Not a thousand words

“Ikke tusend ord sig prenter, som én gernings spor.” Brand, Act 2, Henrik Ibsen

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Is it not a strange thought that from a chair a thousand novels have been writ, dreams dreamt, and history made. And yet, as Henrik Ibsen wrote, “Not a thousand words will make the mark a single deed will leave.”

The words are from Ibsen’s play, Brand. The name of the play translates in Norwegian as “fire”, but it is the surname of the central character.

The source of the quote

An idealistic but dogmatic priest struggles with his conscience and his vision of God. In Act 2, Brand returns to the place where he was born to find famine has reduced the village to rations. Brand and the village mayor discuss whether it is better to feed the soul or the body.

A woman arrives from a remote place across the fjord with the sad tale that her husband has killed one of their children as he could not bear to see the child starve. The husband then injured himself in an attempt at suicide. As a consequence, he now needs absolution. Despite the bad weather, Brand enters a boat and crosses the fjord with the wife. Brand finds the man and gives him absolution. He then wishes to return home, but a group of men confront him and there is another conversation about the body and soul. The men then explain that they have no village priest.

Eventually, one man in the group says this:

The Man.

A thousand speeches, Brand
Less deeply than one dint of deed.
Here, in our fellows’ name we stand;
We see, a man is what we need.

Brand, 1894, English translation by C.H. Herford.

Ibsen wrote this in Norwegian, “Ikke tusend ord sig prenter, som én gernings spor,” which translates best as “Not a thousand words will make the mark a single deed will leave.”

More often, the translation is made as this: “A thousand words will not make the mark a single deed will make.” The translations are similar, but I think the first truer to the mark Ibsen intends.

 

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