“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.

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I, Alone

I just spent a lovely ten days with my parents and sister on their recent visit to Iceland. We got to do a fair amount of out-in-the-country-ing, a fair amount of just-normal-life-ing, a fair amount of errand-running, an awesome bit of horse riding, and I even got all three of them to go sea swimming with me, because they are heroes. (My dad in particular gets a shout out for swimming around the cove with me and making sure I didn’t have a panic attack when the Inferi seaweed started tickling my toes.) So as of today—National Day, as it happens—things are slowly returning back to normal here for me. Although ‘normal’ is actually not normal at all, as I now find myself in the midst of a real sumarfrí—summer vacation, that is—without a daily job or school assignments or any of that. (I’ll cope, I promise.)

Valdimar Thorlacius - Photo by Vilhelm, Vísir

Valdimar Thorlacius – Photo by Vilhelm, Vísir

So I’m going through my email and catching up on news and things that happened while I was basically off the Internet, and I’ve been pleased to see that a book of photography by Icelandic photographer Valdimar Thorlacius has been getting a fair amount of attention since it was released at the start of the month. This pleasure is twofold. On one hand, it is a beautiful book of photography on a fascinating subject: the daily lives of hermits in Iceland. On the other, I’m also excited because I translated the accompanying text—excerpted interviews with the photographed individuals—and did so over the course of a weekend. I had editing help, of course, but truly, this is the most extensive (and fastest) translation project that I’ve yet undertaken, made all the more interesting/complicated by the fact that the interview subjects were often talking about the daily circumstances or details of their childhoods on rural farms in Iceland (not a milieu that I’m super well-versed in yet) and also generally had rather roundabout/old-timey colloquial ways of expressing themselves. They are hermits, after all. So I learned a lot doing this translation, not just linguistically, but culturally and historically, too.

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Áfram 2015!

So, here we are, almost February. The year is well underway and I am happy to say that at least from our vantage point here, it seems to be getting off to a good start. Classes are several weeks in and I’m splitting my time between one rather challenging Translation Studies course (MA level, in Icelandic), an ÍSL (Íslenska sem annað mál, or Icelandic as a Second Language) course which focuses on learning how to write like an adult (thank the lord), and a couple literature classes (including one MA class on Scottish Women’s lit—great so far) which are really just for my own edification and allow me to enjoy the opportunity of like, being in college again and just studying for fun (whoo!). And full disclosure to this academic adventuring: the side benefit of the literature classes is that they are taught in English, thereby removing some of the second-language pressure and allowing me to focus the majority of my attention on the translation class.

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The Summer Project, Revised

“Jumping After Hildur”: Engraving from an 1864 edition of Icelandic legends, via Wikimedia Commons

So earlier this summer, I decided that I would set myself a project goal: finish a draft of a translation of a ten page short story. I thought this would be a modest goal, and yet fully expected that it would undergo some revisions (read: delays) over the course of the following months. And, guess what, guys: it totally did. Namely, here I find myself approaching the end of summer and I haven’t completed more than two or three pages of said translation.

Now. I could spend time raking myself over the coals about this since I haven’t, truth be told, done a whole lot of studying or general Icelandic-improvement in the last few months. That’s not to say I haven’t done anything, of course: I’ve been reading the daily free paper that gets shoved through the mail slot in the morning. I’ve watched a bit of television on RÚV, and listened to a bit of the state radio station. I’ve eavesdropped on my co-workers and people on the bus. And, biggest deal of all: I’ve had not one, but three, job interviews in Icelandic. One of these was triumphant, one was short [my schedule wasn’t compatible], and one was—best case scenario—kinda okay, but kind of embarrassing, due to a whole muddle of mix-ups which primarily stemmed from the fact that I am absolutely, swear-to-god, The Worst at speaking Icelandic on the phone. (Long story—I’ll tell you sometime, just as soon as it goes from being sort of shaming and sad-making to being funny.)

