Culture
Lamentations And Fish Oil: Skálholt’s Bible Exhibition Unveils Iceland’s Struggle With Translating God’s Word

Lamentations And Fish Oil: Skálholt’s Bible Exhibition Unveils Iceland’s Struggle With Translating God’s Word

Words by
Photos by
Art Bicknick

Published July 12, 2018

While Iceland might not be famous for being hardcore religious, Icelanders, or at least the family of the late reverend Sigurður Pálsson, still appreciate their bibles. Fourteen different bible editions that belonged to the reverend are currently on display at the bishop’s seat Skálholt in south Iceland.

Upon arriving at Skálholt, you might confuse the church itself or the Skálholtsskóli, which now houses a restaurant and a hotel, for the place of the bible exhibition. Yet this is not where the fourteen religious texts are to be found, as you’ll find out once you’ve stumbled into the wrong places and as the person guarding the entrance to the church will also tell you. Instead, there’s a rather small turf house, Þorláksbúð, easily overlooked in the middle of the other two bigger buildings, that houses the exhibit. A guide, appropriately dressed up as a cleric, will then tell you all you’ve ever wanted to know about the history of the holy scripture in Iceland.

Bible hero

The exhibit displays bibles that came into the possession of the late reverend Sigurður Pálsson of Skálholt, because his family is convinced that he would have appreciated the rare books being publicly exhibited instead of rotting away in some private cellar. The bibles are arranged in six display cases of glass, starting with the oldest printed book in Icelandic, a new testament translation from 1540.

“The Hendersons-Bible from 1813 is also known as the screwed-up bible.”

The brave soul who dared to translate the new testament from Latin into Icelandic was Oddur Gottskálksson. He is said to have worked on the translation in a cowshed, as the place not only offered him secrecy from the Bishop but also more warmth than anywhere else. Imagine the smell, though – he must truly have been a brave man.

Whale oil bible?

It also becomes clear how closely intertwined the history of the bible and the history of Iceland and the Icelandic language are. That first translation, for example, also marks the beginning of the teeny movement we now know as the reformation, as well as the advent of Icelandic independence.

However, not all bibles have such a glorious background. “The Hendersons-Bible from 1813 is also known as the screwed-up bible”, guide Hilmar Bjarni tells us, “this is because the language is considered really bad. The book of lamentations, for instance, was accidentally translated as ‘harmagrútur’ instead of ‘harmagrátur’”. What might appear as an insignificant spelling error only language purists would have an issue with actually changes the meaning of phrases from “the Lamentations of Jeremiah” to “the tragically unfiltered fish oil of Jeremiah”.

The feminist bible

Another interesting ancient book on display is the Heiðna Bíblia or heathen bible. For some weird religious reasons, the British Bible Association wasn’t too happy with the content, though. Thus, they tried to buy the copies back and destroy them, which makes the book on display even more valuable.

Furthermore, even bible translations published as recently as 2007 apparently simply can’t exist without a juicy controversy: The 21st century bible, or, inclusive bible, tried the impossible: to please all readers. “It’s sometimes also called the feminist bible, because they mainly tried to fix gender-issues”, explains Hilmar Bjarni. “It’s actually just trying to translate the original Greek and Aramaic texts more accurately”, Hilmar Bjarni says, “They used to translate the original word for “family” with “brothers”, for example. This was re-translated as “brothers and sisters” in this edition”.

“Þórlaksbúð is a pretty accurate replica of actual turf houses.”

This, of course, didn’t make the more traditional bible-enthusiasts too happy. However, the translators even managed to displease feminist and other more progressive groups, as they decided to keep “more iconic parts” in the traditional language. Hence, the moral of the story is: Don’t try to please everybody, you will infuriate people anyway.

Almost original building

Once you’ve studied the bundles of parchment closely, you might want to take a look at the turf house itself. “It’s a pretty accurate replica of actual turf houses,” Hilmar Bjarni explains. “They used ancient Norwegian wood-working techniques they would’ve actually been using back in those days.” Hilmar Bjarni admits, however, that the measurements are slightly adapted so that modern people can walk comfortably around in an upright position. Also, there are no sheep to be found inside, which they used to keep in order to stay warm – too bad, some livestock would’ve made the experience even more authentic, as bible hero Oddur Gottskálksson himself used to appreciate their warmth.


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