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Introduction to Icelandic

jrlewis's picture

It started with a series of presents a wooden carving of an Icelandic horse, a fleece-lined sleeping bag, and a plain cloth book.  I used the pony to model for an updated photograph of myself as a ballet dancer waiting for the annual recital to begin.  I tested the sleeping bag in my car, in 16oF weather, in a strange rest stop.  But the book was a problem.  What to do with a book I can’t read?  After accepting the help of Google Translate, I found out the title, Ritsafn, and author, Olof Sigurdardottir, of my book.  I looked for a translation, none exists; there isn’t a lot of Icelandic literature translated into English, I learned.  Her book, it looks is out of print in Icelandic alas.  Interestingly, my book is a collection of poetry and fairy tales, the third and final published work of a woman farmer writer.  That her husband was a carpenter formed the basis for my poem comparing the author to myself.  My carpenter (the presenter) seemed satisfied.  I was still curious.  This is the story of how I decided to start a series of homophonic translations of my book. Homophonic translations are based on the sound rather than the meaning of the words in a text in a foreign language.  This will certainly be a test for me as a writer and a terribly under-developed linguist.  (I read Finnegan's Wake.)  I can’t stand the idea that there is this writer, who I feel close to, who I can’t read.  So I will be experimenting with creating English poems from her Icelandic poems.  I am thinking of you, Olof fra Hlodum. 


jrlewis's picture

Third Time's The Charm

The poems below showcase an interesting problem in homophonic translation: rhyme.  How to preserve the rhyme scheme of a poem in Icelandic when constrained by the words available in English?  I would like to start with an analysis of rhyme scheme in the original Icelandic text.  Next, I will compare and contrast original poem to the homophonic translation.  It is my hope that careful consideration of the sound and meaning of the poem and its translation will yield new insights about the function of end-rhyme in poetry. 

I am analyzing this poem from knowledge of the canonical forms of English poetry.  (I do not yet know anything about Icelandic poetry.)  The form of the end-rhyme is ababcdcdefefghgh.  This is similar to the rhyme schemes and lengths of sonnets and villanelles.  Only once, are the same sounds repeated; the end-rhyme scheme might also be notated as ababcdcdefefgbgb.  The last word of the second line is actually repeated in the poem as the last word of the last line.  Such repetition of end-rhyme and words is very similar to a villanelle.  I suspect that the repeated rhymed word has undergone a change in meaning through out the course of the poem.  By placing the word in a different context of sounds and meaning, the poet Sigurdardottir has altered the role of the word in the poem. 

In fact, I would like to rewrite this poem as a villanelle.  Valentine is the villanelle inspired by this poem-translation-problem.  Certainly, this sister poem is a looser translation.  In fact, I doubt there is a term for such a poem.  Suggestions?  I’m particularly curious if readers can see a connection between the three poems.  It is important to me that readers recognize a connection between the three translations. 

In my homophonic translation of the poem, I focused on preserving the pairs of rhymed words.  Upon reviewing my work I noticed a disturbing pattern.  Many of the Icelandic words had endings that could only be matched to English words by a near rhyme.  Most often the sound was “er.”  Therefore, my translation poem’s rhyme scheme was aaaaaaaaababcaca.  The rhyme scheme of the original poem is almost completely lost in what is otherwise a faithful homophonic translation.  Since rhyme is sound, it seems important to revise this translation to generate a translation true to both the sounds of specific words and the rhyme scheme. 

jrlewis's picture

Talk Fade Aged Junior (version 1)

Hold a vine, garden tagger,

War radish, poured maker,

Let you heat um hunger plunder,

Hearth vaguer I bored fairer.

Whole hum lighting hug mine deal her,

Her error winter.

In my heart of ask salt pursuer

Of soda I lain bloating splinter.

Lead slow I pine I laugh more dreamer,

Lest you hug and contraband,

Late you and answer flick streamer

I missed her at north dour land.

