I arrived at the hospice at the designated time. I was going to use my lunch break for this. My father-in-law had asked me to drive him to a shoe shop to buy some new sandals, though I don’t know why he asked me rather than Anna. One of his big toes had recently been amputated and for that reason, and because of other problems with his feet, he could no longer get into his usual shoes without a struggle. Furthermore, the sole had burst on one of them and there was a danger he might trip and fall as a result.
He was not ready when I arrived, even though I had specifically made it clear that my time was limited. His bandages were being changed. A nurse stood at the end of the bed and seemed to be finishing the task; there was a rather large gauze wrapping around his instep, at least.
“No, not like that!” he said. “How am I going to get into my sandals like that?”
Without saying a word, the nurse unwound the bandage from his foot again. I don’t know whether it was because I stood there, or because my father-in-law had rattled her, but she did this rather badly and needed to try dressing his foot several times before she considered the task finished, and it still wasn’t a pretty sight.
“Sorry I’ve kept you waiting, lad,” he said. “That took far too long.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, as I helped him get off the bed.
“No,” he said, “it’s bad enough bothering you like this. You’ve got enough on your own plate.”
“As I’ve repeatedly told you, we social democrats are always ready to help you conservatives in a time of need.”
“Yeah, sure you are,” he laughed. “Just like Boy Scouts!”
“Would you like to go in the wheelchair, Ragnar?” asked the nurse.
He waved her away rather coldly. I gave her an apologetic look which he couldn’t see.
When he had put on his light brown suit jacket—always the perfect gentleman—we led him down the corridor. I felt that he preferred to walk alone, unsupported, but had decided to tolerate this; indeed, it had not been so long since he’d fallen and badly bruised his ribs. The wound on his cheek had still not fully healed after that little adventure.
I was driving the fancy SUV, which he had bought when he began to recover from the sudden death of my mother-in-law. A truly luxurious vehicle with a retractable roof and leather seats. But then he’d been banned from driving after having backed into the same car twice within a short space of time. He had never accepted this, arguing that many people got behind a wheel even though they had taken prescription drugs marked with the red triangle.
Father-in-law managed to get one buttock up on the passenger seat, but because he had difficulties in raising his other leg, I had to help him. In this struggle one of his sandals fell off.
“This is ridiculous,” he said as he tried without success to lift his leg.
I helped lift his foot while he grabbed hold of the door handle and succeeded in sliding himself right over into the seat.
“That’s a splendid car you have, Ragnar,” said the nurse, who stood a little helplessly on the pavement.
“They’ll own it soon enough,” my father-in-law replied, nodding his head in my direction.
“I hope you have a nice day, Ragnar dear. We’ll be here to meet you when you return.”
He gave no answer to this and mumbled something about hopefully her shift would be over when he returned. “There’s something wrong with that woman,” he said. “It’s as if she’s all thumbs. It’s just like she’s a beginner at this. I could hardly get my sandal on.”
I drove off, but we hadn’t gone far before a peeping noise began.
“Here we go again,” said father-in-law.
“Do you think you might try putting on your seat belt?” I asked.
“I suppose I’ll have to try at least.”
I stopped the car and helped him fasten the belt. “Is that okay?”
“It’ll just have to be,” he said.
I knew he was still sore in his side after the fall the other day. He was determined to tough it out.
“Can you take me for a haircut first, lad? Have you got time?”
This took me completely unaware; he’d made no mention of a haircut when he had called me.
“Oh, I see” I said. “Well, it should be all right. I’ll just need to call them at work and tell them I’ve been delayed a bit. Have you booked an appointment?”
“No, but there’s never a long wait there. They’re such old geezers that they’ve already outlived most of their customers.”
I drove him to the barber shop downtown. He had always gone to this barber shop and there was no way this was going to change now. If he had to have the car repaired, he always went to the same garage, too, even though he could find similar services much nearer to home. Anna tried to change this after he’d backed the car into another the second time, but then he just got a friend to shuttle it back to the right garage.
