Introduction and Critical Material

Anderson, Karl. "Scandinavian Elements in the Works of William Morris."
     Diss., Harvard University, 1940, 391-404.

Chapter IV, "Morris's Style of Translation"

Part I: Methods Used by Morris and Magnússon in Preparing their Translations

In the chronological survey which I have just completed of Morris’s Scandinavian studies, I have not, except for a few, brief, passing remarks, described the method of work with Morris and his collaborator, Eiríkr Wagnússon, followed in turning the Icelandic sagas into English, nor have I described and discussed the style of translation which Morris adopted for his English version of these tales. Both these matters are questions of great importance. Morris’s style of translation has been a subject of discussion among critics ever since his renderings began to be published, and it has exerted a wide influence upon later translators of Old Norse and Old English works; it is consequently essential for us to determine as definitely as possible just what part each of the two collaborators played in producing these English versions, Morris’s aims as a translator, the steps in the evolution of his style of translation, and, finally, the merits and defects of his method of translation.

As I have already stated in Chapter I,1 Morris first met Eiríkr Magnússon, his collaborator, late in the summer of 1868, and he immediately decided to take lessons in Icelandic from his new friend so that he would be albe to read the sagas in the original, some of which he had already come to know through translations. In the Preface to Volume VI of The Saga Library Magnússon

  1. See above pages 42-43.

[392] presents a very vivid account of the beginnings of Morris’s Scandinavian studies:
His [Morris’s] first taste of Icelandic literature was the story of ‘Gunnlung 1 the Snaketongue.’ I suggested we had better start with some grammar. ‘No, I can’t be bothered with grammar; have no time for it. You be my grammar as we translate. I want the literature, I must have the story. I mean to amuse myself.’ I read out to him some opening passages of the saga, in order to give him an idea of the modern pronunciation of the language. He repeated the passus as well as could be expected of a first beginner at five-and-thirty, naturally endowed with not a very flexible organ. But immediately he flew back to the beginning, saying: ‘But, look here, I see through it all, let me try and translate.’ Off he started, translated, blundered, laughed; but still, he saw through it all with an intuition that fairly took me aback. Henceforth no time must be wasted on reading out the original. He must have the story as quickly as possible. …In this way the best of the sagas were run through, at daily sittings, generally covering three hours, already before I left London for Cambridge in 1871. And even after that much work was still done, when I found time to come and stay with him.2

Some of the sagas which Morris and Magnússon thus read together they decided to publish in an English form; the procedure which they followed in producing such translations was described by Magnússon in a letter he wrote to Miss Morris in the early years of the twentieth century when she was preparing her edition of the Collected Works of her father:

We went together over the day’s task as carefully as the eager-mindedness of the pupil to acquire the story would allow. I afterwards wrote out at home a literal translation of it and handed it to him at our next lesson. With this before him Morris wrote down at his leisure his own version in his own style, which ultimately did service as printer’s copy when the Saga was published. 3
To this account should be added the statement by Magnússon, in the Preface to Volume VI of The Saga Library, regarding their method of work in preparing the translations included in that

  1. The name “Gunnlung” must be a misprint for “Gunnlaug.”
  2. Saga Library, VI, XIII-XIV.
  3. Collected Works, VII, XVII.

The work on it [The Saga Library] was divided between Morris and myself in the following manner: Having read together the sagas contained in the first three volumes, Morris wrote out the translation and I collated his MS. with the original. For the last two volumes of the Haimskringla the process was reversed, I doing the translation, he the collation; the style, too, he emended throughout in accordance with his own ideal.1

These statements by Magnússon present a fairly definite account of the way in which the tow collaborators produced their English version of the sagas. Still further details are furnished by the holograph manuscripts that have survived of these renderings. Man of these manuscripts will be discussed in great detail later in this chapter, and in some cases specimen pages will be presented in the Appendixes; here I shall simply comment on those features of these works which thrown light on Morris’s and Magnússon’s procedure. One of the most interesting of these manuscripts is that of the translation of the Grettis saga, 2 which was one of the first Icelandic tales Morris and Magnússon read together. Here Morris has written out the English rendering, Magnússon has corrected it, and Morris has in turn passed judgment on Magnússon’s revisions. The resulting version, in part at least, served as printer’s copy. Moreover, occasional differences between the final manuscript form and the published text show that still more changes, evidently to be attributed to both Morris and Magnússon, were made in the proofreading. In the manuscript of the Eyrbyggja saga translation,3 the rendering is again in the hand of Morris, but here there are no corrections by Magnússon.

