To celebrate not only Women in Translation Month, but also the publication of our latest city anthology, The Book of Reykjavik, we sat down (virtually) with acclaimed Icelandic translator Larissa Kyzer, to ask her about her route into translation, her experience of translating short stories and the importance of showcasing translated fiction. Larissa translated four stories for our latest city anthology.
How did you get into literary translation?
In some ways, it was a long, meandering journey and in others, it seems like for me, all roads have led to translation. I’ve always been a reader and I’ve always been a writer; I’ve long had an interest in language, too, although I wouldn’t say I have the same natural facility for language-learning that I have for reading and writing in English, my mother tongue—just a lot of determination and the willingness to make a fool of myself (both of which I’d count as essential qualities when learning a language as an adult).
I studied comparative literature and creative writing as an undergrad and also had the opportunity to intern at Archipelago Books, a press dedicated almost entirely to international literature in translation. So most of what I was reading, and certainly the best of what I was reading at that time (and I was reading a lot—something like 60+ books a year) was coming to me in translation. I briefly made a stab at becoming a Great American Writer, but honestly, trying to write full-time made me really unhappy and maybe even worse, made me dislike writing—and reading. So I took a step back and went a different direction. I got a Master’s in library and information science and planned to become a Great American Librarian instead. But while I was completing my MS, I was also (still) reading a lot and I happened to work at a university program with a lot of international students. One of those students, Birna Anna Björnsdóttir, an Icelandic writer herself, gave me an anthology of Icelandic fiction (McSweeney’s ‘Icelandic issue,’ which she had edited). I loved it so much that I started reading more Icelandic fiction in translation. Then I changed course yet again, spent a year prepping an application for a Fulbright grant to Iceland, received it, spent five years living and working and studying language and literature in Reykjavík, and here we are today. I’d like to believe that an anthology like The Book of Reykjavík could be a similar gateway for another burgeoning Icelandic translator out there.
What’s your favourite thing about this line of work?
I love translating. It is genuinely my absolute favourite thing to do. It brings me an incredible amount of joy. Translation pulls together my two, original passions—reading and writing—and melds them into one craft. As a translator, you are probably the closest reader of a text—it’s not unlikely that you’ll spend more time translating it than the author did writing it. You’re a custodian of that work and, in some ways, the cultural milieu that it came out of, but you’re also doing something inherently creative in engaging with it so deeply. You have to think about all the shades of meaning, the nuances of tone and register, all the implications that hide under the surface of the text you’re translating out of and also be responsive to how all those variables are going to manifest and be received in the language you’re translating into. It’s a fascinating process, which is good, because as Lina Mounzer points out, “the choices you have to make with awful texts are no less delicate or complicated than with the best.” You’re going to have to go through all the same considerations, regardless of whether you’re translating a Nobel-worthy, six-volume tome or a user’s manual for a toaster. But luckily, it’s a process that I find super fun.
Translating is also probably the most social job I’ve ever had, which I know might seem counterintuitive. But as a translator, I have to ask questions every day. I have to figure out what this unfamiliar phrase means or what historical moment that’s referencing, I have to figure out whether my translation of, say, an experimental poem, should prioritize form or rhyme. I have to work out how to best render a clever pun or play on words. I also have to find ways of getting the work I love out into the larger, English-speaking world. So I necessarily have to be in contact with other people, all the time. Authors, literary organizations, editors, publishers, agents, fellow translators—translating has given me a whole community and I’m so grateful for that.
Does Reykjavik warrant the title of City of Literature? Is the literary culture and output of the city rich and diverse?
It absolutely does and it makes total sense to me that Reykjavík was the first non-Anglophone city in the world to receive the City of Literature designation. Iceland is a genuinely literary nation and with more than two-thirds of the population making their home in the greater capital area, Reykjavík is the natural seat of Icelandic literary culture.
I’m sure many people reading this will have heard about Iceland’s Jólabókaflóðið, the ‘Christmas Book Flood,’ or the oft-quoted stat that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. There are all sorts of fun facts in this vein, but what I find really inspiring is the dedicated, monetary support that literature and associated professions receive in Iceland. Authors can apply for to receive three to twelve months’ funding from the state-funded listamannalaun (‘artists’ salaries’) to work on their writing, as a paid profession. There is a grassroots’ grant that supports emerging authors. There are grants that support the translation of literature into and out of Icelandic, grants that will pay for Icelandic authors to take part in literary events abroad. There are multiple literary awards that confer significant cash prizes. There is a Writers’ Union.
