Last week I mentioned a few contemporary Icelandic authors, including Hallgrimur Helgason. In the post about Hallgrimur, I mentioned The Author of Iceland, which won the 2001 Icelandic Literature Prize, and sounds like a cool, playful book.
Well, not only did someone comment about how this is “one of the top 5 Icelandic books since 1980,” but over at Nordic Voices, David McDuff posted some additional info about the novel and a series of translated excerpts:
The Author of Iceland (Höfundur Íslands) is a novel by the contemporary Icelandic writer Hallgrímur Helgason about a famous Icelandic author who dies at the age of 88, only to wake up in a novel he wrote some 40 years earlier. At first, he is unaware both of his death and of the fact that he is now living in a world of his own creation. The novel is set on a remote farm in the eastern part of Iceland. One day the old man is found lying out in the fields, as if he had just fallen to earth. The farmer carries him into the house, where the writer gradually comes to terms with his afterlife. The character of the writer is based on the personality (and biography) of the Nobel prizewinning twentieth century classic Icelanndic author Halldór Laxness, and the fictional novel is actually Laxness’s own Independent People. Helgason’s narrative becomes in some sense a reappraisal of Laxness—especially of Laxness’s infatuation with Stalinism and Communism, which Helgason takes great pains to document and revisit in circumstantial detail (Laxness even visited Moscow in 1937 to attend the purge trials, and—by his own later admission—misrepresented them for fear of offending the Soviet government). But the book also goes beyond the biography of one man, and becomes a commentary on the twentieth century itself, and the response of Western writers and intellectuals to the vast upheavals and insoluble moral dilemmas that marked it.
Here’s the opening of Chapter 33:
Stalin stands on a shelf. He stands on a shelf, waving to the crowd. He has stood there for two whole days and nights, waving. Everyone went home long ago. Everyone but me. I lie here on the bed in the yellow room in the Chimney House and pass the light nights with Comrade Stalin. He stands over there on the shelf high up on the wall beside a dusty old candlestick and a vague-looking jug. Now and then he raises his stiff arm and waves, squints and almost smiles. Just as he did on the roof of the mausoleum the other day. My thoughts march past him, stare up at him, one after the other, there seems to be no end to them, they stream forward across the blood-red square.
Stalin stands there alone. He has murdered everyone else.
‘The death of one person is tragic, the death of a million a mere statistic,’ said Count Sosso. That figure was probably 40,000,000, the most recent historians say. The Icelandic nation would fit four times into each of those zeroes. But many more were the souls he murdered. I was one of them. I was a victim of Stalin.
Update: click here for part three.
Nordic Voices is an interesting addition to the lit blog world. Run by three British literary translators (who combined translate from Finnish, Swedish, Russian, and Estonian), the goal of the blog is to bring more attention to Nordic literature (beyond the thrillers) and related translation issues. The site is still relatively new, but the early posts are really interesting, well thought out, and unique.
One post that caught my eye was an excerpt from Eric Dickens’s translation of Thomas Warburton’s memoirs about translating. (According to Warburton, he’s translated more than 30,000 pages from Finnish and English into Swedish.) Warburton uses his translations of novelist Mika Waltari as a launching point to get into a greater translation/editing issue and a description of a certain type of editorial assistant:
Waltari used to claim that he had a tendency to write too much and be unable to excise things from the text. He said that he was therefore grateful for any suggestions for abridgements from his translators and editors, and would nearly always accept them completely. All his later voluminous novels have thus been abridged by about five, six or an even higher percent each.
This kind of editing is, no doubt, more common than you would believe, and there are many foreign authors who are not even aware that something has happened to their books in translation. Similar, if not worse, things have happened with our books when published abroad, when we have managed to check up.
Obviously, such a practice is completely unacceptable and comes quite close to an arrogation of the rights of the author. But the law is vague on that score and tends to allow changes that do not alter the artistic merit or aim of a work. [. . .]
One of these [types of editorial assistants] is – or was, as the variant has surely vanished by now – what you could term the normaliser. He was a proponent of the theory that all books should sound as if they had been written in the target language, Swedish in this case, and why not make it the Swedish of Stockholm, just for good measure. That’s his problem. But such an editor will then go on to think that it becomes pretty unpleasant for the reader to come across rare or difficult words and expressions, however Swedish they may be. These words have to be simplified and aligned. Here, the fact that the original author may have wanted to express himself in an unusual way, even in a convoluted or stilted manner, is no excuse. You have to explain what he really means. – This problem area is adjacent to another: have you the right to improve the text, however tempting this may be, without consulting the author? No, you haven’t.
Not sure that I agree that “the normaliser” really has vanished from the publishing scene, but I agree that translations should contains some “strange” phrasings . . .
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