The Voice of Interiority: Lytton Smith on Translating Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s History. A Mess.

[The inward-looking quality] structurally and stylistically governs how the novel is written, its very form.

Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s profound and inward-looking saga, History. A Mess., was July’s Asymptote Book Club selection, translated from Icelandic to English. Callum McAllister speaks to the novel’s translator, Lytton Smith, on the process of translating this sweeping and intuitive work. In this conversation, the two discuss the intricacies of translating the evasive language of space and the even more mysterious language of the inner self, and Lytton gives as well some much-appreciated recommendations of Icelandic literature.

Callum McAllister (CM): Iceland is well-known for its impressively high literary output and vibrant creative culture, but Icelandic isn’t a widely spoken language. Are you daunted by how much Icelandic literature has yet to be translated into English, or do you think it gives you more freedom to opt for your favorite texts? Is there anything you’d love to see in English or work on next?

Lytton Smith (LS): Definitely daunted, even as I’m excited by the opportunity! There are wonderful translators from Icelandic working to bring more books into English (which can then also be a gateway to other languages), but there’s a limit to how many presses are willing to do what Open Letter does and take a chance on publishing titles—especially when translations are hard to sell to readers. I’m looking forward to Sigrún’s next novel, which is in part about the theory that Icelanders “discovered” America, and Ófeigur Sigurðsson, whose novel Öræfi / The Wastelands I translated last year (Deep Vellum), has another two novels that center on volcanoes that I’d like to translate. And I’d love to translate another book by the amazing, singular Kristín Ómarsdóttir. Next up, I’m lucky to be translating some of Andri Snær Magnason’s work.

CM: Which translated Icelandic authors and titles, and which other translators from Icelandic would you recommend to readers unfamiliar with the country’s literary output? 

LS: Ha! It’s hard not to be partial to the writers I’ve translated, not because “I” have translated them but because, as Charles Simic said, translation is the closest possible reading of a work. You get to know each novel or memoir so well that you become in awe of all its subtleties. I’ve read no book so often as the books I’ve translated; they’re at an unfair advantage. Beyond the prose world, there’s wonderful poetry to discover, by Gerður Kristný, for example, and Magnús Sigurðsson, whose work is wonderfully translated under the title Cold Moons by Meg Matich. Andri Snær Magnason’s The Story of the Blue Planet, translated by Julian Meldon D’Arcy, definitely deserves reading by everyone, too. The longer I think about this question, the more and more books I see before me, including titles on my shelf that aren’t translated. I hope they will be, so that Anglophone readers can discover them, too; there’s a treasure trove of books from Iceland, as one might expect given its literary history.

CM: In a conversation with Culture Trip, before History. A Mess. was published, you said that there’s “a fascinating thing about rooms and houses in Icelandic fiction: people are always getting stuck in a room, or can’t get into a room, and I think that says something about the interaction between people and space.” This kept coming back to me when I read History because so much of the novel takes place in only a few rooms in the narrator’s house, and one of the recurring motifs is the existence of a mysterious door which she is not sure others can see. I wondered if you could elaborate on this trope in Icelandic literature at large, and in this novel in particular. 

LS: I had read Sigrún’s novel at the time I gave that interview, and had been teaching short Icelandic fiction as part of a study abroad course—a hybrid Geology and Creative Writing course—that I co-teach at SUNY Geneseo. We were spending eight-hour days out in the elements, on glaciers and in canyons, talking about these stories as we walked, and I was struck by the contrast between the room and the vast, perhaps inhospitable outdoors. At the risk of playing amateur anthropologist, there seems to be a way that fiction, going back to the sagas, recognizes domestic space—whether a teenager’s bedroom or a Viking-era hall—as a space that could offer respite but could also mean threat, trap, capture. You might need to get out of the elements, but you also might be getting into something unforeseen. There must be scholars who explore this in the medieval Icelandic texts, and I recognize that my tracing it in contemporary Icelandic fiction might reflect the particular books I’m reading, my own tastes, and yet I keep discovering it as a trope. And I think it’s that sense of contrast that matters; after all, in History. A Mess., the interplay between hidden interior spaces and what happens when the protagonist leaves her house is crucial, and there are wonderful scenes when, without leaving her house, she so vividly imagines extensive scenes unfolding far away in someone else’s house that you feel she must have been there . . .

