It is rather rare catching you at your home in Reykjavík since you attend a lot of festivals throughout the world.
You are quite right. I am just back from an international poetry festival in Granada in Nicaragua, and soon I will be going to Washington DC, Hamar in Norway, and Mariehamn in Finland. In July, I will be reading at the international festival in Medellin í Columbia. In the last two years I have attended festivals in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and China. I happen to love traveling and now I have noticed that I almost always know some of the other poets at these festivals. For instance, I met the Zimbabwean poet Togara Muzanenhamo, who has published poetry on KIN, at the international poetry festival in Rotterdam and at the Parnassus poetry festival in London that was held last year.
You won the Icelandic literature prize in 2010 for a poetry book called Blóðhófnir or Bloodhoof in English translation. Did that change something for you?
Yes, it did. The prize definitely paved the way for [the English translation of] Bloodhoof. Icelandic poetry books are hardly ever published in other languages but Bloodhoof was published by Arc in the UK last year and by the Danish publisher Vandkunsten in 2011 where it is called Blodhingst. This year it will be published in Finland and Sweden. Bloodhoof is based on an ancient Nordic myth, told in the Eddic poem "Skírnimál," about the attempt of the Nordic fertility god, Freyr, to fetch my namesake, Gerdur Gymisdóttir, from her far-away home as his bride. This story has always been considered a romantic and beautiful story, but actually it is full of violence and that is how I tell it.
English is your third language. How do you get around that obstacle? Do you write poems in Icelandic first and then translate, or do you have some other method?
I have never considered it an obstacle having English as a third language. The Icelandic language is my tool. Bloodhoof is not a collection but a long poem that tells a story from the old Nordic mythology. The sources I used are the Eddas and other medieval works, written in Icelandic in the period from the 11th to 13th centuries, but based on myths and legends of the Scandinavian and German peoples from the early medieval period. One of the characteristics of Icelandic is that the language has evolved slowly for the past centuries and still keeps the grammatical structure used around 1200 and earlier. This means that I have direct access to my sources, these old texts are almost contemporary in my eyes. Writing my poetry in Icelandic is therefore essential to its inner logic. When it comes to introducing my literature abroad I count on my translators, and I am very lucky to have very skilled translators into English, Rory McTurk who translated Bloodhoof and Victoria Cribb who translated some of the poems published in the Parnassus-edition of Modern Poetry in Translation last year.
Now that Bloodhoof has been translated into English, what are your thoughts on translation and its processes? Were any poems of yours particularly tricky to translate?
My working method is just to leave my translators alone while they are working but answer their questions as best as I can if they have any--and usually they do. I notice when I read Bloodhoof that the English translation requires more words than the original text. I only use around seven words to express something where the English needs around 12 words. That changes the poem of course, but I am really happy with McTurks's translation and it is an honor to have a book of poetry published in English. It is common that Icelandic crime novels are translated into foreign languages, but it is more difficult with poetry.
You are hard to pin down as an author since you write for children and grown-ups. You have written poetry, novels, short stories, a travel story, plays, and a biography.
I started out as an author for adults in 1994 when my first poetry collection was published. Then I wrote another one, a short story collection, and two novels before writing my first children's book. It was successful and I decided to write some more. Some of my favorite authors are children;s books authors, like the Swedish Astrid Lindgren and the Finnish Tove Jansson. I have noticed that some authors are always seen either as writers for children or adults even though they have written both genres. Luckily, I have got away with doing both. I get a lot of ideas, some of them are perfect for children's books and some are not. After a book for grown-ups I long to write for children and vice versa. My career would not have been as exciting as it is if I had not got the idea to write a novel for children. My most successful one is a ghost story called The Cemetery that takes place in Reykjavík, my hometown. It has been published in Germany (Die Letzte Nacht des Jahres, Bloomsbury) and Norway (Kirkegåreden, Bokvennen). Soon it will be published by Vandkunsten in Denmark. The film rights have also been sold.
What are you writing now?
Last year I published a poetry collection called Strandir that was very well received. Now I feel like writing a children's book. Even though I live near the center of Reykjavík my part of the town, called Skerjafjörður, is isolated by the domestic airport. (No, there is no problem living here since the rich had to sell their noisy private jets after the economy crises!) We have our own summer festival in August and our very own bonfire to celebrate the New Year. The children are probably the only children in Reykjavík that have to take the schoolbus each morning to attend school. Sometimes I feel like I am living in an old-fashioned village. I have started writing a children's story that takes place in this lovely neighbourhood. The schoolbus will be there, the summer festival, and the bonfire. I have also started writing a novel for grownups that takes place in the area where my parents have a summer house and where I spent a lot of time as a child. I have a residency in an isolated Swedish island in June where I will continue writing that one. And then I have a poem to write. I happened to interview a murderer when I was a journalist. I have never been able to get his victim's story out of my mind. She deserves a poem.
The Oxford English Dictionary contains over a quarter million words. Yet there are plenty of foreign words, like German's "Schadenfreude" or Spanish's "duende," with no English equivalent. What thoughts are easier to express in Icelandic than in English? And what is easier to do in English than in Icelandic?
There are many words about snow, cold, and the weather in general in Icelandic--since Icelandars depend on fishing and farming and therefore rely on the weather. We have a wide range of vocabulary for different kind of snow. The vocabulary for things related to the sea and fishing is also very rich. The world I have created with my poetry is so Icelandic that I would never consider writing in another language. I have no idea if there is anything that is easier to express in English than in Icelandic. It is possible to express everything in Icelandic but whether we want to is another question. Some things are better left unsaid. That is where poetry begins.
Gerður Kristný was born on June 10, 1970 and brought up in Reykjavík. She graduated in French and comparative literature from the University of Iceland in 1992. She is a full time writer.
Kristný won the Icelandic Literature Awards 2010 for her book of poetry Blóðhófnir which is based on an ancient Nordic myth, told in the Eddic poem Skírnimál, about the attempt of the Nordic fertility god Freyr to fetch the poet's namesake Gerdur Gymisdóttir from her far away home as his bride. Blóðhófnir / Bloodhoof was published by Arc in 2012 in the translation of Rory McTurk. Kristný has published collections of poetry and short stories, novels, books for children and a biography, for which she recieved The Icelandic Journalism Award in 2005. Her play, The Dancing at Bessastadir, based on two of her children's books, premiered in the Icelandic National Theater in Reykjavík in February 2011 and was acclaimed by the public and critics alike.