Four Questions For Victoria Cribb

Victoria Cribb is a translator, one of the few who specializes in Icelandic literature.  She’s translated the novels of Sjón, Arnaldur Indriðason, Gyrðir Elíasson into English – receiving praise from the likes of A.S. Byatt.  Victoria was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions regarding her work on From the Mouth of the Whale (which was shortlisted for this years Independent Foreign Fiction Prize).

BSR:  Victoria, first, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions.  I read in an interview Sjón gave to Fabulous Iceland that the main character of From the Mouth of the Whale was an actual man – Jón the Learned – who lived in the 17th century . Yet, it seems to me that Jón is a foundation onto which the author has layered a multitude of ideas and elements: Icelandic mythology, Jonah and the whale, alchemy, even a little Paradise Lost. There’s so much going on… did the density of ideas and influences make it a particularly challenging novel to translate?

VC:  It certainly did, and invariably there will be many influences that I have failed to pick up. But, for me, part of the pleasure of translating Sjón’s work has always been immersing myself in his sources, learning about the background to his texts and marvelling at what he has done with them. In this case, I was already familiar with seventeenth-century Icelandic literature and the medieval works referred to. And any English speaker brought up on Shakespeare has some sense of the early modern world. When I read the book for the first time, I kept thinking of the furiously polemical 1590s author Thomas Nashe and turned to him for stylistic inspiration, only to discover that Sjón does in fact quote Nashe at one point in the story. And of course Google is an invaluable resource for tracking down the more obscure references – bezoar, boramez and so on, often redirecting one to online editions of original works. When my own research fails, I can always go to the fount of all wisdom and ask Sjón himself for help, but that is cheating and part of the fun is trying to find out the answers for myself.

BSR:  I’ve been told Sjón speaks excellent English.  Does that put any additional pressure on you as his translator?  What do you feel your collaboration brings to the table?

VC:  Far from regarding it as an additional pressure, I find it a huge advantage that Sjón’s English is so good – unusually good, even by Icelandic standards. Most Icelandic authors are sufficiently competent in English to review and criticise translations of their work, so I have come to rely on a certain degree of collaboration. Since this is the fifth book I have translated for Sjón, he trusted me to do my best rather than reading over every word of the manuscript, though I think he also felt it would make him anxious if he found too many mistakes. I sent him lists of queries, as usual, sometimes providing him with alternatives so that he could choose the one that best reflected his meaning, and we discussed various possible translations of problematic words and phrases, so I can’t always remember whose suggestion was adopted in the end. I’m strictly a prose translator, so I tend to go wailing to him with the verses, especially if they require rhyme. In previous books, Sjón has polished my feeble efforts or even translated the verse himself; in this case, my partner came to my aid as Sjón was busy!

BSR:  Speaking of verses, some of my readers may not know that Sjón is also a poet.  Did you read or translate any of his poetry in preparation for translating From the Mouth of the Whale? Do you see similarities between his poetry and prose fiction?

VC:  I have to claim ignorance here. Back when I was a student I read some of Sjón’s poetry from his earlier surrealist days but I have mainly been engaged in translating his prose. As mentioned above, we’ve now collaborated on five novels, all of them historical works, their settings ranging from the ancient world to the recent past. The surrealist vein is still palpably present in these novels, however, for example in Jónas’ meditations in part IV of From the Mouth of the Whale, which I think brilliantly evoke a seventeenth-century mind grappling with ideas about the connectedness of all things, which anticipate modern scientific discoveries.

BSR:  Finally, for readers who love From the Mouth of the Whale and want to further explore Icelandic fiction, are there any authors you personally enjoy and can recommend?

