How to scare your editor. Petrona Award translators – part 2.

Victoria Cribb (MA, Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic, and History, University of Cambridge; MA, Scandinavian Studies, UCL; BPhil, Icelandic as a Foreign Language, University of Iceland) spent a number of years travelling, studying and working in Iceland before becoming a full-time translator in 2002.

She has translated more than forty books by Icelandic authors including Sjón, Arnaldur Indriðason, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson, Eva Björg Ægisdóttir, Gyrðir Elíasson and Andri Snær Magnússon, and poetry by Gerður Kristný. A number of these works have been nominated for prizes. In 2021 her translation of Eva Björg Ægisdóttir’s The Creak on the Stairs became the first translation to win the UK Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger award, and her translation of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea won the UK’s 2015 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year. Other nominations include being long-listed three times for the US Best Translated Book Award (Fiction), and twice for the PEN America Translation Prize, both most recently in 2019 with CoDex 1962 by Sjón.Another of her Sjón translations, In the Mouth of the Whale, was short-listed for the UK’s 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the 2013 International Dublin Literary Award. Sjón’s work in English (and other languages) has been recognised all around the world and it led to the author being invited to contribute a piece of work to be included in the Future Library project.

In 2017 Victoria Cribb received the Orðstír honorary translation award in recognition of her contribution to the translation of Icelandic literature. She now lives in Vienna, Austria, and knows exactly how to scare an editor. Below is her foolproof suggestion.

Connected by the Icelandic language: Victoria Cribb, writer and translator Quentin Bates, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.

‘Translation can be a lonely job. You sit there for months, wrestling with words, your only company a book and a laptop (I am not one of those fortunate translators who has a cat to assist or, more likely, hinder their efforts). Apart from the occasional e-mail exchange with the author or editor, or attempt to pick my other half’s brains (‘What do we call those round thingummies in English?’ — ‘I have no idea.’ — ‘Ah, good, so it’s not just me losing my marbles, then?’), I am alone with the text. So I’m hugely grateful to Nordic Noir bloggers like Ewa, who not only read our books but share their enthusiasm with others, and to the organisers of the Petrona Award, who make us feel that our work might actually be worthy of praise.

I first became aware of the Petrona Award when my translation of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea won it in 2015. As it happens, this was the first of her books I had worked on. Two things struck me immediately: Yrsa was funny and Yrsa was good at generating fear – not an easy combination to pull off. There is a tendency among English speakers to think of Nordic literature as unremittingly bleak, but Yrsa is always aware of the comedy inherent in the human condition. In The Silence of the Sea, it is particularly evident in the relationship between the central character, Thóra, and her baleful receptionist, the ironically named Bella. When I told Yrsa that Bella was my favourite character, I was delighted to learn that she was based on a real person.

But my abiding memory of this book is just how much research Yrsa had given me to do. One strand of the story is set on board a luxury yacht. Although I grew up on Arthur Ransome, have read the entire Patrick O’Brian Aubrey series and countless other works about ships and the sea, nautical language remains incredibly difficult to get right. I spent hours trawling the internet for articles and adverts about super yachts, and poring over the thesaurus for different ways to say ‘opulent’. I had to learn all about radar, and NAVTEX and VHF radio. I wandered the lanes of Lisbon with the help of Google Street View to find out what the cobbles looked like. I puzzled over the arcana of scuba-diving equipment, and bombarded Yrsa with pictures of freight containers, demanding to know which one she had in mind.

I am always on my mettle to solve as many problems as I can before I pester the author for explanations, aware that they have many other calls on their time, but with this book I was lucky enough to meet Yrsa in person. I remember querying some detail, thinking I was being clever, only to be silenced by Yrsa’s answer that she had tried out the activity for herself. Here was someone who took her research seriously. Instead of relying on Google like me, she had been out there, scuba diving and visiting the bridge of a trawler (she was unable to drum up a super yacht).

Since then, I’ve translated another nine novels by Yrsa, always grateful for the humour and generally rooting for the animals (if anyone’s going to survive the bloodbath, let it be the dog or cat). My biggest concern is usually about preserving the fear factor. I’m a terrible coward myself, often so badly spooked by the Icelandic original that I can’t continue reading after dark or when I’m alone in the house. But once I’m working on the translation, I have the opposite problem: the work ceases to be scary at all. Disaster! I become convinced that I’ve ruined it. After I handed in The Silence of the Sea, I remember my relief when the editor e-mailed me to say she’d been so frightened by the bit where the ghostly voice speaks through the ship’s radio that she’d had to stop reading and go and make a cup of tea to calm her nerves.

Yrsa and I have got a new horror novel called The Prey coming out in the UK in October 2023. I sincerely hope that it too will have readers reaching for their kettles.’  

2 thoughts on “How to scare your editor. Petrona Award translators – part 2.

  1. Pingback: A Fan’s Perspective. Petrona Award translators – part 3. – Nordic Lighthouse

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