Of Time and Water Longlisted for National Translation Award in the US

Of Time and Water, written by Andri Snær Magnason and translated by Lytton Smith, has been longlisted for the National Translation Award (NTA) in the US. The NTA is awarded for English translations of both prose and poetry and is administered by the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). Per the press release, it “the only is the only national award for translated fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction that includes a rigorous examination of both the source text and its relation to the finished English work.”

The NTA has been awarded for 24 years, with separate awards for prose and poetry given for the last eight. The winning translators in each category will each receive a $2,500 cash prize.

Of Time and Water is one of 12 titles to be nominated for this year’s NTA in prose. Other nominees include The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard and translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken, Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna by Billy Wilder and translated from German by Shelley Frisch, In Case of Emergency by Mahsa Mohebali and translated from Persian/Farsi by Mariam Rahmani, and Harsh Times by Mario Vargas Llosa translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West.

Of Time and Water captured the judges’ attention for its ability to make the enormity of the climate crisis seem both tangible and tackleable. In their nomination, they write:

“While the devastations of our climate crisis are measurable, statistics have failed to adequately motivate change. An acclaimed writer and environmental activist makes its scale and scope tangible by sharing tales of his grandparents, Icelandic citizen scientists whose honeymoon was spent surveying the Vatnajokull glacier, when “glaciers were a symbol of something great and eternal, like oceans, mountains, and clouds.” Now Vatnajokull is dying. Weaving together family history, folklore, and glaciology, the book attempts a ‘mythology of the present’ that might inspire the action required to deflect the most horrific Anthropocene destruction. Ably translated by Lytton Smith, Magnason follows his role models, the Dalai Lama and conservationist John Thorbjarnarson, in communicating perilous urgency with unflagging friendliness.”

Translator Lytton Smith is a professor of English and Creative Writing at SUNY Geneseo in New York, as well as poet. He has translated numerous works from Icelandic, including Children of the Reindeer Woods by Kristín Ómarsdóttir, The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson, History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, and Jón Gnarr’s three-part autobiography, The Indian, The Pirate, and The Outlaw. In 2019, he received a Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

A former candidate for president and an outspoken environmental activist, Andri Snær Magnason is the author of numerous books, including fiction for children and adults, long-form nonfiction, and poetry. Of Time and Water was shortlisted for the 2021 Nordic Council Literature Prize.

The NTA winners will be announced in a virtual ceremony on October 6.

New English Translation Inspires ‘Rediscovery’ of Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s Nobel Laureate

Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s virtuosic Nobel Laureate in Literature, is having something of a renaissance in the United States, reports The New Yorker. The revival has been a long one, with the novelist’s early success in America stymied by those opposed to his outspoken political beliefs—not least nefarious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Slowly but surely, however, Halldór is starting to get his due in the US. The revival started in the late 90s, when authors such as Brad Leithauser, Jane Smiley, and Susan Sontag voiced their unfettered enthusiasm for novels such as Independent People. But most recently, this much-delayed appreciation is thanks to the publication of Salka Valka in Philip Roughton’s translation, which Salvatore Scibona hails as “a gripping wonder, and [Halldór’s] most sustained piece of narrative drama.”

The wide-ranging profile traces Halldór’s remarkable life, which could easily be the stuff of fiction itself. He was raised on a farm called Laxnes in 1902 and died in a Reykjavík nursing home in 1998. In between, he contracted and recovered from polio; spent as many as ten hours a day writing as a child; finished his first novel, some 600 pages long, at 16; travelled extensively; was a voracious polyglot (besides his native Icelandic, Halldór spoke Danish, English, and German, and spent time studying Russian, Latin, and French); almost took orders as a Benedictine monk; tried to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter; became disillusioned with America and capitalism after the start of the Great Depression in 1929; became an outspoken socialist, advocate for Icelandic independence from Denmark, and anti-NATO activist; was probably blacklisted in the US for his political beliefs and definitely investigated by J. Edgar Hoover; and, of course, became Iceland’s first—and as yet only—Nobel laureate at the age of 53 for a body of work that the prize committee lauded for “renew[ing] the great narrative art of Iceland.” (And that’s just the short version—The Islander, Halldór Guðmundsson’s biography of Halldór Laxness, also translated by Philip Roughton, is nearly 500 pages long.)

Salka Valka, published by Archipelago Books, began its life as Halldór’s doomed Hollywood screenplay. At the time, it carried at the time the subtitle “A Woman in Pants.” Halldór envisioned Greta Garbo for the lead role. However, the studio wanted to move the setting from Iceland to Kentucky, and that was an adjustment that Halldór could not accept. So he returned to Iceland and turned his screenplay into a novel, which was published in two parts in 1931 and 1932. The eponymous main character is a heroine ahead of her time, a trouser-wearing, deep-voiced, stridently independent, politically passionate woman of “unruly vitality” who will not be dominated or subjugated by men, society, or even love.

