Four Questions For Victoria Cribb

Victoria Cribb is a translator, one of the few who specializes in Icelandic literature.  She’s translated the novels of Sjón, Arnaldur Indriðason, Gyrðir Elíasson into English – receiving praise from the likes of A.S. Byatt.  Victoria was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions regarding her work on From the Mouth of the Whale (which was shortlisted for this years Independent Foreign Fiction Prize).

BSR:  Victoria, first, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions.  I read in an interview Sjón gave to Fabulous Iceland that the main character of From the Mouth of the Whale was an actual man – Jón the Learned – who lived in the 17th century . Yet, it seems to me that Jón is a foundation onto which the author has layered a multitude of ideas and elements: Icelandic mythology, Jonah and the whale, alchemy, even a little Paradise Lost. There’s so much going on… did the density of ideas and influences make it a particularly challenging novel to translate?

VC:  It certainly did, and invariably there will be many influences that I have failed to pick up. But, for me, part of the pleasure of translating Sjón’s work has always been immersing myself in his sources, learning about the background to his texts and marvelling at what he has done with them. In this case, I was already familiar with seventeenth-century Icelandic literature and the medieval works referred to. And any English speaker brought up on Shakespeare has some sense of the early modern world. When I read the book for the first time, I kept thinking of the furiously polemical 1590s author Thomas Nashe and turned to him for stylistic inspiration, only to discover that Sjón does in fact quote Nashe at one point in the story. And of course Google is an invaluable resource for tracking down the more obscure references – bezoar, boramez and so on, often redirecting one to online editions of original works. When my own research fails, I can always go to the fount of all wisdom and ask Sjón himself for help, but that is cheating and part of the fun is trying to find out the answers for myself.

BSR:  I’ve been told Sjón speaks excellent English.  Does that put any additional pressure on you as his translator?  What do you feel your collaboration brings to the table?

VC:  Far from regarding it as an additional pressure, I find it a huge advantage that Sjón’s English is so good – unusually good, even by Icelandic standards. Most Icelandic authors are sufficiently competent in English to review and criticise translations of their work, so I have come to rely on a certain degree of collaboration. Since this is the fifth book I have translated for Sjón, he trusted me to do my best rather than reading over every word of the manuscript, though I think he also felt it would make him anxious if he found too many mistakes. I sent him lists of queries, as usual, sometimes providing him with alternatives so that he could choose the one that best reflected his meaning, and we discussed various possible translations of problematic words and phrases, so I can’t always remember whose suggestion was adopted in the end. I’m strictly a prose translator, so I tend to go wailing to him with the verses, especially if they require rhyme. In previous books, Sjón has polished my feeble efforts or even translated the verse himself; in this case, my partner came to my aid as Sjón was busy!

BSR:  Speaking of verses, some of my readers may not know that Sjón is also a poet.  Did you read or translate any of his poetry in preparation for translating From the Mouth of the Whale? Do you see similarities between his poetry and prose fiction?

VC:  I have to claim ignorance here. Back when I was a student I read some of Sjón’s poetry from his earlier surrealist days but I have mainly been engaged in translating his prose. As mentioned above, we’ve now collaborated on five novels, all of them historical works, their settings ranging from the ancient world to the recent past. The surrealist vein is still palpably present in these novels, however, for example in Jónas’ meditations in part IV of From the Mouth of the Whale, which I think brilliantly evoke a seventeenth-century mind grappling with ideas about the connectedness of all things, which anticipate modern scientific discoveries.

BSR:  Finally, for readers who love From the Mouth of the Whale and want to further explore Icelandic fiction, are there any authors you personally enjoy and can recommend?

VC:  There are so many Icelandic authors who deserve a larger audience, but I would feel awkward having to single out any one writer from among those I know and translate. To be safe, I’ll opt for one who’s no longer with us – Halldór Laxness, an obvious choice as he’s the country’s Nobel laureate. Readers who enjoyed From the Mouth of the Whale might appreciate The Bell of Iceland, translated by Phil Roughton. I am shamefully out of date when it comes to the current Icelandic literary scene, having spent the last few years immersed in medieval sagas for my PhD. From what I hear, though, there are a number of exciting young authors emerging, and Amazon’s publishing arm is planning to bring out a long list of Icelandic titles, both old and new, in the near future. Given the presence of Icelandic books on the lists of several established publishers in the UK and US, there should be plenty of opportunities for English-speaking readers to become better acquainted with the country’s extraordinarily vibrant literary culture.

