Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Pakistan, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Argentina

The Asymptote world tour this time begins in Pakistan, with an update on the Punjabi literary scene from Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor. Then, we fly north, where Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large in Slovakia, shares the latest publications and literary events in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Our last stop takes us southwest to Argentina, where Assistant Editor Alexis Almeida talks poetry festivals, feminism, and politics. Welcome aboard, and enjoy the ride.

Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor, with news from Pakistan:

It’s been 250 years since one of the most famous renderings of the Punjabi tragic romance came into being—Heer by Waris Shah, which remains an influence on Punjabi literature and folk traditions. But Punjabi has suffered as a consequence of marginalization during the colonial rule (when Urdu was patronized) as well as the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan, when (Punjabi-speaking) Sikhs were forced to leave their homeland in Pakistani Punjab (while Urdu and Muslims were expunged from India).

Amidst a growing Punjabi literary movement to correct this historical wrong, Asymptote encountered a reading club in Lahore dedicated to and named after this legendary text—the Heer Study Circle.

Ghulam Ali Sher, co-founder of the group, shares its purpose with Asymptote: “to inculcate an interest for Punjabi reading among university youth; to do away with the religiously-oriented sufistic reading of such Punjabi folktales for a more pluralistic and people-oriented interpretation; and to trace the socio-economic patterns of pre-colonial Punjab through popular historical sources, like this folktale, against the biases of mainstream historiography.”

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Inter-Lingual Translation as Pedagogy: Arabic Text Simplification

My ultimate objective is to bring different manifestations of Arab culture closer to learners, to keep them interested in the language.

This interview marks the beginning of an ongoing conversation led by Asymptote’s new educational branch about the role of translation in the classroom. In addition to its Educator’s Guide released every quarter, Asymptote for Educators will soon host its own blog where readers and educators can find more classroom resources, lesson plans, contextualizing materials, and articles discussing the benefits and challenges of integrating global literature in diverse classrooms. Stay tuned! And if you’d like to participate in this new project, or tell us about your experience teaching literature in translation, do get in touch!

Claire Pershan (Asymptote for Educators) met Laila Familiar at NYU Abu Dhabi, where Laila was Claire’s Arabic language instructor. Among her many projects and accomplishments, this interview focuses on Laila’s innovative work as editor of abridged contemporary Arabic novels for Arabic language learners: Hoda Barakat’s Sayyidi wa Habibi: The Authorized Abridged Edition for Students of Arabic (Georgetown University Press – 2013). Sayyidi wa Habibi [My Master and My Love], by celebrated Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat takes place during the Lebanese Civil War, tells the story of Wadie and his wife Samia and their flight to Cyprus. Laila’s adaptation provides introductory materials and exercises that develop linguistic and cultural competencies. (Free audio files of the author reading from her work as well as a recorded interview are available on the press website.) Additionally, she is project manager of Khallina, an open source website dedicated to the teaching and learning of Arab cultures through audiovisuals. The topics of Khallina’s cultural modules range from calligraphy to the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila. Check it out!

The interview below is from their email correspondence.

Claire Pershan (CP): What do you call this practice of adapting novels into language learning resources? Do you consider it a form of translation or editing?

Laila Familiar (LF): The practice of adapting novels into language learning resources dates back to the 1930s. There is evidence in the scientific literature that this was done to help learners of French advance their language skills. Some call these works “adapted” texts, but they are also named “abridged” or “simplified” versions. There are differences in the meaning and connotations of each term, but I would not call it “translation” because the new version is in the same language as the original and the plot is usually the same. When a series of texts is adapted within the various proficiency levels of language learners, we call these Graded Readers. It is definitely a kind of editing.

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Asymptote Celebrates International Translation Day in London

On September 29, join Asymptote in London for a special celebration of world literature.

Book lovers wary of what Brexit will mean for the arts and culture in the United Kingdom can take some small comfort: British readers are going international.

