14 May 2008

Gömul bréf (old letters)

My full time job at BYU is as the Director of the International Admissions Office for the undergraduate students. I love my work and enjoy getting to know so many international students day in and day out. But because I was a missionary in Iceland, I get to use my experience in Iceland and the Icelandic I learned there in unexpected ways. One of the things I get to do with the language is to, on occasion, translate old Icelandic letters and journals into English for different people. The last two days I have been translating an old letter that was written in 1888 in Spanish Fork, Utah. The author had immigrated to Utah and wrote it to a friend who was still back in Iceland.

Between the years 1853 and 1914 there were a number of waves of immigrants who left Iceland and headed to Utah. Most were Mormons who had joined the Mormon faith in Iceland but wanted to gather with the other Mormons in Utah. They were also often eager to leave behind the hard life they were experiencing both physically and spiritually in Iceland in those days. Once they got to Utah and experienced what seemed to be in all ways a better life, they would send letters to family members and friends who were still in Iceland to tell them about it. They would spend most of their words in these letters telling their families back home how much wheat they raised or how many sheep they had and what price they were getting for both. The page of the letter I have put in this entry is one of a four page letter talking about how much the writer earned shearing sheep and how much wheat he was given in payment. He talks about the number of Icelanders who built homes that year and about how hard it was to not be able to understand everything that was heard in church because the Icelanders of that day didn't understand English as well as they do today.

I never considered myself one who really had an interest in History, per se. But as I've become involved with these letters, journals and newspaper articles from the mid- to late- 1800's, I find that I really do like history, at least the history of this people in this part of the world. Most of us don't spend much (if any) time thinking about the cost of wheat or how much we would get for the wool from a newly shorn sheep, but these were big deals to these folks and many others of that day. Their spelling and sentances were a bit different from today. They would write the words "fyrir" and "gefa" for example as "firir" and "giefa."

The most interesting statements or sentances in these old letters for me are ones that say things like, “Ifir höfuð lifum við nu mikið goðu og rólegu lífi á okkar ei in plássi. Höfum nog að borða, drekka og brenna.” Or in English, "Overall we now live a very good and peaceful life in our own space. We have enough to eat, drink and burn." The measuring stick for a good and peaceful life was often, "Do I have enough sheep, a few good horses, a full crop of thickly growing wheat, a place to live out of the elements, a place to worship with others of ones faith and a healthy family?" All other considerations were secondary. No phones, computers, iPods or day planners.

There is something to be said about living simply with an eye focused on the things that really matter. Too bad that the act of living simply has now become for most a lost art--one that many people no longer seem to be concerned about discovering.

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