An Icelandic Poem

A long time ago (1991 or so) I decided to learn Icelandic. Like most things I decided to do, I never really finished it. I can sort of pronounce Icelandic words, very slowly, and I remember a few words, learned a few songs, but never achieved anything like facility. I visited Iceland once, and had that terrible feeling you get as a foreigner that you are murdering someone else’s native tongue. Conversations with Icelanders never really lasted more than a sentence before the recipient would decide to end everyone’s misery and transition to perfect English instead.

I wanted to learn Icelandic because of Egil’s saga. If you don’t know, it’s a very old book detailing the history of a Viking called Egil Skallagrímsson, a poet and very violent man and his fights with everyone he knew. I still consider him one of the most interesting characters I ever read about, and recommend the book. He’s savage, unpleasant and arrogant, but strong and talented as a poet. He insults the king and then gets out of being killed by making a poem singing the king’s praises, called the head-ransom. Throughout the book he goes from being so vicious and hot-tempered that most people avoid him, to writing the most beautiful poem mourning his daughter’s death.

While the prose parts of Egil’s saga seemed to be well translated into English (at least I could follow them), the poetry did not seem to fare as well, seeming to lose subtelty and rhyme, and this was why I decided to learn Icelandic. I never really got to being able to translate the poems in Egil’s saga, but on my one trip to Iceland I got a book of more modern poems to read, intended for schoolchildren (I figured reading kids’ school books was a good way of learning the language). One of the poems in this book was by Hjálmar Jónsson, also known as Bólu-Hjálmar, and was called Mannslát.

Mínir vinir fara fjöld,
feigðin þessa heimtar köld.
Eg kem eftir, kannske í kvöld
með klofinn hjálm og rofinn skjöld,
brynju slitna, sundrað sverð og syndagjöld.

It’s one of the few poems that I remember. Bólu-Hjálmar was a farmer in the northwest of Iceland in the 1800s, and his poetry seemed mostly to be short and dealt with the harshness of what life was like on a farm in Iceland at the time, where food was scarce. He was called Bólu-Hjálmar because he lived on a farm called Bóla. His was a harsh, bitter but muscular poetry that I felt drawn to when I read it. Below is my rhyming translation of the poem above into english. To make it rhyme similarly some liberties were taken.

All my friends have left the fight
Frightened, left to fate's cold bite.
And I'll go too, perhaps tonight,
With cloven helm and riven shield,
Broken armour, sundered sword and sin's dark blight.

My translation is not quite the same (the last line is literally more like sin’s price, or the more biblical wages of sin, and there is no bite in the second line of the original), but hopefully my translation keeps the feeling of the Icelandic version. It’s an old man’s poem, and you get a sense of him, worn out but still struggling on in loneliness when everyone he knew is gone.

I found a few more of his poems on the internet, and would like to read more like them. And who knows… Maybe one day I’ll be able to read those poems in Egil’s saga properly.

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