Unlike in most European languages, þýða, the Icelandic word for translation, denotes translation as the act of nationalising a foreign word, making the meaning agreeable to Icelanders. For Rúnar Helgi Vignisson, a well-established Icelandic writer, translator and associate professor at the University of Iceland, the art of translating to and from Icelandic calls into question what it means to be an Icelandic author. With Reykjavík being recognised as one of 28 UNESCO cities of literature, it is no wonder that Iceland defines itself as a nation of books and boasts a vast and diverse literary heritage. Starting with the Icelandic Sagas, all the way to contemporary Icelandic writing, the contribution of Icelandic literature to the world overshadows the underlying fault lines beginning to surface in the cultural life of this small nation.
Making of an Artist
Growing up surrounded by the foreboding mountains in the small town of Ísafjörður, Rúnar is deeply rooted in Icelandic culture. The mystery and magic Rúnar saw in books when he was young still inspire the author to keep cultivating the Icelandic language through his work as a writer, translator and teacher. An author of eight books, with his latest short story collection winning the DV Cultural Prize for Literature, Rúnar currently directs the Creative Writing program at the University of Iceland. This creative program is one of a kind in the world, being the only creative writing program taught in Icelandic and tackling the unique challenge of what it means to be an Icelandic author in today’s world.
Evolution of the Icelandic Language
Iceland’s literary landscape is currently undergoing a transitional period. “We don’t know where to go from here,” Rúnar admits. “The most pessimistic people will tell you that the language is disappearing in its current form. All languages evolve, that is natural. However, this could be viewed as some form of mutation. Icelandic as we know it could be completely different fifty years from now. If anyone still reads books, that is,” the author explains, evoking the very real possibility of such a dystopian future. A generational gap is currently drifting tastes away from literature and toward faster-paced technological sources of entertainment. “In a certain sense, we are about to become dislocated from ourselves and our national identity. We are losing contact with our literary heritage. Young people are making a choice to have direct access to the world by interacting in English. This begs the question as to whether we can maintain our national identity, and at what cost it would come to lose it. Being dislocated from one’s culture and roots can have disastrous consequences as has been the case for many indigenous peoples around the world.”
In an effort to bridge the gap between the world and Iceland, Rúnar has been pursuing a literary project for over 20 years that compiles short stories from different parts of the world and translates them into Icelandic. Publishing the third volume of Short Stories of the World, featuring Asia and Oceania, embodies the author’s literary odyssey. “Through short stories, you get to see the world from the inside,” the writer confides. “Short stories are often about emotions. They are a powerful, even spontaneous, response to what is happening around you. It is a glimpse into the concerns of people from the inside.” Indeed, by way of showing Icelanders what people are thinking and feeling, Rúnar hopes to address preconceptions about the world in Iceland.
For Rúnar, who has spent his whole life and career cultivating Icelandic, observing the changes in attitude toward Icelandic language and culture today can be saddening. “It makes you more aware of your mortality when you come to the end of your career,” he explains, “if everything you believed in and the language you expressed yourself in may be disappearing.” However, the Creative Writing Program at the University of Iceland—which marked its 10-year anniversary on October 20th—is a source of hope for cultivating the Icelandic literary heritage. In the meantime, the author continues working on his own projects, one of which he began working on in 1993 and also includes an excavation of Icelandic identity, this time in relation to fatherhood. “When writing, you always have to invent the wheel in some sense,” Rúnar confides. “In writing, I want to do my part in bringing the world to Iceland and Iceland to the world.”