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Fish Have No Feet interview

Fish Have No Feet interview

Jon Kalman Stefansson tells us being longlisted is a very good reason to buy oneself a good beer and translator Phil Roughton describes the moment as a group celebration. 

This is part of our series of Man Booker International Prize 2017 longlist interviews. 

Jon Kalman Stefansson, author of Fish Have No Feet 

What has it been like to be longlisted?  

It’s a smile, an honour, and very good reason to buy oneself a good beer…and one is proud to be among names like Amos Oz and Ismail Kadare; authors that I have been reading with so much pleasure for a long time. Being longlisted also helps my works reach more readers. And where is the writer without readers?

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel Fish Have No Feet?  

I remember when I started to publish novels, some 20 years ago, and did the first interviews, that I always had a great trouble to give a straight answer to questions like: What’s the book about? And that was simply because the plot was just a part of the book. Saying what the book was about did in fact not tell much about it, in fact, a very little. And the same goes with Fish Have No Feet. Sure, the plot is there, and is vital, but the style is just as important as the plot. And the music of the words is just as important as the style. And the atmosphere is just as important as the music of the book.  I write novels not only to tell stories, but also to affect and to stir the readers with the style, to get deep into his feelings with the music of the words. To create an atmosphere that goes inside the reader, and stays there. Because I simply write to change the world.  

What inspired you to set your novel in Keflavík, a town which has been called the darkest place in Iceland? 

I lived there for some ten years as a kid and a young man. And after I started to write novels, I just knew that someday I would, and had, to write about Keflavík. It’s a place with unique atmosphere, and very special nature surroundings. And the fact that Keflavík had an American military base as a neighbour for 50 years, a base which had a huge influence on Iceland as whole, but showed strongest in Keflavik, just added more and stranger charm to the town. Places like Keflavík seem just to have been created for fiction. A goldmine, especially if you have lived there for some time.     


Phil Roughton, translator of Fish Have No Feet 

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It’s really an honour to be longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and the news was a wonderful surprise. I move from project to project so quickly that I usually don’t get a chance to relish the completion of a translation, so it’s nice to reflect on Fish Have No Feet, to think more about Jón Kalman’s work and its literary merit, now recognized so widely.  I enjoy taking looks at literary blogs and witnessing the buzz generated by these works of translated literature— discussions of their merits and faults, the back-and-forth about what books have been selected or not. It’s great to get more of a feel for what people these days value in literature, what excites them, what frustrates them— and to see how voices and visions from all over the world are so important to them (and to all of us).  It’s like reading a newspaper filled only with good news— celebrations of the human spirit, with all of its ups and downs, victories and failures.

Of course, there’s almost no human achievement, major or minor, that’s not a result of cooperation, collaboration. All of these books are group efforts— and being longlisted is an accolade not just for Jón Kalman or me (and the people that keep teaching me Icelandic every day, including my girlfriend, who puts up with my long hours at the computer and my wearisome questions), but also the publisher, the editorial team, and the producers of the books; not to mention the critics, reviewers, readers. It’s a group celebration!


Also, this is the first time I’ve ever been asked to answer interview questions, so it’s fun to get a chance to join the conversation, be a part of the buzz— for what can be a very lonely and decidedly unglamorous job.

What did you like most about translating Fish Have No Feet?

I appreciate the novel’s contemporaneity and universality, even its unglamorous view of life in Iceland— young people slogging away in boring jobs, keeping themselves entertained with music in headphones.  The realities of life in a dispirited, quota-less village can be grim, and Jón Kalman does a good job of conveying those realities.

For many visitors to Iceland, the drive through the lava fields around Keflavík is the start or finish of eye-opening adventures. For the novel’s characters, the drive is part of the daily grind, in a place unprotected against bad weather.  It’s interesting to have a view of life and landscapes in Iceland that wouldn’t put it on the list of ‘happiest countries in the world’ or ‘places you simply must visit’ (although one of the novel’s characters does attempt to sell the rosy view in his tourist shop).

How did you begin your career as a translator? 

Language and literature were the main focus of my studies at the University of Colorado, which meant that I was always translating, in one way or another—or at least looking up words in dictionaries (I remember practically being glued to dictionaries one semester, when I was studying Icelandic, Arabic, Chinese, and Classical Chinese at the same time). My Icelandic teacher, Professor Mike Bell, suggested that I help him finish a translation and study of the Old Icelandic Saga of the Apostle Bartholomew (a 13th-century translation of 6th-century Latin saint’s life). We did that, and I carried on with those apostles’ lives, making them the subject of both my MA and PhD theses (and eventually translating hundreds of pages of them). I went to Iceland to research the subject, and once there, thought I should read modern Icelandic literature to help improve my Icelandic language abilities. I asked friends for book suggestions, and was recommended Halldór Laxness’ Iceland’s Bell.  I wanted to read it in Icelandic and English, but when I discovered that it hadn’t been translated into English, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just translate it.’  Nine years later, I was finished with my MA, my PhD, and my translation of that novel— only to be told that it was untranslatable.  I’m actually glad that I was uninformed enough not to fear it (‘fools rush in…’), because it started everything off— and in fact, I enjoyed every step of translating it.  I owe thanks to Pétur Már Ólafsson of Bjartur Publishing, who encouraged me to finish the translation, and to Diana Secker at Random House, who agreed to publish it.  Afterward, I translated a biography of Laxness and did all sorts of smaller translations, and then the novels and film scripts and stories and poetry started coming my way. 

Fish Have No Feet