“Death of the Translator” by Magnús Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Mark Ioli

The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Translator’s Note

The short story “Death of the Translator” is excerpted from Magnús Sigurðsson’s book An Icelandic Reader (Íslensk lestrarbók), and appealed to me particularly for its portrayal of the pain, frustration, and perseverance that often accompany the act of translation. Magnús is first and foremost a poet, so even his prose takes on a certain lyric quality that is often challenging to preserve.

In some ways this translation was a reflection of the story itself, as I was confronted right away with a certain amount of untranslatability, ironically in the word for the act itself. In Icelandic, þýða/þýðing are the words for translate/translation, but also the words for mean/meaning. This made the wordplay in the second paragraph difficult to convey neatly, and thus required a bit of “compromise”. In this way the translation of the text became a bit like looking in a mirror or having an out-of-body experience, watching a translator struggle and suffer in an attempt to do precisely what I was doing.

Another decision had to do with the portrayal of the translator, who in the story is male. I saw the story as likely autobiographical to some extent, as the author himself is a translator of poetry, but didn’t think the detail was integral to the storyline. As the experiences and emotions described are so common and universal, I wanted any literary translator to be able to see themself in it, and decided to make the translator’s gender unspecified. I approached Magnús with the idea, which he was receptive to, leaving the decision to me.

Over the centuries, a countless number had endeavored to translate the poem, out of that primordial tongue cloaked in its sheen of magic, but none had been up to the task. Scholars and poets, amateur and learned; many were those who had tried their hand at this mystical rhyme, but to no avail. This was just another in a long line of futile attempts.

The poem’s translation brought hopes that the secrets of this ancient language might be revealed, and with them the illustrious culture that lay hidden within the crooks of its writing. So the translation had considerable meaning, despite the taunts and sneers from those who had lost all hope for a solution to the riddle and who never tired of asserting, with a snide expression on their face, that it meant nothing, that it was meaningless, and time was better spent on other things. There was no way to decipher this “Rosetta Stone,” and it was pointless to beat one’s head against it.

The translator paid no mind to such talk. Sitting instead, year after year, preparing and burning the midnight oil. Reading exhaustively all that had ever been written about the extinct language and its inscrutable poem. Becoming completely familiarized with its etymology, down to the tiniest cedilla, wielding to this end both the precision of a scientist and the intuition of a poet. The translator so thoroughly researched the poem’s rhythm that both thought and speech began to rise and fall according to its meter. At some point their consciousness became so enmeshed with its rhyme scheme that even dreams took on its complex internal pattern.

Indeed, it was not enough that previous translators had fallen short of their intended goal. Strange stories abounded of how each and every one of the other attempts had ended in the same manner: with the translator’s death. So demanding was the poem’s form, its rhyme so complicated, its style so rich, the meaning behind it so entwined with the texture and sound of that ancient tongue that the challenges it presented sooner or later broke the translator down. Thus, it was untranslatable – in the truest sense of the word. Those who had attempted to “compromise,” either out of foolhardiness or arrogance, each paid for this ostentation with their life. 

It hardly bears mentioning either that the translator could not have cared less about such superstitions. So after years of tireless preparation – preparation best described as having lasted a lifetime – the translator finally sat down at their desk one morning with paper and pencil and got to work. Branches brushed tentatively against the window now and again, almost as a reminder that even the trees were watching.

The translator was armed with all the dictionaries, reference materials, and explanatory notes at their disposal. Each line had been investigated so precisely that its meaning was now crystal clear. The nuance of each word was known intimately. Their heart beating in time with the meter of each verse. The translator had, in a word, melded with it. Fallen completely under its power, yet at the same time become empowered, now at long last, to recreate its tenor and timbre in a new language.

Initially, all went off like clockwork. Self-assured and full of confidence, they translated word for word, not losing sight of the poem’s greater significance, mindful of the complex rhyming challenges that awaited. Like a seasoned chess player, the translator moved quickly and surely, placing words onto the page at strategically important locations, with each move strengthening their position against the defenses of the source text.

