The Poet Who Traveled the U.S. Speaking Only Faroese

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There is a tiny cluster of islands in the sea between Norway and Iceland where sheep roam green meadows, puffins swoop over, in, and out of fjords, and people speak a language close to the Old Norse spoken there by Viking settlers 1000 years ago: Faroese. The Faroe Islands is a self-governing nation that is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and while Danish (as well as English) is a common second language for the inhabitants, not everyone speaks it. Or at least Steinbjørn Jacobsen didn’t. He was a poet, author, and agitator for secession from Denmark who spoke and wrote in nothing other than Faroese. So in 1978, when the U.S. State Department brought him over for a tour (something they did then with various political activists in order to win them over in case they needed them later), they found themselves in a bind when trying to get him an interpreter.

They called on Eric Wilson, who spoke no Faroese but had studied Old Icelandic, and whose essay (from the New England Review, posted at LitHub) about the experience of escorting the poet around the U.S. is a gripping and hilarious tale of communication and miscommunication with university professors in fancy offices, coal miners’ sons in Appalachia, Latino farm workers in California, and hikers in the Grand Canyon, all filtered through layers of historical Nordic linguistics. This is how they first meet:

I knocked loudly, but there was no response. Reluctantly I let myself in. The air conditioning had been set at arctic. The floor was littered with tiny liquor bottles from the mini-fridge, as well as wrappers from Oreo cookies, Mars Bars, and Snickers. In a corner I saw a figure slumped down on the floor, leaning back against a wall, apparently sound asleep. All he was wearing was a colorful pair of paisley Faeroese skivvies. I knelt down and shook his knee; slowly he opened his eyes. They were an amazingly piercing blue, but at this point too bleary to pierce much of anything. I told him my name and that I would now be his escort-interpreter. I was here; I would stay with him. I said this in my dodgy Danish, which he didn’t appear to understand. I tried again, pronouncing all the Danish sounds that are normally slurred or silent. Finally I sensed he was absorbing what I was saying. Pulling him up by both hands, I was able to get him to his feet. I was surprised at how short he was. As he tried to bring me into focus, his eyes filled with tears. I put my hands on his shoulders, trying to steady him. I wasn’t ready for any of this. Although this assignment still seemed preferable to KATKINS für die Katze, I knew I was out of my depth. Trying to keep him upright, I asked if he wanted something to eat. I used the Danish word “spise” and then the Swedish word “äta,” miming lifting a spoon out of an invisible bowl. He shook his head no. I heard “sove” as he mimed tilting his head down into his folded hands. So I led him into the bedroom. I watched him crawl onto the rumpled unmade bed. Then, lying on his back, he stared up at me and broke into a smile before he closed his eyes. He didn’t say goodnight. All he said before he fell asleep was, “Eiríkur.” My name in Faeroese. My instincts told me to call State immediately and tell them I couldn’t do this. But then they had already been stranded once. And I had given them my word.

Many more liquor bottles are emptied and many more communication barriers are broken—or at least peered over—before the end of the trip. Read the rest of the crazy story at LitHub.