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Syndic Literary Journal

Notes from the Translator

Written and Narrated

By Clayton McMillan

Part 2

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
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