From Iceland — A Time Of Cranks: ‘Tómas Jónsson: Bestseller’ Finds An Audience In The United States

Björn Halldórsson
Photo by
Chuck Clifton

Last July saw the publication of an Icelandic post-modern classic by Open Letter Books, a small New York based publisher that has previously published the works of Bragi Ólafsson, Kristín Ómarsdóttir and Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson. The novel, Guðbergur Bergsson’s ‘Tómas Jónsson: Bestseller,’ was originally published in Iceland in 1966, and has been translated into English for the current release by Lytton Smith, who hails from the UK. For him, the subject matter of the book makes its translation and publication now feel strangely apt.

“I did a lot of the translating in 2016,” he explains. “As American politics and society revealed their true nature over the course of that year, I was translating a book that explores problems of nationalism, romanticism and independence. I think we—and by ‘we’ I mean American and British readers, more so than Icelandic readers—need this book right now.”

Setting Tómas free

In the novel, a senile and churlish bank clerk, Tómas, sets out to write his memoirs, expounding a list of grievances while extolling his own status as a “blue-eyed Viking.” The book is crammed with Guðbergur’s intertextual word-play and linguistic exuberance, stuff that would make any battle-hardened translator think twice.

“I always felt like I needed to know more, to read more—not just about Icelandic culture, but world culture in general.

“Even after publication I’ve discovered new things,” Smith says, admiringly. “I always felt like I needed to know more, to read more—not just about Icelandic culture, but world culture in general. In a preface to one of the Icelandic editions, Guðbergur sets Tómas free into the world, accepting that he has a life beyond the author himself. Perhaps this Tómas is then partly my Tómas now. Still, I hope that I have done justice to Guðbergur. There exist so many different tones and registers. Guðbergur has an amazing sense for rhythm and for the poetic possibilities of language. I’m in awe of his skill as a writer.”

The poet and the translator

Smith is perhaps uniquely qualified for the job of reproducing these poetic possibilities, being an award-winning poet himself. The connection between poems and translations is something to which he has given much thought.

“Philip Sidney has this wonderful phrase that the poet ‘peizes’ syllables,” he says. “That’s an old Scottish or Northern English word meaning ‘weighing.’ I like that—that the poet is balancing words and parts of words, trying to find the right combination. I think a translator’s work involves that kind of measuring and balancing. You’re being creative, but within a rigid framework. The skills of paying close attention to meaning, sounds and word order that I rely on as a poet all come into play in my work as a translator.”

Working in isolation

Unusually for Smith’s process, he had no contact with the author during the translation—a decision that he agonized over.

“I can’t be sure it was the right move,” he says. “Because Guðbergur has said that he has set Tómas free, I felt it was important for me to offer my own interpretation rather than chasing Guðbergur’s interpretation. I can’t ever be Guðbergur—to try would have been to fail—but there were many times when I found myself wondering what he’d have said about the translation.

“I hope he can understand my logic in working somewhat independently, if that isn’t ironic given the book’s theme,” he laughs. “Maybe I felt like I needed to be as isolated as Tómas Jónsson to translate it!”

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