The Summer Project, Revised

“Jumping After Hildur”: Engraving from an 1864 edition of Icelandic legends, via Wikimedia Commons

So earlier this summer, I decided that I would set myself a project goal: finish a draft of a translation of a ten page short story. I thought this would be a modest goal, and yet fully expected that it would undergo some revisions (read: delays) over the course of the following months. And, guess what, guys: it totally did. Namely, here I find myself approaching the end of summer and I haven’t completed more than two or three pages of said translation.

Now. I could spend time raking myself over the coals about this since I haven’t, truth be told, done a whole lot of studying or general Icelandic-improvement in the last few months. That’s not to say I haven’t done anything, of course: I’ve been reading the daily free paper that gets shoved through the mail slot in the morning. I’ve watched a bit of television on RÚV, and listened to a bit of the state radio station. I’ve eavesdropped on my co-workers and people on the bus. And, biggest deal of all: I’ve had not one, but three, job interviews in Icelandic. One of these was triumphant, one was short [my schedule wasn’t compatible], and one was—best case scenario—kinda okay, but kind of embarrassing, due to a whole muddle of mix-ups which primarily stemmed from the fact that I am absolutely, swear-to-god, The Worst at speaking Icelandic on the phone. (Long story—I’ll tell you sometime, just as soon as it goes from being sort of shaming and sad-making to being funny.)

The point is, I’ve been in this country and in/around this language and although my conversational skills are still pretty shabby at best, I am trying and improving and getting less self-conscious about those moments in which I flub up and say/write something stupid (oh, like the time I gave an email the subject “Eftirfylgja um starf,” which my dictionary lead me to believe meant “Follow-up about job,” but which my co-worker informed me was kind of actually like saying “Afterbirth about job.”) Basically, it’s an uphill battle and embarrassment is par for the course, so developing a thicker skin is not nothing.

While my short story project has basically stalled, however, there is some good news on this front. I have actually done some translations work this summer—translations of the literary variety, even.

Firstly, I had the great pleasure of writing a very long article about mayonnaise earlier this summer. That’s right: mayonnaise. A condiment that at best I accept as a binding agent, but nevertheless, an iconic part of the Icelandic diet—particularly when made by the company Gunnars.

Anyway, Gunnar’s Mayo went bankrupt not long ago (this basically changed nothing—they are still in the sauce flavored mayo-making business) and this lead to all sorts of printed elegies about the company and about mayo itself. Here’s a snippet from the article, “‘More Icelandic Than The Flag’: Gunnars Mayonnaise and the Icelandic Imagination“:

Despite the fact that its bankruptcy would in no way hinder its continued sauce production, this announcement generated a great deal of publicity, ranging from short news articles focusing on Gunnars’ long history as a family-run business to vaguely elegiac blog posts. “One feels a bit strange to think that Gunnars Mayonnaise has gone bankrupt,” wrote TV personality Egill Helgason. “But like the wind, time moves forward. Gunnars is like a memory of the old days, when Icelandic products in Icelandic packaging were ubiquitous.” There was even a three-page photographic spread in daily paper DV on the company’s eccentric former CEO-turned-sole-shareholder, the so-called “Mayonnaise Queen,” Kleópatra Kristbjörg Stefánsdóttir.

When you scrape the surface, however, the significance of Gunnars’ bankruptcy appears to have less to do with the possible loss of a favourite condiment than it does with the flagging of a symbolic institution—the company certainly, and more to the point, mayonnaise itself. It’s perhaps fair to say that many Icelanders have the same affection for Gunnars mayonnaise that Americans do for Heinz Ketchup or Brits HP Sauce. It’s familiar, it’s homey—it’s served on, with, or in nigh on everything. As author Andri Snær Magnason has satirically asserted, “Gunnars Mayonnaise is, in some way, more Icelandic than the coat of arms and flag.”

This last quote, part of a blog post which memorialized a giant statue of a tub of Gunnar’s mayo that stood on the side of the Ring Road for a short time, so intrigued me when I ran across it that I contacted Andri and asked if I might translate it for publication.

Gamalt Mæjónes by Oli Kristjan Armansson via Flickr.

Gamalt Mæjónes by Oli Kristjan Armansson via Flickr.

He agreed, and with the benevolent assistance, edits, and advice of Philip Roughton, I think the final version, “Mayonnaise in Memoriam” is a pretty nice rendering of Andri’s style. Here’s a sample:

It didn’t remain there long, the giant Gunnars Mayonnaise tub that stood next to the national highway near the Þjórsá River. I’m glad I got the chance to see it before it was removed, because it was just really “beautiful.”

Gunnars Mayonnaise is, in some ways, more Icelandic than the national coat of arms and flag, and it was practically majestic to see the tub perched there with the mountains in the background, having been granted the place of honor it so deserves. Gunnars Mayonnaise has accompanied us from the cradle to the grave, in happiness and sorrow; it has been an essential part of baptismal parties, confirmations, and funeral receptions. This mayonnaise was the first luxury that the public could indulge in after centuries of hardship—with their mouths full of mayonnaise, the people of this nation finally experienced bliss, and old women spread it thick on their sandwich loaves, as if to give to their children what they themselves had always lacked.

Then, for our latest issue (which has huldufólk, or Hidden People, as its theme), one of my editors suggested that I write a long piece about Iceland’s huldu-folklore, complete with some translations of original stories. Now, a lot of these stories are already in translation—see here, here, and here, for a start—but a lot of them aren’t. So, for my article, “Hidden People: They’re Just Like Us (Kind Of)“—shout out to my college roommate for introducing me to the joys of Us: Weekly and the “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” feature—and an accompanying online feature, I adapted three retellings (with reference to the work of Jacqueline Simpson) and translated four other tales myself (with editing help, of course). Here’s one of the ones I translated:

The Pastor’s Daughter

There once lived a pastor named Einar at the rectory at Síða in the district of Skaftafell. He was very rich and had many children. He did not believe that Hidden People existed, and spoke very ill of them. He said that elves had never existed or else dared them to show themselves if they could. He often bragged that the Hidden People wouldn’t dare to attack him.

One night, he dreamed of a man who came to him and said: “Here you can see a Hidden Man, as you have long desired to. You have often spoken badly of we elves and dared us to find you. You fool, you pretend to know about things that you do not possess faculties to fathom, and you deny the existence of elves. Now you shall never deny us hereafter, because here you are seeing a Hidden Man, and as proof, I have taken your oldest daughter far away and you shall never see her from this day forward.”

When the man finished saying this, he disappeared. The pastor awoke, feeling as though the Hidden Man was fading from above his bed.  He jumped out of bed and found that his twelve-year-old daughter had disappeared. He searched for her for a very long time, but she couldn’t be found.       

Time passed, and until the next New Year’s night the pastor often lamented his ignorance and the events that followed. But, that night, he dreamed that his daughter came to him. She seemed happy and satisfied, and said she was faring well. She told him that she would be allowed to come to him every New Year’s night in a dream, although she couldn’t tell him anything further of her circumstances. She said that everything she had seen and heard was mysterious and strange.    

After this dream, the pastor saw his daughter every New Year’s night. Once, she told him that her foster-father had died. Later, she told her father that she was to be married in the morning, wedding the son of the elves’ pastor. After this, Einar never saw his daughter again. 

Something I noticed this time around was that, delightfully, the story translations didn’t take me nearly as long as I thought they would, nor were they nearly as difficult as I thought they would be. This has a lot to do with the simple style and vocabulary, but there are still challenges there and so looking at these, I feel pretty good about my summer project, even if it took a totally different shape than I had expected.

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