“Ertu þá farin, ertu þá farin frá mér?”

If you’ve visited the Mál og Menning bookstore in Reykjavik, you’ve seen them: rows and rows of original works, many of them tantalizing, most of them inaccessible to outsiders. Unfortunately, we recently lost one of the rare souls who helped to share Icelandic literature with the English-speaking world: translator Bernard Scudder, whose death in October went virtually unnoticed.

Scudder wasn’t the only translator of Icelandic writing, but he was, arguably, the most versatile. He contributed to The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, the massive, five-volume set published in 1997; he translated hip works of literary fiction such as Angels of the Universe and Epilogue of the Raindrops; he introduced readers in North America and the U.K. to Icelandic crime novels, including Silence of the Grave and Jar City; and, God bless him, he helped pay the bills with such gimmicky fare as The Vikings’ Guide to Good Business.

Sadly, no English-language newspaper or magazine has published an obituary for Bernard Scudder. The Iceland Review Web site hasn’t noted his death, and Guardian book-blogger Sarah Weinman only learned of his passing because someone at MediaBistro happened to be visiting Reykjavik.

Even now, the prolific translator remains something of an enigma. Weinman writes:

All we know is that Scudder died suddenly on October 15, that he was married, and that Harvill Secker, Indridason’s UK publisher, commented in a statement that they held Scudder’s work “in high regard and that he was a pleasure to work with.”

Perhaps, in its own way, the obscurity of Bernard Scudder is suitably Icelandic. Consider this notion from the 1955 award speech of Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness:

My thoughts fly to the old Icelandic storytellers who created our classics, whose personalities were so bound up with the masses that their names, unlike their lives’ work, have not been preserved for posterity. They live in their immortal creations and are as much a part of Iceland as her landscape.

Bernard Scudder will never be famous; he won no renown in life, and the literary world will likely forget him in death. Fortunately, his efforts will endure, and for some of us, he will always be an integral part of our Iceland, that stark and beguiling and weirdly secretive country we first beheld with our own startled eyes—but which we only really saw in translation.

UPDATE – January 10, 2007: A UK newspaper has finally published an obituary of Scudder.

3 thoughts on ““Ertu þá farin, ertu þá farin frá mér?”

  1. I recently read some Icelandic crime novels translated by Bernard. The translations are brilliant, and sound as though they were written by a Yorkshireman. I am astounded to discover he was not a native speaker. Very sorry to hear he has died, as I would have loved to have written to him.

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  2. I first came across Bernard Scudder’s translations while reading “Angels of the Universe” by Einar Mar Gudmundsson, while studying Modern Icelandic Literature at UCL, some 10 years ago. He was very much responsible for my enduring passion for Icelandic writing, and I was shocked to read recently of his death, while searching on line for a copy of the above book. I had imagined that he was a much older man. His work will continue to give pleasure to the growing number of English speakers who are discovering the incredible world of Icelandic literature. A sad loss.

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