Kelsey Jonsson was born and raised in Marietta, Georgia, a northwest suburb of Atlanta. She began her college career at Kennesaw State University majoring in English, but soon learned it wasn’t her language of choice. Instead, she was drawn to a language familiar to her family and the Seattle area: Icelandic.
“My dad’s entire family – they’re all from Iceland, they all speak Icelandic,” Jonsson said. “When I was a small child, I wanted nothing more than to learn Icelandic so I could converse with my family members and it would be our own secret lingo.”
She researched schools that had strong Scandinavian studies programs and came across University of Washington. To get in-state residency, she moved to Washington with her grandmother in May 2013. Living in Seattle further confirmed her belief that she wanted to study Icelandic texts for a living.
“I was in Ballard – I went looking for a job – and I ended up sitting Bergen Place, where they have all the Scandinavian flags represented,” she said. “I was sitting there reading the Icelandic sagas, and I was like, you know, why don’t I get paid for this? This is something I’m doing for fun. This isn’t something people necessarily do for fun.”
So, what exactly is an Old Norse translator? Jonsson compares it to being an archeologist. She said it involves a lot of preparation and seeking out texts on your own. “You’re working with people who are looking for different things to give them an insight into a certain period of time,” she said.
Jonsson said that as a translator, she would not only work with texts, but also with everyday items like helmets and jewelry that have words inscribed in them. Within the Viking Age, Jonsson wants to focus on the topic of women’s rights.
“Divorce was a lot easier to get,” she said. “You could divorce your husband, you could work, you could farm.”
Jonsson hopes to become fluent in Icelandic by the time she finishes college. “I have tons and tons of people to practice with, so that will make things a tiny bit easier,” she laughed.