A rock and hard place
The fifth Nordic Translation Industry Forum will be held in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, this year, so let’s take a look at this amazing country with 330,000 inhabitants before gathering there in November. Incidentally, the opening speech at the welcoming reception of the conference will be delivered by UNESCO’s goodwill ambassador for languages, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who has also been honoured with the title of “the world’s first democratically elected female president” and is the only Icelander to be addressed as madam.
Until recently, and perhaps still to a certain extent, any mention of Iceland would often conjure a definite sense of ”otherness”. The location of this 103,000 m2 rock on the outermost periphery of Europe, the romance of its windswept, sheep-gnawed, volcanic landscapes and the notion of a people and language so far removed from the rest of the continent as to be relatively uninfluenced by European trends and follies still have the potential to enthral, even though the vast majority of us are well aware that nowhere is as far removed as it used to be. Iceland perhaps least of all.
Despite the world growing ever smaller, it cannot be denied that Iceland has experienced historical events that the rest of Europe would struggle to relate to, and has numerous tales and traditions that are arguably unique and have captured the imaginations of people all over the world. Recent news stories to gain international coverage include the halt of road construction work for fear of disturbing the huldufólk (lit. hidden people, elves from Icelandic folklore) living in its path. Surveys indicate that more than half of Icelanders are prepared to entertain the possibility of such creatures existing, and it is not unusual to see tiny wooden elf houses in people’s gardens, placed to gain favour with them and bring luck. It is suggested that stories of these creatures may have come about due to Iceland’s small population, in an attempt to increase numbers, which in turn propagated amusing notions such as not throwing stones in case you hit something or someone you cannot see and incur its wrath.
We might wonder whether reports of huldufólk activity have increased in recent years in connection with another Icelandic event recently covered in the international news. 1 March is Beer Day in Iceland (also known as B-day), commemorating the end of prohibition in Iceland on 1 March 1989. The ban, which came into force in 1915, originally prohibited all alcohol, but was later partially lifted in 1921 and 1935 to permit wine (on Spain’s insistence) and spirits respectively. Numerous reasons are cited as to why beer was banned for so much longer. The most popular seems to be a fear that the relative cheapness of beer would lead to people drinking with their meals, which in turn would naturally lead to alcoholism, and that the drinking of beer was unpatriotic and inherently Danish (Danishness being one of the biggest insults you can hurl at an Icelander). However, even now the ban has been lifted, Icelanders still drink less than many other Europeans (including, it may please them to note, the Danes) and have a relatively large number of teetotallers.
And of course, where would we be without mentioning the world’s secret love affair with the Icelandic language? As much as many people wonder why a population as small as Iceland’s doesn’t simply give up and speak English (a horrifying notion to those of us that work as translators), there are also people all over the world who are enchanted by Icelandic history and the sagas, some of whom even go so far as to attempt to learn some basic Icelandic or Old Norse in an attempt to further immerse themselves. There is no question that the existence of the Icelandic language – as well as other small languages such as Faroese, varieties of Sámi, Scottish Gaelic, Manx and Basque – enriches European cultural heritage and as such ought to be treasured.