Christopher Burawa is a poet and translator. His book of poems, The Small Mystery of Lapses, was published by Cleveland State University Press in 2006. His translations of contemporary Icelandic poet Jóhann Hjálmarsson won the 2005 Toad Press International Chapbook Competition, and was published as Of the Same Mind in 2006. He was awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship in 2003, and a 2006 Witter Bynner Translation Residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute, a 2007 Literature Fellowship for Translation from the National Endowment for the Arts, and most recently a 2008 American-Scandinavian Foundation Creative Writing Fellowship. He is the Director of the Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts at Austin Peay University in Clarksville, TN.
Since September 30 is International Translation Day, I thought it was fair to post this interview today. I admire Burawa's translations of Jóhann Hjálmarsson in Of the Same Mind. Want to learn a lot about Icelandic language and literature? Keep reading.
Can you tell us a little about the Icelandic language? I’ve always understood it—perhaps wrongly—to be a “modern” version of Old Scandinavian? What’s its story?
Well, Icelandic, like Faroese and dialects still spoken in isolated areas of Western Norway, is a part of what are called the Northwestern Germanic languages. It is an inflected language, which means it has tense, mood, voice, aspect, person, number, gender, and case. I think some people believe that if you learn Old Norse you can learn modern Icelandic, and that’s just not the case. Learning Old Norse might helpful in beginning to learn Icelandic, but it’s not equivalent. In fact, one of the issues in education in Iceland today is that young people studying the sagas in school have difficulty reading them.
Icelandic spoken today can be argued to be a product of 19th-century pan-nationalism—that is, political in its origins, but with its morphology already in place. All promising Icelandic students up to that time—and those who excelled at the Latin School at Bessastaðir, now the president’s residence—were sent to Denmark to be educated in Copenhagen. Iceland had been a commonwealth of Denmark for centuries and as for any colony of the era, the Danish rule had a lot of influence on Icelandic culture, especially in Reykjavik. For example, my great grandmother spoke a pidgin of Icelandic and Danish, something that I imagine was quite common for people who were on the periphery of the ruling class. This was a time when well-off Icelanders dropped their patrilineal last names (i.e., if the father’s first name was Jón, his son’s last name would be Jónsson and his daughter, Jónsdóttir) and adopted the Danish form (following my previous example, Jensen).
Many people believe that Icelandic is a pure language and Icelanders have certainly been a part of that perception. Even before independence from Denmark, there were nineteenth century Icelandic patriots living and studying in Denmark who looked to the “golden age” of Icelandic history—the Saga Age—as a means of establishing Icelandic identity. Needless to say, no nationalist movement is effective without the propaganda of a golden age—a time that reflects the glory of that nation’s past. So these students published a journal, Ný félagsrit, or New Society’s Journal. I did some research on this publication as part of a research fellowship from the American-Scandinavian Foundation a few years ago. The articles in the journal cover a variety of topics, but the articles relate to reclaiming Icelandic culture. One article I read and have a copy of was written by Jón Sigurðsson, often called the first president of Iceland (even though the seat of president wasn’t formed until Icelandic Independence on June 17, 1944), about the history of bloodletting in Iceland.
Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s Nobel Laureate of Literature, poked fun at Icelanders’ perception of their purity and romanticized notions of their history in an essay for the 1100 anniversary of the Settlement. But this perception of purity was a product of a concerted effort by the government and abetted by scholars. Committees to ensure the purity of the language from foreign loanwords have come and gone. The Icelandic Language Committee, Íslenzk málnefnd, has been around since the early 1960s and even with its efforts and the efforts of a popular newspaper column that has appeared in the Morgunblaðið newspaper on the use of language, Icelandic is like all languages—fluid and changeable.
That said, Icelanders are particular about how the language is spoken and expressed in written form. But what I discovered on my last trip back to Iceland is that young people are having difficulty writing essays in Icelandic. Several university professors I spoke to complained that many of their students couldn’t write a proper essay in Icelandic. I know that teachers in the United States complain about how poorly prepared students are coming into the university system, so the dynamics of this issue may reflect more on the deterioration of the educational system. I just can’t say for sure.
How did you get involved with it?
I was born in Reykjavik and was “involved” with Icelandic from the first. Icelandic was my first language, although I find that claim to be difficult to defend since I don’t “think” in Icelandic. My father’s employment had our family moving all over—Bermuda, Spain, and finally the States—but every summer my mother and I went back to Iceland. My family in Iceland are big readers and like to discuss what they are reading. My Uncle Jón is a translator in his own right but only for his own enjoyment. I was totally won over by his fascination of what is lost in translation, specifically in translating from English into Icelandic. He’s almost 90 years old now, and he’s still at it. Recently he’s been fascinated by the limerick and sends me his translations. He was instrumental in developing in me the sense of play in language and translation.
What particular challenges do you face while translating from the Icelandic?
