trying to discover in the archives other works she may have authored. 

“You don’t need me to tell you why translation’s hard,” teased Peter with a smile.

A long pause. At last, Freja leaned in a little closer, “I want to hear the sound of your voice.” She was blushing. He felt a nervous thrill.

He took refuge in his translator self. “So, in German you’ve got two words for you, right?”

Sie and du, ” replied Freja. “The formal you and the informal you.

“Yes. Let’s say you’re translating from 19th century English to German. A man and a woman meet for the first time. It’s formal. They use you because that’s all we have in English.”

“Like when we met at the institute.” Her hand slipped onto his. He stiffened.

“Exactly. In the translation from English to German they would use Sie, right?”

“Yes, they would use Sie.” With sudden courage Peter turned his hand over and Freja’s fingers easily interlaced with his. Outside the front window of the café a streetlight illuminated heavily falling snow.

He thought he should try to kiss her.  She was looking directly into his eyes and then at his mouth and then again into his eyes. Their lips were almost touching.  Peter continued. “At some point in the story they become lovers. In English they still say you to each other, though now it means something much more intimate. In German they would have to be using du by now, wouldn’t they?”

“If they are lovers, of course.”

“So, the problem for the translator is when to switch from Sie to du. It must be done, but it forces what in English is a gradual growing in closeness to a single abrupt shift in German. Now they are saying Sie. Next minute, du.”

“I understand.” Peter opened his mouth to continue but Freja put a finger on his lips. Quiet. Suddenly she sat up, placed one hand on each side of his face, pulled him towards her, and kissed him. A long and pleasurable and passionate and sensual kiss in which Peter was momentarily released from his translator bonds. It was wonderful. The falling snowflakes swirled in the streetlight outside, the café was suddenly quiet; Peter could feel his heart pounding.

“You can say du to me now,” she smiled.


When Erik Einarsson again invited Peter to dinner some months later, he said, “Bring Freja.”

“How do you know about her?”

“I’m the night watchman.”

After dinner the four of them were in the sitting room having a brandy. Freja mentioned that Peter was writing a novel. “I’ve read what he has so far. I think it’s brilliant. But I might be biased.”

Erik said, “You must let me read it.”

“It’s in English.” Peter hesitated. It was uncommon for Icelanders Erik’s age to speak more than rudimentary English.

” auðvitað er það.” Of course it is. “You must let me read it. Margrét and I will both read it.”

“I guess I’m kind of embarrassed. I don’t know if it’s any good.”

“Translating is a craft and calls for a craftsman. You are a fine craftsman; we all know that. But the creativity, the art, is in the original writing. We will read it and let you know if you are just a craftsman or also an artist.”

Erik poured them another brandy, then disappeared into the kitchen. Freja perused the bookcase and Peter tried not to be obvious about admiring her while he chatted with Margrét. Suddenly Freja pulled a book out and examined it with great interest, flipping through the pages with excitement. Peter was about to ask what book that was when the subject switched to his background and how he, as a middle-class American, would end up as an Icelandic literary hero.

“You know so much about the U.S.,” Peter observed to Margrét. “Have you spent much time there?”

“I’ve never been there. But I’ve heard all about it.” Responding to Peter’s quizzical look she added, “Erik’s from Ohio.”

Peter’s jaw dropped. Freja stared in astonishment and dropped the book. It was spring, but the arctic night still came early, and it had been dark since they had first arrived. A streetlight outside rocked back and forth with the gusts of wind of an approaching snowstorm, casting Freja’s moving shadow onto the bookcase behind her.

“But his Icelandic is perfect,” Peter said finally.

“Son of immigrants. He grew up bilingual. He prefers to speak Icelandic. We’re in Iceland, after all.”

When Erik returned, Peter confronted him in English, “You’re American?”

Erik looked around the room, at Peter, at Freja with the book at her feet, then at Margrét, and said also in English, “I thought you knew.”

Later that night, Freja’s head resting on Peter’s shoulder in bed at the basement apartment, he asked about the book that had so captivated her interest.

“It was Anna Sigurðardóttir’s novel.”


“It was her novel… and yet it wasn’t.”

The copy she had found in Erik and Margrét’s bookshelf was printed in 1910. A first edition, she had thought, which would have been quite exciting since the earliest copy she had ever seen was from the 1990’s. But as she began to thumb through it, it was all wrong. Although the same story, the same characters, it was nothing like the version that the world knew, the version that had been translated into English, and after that great success, a dozen other languages. It was, frankly, an amateurish work.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course, I’m sure,” she replied with indignation. “I’ve read the Icelandic, English, and German editions countless times. I’m an Icelandic scholar.”

