Despite its diminutive size and remote location in the Arctic Ocean, Iceland has attracted the attention of global readers. Crime novels by Icelandic writers—including Arnaldur Indriðason, Ragnar Jónasson, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and more recently Eva Björg Ægisdóttir—are popular around the world. At Daunt Books Marylebone in London, where the titles are arranged by country and nationality, Icelandic titles take up nearly as much shelf space as those from all the other Nordic countries combined.
This literary community extends well beyond crime fiction and includes a significant number of poets and internationally recognized literary novelists, such as Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, who won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2018 for her novel Ör (published in the U.S. by Grove Atlantic as Hotel Silence), and Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, who writes under the pseudonym Sjón and was awarded the Nordic Prize from the Swedish Academy last month for his “significant contributions to Nordic literature.” Then there is Halldór Laxness, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955.
In all, the Icelandic Literature Center, which is responsible for the promotion of Icelandic literature at home and abroad, estimates there have been 1,500 translations of Icelandic novels into other languages. Some 100 were published in the U.S. between 2018 and 2022, according to the Translation Database hosted by PW.
“Still, there are far, far more books to be translated,” said Stella Soffia Jóhannesdóttir, director of the Reykjavik International Literary Festival. “While the opportunity exists, the challenge is that there are very few people outside Iceland who can read the books in their original language. It’s a 1,000 year-old, medieval language, after all.”
The potential for Icelandic authors to reach a wider market is well-known among editors inside the country and elsewhere. A fellowship program for publishing professionals to attend this year’s Reykjavik International Literature Festival, held April 19–23, included two dozen top acquisitions editors from around the world, including Katrin Aé, acquiring editor from Germany’s Hoffman und Campe; Sherif Bakr, publisher of Egypt’s Al Arabi; Emma Raddatz, editor of Brooklyn-based Archipelago Books; and Paulina Surniak, acquisitions editor from Poland’s Wydawnictwo Poznanskie. What’s more, a seminar for nearly a dozen Icelandic translators followed the festival. These two events were followed by the Iceland Writers Retreat, which brings scores of aspiring writers to Reykjavik for a week of professional development every year.
There are no independent literary agents working in Iceland, so many of the top Icelandic writers have sought representation abroad. In addition, for the past 25 years, Forlagid, the largest publisher in the country, has operated its own literary agency, representing the work of its authors abroad. At the festival, Valgerdur Benediktsdottir, director of the Forlagid Rights Agency, announced that it is rebranding the company as the Reykjavik Literary Agency, and that it will represent authors from a range of Icelandic publishing houses. She will be joined by Jóhannesdóttir, who will serve as a senior agent, and Kolbrún Þóra Eiríksdóttir, who will be an agent. In addition, many of the books with rights available are featured in an online catalog, Books from Iceland, compiled by the Icelandic Literature Center. “Were modeling this new agency on the Oslo Literary Agency and the Helsinki Literary Agency, which are also representing authors from different publishing houses,” Jóhannesdóttir said.
Jóhannesdóttir, whose background includes serving as acquisitions editor at Storytel in Iceland, explained that the face of literary Iceland is changing. She said a new generation of talent is emerging, some of whom have been developed by the creative writing program at the University of Iceland.
There is also a new multiculturalism that is evident in Icelandic literature, Jóhannesdóttir said, which puts it in direct conversation with other cultures. For example, one of the titles whose English-language rights are currently on offer is Lungu (Lungs), a magic-realist novel by Pedro Gunnalaugur Garcia, an Icelandic author of Portuguese-descent. The book won the 2023 Icelandic Literature Prize, the top literary prize in the country, and tells the story of a family as it moves from Tuscany to Toronto and Iceland across several generations. “The tomorrow of Iceland will become a multicultural place, and far more so than many people think,” Garcia said in a talk during the Reykjavik International Literary Festival.
Writers Adrift, a new anthology published by Una útáfuhús, featured translations of stories by 10 foreign-born writers living in Iceland, including Brazilian translator Francesca Cricelli; Maazen Maarouf, a Palestinian poet who has been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize; and Ewa Marcinek, who was born in Poland and founded Ós Pressan, a publishing house that aims to support marginalized writers in Reykjavik (Poles constitute the largest immigrant group in Iceland). The anthology is introduced by Eliza Reid, the Canadian-born first lady of Iceland, who is the author of Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World, which was published last year by Sourcebooks.
Referring to the launch of the new agency, Jóhannesdóttir remarked, “We think it is a great opportunity for us as publishers and an agency to take the work of some of these new exciting authors abroad and show a side of Iceland that people do not yet know.”