Notably, Philip Roughton’s translation is the first English version of the novel to be translated directly from Icelandic. A previous English version of the novel, published in 1936, was translated not from Icelandic but from Danish, yielding a final product that Halldór did not like at all, complaining that “fifty per cent of my style has disappeared.” Roughton’s new version, on the other hand, “moves along with calm assurance,” writes Scibona, “tossing off Laxness’s inventive and always spot-on descriptions as though they were commonplace” and “captur[ing] Laxness’s singular dour-droll tone with uncanny grace.”

Read the full profile of Halldór Laxness and more about Salka Valka (in English) here.

Millions Allocated in Local Publishing and International Translation Grants

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The Icelandic Literature Center has announced its 2022 publishing grants as well as its biannual translation grants.

Every year, the Icelandic Literature Center allocates publishing grants to local publishers to support the publication of new works in Icelandic. These grants are awarded with the intention of supporting works that have particular cultural and epistemological value.

This year, the Center funded 54 works, for a total of ISK 28 million [$208,986; €200,856] in funding. A total of 72 applications were received, requesting ISK 75 million [$559,743; €537,806] in grant funding. The topics of this year’s grantees range significantly, from an 18th century murder case, architecture, the history of communism in Iceland, the kings of Iceland, contemporary LGBTQIA+ art and more.

Growing Interest in Icelandic Literature Abroad

The Icelandic Literature Center also allocates funding to foreign publishers to support the translation of Icelandic literature into other languages. Allocations for these grants are made twice a year, in February and September. In February, the Center allocated 54 grants for translations into 22 languages. Translated works included contemporary novels, poetry, children’s books, biographies, and medieval sagas.

See Also: Impostor Poets Make Impressive International Debut

“It is notable that Icelandic books are now travelling abroad almost as soon as they are published in Iceland,” the announcement on the Center’s website reads. “For example, Fríða Ísberg’s debut novel, Merking, which will be published in English and German this year, and Úti by Ragnar Jónason will be out in English next fall.”

The largest grants were given to The San Francisco Ballet, for their forthcoming publication of Þorvaldur Kristinsson’s biography of Helgi Tómasson, and for a German-language translation of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Fjarvera þín er myrkur. The latter will also be published in Danish and Dutch soon.

Fans of Icelandic crime fiction also have much to look forward to in the near future, with English translations forthcoming of authors Eva Björg Ægisdóttir, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Sólveig Pálsdóttir, and Ragnar Jónasson.

See all of February’s translation grants here.


Icelandic Literature Featured in Words Without Borders’ Latest Issue

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Icelandic fiction and poetry in English translation are the focus of literary magazine Words Without Borders’ April issue. Guest edited by translator Larissa Kyzer, the issue features contemporary Icelandic authors such as Fríða Ísberg and Björn Halldórsson. The authors subject matter ranges from the climate crisis to intimate partnerships, providing a “revealing portrait of a country in a time of global and local upheaval,” according to the magazine.

Features Shorter Works of Fiction and Poetry

“I’m an avid reader of Words Without Borders – it’s a wonderful outlet for international literature in translation – and it had been a number of years since there had been an issue dedicated to Icelandic literature,” Larissa told Iceland Review. “The last was a 2015 spotlight on four Icelandic poets, guest-edited by my frequent collaborator and co-translator for this issue, Meg Matich. There’s so much exciting writing being done in Iceland today, but most of this work doesn’t get much of an audience in English because it’s shorter in form – short stories, poetry – or simply because there are a limited number of Icelandic novels published in English each year. So I decided to pitch a special issue that would bring together Icelandic writing across genres (novel excerpts, short stories, and poetry) that had all come out within the last five years, focusing on authors who are lesser-known to English-language readers. I was lucky – and delighted – that WWB was just as excited about this prospect as I was.

A Nation on the Global Fringe

As Larissa states in her introduction to the issue, Iceland is “literally and figuratively on the periphery – at once very much impacted by, and participant in, [global] conversations, but still a minor player, without the stature, or power, to effect real change on, say, the international climate policy.” This makes it particularly interesting to follow how its writers respond to global issues. “We’re living in strange times, to state the obvious, but something I find particularly interesting right now is the way in which conversations or social movements that start locally – #MeToo, for instance, or Black Lives Matter – become, almost immediately, international in scope,” Larissa explains. “Nations all over the world are grappling with many, if not most of the same big questions, and I’m fascinated by the ways in which Iceland is responding to these questions within its literature.”

