Adventures in Amateur Translation: Skrímslapest

Before I left Iceland and finished my term as a Fulbright grantee, I was invited to participate in a presentation with my fellow Fulbrighters to present the work we had undertaken during our nine months in Iceland. My colleagues had a diverse range of interests, talents, areas of expertise and projects, ranging from poetry derived from Norse mythology to volcanic research, and child psychology to marine coastal management. Some of these projects are easier to quantify than others; for my part, I was a bit nervous that I’d need to stand up and talk to my audience in perfect Icelandic for 15 minutes straight in order to convey that I had actually been doing something all year. (Which, as I hope this blog indicates, I certainly had.) Instead of panicking (or attempting an oral presentation well outside of my abilities at that particular juncture in time), I decided to give a brief summary of my writing projects, my work on Little Free Library Reykjavík, and finally, to try my hand at a short translation from Icelandic to English. After all, that is my end goal. And I did read a great deal of children’s books this year for practice. So I took a book from one of my favorite children’s series, Skrímslapest, and translated it into English. Then I created a Reading Rainbow-style video where I read the Icelandic text over the English subtitles. It took me a whole day to create the video (I had to learn how to work with iMovie), but I was pleased with the final product and had a good time making it.

I was lucky enough to meet the book’s illustrator and co-author, Áslaug Jónsdóttir, at an event this year, and not only did she generously introduce me to her writer’s group (who then generously donated books for Little Free Library Reykjavík), she also kindly gave me permission (along with her co-authors Kalle Güettler and Rakel Helmsdal) to post the video I made of my translation on Vimeo. So I am sharing the video with you all now (below).

Some points on the translation process (such as it was) however, before you watch:

-The title, Skrímslapest is a combo word: skrímsli, or monster + pest, which can mean “disease, illness, or epidemic.” I decided to translate it as Monster Pox, because that had a nice ring to it, and in the pictures, it did look like the chicken pox, not some insurmountable monster-plaugue.

-I was made aware of one mis-translation in the text, where I translate ís to “ice” instead of “ice cream.” For the record, if you want ice in your drink while in Iceland, the correct word is klaki. It did not occur to me to even look this word up when I was doing the translation—I assumed “ís” was ice because of “Ísland” (the Icelandic name for Iceland) and because it seemed to make some sense in context. I’ve left the error in the video because a) it would be very time consuming to fix, and b) it is a good record of my learning process. It is also a fair indication that this is not, by any means, a perfect translation.

-There were a couple of interesting vocab translation pickles:

1. þungarokk: this is a combo word, from þungur, or heavy, and rokk, or rock music. I opted to just refer to this as METAL! (caps to match the original text) in the text because that’s what my high school metalhead friends used to enthusiastically yell while headbanging or drumming on their chests at lunch time. Short and emphatic and to the point. Plus, “heavy metal” has too much of a moms-talking-about-the-kids’-music vibe to it, I thought.

2. hrútleiðinlegur: another combo, from hrútur, or ram, and leiðinlegur, a sort of all-purpose word for boring/tedious/dull and which is used for everything from a boring class to tiresome weather. I was absolutely delighted with the word “sheep-boring” (I’ve also heard “dog-boring”) and thought long and hard about coming up with some sort of fun, animal-themed, catchy word for super-boring in English. (I had a ton of excellent suggestions from my YA-author friend/mom of a toddler, too. So thanks for those, buddy!) In the end, I opted to just translate this awesome word as “TOTALLY BORING!” because it really didn’t sound like the kind of wordplay you get from kids in English, and who hasn’t heard a child refer to something as “totally” dull/lame/boring etc.? Also, the original book wasn’t going for super word play, either—it’s just a common expression in Icelandic.

So there you have it. My first foray into literary translation, with its attendant debates. I hope you enjoy the video below (and share your thoughts on the translation, if you have them), but please do note that although I have permission from the authors to post this, it is still entirely their creation, and they retain all rights to its adaptations, translations, and dissemination.

Your Surprisingly Detailed, Aesthetically Pleasing, and Industry-Specific Icelandic Website of the Day

I was looking up vocab for an assignment (a dialog exercise related to grocery stores with a lot of meat/butchery terms) and ran across a term I couldn’t find in my trusty dictionaries: frampartur. I got the gist that this was a cut of meat (the “front part,” I believe it means), but again, I like to be precise when I can be, so decided to give it the Good Ol’ Google Image Search Try. Which immediately provided me with a confirmation that “front part” is basically right (no English equivalent yet, but okay). Where did I glean this information, you ask?

From The Meat Book: an informative (online) guide to/for/about the Icelandic Meat Industry:


If you have an interest in the Icelandic meat industry, butchery (hey, some people do), or actually, the skeletal-level biology of grazing mammals, you might want to give this website a visit. Apparently, it started as an industry guide in printed form, but they are taking advantage of new technology (the internet) to make the “book” available to anyone. Currently, you’ll find information about horse(meat), beef, pork, and lamb–interesting to note that some of the animals are introduced with a photo of the live specimen (lamb, pig) and some are not (horse, cow). There’s a little outline on the cover that seems to indicate that poultry will be added in the future, but it isn’t available yet.

Google Translate: A Cautionary Tale

Not a skræpa.

