Translating Agatha Christie into Icelandic.

Ragnar Jónasson “explains how rendering the great English thriller writer into his own language taught him how to write fiction himself”:

I was 17 when I started working on my first Icelandic translation of an Agatha Christie novel. I had been reading her books for years and had already translated a few of her short stories for Icelandic magazines, but I was astonished when her publishers offered me the opportunity to translate a whole novel. I was even more delighted when they agreed to let me start with Endless Night (little did they know that my suggestion was because it contained far fewer pages than any other Christie novel I had come across).

I would never have guessed that 15 years later I would be writing myself, and have 14 translated Christie novels to my name. Through college, law school, and even when I had started full-time work as a lawyer, I never stopped translating her. Each new title was another chance to immerse myself in her writing and to learn from her as much as I could. And translating her gave me the confidence to write a novel of my own. Christie was not just an inspiration for my writing, but a support.

I’m posting it mainly for this paragraph:

One memorable challenge came when I was translating Lord Edgware Dies, which took me 10 years because of one almost impossible hurdle: a particular two-word clue, which to me felt inextricably bound to the English language. The words used in English sounded different in Icelandic, dissolving the clue entirely. In the end I resorted to simply referring to the English words as well, after trying dozens of alternative methods (for those interested in knowing the clue, read chapter 29).

It’s almost enough to make me pick up Christie again. (I read through my brother’s collection of her novels half a century or so ago.) Thanks, Eric!

(Sorry about the outage yesterday; it was something to do with MySQL not running after an update by the service that hosts LH. All hail Songdog, who managed to fix it!)


  1. All hail Songdog!

  2. The explanation of the clue is in Chapter 30. I’ve looked at a Russian translation. There it became Sappho the poet vs. Sappho the cologne, a language-independent solution. It would be a sub-par choice if Agatha Christie continued the wordplay and added a significance of the two main characters meeting in a certain city on the Continent, but she didn’t do it and translators are off the hook.

  3. I’ve seen a talk by the Brazilian translator of Edogawa Ranpo, Lídia Harumi Ivasa. The adaptations she had to make to preserve the puzzles made me think of videogame localization; you need literary sense, of course, but also a sense of game design.

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