Iceland, a country with a little over 325,000 inhabitants, has in recent years primarily been known for that unpronounceable volcano that caused so many air traffic disruptions in 2010. News readers worldwide struggled with Eyjafjallajökull [ˈɛɪjaˌfjatl̥aˌjœkʏtl̥].
But the Icelandic language itself has much more to offer than some tongue-twisting phonemes. It is a North Germanic language that still is quite close to Old Norse, the language that later developed into Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish. Many of the first settlers in Iceland came from the western region of the Scandinavian Peninsula, which now belongs to Norway. While the languages in Scandinavia changed substantially over time, Icelandic remained largely unchanged.
In contrast to Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, Icelandic still uses four grammatical cases and three grammatical genders. In Norwegian, the three genders can be reduced to two (animate/inanimate), but there still are three grammatical genders available. The actual use depends on the speaker’s dialect and language variant. There are only remnants of the old system of inflection still present in modern Norwegian.
Because of the comparatively few changes in the language, modern Icelanders are usually able to read the Old Norse texts like the Edda texts and sagas. The term Edda usually refers both to the so-called Prose and Poetic Edda. Both compilations contain the oldest recordings of Old Norse mythology. Most of these texts were written down roughly around the thirteenth century after being passed on orally. The actual age of those oral sources is uncertain.
Modern Icelandic is a very puristic language: internationalisms and word borrowings are rarely to be found. This linguistic policy has led to some very creative new Icelandic terms such as tölva [ˈtʰœlva] for computer. The word is a combination of the words tala (number) and völva (a female seer from old Norse mythology). Thus, a computer is referred to as a number seer in Icelandic. Many scientific terms have been altered accordingly: the Icelandic for biology is líffræði [ˈlif.fraiːðɪ] (the science of life) and math has been adapted into Icelandic as stærðfræði [ˈstairð.fraiːðɪ], the science of size. Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are influenced more by other languages, which can at least partially be explained by the fact that Iceland is much more remote than the Scandinavian Peninsula. Using Norwegian as an example again, the word computer may be translated as PC [peːseː] or datamaskin [‘dɑːtɑmɑʃiːn], data machine. The word computer may also be found in the online dictionary by the Norwegian Language Council and Oslo University (www.nob-ordbok.uio.no). Biology (biology [bɪuluˈgiː]) and math (matematikk [mɑtəmɑˈtik] or colloquially matte [‘mɑtə]) are certainly much easier for foreigners to recognize than the Icelandic translations above.
Translation in the Nordic countries
When it comes to translation and localization, the three more common Nordic languages, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, are often treated as if they were one language. Most of the text is often written in Danish, with a few words written in several variants to include any different vocabulary and to avoid misunderstandings due to false friends. This is often the case in user manuals or for product packaging. The three languages are very similar to each other and each individual market is often regarded as being too small for individually localized products. Iceland is an even smaller market and inter-Scandinavian communication does not include Iceland (or the Faroe Islands, for that matter), even though the three main Scandinavian languages, Faroese and Icelandic all share the same origins.
It is therefore very common to see imported goods for sale that have not been adapted to the Icelandic market. Icelanders cannot rely on every product or service to be available in their own mother tongue. Foreign books, computer or board games and movies as well as many groceries are often sold without any adaptation — instead, Icelanders fall back on English or a Scandinavian language (often Danish) source or another foreign language. The quite popular DVD/Blu-ray boxes of the TV series Game of Thrones (partially shot in Iceland) are, for example, only available in English. Some versions feature subtitles in English, French, German, Danish, Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian. The frequent lack of Icelandic versions of a certain product is one reason for the very good language skills of so many Icelanders.
The same is true for video games. I could not find any localized video games in Icelandic and even the game companies based in Iceland usually produce their games in English. Some of the better known games and companies from Iceland are Aaru’s Awakening by Lumenox Games (lumenox.is), EVE Online by CCP Games (ccpgames.com) and QuizUp by Plain Vanilla Games (quizup.com). There are also a few game apps that are published in Icelandic, most of them from a single family company producing Icelandic educational game apps for children (gebokano.com/um). Another app company based in Reykjavik develops database programs and service apps especially for diverse Icelandic companies. They started out with an English gaming app for iPhone (Ringo was released in 2009: ymir.is/apps.jsp). Skema, established in 2011, is another noteworthy company in this context. It promotes coding as a subject in primary and secondary schools in Iceland (skema.is/english).
In spite of the lack of the Icelandic language in games, video games seem to be quite popular in Iceland. There is an association called the Icelandic Gaming Industry (igi.is), which currently consists of eight companies working in the field of programming and gaming. This association also organizes regular game development contests. The video contents available on the latest game development contest are completely in English, the “gaming language” in Iceland. This can be considered a typical phenomenon among less common languages and may lead to the quite misleading assumption that translation and localization are unimportant in Iceland.
So what kind of translation needs could possibly arise on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? There may not be a lot of translation into Icelandic, although there are of course some exceptions, but there has been a certain degree of globalized business taking place in Iceland in recent years.
