“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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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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