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.