“I’m sorry. I know you are.”

Freja became obsessed with the mystery. The small press that had printed the 1910 version of Sigurðardóttir’s novel had gone bankrupt. There seemed to be no other copies anywhere in Iceland, not in the libraries, not in the institute, not in any of the used bookstores. She thought she might gain some insights from the English translator of the 90’s edition, a Lionel Clark. He had translated several mostly marginal Icelandic works into English. Sigurðardóttir’s novel was the last of his on record. He would be in his 70’s or 80’s by now. She contacted the American publisher, but they had no record of Clark’s whereabouts. A friend in the government looked for a Lionel Clark who might have lived in Iceland but that also came up negative.

A few months later they were again at the Einarrsons’. Freja had had a breakthrough. She and Peter sat on the sofa, Margrét across from them in the armchair. Erik stood in front of the bookcase with a brandy in his hand. They had been talking about Peter’s translation work. He was getting into a rut.

“How’s your writing coming?” Asked Margrét.

“It’s not. After a day of translating, I have no energy.”

“If you are a writer, translation must be suffocating,” observed Erik. “In a way, language is suffocating. We have complex experiences, thoughts, impressions, emotions, events that fluidly metamorphize from one state to another in our heads. In that fluidity is your story. To put it into language is to nail it down into words. That’s constraining enough if you are writing your own story. If you are translating someone else’s, you are bound to a credible interpretation of their fluidity. It’s theirs, not yours, a promethean slog.” He nodded at Peter. “Unless you’re translating Laxness.”

“You know so much about translation,” Freja said with admiration.

There was a long pause, and then she concluded with a sudden accusation, “…Lionel.”

Margrét gasped.

“Freja!” Peter exclaimed with embarrassment.

No one moved. A heavy rain pelted the windowpane in the darkness outside.

Finally, Erik broke the silence with a sense of relief, “How did you know?” She did not answer immediately. He turned towards the bookcase and ran his fingers along the titles as if looking for something, then turned back towards Freja, puzzled.

She held up the 1910 edition. “I borrowed it. I suspect you don’t look at it often, anyway. It’s the only one in existence that I know of,” Freja said.

“I can confirm that. I destroyed all the others.”

Margrét was agitated. Peter was dumbfounded. But now Erik was eyeing Freja with admiration, as she explained how odd it was that Lionel Clark had suddenly vanished, the translator of the edition that had exploded onto the world literary stage with such success. Why would he just disappear, after translating second-rate romances and detective novels from Icelandic to English for so long, after finally having done something great, giving the world Anna Sigurðardóttir. He would have been a literary hero in Iceland just as Peter was now with his Laxness translation.

“But suppose he wanted to disappear?” continued Freja. “He would adopt a different identity, a low-profile identity. He would live in a low-profile place, perhaps right under our noses. I was reminded of what we’ve known all along. You are a very unusual night watchman.”

“You began to connect the dots,” said Erik.

“But that connection was just speculation,” exclaimed Peter.

“Awkward,” exclaimed Margrét.

“I found the proof. Last night at the archives. I wanted to tell you before we came over here, Peter, but you were gone all day.”

“What proof?” asked Peter.

Freja handed Erik a list of rules posted in the institute. Keep the coffee machine clean. Put trash in the bin. “This is your handwriting?”

Erik nodded.

“So?” Asked Peter.

“In the archives I found a handwritten manuscript. It’s a duplicate of the text in this book. It’s the original Anna Sigurðardóttir. Uninspiring. I borrowed a page.” She laid it on the table.

“I thought that was long lost,” said Erik.

The main text was in a thin, faded, feminine scrawl, which was heavily edited in a strong red, ballpoint pen. The margins were filled with more text in red ink.

“The red ink is the same handwriting as the institute rules. It’s the same handwriting Peter found on his translations at the institute.”

Peter picked up the paper. He looked at Erik, then Margrét, then Freja, then Erik. “You’re the phantom hand!”


In the early 90’s Erik Einarsson had been doing a lot of hack translating, pop novels mostly. You could do them while watching TV. It was work, but uninteresting. One day an elderly woman contacted him. It

was Anna Sigurðardóttir’s daughter, Guðrún. Frustrated by the long ago fall into obscurity of her mother’s novel, she wanted it translated into English. Americans, they love this kind of story, and there are lots of Americans. After reading the first few pages Erik declined, but he and Margrét needed the money, and Guðrún made him a handsome offer.

