‘Touchstone Texts’: On Translating a Nordic Prize-Winner from Iceland

In News by Dennis Abrams

From Conversational Reading: ‘To be nationally international’ is a lesson, says Lytton Smith, of translating Icelandic novel ‘Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller.’

In warm-weather Reykjavik. Image – iStockphoto: Arsenly Rogov

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘To Make Language Supple and Energetic’
AConversational Reading, Scott Esposito interviews Lytton Smith, author of The All-Purpose Magical Tent and translator of the 1966 Icelandic novel Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson.

The book, according to its new English-language translation’s promotional copy, is sometimes compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses “for its wordplay, neologisms, structural upheaval, and reinvention of what’s possible in Icelandic writing.” The 500-page translation was released on July 11 by Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester’s literary translation press.

From the exchange:

Scott Esposito: I’m curious to know your own take on [the comparison to Ulysses]. Do you see similarities there?

Lytton Smith

Lytton Smith: The translator Michael Scammell introduced me to the importance of “touchstone” texts in the target language, the language you’re translating into—texts that might be comparable to the experience a reader in the original language would have. In that sense, Ulysses, or perhaps Finnegans Wake, make good comparisons: they’re poetic in that they play with words and the meaning of language even as they have onward momentum and narrative causality…

What matters most about Bestseller, though, is that it’s a sort of anthology: it contains stories within stories. So I was also thinking about Moby-Dick and other texts that share that approach: you’re reading one story, come across another, and get influenced by that. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad were often in my mind, in quite different ways. Perhaps we’re less looking for the perfect touchstone than [for] some kind of Venn diagram of myriad touchstones!


SE: As with many of the titles you’ve brought up here, this is a text that is extraordinarily playful and abounds in wordplay. For you as the translator, is rich prose like this more of a pleasure or a pain? What were some of the memorable challenges of this text?

LS: It’s a tremendous pleasure, but also a responsibility: as a poet, I’m trying to make language supple and energetic in the ways I believe poetry, and poetically minded prose, can be, but as a student of Icelandic modern and ancient (I started out learning Icelandic by learning Old Iceland and studying the Icelandic Sagas at University College London) I’m trying to be responsible to the whole sweep of that history.

For instance, the character Bósi appears in places, a bit-part. I eventually learned that is the name of the main character in a less celebrated, less ancient saga (from the group known as “fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda,” not part of the classic canon)—and his saga is known for its pornographic nature. So there’s another level of challenge: you can’t teach the often esoteric history of Iceland, but you’re wanting to keep avenues open for readers who might disappear down the rabbit hole and search out all the references. And such is the author’s own compendious, deft mind, that you know you’re going to miss things.

The complete interview of Lytton Smith by Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading is here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.