“Exciting things happen when you translate” – An Interview with Christopher Burawa

I’ve been trying to do more reading in Icelandic this summer, both a short novel (slower going than expected) and short stories (faster going—to fudge a term—than expected) and have also been trolling the internet to see what I could discover about literary journals that publish short translations. In the midst of this, I ran across an interesting interview with the poet and translator Christopher Burawa.

In a series of ‘small world’ sort of connections, Christopher studied in Arizona and has also translated several short stories by Kristín Eiríksdóttir into English (one of which, “Holes in People”, was published in Dalkey’s Best European Fiction 2011). Moreover, he’s currently working on translating Kristín’s 2010 collection of short stories, Doris Deyr (‘Doris Dies,’ which in Icelandic sounds a lot like ‘Doris Day’, btw) into English. These latter factoids seem coincidental to me because last summer I set myself a project goal of translating a short story by Kristín from this very collection. I didn’t get very far with this project at the time, but just a few days ago, I pulled out the story again with the intention of fiddling around with it in earnest now.

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A good þumalputtaregla for traveling in Iceland

Image via the University of Iceland’s Vísindavefurinn, answering the question: “Hvaðan kemur orðið þumalputtaregla?” (‘Where does the word ‘þumalputtaregla’ come from?’)

I used to routinely get nervous when I’d travel to a new country—worried that I’d somehow inadvertently offend someone or do something wrong or misunderstand protocol and find myself publicly shamed or yelled at or generally embarassed by my own lack of worldliness. This fear wasn’t entirely unfounded: I received a dressing down (in Danish) for turning off a water tap in a museum bathroom in Denmark (still not sure what went awry there), and I accidentally stole a woman’s seat in a theater in Amsterdam, to her shock and horrified displeasure (she yelled; I moved, trying lamely to explain that I didn’t know that while unassigned, the seating was, after the intermission, pretty much set in stone).

These occurrences aren’t the end of the world, though, and while I still find myself worried that I’ll make a fool of myself simply because I don’t know the unspoken system in a new country or city, a little more travel has gone a long way in alleviating some of my concern. Everyone, after all, is a tourist somewhere. And so, by and large, my go-to þumalputtaregla, or rule of thumb, is to just do my best to not be a jerk.

Don’t be a Jerk. Generally, this works out pretty well. But it’s still nice to have a bit of insight into cultural norms and practices before you go somewhere. To this end, the UK’s Business Insider recently tried to shed some light on common sources of irritation for locals when encountering visitors in their countries. Often, I feel like these sorts of lists are vague or stereotypical, but this time around, I found the Iceland advice pretty spot-on. There was only one rule of thumb mentioned for Iceland: Don’t be overly friendly.” This was drawn from advice given by two Icelandic Reddit users, and as summarized as follows:

“It’s not that Icelandic people aren’t courteous, or would respond unfriendly in the street. We’re just more used to everyone keeping to themselves in public.” – /u/KristinnK

“It’s usually not a good thing to start a conversation with us out of the blue at, say, a museum. […] Saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ would be the weirdest experience of the week for any Icelander.” – /u/KFJ943

This last one particularly made me giggle because I had just been trying to explain the general look of confusion that one (often an American, I might add) will get if she starts any kind of interaction in a shop (or cultural institution or coffee shop or restaurant) with chit-chat. Namely, “Hi, how are you?” Response: [Confused head tilt.]

As an interesting point of comparison, check out one of the answers given by someone in Norway:

Don’t ask people how they’re doing unless you’re ready to get deep. “We will give an actual answer.” – /u/maiset


Back to this issue of friendliness, however, I would probably suggest that the opposite advice should be given to travelers to the US: always start your interactions with a little chit chat. How are you today? Hi, there, how you doing? Unlike Norwegians, we will probably not respond to a stranger or acquaintance with a full-blown narrative of all of our ills (that would be weird), but we will appreciate that you’ve made the attempt to connect with us on a basic—and most importantly, friendly—level. Of course, this depends on where you are in the country, but boy, howdy, we Americans do (generally) love our pleasantries.