I translate both poetry and fiction, but have been translating fiction only for the past two years. I encounter fewer challenges in translating poetry, which I attribute to the fact that my family in Iceland are great readers of poetry, and recited poetry and discussed exceptional poems (meter, word choice, et cetera). Inspired by their example, I memorized poems I enjoyed—and these poems would become my first forays into translation when I was a teenager. I have discovered in translating poetry that I draw upon a completely different lexicon than the one I use in my own poems. Forest Gander once asked me if I was able to devote myself to my own writing at the same time I was translating, and I answered that I found it impossible, that it was as if I was using a different set of skills and sensibility. Exciting things happen when you translate, but I resist the urge to try understanding what is happening and incorporate it into my own writing. The fine-tuning of the trot into a working poem is a wonderful act of creation and intuition, a place where I can clearly hear the voice of the poet; it becomes distinct and a style appears.
Translating fiction requires other skills from poetry. Being able to capture the voice within the story and being consistent over many pages is demanding. Icelandic is rife with the conditional, and past and present perfect verb forms and subjunctive. So the trot seems overburdened with words, of actions about to happen and having had happened, and so on. And for me that is where the challenge lies—revising to make the narrative more active and to make the sentences English friendly while being honest to the original and true to the writer.
Another challenge for me has been dialogue and characterization. Characters have their own voice outside of the narrative and so that requires a great deal of attention. I enjoy it but translating fiction requires a lot of energy.
And Jóhann Hjálmarsson: The poems in Of the Same Mind deal thematically with fish, the sea, death—things you might expect of an island nation. Where does Hjálmarsson fit in the grand picture of Icelandic literature?
Jóhann was very much a bohemian, and was a significant player in the burgeoning arts scene in Reykjavik in the early 1960s. His friends were artists like Alfreð Flóki Nielsen and musicians like Jazz composer and performer Carl Möller, who were importing and infusing Icelandic arts with a new sensibility, creating new forms for expressing Icelandic subjects. What’s remarkable is that the generation of poets writing at this time are not all alike in style but each is actively redefining Icelandic prosody. This was a time when there were traditionalist voices (see my comment to your first question because the protests for traditional verse forms is very much a political reaction) arguing against the new forms. What a dynamic time it was. Jóhann continued translating and writing and, as he told me, with each book, he was reinventing himself as a poet. But so was everyone else. Matthías Jóhannessen, Nína Björk Árnadóttir (who was also playwrighting and a leading feminist voice), Þorri Jóhannsson, Una Margrét, and Ari Gísli Bragason. There aren’t too many translations of these poets. There is one volume, The Postwar Poetry of Iceland, edited by the writer Sigurdur Magnusson, an anthology he compiled, I believe when he was in residence at the University of Iowa. The selections are meager and probably not representative of these poets’ work. Also, in his introduction, he really says some disparaging things about Jóhann’s poetry that I believe are mean spirited and possibly politically motivated.
While some of the subjects Jóhann was exploring in his work, such as the ones you cite, are typically Icelandic, he was doing it in a new way. His mentor, the modernist poet Jón úr Vör, had instructed Jóhann to travel, to get an education outside of Iceland. And so Jóhann moved to Barcelona, Spain, where he enrolled at the university and began studying Romance languages. At the same time, Jóhann started translating the works of Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo, Quasimodo, Breton, Machado, among others. These poets had a profound impact on Jóhann and he began experimenting with writing surrealist poems in Icelandic. Now he wasn’t the first to do this, but he was a much better poet than the others who attempted it. And shortly after returning to Iceland he published two books of poetry. The reviewers, however, hadn’t any idea about how to read his poems let alone critique them. I wrote an essay a few years back for Hayden’s Ferry Review, “What’s Icelandic for Duende,” to accompany a few poems from this period. Anyhow, Jóhann was experimenting and, well, critics really were at a loss in trying to enter these poems. But as I said, anyone who was a traditionalist really would have had difficulty. Now, though, there are poets writing out of this poetics that Jóhann pioneered, like Sjón who has written lyrics for Björk or the very talented Kristín Omarsdóttir.
The collection draws poetry from throughout his career, and serves as a kind of map of his creative life. How did you determine which poems to use?
I tried to choose poems that represented his growth as a poet over time. He really is a remarkable talent, and wrote several book-length poems that dealt with family history in the context of national history, as well as one about his friends, a married couple who traveled to conflict areas in the world—the wife working as a United Nations nurse in the 1970s. This book in particular reflects how Jóhann’s vision took in the affairs of the world. And I included a few poems from a trilogy he wrote based on Eyrbyggja Saga, one of the Viking sagas that take place in an area that his father’s family came from. I drew from his selected poems, Með sverð í gegnum varir: úrval ljóða 1956-2000 (With a sword between the lips: selected poems 1956-2000) but I also made choices based on my own preferences in reading his 18 books. I should have probably just worked from the selected, and feel that I must return to that project in order to properly honor this great poet’s work.
In 2006 you published a collection of your own poetry: The Small Mystery of Lapses, winner of the Cleveland State University First Book Competition. How has the act of translating assisted you in your own creative work?
There is a certain freedom in translation, what I called earlier intuition, and many of the poems about Iceland I wrote in Small Mystery I wrote after I began translating Johann, not imitating the translations but inspired by them. I decided to explore my own family’s history and how the stories I grew up hearing fit into my life.