  1. Saga Library, VI, VII.
  2. For a detailed account of this manuscript, see below pages 529-539.

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Evidently, when the two collaborators read this saga in the late 1860’s, they at first planned to publish a translation of it, and then decided not to do so, Magnússon therefore not taking the trouble to revise Morris’s draft. When they did print a translation of the Eyrbyggja saga in 1892 in Volume II of The Saga Library, Morris apparently wrote out an entirely new rendering, for the manuscript under consideration almost certainly was not the immediate source of the printed text; not only are the differences between the published form and the manuscript version so extensive that they cannot be the result of changes made in the course of the printing, but there are no notes and directions to the printers in this manuscript, such as we find in some of the others. Also in the hand of Morris are the manuscripts of the translation of Three Northern Love Stories, Hogni and Hedinn, Roi the Fool, and Thorstein Staff-smitten, of The Story of Howard the Halt, of The Story of King Harald Greyfell and of Earl Hakon the Son of Sigurd, and of The Story of King Olaf Tryggvason; these manuscripts I have not had an opportunity to examine, but brief descriptions of them in a bookseller’s catalogue reveal their nature.1

Of an entirely different type are the manuscripts of the later part of the Heimskringla translation. In the manuscripts of The Story of Olaf the Holy, the Son of Harald and The Story

  1. See Items Number 438, 439, 448, and 450 in Catalogue of the Valuable Library of Ancient Manuscripts and Valuable and Rare Printed Books, Including Several Original Holograph MSS of the Publications of William Morris; The Kelmscott Press Books on Vellum; The Essex & Other Art Presses, &c.., The Property of Lawrence W. Hodson, Esq., of Compton Hall, Wolverhampton, Which Will be Sold by Auction, by Messre. Sotheby, Wilkinson, & Hodge…On Monday, 3rd of Decmeber, 1906, and two following Days…

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of Sigurd the Jerusalem-farer, Eystein, and Olaf, 1 both of which I have seen, Magnússon has written out the original translation, using only the right-hand page; in the case of the “vísur,” he has copied out the Icelandic in the prose order and has given the English rendering underneath, word by word; Morris has revised the prose directly on the right-hand page, making extensive changes, and has placed his verse translation of the “vísur” on the left-hand page, opposite Magnússon’s prose rendering. In this form the manuscript was sent to the printer. Finally, still further alterations were made, evidently by both Morris and Magnússon, in the proofreading, for we find a number of differences between the final manuscript version and the published test, just as in the case of the Grettis saga translation. Occasionally on the left-hand page we find notes in Morris’s hand, querying renderings by Magnússon or suggesting different interpretations; a letter written by Morris to Magnússon, which is quoted by Miss May Morris in one of her works, indicates that after Morris had revised Magnússon’s English version, the two collaborators were in the habit of meeting and discussing their work, 2 and it was evidently with these discussions in mind that Morris made the notes just mentioned. Finally I should like to point out that the manuscripts of The Story of Magnus the Good and The Story of Harald the Hard-redy, the sagas immediately following the Ólafs saga hins helga in the Heimskringla, are also in the handwriting of Magnússon, with

  1. For a detailed account of this manuscript, see below pages 398 ff.
  2. See William Morris: Artist Writer Socialist, I, 460. After complaining of the difficult task of turning the Icelandic “vísur” into English verse without departing too far from the sense of the

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alterations by Morris; I have not seen either one of these manuscripts, but the first is thus described in a bookseller’s catalogue 1 and the nature of the second is revealed in a remark made by Miss May Morris in one of her discussions of her fahter’s Scandinavian work. 2
On the basis, then, of Magnússon’s accounts and of these manuscripts, we can make a fairly definite statement as to how Morris and Magnússon proceeded in preparing their translations. In the early years of this work they first read together the saga selected; then Magnússon wrote out a translation, and on the basis of this draft Morris produced a new rendering; this version was revised by Magnússon, and Morris in turn passed judgment on Magnússon’s alterations; the manuscript then went to the printer; finally a few more changes were made while the work was being printed. When they prepared their later translations, Morris took Magnússon’s literal draft and made the changes he wanted directly on these sheets, instead of writing out an entirely new version; during this stage of the work the two collaborators met for discussion of troublesome passages; Magnússon’s original draft with Morris’s alterations was sent then to the printer, but before the text was put into final form, a few more changes were made. Inasmuch as all the manuscripts of Icelandic translations that are in Morris’s hand are of sagas that were turned into English in the late 1860’s and the 1870’s, and all the manuscripts in which the original rendering has been written out by Magnússon and the changes

