Loki’s children. Posted by hulda on Feb 20, 2013 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history
“You can choose any text you like, except for poems or song lyrics.”
The first translation course that the University of Iceland offers is typically on the first semester of the third year. It takes two years of studying Icelandic before we have gathered enough vocabulary and knowledge on Iceland and its culture to be able to properly translate to our own mother tongues, and even then there are limits. Our professor forbidding us to try poems and song lyrics as our first project was wise indeed, for those texts are and can be mindbogglingly difficult, even if they seem easy at a first glance. I’ve decided to translate you the lyrics to the song Narfi by Skálmöld to better illustrate what gives Icelandic its reputation for being a difficult language to master.
Let’s first just translate the meaning of the song without bothering to try to make it fit the music, or worse, use the same traditional poetic metre as Skálmöld is using.
Narfa ég hitti er nóttin var liðin,
I met Narfi when the night was over
By the Niflheimur’s gates/inside Niflheimur’s gates.
This does not exactly tell a foreigner all the little details that it tells an Icelander. To better understand what was just said you’ll have to first know that Narfi is the name of one of Loki’s children. Loki Laufeyjarson, a trickster god (or more correctly a jötunn and Óðinn’s bloodbrother)(also his patronymic is coincidentally a matronymic – his mother’s name is Laufey) caused the death of Baldur, and as a punishment his son Váli was turned into a wolf. In his wolf form he tore his own brother Narfi to death, and Narfi’s guts were then used to tie Loki onto a rock.
And as if that’s not bad enough, there’s a huge snake hanging above him and dripping poison onto his face. When the drops hit him Loki writhes in pain, and that’s what causes earthquakes.
Niflheimur is the place where all the dead go who don’t get chosen for their bravery in a fight. “Hlið” is a difficult word to translate since it can either mean a gate or a side – hliðið (= the gate), hliðin (= the side). However, the plural for gate is, confusingly enough, also hliðin. My Icelandic friend says that the meaning of this line is unclear even to a native speaker, and that the meaning can be either that they meet Narfi by the gates of Niflheimur or right inside the area of Niflheimur. Both are logical places for him to be at, after all, he’s dead.
Kom hann í hnakki á kolsvörtum fola,
Starði á okkur með stingandi augum,
staðurinn umkringdur vofum og draugum.
Þrek hans var búið og hugrekkið brostið,
beit okkur frostið.
He rode a pitch black horse
The breeze grew colder.
He looked at us with piercing eyes
The place was surrounded by spirits and ghosts.
His strength was spent and courage faltering,
The frost bit us.
Niflheimur is considered a place of eternal coldness, and in fact when Christianity first came to the Nordic countries hell was thought of as being a frozen waste just like Niflheimur! Naturally anyone nearing the place would be seeing the inhabitants too, the spirits of the dead.
Loki vill buga legg þinn og hug,
lítið því duga vopn og vörn.
Hlusti nú hver sem heyrir í mér:
Hættuleg eru Loka börn.
Loki wants to crush your leg and your mind
Little help you’ll get from your weapons and defenses.
Listen now you who hear what I say
Loki’s children are dangerous.
The verb “vilja” is another tricky one to translate, since Icelandic has many verbs that all translate as “to want” and the difference between them can be but a nuance. “Vilja” is probably the strongest form of wanting – f.ex. “ég vil borða ís” and “mig langar að borða ís” both translate as “I want to eat ice cream” but in the first case the meaning is “I want ice cream and you won’t be able to stop me” whereas the latter one is more of “I’d really like to have some ice cream”.
In short, the first line could just as well be translated as “Loki shall crush your leg and your mind”, meaning that he wants to see you kneel in front of him.
As for Loki’s children… they are many! Most of them are monstrous, like the eight-legged horse Sleipnir, the Fenris-wolf, the sea snake Jörmungandur/Miðgarðsormur and so on. I think the only ones that are considered human shaped and not too awful to look at are Narfi and Váli.
