From Iceland — Lost In Translation

Lost In Translation

Published September 21, 2012

This month marks the four-year anniversary of Iceland’s economic collapse of October 2008. In that time, as Sigrún Davíðsdóttir recounts on page 14, Iceland has gone from being a “financial basket case” to an “economic miracle.” At least that’s what the international media reports.

Based on anecdotal evidence, the media has also been keen on reporting that Iceland’s creative sectors have flourished. Whether or not the crash has had anything to do with a proliferation in the arts, it has certainly been a subject of inspiration, as director Baltasar Kormákur attests in our feature interview on page 21.

At the premiere of his film ‘Djúpið,’ which is based on the true and inspiring survival story of an Icelandic fisherman whose ship went down in the dead of winter, Baltasar told the audience that he wanted to make a film that dealt with the crash, but not a film about people losing all of their money, a film that went deeper, reflecting on the national identity.
Still, it somehow caught me off guard when the film began in Icelandic. It wasn’t so much because I think of Baltasar as the Hollywood director that he is fast becoming, but because it is just so rare to see films in Icelandic.

Iceland’s film industry may be growing, but the majority of films and TV shows shown in Iceland have been and still are imported and subtitled. In fact, Icelanders often credit growing up on American TV for their ability to speak such great English.
When TV came to Iceland, efforts were made to combat the influence of the English language. And one could argue that if something is most central to the national identity, it is the Icelandic language.

Although average Icelanders cannot easily read their Old Sagas, the Icelandic language has changed little from Old Norse when compared to other Scandinavian languages. This is because Iceland was for many years isolated from mainland Europe and there has been a focus on creating new Icelandic words rather than adopting English words into the Icelandic language.

Despite a preoccupation with preserving the Icelandic language, translators hired to subtitle foreign material for Icelandic films, TV and videos have not always been that great and even today, translations can be creative—sometimes too creative. We are talking about gaffes like “Not on my watch” translated as “Nei, ekki úrið mitt!” (“No, not my wristwatch”) or a computer “hard drive” translated as “áköf löngun” (“vehement desire”), to name a few examples collected by author and writer Gísli Ásgeirsson.

It’s quite possible that we’ve made some outlandish translations in the last nine years of printing an English language magazine in Iceland and we could probably dig those up, but why do that when we have a fresh example on hand from the Icelandic media.
Said example, which appeared on, was based on the story, “Jessica Biel: Justin excels at everything,” in the Belfast Telegraph. In a grave misunderstanding, ran with the headline, “Couldn’t Live Without Excel Spreadsheets,” even elaborating that “Justin Timberlake can’t get through the day without making a plan in Excel and following it…”
Well. It’s a good thing that we have some professionally trained translators out there.

And it just so happens that this month marks the eighth anniversary of The Icelandic Association of Translators and Interpreters, which will celebrate the Day of the Translator on September 30. So Happy Day of the Translator to them!

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