  1. See Item No. 1072 in Maggs Brothers’ Catalogue, No. 578(1932).
  2. See William Morris: Artist Writer Socialist, I, 456-457.


have been made by Morris are of sagas that were translated in the 1890’s, it seems fairly safe to assume that the first method described above was used in preparing all the translations that were produced from 1868 to the time when Morris gave up his literary activities for public life late in the 1870’s, and that the second procedure was followed in all the saga-translating done in the 1890’s, after Morris’s return to literature.1

Part II: Morris as a Mature Translator of Old Norse

Far more important and much more complex than the question of Morris’s and Magnússon’s method of translation, is the question of Morris’s principles of translation. So far as I know, Morris never wrote out any direct statement of his aims as a translator; however from those manuscripts in which Magnússon produced the original rendering and Morris made his alterations directly on the same sheets, we can ascertain fairly definitely, by analyzing these changes, just what he was striving for. With this purpose in mind I have examined very carefully all the alterations that Morris made in the first half of Magnússon’s translation of the Sigurðar saga Jórsalafara, Eysteins ok Ólafs, one of the last of

  1. This assumption does not, of course, conflict with Magnússon’s statement, quoted above, in regard to the way in which The Saga Library was prepared. Magnússon says, it will be remembered, that in the case of the sagas included in the first three volumes Morris “wrote out the translation and I collated his MS. with the original,” and that for “the last two volumes of the Heimskringla the process was reversed, I doing the translation, he the collation” (Saga Library, VI, vii); however, although all these saga-renderings were published for the first time between 1891 and 1895, we know definitely that all the tales included in the first three volumes, with the exception of The Story of the Heath-Slayings, were actually translated in the 1860’s and 1870’s, and very likely the Heiðarvíga saga also was turned into English at that time, although we do not happen to have any definite information about the

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the Heimskringla sagas. 1 The manuscript containing this rendering consists of forty-six folio leaves, with Magnússon’s original draft on the right-hand page and with Morris’s revisions of the prose on the same side and his verse renderings of the “vísur” on the left-hand page, just as I have described above. My reason for choosing this manuscript as the basis of my investigation of Morris’s principles of translation is that it is extremely well suited for such a study, in view of the fact that the rendering contained in this manuscript was prepared in the 1890’s, when Morris was a mature translator of Old Norse, thoroughly acquainted with the language and with fully developed ideas as to the form which he considered proper for an English version of the Icelandic sagas. 2 In fact, the manuscript of the translation of that part of the Heimskringla in which this saga is included was once cited by Magnússon as “a particularly safe, indeed an indispensable basis” for a study of Morris as a translator of Old Norse; Magnússon wrote,

Among the literary remains of Willaim Morris the MS on which the second and third vols. of Snorri Sturlusion’s Heimskringla (being the fourth and fifth vols of the Saga Library) are based forms a particularly save, indeed an indispensable basis whereon the future criticism of the great man’s relation to old northern literature is to be based….

The interest of this record of Morris’ literary activity lies in the method adopted by him for the purpose of putting his own stamp on the style of the translation of Snorri Sturluson’s work. 3
The complete results of this study of the first part of the

  1. This manuscript is now in the possession of Professor Paul R. Lieder of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
  2. For information regarding the date of Morris’s translation of this saga, see above pages 344-348.
  3. Einarsson, “Eiríkr Magnússon and his Saga-translations,” p. 27.


manuscripts translation of the Sigurðar saga Jórsalafara, Eysteins ok Ólafs are presented in Appendix I. I have there first reproduced the test of the translation, placing on the left-hand page Magnússon’s original draft and on the right-hand page Morris’s revised version. I have then listed, first all the changes that Morris made in the prose of Magnússon’s rendering of the first half of the saga, secondly, the alterations he made in the “vísur,” thirdly, the revisions Morris and Magnússon both made in their own work, and lastly, the words and expressions which appear in the printed text in a different form from that in the final manuscript version and which must have been altered in the proofreading; in each case I have classified the changes according to the reasons for which they seem to have been made.