This suggestions didn’t come up for American advisors, however. Rather, they suggested that visitors don’t smoke weed in public, even in places where it is legal (seems like a no-brainer to me, but then again, similar to advice was given by Dutch people to travelers in Amsterdam), don’t stand too close while waiting in line (a distance of an arm’s length was advised), don’t imitate a Southern accent, and don’t assume the whole country is the same. Maybe not the specific collection of advice I would have given someone, but probably not bad places to start. (That not standing too close thing rang true for me—I didn’t realize I had a thing about being crowded until I moved out of the States.)



And that is your friendly Traveling-In-Iceland PSA for today. The More You Know, guys.

I, Alone

I just spent a lovely ten days with my parents and sister on their recent visit to Iceland. We got to do a fair amount of out-in-the-country-ing, a fair amount of just-normal-life-ing, a fair amount of errand-running, an awesome bit of horse riding, and I even got all three of them to go sea swimming with me, because they are heroes. (My dad in particular gets a shout out for swimming around the cove with me and making sure I didn’t have a panic attack when the Inferi seaweed started tickling my toes.) So as of today—National Day, as it happens—things are slowly returning back to normal here for me. Although ‘normal’ is actually not normal at all, as I now find myself in the midst of a real sumarfrí—summer vacation, that is—without a daily job or school assignments or any of that. (I’ll cope, I promise.)

Valdimar Thorlacius - Photo by Vilhelm, Vísir

Valdimar Thorlacius – Photo by Vilhelm, Vísir

So I’m going through my email and catching up on news and things that happened while I was basically off the Internet, and I’ve been pleased to see that a book of photography by Icelandic photographer Valdimar Thorlacius has been getting a fair amount of attention since it was released at the start of the month. This pleasure is twofold. On one hand, it is a beautiful book of photography on a fascinating subject: the daily lives of hermits in Iceland. On the other, I’m also excited because I translated the accompanying text—excerpted interviews with the photographed individuals—and did so over the course of a weekend. I had editing help, of course, but truly, this is the most extensive (and fastest) translation project that I’ve yet undertaken, made all the more interesting/complicated by the fact that the interview subjects were often talking about the daily circumstances or details of their childhoods on rural farms in Iceland (not a milieu that I’m super well-versed in yet) and also generally had rather roundabout/old-timey colloquial ways of expressing themselves. They are hermits, after all. So I learned a lot doing this translation, not just linguistically, but culturally and historically, too.

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“I am Icelandic because I speak Icelandic.”

Back in February—a lot happening that month—I was contacted by Patrick Cox, a journalist who, among other things, runs “The World in Words” podcast for Public Radio International. For those of you with nerdy linguistic leanings (or totally hip linguistic leanings, as the case may be), I encourage you to check it out. It’s a fascinating podcast that looks at language from a socio-cultural-historical perspective and since subscribing myself, I’ve learned about the popularity of hesitation words ‘um’ and ‘uh’ around the world (as well as which genders tend to prefer which word), the origin of the game Mafia, C.K. Moncrieff, the fascinating man who translated Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (and gave it its famous English title), and more.

All of this would be interesting enough to merit a shout-out, but the reason I bring this podcast to your attention now is that based on his visit in February, Patrick has now put together two podcasts about the Icelandic language. And—whoot, whoot—I am (briefly) quoted in one of these. Full disclosure: mine are not the most brilliant contributions on the state of the Icelandic language. But nevertheless, Patrick and I had a lovely chat about Icelandic—a rather invigorating one, I might add, at a point when I was feeling a bit down about the language and my handle on it in general— and I’m delighted to have been a part of his investigations.

I really encourage you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes (or whatever the kids are using these days), but you can also listen to each episode (17 and 15 minutes respectively) on the World in Words website. There are also written transcripts of both (although they’re abridged, actually—more of me in the podcast version!), but as Patrick says, its preferable to listen to these, as they were all conducted as spoken interviews.

