October 31 2018
One of these Eccentrics who Came to Iceland and Fell in Love with the Language
An interview with Victoria Cribb courtesy of Icelandic Literature Center.
Victoria Cribb is an avid translator of Icelandic literature into English and in this interview with Magnús Guðmundsson she speaks of her passion for Icelandic, pouring through old books, and various translation projects.
A World of Adventures up North
Vicky, as she is usually called, moved to Vienna recently and was studying German when I caught up with her. “If I'm having trouble with my Icelandic during this conversation it is because the German is getting in my way,” Vicky says, and it is evident that humour is not far off. But there is no danger of trouble because the Icelandic rolls effortlessly of her tongue. When I ask whether it isn't difficult to jump into a new language like this, she tells me that she should be able to learn a language that almost has no conjugation or declension after having tackled Icelandic.
Vicky is born and raised in England, in that vast world of English language and culture, and she says that it was not least in light of Britain's history that she turned her gaze up north. “People who spoke Old Icelandic and Old Norse were part of the community in the British Isles in earlier days, so it is also a part of our history and heritage.“
“As a child I read a lot of writers like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and that instilled in me a nostalgia for the North even though I'd never been there.“
Vicky says that this literature played a part in that she started early on studying languages on her own, Old English at first, then Norwegian and Icelandic. “It was Old English that sparked my interest in the Germanic languages. Subsequently, I became so engulfed in modern Icelandic that it really should be called an obsession,” Vicky says laughing.
Started on a Screen Play
But there is a long way from having a passionate interest in a language to taking on translating literature. Vicky agrees and says that she did not start studying Icelandic with that in mind. “I started travelling to Iceland when I was a teenager and as a university student in the UK studying Old Icelandic. During these trips I'd learn more about the language and then I came here to study Icelandic for foreigners at the University.
But as I was completing my studies here, film director Ágúst Guðmundsson, approached me and asked me to translate a screen play. It was about Jørgen Jørgensen, the Dog-Day King. The film never went into production, but it was nevertheless a very interesting first project and a great experience.”
Vicky tells me that this was in 1994 and after that she moved back home to the UK and started working for the BBC in book publishing for about three years. Then she moved back to Iceland, at first to work for Iceland Review and then Edda Publishers. “I edited travel books and then started dabbling in translation in the evenings, but in fact it took a while for me to get into that full time.”
Last autumn, Victoria Cribb, along with Eric Boury, received the honorary award Orðstír, which is awarded to translators of Icelandic literature into foreign languages. Orðstír is awarded by The Icelandic Association of Translators and Interpreters, The Icelandic Literature Centre, Promote Iceland, The Office of the President of Iceland, and the Reykjavik International Literary Festival. The President of Iceland presented the award in conjunction with the Reykjavik Literary Festival and an international translators' seminar. Vicky says that recognition like this is both an honour and great inspiration. “But I'm also grateful for the opportunity that comes with attending a translators' seminar like this. It was great to get to know all these translators who are working in Icelandic literature. All these fantastic people who are working on the same thing but each in their own language. These are people that work a lot in solitude and seldom meet their colleagues, so this kind of meeting is of great importance to us.
It's so exciting to meet people who have a common experience and with regard to this and one of the best examples is that I met many colleagues that translated Sjón's Mánasteinn [E. Moonstone]. There were translators from Serbia, Germany, France, and other places, and it is extremely interesting to discuss how they tackle the issues that may arise translating such a work. They may not always be the same problems, but they are still in many ways remarkably comparable.”
Plain and Terse
When you look at the list of translations by Victoria Cribb you notice how diverse the body of work is. She says that this diversity is vital to her. “Thankfully these are very different authors because I'm always afraid of my own voice sneaking in there. I believe it would be rather boring for readers if it was always the same translator at work, but fortunately there are quite a few of us English language translators working today, which is a good thing. These days, I am for instance translating Arnaldur, Yrsa, and Ragnar Jónason, and they all have very different and distinctive styles that I believe I manage to convey. I'm also working on Sjón, and that is a completely different and fascinating assignment.