The point is, I’ve been in this country and in/around this language and although my conversational skills are still pretty shabby at best, I am trying and improving and getting less self-conscious about those moments in which I flub up and say/write something stupid (oh, like the time I gave an email the subject “Eftirfylgja um starf,” which my dictionary lead me to believe meant “Follow-up about job,” but which my co-worker informed me was kind of actually like saying “Afterbirth about job.”) Basically, it’s an uphill battle and embarrassment is par for the course, so developing a thicker skin is not nothing.

While my short story project has basically stalled, however, there is some good news on this front. I have actually done some translations work this summer—translations of the literary variety, even.

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A Summer Project

via WebDonuts.com

After yet another whirlwind couple of weeks, I’m back, and hopefully, will be here more regularly again. Finals are over (my report card is hanging proudly on the fridge…not really, just in my head), Eurovision is over (sorry for the lack of documentation this year, but summary: it was pretty awesome), I’ve started working full time at The Grapevine (just for the summer), am older (30!) and, I think, wiser, and am working on adjusting to this crazy surplus of sunlight we now have. (Seriously, it is quite difficult to differentiate between 3 AM and 10:30 PM and were it not for all the sleeping I did this winter, I think the wonky light and shifty sleep schedule would be making me a bit nutty.)

With homework out of the way for a few months and just the one job to focus on (which, wow, is WONDROUS), I’ve been reading, coffee-dating, taking a lot of long walks, eating ice cream, hosting elaborate potluck parties, and getting started on a project which I was encouraged to jump into a few months ago by a very encouraging translator friend. Namely, this summer, I am going to work on my first Icelandic translation. My friend is a very kind man and maybe has more faith in my skills than I do—he suggested that I start right off working on a novel. And while I did pick up some novels that looked like they could be promising, I ultimately decided that I’d be a little more comfortable beginning with a short story. (Baby steps onto the bus.) A few very enjoyable hours perusing and researching in the library and I found a promising collection and it just so happens that my totally random system of selecting a starter story simply on the basis of the fact that a) I could read the title and the first sentence without a dictionary and b) it is only ten pages long worked out pretty well. I really like this story, guys, and I’m pleased that I’ll be spending my time on it this summer.

(Sorry to be coy about the title—I feel like I will jinx myself somehow if I tell you, The Internet, specifically what I’m working on. So for now, it’ll just have to be my seeecrrett, like the man says.)

The thing is, I (obviously) have no real method, or system. So I’ve been slowly troubling one out for myself. I started by reading the story through without any dictionaries or aids, and acclimated myself with the major plot points and character traits and features of the writing style. Now, I’m working through it more slowly, with dictionaries and whatever aids I can access myself, in the hopes of producing a rough but readable draft within the next few weeks. Then I’ll go over the story and my translation again, cleaning it up where I can and this time making notes of passages I think might be problematic, tonal inconsistencies, or turns of phrase which aren’t working quite right. Then, hopefully, I’ll find an obliging bilingual reader who can help me with some of these questions. And *then,* once I have a pretty solid draft, I’d like to contact the author, ask to talk through lingering questions with her, and see what she thinks of my eventually (with further proofing etc.) trying to get the translation placed in a journal or publication.


I’m sure there will be some methodological (and timeline) revisions along the way, but it’s exciting to have a project like this, and great to be actually attempting to do what I came here to do!