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From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb)

Jónas Pálmason the Learned was one of those people whose life is forever turning with the wheel of fortune.  He had no sooner reached a safe haven than he was sent straight back out on to the stormy sea, and always in a leakier vessel than the one in which he had arrived.

From the Mouth of the Whale opens with a strange prologue.  Lucifer tells us the story of his first encounter with man and the moment that led to his expulsion from Heaven.  It is not particularly flattering.

Yes, there you lay in His hand, with your knees tucked under your chin, breathing so fast and so feebly that you quivered like the pectoral fin of a minnow.  Our Father rested His fingertip against your spine and tilted His hand carefully so that you uncurled and rolled over on to your back.  I stepped forward to take a better look at you.  You scratched your nose with your curled fist, sneezed, oh so sweetly, and fixed on me those egotistical eyes – mouth agape.  And I saw that this mouth would never be satisfied, that its teeth would never stop grinding, that its tongue would never tire of being bathed in the life-blood of other living creatures.  Then your lips moved.  You tried to say your first word, and that word was: ‘I’.

See what I mean?  And it actually gets worse from there.  In case there was ever a doubt, Lucifer is not a fan.  But what this passage does is establish that this story is set on the Northern part of the globe.  Lucifer has just come back from hunting the bull elk and the shag-haired trout and a monstrous tusked boar.  The manner in which he tells his story is reminiscent of Inuit or Norse folklore.

The remainder of the novel (with a few exceptions) is narrated by Jónas Pálmason, called Jónas the Learned.  He is the equal of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Mark Helprin’s Oscar Progresso from Memoir from Antproof Case, who are (to my mind) two of the most entertaining storytellers in fiction.  By turns sardonic and regretful, paranoid and persecuted – Jónas is beset by a torrent of memories.  These he relays as quickly as possible, one event transitioning into another.  Memories of his past, conversations he would have had with his children, scraps of knowledge pulled from books – all come out in an almost incessant stream of consciousness.

The year is 1635, just two years after Galileo Galilei went before the Spanish Inquisition and was forced to recant that the earth orbited the sun.  Our Jónas is a self-taught healer, a runic scholar, a poet, an artist, an observer of the natural world, and a collector of pagan lore.  As such, he’s been accused of sorcery by his enemies (much like mid-wives were accused of being witches).  Forced to live as an outlaw, the courts decree that no one may give aid to him or his family.  Yet, he cannot leave Iceland unless someone provides passage.  Caught in this Catch-22, Jónas helplessly watches as his family is made to suffer and all but one of his children die.  Despite all that he endures, he cannot stifle his desire for knowledge.

Sjón has convincingly and amusingly rendered the illogicality of a man of science before science existed.  Jónas scoffs at the existence of unicorns, but tells us about the exorcism which made him famous.

‘It seems to me that the best way to go about it would be by the sort of exorcism that good priests used to perform in papist times, that is, to tell the ghoul the history of the world, of spirits and men, both evil and benevolent.  In that way it will eventually see where it fits into God’s great mechanism and realise that it is in quite the wrong place.  For how is a dead man to tell the difference between himself and the living if he is still able to walk around, participate in fights and run errands?  For that matter, how is he to know that he is not one of the elves?  Both live outside human society?  How is he to know that he is not a piece of driftwood?  The flesh of both is equally rotten and stinking. Or a stray dog? Both are shooed away.  Or merely a rock that rolls down the mountainside, causing men to dodge?’

Jónas goes on to conclude that he should berate the ghoul in verse.

Seventeenth Century Iceland appears to have been both cold and brutal.  But Sjón immerses his readers in the mind of his hero, which is a foreign and colorful place.  The plot of From the Mouth of the Whale closely resembles the Old Testament’s Book of Jonah,  but our Jónas is an old man with a tendency to ramble.  Despite the hardships, it’s a surprisingly funny tale.  Sjón has created a character so quirky, so strange and irreverent that the reader can’t help but be amused.  The journey this story takes us on has all the makings of an epic adventure.  Just not in the traditional sense.

Publisher:  Telegram, London (2011)*
ISBN:  978 1 84659 083 2

*If we can trust Amazon, it looks as if this book will be available in the U.S. January of 2012.

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