I stepped outside for a smoke while he was in the barber’s chair and used the opportunity to phone Anna.
“He wanted a haircut, too, did he mention that to you?” I asked, trying to hold back my irritation.
“No, not a word about that. But you know, he always likes to look smart.”
“I really don’t have time for this,” I said.
“It won’t take so long. And it’s not often he asks you to do something for him.”
“It’s just these increasing demands. Asks me to do one thing and then adds on another … And he’s never even liked me …”
“Nonsense! You’ve just never given him a chance. Maybe this is the last thing you’ll do for him.”
Father-in-law was trying to joke with the barber when I came back in. I heard him laugh his familiar laugh, which was almost as powerful as usual, much to my amazement.
When the haircut was completed I assisted him out to the car. I was terrified he was going to fall into the street when he misjudged one of the steps, but this was successfully prevented, and with a mutual effort we managed in getting him back into the car.
“Do you mind if we call in at Klapparstígur? I need to buy some shampoo.”
“Couldn’t you get it here?”
“No, the old geezers don’t have any really good shampoo. It’s on our way. Sorry to keep you so long.”
There was hardly any space for the car on Klapparstígur, but I finally decided to park it halfway up on the pavement on the opposite side from the shop. The street was narrow and there was a bit of traffic along it, but that didn’t prevent father-in-law from opening the door on his side and starting to set off out of the car. I ran around, but he had already managed, God knows how, to get out, and had begun tottering toward the building. There were a few steps up to it and no handrail, but somehow he negotiated them safely. He got his shampoo and then began the walk back. It seemed as if father-in-law was totally unaware of the danger of approaching cars, for he just stepped straight out into the street.
When this was over we could finally turn to the main errand, which almost seemed to have become an afterthought. The shoe shop he wanted to go to was quite far along the Laugavegur high street, almost as far as Suðurlandsbraut. It came to light that he was interested in Birkenstock sandals, similar to the ones I had, but which were now actually rather worn down. I thus used the opportunity and asked the sales assistant if it were possible for them to be repaired.
It turned out there were no pairs of the same kind of Birkenstocks that I had, but instead the sales lady came with another kind, which she said were just as good. They seemed to suit him well, too, all things considered.
“How do you like them?” he asked.
I said I liked them very much. They seemed fine sandals, strong and smart.
He asked the saleswoman if he could try them on.
He had no trouble getting into the left one, but it proved much more difficult to get his instep into the right one, for his foot was heavily bandaged.
“This is really difficult,” he said.
“We can put another hole in the strap over the instep,” said the saleswoman. “You should be able to get into it then.”
“It’s no problem.”
He finally managed to thrust both the right and left sandal on without having any extra hole inserted in the strap.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked me.
“I think the sandals will do for you very well. They’re broad and strong and if they add the holes for you in the straps, you shouldn’t have any problem wearing them. You can always tighten up the instep strap again when you’ve got rid of the bandages.”
“Or when a different nurse comes on to the shift,” he said, mischievously.
Father-in-law stood up with difficulty and tottered a few steps around the store. I accompanied him.
“How do you like them?” asked the saleswoman.
He gave little indication, but asked if they lasted well and were strong sandals. The saleswoman said they should last longer than the older type because the sole was not made from cork. “Some people prefer cork, but these are also of very good quality nonetheless.”
“What do you think?” he asked me. “Would you buy sandals like these?”
“In your shoes I wouldn’t hesitate,” I said.
“But if you were buying sandals for yourself?”
“Yes, they’d certainly be a possibility. They are strong and broad sandals and the color is practical.”
“You think so.”
“No doubt about it.”
I was amazed at his lack of confidence, for he was well known for being very particular about things. Food had to be cooked in a certain way, otherwise a strange look came onto his face; his clothes had to be folded away according to specific methods; and his shoes had to be polished, otherwise he wouldn’t wear them. Why he was constantly asking my opinion I didn’t know, indeed I wasn’t much of a man of taste when it came to shoes, and would even walk about in badly brushed and ugly ones, much to his daughter’s annoyance.
