The Black Hat: On Self-Translation and Freedom

By Olafur Gunnarsson

There is a lively interest in literature in Iceland, although the foreigner tends to see this in a somewhat romantic light.  Although there are Viking festivals each summer and the foreigner might be under the impression that most Icelanders are widely read in the sagas, this is far from true. Most of us have gone through two or three Icelandic sagas in school, but when it comes to reading preferences the bedside table is more likely to hold John Grisham. This attitude toward our literary tradition is matched by the country’s systematic destruction of its national and literary resources. The many namesakes of Iceland’s first settler, Ingolfur Arnarson, include a grand mountain some forty miles from Reykjavik.  As I write, a dozen or so bulldozers  are tearing off its top. The gravel runs in landslides down the slope, where it is shoveled aboard trucks and used to build roads or for other practical purposes. The foundations of the farm of our national poet Bolu-Hjalmar, a writer of Melville’s stature, were bulldozed in 1975 by the landowner because his golf balls tended to get stuck there.

Icelanders have an expression when not knowing quite how to approach an undertaking: “Let´s just bulldoze it.”  I am bulldozing a bit with words. When writing in a foreign language I gain a certain freedom and a feeling of not being censored, and therefore it goes to say that I am telling you the truth.

Let me tell you a story.  A fellow writer was working on a short story when  a friend dropped by  to show off  her new black hat.  By some strange miracle of chance, a woman in the story had entered a store just for the purpose of buying a hat and had settled on the type, but was having trouble choosing the color. So the writer decided to have the character buy a black hat, and as such the story appeared a few days later in the weekend supplement to the country’s largest newspaper. The writer had hardly opened the paper to admire her own story when the phone range and an angry voice on the other end hissed, “So you just could not refrain from telling the whole town that I have just bought a hat!”

“Slayer of Souls” is taken from the collection Meistaraverkið og fleiri sögur [The Masterpiece and Other Stories], published by Forlagið this autumn. Of the fifteen stories, roughly half were originally written in English, though not “Slayer.” When I was trying to write some of these stories in my native language I felt as though the lady with the black hat was looking over my shoulder. So, censoring myself, I gave up on one story idea after another: this one, I felt, would be about a friend’s infidelity, here I would be hurting another friend who had married a nightclub dancer, and so on and so forth.

That’s where the element of freedom came in. I created a little game of illusion, drafting the stories first in English so as to give myself the feeling that I was not insulting anyone. And then I rolled them over into my own native language by way of self-translation.

In addition to my own work, I am the Icelandic translator of Jack Kerouac and Dashiell Hammett, among others. The summer I translated The Maltese Falcon remains in my memory as a season of total darkness because I never had a more dreadful time than translating Hammett´s get-to-the-point Icelandic saga-like sentences into Icelandic. But the eight months or so it took me to translate On the Road could almost be called the most joyful time of my life. When translating Kerouac I had learned enough to ask myself the question: what kind of book would this be in Icelandic? Then I rolled On the Road like a red flaming carpet into the language of the Vikings.

When I translated “The Slayer of Souls,” I did the same. I read my story over; then thought: how should I roll this tale into English? Then I gave myself free rein, without being bound to the dictionary. It was not a complicated thing but a very simple and a joyful one.


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