But gradually, hesitation began to set in. More often than not a choice between two or more words with the same meaning presented itself – but when do words ever have exactly the same meaning? A kind of decision phobia ensued. With each choice made, the offensive possibilities in this literary chess game were likewise reduced. The position grew cramped, the rhyme flatter with each stanza, word order more rigid. And the meaning never seemed to fully come across; there was always some fragment of it left behind, a glimmer or glint in the original that could never be coaxed forth in the translation. Not even when the single word for “light” in the ancient tongue was translated with the single word for “light” available in the language of the translator.

Isn’t the light always the same light? The sun the same sun? The translator gazed out the window, up toward the heavens, at the solar disk casting its rays through the leaves of the trees, which must have shined in much the same manner above the head of the unknown poet several millennia earlier. Had the language perhaps tarnished, the way silver turns gray? Had the language sun been obscured, the sky piled up with dark storm clouds that turned the whole world matte? Had the “pure language” become corrupted over the course of time?

The translator was now bedeviled by even the simplest particles. Does “and” or “but” go better here? Periods and commas likewise became insurmountable hindrances, veritable lions in the road, guardians of the original meaning. The period hid nuances the comma did not at all possess, and vice versa. Nor was it possible to decide whether to use a colon or semicolon, a hyphen or ellipsis.

To make a long story short, the translator had gradually translated themself into a corner. If the rhyming word fit, the meaning was off. If the meaning was correct, the sentiment was lacking. If the sentiment was present, the precision had gone out the window. And if the precision was on point, you can bet the rhythm was jerky. But if the rhythm rose and fell, like undulating waves on the ocean, the word order was without exception skewed. And if the word order was supposed to be natural, making the rhyme work was out of the question….

They forged on, however, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, with the determined stubbornness of one who was born a translator. The riddle of the poem’s rhyme was the first thought to assail their mind each new morning, and possible solutions to that same riddle the last thing to go through their head each night. It would often be a daylong task, nay, yearlong, yet only amount to one line, or even a single word, and it was sometimes necessary to backtrack – often the translator was forced to erase an entire stanza and begin again from scratch. Yet they pressed on.

Thus it was that the poem’s heartbeat, this poem the translator had spent their entire life trying to comprehend and make comprehensible to others, became little by little, weaker and weaker. But at the same time a second heartbeat became perceptible, the faint heartbeat of the translated text, which had gradually taken its place in their bloodstream–a curious beast, neither fish nor fowl, a mystical creature belonging neither to this world nor any other, that had now begun to exist inside them–and what’s more, inside some of the text on the pages.

And with their dying breath, pen clenched in hand, the translator saw they had, in spite of it all, made progress.


Öldum saman höfðu menn freistað þess að þýða ljóðið, úr ævafornri tungu sem sveipuð var töfraljóma, en engir kunnu tæmandi skil á. Fræðimenn og skáld, leikir og lærðir; ófáir voru þeir sem reynt höfðu krafta sína við hið dulúðuga ljóð, en án árangurs. Hann var einungis einn í langri röð misheppnaðra tilrauna.

Með þýðingu ljóðsins vonuðust menn til að leyndardómar hinnar fornu tungu myndu ljúkast upp, og þar með sú glæsta menning sem stafkrókarnir fólu í sér. Þýðing ljóðsins hafði því sannarlega umtalsverða þýðingu, þrátt fyrir skens og háðsyrði þeirra sem höfðu glatað voninni um lausn gátunnar, og þreyttust ekki á að fullyrða með meinlegt glott á vör að þetta þýddi ekkert, þetta væri þýðingarlaust, og tíma hans betur varið í annað. Þennan „Rósettustein“ væri engin leið að ráða og hann ætti ekki að berja hausnum við hann.

