One of those Eccentrics who Come to Iceland and Fall in Love with the Language

Victoria Cribb is a well-known translator of Icelandic literature into English and in this interview with Magnús Guðmundsson she speaks of her passion for Icelandic, poring over old books, and her various translation projects

30. October, 2018

  • Vicky-Cribb

The Lure of the North

Vicky, as she is usually known, moved to Vienna recently and was busy learning German when I caught up with her. “If I'm having trouble with my Icelandic during this conversation it's because German is getting in the way,” Vicky says, humour not far from the surface. But there is no danger of that since the Icelandic rolls effortlessly off her tongue. When I ask if it isn't difficult to immerse herself in a new language like this, she tells me that, having tackled Icelandic, she reckons she should be able to learn a language that, in comparison, has hardly any grammar to speak of. 

Vicky, who was born and raised in England, in the vast English linguistic and cultural world, says that her interest in the north stemmed partly from the history of Britain. “There were people who spoke Old Norse in the British Isles in the middle ages, so it's part of our history and heritage too. 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 was part of what motivated her to start studying languages on her own as a teenager, first Old English, then Norwegian and Icelandic. 

“It was Old English that sparked my interest in the Germanic languages. Later, I developed such a passionate interest in modern Icelandic that it should really be called an obsession,” Vicky says laughing.

Started with a Screenplay

But it can be a long road from having a passionate interest in a language to becoming a literary translator. Vicky agrees and says she didn't start studying Icelandic with that in mind. “I began travelling in Iceland as a teenager and as a student reading Old Icelandic at university in the UK. During those trips I improved my knowledge of the language and eventually I moved to Iceland to study Icelandic for foreigners at the University. 

“Just as I was completing my studies there, the film director Ágúst Guðmundsson approached me and asked me to translate a screenplay about Jørgen Jørgensen, the Dog-Day King. The film was never made, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable 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 worked for the BBC in book publishing for the next three years. Then she returned to Iceland, working first for Iceland Review, then for Edda Publishing. “I edited tourist books and started dabbling in translation in the evenings, but it was a while before I became a full-time translator.”

Important Meetings

Last autumn, along with Eric Boury, Victoria Cribb received the honorary award Orðstír, which is presented 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' symposium. Vicky says that receiving a recognition like this was both an honour and an inspiration. “I was also grateful for the chance to attend the translation symposium. It was great to get to know all these other translators of Icelandic literature. All these wonderful people who are working in the same field but each in their own language. We all tend to work in solitude and seldom meet our colleagues, so this kind of meeting is very important to us.

“It's always exciting to get together with people who share the same experiences as you and in many cases have worked on the same books. For example, on this occasion I met a number of colleagues who had translated Sjón's Mánasteinn [Eng. Moonstone]. These included translators from Serbia, Germany, France, and many other places, and it was interesting to compare notes on how we tackle the issues that arise from translating a work of this kind. Of course, the problems differ from language to language, but our experiences are still in many ways comparable.”

Pared-down Saga Style

When you look at the list of translations by Victoria Cribb you notice how diverse her 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 creeping in. It would be very boring for readers if it was always the same translator at work, but fortunately there are quite a few of us translating from English today, and that's a good thing. In recent years I've been working on Arnaldur, Yrsa, and Ragnar Jónasson, who all have very distinctive styles, and I hope that comes through in the English. I also work with Sjón, which is a completely different and fascinating experience.

Writers Victoria has translated include Arnaldur Indriðason, Sjón, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Andri Snær Magnason, Gyrðir Elíasson and Ragnar Jónasson.

Translating Gyrðir [Elíasson] is a good example of a really tricky job. Gyrðir has a pared-down style which is beautiful in Icelandic but extremely difficult to convey in translation. This terse heritage of the Sagas is peculiarly hard to render in English, but it's the sort of challenge I find both interesting and stimulating.”

Missing Landscape Descriptions

Vicky says that it's remarkable how much Icelandic can do that English can't. “In fact, it's unbelievable how many words turn out to be missing in English when you're trying to translate from Icelandic, although English is supposed to have the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. There are some very Icelandic concepts, like ‘frekja' [‘pushiness' is the nearest we can get to it in English] and ‘duglegur' [both hardworking and good at something] for instance, that have no direct equivalents.

“It is a nightmare to translate ‘duglegur',” Vicky says laughing. “But this is the way it is between different languages and that's the sort of thing we discussed at the translators' symposium last year.”

“Some people complained about certain words and phrases in Icelandic while others said they weren't a problem in their language. This perfectly illustrates how diverse languages are and why it's so endlessly stimulating to work in this field.”

When asked whether it's mainly words and phrases connected to traditionally Icelandic occupations, such as fishing and farming, that are difficult to convey, Vicky says not necessarily. “There hasn't been much of that sort of thing in the books I've been translating recently. But I do think foreigners crave that kind of detail and would like more descriptions of the landscape, for example. But landscapes aren't depicted that much in Icelandic literature, simply because everyone knows what the landscape looks like. Sometimes it's necessary to add a little more local colour in the English versions and ask the authors to adapt the text a bit. So you're not always simply doing a direct translation, but also trying to make the work more accessible to foreign readers, and that can be a very creative and rewarding process.”

Vicky says that culturally there is plenty in Icelandic literature that would be familiar to British readers from Scotland and other parts of the UK, which makes her job easier. But she enjoys a challenge and says her favourite assignments are translating works set in the past. “For example, I translated Skugga-Baldur [The Blue Fox], which takes place in the 19th century in the Icelandic countryside, and Rökkurbýsnir [From the Mouth of the Whale], which is set in the 17th century. I really enjoyed trying to get that across as I love poring over old books in English, searching for the appropriate vocabulary. It allows me to combine my areas of interest – because I've got a degree in history as well.

“I envy Philip Roughton, who translates Jón Kalman and gets to tackle descriptions of sea faring and life in the old fishing stations,” Vicky says and adds that it's easy to become completely absorbed in the details. “I once spent a whole day searching for a word for something found on a small fishing boat – it was some sort of yard on a mast – and I remember what fun it was looking for it, but you need an awful lot of time for that sort of thing.”

I'm one of those 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 today, especially vis-à-vis English, Vicky says it's worth bearing in mind how much the British view of Iceland has changed. “Because the attitude of the English-speaking world to the country matters for the future of Icelandic. Nowadays countless people visit Iceland, but when I first went there back in 1984 it was mainly just a handful of bird watchers and geologists. But now every other person I meet seems to have visited Iceland and loved it. So Iceland's really been a hit and this means that there's a much larger market for Icelandic culture, including literature. And it's vital to use this for 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've also heard young Icelanders talking English to each other, which I find incredibly depressing,” Vicky says, and it is evident that she's worried about this development and cares deeply about the fate of Icelandic.

She points out that for her personally the satisfaction of translation work stems principally from the Icelandic language itself. “It allows me to continue to use a language that is for me the most beautiful in the world. I've dedicated my life, from the age of 18, to learning Icelandic, reading Icelandic, and working with it. I was young when I first went there, so Iceland and Icelandic long ago became an indelible part of me, and it fills me with joy to work with this wonderful language on a daily basis.”  

Interview: Magnús Guðmundsson, October 2018.

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