The Saga of Þórður kakali: The Icelandic Text, with and English Translation by D.M. White

The Old Icelandic text The Saga of Þórður kakali survives today as part of the fourteenth-century compilation The Saga of the Sturlungar. In extant form, The Saga of Þórður kakali is a biography of Þórður kakali Sighvatsson (c.1210–56) – chieftain, royal retainer, and sheriff – and covers the periods 1242–50 and 1254–56, providing an interesting view of power politics and political culture from the periphery of medieval Europe, challenging dominant historiographical narratives derived from the sources produced at the center.

Hitherto, only one English translation of The Saga of the Sturlungar (and thus The Saga of Þórður kakali) has ever been produced. This translation was carried out by Julia McGrew and R. George Thomas (published in two volumes, 1970–74). Nevertheless, even with the invaluable assistance of the eminent Icelandic scholar Sigurður Nordal – who provided English translations of the trickier passages of text – McGrew and Thomas’s translation turned out “defective and unreliable” (in the words of Oren Falk).

Published translations are cultural levelers insofar as they open up texts to broader audiences – members of the interested wider public – who may not have the means or time to learn the original language merely to study a single primary source or read a lone literary classic. While McGrew and Thomas’s translation of The Saga of Þórður kakali is more or less serviceable if used with extreme caution (i.e., by native English speakers with fluency in Icelandic), the importance of competent translations should not be forgotten, especially for the reader without Icelandic language skills: poor translations can offend, confuse, and mislead users of the target language.

The present edition of The Saga of Þórður kakali offers a new and accessible translation of the text by D.M. White, produced directly from the Icelandic to which it is printed side by side.

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