“Exciting things happen when you translate” – An Interview with Christopher Burawa

I’ve been trying to do more reading in Icelandic this summer, both a short novel (slower going than expected) and short stories (faster going—to fudge a term—than expected) and have also been trolling the internet to see what I could discover about literary journals that publish short translations. In the midst of this, I ran across an interesting interview with the poet and translator Christopher Burawa.

In a series of ‘small world’ sort of connections, Christopher studied in Arizona and has also translated several short stories by Kristín Eiríksdóttir into English (one of which, “Holes in People”, was published in Dalkey’s Best European Fiction 2011). Moreover, he’s currently working on translating Kristín’s 2010 collection of short stories, Doris Deyr (‘Doris Dies,’ which in Icelandic sounds a lot like ‘Doris Day’, btw) into English. These latter factoids seem coincidental to me because last summer I set myself a project goal of translating a short story by Kristín from this very collection. I didn’t get very far with this project at the time, but just a few days ago, I pulled out the story again with the intention of fiddling around with it in earnest now.

Since an English translation of the book is already underway (which is a very good thing, of course—I’ve really enjoyed the stories that I’ve read from it thus far), I think I’ll turn my attention to a new project. But for fun, I thought I’d share part of the interview I mentioned above:

What particular challenges do you face while translating from the Icelandic?

I translate both poetry and fiction, but have been translating fiction only for the past two years. I encounter fewer challenges in translating poetry, which I attribute to the fact that my family in Iceland are great readers of poetry, and recited poetry and discussed exceptional poems (meter, word choice, et cetera). Inspired by their example, I memorized poems I enjoyed—and these poems would become my first forays into translation when I was a teenager. I have discovered in translating poetry that I draw upon a completely different lexicon than the one I use in my own poems. Forest Gander once asked me if I was able to devote myself to my own writing at the same time I was translating, and I answered that I found it impossible, that it was as if I was using a different set of skills and sensibility. Exciting things happen when you translate, but I resist the urge to try understanding what is happening and incorporate it into my own writing. The fine-tuning of the trot into a working poem is a wonderful act of creation and intuition, a place where I can clearly hear the voice of the poet; it becomes distinct and a style appears.

Translating fiction requires other skills from poetry. Being able to capture the voice within the story and being consistent over many pages is demanding. Icelandic is rife with the conditional, and past and present perfect verb forms and subjunctive. So the trot seems overburdened with words, of actions about to happen and having had happened, and so on. And for me that is where the challenge lies—revising to make the narrative more active and to make the sentences English friendly while being honest to the original and true to the writer.

Another challenge for me has been dialogue and characterization. Characters have their own voice outside of the narrative and so that requires a great deal of attention. I enjoy it but translating fiction requires a lot of energy.

Christopher also has some interesting things to say about the history of Icelandic—and people’s perception of it as a ‘pure’ language—as well as the Icelandic poet Jóhann Hjálmarsson, whose work he translated for Toad Press. (That collection, Of the Same Mind, is available to read online in its entirety, here.)

And then lastly, if you’re looking for some more reading, allow me to direct your attention to one of Kristín Eiríksdóttir’s short stories that Christopher has translated, and which was published in the journal Waxwing in spring 2014.

I haven’t actually read this story yet, but I’m about to, so we can read it together, Internet! Nicely enough, the Icelandic text was published alongside the English translation. (Icelandic first; scroll down for the English) So here’s “Staðsetja, Útvega, Flokka, Raða og Varðveita”, or “Locating, Acquiring, Classifying, Arranging, and Preserving.” Happy reading!

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