“As it happens, I actually got the idea for the issue’s theme from a piece by Kári Tulinius, GOTO WARD SENT ROPY, an experimental poem which captures, quite concisely and poignantly, the experience of these immense global forces acting on one’s life and immediate surroundings without being able to really do anything about it. In it, we see the poet, as a child, gazing at an immense glacier that, by the time he reaches adulthood, has melted away.”

Literature A Powerful Force in Icelandic Society

Larissa says there are many surprising and exciting things about Icelandic literature. “Something that continues to capture my own imagination is the way literature functions in Icelandic society – literature is a genuine site of social engagement and critique in Iceland, and, I’d argue, the preeminent medium through which Icelanders explore some of their most pressing social issues. I can’t speak for other countries, but you don’t really see this in the US – literature isn’t central to our public debates in anything close to the same way. So it’s exciting to see a country take literature so seriously, to not even question that it remains, even in our digital era, an incredibly relevant, meaningful, and useful medium that we can turn to for bigger answers.”

Read the issue in full here.

Record Number of Icelandic Books Published in 2019

A record number of works of fiction are set to be published this year in Iceland, RÚV reports. A surge of publications in children’s literature, poetry, and other genres suggest this year’s Christmas Book Flood will be the biggest yet. Bryndís Loftsdóttir of the Icelandic Publishers Association says there are many reasons for the increase.

“This looks like it’s going to be an absolute record year in terms of publication in many genres and thus also perhaps possible to say that there is an incredible amount of growth and an unbelievable amount of new, young writers stepping forward,” Bryndís stated.

Children’s literature publications have increased by 47% from last year, and young adult books by 39%. Icelandic works of fiction are 21% more numerous than last year, while 51% more poetry books and plays will be published this year than in 2018.

Bryndís says that there is no one aspect that explains the increase, but that publishers’ optimism, as well as passion in the industry play a part. “Then there’s the country’s enjoyment of reading.”

Another aspect is a new system established by the government this summer which allows publishers to apply for partial reimbursement of costs related to publication of books in Icelandic. The committee has received 157 applications since the system was launched this summer, 99 of which have already been approved.

Bryndís says Icelanders will have plenty of books to choose this Christmas. “You want to tell readers, of course read your favourite author but also give yourself time to get to know all of these new names that are coming up and their work.”

Fans of Icelandic literature who don’t speak the language will also be glad to hear that translations of Icelandic literature into foreign languages have tripled over the past decade. Around 40 titles have recently been translated into English, or will soon be published in English, in the US and UK, according to the Icelandic Literature Centre.

The Hulk Learns Icelandic

A new, boutique publishing house called DP-IN will focus on bringing Marvel comics to Icelandic fans in their native language, Vísir reports. Publisher Bjarni Gautur Eydal wants young Icelanders to have the opportunity to read about their favorite superheroes in Icelandic, rather than having no alternative but to read them in English. Superhero series used to be published in Iceland, but this hasn’t been the case in some time.

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“In the old days, before you or I were born, The Hulk and Spiderman were published in Icelandic,” Bjarni said in an interview. “But now for the first time, we’re publishing the stories in the correct chronological order and in paperback.”

Bjarni continued that in his experience working with children in after-school programs, he’s found that there aren’t enough options in Icelandic for young readers. “I grew up in Sweden,” he noted. “And grew up reading Marvel Comics in Swedish.”

The Hulk and Spiderman series are slated for release in Iceland, as are X-Men and Thor after that.

“We’re going to publish both old and new [comics],” Bjarni concluded.

Icelandic Literature in Spotlight at Polish Literary Fair

Gdansk Literary Fair

Icelandic authors are the guests of honour at a literary fair to take place in Gdansk March 29-31. Icelandic authors Hallgrímur Helgason, Steinunn Sigurðardóttir, Einar Kárason, Elísabet Jökulsdóttir, and Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir are all special guests at the upcoming fair, being held for the second time.

In a press release, the Icelandic Literature Centre welcome the fair as an opportunity to strengthen the ties between Iceland’s and Poland’s literary communities, as well as the countries as a whole. Not only will Icelandic authors be present, but also Icelandic publishers, and translators of Icelandic works into Polish.

Polish nationals are the most numerous group among immigrants to Iceland, numbering around 17,000, roughly 4.8% of the country’s population. Many Icelandic works of literature have been translated into Polish, ranging from the Sagas and the works of Halldór Laxness, to contemporary novels such as those of Hallgrímur Helgason. The Icelandic Literature Centre will also have a kiosk at the fair featuring brand-new Polish translations of Icelandic works, to be released in mid March.