This year, a survey commissioned by the Man Booker International Prize found that literary fiction in translation is outselling its English-language counterparts. Right now, translation seems more important than ever—suddenly, it seems, world literature has taken root in this island nation, where fiction sales are stagnating overall. How did this happen? Is the movement permanent? Mindful of this year’s celebration of Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), the release of the first Kurdish novel translated into English, and the globalization of Korean literature, how are publishers continuing to surface underrepresented voices?

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Something Written” by Emanuele Trevi

For the entire duration of my last meeting with Laura, in her office, the sharp blade of a box cutter quivered a few millimeters from my jugular.

Via Ann Goldstein, also the translator of Elena Ferrante, here is a colorful extract from Emanuele Trevi’s Something Written, winner of the 2012 European Literature Prize and finalist for Italy’s Strega Prize. In a few deftly executed strokes, the literary critic recreates the cutthroat atmosphere presided over by a former boss (aka “Madwoman”), and mulls over what he took out of that period of “extravagant daily persecution”.

Among the many—too many—people who worked for Laura Betti at the Pier Paolo Pasolini Foundation in Rome, all of them endowed with a colorful store of more or less unpleasant memories, I believe that I can boast of, if nothing else, above-average endurance. Not that I was at all spared the extravagant daily persecution that the Madwoman (as I soon took to calling her, in my own mind) felt it her duty to inflict on her subordinates. On the contrary, I was so irredeemably odious to her (there is no more precise word) that I succeeded in plucking all the strings of her protean sadism: from the ceaseless invention of humiliating nicknames to real physical threat. Every time I entered the offices of the foundation, in a dark, massive corner building on Piazza Cavour, not far from Castel Sant’Angelo, I sensed almost physically the animal hostility, the uncontrollable rage that flashed, like the zigzag lightning in a comic book, from behind the lenses of her big square sunglasses. The standard greetings immediately followed. ‘Good morning, little slut, did you finally figure out that it’s time to GIVE HIM YOUR ASS? Or do you think you can still get away with it?!? But you don’t fool ME, you sweet-talking little slut, it takes a lot more than someone like you’—and this first blast of amenities was ended only by the eruption of a laugh that seemed to come from a subterranean cavern, and was made more threatening by the counterpoint of an indescribable sound halfway between a roar and a sob. Very rarely could the avalanche of insults dumped on the unfortunate victim be traced back to meaningful concepts.

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Penny Hueston on her Latest Translation: Men by Marie Darrieussecq

Translating is an act of empathy, of finding something like the appropriate “melody”, but keeping what is idiosyncratic to the writer.

Penny Hueston, translator and editor at Text Publishing—a Melbourne-based independent publishing house—shared with me the process of translating the inimitable French author Marie Darrieussecq, how her editing and translation processes relate, and her next translations we have to look forward to.

Madeline Jones (MJ): How did you first begin translating?

Penny Hueston (PH): After spending about four years in Paris doing post-graduate studies, I returned to Melbourne and was asked to translate various articles—by the literary critic Gérard Genette, for example—for the French issue of a literary magazine, Scripsi. I also translated, with the poet John A. Scott, poems by Emmanuel Hocquard and by Claude Royet-Journoud. Poetry must be the hardest writing to translate.

MJ: Would you say translating followed naturally from your editing career, or how do the two processes relate to one another for you, if at all?

PH: I suppose you could say that translating is a form of editing. In a sense, both my fields of work are about being more or less invisible; at least that is how I conceive of my work as an editor. Julian Barnes seems to nail a similarity between the two processes: “Translation involves micro-pedantry as much as the full yet controlled use of the linguistic imagination. The plainest sentence is full of hazard; often the choices available seem to be between different percentages of loss.” Damon Searles’ take is that translators “gerrymander unscrupulously”, which could also apply to editors! Javier Marias could be talking about editors when he says of translators: “You have to choose every word. And like an actor, you have to renounce your own style.”

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

I wrote whenever anything struck me. As I started to write, I began to revive little by little, from my fingernails to my hair.