In discussing the various language-learning resources that students of Icelandic should be aware of, one of my professors last semester commented that because Icelandic is a “small” language, finding comprehensive dictionaries–even to/from commonly spoken languages like English or German–can be difficult. I have certainly found this to be true myself. Even reading kids’ books in Icelandic, I often have to employ a whole battery of dictionaries and cheater methods of varying levels of ingeniousness in order to figure out what a single word means.

Example: I read a book called Það var skæpa last semester, which means It was a pigeon. Except “skræpa” is not the normal everyday word for a normal everyday pigeon (that’s dúfa, for reference). Instead, skræpa is a word for a sort of mangy pigeon–the mutt of pigeons, if you will. The kind of pigeon that New Yorkers refer to as a “rat of the sky” and kick at violently instead of sweetly feeding bread to. The dictionary that I generally use online, however good it can be sometimes, did not include this nuanced variation on pigeon breeds. And since the word didn’t appear in the text in the book until about halfway through, my teacher-provided glossaries didn’t have the word on the vocab list, either.

It bothered me that I didn’t know what the title of the book I was reading meant, so I tried to be clever. I Google image-searched the word “skræpa,” hoping to turn up the word in an article or post, in context. Try this, if you’d like. You’ll get pictures of pigeons, yes, but also a whole lot of cows, which definitely confuses the issue. (Yes, there were illustrations in the book I was reading, but I wanted to be sure about what it meant.) Anyway, a whole variety of Google results eventually helped me confirm, for certain, that skræpa (this totally useful word that I am going to use in life all the time), means “mangy pigeon.” But not before I ran across an article in the newspaper about a woman who had been found dead in a pigeon coop, surrounded by skræpa-s. Which again, confused things for me for a bit.

Alongside the online dictionary that I often link to in this blog, I also have a pocket dictionary, and an illustrated Icelandic version of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever for kids (in Icelandic, My First Dictionary) which is actually really helpful, and, in some cases, Google Translate. Google Translate, I hasten to add, wouldn’t be recommended by any language instructor. And it is frequently missing words, or translates into wonky phrases. (It also occasionally renders proper nouns which only have an Icelandic context into different proper nouns which have a context familiar to English speakers, which is a whole other rabbit hole of problematics.) But sometimes, it helps show how a phrasing you don’t understand can be rendered cleanly in English, and sometimes it has words that the online dictionary, and the pocket dictionary, and the Richard Scarry picture dictionary, and Google image search don’t have. It is basically one’s last line of defense in language learning.

But, of course, you have to keep its shortcomings in mind and pay very close attention to the translations that it is giving you. As a particularly wonderful case in point from today, I give you:

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Pigeons and Death: A New Reading Benchmark

I am quite pleased to say that as of two hours ago, I have finished my first (short) (children’s) chapter book in Icelandic. Read according to the schedule of my self-study class, it took me over two months. I’ve written vocab definitions all over the margins, had to look up the same words or phrases about fifty times before they sunk in, and now maybe know more names for types of doves and pigeons in Icelandic than I think may really be necessary, but, hey: success!

The book, Það var skræpa, (very) basically translates to It was a (common) pigeon. Not the catchiest title in direct translation, which may account for the English translation of the film version‘s title being rendered as “The Best Pigeon in the World.” Either way, it is a ruminative story about children’s loneliness and children’s friendships, pigeons, and death. (Spoiler alert, guys.)

I wrote a casual ‘review’ of the book for Goodreads, so if you are interested in non-translated Icelandic early-reader fiction, this one’s for you:

The story itself wasn’t totally my style, but I am interested in the author’s themes and almost poetical style. For such simple writing (much of it is in the present tense, basic vocabulary and wording is repeated throughout), there is still a freshness to the way that alliteration and line breaks are used, and even I can tell that the phrasing is creative.

It is a simple story, but it meanders a bit and is actually rather sad. A little boy named Bjössi wakes up one day and sees his best friend building a pigeon coop with another neighborhood boy, something that Bjössi and his friend had wanted to do for a long time. But the other boys won’t let him take part in the building. Shunned and lonely, Bjössi is befriended by some carpenters who give him the materials to build his own coop. He is also joined by a neighborhood girl, Ása, who has rescued a mottled pigeon from the other boys who injured its wing when they were clumsily trying to trap it. Ása and Bjossi decide to turn their coop into a hospital for the one pigeon, but in very short order, the coop they build is destroyed by a bulldozer (the carpenters save the pigeon just in time). And then, even after his dramatic rescue, the pigeon still dies.

Thematically, there’s a lot happening. These children are basically all on their own–Andres makes a point of saying that both of Bjössi’s parents work and he has to take care of himself–and although you see a few adults (his own mother, Ása’s mother, and the carpenters), this is very much a child’s world. Since Bjössi is a rather sensitive character, all of these emotional moments–his rejection by his friend, the various disasters with the coop, the death of the pigeon–feel like very painful events indeed. And they are–all the more so because he’s basically all alone.

But in the end, there’s some hope (a ray of sunshine literally bursts from the clouds): Bjössi has learned to value the right friendships, had affirmed his own empathy, and seems to appreciate life, for its beauty and brevity both. Deep thoughts for a children’s book, I must say.

On that note, let’s take a moment to enjoy that other great piece of Pigeon-and-Death artistry. (Good call, Georgia!)