Pushcart XLI: Eric Wilson, “I Sing You For An Apple” (non-fiction) from New England Review, 36.2

Photo by Randi Ward

Photo by Randi Ward

When the phone rang that evening in 1978, I was caught off guard. “How soon can you be here in DC?” the voice was asking. I lived in Los Angeles. “And—you do know Old Icelandic, right?” Old Icelandic, spoken by the Vikings some thousand years ago, was extinct.
As I hung up, I wondered: How had my career come to this?

~~ Article available online at lithub courtesy of NER

What a charming memoir, I thought after my first read. Multiple amusing anecdotes told with a pleasant air of bewilderment shading to exasperation, moving from the personal to the universal by the end: That guy criss-crossing the country waving children’s books at esteemed professors isn’t just a character, he’s a national treasure, and the books serve an important cultural purpose. Look beyond what you see in front of you, there’s always more.

I should’ve paid more attention to that last bit: there is indeed always more.

Wilson was a professor of Germanic languages until universities started cutting programs like that in favor of… well, I’d imagine in the 70s it would’ve been contemporary philosophical theoreticians, because no one’s ever learned anything about the present by understanding the past (yes, that’s sarcasm, and for our daily dose of irony, now they’re cutting those philosophy courses to focus on business, computer science, and STEM. Don’t get me started). But Wilson made the best of it, forging a career as a translator which included, one summer in 1978, touring the country with a writer and political activist from the Faroe Islands at the request of the State Department, who wanted to be on his good side should his efforts to promote independence from Iceland succeed.

The title comes from one of those amusing anecdotes about Jacobsen’s visit: he wandered lost around the Grand Canyon on his own, finally running into a couple of fellow hikers, and asked them for help:

He had told other hikers, “I sing you for an apple!” People, sensing something was wrong, must have been solicitous of him, giving him water to drink as well as apples and perhaps even sandwiches. He told me he planned to write a memoir about his trip to America.
He would not entitle it the Faeroese “Eg sang fyri eitt súrepli!” It would be just what he had told the other hikers, in English: “I Sing You for an Apple!”

I saw the film “Arrival” a few weeks ago, after having read Ted Chiang’s story “The Story of Our Lives” on recommendation of a mooc friend. I’m not sure I’ve encountered two detailed examinations of translation difficulties in such a short time before. Between the language problems (which I’ll leave for those interested in reading about the difficulties of negotiating Faroese, Danish, and Old Icelandic) and Jacobsen’s eccentricity – amplified by his fondness for all varieties of American booze – Wilson had his hands full trying to shepherd him from place to place while explain everything from high-heeled shoes (which, I gather, aren’t worn in the Faroe Islands) to cornrowed hair.

The Internet wasn’t available in 1978, so Wilson had only the brief biographical sketch given to him by the State Department. Thirty years later, he googled the name:

At the time of his visit, I had no idea how important he was in his Islands, nor to what degree he was loved. In translating his books for the various professors we met with on our trip, I hadn’t realized the full magnitude of his accomplishments. This was a language that had come close to extinction; now thanks to the children it was being kept alive.
I scrolled through the list of his works, which was exhaustive. Plays, children’s books, works for adults. But nowhere did I see either “Eg sang fyri eitt súrepli!” or “I Sing You for an Apple!” So I realized it was up to me to tell his story.

As I do for all pieces I blog, I went looking to see what was available on Mr. Jacobsen. I thought
I might find an image to serve as a header, maybe a photograph, or the cover of one of his books. I did find those things, but I found something else, something that made him and his work even more personal to me. There’s always more, remember?

Wilson recounts a particular children’s book Jacobsen showed to a professor on his trip:

[T]he next thing I knew he was over on the young professor’s side of the table, presenting a small children’s book that I hadn’t seen before: Lív og Hundurin. On the cover we saw a girl named Lív and a blue-eyed dog with a long red tongue.
Lív æt ein lítil genta, hon var rund og næstan altíð glað. I was able to sight-read the Faeroese: “Lív was a little girl, she was round and almost always happy.” In the colored illustrations, Lív played with her dolls, and her friends Kára and Hanur and Eyð played with their building blocks—when one day Mamma opened the door and out of nowhere there appeared a blue-eyed dog. It smiled at Lív, a long bright red tongue extending down from its eager smile.

I rather sailed over that at the time, then later realized it was part of the effort to preserve the Faroese language in the next generation. But an article by writer/translator/photographer Randi Ward turned it into something far more significant:

Lív (1981) is a book-length poem dedicated to everyone who experiences loss. Lív, the Faroese word for life, was the name of Steinbjørn B. Jacobsen’s daughter. She was struck and killed by a vehicle in 1980 while visiting her father’s home village of Sandvík.
Steinbjørn sent copies of Lív to friends and family to thank them for their support. The volume was later made available to the public free of charge.

~~Randi Ward

Look beyond what you see in front of you, there’s always more.

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