Archive of Issues
Archive of Narrations
Syndic Literary Journal

Notes from the Translator

Written and Narrated

By  Clayton McMillan


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.



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

Archive of Issues

Archive of Narrations