“Well, you heard what he said,” said father-in-law, directing his words to the saleswoman.
The phone rang—those at work were asking if I wasn’t coming back soon, they had to solve a certain matter before five o‘clock. I looked at my watch. It was almost half-past two and I still had to drive him back to the hospice.
“Shouldn’t you just take these sandals?” I said to father-in-law. “I don’t think you’ll find a more convenient pair here.”
“I guess not,” he said, and handed the saleswoman his credit card.
When she returned with the note of sale, I noticed he could only sign it with difficulty.
Ten days later, father-in-law lay on his deathbed. He still looked remarkably well, but the diabetes and cancer had been so aggressive that his organs could no longer hold up. The last dialysis treatment had not proved as successful as hoped because his blood pressure had become so low, and it wasn’t long before he slipped into a kind of coma. The doctor had called us in for a meeting and explained the seriousness of the situation, there was no point in continuing the treatment, brain activity had been reduced and the arterial system badly damaged. She had spoken to him a short while ago and told him he didn’t have much time left. He had said he realized that, would have preferred to live longer, but had let himself down, and so had to take the consequences.
We were told it would take about seventy-two hours. Father-in-law actually held out a little longer, but on the morning of the fifth day he gave up the ghost mid-breath.
We collected all his things that very same day, for there were more patients in need of terminal care.
A few months later, the siblings became resolute enough to sort out his belongings. A lot of things were thrown out, many were given to relatives, and some were given to the Red Cross. Whatever was left they divided among themselves.
“Don’t you need some new sandals?” my wife asked me after a day in father-in-law’s apartment.
“Yes, actually, I do,” I said. “Mine are about to fall apart.”
I’d never got round to having them repaired.
“Won’t they be much too big for me?”
“Try them on.”
I slid my feet under the straps of the instep.
“Well, I’ll be…” I said, a little apologetically. “They fit perfectly.”
Translated from the Icelandic by Júlían Meldon D’Arcy
If You’re Going to Ditch Me
If you’re going to ditch me, none of you will know all the colors of snow. If you are going to ditch me, your own mother tongue, you will be out of a job forever as a translator. You will be left to flicking through the archives in the basement and feeding the ducks on the pond. And you and your folks will never know the real colors of snow, or the color of the sea for that matter.
If you’re going to ditch me, you will never bring me another Faulkner novel. You will never get to The Sound and the Fury or Absalom! Absalom! as you had dreamt of, for I will be gathering dust for quaint scholars. I will be an outdated database.
The predators will keep you awake at night, pondering what you have lost and how your countrymen neglected me until I wasted away for lack of use and respect. Forgotten like the colors of snow.
I have not forgotten how you struggled with me when you were translating Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. You feared that I wouldn’t be able to cope with his convoluted sentences, that crazy Darl and his homemade philosophy, that lazy bastard Anse, who is all words and no deeds. You complained that I had no dialect, that I lacked this and that and was too bookish and couldn’t handle the spoken language of Mississippi in the 1930s. But you came through with flying colors, didn’t you, for everything that has existed and is thought in the world can be expressed in Icelandic—if you really want to.
And now you say you feel like you are treating a dying patient when you deal with me. As if I were a leper, like that poet from the seventeenth century who wrote the funeral hymns we still sing. You feel like you should be wearing latex gloves, because I’m rotting, you and your fellows say, I’m ancient and ugly. I am doomed.
But this hasn’t always been so, for only a few decades ago you all treated me like one classy lady. You courted me, you flirted with me, you strove to import me like a modern-day computer. I was fresh at that time, I was constantly impressing you with my old vocabulary, and I was constantly pregnant with new words. It was my flexibility and agility that enabled you all to coin new words for television and helicopter; þyrla sounds more like the aircraft it signifies than the original word. You were proud of me then, you even boasted of me abroad: See what our supposedly archaic tongue can do!
