By Steve Stephens
Note: Listen to Steve Stephens talk about his journey translating "The Poems of Undina" in an Icelandic Roots webinar on February 15, 2023. Click here for details and the link to the webinar.
Iceland has always been my backstory. As a child, I remember my grandfather, who was born in Minnesota, sitting in his large, overstuffed chair in southern Oregon and telling stories he had heard from his parents about the mazes of Mývatn and the polar bears floating over from Greenland on icebergs. And then there was the little red book of my great-grandmother‘s poems that was treasured by all my family members. It was in Icelandic and no one but my grandfather could read it.
“Please translate a poem for me,” I begged.
“I don’t do that,” he said stoically.
“They are too sad,” he said. “If I translate just one of them, I won’t be able to hold back my sorrow.”
So, the poems remained a mystery. But the stories of Iceland continued. Then came the dreams.
“Someday,” my grandfather said one sunny afternoon as we walked up the hill to his house. “Someday I want to go to Iceland.”
“But isn’t it cold and frozen?”
“Sometimes,” he smiled. “But it’s a land of remaining beauty. That’s what my mother told me. It’s a land of majestic mountains, mysterious lakes, and meadows full of the most colorful wildflowers you’ve ever seen.”
“It sounds amazing.”
“Someday I dream to see it all and walk the places my mother walked.”
I looked up into his wrinkled and weathered face as he wiped a speck of wetness from his eyes.
But the next year Grandfather died, without ever being able to fulfill his dream. Yet somehow, he magically passed that dream on to me. As l grew into adulthood, I was haunted by three key questions.
1. What is so wonderful about Iceland?
2. Why is this mysterious book of poetry so powerful?
3. Who is my great-grandmother, Undina, the Icelandic poet, who lived so long ago and so far away from the home she loved?
Several years ago, I arranged a trip to Iceland with my grandmother, mother, and uncle. We planned on fulfilling my grandfather’s dream of going to the places he had wished to go on this small island. In Mývatn, we found the farmhouse that Undina had known as a child. We cautiously went to the door and introduced ourselves. The people appeared perplexed. They turned to each other and talked in a foreign language we couldn’t understand. Then I pulled out my great-grandmother’s little red book of poetry. Suddenly their eyes brightened, and they disappeared into their house. A moment later they reappeared, clutching reverently, a copy of the same book I had just shown them. From that point on we were their respected guests, and though we couldn’t understand their words, we knew we were welcome.
When we returned from our northern adventure, I decided to try to translate the little red book into English. The fact that I couldn’t read Icelandic didn’t stop me. So, with a gritty determination, Undina’s Icelandic-English dictionary, and five translation apps I worked word-by-word through each line of her over 160 poems. Each stanza told a story with imagery and emotions which felt both foreign and familiar. I’d translate seven or eight poems and then move on to another project. But the poems kept drawing me back. So, I’d translate another seven or eight poems, and get distracted. With these fits and starts it took me some 30 years to finish this project. But in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, I finished translating her final poem.
But I knew this wasn’t the end. Translating all this poetry only made me more intrigued with Undina’s story. I started collecting data. In the years after Grandfather’s death my grandmother had given me boxes of letters, photographs, and other assorted paraphernalia from Undina, her father, her brothers, and her children. Curiosity drove me forward and I slowly pieced together the story of Undina. It was so heartbreaking and courageous that I couldn’t stop thinking about this young girl who was torn away from her beloved Iceland to lands which were inhospitable and challenging. However, she never gave up. Whether it was the tall pines of Lake Muskoka Canada, the rugged lands of the Dakota Territory, the farm on the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon, or the high desert of Christmas Lake Valley, Undina struggled forward, striving and thriving. In the midst of more tragedy than most can imagine she wrote her poetry and built a family.
On a hot June day in 2021 I sat in the shade in Santa Fe, New Mexico and started to write the story of my great-grandmother. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I wrote every spare moment, filling in the story between her passions and her poems. That June day was almost exactly 148 years from when the first chapter began. And I finished the book on a frozen December day in Portland, Oregon, on Undina’s 164th birthday.
It took a lifetime to discover the answers to my three questions. But now I know the wonder of Iceland, the power and passion of poetry, and the irresistible story of Undina. Come with me and embrace this remarkable Icelandic journey. Join me and celebrate this true story. Help me share this modern saga of a young girl who was taken from her beloved homeland to a world away from home. Tell your friends and family about her trials and triumphs so Undina, Helga Baldwinsdottir, will rise from obscurity and never be forgotten again.
A World Away from Home: An Icelandic Journey (Restless Journeys, Vol 1)
by Steve Stephens
Steve Stephens wrote this historical fiction based on the life of the Icelandic poet Helga Baldvinsdottir (IR I327781) who lived from 1858 to 1941 and was known as Undina, and who was the author's great-grandmother.
Undina’s heart is first broken at 14, emigrating against her wish from the icy fjords of her beloved Iceland. Nine years later, poor crops and marital heartbreak forced her family from the tall pines of Lily Lake in Ontario, Canada, to settle in the rugged lands of the Dakota Territory in 1881.
Three important things help her through the difficulties of building a life in the wilderness: her writing, the love of her father, and a deep vein of courage. Plagued by loss and melancholy, Undina turns these into a wellspring of creativity, beauty, and meaning. Her poetry becomes a lifeline and a way into quiet fame and the history of Icelandic literature.