From Iceland — Icelandic Literature Goes Global

Icelandic Literature Goes Global

Published June 4, 2013

Icelandic Literature Goes Global
Larissa Kyzer

The Icelandic parliament passed a law at the end of last year combining two key institutions—The Icelandic Literature Fund and Fabulous Iceland—to make the Icelandic Literature Center. Although the new centre’s primary goals, namely, “to support the publication of Icelandic works of literature in other languages,” and “raise awareness of Icelandic literature, both within Iceland and abroad,” have not changed, the official merging of these goals reflects a newly focused, state-supported effort to bring Icelandic literature forward on the world stage.
Iceland’s reputation as a nation of readers and writers has been vaunted for some time, but the purposeful promotion of Icelandic literature—both through publishing ventures abroad and literary initiatives around Reykjavík—has gained momentum over the last few years. The year 2011 in particular was a high-water mark for significant Icelandic literary ventures. That year, Iceland became the first Nordic country to be Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, boasting the motto: “Fabulous Iceland.” At the same time, Reykjavík was designated as a UNESCO City of Literature—one of only five cities in the world to be so honoured, and the only one in which English is not the native tongue.
The Frankfurt Book Fair is a huge industry event, one that brings together publishers, authors, translators, critics, scholars, and agents from all over the world. In 2011, the year that Iceland was honoured, it was reported that “7,384 exhibitors from 106 countries were present, and the more than 3,200 events attracted 280,194 visitors.” Frankfurt presents vital opportunities for launching new authors, books, and sometimes, even whole countries into the global literary market—but first and foremost, into Germany.
A fun fact about the German book market, per Rakel Björnsdóttir, the manager of Fabulous Iceland: around 40% of all books on the German market are translated books from other languages. (Compare this to the English-reading market, in which translations make up roughly 3% of all publications.) Prior to the Frankfurt Book Fair, six to eight Icelandic books were translated and published each year for the German market, which comprises about 100 million readers. But leading up to and following Frankfurt, the number spiked: “230 books from Iceland or on Iceland were published in the German speaking region in relation to the Guest of Honour participation,” Rakel says.
“The German market has been a gateway into other markets, for example in Southern Europe and the English-speaking world,” she says. This fact would seem to be reflected by yet another boon for Icelandic literature on the world scene: in conjunction with their Guest of Honour status, the American retail giant Amazon announced that its newly formed literature-in-translation press, AmazonCrossing, would be publishing 10 Icelandic titles previously unpublished in the English market. As of this year, all 10 titles have still not been released, but the line-up in Amazon’s “Spotlight on Iceland,” which was selected in collaboration with various Icelandic publishers, has already included some very worthy titles, such as ‘The Greenhouse’ by Ava Auður Ólafsdóttir, ‘The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning’ by Hallgrímur Helgason, and ‘The Flatey Enigma’ by Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson. (It’s worth noting that this partnership was beneficial for Amazon as well as for Iceland: the press had only just formed in 2010 and by partnering with Fabulous Iceland to publish these titles, AmazonCrossing also got to promote itself at Frankfurt.)
While there has been a flurry of activity promoting Icelandic literature abroad, there have also been a number of new initiatives taking place within Reykjavík, thanks in great part to the efforts of Reykjavík’s UNESCO City of Literature office. For instance, they hosted the first “Reykjavík Reads” festival in October 2012, which focused on one work of Icelandic literature: ‘Vögguvísa’ (“Lullaby”) by Elías Mar, which was reissued in hard copy for the occasion, and also published as an e-book and audiobook. This month-long festival is meant to become an annual event with a new theme each year. The City of Literature has also developed self-guided literary walking tours in cooperation with Reykjavík City Library, and “literary retreats” (excerpted literature readings) which people can listen to on their smartphones in Icelandic and English on city benches. Mapping out and marking the city’s literary history is another initiative. The projects undertaken by this office reveal an interest in not only making Icelandic literary heritage and culture accessible to visitors, but also in contributing to the local literary scene for residents as well.
This balance is also reflected in the focus that the City of Literature has placed on Icelandic itself as a “literary language.” Translation into English and other languages is important for the exposure it affords authors and for strengthening literary discourse with “feedback from a wider audience,” says Kristín Viðarsdóttir, the project manager at the City of Literature. All the same, “Icelandic is the Nordic language in which the Sagas and the Eddic poetry is preserved, still understood by Icelanders today, and this was pointed out in the [UNESCO] application, as well as the role of literature, both original Icelandic and translated literature, in preserving and developing this literary language.”
As interesting as these literary endeavours are now, these organisations are also working toward a wide variety of equally impressive ventures in the future. Iceland’s Guest of Honour statement for the Frankfurt Book Fair articulates the long-term impact that on-going literary promotion could potentially have: “the results are both tangible and permanent: books which are published, in a range of languages…will be read for years to come, and this will enhance interest in all things Icelandic, and give a boost to tourism.” It is a refreshing response to the alarmist assumption that literary culture and readership around the world is on the decline: in the wake of its continued economic recovery, this country is optimistically investing in its literature, recognising it not only as a vehicle for its own promotion, but also as a means through which the outside world will come to know Iceland.

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