Allt slíkt tal lét þýðandinn sem vind um eyru þjóta. Þess í stað sat hann árum saman við að undirbúa sig og lagði nótt við nýtan dag. Hann þaullas allt sem um hina útdauðu tungu og ljóðið dularfulla hafði verið skrifað. Orðsifjar þess kannaði hann til hlítar, allt niður í minnstu stafkróka, og beitti til þess bæði nákvæmni fræðimannsins og innsæi skáldsins. Hrynjandi ljóðsins rannsakaði hann svo rækilega að bæði hugsanir hans og mál tóku að rísa og hníga samkvæmt bragliðum hennar. Og þar kom að svo samgróið vitund hans varð rímskema ljóðsins að hann tók jafnvel að dreyma í margslungnum hendingum þess.

En raunar var ekki nóg með að fyrri þýðendum hefði mistekist ætlunarverk sitt. Dularfullar sagnir hermdu að tilraunir annarra hefðu allar sem ein endað á einn og sama veg: með dauða þýðandans. Svo kröfuhart væri form ljóðsins, rím þess svo margbrotið, orðfæri þess svo mergjað, merkingin svo sam- slungin áferð og hljómi hinnar fornu tungu, að áskoranir ljóðsins riðu fyrr eða síðar þýðendum þess á slig. Það væri því óþýðanlegt – í einu sönnu merkingu þess orðs. Þeir sem af fífldirfsku eða drambsemi hefðu reynt að „miðla málum“, hefðu allir sem einn orðið að gjalda fyrir oflátungsháttinn með lífi sínu.

Vart þarf að taka fram að slík hindurvitni lét þýðandinn sömuleiðis lönd og leið. Og eftir þrotlausan undirbúning árum saman – undirbúning sem satt best að segja hafði varað allt hans líf – tók hann sig til einn morguninn og settist niður við skrifborð sitt með blað og blýant. Greinar trjánna strukust varfærnislega við gluggann öðru hvoru, líkt og til að láta hann vita að þau hefðu auga með honum.

Hann var vopnaður öllum þeim orðabókum, uppflettiritum og skýringartextum sem völ var á. Sérhverja línu hafði hann rannsakað svo nákvæmlega að merking hennar var honum nú kristalstær. Blæbrigði sérhvers orðs hafði hann kannað ofan í kjölinn. Hjarta hans sló í takt við hrynjandi hendinganna. Hann hafði, í einu orði sagt, gengið ljóðinu á hönd. Hann var fullkomlega á valdi þess, en hafði það jafnframt fullkomlega á sínu valdi, og var nú loksins reiðubúinn að endurskapa merkingu þess og hljómblæ á nýju máli.

Til að byrja með gekk allt einsog í sögu. Af öryggi og fullur sjálfstrausts þýddi hann frá orði til orðs, án þess að missa sjónar á heildarmerkingu ljóðsins, minnugur þeirra flóknu rímþrauta sem biðu. Einsog þaulæfður skákmaður lék hann hratt og örugglega, kom orðum sínum fyrir á blaðinu á hernaðarlega mikilvægum stöðum og treysti með hverjum leik stöðu sína gagnvart vörnum frumtextans.

En smám saman tók að bera á hiki. Oftar en ekki stóð val hans á milli tveggja eða fleiri orða sem merktu það sama – en hvenær eru orð nokkru sinni alveg sömu merkingar? Hann gerðist eftir því ákvarðanafælinn. Með hverri ákvörðun minnkuðu líka sóknarmöguleikarnir. Staðan þrengdist, rímið varð flatneskjulegra með hverju erindinu, orðaröðin stirðari. Og aldrei virtist merkingin komast alveg fullkomlega til skila, alltaf varð einsog eitthvert brotabrot hennar eftir, einhver glans eða glit á frummálinu sem ekki tókst að kalla fram í þýðingunni. Jafnvel þótt eina orðið yfir „ljós“ á hinni fornu tungu væri þýtt með eina orðinu yfir „ljós“ sem til var á tungu þýðandans.

