The Secret Life of the Icelandic Count Dracula: A Story of Its Translation

We kids call it fanfiction, translators call it Creative License.

We are aware of the difficulties both authors and translators face when replicating the brilliance of a masterpiece in another language: sometimes, translations are extraordinary in the apparent seamlessness with which they convey a certain piece in their target language, while others may seem to fail at this. And we get it: certain words, ideas, jokes may get “lost in translation” so it is up to the translator to make decisions that fill the void that what was lost left. However, in doing so, there are times in which the stories are quite… different.

Turns out this happened in 1901 to the world-known classic Dracula when Valdimar Ásmundsson, the Icelandic translator of the novel, decided Bram Stocker needed some editing for his Scandinavian public.

Here are a few things that he “enhanced”:

  • The title: Bram Stocker named his novel Dracula, and Ásmundsson went for Makt Myrkanna (which translates to Powers of Darkness). I mean, this is not too drastic; if your mother tongue isn’t English but still watch Hollywood movies, you know just how much people like to translate titles to something that has absolutely nothing to do with the original (brief parenthesis to talk about how Die Hard was translated into Spanish as The Glass Jungle? Bruce Willis say whaaat).
  • The narrator: we all love to read the letters that reveal the secrets, fears and experiences of our beloved characters, as well as the fact that they add much of the suspense and atmosphere of uncertainty in the novel, right? Well, Ásmundsson decided it would be better to provided readers with an omniscient narrator; you know, to save on postage.
  • Dialogue: Much of Stocker’s lines were shortened, but Jonathan’s stay in Transylvania with the Count was significantly longer.
  • Characters: a distant cousin, just because there is always one (in a soap opera fashion, surely).
  • References: apparently, there are many references to Norse literature that must actually be very interesting to analyze.
  • Publication: the Icelandic version was serialized in the newspaper, not as a novel.
  • “Sexier than the English version”: historial Hans Corneel de Roos did not provide much of an explanation on this, but I think we are all intrigued.

For many, these additions to the consecrated text seem heretic. Dracula is, without a question, a masterpiece that excels in its beautiful language and its power to build suspense and terror; but, of course, it is more than that: a novel that reflects the fears of the imperialistic society he lived in, such as Otherness, the idea of “blood contamination”, invasion of impure foreigners, as well as issues regarding gender roles, sexuality, and religion (among many, MANY, other topics that are worth diving into with detail). Bram Stocker’s novel is an icon of Gothic literature that continues to serve new readings and admiration across the years and readers worldwide.

What can be interesting about this process, especially before the digital era, is that it may take quite a long time for people to notice just how different the translated texts are from the source text. The explanation is actually quite simple: once you translate a text, there is no need to translate it back to the original language, is there? That being said, it is easy to understand the uneasiness that follows upon learning that our Icelandic friends are missing out on the original work… but are they?

Roos considers this version of Dracula is most likely to be a collaboration between Ásmundsson and Stocker himself, explaining that there is a chance the author may have sent some of his original notes to the translator. It may have given Stocker the chance to experiment with different devices, techniques and ideas other than the ones of his already-published work. This would make Ásmundsson something like a literary hero because he expanded the most beloved vampire tale.

Now, if you are panicking over the fact that Duolingo and Rosetta Stone have no courses on Icelandic for you to read the novel, good news: there is now an English translation of the Icelandic translation of Dracula. Powers of Darkness is available to all of us to continue diving into this world and, luckily, never escape.

By, Ana Garcia LdeC

References:

Escher, Kat. “The Icelandic Translation of ‘Dracula’ Is Actually a Different Book”. Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/icelandic-translation-dracula-actually-different-book-180963346/. July 2020.

Fleming, Colin. “The Icelandic Dracula: Bram Stoker’s vampire takes a second bite”. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/19/icelandic-dracula-bram-stoker-translator-powers-of-darkness-valdimir-asmundsson-makt-myrkranna. July 2020.

Ha, Thu-Huong. The mystery of the sexy Icelandic cousin to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. Quartz, https://qz.com/quartzy/1151430/the-mystery-of-the-sexy-icelandic-cousin-to-bram-stokers-dracula/. July 2020.

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