Is it the Author, the Translator, or Me? (A Review of Butterflies in November)

Butterflies in NovemberIn Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, an unnamed 33-year-old woman sets out on a journey across Iceland with her friend’s four-year-old deaf child. She’s an editor and translator, fluent in eleven languages, and yet her own first-person narrative is stilted, repetitive, and cliché-laden. As I struggled to make sense of this Icelandic-to-English novel, I wondered about the source of the problem: the author, the translator, or me.

It’s also possible that the prose is intentionally awkward as an expression of the main character’s personality. She readily admits: “Despite my mastery of many languages, I’ve never been particularly apt with words, at least not eye to eye, woman to man.”

That last part—“woman to man”—raises another issue with this book. The text includes an inordinate number of references to, and generalizations about, gender. The main character may challenge stereotypes by being a tomboy, but she also says, for example, “I’m a woman and I know how to remain silent.” Is she being sarcastic, ironic, or serious? I have no idea.

Still, even as I struggled to follow the narrative, this novel kept my attention. There were funny moments that made me laugh, intriguing ones that encouraged me to keep reading, and charming ones that made turning the pages worth it. The most touching relationship is between the main character, a master of so many languages, and a child with whom she can barely communicate because of his special needs. Perhaps the story arc and the off-putting narration are meant to demonstrate the difference between an aptitude in language and the ability to truly communicate with another human being.

It was also fascinating to read a novel that comes from and takes place in a country I know so little about. Iceland’s entire population is one-fifth the size of my American hometown, and the effect of this small size can be seen in the novel. For example, while the main character manages to keep a handful secrets to herself, she also learns on more than one occasion that other people know more about her life than she expected.

Iceland is a small, interconnected place, one where people are also closely related genetically. That issue did not come up in the novel (as far as I could tell!), but it was in the back of my mind thanks to an article I read in The Smithsonian Magazine about an app that helps potential couples in Iceland determine whether they’re actually cousins.

I don’t know how serious a problem this degree of “incest” is (distant cousins only share a small amount of genes).*** All I do know is that Ólafsdóttir’s main character doesn’t seem too concerned that any of the men she sleeps with are her relatives.


*I learned about this book from River City Reading (Thanks, Shannon!): “Anyone who loves a good, quirky read with a heartfelt center will be more than happy with Butterflies in November.”

**This novel was translated by Brian FitzGibbon.

***I can only imagine the kinds of Google searches I’ll start getting now that I’ve raised this topic on my blog! Ha!


  1. I’m thinking about your comment: “Is she being sarcastic, ironic, or serious? I have no idea.”
    This is such a tricky area with translations, I think. If the translation isn’t the best, it’s not going to be clear. And if, on top of that, the *author* isn’t clear (hard to know here, it sounds like), I think it probably has little to no hope. Either way, the reader shouldn’t have to wonder about it.

  2. I was a little curious about the translation at first, too. When I remembered that the publisher compared it to a Wes Anderson film, I felt more confident that the awkward irony was intentional and started to get a very clear picture of it playing out “on screen” in that style. I think from that point on I enjoyed it much more. It’s not often that a publisher’s comparison works that well for me (I’m left disappointed more often than not), but this time it really helped my reading experience.

    1. The Wes Anderson comparison does help, though I still think some of the problems might be due to the translation (not that I know for sure!). Overall, I liked the story and found it to be a compelling read. Thanks for recommending it!

  3. It would be interesting to compare different translations of the same book. I’m reading a second novel by Camilla Lackberg who writes in Swedish and is widely translated. Her English translator really does incorporate many English figures of speech that can’t be derived directly from the original. Excellent reading though.

  4. How does an author know whether or not a translator is doing a good job? This is a question that comes up from time to time in my writers’ groups. We still don’t have a good answer.

  5. I’ve always wondered about translations I struggle with. I’m amazed at how natural some scene (most Murakami) and how unnatural others seem (many older translated classics).

    1. I’m sure I’m at least partly to blame for why it took me so long to adjust to this novel. It might come across better to someone with more experience reading translations (someone like you!). Overall, though, I liked the story and would recommend it to anyone with a little patience and/or an interest in Iceland.

  6. Those do sound like problems, but you seemed to like the story in general. All books have faults, I guess. This one has piqued my interest (maybe because it’s Iceland?).

    1. I did like the story overall. It took me a long time to adjust to the writing styles/translation, though. I recommend giving this novel a chance if you’re interested in Iceland.

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