Laugh more luster ah harbor meant,

Have some glue for radish slaughter,

Simmer litter you summer betterment,

Some more for you hug um curer.

jrlewis's picture


They slaughter war red radishes, but care,

Her heart’s a radish.  Hunger, plunder, and

He leads the lady neighbor to his lair.


Vine in garden tug o’ war beware;

Lest he pine, he laughs at her nightstand.

They slaughter war red radishes, but care;


Late summer laughter might them repair.

He missed her at north dour dreamland.

He leads the lady neighbor to his lair,


Littering the sand talk their land rare.

Wild lightening fades on his wristband.

They slaughter war red radishes, but care


Horseshoe crabs aged and harbor bare.

Here in, her heart of salt says island;

He leads the lady neighbor to his lair.


Her his junior how are they fair?

Hugging, he glues her to him, a farmhand.

They slaughter war red radishes; but care,

He leads the lady neighbor to his lair.


jrlewis's picture

Song of Mine Fluff

Mine fluff raised our armor find lest I long

Effulgent lie fog déjà viewed song,

Vie song for good a video of salad.

Pour gruffly infer hood dimmer guy fallen lag sky,

Ugly me paramour seen liege I,

Eh up human armor might clad.


Aghast seems I lied slumped high-low man strum,

Myth yardarm path vaguest I alchemist drum

Add dill and I oh man dumb.

Eh here decimal him signs too frantic I tell,

Atonal fang hum mine boring shell

Adagio she mails leaf and I told dump.

jrlewis's picture

Essential Tools

Good old fashioned, print dictionaries are essential for homophonic translations.  Where else can one find a really long list of words in alphabetical order?  I am now the proud owner of an Oxford English and American Heritage dictionaries.  One from my local bookstore and one from Amazon.  Suggestions for further reference materials are welcome...

jrlewis's picture

Til It Scalds: The Nightmare

Egg luster persists until piñata

Can pour valproic acid might.

Eggs eight put higher, huge filler,

Semi-heavy not stirred or augur plight.

Pew gestures significant satiation high-fiver

Might swift  -- hey pore egg graciously at mire,

Pie most egg also goes gifted.

Pain good, some fire, I hug a pyre.


Egg, oh taste, I high, store jerk!

Then strengthen mint egg, finish your pour.

I dip pines anecdote underworld,

Egg her pie heated at seven more.

Egg tidbit pigeon else eek,

-- my own asterisk or foresight.

Made lightening good on pint egg picky,

Oh peck, and scald her carefree good. 

interloper's picture

homophonic translation

This is funny. It looks like a fun challenge. It reminds me of those "bad lip reading" videos going around on the web. ( I feel challenged to try to do one of these and get it to make sense, too. But where to find a poem in another language, and what language?

jrlewis's picture

Inter vs Intra

There are both inter-language homophonic translations and intra-language homophonic translations.  My Icelandic-
English translation is an example of the former.  The language of Anguish is an example of the latter.  Anguish is the homophonic of English phrases or sentences into other English phrases or sentences based on sound.  Think of it as extended punning.  So the possibilities are endless.  I've read that French is the easiest language to work in because so many different combinations of letters yield the same sounds.  Happy translating!

interloper's picture


An intra-language homophonic translation is like an intentional malapropism or mondegreen.

It has been a source of endless amusement between myself and music enthusiast friends in the past to recount our own personal and overheard mondegreens. I love this stuff.

jrlewis's picture

At the Bar...

could be her = cold beer

interloper's picture

As misheard by my old friend Randall:

"The girl with colitis goes by"

("The girl with kaleidoscope eyes", from Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds by The Beatles)

interloper's picture


And then what about eggcorns!?

jrlewis's picture

Even in Novels

"Beware the undertoad!"

-John Irving

Gary Norris's picture

The World According to Garp

Can anyone here tell me if John Irving's GARP has been translated into Icelandic? OR, how an Icelandic translation would go?