Icelandic discursions 

The trouble with translation, or: Reading culture through a glass, darkly

People who know only one language well—that is, their own—are sometimes inclined to speak with longing about reading literature, poetry and philosophy in the language their authors originally set them down in. The Divine Comedy in Italian. The Odyssey in Greek. Kierkegaard in Danish. Pushkin in Russian. It’s a perfectly natural reaction to the clinging suspicion that you’re not quite getting the whole picture.

And, of course, things do get lost in translation. After all, translators have to make extremely tough decisions in choosing what to bring from one language to the other and what to leave behind. Among other unpleasant duties, they have to splinter alliterative passages and untangle sonorous sinews of harmonic vowels to convey in another language. They have to pair away connotations and subtleties that often hinge on a single word or homonym and find a way to replace them. They have to leach the color out of language rich in idioms—hopefully sidestepping crude equivalents in the language of translation—to render ideas clear to non-native speakers, who lack the specific cultural and linguistic references the author was able to take for granted in his native readership. They ruin jokes by having to explain them for readers who were just fine with not knowing they were reading jokes.

And, as if matters of style weren’t enough to make you think twice about reading works in translation, translators aren’t always above editing for content that they find personally objectionable in the original, either. English translations of the Pippi Longstocking books often omit certain references to drinking and exceptionally willful behavior in children, presumably because the translators or the publishers they work for consider such references unsuitable for English—specifically American—readers, most of whom just happen to be children. Those wacky Swedes, you know. “Listen,” is the implication here, “that might fly in Stockholm, but it’s not welcome here.”

Back to the topic of a wistful yen to read books in the original language, though. If some linguistic Fairy Godmother came along and granted me complete fluency in a language I didn’t already know, I think I would pick Icelandic—a language “at once ancient and modern,” according to the island nation’s Icelandic Language Council.

It’s not a very practical choice, considering there are only about 300,000 Icelandic speakers in the world and most of the ones who don’t live in Iceland live clustered around the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. But I’ll take Icelandic anyway, if only because of Manitoba.

The Canadian province is one of relatively few places Icelandic immigrants landed en masse in the New World after a series of crop failures and volcanic eruptions drove them out of their home country in the 1870s. Owing to the incredible array of misfortunes they managed to outlast in the New World, too, today’s Icelandic Manitobans are, as one author has described them, an endearingly touchy lot. Boastfully book-happy, as are their island cousins, they even brag about how children were sometimes left behind in Iceland to make room for personal libraries. Their sons and daughters today are instilled at an early age with a pilgrim’s sense of duty to one day return to the volcanic bosom that nursed their ancient culture. Upon arriving in modern Iceland, they often find that Icelandic nationals treat them with bemusement and mild ridicule for placing undue importance on aspects of Icelandic culture now all but forgotten on the island of origin. To take but one humorous example: Vinarterta—a dessert with stacked layers of shortcake and prune filling beloved of Icelanders in Manitoba and the upper Midwest—is an “Icelandic” delicacy only because it happened to be a voguish foreign dessert to serve in Iceland around 1870, right before the spumes of ash from Mount Askja sent the emigrants packing.

This sundering of Icelandic culture might have had some humorous ramifications on desserts, but its effect on the common language has been negligible. In fact, the language spoken in Iceland and intermittently transported elsewhere by the Icelandic diaspora has hardly changed at all since Norwegian immigrants began colonizing the island over a thousand years ago and brought the language of the Vikings with them. For this reason, once an Icelandic child has learned to read and write, he or she can start reading texts that have been preserved since 1100 and written in a style barely different from the daily newspaper headlines. For speakers of English—that fabulous mutt of a language that has changed so much over the years—this would be like learning to read and write from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Far from impoverishing it, the conservative approach that Icelanders have traditionally taken toward their language has actually enriched it in a number of ways. Because thousand-year-old texts are still popular reading in Iceland, Icelanders are familiar from a very tender age with age-old metaphorical devices like kennings, which use two nouns in somewhat paradoxical association to suggest a third. Like “ship of the desert” to mean “camel,” except that kennings in Icelandic literature also generally allude to people, places and things in mythology and the heroic sagas, which infuse native speakers and readers with a knowledge of their own folklore and history in an endlessly self-referential loop.