Here’s part one (which I’m included in):

Will Icelanders one day ditch their language for English? (17 min)

Here’s part two:

The future of the Icelandic language may lie in its past (15 min)

Mural of Heimaey on the side of a harbor building.

Throwback Touring: Trip to the Vestmannaeyjar (Feb. 2015)

As of Friday, I am officially done with work, done with school, and tots on summer vacation. Which means all sorts of free time…at least until I fill it. Until that happens, however, I’ve got time finally to share a little bit about the trip that Mark and I took to the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), right off of Iceland’s south coast, in February.

We had been wanting to visit the Vestmannaeyjar for quite some time, so when I was invited to write a travel piece for Icelandair’s in-flight magazine, I jumped at the opportunity. And even though it was the off-season and many of the island’s major tourist draws (such as boats out around the smaller, uninhabited islands to see puffins and other sealife) weren’t running, we really had a fabulous trip.

For one, we got to hold puffins, which was just as awesome as you’d expect. For two, we were escorted around by a photographer, Óskar, who is a lifetime resident of Heimaey (Home Island). Óskar (whose lovely photos you can see here) drove us all over the island, shared local stories and histories, arranged for us to get into museums after closing hours and to meet the curators, asked his friend to let us join an island tour (which included a delicious lunch at Einsi Kaldi, an upscale restaurant that uses a lot of local ingredients), and even had us over for dinner at his home. It was, as you can see, quite the royal treatment.

View of Heimaey from the top of Eldfell, the volcano that looms directly over the town.

View of Heimaey from the top of Eldfell, the volcano that looms directly over the town.

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Quality Time

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Around the start of the month, I noticed little transparencies with musings about waiting affixed to bus shelters around the university and downtown. I’m not sure if these are at all connected to the ongoing Reykjavík Art Festival, or if someone is just art-ing it up on their own, but I actually quite like them.

IMG_3752Some of these are written in English and some are written in Icelandic. I’m not a master grammarian, but my assumption after reading the one above more closely is that these bus-musings weren’t written by a native Icelandic speaker, which I (perhaps not unexpectedly) find even more interesting. In the case of the musing above, someone (not the artist) tetchily wrote over the original date order (it was written month-day instead of day-month, as is done in Iceland and much of the world). And the same exacting observer also seems to have taken issue with the use of the English phrase “quality time” at the end and replaced it with the Icelandic word “goðastund.” I know a lot of Icelanders who pepper their (Icelandic) speech with English phrases here and there, but apparently, this viewer wasn’t having it.

Here’s a quick translation of the Icelandic entry. Note that some of the words were partially scratched out and I also didn’t quite know what to make of some of the phrasing, so I was extrapolating a little bit.

I don’t usually mind waiting. I often use the downtime to just think, ponder, be with myself, enjoy the moment, etc. Generally speaking, I don’t wait like this much and I think it’s good to be able to use this wait time just to catch up with myself. Maybe that’s why in reality I welcome the wait and look on it as ‘Quality Time.’

If I happen to have my camera on me and see any others of these around town, I’ll take pictures of them, too. In the meantime, I’m off to the bus stop now to enjoy my own Quality Time.
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South Coast Gems: Naughty Nuns, Cozy Coffeeshops

Why, hello there, Internet. I’m alive! The school year has come to a close, and my work year is nearly finished as well (nine days and counting), so I find myself, mysteriously, with time on my hands. I’ve so far been filling it with walks and binge reading and Eurovision and cooking, but perhaps I can get back in the habit of updating this blog, too.

To start with, I’ll be posting some backlogged writing and photos in the up-and-coming, and I thought it best to start with this oldie-but-goodie that was published in the Grapevine in April. The trip, I should note, was one that Mark and I took in October of 2013, although the story itself didn’t make it into print until rather a long time afterwards. I should also note that my original article was about a kazillion times longer (there’s a lot to say about the sights we saw and I wasn’t watching my word count very closely), so while I’ll just excerpt the article itself in this post (with photos), I will also add in some of the passages that I had to cut for length.

