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Re-translating History

By Staff | Sep 25, 2015

Melissa Gjellstad

Another war occurred at the same time as the Civil War, and two University of North Dakota professors with area ties translated its tale.

“The War with the Sioux” was a book originally written in Norwegian by Karl Jacob Skarstein in 2005. Skarstein tried to chronicle the history of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862-63 through the eyes of Lakota and Dakota warriors, U.S. soldiers and Norwegian immigrants. Although it was an overlooked part of history, it was accompanied by the largest mass execution, occurring in what is now Mankato, Minn.

The conflict made its way to parts of North Dakota, according to an introduction Native American Studies professor at United Tribes Technical College Dakota Good House. Refugees looking to flee from the war wound up in what places are now Devils Lake, Pleasant Lake and Rugby.

Danielle Skjelver, a UND alumna and history instructor, said she found the book in 2007 while perusing Norwegian books.

“At the time, my Norwegian was such that I had to do the heavy lifting of translation for any meaningful comprehension. So I figured if I’m going to translate it for myself, why not translate it for everyone?” Skjelver said.

Danielle Skjelver

Skjelver then approached Melissa Gjellstad, an associate professor of Norwegian, about collaborating on translating the book.

“Skarstein’s angle and approach to retelling this story were compelling to me as a reader, and I wanted others to be able to access Skarstein’s skillful portrayal of the events of 1862-63 and the Norwegian voices he brings to the fore,” Gjellstad said. “As our conversation evolved, we [Skjelver and Gjellstad] decided that we would do it together as a joint project. Our skill sets and background expertise in Scandinavian studies and American history were well matched, and the work was fun and enlightening.”

Skjelver and Gjellstad said the work was not without its challenges, one of which was words that, at times, required the assistance of native Norwegians and Native American scholars. Some sources used were also written in 19th century Norwegian dialects.

Another challenge was finding the original English of some sources Skarstein used. Skjelver said that Skarstein translated some of his sources from English to Norwegian.

“And when we translated those quotations back into English, we knew that they were not precisely the same as the original English quotations in the English language sources, Skjelver said. “It is a bit like playing ‘telephone’ when you go from one language into another. The meaning changes ever so slightly.”

Gjellstad added: “Skarstein had clearly done the research for this volume as a part of a larger academic work; however, this published edition struck a lighter tone for a broader reading public. We strove to maintain that tone and color in his writing, sensitive to and respectful of the research and academic core of the piece, but conversational in his storytelling. We’ll let the readers judge the final product and gauge our success.”

Another resource used was trips to the Minnesota Historical Society’s archive, on some of which Skjelver was accompanied by her son, Thor.

The Skjelvers currently reside in Rugby. Gjellstad came to Rugby in 2013 during a UND Bus Tour, spending time at the Heart of America Medical Center and the Johnson farm. She is descended from Norwegians who settled in McHenry County, and her maternal family settled in the New Rockford-Sheyenne area.

“Unpacking the history of the Spirit Lake nation and the Norwegians who became Americans is particularly compelling to me on a personal level as well as on a professional standpoint,” Gjellstad said.

“The War with the Sioux” is the first time Danielle Skjelver and Gjellstad collaborated together on a book. They also had works appear in “Voices From the Prairie”, a recently-released story, poem and picture anthology from Village Arts.

“The War with the Sioux” is available in print at the Prairie Village Museum, Backstage Gallery & Gifts, N.D. libraries and bookstores and Amazon. It is also available as a free e-book through the UND Digital Press at thedigitalpress.org.

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