Icelandic literature is a vehicle, after all, for the Icelandic language, which is essential to Icelandic identity. Case in point: a survey conduted by doctoral student Zuzana Stankovitsova several years ago asked Icelanders to define their national identity. Where Slovaks might respond, ‘I’m Slovak because I was born in Slovakia,’ Icelanders tended to respond: ‘I’m Icelandic because I speak Icelandic.’ Or, as author Thora Hjörleifsdóttir recently wrote (in my translation): ‘As long as people are still writing, reading, and singing in our tiny tongue, then there’s hope—then we, as a nation, still exist.’
I’m not saying that everything is totally perfect, of course. You’ll encounter a literary ‘in-crowd’ in Iceland just as you would anywhere else—the politics of artist salary disbursal, for instance, is not without drama. And there definitely still exist barriers to access for authors who live in Iceland but do not speak Icelandic as a mother tongue or write in the language, but these things are changing. A collective I work with, Ós Pressan, has spent years nurturing and carving out space for the literary talents of immigrant and foreign nationals living and writing in Iceland. Icelandic citizens who do not write in Icelandic have finally started receiving artists’ salaries and just this year, a pair of Icelanders of foreign origin who learned Icelandic in their twenties received two of four grassroots grants for their first manuscripts, which they wrote in Icelandic.
So all together, what you have is a literary scene that is valued not just by a nation of lestrarhestar, or ‘reading horses,’ which is the Icelandic version of a bookworm—but also by the powers that be. Icelanders understand the cultural, social, political, aesthetic value of literature and they also understand that writing needs to be valued as work, that writers and literary professionals need to make a living in order to have the space and security to do what they do and do it well. And they also have a literary scene that is learning to expand, to widen the field and extend its boundaries and invite ‘others’ into it. Which will only serve to enrich and reinvigorate this already vibrant culture going forward.
Do you see a difference between how Icelandic literature is viewed within the country itself vs in your home country (USA) and other Western nations?
I think there’s necessarily a difference just by virtue of the fact that what we get in English is a small subset of a frankly enormous literary canon. Consider that in 2019 alone, there were 1,712 books published in Iceland. (This is the most recent year that data is available on annual publishing stats, but for the record, this annual total has remained more or less consistent since the turn of the century: somewhere between 1,500 and 2,100 books published a year in a country with a population of less than half a million people—366,700 people to be exact.) Meanwhile, according to the Translation Database maintained by the University of Rochester’s Open Letter Books, there have been 73 translations from the Icelandic published in the US since 2008, when the database was launched. Those 73 books were written by 29 authors, 18 of whom are men. Over half of the Icelandic books that have been published in English are crime novels, and the majority of those were written by two authors.
What this means, then, is that every Icelandic book published in English—particularly books that are not crime novels—carries an immense amount of weight. It has to stand in for an enormous breadth of literature, for a culture that the larger world is increasingly aware of, thanks to vigorous tourism campaigns, but which still carries very few associations outside of Björk and Vikings and a quaint belief in elves and now, thanks to the Eurovision movie, maybe Húsavík.
One of the stories you translated for this collection, ‘Home’ by Fríða Ísberg, shows a darker side of Reykjavik, following a young woman trying to make it safely home after a night out, and showing the vulnerability she feels. It’s sadly a feeling that is all too common for many women walking home alone, even in a city like Reykjavik that is quite progressive in terms of gender equality. How did you find working with Frida on the translation of this story, and how did it make you feel?
I’m lucky to have been able to work with a number of authors more than once, which is a gift as a translator because you start to develop an instinct for a writer’s voice in your language and you also get a real sense of the themes that drive their work. Fríða is one such author for me—I’ve translated a number of stories from her first collection, Itch, from which ‘Home’ was drawn. It’s an incredible collection, in part because Fríða is so perceptive. She not only understands what motivates her characters on a deeper level, she empathizes with them and makes you, the reader, empathize with them, too. She also is great at establishing a general tone or feeling in her work and is confident about her writing and aesthetic choices.
I try to work closely with authors I translate, particularly people I work with more than once, and I really enjoy the conversations that Fríða and I have in the course of translating a short story or a poem of hers. We both feel very strongly about everything from word choice to, funny as it may sound, punctuation. But we respect each other as artists and are always able to talk through a point of debate until we’re both satisfied with the solution. Fríða is also great because she tends to have a lot of wordplay in her writing, witty characters who are great with puns. And she really lets me run wild and have fun with things like that which again, underlines a real trust.
You founded Jill!, a bi-monthly translation reading series for women and non-binary translators. What was the aim or hope when you started this event series?
