An interesting fact about the works of Henrik Ibsen is that it is likely that far more readers and viewers have encountered his plays in English translation than have read them in their original Norwegian. In fact, Ibsen’s prose plays have been translated from their late nineteenth-century Dano-Norwegian into many world languages over the past 150 years, with some of the earliest translations beginning already in the 1870s and 80s.
Over the years, his earlier verse dramas and his poetry have been translated less frequently due to the challenges of capturing Ibsen’s wit and epic poetic form in verse translation, but even his prose works present particular problems that are often overlooked. Ibsen was a careful observer of individual speech patterns in Norwegian and a master at making artfully structured dramatic language appear casual. This makes an accomplished translation of his prose plays a challenge in its own right, despite the apparently everyday aspects of character speech in the twelve works of the prose-play cycle written in the second half of his career. Ibsen himself called the composition of contemporary drama the “far more difficult art of prose,” as Ibsen scholar Inga-Stina Ewbank once emphasized.
What makes a “serviceable” translation? That depends of course on the service to which the translation is put. For use in scholarship and teaching, translations with a more literary quality are often more useful since they preserve either the complexity of style or a more faithful sense of the historical context and the original imagery and metaphors. But it is also true that older literary translations can impede meaning as much as they preserve it, as one soon discovers when struggling through any of the arch British-Victorian translations of Ibsen available in the public domain on the Internet today. Moreover, some translations use the original text as inspiration for elaboration and adaptation and do not have faithful rendering of Ibsen’s text as the main goal. It should also be noted that for use in theater performance, entirely different translation qualities become important, such as spoken rhythm, credibility of word choice, and ease of delivery. Performance translations thus often prioritize performability, sound, and ease of communication over other concerns. Another kind of theater translation, the “platform translation,” is a rough translation intended to provide commentary on key translation issues in the original text while leaving decisions about the dramatic dialogue’s final form to the director and the actors.
With such a range of purpose in Ibsen translations, there is a need for guidance, advice, and overview. The database collected here is intended to serve as a guide for scholars, teachers, theater professionals, and even the more casual Ibsen reader in selecting appropriate English translations of Ibsen’s works. (Although there are of course many important translations of Ibsen’s works into languages other than English, collection of that information lies outside the immediate mission of the ISA.) Translations have been organized here under each title in reverse chronological order of publication date, allowing the viewer to see the most recent translations first (note: new editions of older translations are indicated with the original publication date in parentheses). There has also been an attempt to distinguish between faithful translations and freer adaptations, though that is in many cases a judgment call. The recent phenomenon of repackaged public-domain translations is also worth highlighting: online booksellers will sometimes list reprints of older translations (before ca. 1923) and show them with new covers, when in fact the contents are simply scanned and reprinted pages from an older translation that has fallen out of copyright. We have listed such translations here by their original publication dates and marked them in the notes field as “historical replica copies.”
This is a living database in the sense that it is not imagined to be comprehensive in its current state, but aspires to come as close to that as is feasible. We thus welcome new contributions and corrections to the information presented here, which can be directed via email to the current ISA President. The ISA welcomes especially textual commentary from Ibsen professionals working with the translating and teaching of Ibsen’s texts; if there is a particularly felicitous or problematic local translation issue from Norwegian for any of the texts listed here, or if a general characterization of one of the translations would be helpful information on this website, please send that along as well since that can be incorporated easily into the Comments section for each entry.
Click on a play title to view available translations.
(This translation database prepared by Ida Moen Johnson in collaboration with Mark Sandberg.)