Adventures in Amateur Translation: Skrímslapest

Before I left Iceland and finished my term as a Fulbright grantee, I was invited to participate in a presentation with my fellow Fulbrighters to present the work we had undertaken during our nine months in Iceland. My colleagues had a diverse range of interests, talents, areas of expertise and projects, ranging from poetry derived from Norse mythology to volcanic research, and child psychology to marine coastal management. Some of these projects are easier to quantify than others; for my part, I was a bit nervous that I’d need to stand up and talk to my audience in perfect Icelandic for 15 minutes straight in order to convey that I had actually been doing something all year. (Which, as I hope this blog indicates, I certainly had.) Instead of panicking (or attempting an oral presentation well outside of my abilities at that particular juncture in time), I decided to give a brief summary of my writing projects, my work on Little Free Library Reykjavík, and finally, to try my hand at a short translation from Icelandic to English. After all, that is my end goal. And I did read a great deal of children’s books this year for practice. So I took a book from one of my favorite children’s series, Skrímslapest, and translated it into English. Then I created a Reading Rainbow-style video where I read the Icelandic text over the English subtitles. It took me a whole day to create the video (I had to learn how to work with iMovie), but I was pleased with the final product and had a good time making it.

I was lucky enough to meet the book’s illustrator and co-author, Áslaug Jónsdóttir, at an event this year, and not only did she generously introduce me to her writer’s group (who then generously donated books for Little Free Library Reykjavík), she also kindly gave me permission (along with her co-authors Kalle Güettler and Rakel Helmsdal) to post the video I made of my translation on Vimeo. So I am sharing the video with you all now (below).

Some points on the translation process (such as it was) however, before you watch:

-The title, Skrímslapest is a combo word: skrímsli, or monster + pest, which can mean “disease, illness, or epidemic.” I decided to translate it as Monster Pox, because that had a nice ring to it, and in the pictures, it did look like the chicken pox, not some insurmountable monster-plaugue.

-I was made aware of one mis-translation in the text, where I translate ís to “ice” instead of “ice cream.” For the record, if you want ice in your drink while in Iceland, the correct word is klaki. It did not occur to me to even look this word up when I was doing the translation—I assumed “ís” was ice because of “Ísland” (the Icelandic name for Iceland) and because it seemed to make some sense in context. I’ve left the error in the video because a) it would be very time consuming to fix, and b) it is a good record of my learning process. It is also a fair indication that this is not, by any means, a perfect translation.

-There were a couple of interesting vocab translation pickles:

1. þungarokk: this is a combo word, from þungur, or heavy, and rokk, or rock music. I opted to just refer to this as METAL! (caps to match the original text) in the text because that’s what my high school metalhead friends used to enthusiastically yell while headbanging or drumming on their chests at lunch time. Short and emphatic and to the point. Plus, “heavy metal” has too much of a moms-talking-about-the-kids’-music vibe to it, I thought.

2. hrútleiðinlegur: another combo, from hrútur, or ram, and leiðinlegur, a sort of all-purpose word for boring/tedious/dull and which is used for everything from a boring class to tiresome weather. I was absolutely delighted with the word “sheep-boring” (I’ve also heard “dog-boring”) and thought long and hard about coming up with some sort of fun, animal-themed, catchy word for super-boring in English. (I had a ton of excellent suggestions from my YA-author friend/mom of a toddler, too. So thanks for those, buddy!) In the end, I opted to just translate this awesome word as “TOTALLY BORING!” because it really didn’t sound like the kind of wordplay you get from kids in English, and who hasn’t heard a child refer to something as “totally” dull/lame/boring etc.? Also, the original book wasn’t going for super word play, either—it’s just a common expression in Icelandic.

So there you have it. My first foray into literary translation, with its attendant debates. I hope you enjoy the video below (and share your thoughts on the translation, if you have them), but please do note that although I have permission from the authors to post this, it is still entirely their creation, and they retain all rights to its adaptations, translations, and dissemination.

“In Iceland everybody has a chance to be someone, everyone has a book in them and everyone eventually writes one.”

I spent some time writing a review of Andri Snær Magnason’s LoveStar yesterday (I’ll post it when it’s been published) and in the process, ran across two interesting articles.

The first, from which this post’s title quote is taken, is an interview on Publishing Perspectives with Icelandic to English translator Victoria Cribb: “The Loneliness of the Icelandic Translator.” I was particularly heartened by this bit:

A page of crime writing can be more difficult to translate for Cribb than, for example, author Sjón’s writing. “He has an elegant style that harks back to the sagas. You can really get your teeth into his very complicated sentences which is such a pleasure.”

