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Mekkin Sveinson Perkins, the Translator

Icelandic Roots presents a story written by one of our members who remembers her great-great-aunt, Mekkin Sveinson Perkins, a talented and driven woman who defied the social norms and pressures of women working in the first half of the 1900s.

By Robin Engel

 

Growing up in Seattle, Washington, I spent many an afternoon with my grandmother, Louise Mekkin Hanson Swett (I706819.) She often talked of her family, especially her aunt, Mekkin Sveinson Perkins (I652101.) She told me that Mekkin had graduated from the University of Washington in the early 1900s and worked as a translator for the War Department. After my grandmother passed away, I had the task of cleaning out her home on Queen Anne Hill, which contained 70 years of memories. In the basement, I came across a weathered old trunk. In it were the possessions of Mekkin Sveinson Perkins—photos, diplomas, employment papers, and various writings—yielding clues to her interesting life story.

 

Mekkin’s parents (my great-great-grandparents), Gunnar Sveinsson (I584295) and Kristín Finnsdóttir (I584301) arrived in Canada from the East Fjords in July 1887 and settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Mekkin (Gunnarsdóttir) was born in September 1887. Her first name was inspired by the Turkish raids that occurred in East Iceland.[1] Mekkin’s parents married in October 1887 and eventually, the family settled on the last name Sveinson. Mekkin’s younger sister, my great-grandmother, Gudfinna Sveinson (I706817), known to the family as Finna, completed the family in 1891.

 

In Winnipeg in the late 1890s and early 1900s school attendance was not mandatory. According to my grandmother, Gunnar and Kristin strongly believed the girls should have an education, so Mekkin and Finna attended the local primary school, The Aberdeen School. Finna was only a fair student and left school in her early teens. Mekkin excelled at school, especially in languages, and tested into the local high school. In 1904 she graduated from The Collegiate Institute and the family headed west so she could further her education. They stopped briefly in Blaine, Washington before settling in Seattle. Mekkin was one of 248 students enrolled at the University of Washington in the fall of 1904. In the early 1900s, a woman attending college was rare. They were expected to marry by their early 20s. It was widely believed that a woman attending college was doomed to be a spinster. This bias against women attending college did not deter Mekkin.

 

Graduation from University of Washington, 1908

She pursued her love of languages, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in French in 1908 and a master’s degree in French in 1912. I still have her 1908 diploma, all in Latin, and her 1912 master’s hood. Mekkin used her degrees in one of the few professions open to women at the time, teaching. She taught French, German, Latin, and history in high schools in Washington and California.


Then came World War I. Anti-German bias resulted in many schools dropping German as a course; some schools dropped the teaching of all languages but English. Mekkin suddenly found her career path threatened. She looked for a more stable outlet for her linguistic talents and found it in translating.

 

The War Department needed translators and Mekkin needed a job. She moved clear across the country to Washington, D. C. and became a translator. Mekkin taught herself a few more languages for a total of seven. She was one of the few translators who knew Icelandic. While working for the War Department she met and married a kindred spirit, a former college professor and fellow translator, John Wesley Perkins. In the 1920s it was still expected that once a woman married, she would leave the workforce and become a homemaker. Mekkin, once again, ignored social conventions. She continued to work for the War Department, while John, who knew 26 languages, continued working for the State Department. Then came the Depression and Mekkin’s career was upended once again, this time by the bias against married women working.

 

In the early 1930s unemployment rose to a staggering 25%. Married women in the workforce became an easy target; they were labeled as selfish, taking jobs from unemployed men and women who headed households. Ultimately the pressure grew so great that a law was passed prohibiting both married spouses from working for the federal government. Since women usually held less lucrative positions, they were generally the spouses who were forced to resign. After 14 years with the federal government, Mekkin found herself unemployed, forced to leave the job she loved. She would not be sidelined for long.

 

While her husband John rose to the position of Chief of the General Section of the State Department’s Division of Language Services, Mekkin set out to reinvent herself. This time she combined her love of Iceland with her linguistic talents, becoming a translator of Icelandic literature. She worked on English translations of Icelandic poems and short stories mostly written in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Several of her translations were included in Dr. Richard Beck’s Icelandic Poems and Stories (1943.) Mekkin’s translations are included in several compendiums of Icelandic literature including Loftur Bjarnason’s An Anthology of Modern Icelandic Literature (1961), and Stefan Einarsson’s A History of Icelandic Literature (1957).

 

Mekkin S. Perkins, 1959

Not content just to translate the works of others, Mekkin began to compose her own stories and poems. In the 1950s several of her short stories appeared in children’s magazines in the United States. Mekkin also wrote articles on Icelandic subjects such as the Turkish raids in Eastern Iceland [2] and the importance of poetry in Icelandic culture. [3] She even gave private Icelandic lessons!

 

I never knew Mekkin Sveinson Perkins as I was only two years old when she died. After researching her life, I can understand why my grandmother was so proud of her Aunt Mekkin. She was educated, independent, proud of her Icelandic heritage, and a woman ahead of her time.




Note:

 [1] The name Mekkin (Mekkín) possibly "...has its roots in the 17th century: During the 'Turkish Abductions' (Icelandic Tyrkjaránið), a series of slave raids by Ottoman pirates that took place in Iceland in the summer of 1627, pirates from Algeria and Morocco raided the village of Grindavík on the southwestern coast, Berufjörður and Breiðdalur in the Eastern Region (the East Fjords), and Vestmannaeyjar (islands off the south coast). About 400 Icelandic prisoners were taken and sold into slavery on the Barbary Coast. Very few of them returned to Iceland. It is said that one woman who returned from slavery named her daughter after a good and caring mistress back in Algeria. (The) name (Mekkín) was derived from the placename Mecca. (https://www.nordicnames.de/wiki/Mekkín


See also p265 in "Piracy in Iceland" cited below.



Sources:


[2] Perkins, Mekkin S.. (Autumn 1961). “Piracy in Iceland,” American– Scandinavian Review, 49(3): 259–265. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/sim_scandinavian-review_1961-09_49_3/page/258/mode/2up

 

[3] Perkins, Mekkin Sveinson. (Spring 1957). “Iceland’s Unquenchable Flame,” The Icelandic Canadian, 15(3):12–15. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/N022964/N022964/page/12/mode/2up

 

 

Other Sources:

“Who in America.” Almanak Ólafs S. Thorgeirssonar 1946, p32–34. Retrieved from https://timarit.is/page/4667228

 

Perkins, Mekkin S.. (1957). "Gray Snow: A Story of Iceland,” American–Scandinavian Review, 45(3): 278—283. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/sim_scandinavian-review_1957-09_45_3/page/278/mode/2up

 

“Mekkin S. Perkins, 1887­–1964.” (26 Nov 1964). Lögberg–Heimskringla, p1. Retrieved from https://timarit.is/page/2228522

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