CM: Another major aspect of the novel is how inward-looking it is, how much of it rests on conveying the voice of the narratorspecifically, the ups and downs of her neuroses and how they feed into the text. Was that a particular challenge to translate?

LS: It was, very much soand I love that you’re so aware of how important that inward-looking quality is, as it’s more than a character trait; it structurally and stylistically governs how the novel is written, its very form. I was thrilled that you’d noticed the use of the passive voice in the translation. It’s perhaps a touch more pronounced there than in the original, because Icelandic can bear that passive a little more than English, yet it feels like the right way to capture how this book works, how its voice thinks. The challenge, often, was taking that risk, going against the instinct to smooth out, which would have been to prioritize page-turning plot over something far deeper and more important to the novel, its sense of atmosphere. I hope that’s a choice that does justice to the book; some reviewers have complained about it. Yet I had a great conversation with a bookseller about the ways the novel had gotten under his skin. I think that’s what the novel wants to do, so the way the translation helps the interiority across is worth iteven if, or because, it strikes a reader as idiosyncratic in English.

CM: In my review of History, I quoted something you said in conversation with Splice, namely that “the Icelandic language doesn’t have two distinct words for story and history. It uses the same word, “saga,” and so those two ways of writing are more closely connected for Icelanders than they are for us.” Was this present in your mind as you translated the novel—the overlap between story, history, and saga?

LS: I’d say it was present but not topmost, in that I think that overlap has filtered through a cultural way of seeing story and history and Iceland. It is at play in so many works, particularly those with a historical eyeand it matters that Sigrún is a historian by training and practiceeven if it’s not a primary mover of plot and idea. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the title in English adds emphasis in a way that Icelandic doesn’t: while the phrase “history, a mess” comes from the translation, and so from the Icelandic, the Icelandic title is Kompa. That’s a word for a notebook, but also for a cubbyhole, and for a library carrel. There’s no English word that gets all those things, and so I had to travel far afield for a title, in conversation with Sigrún and the team at Open Letter. It does change how we respond to the novel, in ways that I think align with our historical moment in the US.

CM: You are a published poet as well as a literary translator. What similarities and differences do you find between these two creative practices?

LS: I’ll admit there are moments when I feel like a fraud, a poet translating mainly novels. At the same time, I’m a poet because I love words above all, can spend minutes and minutes, heck, days, playing with the sounds and meanings and parts of words. I think it’s that part of me that I’m drawing on and indulging when translating. Sir Philip Sidney talked about poetry as an art of “peizing”of weighing and measuring syllablesand that feels very true to translation. The poem, too, is governed by the sentence, for me, as much as the line break, and so that’s ideal preparation for translating. I also think I’m fortunate in that it would be really hard to find time to translate a novel and write a novel or memoir; fitting in the writing of poetry around the translation of novels seems just about possible. The major difference between the two, of course, is that in translating I’m not grasping for, trying to understand, or realizing an idea; rather, it’s there and I’m trying to tether it to words. Fortunately, this means that when something I’m working on in poetry seems ineffable or elusive, translation is there to keep me working with language, creating and reaching.

Lytton Smith is Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the Center for Integrative Learning at SUNY Geneseo. A 2019 NEA Literature Translation Fellow and the translator of 10 novels/memoirs from Icelandic, he is also the author of two poetry collections from Nightboat. Most recently, he has contributed to Refugee Tales III (Comma Press, 2019).

Callum McAllister is a writer, musician, and bookseller from Bristol, UK. He is assistant editor of The Cardiff Review, a magazine of contemporary writing. His work has also appeared in Entropy, Full Stop, and The Millions. He tweets at @CallyMcA.