In the vast majority of cases, the motives which lay behind Morris’s alterations in Magnússon’s draft translation can be determined with a fair degree of certainty. Thus, if we analyze the changes Morris made in the prose of Magnússon’s rendering, as I have done in Part B of Appendix I, we find that it is clear that in a large group of alterations Morris was striving to bring the translation closer to the original, in another group he was aiming to give the rendering a suitable tone, and in a third group he was simply endeavoring to improve the quality of the language, correcting minor mistakes and awkward constructions which were the result either of Magnússon’s too close adherence to the text or of his lack of complete familiarity with English usage. We also find that in an number of changes Morris altered the form of proper nouns, the reason for these changes evidently being, as I shall show later, that he sometimes disagreed with Magnússon as to how



an Old Norse namany certainty Morris’s exact motive; in other cases it is impossible even to suggest likely reasons. These alterations I have listed in the Appendix under the heading “Miscellaneous Changes.”

The largest and by all means the most important group of alterations that Morris made in the prose of Magnússon’s translation of the first half of the Sigurðar saga Jórsalafara, Eysteins ok Ólafs is the first one mentioned above – namely, the group of changes in which Morris seems to be seeking to bring the rendering closer to the original; in the work examined, 1007 alterations – more that sixty per cent of the total 1582 – can be safely ascribed to this motive.

These 1007 changes fall into three classes. In the first one, consisting of 401 alterations, Morris seems to have been solely or primarily concerned with reproducing more literally the meaning or substance of the Old Norse; in the second class, which is made up of 232 changes, he was apparently endeavoring to imitate important features of the style of the sagas; in the third class, to which 374 alterations belong, he appears to have been trying to reproduce more closely the character of the diction of the original.

I shall first discuss those changes which fall into the first of these three classes. The great majority of these revisions, it must be admitted, are comparatively unimportant, for, as is to be expected, Magnússon’s rendering is very literal and mistakes

in translation are extremely rare in his work. Morris seems to have been possessed with a passion for reproducing the substance of his original as exactly as possible, and he appears to have been tireless in making alterations for this purpose even though his changes in many cases had no perceptible effect on the meaning of a passage and did not reproduce the form of the Old Norse more faithfully. In a number of these revisions little or nothing seems to be gained, and his effort appears to be wasted. In order to show how painstaking Morris was in his desire for fidelity to the substance of the original, I have divided these alterations into two groups, the first one consisting of revisions of this type which involve major sentence elements and the second one being made up of changes which deal with minor parts of speech, such as articles, prepositions, demonstratives, and connectives.

As I have already stated, of the 1007 alterations in which Morris was apparently striving to bring the translation closer to the Old Norse, 401 or about forty per cent of the total, are devoted primarily to the more exact reproduction of the sense or substance of the original. 1 Of these 401 changes, 294 involve major sentence elements.2 Perhaps the most important of these are the 36 alterations in which he inserted words or phrases that Magnússon had omitted. Nine of these revisions, however, consist simply of the insertion of the adverb “then” in imitation of the Old Norse use of “pá” at the beginning of the main clause of a sentence when an inverted clause stands first; 3 note, for example,

  1. For a complete list of these changes, see below, pages 721-767.
  2. For a complete list of these changes, see below, pages 721-735.

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the following changes:
XIV, 16-7, And when King Sigurd came to                             670, 22-4, En er Si-
Sleswick in Denmark Earl Eilif gave him a                              gurðr konungr kom í
glorious banquet: And when King Sigurd                                Slésvík á Danmörk, pá
came to Sleswick in Denmark then Earl Eilif                           veitti Eilifr jarl
gave him a glorious banquet 1                                                      honum dýrliga veizlu
XXII, 23-4, Now when things had come to                             676, 34-677, 1, Ok
such a pass…, he went to see King Ey-                                               er í pat efni var komit
stein: Now when things had come to such a                            …, pá ferr hann á fund
pass…, then fares he to find King Eystein                               Eysteins konungs

This use of “pá” is of course entirely normal in Old Norse, but the use of “then” in English in such a position is considered redundant and therefore undesirable. The other 27 alterations of this type are devoted to the insertion of more important sentence elements, such as nouns, adjectives, verbs, and even phrases, as in the following cases:2

XVIII, 17, What the matter is I may not tell: What it is, lord, I may not tell out
XXIII, 98-9, at the Thing of Ere: at the Ere-Thing in Nidoyce
672, 2930, pat sem er, herra! má ek ekki frá segja
678, 29, á Eyrapingi í Niðarósi

These revisions, unlike the ones just considered, are entirely justified, and they are on the whole not objectionable, for in only a few cases is the resulting translation awkward; in none of these changes, however, does Morris’s insertion have an important effect upon the meaning of the passage involved.

