A Conversation with Lytton Smith

Lytton_SmithEarlier this year we were absolutely spellbound by Icelandic author Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s novel Children in Reindeer Woods. Aaron had this to say about the novel:

Told by way of a beautiful translation which utilizes clear and concise language to convey young Billie’s point of view, Children in Reindeer Woods is ultimately one of the strangest, most dazzling pieces of fiction one is likely to come across all year…

Karli was equally dazzled by Children in Reindeer Woods, stating:

…I applaud the novel’s English translator, Lytton Smith. The tone and dialogue often make you feel like you’re reading a strange fairy tale or fable, which can be quite unnerving considering the subject matter – but this just serves as a reminder of how closely trauma and violence can interact with innocence and purity.

We were so delighted when Mr. Smith agreed to our request for an interview that we immediately put our heads together to come with a set of questions about the novel, Mr. Smith’s translation process, and his career as a poet.

Lytton Smith (born 1982) is an Anglo-American poet. His most recent poetry collection is The All-Purpose Magical Tent (Nightboat Books, 2009), which was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize in 2009, and was praised by Publishers Weekly in a starred review as “…fantastic and earthy, strange and inherited, classical and idiosyncratic, at once.”  He also has a previous chapbook, Monster Theory, selected by Kevin Young for the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship in 2008. Additionally, Smith’s poetry has appeared in a number of prominent literary journals and magazines such as The Atlantic, Bateau, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Tin House, and many others.  Lytton Smith was born in Galleywood, England. He moved to New York City, where he became a founder of Blind Tiger Poetry, an organization dedicated to promoing contemporary poetry. He has taught at Columbia University and currently a teacher at Plymouth University.  (from Wikipedia)

TE: Who is Lytton Smith?

LS: Ha! You’ve started with a hard one. I write poetry, translate from Icelandic, write plays. I lived in the NYC area for 8 years before moving back to the UK, last September, where I’m Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University. But that’s more what I do than who I am…

TE: How did you first get started with writing?

LS: I’m not sure I know! I’ve always written, or told stories, or spent time with poetry – and writing really begins in reading, so perhaps when I started reading poetry, when I first memorized John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’ or my father read Alexander Dumas’ novels to me, is when I got started with writing. I can pinpoint the moment I decided to make writing a priority: I was selected for an Arvon Foundation writing course, led by Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell, and that both gave me the confidence to continue and introduced me to the M.F.A.; at Columbia I found a community of writers from whom I learned, often by reading and loving their work.

TE: How did you get involved with translating Children in Reindeer Woods? Is this the first translation you’ve done?

LS: It’s the second novel I’ve translated; the first, The Ambassador, by Bragi Ólafsson, also came out from Open Letter. With Children in Reindeer Woods, Open Letter approached me, having already acquired the rights; they asked me to do a sample, and fortunately both they and Kristin Ómarsdóttir liked it. I feel very lucky that a novel I so enjoyed and felt an affinity with came my way. It must be said, though, that the folks at Open Letter routinely have great taste.

TE: How long did the translation process take? Was Ómarsdóttir involved or available to help answer any questions that arose?

LS: Around a year, on and off – maybe nearer 18 months by the time the proofing and final copy-editing was done. Kristin was wonderful to work with, answering questions and looking closely at drafts. I was similarly lucky in my relationship with Bragi. It’s important as a translator to remain independent, to recognise your own understanding of a book, but all the input from the author is helpful, and it’s amazing to be able to see these wonderful creations through the eyes of those who’ve made them. Charles Simic has described translation as the closest reading possible, and it gets even closer when you read alongside the author. As a translator, that doesn’t mean agreeing with everything that’s said, and Kristin was respectful of my insights, but it does mean listening very carefully!

TE: Do you think your own skills and abilities as a poet have contributed to your success as a translator?

LS: Yes; poetry and translation work very well together, in part because of a shared agonizing over word choice and word order – though even as I say that, I hear my fiction writer friends reminding me that the same applies to the novelist; what I mean is that the kinds of decisions I have to think about in shaping a poem are quite similar to those I consider as a translator.

I’m also helped by the fact that both the novels I’ve translated have had something to do with poetry; both Bragi Ólafsson and Kristin Ómarsdóttir have written poetry. The Ambassador was actually about a poet, so that drew on personal experience (though I’ve never stolen an overcoat, unlike Bragi’s protagonist). The poetry came in handy with Children in Reindeer Woods because of Kristin’s wordplay; she’s so inventive, even for an Icelander, in creating word and phrase combinations.

TE: As a translator, how do you handle local vernacular, idioms, or other “untranslatable” text?

LS: I often think translation as a term should be banned in favor of translating to signal that the process never ends; it’s an on-going conversation between two (or more) languages. So I’ll often draw attention to the “untranslatable,” at times even leaving it in the original. At other times, it’s a case of trying to create an equivalent experience for the English-language reader as the Icelandic-language reader would have had. That requires being a little creative: one of Billie’s dolls has kúluleg, literally “ball-womb,” but that woudn’t work. I tried “ball bearings” but this was taking the translation too far, so it became “metalbelly”—I could see Billie having misunderstood something one of the adults said about a woman who couldn’t get pregnant, whose womb was barren. Trying to get into the character’s mind led me to find a way to handle it. In a way, I imagine it’s a little bit like what cryptographers used to do: get into the mindset of the person who created the code (author, character, etc) and you can find a way to translate it.

