Ibsen in His Letters

Ibsen: Letters and Speeches

edited by Evert Sprinchorn
Hill & Wang, 360 pp., $2.45 (paper)

Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen; drawing by David Levine

Professor Sprinchorn has edited Ibsen’s letters so well, and translated them so unevenly, that one is torn between gratitude and indignation, with gratitude emerging a narrow victor. Ibsen was an inhibited letter writer (“I am,” he said, “a man whose chief passion is certainly not correspondence, even with his best and dearest friends”), but he never wrote anything but a measured and austere prose, rather like Mr. Eliot’s. Professor Sprinchorn captures his style much less effectively than, for all their faults, Mary Morison and J. L. Laurvik did in the old 1905 edition which this is intended to replace. (Fortunately, over half of the letters in this volume are given in the earlier translation, only occasionally amended, not always for the better.)

Left on his own, Professor Sprinchorn frequently lapses into a nervous and whimsical journalese which conveys a completely false impression of the original. Such phrases as “Come and see us again real soon,” “I feel wonderfully good, and I don’t see how I could have it better anywhere else in the summertime,” and “Say hello to Sigurd for me,” are painfully un-Ibsenish. I hesitate, in an American publication, to criticize the use of “gotten,” “spareribs,” and “standpatters”; but Professor Sprinchorn is too often simply ungrammatical, which Ibsen never was. “With many thanks for the books sent me,” “All of this does not bother me in the slightest,” “seeked,” and “Keep busy artist-like in your atelier” (writing to an artist) are bad English on both sides of the Atlantic.

Professor Sprinchorn also saddles Ibsen with the clichés of advertising jargon where the original is in plain Norwegian: “those heavenly warm potatoes” where Ibsen simply wrote “excellent potatoes” (varme potatis is the ordinary phrase for “potatoes,” and in any case varme here means not “warm” but “hot”), and “a glass of tasty beer” where Ibsen simply wrote “delicious beer.” Of course, Professor Sprinchorn is not always so bad as this, but consistency is one of the prime qualifications of a translator, and all too often one gets the impression, which I am sure is false, that some impatient publisher’s editor, irked by Ibsen’s austerity, has made a misguided attempt to render the letters more “readable.”

On the other hand, Professor Sprinchorn’s linking material (except that he accepts the myth about Hildur Andersen, that gentlest of creatures, sitting as model for Hilde Wangel, and tells us too little about Ibsen’s relationship with Emilie Bardach) could hardly have been better done. His notes are, naturally, based on those provided by Francis Bull, Halvdan Koht and Didrik Arup Seip in their great centenary edition of Ibsen’s works, but he adds a good deal of extra information for non-Scandinavians, and his own contributions are scholarly and valuable.

Were these letters worth re-editing? The Oxford University Press decided not six years ago, when Mr. J. W. McFarlane proposed this project to them. I think they were wrong.…

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