The full set of photos from this trip (and there were many) are posted on the photo blog. I’ve arranged them by site, so click the location titles to see all the photos from that place. (General photos from the road have been sprinkled throughout this post and can also be found here.)

(Click the title link below to see the full article.)

Misbehaving Nuns, Ancient Ice: Five Seasonal South Iceland Sights

Ideally, all of your travels in Iceland would be accompanied by mild weather and cloudless skies, but waiting for perfect weather in this country is much like waiting for Godot. This shouldn’t faze you, though, because the shoulder seasons (September and October, March and April) are frequently, if intermittently, lovely. They are typically a bit cold and windy—but also bright and clear and with enough daylight to allow for a decent day’s hiking or sightseeing. On a recent three-day drive along the South coast, my partner and I went to see some new sights and return to some favorites. Here are a few highlights.

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Sólmyrkvi madness á Íslandi

Solar eclipse photo via Mbl newspaper photographer Eggert.

As you may well be aware, this morning there was a pretty spectacular solar eclipse (sólmyrkvi) visible throughout Northern (and Northern-ish) Europe. Word has it that this eclipse was, in fact, “the best in years” and lucky for us here in Iceland (including the thousands of tourists who apparently made a special journey here just to see the eclipse first-hand), the weather was wonderful: bright, windless, and super sunny.

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Fun Fact for Friday: Ye Olde Þ

Image via Stephen McKay, Wikimedia Commons

In between various projects the other night, Mark and I fortified ourselves with a soothing dose of British television, this time, an episode of Stephen Fry’s panel show QI. And wouldn’t you know it, but he had some very interesting historical trivia about the letter Þ—or this blog’s eponymous ‘Thorn,’ in English. Now, perhaps the linguists, book historians, typography buffs, and and Old English enthusiasts among you already knew this, but news to me: in Old English, the word “Ye,” as in ‘Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe above’ (not, for the record, ‘ye’ as in “Hear Ye, Hear Ye!”) was not pronounced with a ‘y’ sound, but rather as ‘th.’ This is because in the early years of the printing press, the letter Y was substituted for the letter Þ, which was part of English orthography at the time. Apparently, printing presses didn’t have Þ, so plucky printers simply substituted Y instead. But people understood that it was still pronounced with the ‘th’ sound.

You can watch Stephen Fry explain this rather eruditely, with humorous commentary, in the video below (the clip should be cued up, but if it isn’t for some reason, the ‘Ye’ clip starts at 36:53).

Fun Fact!

Puffins: A Lot Like Puppies

Although I don’t have time (yet!) to regale you all with our most recent adventure to Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westman Islands, I cannot fully contain my excitement at the moment. I simply must share these few photos from our weekend jaunt and tell you, dear readers, that holding a puffin is truly delightful. Pretty much as awesome (okay, almost) as holding a baby goat. This likely surprises absolutely no one, but what might surprise you is that holding a puffin is a lot like holding a puppy. A puffin—at least Tóti, one of the resident lord and masters at Sæheimar (the aquarium/natural history museum on Heimaey)—is rather warm and rather cuddly. When it gets excited, it nibbles at your hands (or, okay, just bites—but totally worth it). When it wants to be set down, it follows you around or waddles out in front of you. It is surprisingly small (Mark says “like one too many tomatoes to hold in one hand”) and it has surprisingly warm little feet.

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One of the women who was visiting at the same time as we were (an American travel agent visiting for a big convention who took a short daytrip to the Westmans) exclaimed as she was leaving: “Oh my god, that made the whole flight over here worth it!” I think a lot of things made the trip ‘worth it,’ actually—there were many amazing things about our visit which I will share (with photos!) shortly—but Holding a Puffin definitely ranks pretty high on the list of Awesome Things I’ve Done in Iceland.