K.B. Thors translates Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir

from Herostories

a physician by nature

                the other hand of the district doctor

                                at once midwife and healer 

midwife and doctor

                midwife and healer at once

                                                the county physician


                at once midwife and physician in this country




Then there was no electric light from the windows
then strength and stamina mattered more
then much was different than it now is

now all you have to do is press a button
then light comes from all directions
sitting down at the dinner table
in a warm living room
driving a car on smooth roads
over bridged rivers
from one corner of the country to the other

young people
swimming in pools of modern coin
will hardly believe this to be true

the difficulty
the darkness of centuries   




the homestead certainly beautiful
in sunshine and summer glory

beautiful the bay
as the sun glitters on streams and islands

and majestic solid mountains   
stand firmfooted as storms rage

but everyone knows women like to go into labour
during the deadliest blizzards   

and usually at night




blizzard snowstorm fierce storm from the north and frost tremendous gale fierce storm northernblizzard and frost and dark of night northeastern blizzard fitful squalls from the northeast the blackest blizzard from the north and similar punishing harshfrost frost gale force winds and drivingsleet and rain skinstinging weather great storm snowstorms and foulweather snowthick air immense snowfall northern snowstorm snowfall foulweather the worst weather blizzard hardfrost snowstorm and darkweather northerlywinds and snowstorms northernblizzards with immense snowfall rok and rain windspeed so great the gable on the farm shook back and forth northern rok and rattling southwestern snowstorms roughweather with extremedark squalls wickedweather darkness and snowstorm furious gale and severe storm bitter frost penetrating marrow and bone harshfrost rough seas snowstorm cloudbank from the sea biting breeze and frost snowclouds blowing over the ridge gale force winds the weather above looking sinister the windshriek growing the snowstorm beating the frozensolid roof blindingblizzard frost and the snowdrift piled against the window southwesternsquall tremendous storm snowdump and thirteen degrees below freezing storms blindingblizzards and fourteen degrees below freezing blinding snowstorm darkweather and snowstorm major snowstorms cruel and ongoing northern snowstorms grand blizzards from the north with extreme weather and snowdump snowfall terrible snowfallingstillness great snowstorm and nightmurk with dark squalls                            




the horse wild with fear
the horse in the river
the horse in the impassable
the horse in the pit  
the horse in the peat bog
the horse in quicksand 
the horse in wetsand
the horse submerged in the river
the horse submerged in the river
the fleetcurrent rolling the horse in
the river the ice floe swaying under her feet

                                                 reciting the lord’s prayer in her mind
                                                 did not want to die so young




let nothing deter her                                     
let nothing deter her             
did not let herself be hindered by rough seas 
uncrossable waters nasty landslides snowbound mountains
weather nor roadlack
want nor struggle                            

ever prepared
ever ready
ever travel ready

                     in a quick moment                                       
                     a very quick moment

lit out at once                   
lived gearing up                                                                  
off into the snowdrift   


Translator’s Note:

The poems in Herostories are made entirely of text found in ​​Íslenskar ljósmæður I-III (Icelandic Midwives I-III), volumes of short biographical articles about Icelandic midwives, the earliest working in the late 18th century and the most recent working in the early 20th century. Some entries are memoir written by the midwives themselves, others are written by contemporaries or descendants who either knew the midwives or knew of them, and the remaining articles were written by the priests gathering the material. Given this intertextual nature, Herostories not only tells tale of these womens’ life work, but becomes a layered analysis of narrative and how cultural values are enacted in history and storytelling.

This translation is in many ways conservative. As the text is not only found but retrieved from and referring to bygone eras, the goal was to stay “true” to the original language while bringing out the poems—21st century creations merging appreciation and critique. While repetition played a key role in Kristín Svava’s previous poetry, in Herostories it is the words of others the poet arranges, highlighting what previous speakers have found worthy of mention and record. Through repetition, the poems examine questions around the historical overlap between midwife and doctor, the glorification of womanly virtue, and the value of feminine labor.

Tómasdóttir also uses repetition and form to drive home the sheer force of Icelandic weather. Many words found in the original poems are rather majestic yet very recognizable terms that happen to be compound words. Several of these compounds are reflected in the translation in an effort to preserve the immediacy of these sensory ingredients while steeping readers in a disorienting world of extreme conditions, and the linguistic structures describing such a world. Similarly, select Icelandic words have been carried over into the English, like “rok” in these poems. Familiar to Anglophone readers via myriad cultural references to ragnarok / Ragnarök, the sound and terrible efficiency of the word earns its keep. Intended as a nod to the lack of parallel in English and simpler than translation experiments that stretch beyond the “wiggle room” of found text, I hope that such inclusions, rather than keeping readers from experiencing a completely English poem, immerses them into a storm of mixed language that effectively brings to life the atmosphere of the complicated “original” poem.


Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir is a poet and historian in Reykjavík, Iceland. Her fourth book of poetry, Hetjusögur (2020), was awarded the Icelandic Women´s Prize for Literature. She has written on the history of pornography, the history of women voters, and the history of epidemics in Iceland.

K.B. Thors is a poet and translator from Treaty 7 land in Alberta, Canada. The author of Vulgar Mechanics (Coach House, 2019), her translation of Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir’s Stormwarning won the American Scandinavian Foundation’s Leif & Inger Sjöberg Prize and was nominated for the 2019 PEN Literary Award for Poetry in Translation. Her translation of Tómasdóttir’s Hetjusögur, Herostories, is forthcoming from Deep Vellum in 2023.