Happy Friday, readers! The Asymptote team has some exciting news: starting this week, we will be replacing our Friday literary news round-up with a more diverse and decidedly international column, brought to you by our team members around the world. We’ll have the latest and most pertinent updates on the literary scenes from various regions each week, from national trends to local events. This is your one-stop, world tour!

Starting this week in India, Poorna Swami, Editor-at-Large for India, updates us by region:

Noted Assamese poet Nalinidhar Bhattacharya passed away on September 2 in Guwahati at the age of 95. The Sahitya Akademi Award winner’s books include five poetry collections, five essay collections, and even a translation of Dr. Zhivago into Assamese.

But while the country lost a literary great, it also regained one. Tamil writer Perumal Murugan ended his self-determined literary exile on August 22. His reentry in to the literary world comes a year and a half after he publicly declared to quit writing because his book, Madhorubhagan [One-Part Woman], faced attacks from Hindu fundamentalist and caste-based groups. He had said on his Facebook page: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself.”

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A Fractured Peace: Artist Schandra Singh speaks with designer Shaill Jhaveri

It is over-stimulating, heartbreaking and beautiful. It's like falling in love and having your heart broken every day.

Although considered one of the fastest-growing markets in the world, the Indian art market is still very much in its infancy. Painting dominates it. Artists are broadly divided into the “moderns”: the more mature “legacy” artists whom collectors feel more secure in buying, and the younger, more current “contemporary” artists, who push the boundaries of Indian art. There was not much of a market till the 1990s, when a more vibrant art scene emerged for established and younger artists alike. Since then, despite economic ups and downs, Indian artists and artists of Indian origin have been making their presence felt across the globe. And the world is paying attention, not just to India, but to artists from throughout South and Southeast Asia.

Growing up in India, I was initially attracted to the Indian portrait painters, especially the sumptuous portraits of a royal India, with the Maharajahs showing off their impossible jewels. Later, I was drawn to the more accessible colored photographs, hand colored over black-and-white prints, stiff but theatrical, with the textiles and jewels jumping off the images. There are the overwhelmingly opulent paintings of the 19th c. Raja Ravi Varma from the princely state of Travancore, who fused European academic art into Indian traditions. Then, there are the haunting self-portraits of a half-Indian, half-Hungarian Amrita Sher-Gil. Of the younger artists, the portraits by Surendran Nair, precursors to his more stylized flat narrative paintings, are so very powerful, as is the realism of Abir Karmakar. The digital portraits of Mahatma Gandhi by Aditya Pande push Indian portraiture into another arena entirely.

Today, a lot of the geographical and cultural boundaries have blurred. A young Pakistani artist Salman Toor lives between Lahore and New York City, and finds that he paints himself in a lot of the figures of his poetic canvases. 

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A Moveable Feast: A Year of Reading Women in Translation

In a genre that prides itself on celebrating diversity and shining a light on marginalised voices, women authors have consistently been overlooked.

This August marked the third anniversary of #WomenInTranslation month, a much-needed attempt to redress the balance between male and female authors within translated fiction. In a genre that prides itself on celebrating diversity and shining a light on marginalised voices, women authors have consistently been overlooked by publishers. The numbers paint a rather depressing picture, since according to Three Percent’s database, translated literature makes up approximately 3 percent of the literature published in English-speaking markets, and women make up a fraction of that — a mere 30 percent, or 0.9 percent of the literature that makes it to stores.

In this respect, #WIT Month is a fantastic way of highlighting women’s voices through the power of social media – demonstrating that not only are these books read, but that there is a large audience with a voracious appetite for literature in translation penned (and translated) by women. But I suspect that, like many others, once the dust has settled and we roll into Fall, my reading habits fall back into routine. The culture industry reflects the character of the society that it markets to, and the fact remains that it is considerably harder for women to get their work to appear to English than their male counterparts. If the problem is to achieve any sort of resolution, #WIT Month needs to first inspire a recognition of the gender biases within the industry and reading habits at large, and to introduce readers to women authors that end up being overlooked or that they might not otherwise have heard of — in short, WIT Month should become a moveable feast.

