From Iceland — Ten Years in Translation: US Publisher Of Icelandic Fiction Open Letter Books Fills A Decade

Björn Halldórsson
Photo by
Kaija Straumanis

Speak with any Anglophone translator of literature for longer than a few minutes and you’re likely to hear the number “three percent” being thrown around.

It’s the percentage of books published in English each year that are literary translations. It has, therefore, been emboldening to observe the increase of English language translations of Icelandic fiction in the past few years. One of the most recent of these publications is Guðbergur Bergsson’s 1966 postmodern classic ‘Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller,’ which was nominated this month for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award. The book was translated by Lytton Smith, and published by Open Letter Books, which is based at the University of Rochester in Upstate New York.

Playing the long game

From the outside, a book like ‘Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller’—a hefty 50-year-old local classic filled with wordplay and obscure references—seems like a gamble for any publisher, but as Head of Open Letter Books Chad W. Post points out, being able to take risks is one of the benefits of being a small press.

“We only have three full-time employees, and no rent,” he explains. “We’re non-profit oriented, so our goals are to do things for the sake of culture, rather than for revenue. Everyone would like us to make money, obviously, but as an academic entity, that’s not necessarily your priority. We’re more concerned with how many sales we’ll have over ten years than just the next 18 months, and how many readers we’ll reach over the coming decade.”

The oddity of Icelandic fiction

Open Letter’s strategy is focused on publishing works of translation, often by authors who have not previously appeared in English. In the past, they have published novels by Icelandic authors such as Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson and Bragi Ólafsson—whose latest novel ‘Narrator’ is coming out this August.

Scouting for books and working closely with translators and Icelandic publishers has given Chad some surprising insights into Icelandic fiction.

“The plot doesn’t necessarily proceed in the normal order, with a rising climax and a resolution.”

“Lytton pointed out to me that there’s this ongoing thing of small spaces and being confined in small rooms in the Icelandic books we’ve published,” he says, guessing that it may have something to do with the severe weather that drives Icelanders indoors for most the year. “Also, often the plot doesn’t necessarily proceed in the normal order, with a rising climax and a resolution. Some of the books are almost plotless and end abruptly while in other instances more and more stories keep getting added to the main story. I like that sort of unresolvedness; how it makes the narrative feel universal because it doesn’t follow a concrete, imposed structure.”

Surviving as a small press

This May, Open Letter Books celebrated its tenth-year anniversary—an impressive longevity for an independent publisher of their size. In that time, they’ve created a dependable brand for international fiction. Chad attributes much of their longevity to their trusting regular readership, which allows the publisher to pursue obscure works in translation, relatively safe in the knowledge that their readers will give any Open Letter book a chance.

“It’s better to go slow and remain true to whatever artistic or stylistic visions you’ve set yourself, rather than chasing trends.”

He also advises new publishers in the field to manage their expectations. It’s important to realise that publishing literature comes in cycles,” he explains. “When a new press starts out, they tend to get a lot more attention at that moment in time than they will in the next three years. That’s just the way that it goes: people love the shiny new object. If you base your future on the success of that initial moment, you’ll run into problems. These things go up and down; books go in and out of fashion like anything else. It’s better to go slow and remain true to whatever artistic or stylistic visions you’ve set yourself, rather than chasing trends.”

Establishing contact with the local scene

When it comes to domestic efforts to pursue the translation of Icelandic literature, Chad praises the Icelandic publishers for their efforts in promoting their books internationally. He also makes special note of the Icelandic Literature Centre—whose translation grants have helped fund some of Open Letter’s publications of Icelandic books.

“The job they do in helping overseas publishers get a sense of the local scene, by providing information and bringing people to Iceland to meet authors and attend festivals, is incredibly helpful.” For authors hoping to see their work in translation, he stresses the importance of attending festivals as well as securing well-written English language extracts of their works. “It’s best to work with translators that are already established in whatever country you’re considering.” He laughs. “Whether you’re a big or small publisher, if you get a book that doesn’t have a sample translation, you’re probably just going to ignore it.”

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