VC:  There are so many Icelandic authors who deserve a larger audience, but I would feel awkward having to single out any one writer from among those I know and translate. To be safe, I’ll opt for one who’s no longer with us – Halldór Laxness, an obvious choice as he’s the country’s Nobel laureate. Readers who enjoyed From the Mouth of the Whale might appreciate The Bell of Iceland, translated by Phil Roughton. I am shamefully out of date when it comes to the current Icelandic literary scene, having spent the last few years immersed in medieval sagas for my PhD. From what I hear, though, there are a number of exciting young authors emerging, and Amazon’s publishing arm is planning to bring out a long list of Icelandic titles, both old and new, in the near future. Given the presence of Icelandic books on the lists of several established publishers in the UK and US, there should be plenty of opportunities for English-speaking readers to become better acquainted with the country’s extraordinarily vibrant literary culture.

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Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristín Ómarsdóttir (translated from Icelandic by Lytton Smith)

Remember Björk?  The trippy videos, the swan dress, Dancer in the Dark… I used to think of her as an artist marching to the beat of her own drum.  In a word: “Quirky”.  But as I continue my exploration of Icelandic literature I’ve come to believe that she might be a fairly typical example of the Icelandic population.  Really, comparatively tame.

Take, for example, Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Children in Reindeer Woods.  It’s odd.  Much odder than a swan dress.  From page one – where the author describes three soldiers crossing a field – this book twisted me into knots.  As I read, the trio casually approaches a farm. “A cow lows in the backyard”.  The family comes out of the house to meet them.

On the east side, beside the gate, a pebbledash table is set into the earth.  The woman with the red tray heads there.  The breeze tugs at the edge of her skirt.  The people stand in front of the soldiers, who shuffle their feet in the gravel.  One of the soldiers shoots the woman with the tray.  The milk bottle and glasses shatter.  The coffee pot clatters to the ground.  Blood runs from the woman’s eyes as she grips the tray tightly and falls; she lies face down in the grass as if resting peacefully on a pillow, and the blood leaks across it.  The youngest child runs to her but is shot on the way.  The cow lows in familiar fashion.  The chickens hurry over to look at the bodies.

A girl, eleven-year old Billie, escapes the massacre by hiding in the bushes.  When the shooting is over, only one soldier remains standing.  He’s a strange, disturbed young man named Rafael.  He picks her up, brings her into the house and begins caring for her.  Their relationship is the main source of the book’s tension.   We learn that Billie was sent by her parents to the house called “Children in Reindeer Woods”, and that she lived there with other children.  (Something akin to London children being sent into the countryside during WWII to escape the Blitz).  She quickly accepts Rafael as her new caregiver.  Rafael plays farmer, as well as older brother, trying to create – or capitalize on – a bucolic oasis in a war zone.  But Billie’s and his new life is continually threatened as people keep arriving at the farm. 

The plot of Children in Reindeer Woods has a stylized, surreal quality.  It reads like a fable or an allegory (imagine the video for the song Human Behavior).  The strangeness created by the two main characters’ isolation seems like it should be symbolic of something…though what that something is remains elusive.   Events in the outside world – Billie’s & Rafael’s back story – are alluded to but never fully explained.  We don’t know which country they are in, who is fighting the war or the truth behind Billie’s strange memories of her parents.  One thing I can state with certainty:  Rafael has all the signs of suffering from a form of PTSD.  (And possibly Billie as well). His condition shapes the readers’ perception of events, despite the fact that the story is told to us in third person.  Lytton Smith has done a remarkable job of translating what has to be a complicated text in its original language.  Setting down this novel feels like awakening from a fugue state.

Which might be why I finished it in one sitting.  The experience of falling down the rabbit hole and the mystery of “what the hell is going” on acts like a carrot on a stick.  Add to that the unbearable tension of waiting for Rafael to completely crack.   Ómarsdóttir exerts constant pressure on the narrative by slipping moments of incredible violence between mundane, domestic images – giving them equal emphasis.  She writes about a child playing with Barbies and the burning of bodies in the same way.  And while at times, due to that idiosyncrasy in her prose,  the plot may appear absurd -  it never falls apart. Children in Reindeer Woods is definitely making a statement.  I may not have figured out exactly what the statement is, but for some reason my ignorance in no way hindered my enjoyment of this thrillingly original novel.

Publisher:  Open Letter, University of Rochester (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 35 1

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