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “The Unfinished Life of Phoebe Hicks” by Agnieszka Taborska

The prospect of death, however, releasing her once and for all from any obligation to taste the fried fare, was not entirely unwelcome.

Rendered with a light touch, the fictional story of Phoebe Hicks is just as much about the place in which the action unfolds (nineteenth-century New England) as it is about its heroine, the inspired star of spiritualist séances. In the ingeniously composed miniatures that make up the book’s chapters (we present just a few of them below), Agnieszka Taborska consistently steers a middle course between rationality and the creation of a deception, between humour and erudition. Don’t miss the duel between Harry Houdini and our protagonist!

Clam Fritters

The theory that a piece of stale clam, which had found its way into a culinary delicacy known across New England, gave birth to Spiritualist photography is no exaggeration. Precisely this toxic morsel was the root of the madness possessing the hearts and minds of New England puritans for decades to come.

 On 1st November 1847 Phoebe Hicks returned home earlier than usual. Barely over the threshold, she rushed into her bedroom and instead of climbing onto the high and, by today’s standards, rather short bed ran straight to the washstand. She leaned over and threw up—once, twice, unable to control herself even after the third time. She vomited all night, occasionally rinsing her perspiring face in water from the blue sprigged ewer. After only an hour, she had nothing left inside but brown bile, which she continued to bring up. Strands of black hair escaped from her tightly-wound bun—stiff, sticky, stinking—and clung to her cheeks like seaweed. She shivered all over—hands numb, head splitting from the violent convulsions. Her back ached, jammed like her knees in an awkward position.

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In Conversation with Adam Morris

I regard one of the functions of literature as social interaction, of reaching and challenging other minds. Otherwise, why write at all?

Adam Morris and I emailed over the course of July about his translation of João Gilberto Noll’s novel Quiet Creature on the Corner from Two Lines Press. The novel follows a young, freshly unemployed poet-drifter in Porto Alegre, Brazil who lands himself in jail after committing rape. Then, without explanation, he is taken to a country house owned by German immigrants Kurt and Gerda where the world suddenly turns irrational. As the protagonists’ world turns surreal, the real world churns on around him, as Lula runs for president for the first time, and the Landless Workers’ Movement stages protests on the street.

                                    –Ryan Mihaly

Ryan Mihaly (RM): I want to start with a grammarian’s query as you say. Some of Noll’s sentences are relentlessly long and often change tense. They almost read like transcriptions of a casual conversation. Was there ever a temptation to break up Noll’s comma splices with something like a semicolon or em-dash instead of a comma?

Adam Morris (AM): You are really taking a risk with this question. I have worked as an editor for many years and am opinionated about grammar and punctuation. I’ll try to be brief.

Semicolons are not used in Brazilian Portuguese and are falling into disuse in English, except among the most pedantic writers. So I discarded that option out of hand. The narrator in Quiet Creature is not a pedant and is, as you say, speaking in a conversational tone. The em-dash was another available option, and unlike the semicolon, its prevalence is increasing. I often find it to be the signature of juvenile or lazy writing, which seemed suitable for the adolescent narrator of Quiet Creature. So I tried using it for some of the more blunt comma splices in Quiet Creature. But when I reread what I’d done, I discovered I’d lost the narrator’s voice. In English, the em-dash commands more of a pause than I heard in his wandering drift. His narration is not choppy or staccato, but a sort of numbed fugue of uneven pace. So the em-dash had to go. A few of them remained, and some turned into commas, but I got rid of most.

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Weekly News Round Up, 9 September 2016: The Meanings of Words

This week's literary highlights from across the world

A very merry greeting to you, Asymptote readers. Today is Leo Tolstoy’s 188th birthday, so we’ll kick this Weekly News Round Up with the Read Russia translation prize shortlist. If you happen to be in Moscow on September 10th, why not go see the award ceremony?

