Translating the Fantastic in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature

Sean Patrick Spillane, Fordham University


This dissertation expands upon two recent academic developments: one, the increased interest in translations as active sites of cultural contact, and two, the emerging critical approaches to the fantastic/ supernatural elements in texts. Interrogating translations, this dissertation is a foray into the Global Middle Ages as it centers the connective networks that allows texts and ideas to cross cultural and linguistic borders. By focusing on translations, I attempt to center the medieval Norse’s outward-looking perspectives. In the first two chapters, I locate two key sites of translation: the first is at King Hákon Hákonarson’s royal court in thirteenth century Norway, and the second is Þingeyrar monastery in late twelfth/early thirteenth century Iceland. In these chapters I analyze a single translation—Marie de France’s Bisclavret into the Old Norse prose Bisclaretz lioð and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Prophetiae Merlini into the Old Norse-Icelandic verse Merlínusspá—and argue that by placing each translation within its cultural and ideological context, we can read the translation as an active site of cultural mediation in which the translators renegotiate the medieval Norwegians and Icelanders’ relationship to the cultural centers of Europe. Both translations attempt to draw the medieval Norse closer to the cultural center of Europe by synthesizing their own literary traditions within their translations. The third chapter expands an understanding of translatio to include Old Norse travel narratives, and it analyzes Yngvars saga víðförla and the Vínland sagas to illustrate how medieval Icelanders negotiated their own positionality in the world by exploring these far-off lands in their literature. Throughout the dissertation, I argue that medieval Norwegians and Icelanders actively sought out European literature to translate, and reading their translations within their historical contexts reveals a sustained effort to re-position the Nordic world as centered, rather than marginal. I contend that the medieval Norse were acutely aware of their own marginality and their efforts to re-negotiate that position within the global space is attempted, in part, in their careful translations and adaptations of medieval European literature.

Subject Area

Medieval literature|British and Irish literature|Translation studies|Medieval history

Recommended Citation

Spillane, Sean Patrick, "Translating the Fantastic in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature" (2023). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI30635651.