Even though Iceland may seem remote at first glance, its international economy and the increasing role of tourism for the country are just two aspects that should be taken into consideration. This kind of globalization means mainly that a lot of Icelandic businesses have started to operate internationally, or to cooperate more and more with international business partners. Of course, there have always been a few branches that are internationally active by definition. I work as a freelance translator for an online gaming company in Reykjavik and they never even tried developing any of their content in Icelandic first. Their product is globally available and involves a lot of programming and software development, so English is the first choice here. Not even this Iceland-based company can afford to spend any resources on Icelandic localization — the user interface is currently available in English, German and Russian and the official website offers a French version in addition to the three languages mentioned before.
Although Icelandic is rarely translated outside of Iceland and only a few documents are translated into Icelandic, translation and localization needs arise when doing business on an international level.
Tourism has become more and more important to Iceland’s economy. The increasing number of tourists has also created a demand for more information to be available in different languages. The most commonly available language is English, but there are more and more guided tours and websites available in other languages as well. The website www.visiticeland.com, as an example, is available in English, German, Danish, Icelandic, Spanish, French, Norwegian, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, Chinese and Russian. The languages offered on that website also give a little insight into the languages that visitors to Iceland speak. According to Promote Iceland, the tourism branch is directly supported by the Icelandic Department of Tourism and Creative Industries. Depending on the initial circumstances, tourism related texts are either translated from Icelandic or English originals. Most foreigners working in Iceland live in and around Reykjavík and most tourists start their trip to Iceland in the capital. Reykjavík is therefore comparatively well prepared to accommodate the needs of foreigners who have no knowledge of Icelandic. Restaurant menus have at least been translated into English and often are available in additional languages; employees in banks, at the post office and in stores of any kind usually speak very good English; and ATM services are available in several languages. In order to provide professional information materials in several languages, professional translation is needed. Companies such as Reykjavik Excursions (a bus company that offers sightseeing tours), Loftið Bar and Kopar Restaurant, as well as hotels, banks and public service providers, use professional language services to cover their localization and translation needs, even for the language pair Icelandic-English. Language service providers in Iceland do therefore often translate from Icelandic into other languages if the project in question is related to the tourism industry.
Promote Iceland also offers an incentive for foreign film producers to film in Iceland. Of all the money spent during a film’s production in Iceland, 20% of these production costs are reimbursed by the state. Some of the latest movies partially produced in Iceland are Interstellar, Halo: Nightfall and Noah.
There are quite a few initiatives by the government that aim to attract foreign businesses to Iceland and to help the country’s own economy grow through international business. Promote Iceland (Íslandsstofa) is a cooperation of public and private members that is very active in this area. Its main goals “are promoting Iceland as a tourism destination, assisting in the promotion of Icelandic culture abroad, and introducing Iceland as an attractive option for foreign direct investment.”
One effect of the increasing international connections is a growing percentage of foreigners living in Iceland. According to the population data available from Statistics Iceland, the overall percentage of foreign citizens living in Iceland increased from just about 2.6% in 2000 to 7% in 2014. Furthermore, the Multicultural and Information Centre (www.mcc.is/english) published a paper in 2013 that gives a few more insights into immigration numbers. According to this paper, most immigrants (21,466 individuals in 2013) were from Poland (by far the biggest group), followed by Lithuania, Denmark, Germany, Latvia, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Philippines, Thailand and Portugal. The website of the Multicultural and Information Centre is available in Icelandic, English, Polish, Hungarian, Thai, Spanish, Russian and Lithuanian to meet the needs of those immigrant groups. Thus, translation and interpretation services for foreigners living in Iceland are important in order to provide help for medical issues, the completion of immigration forms and the translation of non-Icelandic documents into Icelandic, the sole official language in Iceland. In this context, Polish-Icelandic and Lithuanian-Icelandic as well as English-Icelandic are probably some of the most popular language combinations, judging from the statistics quoted above.
Apart from the Icelandic fishing industry, which has traditionally been an important export factor, and the previously mentioned expansion of the tourism sector, energy intensive industries — the aluminum industry and IT-related services such as data centers — have gained relevance as sources of revenue. In today’s globalized world, Iceland’s rich sources of geothermal and water power can be made available both for national and international businesses.
There is, however, one area in which translation is subsidized directly to promote Iceland abroad. The Icelandic Literature Center supports translators who wish to translate Icelandic literature into other languages. The Center was established in 2013 and its goals are “to support the publication of Icelandic works of literature and the publication of literary works translated into Icelandic… to raise awareness of Icelandic literature, both within Iceland and abroad, and promote its distribution — as well as nurture literary culture in Iceland.” Literature is important in this country — the BBC reported in October 2013 that Iceland has more writers, more books published and more books read, per capita, than anywhere else in the world.
The grants offered for translations of Icelandic literature into other languages usually cover a portion of the translation fee charged by the designated translator. There is also an impressively long list of translators to be found for Icelandic as source language. The list includes 24 different target languages, most of them European. Some of the more unusual combinations to be found on that list are Icelandic-Greenlandic, Icelandic-Japanese and Icelandic-Serbian.
Thus, regarding the state of translation in Iceland, literary translation and tourism are two especially important driving forces for the translation industry. Thanks to the internet and today’s global networks, Iceland’s formerly remote position in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean has become less of a hindrance to its position in the global market. Although the Icelandic language itself is not one of the more influential ones in today’s globalized world, it certainly is an important part of the Icelandic culture. It is very probably due to the lack of choice in the matter that nonlocalized products are accepted by Icelandic customers.