On September 11th and 12th, an international conference of translators will be held in Reykjavík at Veröld, the home of the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages. One of the major features of the conference will be the presenting of the National Library’s new database of Icelandic fiction translated into other languages, the creation of which is a joint effort by the National University Library, The Centre for Icelandic Literature and the Consortium of Icelandic Libraries.
Sigurður Örn Guðbjörnsson, an acquisition specialist at the National Library, is one of the people behind this new database. “My degree is in anthropology, but I have a keen interest in the sociology of translations,” he explains. “It’s a rather new field that looks at how books and languages travel around the world. Publishing is one of the oldest culture industries around but it’s only recently that anthropologists and sociologists have turned their attention to the history of publishing, perhaps due to constant claims over the past fifty years that the book is dying.”
A rite of passage
The database, which will be accessible through leitir.is, the search engine of Icelandic libraries, will provide an overview of the spread of Icelandic fiction internationally. “Originally, in France and Germany for example, translations from Icelandic were almost entirely of the Icelandic Sagas,” Sigurður says. “It was actually a sort of rite of passage; if you were a medievalist you wanted your CV to include at least one translation of an old Icelandic text. In the twentieth century, there were authors like Nonni [Jón Sveinsson] and Laxness and Gunnar Gunnarsson who found an audience overseas, but by and large there were very few non-medievalist translators working from Icelandic.”
This started to change after the millennium with the rise of Nordic Noir, according to Sigurður, as well as the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair, where Iceland was the Guest of Honor. “Today there’s lots of Icelandic crime fiction being translated,” he says, “as well as other works from the new generation of Icelandic authors.”
The idea of Iceland
Through his work, Sigurður is uniquely suited to gain an understanding of the outside world’s idea of what Iceland represents. “Examining the book covers is particularly interesting,” he says. “Not too long ago, most Icelandic books in translation had cover images of turf houses or other clichés, based on people’s idea of Iceland, rather than what the book was about. The further away you travelled, the stranger the covers became. There are also efforts to appeal to existing local trends—one Spanish edition of the Sagas had fantasy-oriented covers to intrigue readers of fantasy.”
Today, Icelandic publishing houses do more to present their authors on the international stage. Sigurður says that translators are also a major influence. “Most translators have some passion project in a drawer somewhere,” he explains. “Something they have a personal connection to and would like to see in translation.”
This can sometimes lead to an unexpected overseas success. “A book might be translated for personal reasons, but end up opening up an entirely new market for the author, regardless of the author’s standing in the hierarchy of the Icelandic literary world,” says Sigurður. “In this way, Icelandic authors have more options today—getting one bad review in the Icelandic media is no longer the death sentence that it used to be.”
Read more about Icelandic literature here.