Jóna Hlíf Halldórsdóttir 1978-




If we hadn‘t christened it, what language would

give Vatnajökull the ideal name? More beautiful tonality, a more correct sex.

-       More than a thousand words, 2020.


I sometimes find myself doing experiments in the mind. One experiment involves asking myself how much different life would be from what I know if I spoke another language, whether or how much the personality would change if I were from another country, Germany, Argentina or Somalia for example. The other involves looking at Icelandic landscapes and asking myself whether the experience of it would change if I was looking at it through another language.

Once I heard an inspiring speech about the vote for a national flower in 2004, and the speaker thought that Icelanders should have voted for cottongrass instead of mountain avens (which is, as it seems, also an official territorial flower of the Northwest Territories in Canada – and also the national flower of the Sámi people). The reasons given were the color, the distribution throughout the country and the light and brightness brought to Icelandic homes throughout the ages, from lamp wicks made out of cottongrass. Something which has been given the O, so Icelandic name: grútartýra (literally: ‚greasy dim light‘). “Grútartýra” can be found in many countries beside Iceland, for instance most people who use seal oil and cottongrass wicks for lamps.

I for one am not sure that anything that is national cannot at the same time be foreign or international. What is considered national is the unique, the special. Globalisation teaches us that the unique and the special gives way to the interconnected universal experience. That “we”, i.e. in this context Icelanders, have most, and at least much, in common with other peoples.

We create meaning visually about what is considered ‚national‘ through images, text, colors, symbols, objects and the experiences of country and history. And sometimes one, single word can be a representative of the thought that somethings is still special, non-googleable, unknown and unique. Or how do we communicate a transparent word/concept such as ‚fífulogar‘ in other languages. How do we transmit the idea of the brightness from living flames from a lit cottongrass wick? Will ‚cottongrass flames‘ be understood in Croatian, Finnish, Japanese, French, Swedish, English, Russian, Vietnamese, Greenlandic, Greek or Esperanto?

Possibly, we can build a word which carries the same meaning in other languages, in the same way that the word was originally created by the poet Erla (Guðfinna Þorsteinsdóttir, 1891-1972). And possibly one can always, each and every day, create neo-words in Icelandic, new special or unique words. Or do other languages know the word ‚þagnardraumar‘ (literally: ‚‘dreams of silence‘), to cite a poem by Erla?

On another note, what happens when a special, Icelandic word, in another language connects itself to a familiar landscape? Isn’t it possible to experience something national and think about something we consider „Icelandic“ in another tongue? What then remains of that which is considered ‚national‘? Perhaps nothing but the complete or comprehensive collection of all remembered experiences by the people that live, operate and die on this island. Perhaps untranslatability. Perhaps creativity.

  • Ár2021
  • EfnisinntakFífa, Kerti, Landslag, Tákn, Tungumál, Þjóð
  • AðalskráMyndlist/Hönnun
  • EfniLjósmynd, Ljósmyndapappír, Prentlitur

Kristín Ómarsdóttir: "Fólk tjáir ástarhug öðruvísi á dönsku en á frönsku", Stundin, 25. október 2021:

Treasures of Icelandic Art

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