“I’m a linguist who stumbled accidentally into translation,” she added.

When Cribb works on books with this “new” vocabulary, she has to rely on her own instincts as she says dictionaries are completely inadequate.

“I Google laterally to try to figure out what the word means.”

(Because: me too!)

Within the interview above, there is also a link to this 2010 article published in the Wall Street Journal: “Icelandic Translators Enjoy Their Moment in the Sun.” For the most part, this is an irritating, snarky article (as you’ll probably see from the sample), but there was a section that interested me:

Even the best translators need special skills—especially in areas like finance. Icelanders may have imported their banking fervor, but they made up local words to reference the sector. Like skuldavafningur. (That’s a collateralized debt obligation, to Americans.) Occasionally several people made up words. That explains why some Icelanders call a CDO a skuldabréfavafningur.

Translator Páll Hermannsson prefers the crisper-sounding skuldavafningur for CDO. Literally, he says, it means “debt wrap.”

After the financial collapse, each bank got a skilanefnd and a slitastjórn. “Meaning what?” asked the Anglophones who lent gobs of money to the now-defunct banks. No one could agree. A few finance specialists huddled with the central bank’s translator and came up with English definitions: “resolution committee” and “winding-up board.”

Messier still were the many ways Iceland bailed out its underwater homeowners. They might have gotten greiðsluaðlögun (payment mitigation), or greiðslujöfnun (payment smoothing), or skuldaaðlögun (debt adjustment), or skuldalækkun (debt reduction), or niðurfelling skulda (cancellation of debt). The list goes on.

“The debt is not a problem,” says Ms. Kunz. “But what to call it is.”

Reply to a Letter from Helga

March’s issue of the Grapevine featured a review of a wonderful book by yours truly (I wrote the review, that is, not the wonderful book), which is now available online. The book, Reply to a Letter From Helga, was written by Bergsveinn Birgisson, translated by Philip Roughton, and AmazonCrossing published the translation in January. It’s an epistolary novel, a love letter written by a man in his old age to the woman he loved in his youth. It is also a love letter to a way of life, a difficult and sometimes isolated way of life, farming in the country, but one in which relationships with nature and animals are just as important and often, just as fulfilling, as those that someone has with other people.

It isn’t always an easy book, but it is a very moving one. The writing is spare and precise, the relationships painted are complex, and there are a few scenes which I think will stay with me for a very long time.

Some external links of interest:

The Fabulous Iceland website has a short interview with the author online, here.

The Chicago Tribune published a very positive review of the book by Beth Kephart, which has more plot details and quotes and comes at the book from a bit of a different angle than I did.

An author bio is here on the literature.is website.

Below is the start of my own review, you can see the full piece on the Grapevine website, here.

A frank and poetic meditation on nature, relationships, and the choices that define us, Bergsveinn Birgisson’s Reply To A Letter From Helga paints an unflinching portrait of Bjarni, an elderly man on the verge of “the Great Relocation congenital to all men” who is ready to finally face the defining decision of his life and respond to a letter left unanswered for so many years.

When, in his youth, his lover Helga offered him the chance to follow her to a new life in Reykjavík, Bjarni chose instead to remain on the farm which had been in his family for generations, choosing his love for the land over romantic love and companionship. This decision was, and remains, a fraught and painful one for him. Even so, he maintains a clear sense of pride throughout the novel, a strength of purpose which separates his story from more conventional narratives of love lost. “I thought of what kind of person I would become in Reykjavík,” Bjarni writes.

Could I love you…under such circumstances? Is it so certain, Helga, that everything would have been fine for us? I would have dug a ditch for you and filled it back up again, the same ditch all my life…But abandon myself, the countryside and farming, which were who I am; that I couldn’t do.”