Ominously, you point to my fate in Manitoba, Canada, the province where a lot of Icelandic immigrants settled a century or so ago. Look at them, you say, these Icelanders who placed so much emphasis on maintaining me that they established Icelandic schools, wrote excellent poetry, some of which we still enjoy, and they even published newspapers in me, their lovely mother tongue. A century later, you say: Look, the Icelandic language has disappeared in Canada, almost without a trace. The only words left are amma and pönnukaka. The old newspaper is now written solely in English. No one understands what on with the butter means—áfram með smjörið.
This serves as a reminder that a language can disappear unbelievably fast. No matter how good the intentions of some are, no matter how long and glorious its history. Peter K. Austin, the author of 1000 Languages, A Worldwide History of Living and Lost Tongues, says the reasons why languages die are always the same: serious stress disrupts social conventions, often because of an invasion of a foreign power but nowadays most often as a side effect of globalization, because of changes in the education system, and most recently because of direct access to media in foreign languages.
Do these Icelandic-Canadians know the color of their roots? I ask. Do they know who they are? You yourself were summoned by a visiting relative from America a couple of years ago, a dear old woman looking for the color of her roots. Was she Icelandic? I ask you. Did she strike you as a relative, someone you have something in common with? You would have to say no, wouldn’t you, despite the fact that some of her genes are the same as yours, the very shape of her mouth gave her away.
You say a well-known columnist in Iceland recently announced my imminent death. He gave me fifty to seventy years, which means that I will start fading away in your lifetime and become extinct during the lifetime of your kids. Which could also be the life span of a literary translation. How do you like that? Certainly “cattle die and kinsmen die, and you no doubt soon must die yourself,” to cite my ancestors, but the mere thought of such an imminent death of a vehicle of Icelandic culture is rather chilling when all things are considered; in a sense apocalyptic since it would mark the end of a world, the end of my world—and yours.
No language or ekkert mál, you decide. But if you are going to ditch me—if you are going to ditch me—why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate continuity and eternity?
You say you are shocked, as a translator, as an Icelander. You say you feel threatened, that you feel more mortal, now that the language policy of your youth is about to be abandoned by the young generation. Gone are the days when Icelanders were determined to preserve and cultivate me, their mother tongue, the treasure you were entrusted with by the writers of the Icelandic Sagas. Gone are the days when immigrants were forced to relinquish their original name and adopt an Icelandic one, when Peter Ridgewell became Pétur Knútsson, when it was practically forbidden to contaminate me with borrowed words in public speech, when a special committee was assigned to coin new words for new devices. Now you and your mates say that these policies could be seen as isolationist, even nationalistic, God forbid, and that they certainly are politically incorrect by modern standards, forcing immigrants to adjust to Icelandic culture. These could in no way be called multicultural attitudes, you say, and the goal was perhaps always a bit dubious, to keep me more or less intact so you could have unhindered access to the world of the Vikings, a cultural heritage you felt responsible for. After all, “The Arnamagnaean Manuscript collection, which preseves the manuscripts of the Icelandic Sagas, the blue print of the Icelandic language, [was] added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register [in] 2009.” You say that many found these attitudes toward me rather stifling, that they felt as if a secret language police was constantly monitoring them. People were downgraded as intellectuals if they made a grammatical error or threw in a borrowed word and hence many didn’t dare speak freely on Icelandic radio or television or anywhere.
But if you’re going to ditch me because of that, well that’s rather cheap, that’s a sell-out. If I am going to be ditched at all I would prefer not to be ditched for another language. And being ditched for English is like being cuckolded by a bully. Better that I never existed.
My fate, you say, is the opposite of the fate of the English language, which is all-inclusive and even has some words borrowed from Icelandic. I have a small vocabulary in comparison, you complain. But who wants a predator like English, which not only feeds on other languages but actually devours them in the end. To think that we were so close to conquering North America; had the expedition of Leif Ericson, who discovered America in the year 1000, been more successful everyone might be speaking Icelandic in North America!