Erik had been agonizing for years over being a hack. There was a creative explosion simmering inside him, needing release. Translating was suffocating, uninteresting work. He had begun drinking, and the Sigurðardóttir translation only accelerated it.

“It was not a good time,” Margrét said.

Erick nodded. “Each of Anna’s pages was covered in my red ink. I began to become more and more frustrated.”

Margrét interjected, “One night, I heard Erik typing furiously in his study. I knew better than to interrupt.”

“I had had a little too much whisky. I started typing the first page and quickly found myself deviating from Anna’s creation into my own. ‘What the hell,’ I thought. The main plot, it was not bad, the characters, at least as I imagined them, had promise. It was exhilarating to be cut free!”

Margrét added, “He typed all night and all day. I brought food, but he didn’t even open the door.”

“When I sobered up, I was still typing. Reality hit. Guðrún would discover my translation was not a translation at all. That I had stolen her mother’s story. And I still needed to get paid. But how would she know? She didn’t speak a word of English. And who else would judge? She would try to find a publisher, to no avail. I know it sounds bad; she was quite elderly; she would not live to see it through.”

“But she did live, and she did find a publisher,” said Margrét. In New York. “Imagine our surprise, our consternation, our horror when we started reading about the English translation of ‘Anna’s’ novel in the Icelandic press. It was becoming a huge success in America.”

There were weeks of sleepless nights. To discover Erik’s deceit would require a person who reads both English and Icelandic well, and that person would have to take the trouble to read the novel in both languages. If the novel remained obscure that was unlikely, but with growing attention it was bound to happen. They devised a plan. As Guðrún’ s health began to fail, she had given Erik the originals of the 1910 edition, which had never been distributed. Erik and Margrét would destroy all evidence and Margrét would translate Erik’s English version back into Icelandic, thus creating a new, literarily acclaimed Sigurðardóttir novel.

“You were a translator too?” Asked Freja.

Margrét nodded.

They found an Icelandic publisher to pick up Margrét’s version. It too was commercially successful and over the last two decades Anna Sigurðardóttir’s novel had w

Erik concluded, “As you say, Freja, we adopted a low profile. If it were to come out that one of the best-known Icelandic novels of the early 20th century had been hijacked from a native Icelander by an American, well, it would not be good.”

He therefore gave up translation and let his working name, Lionel Clark, die. He took the job of night watchman at the institute. He found solace in the quiet of the place, where he was able to come to terms with what had happened. He could move about practically unnoticed. He knew what people were working on. In Peter he saw the translator he had wanted to be, bringing to the world the greatness of Icelandic Literature, the majesty of Laxness. He had seen Peter struggling on a passage, and on an impulse provided the solution.

“Peter, do you understand now why I had to remain anonymous as the ‘phantom hand’, as you call it?”


In fact, Peter did understand. The translator temporarily becomes the author, assuming the persona and style of the other. Inhabiting the thoughts and feelings of the author, a substitution of sorts, translators reorganize their own minds to fit the fashion and words of the original language. Although not identical, the author and the translator share the same mindset. Owing to this sharing, Anna’s marginal story had become Erik’s great one, reflecting Erik’s gift as a writer, a gift that had languished in anonymity, in fear of discovery, for 20 years.

But why had Erik not confided in Peter? Why the phantom hand? Was there no trust in their friendship? He felt deceived. Freja too. There was estrangement. Months went by. Peter and Freja quit going to the institute. Sometimes they talked about Erik, and Anna’s novel. As an expert on Sigurðardóttir Freja faced a particular dilemma. She had written scholarly articles on the novel; she had researched and tied together the limited facts of Anna’s life; she had wound those into the fabric of the novel. Erik’s novel. They debated whether they should reveal the truth to the world. But to what end? Whether the novel was written by an America or not, it was now Icelandic Literature.

One day they found a large envelope in their mailbox. It was Peter’s manuscript that he had given to Erik. It had a note:

“You are a fine craftsman. We all know that. You are also an artist. Finish it.”

A year passed. Freja and Peter were standing in front of the Bókavarðan Bookstore looking at the window display featuring Peter’s first novel, published in English. They missed the company of Erik and Margrét. A letter came from Margrét. They both silently feared something might have happened to Erik.

It was a card. “Congratulations. It’s beautiful. Would you let me translate it into Icelandic?”

Peter called Margrét. It would be an honor. He would like to see Erik. Could they meet at the pub? Margrét hesitated. “He’s locked up in his study. He’s writing. He’s been writing since we last saw you. “Wait.” She returned a moment later. “Peter, he will come.”






Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
History of Syndic
Write Letter / Contact Publisher
© all photos/text

Archive of Issues

Archive of Narrations