Getting the Word Out

The Icelandic Literature Centre awards grants to some 80-100 translations from Icelandic to other languages each year. The number of applications for translation grants has been steadily increasing. Icelandic books have been translated into around 50 languages. Three recently published Icelandic to English translations:Three recently published Icelandic to English translations:Quake (Stóri skjálfti) by Auður Jónsdóttir (trans. Meg Matich).Salka Valka […]

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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

iceland books

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.


Crime Novelist Ragnar Jónasson Tops Bestseller List in Germany

Ragnar Jónasson

Mistur (German title Nebel; English title The Mist) by Icelandic crime novelist Ragnar Jónasson is currently #1 on Der Spiegel‘s bestseller list in Germany. This is the first time that an Icelandic author has topped this list.

Mistur is the final instalment in Ragnar’s trilogy starring policewoman Hulda Hermannsdóttir. In a somewhat unconventional move, German publisher btb Verlag released all three books in the trilogy—Dimma (German title Dunkel; English titleThe Darkness), Drungi (German title Insel; English title The Island), and Mistur—in rapid succession this year. The first and second instalments came out in May and July respectively. This seems to have been a good bet: Dimma reached number two on Der Spiegel‘s list and all three books were ranked in the top ten last week, a relatively unheard-of coup.

Ragnar’s books have sold close to 1.5 million copies worldwide and been published in 27 languages in 40 countries. He can easily claim to be one of Europe’s most popular authors right now and is on track to becoming a household name in the US, too. American TV giant CBS is in the process of turning The Darkness into an eight-part series, which will be produced in Iceland with support from Truenorth Productions, which recently coproduced Netflix’s first original Icelandic series, The Valhalla Murders.

Found in Translation

Books by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir on a shelf.

Are you familiar with Erlendur the detective, Bjartur the sheep farmer, or the lawyer turned amateur sleuth Þóra? If so, you must have read a translation of an Icelandic novel. (If not, you should.) Icelandic literature is spreading around the globe at a rapid pace, while book sales and rates of readership are down in […]

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