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2017 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Philip Roughton

By Eric M. B. Becker

Philip Roughton was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for his translation of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Fish Have No Feet

Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to the work of your writer?

Philip Roughton: I wasn’t drawn to the work of Jón Kalman Stefánsson; I came to know him first when I was asked to translate his novel Heaven and Hell. Being a full-time literary translator, I have to take on more work than is really healthy—and “reading time” for me is time that I could be or should be working. This means that I am, ironically enough, somewhat disconnected from the Icelandic literary scene—that is, I don’t go looking for books to read, because I wouldn’t allow myself the time to read them. Strange as it might sound, I’m not sure that I would have read Jón Kalman had I not been asked to translate him. However, having translated five of his novels, I can definitely say that I appreciate his lyricism, his explorations of the sorrows and joys found in both mundane and extraordinary circumstances, and the universal appeal of his portraits of real personalities, in settings and situations that are strongly Icelandic.

One Icelandic novel that I was certainly drawn to, years ago, was Iceland’s Bell, by Halldór Laxness—the first Icelandic novel that I translated. A friend kept pointing out the novel’s real-life settings in the Icelandic countryside, and others recommended its humor and unforgettable characters. That novel, however, has been called “too Icelandic” in its historical setting, themes, and language—something that has also been suggested as one of the reasons why it took so long for it be published in English (in other words, it was so Icelandic that it was “untranslatable”). Others of Laxness’s novels have that same “über-Icelandic” quality, and Laxness often seems to be speaking more to his Icelandic audience than to the world (one of the major themes of Iceland’s Bell is Icelanders’, and Icelandic culture’s, survival through the centuries, despite all odds). Indeed, after setting his first major novel, The Great Weaver from Kashmir, partly in post-WWI Europe, Laxness made a conscious decision to focus specifically on his home country—and whereas he may use Icelandic contexts to get Icelandic society to scrutinize itself, Jón Kalman seems to be more interested in explorations of universal human experience; that is, his Icelanders are humans (rather than Icelanders) first and foremost, and an individual’s circumstances come across at times as arbitrary—rightly so! 

Of course, with Fish Have No Feet, eking out an existence in a quota-less fishing village and clearly having far less opportunity there, in that “blackest place in Iceland,” than in the almost-paradisiacal landscapes of Europe’s more southerly climes, is certainly enormously Icelandic, but Jón Kalman also does an excellent job of portraying the “mixed bag” that is contemporary Icelandic culture: cod hanging on drying racks is not far from Jonni’s Thunderburgers or Keflavík Airport, which keeps Iceland connected with the rest of the world; the Beatles and Pink Floyd form as much of the novel’s “soundtrack” as classic Icelandic pop bands such as Hljómar.  All of these things are props, settings, stages for universal human drama: for posing questions about people’s decision-making processes, about the way they treat each other, or miss each other or hurt each other or love each other.

WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you’d done?

Philip Roughton: Jón Kalman has a recognizable style that is present in all the works of his that I’ve translated: he is lyrical, sometimes whimsical, often eye-opening in his observations of the human spirit. He can be concretely imagistic at times, and extraordinarily unspecific at others (for instance, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, he will use a word such as þungur, “heavy,” to mean all shades and varieties of heavy: gloomy, heavy, somber, difficult, boring, weary, etc.). He can move quickly from a concrete image to a reflection on the human condition; a consideration that can be ironic, wry, or poignant. The following example from Heart of Man is quite typical: here he moves from the wind blowing things away (including love), to horses waiting out a storm, to a dim lamp—and then a “universal” plea:

The wind breaks up the sea and everything that isn’t fastened down blows away:  handcarts, shovels, promises; forgive me, but I don’t love you anymore, the wind tore my love from me, blew it away. Horses stand on the moors, in some places completely exposed, turning away from the wind that lashes the creatures, they let the tantrum pass over them, stare, look forward to grazing again. The rain pounds them violently, it pounds the big parlor window in Geirþrúður’s house, all four of them sit in the parlor, the boy beneath a dim lamp, you’ve got to have light to see the pages; whither went the light, who took it, bring it back, we don’t deserve this.

The same close combination of contemplation with imagism is found in Fish Have No Feet, despite it being quite a different book than its predecessors:

It’s impossible to measure longing, nor is it possible to understand it, describe it, explain it, those who miss someone always have something dark in their hearts, a string of sorrow that time plays, strums, plucks. [Thanks to Dolce Bellezza—on her blog—for reminding me of this passage]

As mentioned above, Jón Kalman’s novels all share a strong quality of universality, but it is perceivable in slightly different ways. His Heaven and Hell trilogy makes me consider hard lives lived far from me in time and circumstance: fishermen, overland postmen, crews of trading ships, etc. (when I think of the novel Heaven and Hell, I always recall the fishing huts that I saw on Fårö, off Gotland, as well as a line from a song by the British singer John Tams: “For this is not fish you're eating, this is men's lives” (a rephrasing of a line by Walter Scott)). Fish Have No Feet made me think more about the things we all share, despite cultural differences (for instance, my high-school years had basically the same soundtrack—minus Icelandic pop groups—as this book), and about the contemporary or near-contemporary realities of life on this island, which I think the novel does an excellent job of portraying. I appreciate its presentation of certain aspects of life in Keflavík—a part of Iceland that a lot of people have seen in passing, but likely know very little about—and I enjoyed reading a different Icelandic view of the give-and-take between the residents of Keflavík and the former NATO Base—including the admission about the “sport” of stealing from it!.

As far as the translating process itself, for this book—I don’t think it was much different than the other Jón Kalman books I’ve done. I tend to take a very literal approach to translation—not quite as literal as Stanley Burnshaw’s approach in The Poem Itself, although I like the idea of minimal mediation. I try to do as little adding, subtracting, or even modifying, as possible (although translating þungur as “heavy” in every instance would become very tedious for English readers). Hopefully the uniqueness of each of Jón Kalman’s novels comes across through my attempt to convey him as directly as possible—despite the novels’ stylistic similarities, as I pointed out above.

WWB: What are you reading now, or which writers from the language and literary tradition you translate do you think readers ought to pay attention to as potential future MBI winners?

Philip Roughton: As I mentioned above, I allow myself very little reading time.  There do come moments for browsing, but I would not spend them on Icelandic literature, which to me is work. On the nightstand now are a collection of writings by the Victorines and  a dictionary of classical Chinese, which I studied for many years—and the last book I read cover-to-cover was a biography of the British singer Sandy Denny. I come to know Icelandic writers through work—and therefore could probably only recommend ones that I’ve translated. I could see Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir making the list—she is very inventive with language and form and does a lot of interesting, oftentimes bold psychological and social delving. She is a unique and refreshing voice. I also know that Sjón, translated by my colleague Victoria Cribb, has been brought up as a candidate for the MBI. There are potentially many others, but the percentage of books that actually make it into translation and then publication is so low (I translate loads of samples, but very few have gotten picked up by publishers). However, this is also one of the reasons to be thankful for the existence of this award and its celebration of literature in translation—and its importance for the world.

Read an interview with Jón Kalman Stefánsson, author of Fish Have No Feet

Read more interviews with 2017 Man Booker International Prize-nominated writers and translators

Published Apr 13, 2017   Copyright 2017 Eric M. B. Becker

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