Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Jonas and the Panther: Translation, Alliteration, and Icelandic Identity

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Jonas and the Panther: Translation, Alliteration, and Icelandic Identity

Article excerpt

"In any poet's poem the shape is half the meaning."

--Louis MacNeice

A PROMINENT CHARACTERISTIC of Modern Icelandic poetic practice is a strict system of structural alliteration, (1) inherited from ancient Germanic poetic practice via skaldic meters and rimur. Almost all Icelandic poetry in traditional meters (rhymed or unrhymed) observes strict alliteration rules. The use of structural alliteration has been adopted as a part of the program of linguistic purism that is central to Icelandic national identity. Like the conservatism of the language, the use of structural alliteration connects contemporary Icelanders to the medieval literature which remains the country's crowning achievement.

The general translation practice has been to add alliteration when foreign verse is translated into Icelandic while translations from Icelandic to languages such as English most often do not observe Icelandic alliteration rules. Here, I will discuss instances in which translators have violated these norms and been criticized dogmatically for their translation practice: Richard Ringler's alliterative English translations of Jonas Hallgrimsson's (1807-1845) alliterative Icelandic verse and Gauti Kristmannsson's non-alliterating Icelandic translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's (1875-1926) non-alliterating German poem "Der Panther."

In the first instance, the criticism takes the familiar form of book reviews in scholarly journals. In the second case, an unorthodox translation sparks a verse-capping competition in the Saturday supplement of the national newspaper Morgunbladid. A comparison of these cases provides insight into assumptions underlying the reception of poetic translations and differences between Icelandic and North American poetic culture.


Alliterative verse is found in most older Germanic languages and appears to be an inherited Germanic tradition. The prevalent alliteration pattern in Modern Icelandic derives from the drottkvaett meter of Old Norse court poetry, which presents a more rigid alliteration pattern than Eddic verse or its cognate meters. In most couplets, two stressed syllables in the first line (studlar) alliterate with each other and with the first stressed syllable of the following line (hofudstafur). Further rules specify where within the line the alliteration may appear.

As end-rhymed meters came to dominate poetic practice in the late Middle Ages, the alliteration rules were adapted to these new meters. Icelandic practice diverged from that of other Germanic language communities in maintaining structural alliteration together with end rhyme rather than replacing the former with the latter, although the two are often combined in Middle English poetry (Turville-Petre 17-22). This combination is also prefigured in skaldic verse, e.g. with Egill Skallagrimsson's Hofudlausn. The drottkvaett meter itself combines strict alliteration rules with a dense network of internal rhyme. The rimur meters which dominated Icelandic popular verse from the late Middle Ages until the nineteenth century are characterized by a vast array of metrical gymnastics involving alliteration and internal rhyme as well as end rhyme.

There has been remarkable continuity in alliteration practices over the recorded history of Icelandic. Ragnar Ingi Adalsteinsson ("Ljodstafurinn s") illustrates one major change. This change affects which consonant clusters starting with s alliterate with each other, making the alliterative equivalence classes more restrictive. (2) At the same time, the system has been re-analyzed in conjunction with changes in the structure of the language and in poetic practice. Some of these later developments have weakened the link between alliteration and parts of speech, natural stress and--eventually--meaning (see Jon Helgason "Ad yrkja"). This trend may be viewed as continued grammaticalization of the alliteration patterns. …

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