Culture
Partus Gives Birth Abroad: The Icelandic Publisher Goes International

Partus Gives Birth Abroad: The Icelandic Publisher Goes International

Eli Petzold
Words by
Photos by
Sophie Butcher

Published September 10, 2018

Since its inception in 2015, Partus Press has kept a finger on the pulse of the Icelandic literary scene, providing a platform for the newest generation of authors to showcase their work on a national scale. Beginning with the elegant, hand-bound chapbooks of the Meðgönguljóð series, Partus has continued to increase the scope of their output, releasing several full-length books of poetry, essays and fiction over the last three years. Now, with the recent publication of their first book in English, it’s clear that founder and director Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir has no intention of restricting her ambition along national boundaries.

Waitress in fall

Published in July in collaboration with the English poetry powerhouse Carcanet, ‘Waitress in Fall’ anthologizes the verse of Kristín Ómarsdóttir in English translation for the first time. As the book’s translator, Valgerður (who publishes in England under the name Vala Thorodds), deftly renders the lucid and often erotic lyricism of Kristín’s poetry into unpretentious, yet dignified English idiom, producing a volume that exhibits the poet’s unique subjectivity and, simultaneously, gestures towards universal impulses.

The book, Vala explains, arose largely in response to the general dearth of contemporary Icelandic poetry available in translation. Although Iceland boasts a robust poetry scene, and although many of Iceland’s established poets have been able to participate in a global arena, very few poets have had the opportunity to anchor their international distinction in a tangible book object. “You may spend decades being active as a poet – traveling, reading at events and festivals – and never get translated,” says Vala. “It’s important to have something in your hands to show people.”

Max Laxness

Vala doesn’t only have the authors’ benefit in mind; there’s a demonstrated curiosity amongst tourists in Iceland about the country’s contemporary literature. But, given the relative lack of available translations, Vala says, “bookstores just keep pushing Laxness.” With five more English translations slated for release in the next year—two novels, a book of poetry, and a graphic novel—Vala hopes that Partus can begin to fill that void.

“Icelanders have this weird relationship with English. They’re quite confident… but it comes from watching shows, not from reading.”

Partus’ translingual endeavors, however, are not a one-way street. Nor are they even a two-way street: 2016 saw Partus publications of Icelandic translations from Spanish, Ancient Greek, and Latin. Their most recent release, ‘Hefnd grasflatarinnar’ is a translation of American author Richard Brautigan’s short story collection ‘Revenge of the Lawn.’ “Icelanders have this weird relationship with English,” Vala lets on. “They’re quite confident in their English abilities, but it’s mainly a conversational proficiency, it comes from watching shows and movies, not from reading.”

Icelandic connection

Vala herself occupies a unique space in between the languages. Born in Iceland, she grew up in upstate New York, speaking both English and Icelandic. This double native proficiency allows her to capture the colloquial nuance of the original Icelandic in equally nuanced English. Although she has no interest policing who gets to translate Icelandic, she points out that a non-native speaker might miss many of the intricacies characteristic of lyric expression. Few, if any, with this claim to two mother tongues have stepped up to the task of translating poetry. “So,” she says, “It’s like—maybe I have to do this.”

‘Waitress in Fall,’ readily available in bookstores throughout the U.K., is only the first of Partus’ international undertakings. Vala, who currently lives in Oxford, has been establishing a foothold in the English poetry world, even as she tends to Partus’ operations in Iceland. After issuing books in the original Icelandic and in translation into and from the Icelandic, she has her sights set on yet another category of books—those published in the original English. Although she is not yet certain what those books will be, she feels no need for them to exhibit some explicit, tangible connection to Iceland. In question is the broader identity of Partus as an international press. “I wonder,” she asks incredulously, “Am I not allowed to publish in English unless there’s some Icelandic connection? Is that a question people are going to ask?”

Catalysing collabs

But, given Partus’ status as one of the most exciting and visible literary publishers in Iceland, it’s entirely warranted when Vala suggests that the press itself, with its established aesthetic and tenor, is as valid a tie to Iceland as any overt link. This flexibility and breadth of vision, it seems, it precisely how Partus can continue to extend its potential, catalysing literary collaboration and exchange across borders and languages.


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