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Translation and What Gets Lost, and Found, When a Language Evolves

I like to say that English is Icelandic that went on a 1200-year journey around the world, and has now come home again. More and more often, to the chagrin of the elderly and the intellectual, English words slip out of the mouths and pens of not only internationally savvy youth, but of those who are deemed fit to lead this country in business, politics and the arts.  [Note, 2016: I had an informative set of lecture slides on the use of English at the tertiary, or university, level of education in Iceland by one of my favorite professors at the University of Iceland, Hafdís Ingvarsdóttir, but the link's gone dead.]

Even more frustrating to many is when journalists and reporters, held to very high standards here especially because they are disseminating info on events in the Big City to families on isolated farms way out on the edges of our island, slack off on their use of language. If we keep on at this rate, many fear, we'll end up like the Danish with their especially-incomprehensible Copenhagenese (very funny video!) a true horror for a country who's independence was gained in large part because Icelanders were able to claim a distinct cultural identity from their Danish overlords (the Danes had to capitulate: I've been told they had used the same argument against outside rulers in earlier times, but Danish history is a complicated series of land grabs and relinquishments, so I'm having a hard time backing that fact up.)

But if we consider that Old Norse - Icelandic for all intents and purposes - was an adventurous, seafaring language that eventually grew restless confined as it was to the cold North Atlantic, and longed for some sunshine, and maybe a little romance, it all starts to make sense. Heading south, borne on the lips of the most ævintýralegt folk, it mingled with and married the tongues of the Mediterranean and lands beyond to eventually become the world lingua franca in all its varied dress.

I respect the absolute dedication to our cultural and linguistic heritage and believe it to be crucial to our people to preserve it forever. I also, however, agree with Mr. Jay Walker that English is not a thing to fear, but the world's second language to be embraced along with any country's mother tongue. He calls it the universal language of problem solving, so that peoples and nations can engage in conversations about the state of the world we live in and our global hopes for the future. In addition, I like that languages are flexible and ever-evolving (for example, as recently as 1973 Icelandic academics removed the letter Z from the language) and very personal as well. How we tjá okkur (express ourselves) may be guided by the society we live in, but ultimately cannot be absolutely regulated, nor should it be. Inflection, pronunciation, word choice, rhythm, and even grammar use are like the features on a playground, which we can use to our best and most enjoyable and creative expression.

 So when my daughter blurts out something like, "sjáðu score-ið mitt" ("look at my score") instead of "sjáðu stígin mín" or when I say something like, "we need to see what the staðan is" (in stead of situation) it just comes naturally, and doesn't somehow feel rangt, or wrong. And when my five year old son (who has taught himself to read and do simple multiplication already) refuses to say "sjötta" for "sixth" but says "sexta" instead because it makes more sense (in Icelandic, six is sex and seven is sjö ) he's actually right.

In formal and academic settings we use our best grammar and most excellent vocabulary, but we're playing with the creative aspects of language within our home and in our personal lives. Óðinn will realize soon enough that he can either always be "punished" for his variation on "sixth," or just do as everybody else is doing to appease the formal educational system. It will be his choice.

The first photo is from the Settlement Exhibition in downtown Reykjavik.


I'd Rather Be in Iceland said...

Sorry, I didn't mean to be anonymous there.

Professor Batty said...

Very thought-provoking post. The more I read Icelandic literature in translation (especially Halldór Laxness), the more I think that I am missing a lot. When I read Arnaldur Indriðasson, I don't feel that I am missing nearly as much, although when Bernard Scudder died I could definitely tell the difference in Victoria Cribb's translations. It would be a shame for English to supplant Icelandic, conversely, I think there could be many Icelandic words which enrich English!

Shoshanah Marohn said...

I have nothing to add, but I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your linguistic analysis.

Gi said...

Hello, I'm from Portugal, and I've been recently following your blog and trying to understand a little bit more about Iceland.

This post is particularly interesting to me because there's an ongoing language discussion in Portuguese speaking countries, sparked by an official so-called Orthographic Agreement by which we are supposed to change the way we write. Many of us hate it, many say it's natural evolution.

So, thanks for your thoughts which do have a bearing on an issue at the other end of Europe :-)

Iceland Eyes said...

Thank you all for your feedback.

