Translating Icelandic sources in Denmark

The growing interest in Old Norse-Icelandic literature as source material for the history of Denmark quite naturally led to an interest in the Icelandic language, which was unintelligible to early modern Danes.

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Title page of the 1633 Danish translation of Heimskringla into Danish, Peder Claussøn Friis’ Snorre Sturlesøns Norske Kongers Chronica, held at the Danish Royal Library.

Though Ole Worm did not possess a strong command of Icelandic, his contribution to Old Norse scholarship cannot be undervalued. He was responsible for bringing to print Peder Claussøn Friis’ translation of Heimskringla into Danish as Snorre Sturlesøns Norske Kongers Chronica (1633) as well as Magnús Ólafsson’s Icelandic-Latin dictionary Specimen lexici runici (1650). Worm also encouraged Runólfur Jónsson to prepare for print the first grammar of the Icelandic language, which appeared in 1651 under the elaborated title Recentissima Antiqvissimæ Linguæ Septentrionalis Incunabula Id est Grammaticæ islandicæ rudimenta (‘The most recent incunabula of the ancient Nordic language, that is the rudiments of Icelandic grammar’).

Stephanius, on the other hand, introduced excerpts from Old Norse-Icelandic poems to the scholarly audiences in Denmark by including them in his commentary on Saxo, published in 1645. These excerpts would have to satisfy the scholarly appetite for Old Norse-Icelandic poetry until the publication of Peder Hansen Resen's editions and translations of Snorra Edda, Völuspá and Hávamál in 1665. This publication would remain the standard work until the nineteenth century, by which time it was among the books owned by the Danish poet Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger. In a painting held at the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle, Oehlenschläger is even portrayed with his elbow resting on Resen’s Edda Islandorum. 

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Peder Hansen Resen's Edda Islandorum (1665) depicted on a portrait of Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger from 1841, held at the Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle.

The lack of general knowledge of the Old Norse-Icelandic language among Danes, together with the growing collection of Icelandic manuscripts in the royal library, led to the appointment of Icelanders as translators of Old Norse-Icelandic literature at the court of Frederick III (1609–1670), the king of Denmark and Norway from 1648 until 1670. 

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Title page of the Historia de Haldano cognomento Nigro published in Copenhagen in 1658. This copy is held at and digitized by the Royal Danish Library. 

Þórarinn Eiríksson

The first person to hold the position of the royal translator of Nordic antiquities (“kongelig translatør af nordiske antikviteter”) was an Icelander, Þórarinn Eiríksson (d. 1659), a former priest deprived of his office. Þórarinn’s service was not especially fruitful in translations or directly in new acquisitions of Icelandic manuscripts, since he died in 1659, not long after his appointment.

The only work that Þórarinn managed to publish was his Latin translation of Hálfdanar þáttur svarta as the Historia de Haldano cognomento Nigro, rege Oplandorum in Norego. This small two-quire volume (16 pages) was printed in Copenhagen in 1658 and presents exclusively the Latin translation of the text, without its Icelandic original.

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Portrait of Þormóður Torfason (Lat. Thormodus Torfæus), held at the National Museum of Iceland.

Þormóður Torfason

Shortly after Þórarinn Eiríksson's death, another Icelander became responsible for translating Icelandic sources into Danish. It was Þormóður Torfason (1636–1719), probably better known under his Latinised name as Thormodus Torfæus. He was first appointed as royal antiquarian in 1660 and served at the court of the Danish-Norwegian kings until his death. 

Torfæus, born and raised in Iceland, studied at the University of Copenhagen, where he eventually found an appointment in the service of King Frederick III. Torfæus' first assignment was to translate into Danish sagas preserved in the Codex Flateyensis, which King Frederick III received only few years earlier from the Icelandic bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson.

The translations of the sagas preserved in Flateyjarbók that Torfæus prepared for Frederick III were never published and survive only in manuscript form, held today at the Royal Danish Library. They consist of four splendid leather-bound volumes in folio format (around the size of a modern A4 sheet of paper) which together run to nearly 2000 paper leaves (4000 pages). The front cover of each volume is decorated with the gilded royal cypher of Frederik III and the outer edges of the leaves are also gilded indicating the prestigious status of these manuscripts. 

Opening of Torfæus' Danish translations of kings' sagas, held at the Royal Danish Library.

That Torfæus considered the sagas he translated as historical sources can be deduced from the famous quote from Cicero’s De Oratore that Torfæus placed on the title page of his translation:

Historia vero testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae, nuntia vetustatis 

History is truly the witness of times past, the light of truth, the life of memory, the teacher of life, the messenger of antiquity

Translating Icelandic sources in Denmark