Russia’s rich literary history is well-known, but did you know that the most translated short story in African history is from Kenya? It’s a fable about how humans learned to walk upright and it was written by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Going to better-known literary histories, statisticians predict Japanese writer Haruki Murikami is most likely to win the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. They predict it’s more likely than Philip Roth, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and Joyce Carol Oats.  It’s great to see so many faces in world literature on the list. READ MORE…

Forthcoming Autumn Translations, in Review

Asymptote’s own review brand new translated literature.

 

wayward

Wayward Heroes, by Halldór Laxness, tr. Philip Roughton. Archipelago Books.

Review: Beau Lowenstern, Editor-at-large, Australia

The process of reading literature in translation is to dip into the perennial pool: possible meanings are compounded by language, we splash and struggle and only when we begin to get on our feet do we realise how much deeper and longer the cave goes. Often great writers see only a tiny fraction of their oeuvre translated for a wider audience—as a reader, we must play a game of guessing the size and shape and clarity of the submerged iceberg from only its superficial crown. Not to mention the person we all know who constantly admonishes us that if we had only read the original

Iceland’s Halldór Laxness falls into this lamentable category, with the majority of his collection of stories, essays, novels (including a four-volume memoir), plays and poetry frozen in time to all bar those with a blue tongue. Published in Iceland in 1952 as Gerpla, The Happy Warriors was the title of the original, sparsely recognised English translation, though it contributed to his body of work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. 

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A Dispatch on Polish Literature from the Book Institute, Kraków

It doesn’t feel like translations between the more local languages are celebrated in quite the same way as translations into the 'big' languages.

In March 2017, Poland will be The London Book Fair’s Market Focus. The small but passionate group of experts involved in making Polish books available to English readers has been working harder than usual to prepare. What better way to lay the groundwork than to gather those experts, give them space to talk, and learn about great Polish books while meeting UK publishers?

This is what the Book Institute in Kraków did during a few intense days in June 2016. I was honoured to join a group of translators, editors, publishers and rights experts as we celebrated Polish literature, translation, and—as Babel literary festival put it—linguistic hospitality. On top of meetings with authors and presentations by experts, we had time to see some of sweltering Kraków, peek into bookshops and enjoy golf cart rides. The hospitality and professionalism of the Book Institute’s staff were outstanding.  READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Affections” by Rodrigo Hasbún

At your own wedding, at least for a couple of seconds, you feel like the loneliest woman in the world.

You marry a man with the same name as your father and this doesn’t amuse you. Your father isn’t there to shake his hand or to hug you, to offer you up with these gestures to the man who will take his place. At your own wedding, at least for a couple of seconds, you feel like the loneliest woman in the world. All women must feel this at their weddings, you think, in an effort to console or merely entertain yourself, or perhaps to do both things at once. Trixi is the only one there with you. That afternoon your family has reduced itself to her alone, and there’s something heartbreaking about this basic realization, but also something incomprehensibly liberating. Until recently, you thought that you would never do it, that marriage wasn’t for you. Months after meeting him, perhaps believing in the promise of a different life, one unremarkable Saturday you get married.

* * *

On the wedding night he can’t get an erection. You see him naked for the first time: his sinuous body, his long, slim dick, the scar from his peritonitis operation, and feel not a hint of excitement or conviction. Is this a typical wedding night? He touches you all over with his soft, rich kid’s hands. He licks your nipples and neck, kisses you clumsily either in desperation or impatience, perhaps fearing you or himself, but he can’t get an erection, not even when you stroke his dick. You wonder whether he might still be a virgin, whether perhaps he’s only ever been with whores, whether it isn’t women he’s into at all, whether he, like you, doesn’t understand why he got married. You wonder what your parents’ wedding night must have been like—it’s always been beyond you to imagine them young. You think about how your children won’t be able to imagine you. “You’re distracted,” your husband says. He’s a silent man, he knows how to look at himself from a distance. It’s the thing you most admire in him, perhaps the only thing you admire. Despite what you always believed, it’s something you have forgotten how to do. You feel too close to yourself, and from there everything looks blurred. “No,” you tell him, “I’m not.”

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