„Er þá ljósið ekki alltaf sama ljósið? Sólin sama sólin?“ Þýðandinn leit út um gluggann, upp í himininn, á sólarkringluna sem stafaði geislum sínum gegnum lauf trjánna, og hlaut að hafa skinið með sama hætti yfir höfði skáldsins ókunna mörg þúsund árum fyrr. Hafði kannski fallið á tungumálið einsog silfur sem gránar? Hafði dregið fyrir tungumálasólina, loftið hrannast dökkum óveðursskýjum og gert alla veröldina matta? Hafði hið hreina mál óhreinkast, í tímans rás?

Jafnvel fábrotnustu smáorð tóku nú að vefjast fyrir honum. Hvort færi betur á „og“ eða „en“ hér? Punktar og kommur urðu sömuleiðis að óyfirstíganlegum hindrunum, að sannkölluðum ljónum í veginum sem voru gæslumenn hinnar upprunalegu merkingar. Í punktinum fólust merkingarblæbrigði sem komman bjó alls ekki yfir, og öfugt. Þess þá heldur gat hann gert upp við sig hvort færi betur á semíkommunni eða tvípunktinum, bandstrikinu eða þrípunktinum.

Til að gera langa sögu stutta má segja að smátt og smátt hafi þýðandinn þýtt sig út í horn. Ef rímorðið passaði, var merkingin á skjön. Ef merkingin var rétt, vantaði upp á andblæinn. Ef andblærinn var til staðar, var nákvæmnin farin út og suður. Og ef nákvæmnin var upp á tíu, mátti bóka að hrynjandin var skrykkjótt. En ef hrynjandin reis og hneig, bylgjótt einsog öldugangur hafsins, var orðaröðin undantekningalaust bjöguð. Og ef orðaröðin átti að vera eðlileg var hreint útilokað að láta rímið passa …

Áfram hélt hann þó, dag eftir dag, viku eftir viku, mánuð eftir mánuð, ár eftir ár, af staðfastri þrjósku þess sem er fæddur þýðandi. Rímþrautir ljóðsins voru það fyrsta sem leitaði á huga hans hvern nýjan morgun, og hugsanlegar lausnir þeirra sömu þrauta það síðasta sem fór um huga hans hvert kvöld. Oft var dagsverkið, nei, ársverkið, þó aðeins ein hending eða jafnvel eitt einstakt orð, og stundum miðaði honum aftur á bak – oft þurfti þýðandinn að þurrka út heilu erindin og byrja frá grunni. En áfram hélt hann.

Og þannig varð hjartsláttur ljóðsins, þessa ljóðs sem þýðandinn hafði varið ævi sinni í að skilja og gera öðrum skiljanlegt, smám saman veikari og veikari. En um leið áttaði hann sig á öðrum hjartslætti, veikum hjartslætti hins þýdda ljóðs, sem hafði smám saman fæðst í staðinn í blóðrás hans – furðuskepna sem var hvorki fugl né fiskur, kynjadýr sem tilheyrði hvorki þessum heimi né öðrum, en var nú tekin að lifa innra með honum – og, það sem meira er, í sumum stafkróka pappírsarkarinnar.

Og í andarslitrunum, með pennann í samankrepptri hönd sinni, sá hann, þrátt fyrir allt, að honum hafði miðað á veg.


Magnús Sigurðsson is an Icelandic poet and translator, born in 1984 in the town of Ísafjörður. His earliest work was a translation of Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos into Icelandic. In 2008 he was awarded the Tómas Guðmundsson Literature award for his poetry book Fiðrildi, mynta og spörfuglar Lesbíu. That same year his first short story collection, Hálmstráin, came out. In 2020 his book Berhöfða líf, a translation of the works of Emily Dickinson into Icelandic, was published to great acclaim.

Mark Ioli is a literary translator currently residing in Reykjavík. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he studied Russian, Polish, and Spanish before becoming fascinated by Icelandic. In 2017 he moved to Iceland to pursue literary translation and continue learning about the language and rich literary history of this remote island. His translations have appeared in Asymptote’s Translation Tuesday as well as Iceland Review.