In 10 of the alterations that Morris made for the sake of greater exactness he revived an Old and Middle English construction – namely, the use of an active infinitive with the verb “to let” in the sense of “to cause.”3 This construction occurs frequently in the Old Norse, but Morris’s use of it in the English translation

  1. In quoting specimen changes, I have followed the same form as that used in the Appendix. Thus, the reference in the left-hand column is to the chapter and line in Morris’s translation as it is presented in Part A of Appendix I; then follow, first, Magnússon’s original rendering and then, after the colon, Morris’s revised version. The reference in the right-hand column is to the page and line in Unger’s edition of the Heimskringla, the text on which Morris and Magnússon based their translation; then comes the Old Norse original.

Please note footnotes 2 and 3 are cut off from the bottom of the page.

is extremely awkward, as the following examples show:
IV, 6-7, he should let market be holden:                        662, 29-30, skyldi jarl
the earl should let set market                                         láta setja…torg
XII, 13, then the kaiser had pall spread                         668, 28-9, pá lét kei-
over all the streets: Then let the kaiser                                    sarinn breiða pell um
spread pall over all the streets                                       öll stra͜eti

A very large number of the changes that Morris made in order to render more literally the substance of his text are concerned with the reproduction of the word order found in the original. As I shall show later, Morris made a number of revisions in which he imitated the Old Norse order of words when the normal word order had been disrupted for the purpose of giving emphasis to certain words or phrases: such alterations are extremely important, for they serve to reproduce a feature of the style of the original. The changes that are not to be considered, however, are of little significance, for the word order imitated in them has no stylistic value. About half of them, for example – 51 of the total 100, to be exact – are devoted to the imitation of the Old Norse inversion of subject and verb in sentences in which adjectival or adverbial modifiers or the object are placed first.1 Old Norse usage demanded the inversion of the subject and verb in such sentences, but this departure from the normal word order in English is very awkward. In fact, Morris’s careful reproduction of this peculiarity of Old Norse word order is to a large extent responsible for the artificiality and very un-English character of the translation. Note, for example, the following alterations:

III, 2-3, Four winters after the fall of King Magnus, King Sigurd went with his company away from Norway, having sixty ships: Four winters after the fall of King Magnus, fared King Sigurd his folk away from Norway; then had he sixty ships
662, 6, Fjórum vetrum eptir fall Magnús konungs, fór Sigurðr konungr liði sínu or Noregi; pá hafði hann 60 skipa

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VI, 22, Then King Sigurd cast about for a stratagem: Then sought King Sigurd a rede thereto
664, 30, pá leitaði Sigurðr konungr sér ráða
Some of the changes even make the translation misleading:
IX, 9-10, Another daughter of King William the Duke of Cyprus had for wife: Another daughter of King William had the Duke of Cyprus
666, 23-4, Aðra dóttur Vilhjálms konungs átti hertogi af Kípr

In the Old Norse the case endings make it clear that “hertogi” is the subject of the verb and “aðro dóttur” the object even though the order of words is inverted; in Morris’s English rendering, however, “daughter” appears to be the subject.

In the other 49 alterations in which he reproduced more exactly the word order of the original, he did not imitate any special Old Norse usage; 1 here he simply rearranged the words in Magnússon’s translation in order to conform to the order of words found in the saga, even though that order had no particular significance. On the whole these revisions neither impair nor improve the rendering. In only a few cases are the results of these alterations awkward. The following changes may serve as examples:

XI, 17-8, And when the kings had besieged                          667, 30-1, Ok pá er    
the town for a little while : And when the                             peir konungarnir hőfðu
kings had a little while set before the                                     litla hríð setit um
town                                                                                                    borgina
XXII, 95-6, I bring forward with witnesses                           678, 26-7, flyt ek
the fact : I bring forth that case with                                      mál pat með vitnum
witnesses                                                                                             fram

The remaining 148 revisions in which Morris reproduced more literally the substance or form of the Old Norse are of a miscellaneous nature.2 Most of them are unimportant, but in two cases he corrected translations by Magnússon that were inaccurate. In one passage Magnússon had failed to notice the particular sense

  1. See below, pages 725-728, the changes in Group I, A, 1, c, (2).

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