The Old Book Rediscovered

By way of exception, this post is not about translation. Though while I am writing this, translation or translators are still at the back of my mind.

Many years ago, at the Language Olympics in St. Petersburg, I was introduced to a scholarly book by an unfamiliar Russian author. The book was a present from a Byelorussian student, another Olympics participant. Never mind the author or the subject, she told me when she gave me the book. Read it, I think you’ll like it.

So I did. In fact, this book is still on my bookshelf today. I read it in Russian back then, but I heard it was also available in English, Icelandic and Japanese. However, I never came across this book or any other books by the author since then (mine was published in 1984 by Nauka, the main scientific publisher in the then USSR, with the venerable Dmitry Likhachev as senior editor). When I google up the author today, the English edition still appears on Amazon though. An antiquarian, out-of-print book. And at a ridiculously high price!

A couple of months ago, I did receive a rare copy, published by Odense University Press. It isn’t trimmed properly and its pages aren’t cut apart. I don’t think I ever cut any book open before!

There are very few references to the author of the book, the Soviet scholar Mikhail Steblin-Kamensky, on the Internet. According to St. Petersburg Encyclopaedia, he was “philologist and Scandinavia specialist, Ph.D. (philology) in 1948. A professor at Leningrad State University from 1950, he founded and headed the chair of Scandinavian philology from 1958. His major works are on the history of Icelandic literature and culture, Scandinavian languages, and general linguistics. He translated and published Old Icelandic records including Icelandic Sagas, Elder Edda, and Younger Edda. He lived at 17 Mokhovaya Street from 1903, 25 Podkovyrova Street from 1920s, 27 Kolpinskaya Street from 1957-60, and 12 Martynova Embankment in 1960-81. Buried at Serafimovskoe Cemetery.” His story “The Siege of Leningrad” was published in 1980 in Granta.

M.I. Steblin-Kamensky, source:

The Saga Mind is a scholarly book about Icelandic sagas, the emergence of literature and the history of authorship. However, the subject serves as a pretext to explore more universal themes: consciousness, perception, experience of time and space (in the context of sagas, time is referred to as a “chain of generations”). Facts and fiction. Steblin-Kamensky’s ideas on the origins of writing (and re-writing) and his distinction between “historical truth” and “artistic truth” sound astoundingly modern and may resonate with the insights of today’s public intellectuals like Eric Weinstein with his “metaphorical truth”.

Here’s the table of contents. It looks strangely unscholarly. Trust me, there’s not a whiff of esotericism or some popular psychology stuff about this book. It is still rather academic, but with tongue in cheek and a knowing wink to the reader (particularly in the last chapter):

Re-reading the book with translation or translators at the back of my mind, I can’t help feeling that it has a certain relevance for our time. While a traditional approach with a focus on “accuracy and faithfulness” will give way to machine translation, it’s such aspects as authorship or creativity that I expect to come to the fore. Terminology is tricky: I am not sure how to refer to that kind of writing (or re-writing, since I dislike the term transcreation) that is so close to translation and yet so different from churning out more or less verbatim copies of the source-language originals. But I digress… 🙂

I scanned and OCR’d a few pages (which I had to cut through first 🙂 ).

Remember this meme?

I happened to find the ur-author of the footnote in the last chapter:

“Suddenly the author distinctly felt that someone had appeared behind his back. Turning away from the window, he saw, in the depths of the room, near the wall, a strange figure with sad eyes in a pale face and a grey beard; he was dressed in a long, wide garment. The stranger was the first to break the silence. Unfortunately, there is no tape recording of everything that he said that night.”

The strange figure turns out to be þorleifr, a visitor from the 13 century. “He had been disturbed in his grave during the laying of a pipe from some hot spring, and since then had not been able to find rest”. After making a few interesting observations on what he finds around, he turns to the subject of “sagas” as he prefers to call books and newspapers in the author’s hotel room.

The next few pages are the best that I ever read about the emergence of authorship. Or about professional writing or just writing for any other purpose than simply stating the facts, including writing about somebody else’s writing that I am doing now and that, were we to believe the author and his guest from the past, might be the most incomprehensible thing of all:

“þorleifr simply could not understand what either literary history and criticism, on the one hand, or a literary historian or critic, on the other, could be. Is the latter somebody who tells sagas about sagas? If he simply tells sagas which have already been told by somebody else, then how is he different from other saga-tellers? After all, any saga has already been told by somebody before, though perhaps in a different way – more expansively, more briefly, and so on. Or maybe, instead of telling a saga, he only says that he is going to tell it, but actually does not? Such a thing did happen to þórir, þorleifr's greatgrandfather. þórir was visiting a man named Ásgrímr (here þorleifr recounted Ásgrímr's family tree). Instead of feeding þórir, Ásgrímr only told him about food. Finally, þórir killed Ásgrímr.”

Like many years ago, the book still provides much food for thought. It‘s safe to only tell about it. And it’s still fun to read, too 🙂 





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