The poems in Herostories are made entirely of text found in Íslenskar ljósmæður I-III (Icelandic Midwives I-III), volumes of short biographical articles about Icelandic midwives, the earliest working in the late 18th century and the most recent working in the early 20th century. Some entries are memoir written by the midwives themselves, others are written by contemporaries or descendants who either knew the midwives or knew of them, and the remaining articles were written by the priests gathering the material. Given this intertextual nature, Herostories not only tells tale of these womens’ life work, but becomes a layered analysis of narrative and how cultural values are enacted in history and storytelling.
This translation is in many ways conservative. As the text is not only found but retrieved from and referring to bygone eras, the goal was to stay “true” to the original language while bringing out the poems — 21st century creations merging appreciation and critique. While repetition played a key role in Kristín Svava’s previous poetry, in Herostories it is the words of others the poet arranges, highlighting what previous speakers have found worthy of mention and record. Through repetition, the poems examine questions around the glorification of womanly virtues, the value of feminine labor, and the function of praise and recognition in emotional and material economies.
Many words in the original poems are very recognizable Icelandic terms that happen to be compound words. To preserve the immediacy of linguistic building blocks, several compounds are reflected in the translation through words that “don’t exist” in English. Nodding both to the lack of English parallel and the many evolving compounds in Anglophone usage, these somewhat experimental phrases are more direct than alternatives that would extend beyond the wiggle room of found text. Unfamiliar to the eye, I hope these inclusions offer moments of curiosity and reflection around communication structures and syntactic diversity, along with insight into Icelandic meaningmaking.
These Waxwing excerpts include the only instance of text inserted into the Herostories collection that does not appear in the original Icelandic Hetjusögur book. The poem “strong but still soft and mild” ends with “lightmotherhands” and then an additional “midwifehands.” While ljósmóður translates to midwife, we would have been remiss not to give these meaningful ingredients their due. Fortunately the repetition throughout the book welcomed such an addition. As readers partake in the beauty of reading across and between languages, we hope to bring multiple layers of the original poems to life.
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