III. Formal Features of Jónas Hallgrímsson's Poetry and the Present Verse Translations1

The aim of the translations in this collection is threefold: (1) to convey the essential meaning of Jónas Hallgrímsson's poems with tolerable fidelity and as clearly as possible and at the same time (2) to suggest the complexity of their formal features and the virtuosity of Jónas's technique and (3) to do all this using a relatively simple and straightforward English poetical lexicon and unforced, idiomatic syntax.2 It goes without saying that verse translations of poetry are the product of many compromises, compromises that are hopefully — if the translations are to mirror the originals in any consistent way — to some degree principled and systematic.

In general, the present translations attempt to imitate the prosodic features of their originals quite closely and to distribute these features in the same patterns (see, for example, "Iceland" ["Ísland"] and "At an Old Grave, 1841" ["Á gömlu leiði 1841"]). In a few cases, however, only some of the prosodic features of an original are imitated, or else similar features are used in different patterns (see "I Send Greetings!" ["Ég bið að heilsa!"] and "The Beast!" ["Óhræsið!"]). In every such case, this is clearly indicated in the note on form at the end of the translation.

The translations are designed to be read aloud (many of them even to be sung to the traditional tunes associated with their Icelandic originals). The practiced reader of English verse will be able to read the translations — aloud or silently — without reference to the many details and explanations that follow. These are given in order to provide a fairly detailed account of the prosodic principles of Jónas Hallgrímsson's poetry3 and to explain the system of compromises operating in the translations.

A word on nomenclature. From the point of view of historical development, it is convenient — though the procedure begs a number of important questions — to refer to Icelandic poetry from the 9th through the mid-16th century as medieval, Icelandic poetry from the mid-16th century through the end of the Second World War as modern, and Icelandic poetry since the Second World War as contemporary.

From the point of view of the taxonomy of forms, however, it is handier to think of the lion's share of Icelandic verse as consisting essentially of two types, an older and a younger, and to describe the older type as being composed in strophes and the younger type in stanzas. I therefore use the word strophe throughout the present work to designate the larger structural units of poetry of the "eddic" and "skaldic" sort (without end-rhyme) and the word stanza to designate the larger structural units of modern European and Icelandic poetry (with end-rhyme).4 By line-count, roughly half of Jónas's output is strophic and half stanzaic.

I refer to the odd-numbered lines of both strophes and stanzas as "odd lines" and the even-numbered lines as "even lines."

Finally, I refer to heavily-stressed syllables as "stressed syllables" and lightly-stressed syllables as "unstressed syllables."

The contents of this essay on prosody are as follows:

1.Strophic Forms
2.Stanzaic Forms
Appendix A.The Scansion of Lines of Modern Icelandic Stanzaic Verse
Appendix B.The Rules for Alliterant-Placement in the Odd Lines of Modern Icelandic Stanzaic Verse


1 For an inventory of translations of works by Jónas into other languages (including English), see Bibliography of Modern Icelandic Literature in Translation, compiled by P. M. Mitchell and Kenneth H. Ober, Islandica XL (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975), and Bibliography of Modern Icelandic Literature in Translation: Supplement, 1971-1980, compiled by Kenneth H. Ober, Islandica XLVII (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990).

In preparing this essay on prosody, I was much indebted to conversations with Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson and also to his Bragarhættir og bókmenntagreinar í kvæðum Jónasar Hallgrímssonar (abbreviated Bbk). In addition to this work, and various works cited in the notes, I have made extensive use of Finnur Jónsson, Stutt íslenzk bragfræði (Kaupmannahöfn: Í prentsmiðju S. L. Möllers [Möller & Thomsen], 1892) (abbreviated Síb) and Óskar Ó. Halldórsson, Bragur og ljóðstíll (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka bókmenntafélag, 1972) (abbreviated Bl). I am also indebted to Kristján Árnason, The Rhythms of Dróttkvætt and other Old Icelandic Metres (Reykjavík: Institute of Linguistics, University of Iceland, 1991) (abbreviated RD) and to Jón Helgason's well-known essay "Að yrkja á íslenzku" (as reprinted Rr1-38). Kristján Árnason, Sverrir Hólmarsson, Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, and Vésteinn Ólason kindly read the text in draft and saved me from a number of howlers. Kristján's comments were especially helpful and led to a number of fundamental reconceptions.

For an account by the editor/translator of this collection of how and why he undertook the project, the kinds of difficulties he encountered, and the techniques he developed, see his essay "Að yrkja úr íslensku: Glímt við að þýða Jónas Hallgrímsson" in Ritmennt III: Ársrit Landsbókasafns Íslands - Háskólabókasafns, pp. 42-64.

2 The principles enunciated here, arrived at through a good deal of experimentation, agree satisfactorily with the three "laws of translation" set forth by Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, in a celebrated passage from his Essay on the Principles of Translation (3rd edition, 1813):

I would. . .describe a good translation to be, That, in which the merit of the original work is so completely transfused into another language, as to be as distinctly apprehended, and as strongly felt, by a native of the country to which that language belongs, as it is by those who speak the language of the original work.

Now, supposing this description to be a just one, which I think it is, let us examine what are the laws of translation which may be deduced from it.

It will follow,

I. That the Translation should give a complete transcript of the ideas of the original work.

II. That the style and manner of writing should be of the same character with that of the original.

III. That the Translation should have all the ease of original composition.

3 It is important to note that Jónas's practice, in both strophic and stanzaic forms, evolves considerably in the course of his career, becoming freer and more experimental over time. See (for example) what is said about fornyrðislag in notes 12 and 16, about draughenda, and about the last two lines of the stanza cited in note 58.

4 With one important and two unimportant exceptions, all of Jónas's poetry is composed in either strophes or stanzas. The important exception is the poem "Iceland" ("Ísland"), which is written in elegiac distichs. The unimportant exceptions (unimportant except insofar as they shed light on the range of Jónas's prosodic experimentation) include various irregular compositions in letters to his friends (among which are 65 lines of blank verse [stakhenda]; for the text see 2E163-5) and a poem (in Danish) imitating the manner of the Kalevala (for the text see 1E186-9).

Copyright © 1996-8 Dick Ringler. All rights reserved.

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