This post is, I suppose, a samantekt of thoughts that have been wafting around in my mind for a while, and that are (and really always have been) international issues. Most importantly for me is whether or not we are damaging individuals' creativity and sense of self expression by demanding that they stick to rigid grammatical rules for a set value of approved words from a single language base (i.e. not allowing languages to intermingle in practice, all determined by nameless academics in the recent or distant past. Laxness, of course, created words and adapted spellings to serve his artistry, but does a person need to be a recognized professional to be given silent permission to alter a language base?

Questions, questions.... : )

Professor Batty said...

Curious. When I Google translated
samantekt I got the expected result of summary but when I split the word into two saman tekt I got the result together making, in essence it was the same, but it caused me to look at the meaning in a slightly different way. This melding of words is a feature of Icelandic that really deepens the meaning of words.

Beth said...

This is fascinating. I'm an American living in French Canada (Quebec) where "language purity" has been a huge issue. Iceland seems flexible and pragmatic enough to handle these issues a bit more gracefully than was done in Quebec, where I continue to be saddened and mystified by the hostility on both sides of the language-divide, though it's gradually lessening as immigrants and young people simply embrace bi- and tri-lingualism as both necessity and benefit.

Mark and Julie said...

Maria--I am curious about the statistic that 80 or 90% of the instructional material in Hálskola Ísland is in english. I would have thought that much of the great books of literature would have been translated into Icelandic. I can imagine that some areas of study might be in another language--I´m thinking of fine art, but that could just as easily be in german, french or italian. Obviously, it would be prohibitively costly to have the bulk of curriculum items translated into Icelandic, but I´m surprised that there is such a dearth of translations. Ég nýt að lesa bloggsins þín. Ég byrjaði að læra íslensku í haust. Við konan mín fórum til Íslands í apríl og aftur í júlí í sumar. Ég hlakka til að æfa mig íslensku mína.

Iceland Eyes said...

Mark (and Julie ; ), I haven't heard that stat myself, but I wouldn't be surprised, especially nowadays. The cost for having material translated formally would be exorbitant, to say the least (I charge 22kr per word for Icelandic to's probably a bit less for the reverse, but still costly for a whole textbook!) and the gain would be minimal...for every book translated there would emerge many more in the same field of study in non-Icelandic languages (and of course primarily English.)

On top of that, in many expanding academic fields there are an overwhelming number of words that have never before been translated into Icelandic, such as in the sciences and in technology. Translating them would actually be redundant as English widely acknowledged to be the universal language for those fields. To create new words, only to have your students graduate having little or no clue what the English variant of the words are once they start working, would be a bit like sabotaging their futures. In those arenas the ongoing global conversation is in English. How frustrating to have to back-translate everything and hope the original translator got the word right in the first place!

I think Beth's insight that younger generations do not have the same rigid nationalistic view of single-language fluency as we do.

I remember when I was taking my Masters in Comparative Lit here at the University of Iceland, I had a fairly large, required course that I had to take. The professor handed out some photocopies of work by Lacan and Eco and the like, then gave lectures where he basically spent all his time trying to explain the text, almost sentence by sentence, to us in Icelandic. The problem was, there were so many instances of literary jargon, concept and theory vocabulary, that he just couldn't find any decent word or even phrase to explain them with in Icelandic. On top of that, as educated and astute as he was, he had misunderstood the contextual meanings of many of the English words, which meant he had an even harder time trying to define key vocabulary. It was a jumbled mess. The final exam used poorly translated chunks of text in multiple choice Q's and A's, so that there was no way to truly answer the questions with total certainty. What I had studied and gleaned from the writings of leaders in the field of literary theory had been mangled to mean something totally different to my professor(s) who were translating it. Big fail!!

So I guess my point is that Iceland is looking beyond its shores for academic material that is internationally recognized as the best available, and is nearly always written, if not formally translated and approved by the original author, into English. When we become absolute leaders in academia, then we can start creating more material for our students in their native language. Unfortunately i don't see that happening any time soon...

Iceland Eyes said...

Here's something for you all to peruse: an article entitled, 'Reactions in Iceland and other Nordic countries to the "threat" of English,' by Kristján Árnason of the University of Iceland:

Anonymous said...

I like your post, nice information, i think its really very useful for those who wants to learn English to Icelandic translation. Your language is also quite easy and simple. Thanks for the post.