“Translators are the Bottleneck” in Iceland’s Prep for Star Turn at Frankfurt 2011

In Europe by Amanda DeMarco

By Amanda DeMarco

You probably never expected to hear this in reference to Icelandic literature: “Translators are the bottleneck.” But as German publishers gear up for Iceland to be the Guest of Honor at the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair, that’s exactly how Kristof Magnusson describes the situation. Magnusson, a writer whose most recent novel Das war ich nicht was long-listed for the German Book Prize, is also a highly sought-after Icelandic translator.  Magnusson has translated or is translating “six books plus a rather lengthy poetry section,” for five different houses, to be published in the year prior to the 2011 Fair. His own book on Iceland will also be published by Piper Verlag this fall. “No one really expected so much interest…Like most of my colleagues, I had to turn down projects.”

Kristof Magnusson

Kristof Magnusson

With 120 Icelandic titles being published in Germany prior to the Frankfurt Book Fair, demand for Icelandic translators has unexpectedly outstripped supply.

As much as German demand for Icelandic translators has exploded in the past year or two, it was an easy market to overwhelm since they were in rather limited supply to begin with, despite Germany’s (relatively) strong history of Icelandic translation. Andrea Diederichs, a popular fiction editor at S. Fischer Verlag, confirmed that it’s “not so easy to find good translators from the Icelandic, as there are simply not so many.”

But after this year they may be easier to find. Magnusson views the situation as an opportunity to develop new talent: “A lot of young translators are working on their first projects now and are getting a chance they might not have gotten in a ‘normal’ year. That’s good.”

Though being the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair is a massive international publicity opportunity, the project does have limited resources and focusing first on the German market maximizes their effectiveness for a number of reasons, according to Halldór Guðmundsson, Director of Iceland’s Guest of Honor project at the Fair, Fabulous Iceland. It’s been a common strategy among previous guests of honor, as the German market is traditionally very open to translations in general.

For Iceland in particular, a growing German interest in Scandinavian literature in the past 15 years, and a good number of contemporary titles already translated means that German publishers require less baseline education (and less convincing) than publishers anywhere outside of Scandinavia. “It strengthens a development that is already taking place.”

One of the major aims of the project was to find a publisher to undertake the massive retranslation of The Sagas of the Icelanders, which were last published in German in extremely academic abridged translations in the 1920’s. S. Fischer Verlag will publish the work in five volumes. A Die Welt article on the new translations characterized the significance of the Sagas:

“Telling (and reading) stories has been considered a national sport in Iceland since seven hundred years ago when the Iceland Sagas…were set down on calfskin.”

“They’re Iceland’s most important contribution to world literature,” said Guðmundsson. “In bringing forth these translations we also create I think a red carpet for the contemporary literature.”

Fabulous Iceland

And there’s quite a lot of it to suit a broad range of tastes; around 120 Icelandic titles are coming out on the German market this year preceding the Fair. Bastei Lübbe will publish new titles by the massively popular crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason. In addition to the Sagas, Fischer will publish Kristin Marja Baldursdóttirs new book Sterneneis, as well as reprints of her popular backlist titles with new covers; Fischer’s Andrea Diederichs described Baldursdóttirs’ audience as “women of all ages.”

Though it’s customary to speak of English as a gateway language for translation, in the case of Icelandic, Germany has clearly supplanted it. “As there are only a handful of titles being translated from Icelandic into English every year, the gateway language for Iceland is indeed German,” commented Agla Magnúsdóttir, Director of the Icelandic Literature Fund (ILF).

The German-as-gateway-language concept has its weaknesses; English functions (or functioned, or was supposed to have functioned) as a gateway language (in large part) because so much of the world learns English as a foreign language. A better model might be the viral spread of literature among related countries and languages, with important ‘carriers.’

Take the situation of Icelandic in the Romance languages; though no country can quite compete with Germany’s enthusiasm for Icelandic literature this year, there is also a sizable interest in France in advance of Salon du Livre’s Nordic focus this March. The ILF now also reports a sudden increase in applications and inquiries from Italian publishers. A new wave of interest is emerging in Spain as well.

The ILF intends to maintain  the Fabulous Iceland project’s literary momentum following the Fair, and hopefully witness Germany’s Icelandic fervor spread. That means supporting translation projects, including those that come through bridge languages where no Icelandic translators are available at all. Other Icelandic organizations also offer assistance for translators.

In addition, the ILF is working with the Reykjavík City Library to capitalize on Icelandic literature’s heightened global status by applying to become one of UNESCO’s Cities of Literature. Kristín Viðarsdóttir, Project Manager at the library commented on the project, “There seems to be an opening for Icelandic literature abroad; at home it’s an opportunity for us to work more together here at the library, the publishers, everyone.”

Though the Icelandic government kept its promise to support Fabulous Iceland at the level set before the economic crisis, the ILF’s budget has been cut by more than 20%. “It is vital that the Fund regains its initial funding again soon, and further funding is essential for the follow-up after Frankfurt as well as for publishing in Iceland,” said Magnúsdóttir.

DISCUSS: Is German Competing with English as a Gateway Language for Translations?

About the Author

Amanda DeMarco

Amanda DeMarco is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. Originally from Chicago, her work for Publishing Perspectives focuses on German-language publishing news.