From Iceland — Best In Translation: Our Picks Of The 2018's Best English-Translated Icelandic Literature

Best In Translation: Our Picks Of The 2018’s Best English-Translated Icelandic Literature

Published January 2, 2019

Best In Translation: Our Picks Of The 2018’s Best English-Translated Icelandic Literature
Björn Halldórsson
Photo by
Art Bicnick

2018 was a year of travel for Icelandic fiction, with the number of titles published in translation tripling from a mere decade ago. Here are some favourites that we have been passing around the Grapevine offices this year.

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir – Hotel Silence
Translated by Brian FitzGibbon
Winner of the 2018 Nordic Council Literature Prize, ‘Hotel Silence’ is characterised by the bleak humour it applies to the tragedy of human existence. In the novel, Auður Ava interrogates the more benevolent aspects of traditional masculine values through her protagonist: a solemn middle-aged handyman whose only means of communicating love is by installing kitchens, tiling bathrooms and being useful to his relations and compatriots. When those meagre tools prove insufficient after an emotional blow, he sets off on a journey to an unspecified location with the aim of committing suicide in as quiet and polite a manner as possible.

Hallgrímur Helgason – Woman at 1000 Degrees
Translated by Brian FitzGibbon
Hallgrímur Helgason’s subject matters are so varied that if it wasn’t for his florid and exuberant prose style it might be difficult to see his books as belonging within the same oeuvre. In this biographical work of fiction, a vivacious and foul-mouthed octogenarian narrates her life from the islands of Breiðafjörður, through Nazi-era Germany and all the way to her current situation as a bedridden invalid living in a garage in the Icelandic suburbs. As she spends her time catfishing gullible men in distant lands with pictures of Icelandic beauty queens, her only companion is a live hand grenade; her final measure of maintaining control over her fate.

Kristín Ómarsdóttir – Waitress in Fall
Translated by Vala Thorodds
Although Kristín Ómarsdóttir is still actively publishing new work, this collection, gleaned from her seven books of poetry published between 1987 and 2017, feels timely. It reveals the sleeping giant of Icelandic literature; a poetess with a voice that has remained consistent and relevant throughout her career. The collection is selected and translated by Vala Thorodds and is the first appearance of Kristín’s poetry in English. Gathered together, the work herein presents overarching themes of grotesque femininity, surreal domesticity and voices driven to repetition; forced to be loud to be heard.

Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir – Stormwarning
Translated by K.B. Thors
This collection of poetry offers a very different view of the Icelandic winter than that of the magical north—a feeling of being confined to your home and forced to keep your own company while waiting out the storm. The speakers of the poems revel in their melancholy and loneliness with acute self-awareness, addressing the humdrum of the everyday and the pettiness of lives lead online. Yet, the tone is light, ironic and funny, as if the speakers can’t keep from smirking at their own theatrical miseries. The translation was recently nominated for the PEN America Translation Prize and is presented in a dual language format.

Bragi Ólafsson – Narrator
Translated by Lytton Smith
Readers of Bragi’s previous two novels in English will already be familiar with some of the misfits that swagger in and out of his novels, as the interconnectivity of all his literary works is one of the joys of reading his prose. Conceited, blissfully oblivious and yet consumed with petty jealousies, his protagonists provide an outlet for all those traits that we loath in others and fear in ourselves. Here, everyday life takes a surreal turn when an embittered writer decides on a whim to stalk a former rival-in-love. The chase offers him the chance to air his numerous grievances but in observing this near-stranger going about his day he is soon forced to take stock of the paucity of his own life.

Sjón – CoDex 1962
Translated by Victoria Cribb
Each instalment of this magnum-opus-trilogy was written near a decade apart, in between the vast output of poetry and novels that have made Sjón one of the most widely recognised contemporary Icelandic authors. Leading back to his early inspirations in the postmodern complexities of Burroughs and Bulgakov, this is the book where Sjón pulls out all the stops and shows the reader no mercy, producing a work that is as challenging as it is rewarding. Gathered into one volume, these three books present a disorienting cocktail that is equal amounts the wildness and exuberance of a young writer making his name with a clang, mixed in with the quiet authority and confidence of an award winning author with nothing to prove.

Ófeigur Sigurðsson – Öræfi: The Wasteland
Translated by Lytton Smith
Öræfi’s success is carried on the backs of the complexity and layering of its prose as well as its deliciously selfish narrative structure. In between delighting its readers with humour and absurdity, the writing does its utmost to buck and kick and throw them off track. In fact, letting go of expectations and giving in to the dizzying rhythm of the prose is a key factor for enjoying the book. To avoid frustration and disappointment, readers must allow their concentration to drift along with the prose as it pulls in subtexts from far and wide and forges connections in the manner of the subconscious.

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