I’d just recently moved back to the US and wanted to find ways of connecting with the larger translation community here. But I wanted to do so in a way that would also give something back. Starting a reading series seemed like a fantastic way to get to know the work of my peers and translators I admired (such as our namesake Suzanne Jill Levine) while also providing a platform for both authors who lack consistent representation in translation and for the translators who dedicated their time and talents to bringing this work into English.
The idea was to tap into the founding ideology of Women in Translation Month (see more on founder Meytal Radzinski’s website Biblibio), but also to expand on it. So not just celebrating women authors, but also women translators. And not just cisgender women, but also nonbinary creators. And let’s get cisgender men involved, too—let’s share space with men who translate women. And let’s allow women who translate men whose work they find inspiring to share that, too.
Why do you think campaigns like Women in Translation Month are needed? Do you think that publishing needs to confront the lack of women being published in translation?
Yes. I think that campaigns like Women in Translation month begin in response to real and significant disparities that need to have a keen eye turned on them and I think that when these campaigns gain steam and really enter the public conversation, they spark actual, meaningful change. I think translators can play a big role in this, as can readers, but I also think it’s something the industry needs to lead on—specifically by putting money into expanding their catalogs of authors and, when possible, funding initiatives like translation mentorships for emerging translators of color. But I want to add something of a caveat because I think we’re reaching a point in this conversation where we need to think carefully and critically about where we want to go from here and where we want to draw lines and divisions around the work we seek to lift up.
I quote translator Kira Josefsson and her essay “What Does It Mean to Translate Women?” all the time when talking about the ideas that were behind the founding of Jill! and I’ll continue to because I think she hit the nail on the head. Gender is an important consideration when choosing who to translate and who to publish, absolutely. But I’m also interested in what Josefsson, building on the thinking of scholar-philosopher-writer Hélène Cixous and writer-translator-artist Madhu Kaza, calls “work with difference.” Right now, what I think we need is to be creating more space for more people, not replicating the same patterns of exclusion by insisting that only one, codified identity is worth celebrating. We need intersectionality. After all, as Josefsson points out, “Some women are more often represented and seen than others.”
This last point is important. Because we have other significant blind spots in our publishing representation. We need to confront, for instance, a significant disparity in the number of Black voices—of all genders—that are being translated into English, an “aporia,” to quote John Keene’s essay “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” that “limits our understanding of the range and complexity of black lives all over the world,” and, by extension, “also limits our understanding of forms of living and being, as well as of systems and structures of oppression.” This robs all of us: “[W]e have a truer and fuller sense of the black diaspora, and thus the globe, when we have translations of the vast body of work out there.”
So what I’m hopeful for is that we continue to focus our efforts on spotlighting women in translation, but also seek out work that expands our literary sensibilities and authors whose stories and lived experiences have yet to share in the same spotlight. Yes, we need more women in translation. But we also need more Black men—and women—in translation. We need more neurodiverse authors in translation, we need more indigenous authors in translation, we need more gender nonconforming authors in translation. We need more work from non-majority languages in translation. We need more authors whose writing style challenges prevailing aesthetics in translation. It’s a process of opening the door wider, of letting more people in, of expanding our notions of what is marketable or palatable to an English-speaking audience. It’ll be a long process, but I think, or hope, we’re on our way.
The Book of Reykjavik: A City in Short Fiction (ed. Vera Juliusdottir & Becca Parkinson) is out on the 12th August 2021 (UK & ROW) and 14th October 2021 in North America. Pre-order it here.
Larissa Kyzer is an Icelandic to English literary translator, writer, and editorial professional. Currently based in Brooklyn, New York, she lived in Reykjavík for five years after receiving a Fulbright grant in 2012. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature, an MS in Library and Information Science, and an MA in Translation Studies, which she earned at the University of Iceland.
Her translations include children’s books and chapter books for young readers, short stories, poetry, essays, plays, nonfiction, and novels, most notably Kristín Eiríksdóttir’s Nordic Council Literature Prize-nominated A Fist or a Heart, which was named one of Library Journal’s 10 Best World Literature titles in 2019. Larissa was awarded the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s Nadia Christensen Translation Prize for her translation of this remarkable work.
Larissa was Princeton University’s Fall 2019 Translator in Residence and has since taught translation workshops to undergraduate and graduate students at Princeton and New York University. She’s a member of Ós, an Iceland-based international and literary collective, the American Literary Translators Association, and is co-chair of PEN America’s Translation Committee. In her spare time, Larissa coorganizes Jill!, a virtual Women+ in Translation reading series that spotlights women and/or nonbinary translators or translators of women and/or nonbinary authors.