Among writers that Victoria has translated in the past are Arnaldur Indriðason, Sjón, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Andri Snær Magnason, Gyrðir Elíasson, Ragnar Jónasson, and others.
Translating Gyrðir [Elíasson] is a good example of a really tricky job. Gyrðir has a very plain style of writing, which is incredibly beautiful in Icelandic but is extremely difficult to convey in English. This terse heritage of the Sagas can be tricky in translation but at the same time it is a challenge that I find both interesting and invigorating.”
Descriptions of Landscapes Missing
Vicky says that it is in fact remarkable how much Icelandic can do that English can't. “It is in fact incredible how many words are missing in English when you are translating from Icelandic, and yet English is supposed to be the language with the largest vocabulary of all. Yet that are many very Icelandic words, such as ‘frekja' and ‘duglegur', that are missing.
“It is a nightmare to translate ‘duglegur',” Vicky says laughing. “But this is the way it is between different languages and that is exactly one of the things we discussed a lot at the translators seminar last year.”
"Some complained about certain words and phrases in Icelandic while others said it was simply not a problem in their language. This perfectly describes how diverse our languages are and how incredibly interesting it is to work in this field.”
When asked whether it is mainly words and phrases regarding an Icelandic way of life, such as with regard to seamanship and farm life, that are difficult. According to Vicky that is not necessarily the case. “There simply hasn't been much of that in the works I've been translating of late. But I do however think that foreigners crave that and would like to get more descriptions of the landscape. But landscapes aren't depicted that much in Icelandic literature, simply because everyone knows what the landscape looks like. It is therefore sometimes necessary to insert some of that in the English versions and ask the authors to tweak them a bit. Hence, you are not always simply translating directly, but also helping to get the work across in the best possible way, and that can be a very creative and rewarding process.”
Vicky says that there is a lot in Icelandic literature that Brits recognise from Scotland and elsewhere, which makes her job easier. But she enjoys a challenge and says her favourite assignments are translating works set in the past in Iceland. „For instance, I translated Skugga-Baldur [The Blue Fox], which takes place in the 19th century in the countryside in Iceland, and Rökkurbýsnir [From the Mouth of the Whale] that is set in the 17th century. It was a fantastic task to try to get that across as I love pouring through old books in English mining for the correct vocabulary. That's when I get to combine my fields of interest – because I've got a degree in history in fact.
But I do envy Philip Roughton, who translates Jón Kalman and has to tackle descriptions of sea faring and fishing stations of old,” Vicky says and adds that it is easy to become completely absorbed in such projects. “I once spent a whole day looking for a word for something that is found on a little boat, it was some sort of crossbar on a mast and I remember I had so much fun looking for it, but you need to have plenty of time on your hands in for this sort of thing.”
I am one of these eccentrics who came to Iceland and fell in love with the language. This is my dream job.
My Dream Job
When asked about the state of the Icelandic language, especially with regard to English, Vicky says that we should bear in mind how much the British view of Iceland has changed. “Because it also matters for Icelandic, in the long run, how those who belong to the English-speaking world look to Iceland. Nowadays countless people go to Iceland, but when I went there for the first time back in 1984 very few people did, some bird watchers, perhaps, and geologists. But now every second person I meet seems to have been to Iceland and loved it. So, Iceland really has been a hit and that means that there is a much larger market for Icelandic culture. This is something that is important to use to the benefit of the Icelandic language.
At the same time, I fear for the future of the language when I come to Iceland these days and see English everywhere. I also hear young Icelanders talking English amongst themselves and truth be told I find that absolutely awful,” Vicky says, and it is evident that she is worried about this development and cares deeply for Icelandic.
She points out that for her personally the satisfaction of the translation work stems fundamentally from the Icelandic language. “To be able to continue to use a language that I think is the most beautiful language in the world. I have dedicated my life, from the age of 18, to learning Icelandic, reading Icelandic, and tackling it. I was young when I first came there so Iceland and Icelandic became an inherent part of me a long time ago and it warms the cockerels of my heart to work with this wonderful language on a daily basis.
Interview: Magnús Guðmundsson, October 2018.