TE: We’re there any pieces of the novel that had to cut or slightly altered? For example, is “The King of Rock and Roll” actually referred to as Elvis Presley in the original text?

LS: No, he wasn’t – and that’s part of the charm of Children in Reindeer Woods, the mystery over when and where we are as we read it. It’s difficult to locate oneself, and that forces you to ask how you’re reacting to events: is Elvis here, too, or is this someone else? Which war are we in? Does anyone know? That said, there were changes: the title in Icelandic is literally “Here,” but while that works very well thematically, just try getting people in the U.S. to buy a novel with Here as a title – they’d never find it on Amazon or Google, and that has to be a consideration, for better or worse. There are more paragraphs in the English version, which Kristin suggested and which I thought was a good idea. Yet on the whole, very little had to be reworked, in part because the novel has an international horizon.

The thing I struggled with most was the word lögspekur, which literally means “law-speaker.” There’s no role in American (or British) culture or law that exactly matches this; it’s almost a little old-fashioned for Iceland, too, but not so old-fashioned that I could look to historical contexts in English. I must have tried at least a score of ideas on Jess (my wife), and asked several friends for thoughts—Joe, with his legal background, Katja, who I thought might know of Swedish equivalents—and finally came up with “jurist,” thanks to a chance conversation with my younger brother, Garth.

TE: Children in Reindeer Woods is at times darkly funny, but the idea of humor varies so much between cultures and regions. How do you ensure that the comicality of the text is properly conveyed while still preserving the author’s original intent?

LS: Interestingly, both the books I’ve translated have had a singular wit to them, and I really enjoy trying to get across humor. The solution is in part about recognizing you can’t translate every joke or every pun; you have to get the overall tone, to try to do similar things so you’re maintaining the balance between what’s dark and what’s funny. That’s also why it’s important to feel an affinity for the tone of the original; if you’re not feeling that as a translator, it can be very hard to make the translating work. Because a translation is a close reading, it does represents your own interpretation, rather than the author’s intent – you’re trying to get as close to that as possible, but intent’s always partly imagined (by reader and by writer). The translation you make is the data of your own close reading of the work, if that makes sense. When you read several translations of the same work, you learn a lot more about the translators’ ideas of art than about the author’s!

TE: Billie’s narrative voice is incredibly delicate, teetering between innocence and knowing. Were you intimidated by the challenge of preserving this fragile balance?

LS: Yes, Yes. She felt like a tremendous responsibility, as did Rafael. I didn’t want either of them to become heroic or villainous, to lose their complexity. Billie’s perspective is so crucial to the book that she was especially important to get right. I’m very happy that you can describe her voice as ‘delicate’; that gives me hope that maybe I got her across enough. The scenes where she plays with her dolls were touchstones for me; I kept going back to Kristin’s writing there, seeing how she was creating a character who saw the world in unusual ways, who played with language because she’s been brought up to see the world differently from other people. I learned a great deal about how you create characters from what Kristin does so deftly with Billie.

TE: Children in Reindeer Woods has been billed as a modern fable. What do you think the moral of the story is?

LS: I like that! Yes, I think it is a fable. But I’m not sure the fable always has a moral; I think the fable is really a means of getting us to think about complex situations. So there is a moral to Children in Reindeer Woods, in that it asks us to think carefully about the effects of war – but it’s not a simplistically anti-war book (I’d love to discuss it with students at military academies; I think that would be very fruitful). I don’t know there’s a fixed lesson to the book; we’re given a problem, and I find that compelling.

TE: What are you currently working on?

LS: I’m thinking about what I might next translate from Icelandic! It’s been a busy year, so I’ve not been able to read as much as I’d have liked. I’ve been working on a couple of projects related to how we understand the concept of the citizen today; one is critical, a study of American experimental poetry post-1945; the other a book of poems. My second book of poems, While You Were Approaching the Spectacle And Before You Were Transformed By It, is coming out this March from Nightboat Books. So it’s a busy time.

TE: Who influences you as a writer?

LS: Anyone who plays with language, tests what it can do, what it can help us conceive and imagine. I’m influenced by writers like Alessandro Baricco (the first writer I encountered who made me realize how important translation is) and Karen Russell, who can look at the world in ways that that teach me there’s always more to see. I love how Gary Lutz puts letters and sentences together so that you feel your brain and mouth being rewired as you read. Timothy Donnelly’s poems press on with a rhythm that mean you can’t forget language is always inside us, not just out there in the world. And the poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi keeps finding ways to make language beautiful without making it ornamental or artificial; to spend time with her poems about L.A. or Hartford or blues or boxing is to recognize just how ordinary the ordinary isn’t. Poets influence me most as a writer, but in a sense all these writers I’ve named are in a relationship to poetry (that point I think will take me a long while, at some point in the future, to explain…)

TE: What was the last great book you read?

LS: I’ve just finished Matthew Hollis’ biography of Edward Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, which I think is a beautifully-measured account of creative process, friendship, and the lead-up to the First World War. And Laura Mullen’s book of poems, Dark Archive, is a haunting meditation on how we communicate with one another. I’ve cheated and mentioned two!

Lytton Smith’s translation of Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s novel Children in Reindeer Woods was published by Open Letter Books and is available wherever fine books are sold.  Lytton Smith’s most recent poetry collection The All-Purpose Magical Tent was published by Nightboat Books and is also available wherever fine books are sold.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.