On the other hand, the process of creating new words out of existing lexical units is a process that still occurs every day in Iceland in order to assimilate new ideas and foreign loan words into the existing grammar. Icelandic is a highly-inflected language with three genders for nouns. It’s not always clear how a foreign word should be incorporated, so on a practical level creating new words out of existing lexical units instead of merely Icelandicizing the spelling of borrowed ones gets around the problem.

More than that, it puts a prophylactic layer between Icelandic and the erosive influences of satellite television and every new crop of recently-coined scientific and technical terms. All languages have to contend with new words and foreign words, but it can be especially hard on languages with smaller populations of native speakers. The Icelandic system makes incorporating new words and ideas an active process, intertwined with the language itself, rather than a slow capitulation to passably native calques and cognates.

Finally, this ongoing process makes for a rich, allusive language even in the most ordinary situations. Where English has “meteorology”—a word that still connotes the “things in the air” implied by the Greek root—Icelandic has a much more practical formation: vedurfraedi, a compound formed from the words for “weather” and “science.” The word for computer, tölva, has an even more seductive etymology. It comes from the words tölur (“numbers”) and völva (“prophetess”) and dates from a time when the role of computers was essentially to perform calculations, which even the clunkiest early models could do in speed and volume that must have appeared supernatural.

Maybe this seems hopelessly romantic, but I’ve always gotten the impression that to be an Icelandic speaker is to be like an elf from The Lord of the Rings, steeped in lore and capable of calling on several different levels of language, meaning and poetics in the same utterance. Above all, to be a wordsmith of the highest order, effortlessly and appropriately invoking ancient deeds and heroes in everyday speech without ever confusing one’s 80-year-old grandmother or eight-year-old nephew.

Halldór Laxness (1902-1998) is Iceland’s most prestigious literary export—he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955—and quite possibly the only 20th century Icelandic author that most non-Icelandic readers will ever read, in spite of the fact that Icelanders write more books per capita than any other nation. Laxness is something of an acquired taste (as is another Icelandic specialty: shark meat specially rotted under a layer of volcanic sand), and as interesting as I find most things Icelandic, I doubt I would have gone out of my way to find World Light. That is, if a new edition hadn’t arrived in the mail for the centenary of Laxness’s birth. Well, how can you say no to that?

Laxness’s books generally move with glacial slowness. You could even say glacial dullness—a book publicist I regularly exchange e-mails with told me she gave up on one of his other novels after the umpteenth time the farmer started beating his daughter. I dimly recall the triumph I felt on completing The Atom Station some ten years ago and—notwithstanding the pushy enjoinder of another e-mail correspondent to read another of his books, The Fish Can Sing—I thought I’d had enough the first time, too.

But I’m glad I stuck with World Light, or kind of glad anyway. The novel tells, practically in real time, the story of an invalid poet stuck in a hardscrabble coastal fishing village in the 1920s or 1930s. It offers only small rewards as it goes: For the first 200 pages, about the best thing that happens to the poet is that he doesn’t get his throat cut by his foster brothers and occasionally gets treated to a piece of pickled tripe. If you spend a couple of hours at a time following the poet from one dreary misfortune to the next, though—kind of a lighter version of Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird—you end up feeling oddly bound to his fate.

Back again to wishing, though: The landscape Laxness brings to life in World Light occasionally manages to come to life through Magnus Magnusson’s translation, but it’s got to be about ten times as beautiful, ten times as entrancing in the original. It still just makes me feel slightly cheated for not knowing every language in the world. Some of the magic comes through even in English, but not knowing Icelandic, I just feel like my glasses are the wrong prescription and I have to settle for seeing haze.

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