Q & A with Professor Sif Rikhardsdottir ahead of her Northern Scholars Lecture

Later this week Sif Rikhardsdottir (University of Iceland) will be speaking about ‘Poetic Voice and Interior Emotionality in Old Norse Literature’, at the University of Edinburgh in the Northern Scholars Lecture series. Professor Rikhardsdottir is the lead member of the Charlemange: A European Icon team for Charlemagne in Scandinavia, and co-editor of the volume on Charlemagne in the Celtic world and Scandinavia. Members of the network will be attending her lecture, prior to our sympossium on Friday, so we thought it would be fascinating to get in touch with Professor Rikhardsdottir ahead of this event and ask about the place of Charlemagne in her work.


Q – What does Charlemagne have to do with Iceland – or anywhere in Scandinavia, as he didn’t ever rule there?


A – Charlemagne seems to have been very well known in medieval Scandinavia. Many of the chansons de geste that relate to Charlemagne or his peers were translated into Old Norse in the Middle Ages. These translated chansons de geste were then compiled into a large compilation called Karlamagnús saga (The Story of Charlemagne) that draws on both existent chansons de geste, such as Chanson de Roland, as well as others that have been lost. Historically it has been assumed that the Karlamagnús saga formed part of the materials that were passed from the Plantagenet Empire to Norway in the mid-thirteenth century, presumably at the court of Hákon Hákonarson, King of Norway 1217-1263. Evidence suggests, however, that the transmission might have occurred in stages and that parts of it were being either translated or transcribed on either side of the Norwegian Sea, i.e. in Norway and Iceland respectively, and transmitted back and forth, beginning as early as the first decades of the thirteenth century and continuing in the late thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth century. The Norse compilation features some material that has no known sources, raising speculations as to whether it may transmit some sort of a lost Vie de Charlemagne or unknown chansons de geste, or whether it presents an authorial effort intended to tie together the otherwise independent segments of the compilation.

The translations of texts associated with Charlemagne may have functioned as royal propaganda in Norway, intended to strengthen the image of kingship through the image of Charlemagne. The fact that we have no evidence of independent translations of the chansons de geste might indicate that they were intended as a compilation featuring the story of Charlemagne from the beginning. In fact, in the translation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain ou Le Chevalier au lion, also from the mid-thirteenth century, the Norse translator adds a statement noting that King Arthur was as great as Charlemagne, indicating that the translator expected Charlemagne’s legend to be established and that by interlinking King Arthur to Charlemagne the translator intended to foreground King Arthur’s renown by interlinking him with Charlemagne as the symbol of the idyllic king: ‘Hin agætí kongr Artvrvs red firir Eínglandi Sem morgum monnum er kunnikt hann var vm sidir kongr yfir Roma borg. hann <var> þeirra konga frægazstr er verith hafua þanuegh fra hafínu ok vínsælastzr annar enn Karlamagnus.’ (The excellent King Arthur ruled over England, as is known to many people. He later became king over Rome. He was the most famous of the Kings who have been on this side of the ocean, and the most popular next to Charlemagne.) (Ívens saga, ed. Foster W. Blaisdell, Editiones Arnamagnæanæ Series B, vol. 18, Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzels Boghandel, 1979, pp. 3 and 151 respectively).


Q – What kind of ‘translations’ are the texts you work on?


A – I work on medieval translations and given the fact the in the Middle Ages translation was simply conceived as another form of writing I tend of think of it as working simply with medieval texts! I have worked on translations in both their material and immaterial form, i.e. the transmission and translation of texts from one language into another and the transmission of ideas, narrative content, ideologies and behavioural codes from one context to another. The translations of the chansons de geste, of Marie de France’s lais, of classical material and of the courtly romance spans the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries with apparent continued translation activity across the North, although the great majority of the texts were presumably imported at the court of King Hákon and spread from there across Scandinavia.


The translations range widely in their approaches, featuring both close almost word-by-word translations and creative adaptations that are only tangentially connected to their presumed source text. All show, however, signs of cultural adaptation, where the texts have been adopted to the expectations or presumed cultural mentalities of the intended reading communities. In Karlamagnús saga, for instance, there is evidence of a sustained effort to reduce emotional dramatization, perhaps to accommodate conventions of heroic masculinity that were based on alternative behavioural codes. Whereas Charlemagne and his men faint frequently due to the sorrow experienced at the loss of their comrades and peers, the Norse text makes every effort to curtail this emotional exuberance and relegate it to physiological causes, such as blood-loss, rather than emotional upheaval. The translations thus bear witness to multiple cultural layers and can thus reveal much about both the presumed intent behind the translation activity and the reading communities for whom the texts were being translated.