Hann þekkir staðinn sem hrímar og frystir,
Hel er hans systir.
He knows the place that ices over and freezes
Hel is his sister
Hel is yet another child of Loki’s, half blue-black half white, or half rotten. She was so ugly in appearance that the other gods could not bear to look at her, and that’s why she was told to hide forever and became the ruler of Niflheimur.
Hel seen on the bottom right, above her sits Baldur. Below are her dish called Hunger and her knife Famine.
Sagði að núna hann vildi mig vara
við því að fara
niður til hennar sem Niflheimi stjórnar,
neyðir og pyntar og sveltir og fórnar.
He said that he now wanted to warn me
Down to her who rules Niflheimur,
Forces and tortures and starves and sacrifices.
Hel, like mentioned.
Bráðum ég myndi svo bágindum mæta,
Soon I might meet such distress,
as to make Brynhildur cry.
Brynhildur is a valkyrja (= a valkyrie) and one of the goriest, most ruthless ones of them. She’s known f.ex. by the fact that she didn’t shed a tear over the death of the man she loved*, and that she among 11 other valkyries owned a loom where they wove fabric out of dead men’s guts**, so just imagine what would make a woman like that cry.
I’ve received a small correction! In this case Brynhildur refers to the sister of the man whose story the album tells, my most humble apologies for the misinterpretation. Should have realized the songs all tell one long story…
Lævís og slyng þau læðast í hring,
lokka þig kringum Bæjartjörn.
Artful and clever they sneak around
coax you around the Bæjartjörn.
Bæjartjörn is the central square of Ásgarð, the home of the æsir, gods.
Vilja úr leyni vinna þér mein,
villidýr reynast hefnigjörn.
They wish to harm you from a hiding place
wild animals prove to be vengeful
One of the most difficult to translate parts, I found. “Úr leyni” means “from hiding”, or “from somewhere they cannot be seen”. “Að vinna” means “to work”, but “vinna þér mein” translates as “cause you harm”. The verb “reynast” means “to turn out to be”, but with the additional meaning that this has been proven to be so before; something turns out to be the way it’s expected to be. Not exactly easy to fit in one English stanza.
Óðinn vs. Fenris.
Þig vilja hryggja, þau eru stygg.
Þagna mun Frigg og fölna Hörn.
They want you to grieve, they are distrustful/loath
Frigg will fall silent and Hörn will turn pale
Þig vilja hryggja might sound a little confusing. You’re supposed to look at the form of the verb, which tells you who is doing what – vilja is a plural, so it means that some others want the singular “you” of the sentence to grieve.
Stygg, the dictionary says, means shy. Yet it does not, not in the same meaning as shy has in English: an animal can be stygg if it’s been mistreated for a long time and it’s learned that humans are not to be trusted.
Frigg is the wife of Óðinn. She’s a goddess of the home, marriage and love, and she knows the future yet never speaks of it – and indeed, she will fall silent here as well even though she knows what’s going to happen.
Hörn is a battle-ready goddess who receives half of the slain (the other half going to Óðínn’s place), rides either a wild boar or a chariot pulled by two cats and owns a necklace called Brísingamen… yes, it’s one of Freyja’s names. She’s not a typical love goddess either, she’s known to be fierce enough to stand against Þór (he rather wore a dress than made her any angrier than that). There are theories that state that Frigg and Freyja might originally have been the same goddess, but this cannot be proven this way or that. It’s clear though that they’re goddesses of very different types of love.
So now that the lyrics are translated and all the names are explained – you guessed it, now would be the time to re-write the stanzas so that the meaning stays the same but the words fit the music. With both end rhymes and the traditional Icelandic ones. Well… you can now try it if you like and I wish you the best of luck! I’m going to try it as well, let’s get back to it in… say… three months time.
* Völsunga saga: she also plotted for his death, killed his son by her own hands and eventually herself, to be burned on his funeral pyre with him.
**Brennu-Njáll’s saga. She’s called Hildr, but in Völsunga saga she mentions that Hildr is another name for her.