Okay, you laugh at me. You say I contradict myself, that I just envisioned a world where Icelandic was the domineering tongue, having just grieved the loss of a minor language and its cultural vestiges. You point out that I basically just want to be the cross-cultural medium of communication that English is, instead of being the Latin of the north that I am in a sense now. That I am jealous. That I want to be the aggressor instead of being on the defensive all the time. Which is exactly what young Icelanders seem to resent, the defensive stand.
To hell with the Secret Language Police, they say in their godforsaken gibberish.
So what’s the problem? Wherein lies the actual threat to the Icelandic language? Can’t you and your colleagues save me?
Is it because so many tourists come to Iceland these days? Or have you all become too lazy to bother with all the declensions, all the long words I inherited from a completely different world order? Have I proved inadequate in the globalized world order? Or am I just not cool anymore? Too many syllables, too long words for the miniature keyboards of your iPhones?
Let’s cite UNESCO’s figures. They estimate that “if nothing is done, half of 6000-plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century.” While I am not yet on UNESCO’s list of endangered languages, I recently got a yellow card from the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance, due to lack of digital support. However, this does not apply only to me, the Alliance estimates that this goes for two-thirds of European languages and one can assume that the same goes for hundreds of other languages around the world. These languages have a hard time keeping up with rapid technological advances. They say that Icelandic, with less than half a million speakers worldwide, ranks among the least supported languages in terms of speech processing, speech and text resources and machine translation, all of which are considered vital for the survival of a language in the modern world. You tell me a professor of Icelandic Language and Linguistics at the University of Iceland predicts my extinction within the next hundred years if we don’t do anything about these matters.
Well, if you are going to ditch me—why on earth did you let me come this far, why on earth did you let me believe that I was the chosen one, that you would be faithful to me forever? Aren’t we married, you and I? Aren’t we one? Since when can you all ditch your bride, just like that, and start making love to another language, an imperialistic bully to boot? That’s adultery! You are cheating on me! And why on earth do you make me speak to you in this foreign language? Can’t you hear that I have a horrible accent? Why can’t you just allocate a decent sum to write speech processing programs for me instead of throwing all this money at irresponsible bankers?
I tell you, my death has been predicted before. The Danish linguist Rasmus Christian Rask prophesied in 1818 that I would become more or less extinct two hundred years from then; that’s two years from now. Go to hell Rasmus, farðu í rass and all of you who only see clouds on the horizon. Let me remind you that when I seemed to be about to merge with Danish in the nineteenth century, a movement sprang up with the agenda to revive national and linguistic consciousness in Iceland and restore me to glory. And hasn’t that been the official stance of Icelanders as a nation, at least up until some of our main linguists caught the laissez-faire disease a few decades ago? They stopped prescribing how we should talk, telling us which declensions were correct and which words were acceptable, instead they started doing research on the way Icelanders used me, registering tendencies and variants. And in the wake of this, the language authorities gradually lost their power and influence.
But it’s mainly the digital innovations that are killing me, the scholars say. These innovations have revolutionized the way you all amuse yourselves and the way you communicate. Computer games, cell phones, Netflix. Recently, a speech therapist wrote an article in one of the national newspapers in Iceland complaining that lately she has been receiving young clients who have a bad command of me. There are certain things they can’t name in Icelandic but have no problem with in English. She blames computers and other such devices. And there we are again, you say, immersed in and surrounded by another language, mostly English, just like the Icelandic immigrants in Manitoba a century ago. And despite their good intentions, they have now lost contact with their roots. They are now Canadians. By analogy, you will be an American annex a few decades from now, with a gun under your pillow.
If you are going to ditch me for English, I will come back to haunt you. I will whisper in your ear every time the wind blows on this island of ours. I will be telling you that you no longer know the sound of the wind.
 Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat.”
Rúnar Vignisson is an Icelandic author and translator who has won many honors for his writing, such as the DV Cultural Prize for his newest book, the story collection Ást í meinum (Love and Other Complications), and the Icelandic Translation Award for his translation of J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood. Vignisson is currently director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Iceland.
“Sandals” originally appeared in Ást í meinum (2012), translated by Julian M. D’Arcy.