Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your latest updates from the UK, Argentina, and Canada

In case you missed it, Asymptote has exciting news from the London Book Fair, plus the latest literary gossip from Argentina and Canada this week. Lots of new books to look out for, and many writers making waves in their communities. First stop: LBF! 

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, sends us her notes from the recently concluded London Book Fair, where Polish literature had a big moment:

Over the past few years, Polish has become the second most widely spoken language in the UK, so it was high time for Londoners to get exposed to a massive dose of Polish literature.  Several years of work by the British Council, the Polish Book Institute and the Polish Cultural Institute in London finally paid off as Poland was the market focus at this year’s London Book Fair, held from 13 to 16 March.

Polish writers kept popping up at readings and discussions—not just at the buzzing maze that is the Olympia conference centre, but also at venues all over London. However, the toast of the town was, without doubt,  leading feminist author Olga Tokarchuk (Tok-ARCH-ook: TOK as in tick-tock, ARCH as in arch, OOK to rhyme with book, stress on the ARCH, to quote from the handy guide to pronouncing Polish writers’ names prepared by translator extraordinaire Antonia Lloyd-Jones).  Apparently unfazed by her relentless schedule, Tokarczuk was always ready to answer probing questions with unfailing grace.  Her conversation with novelist Deborah Levy at the London Review Bookshop sold out weeks in advance, and it must have been a real bonus for the author to be presented, ahead of its scheduled publication, with copies of her own latest book Flights, in Jennifer Croft’s English translation (excerpt here).

credit Elzbieta Piekacz, courtesy of Polish Book Institute

credit Elzbieta Piekacz, courtesy of Polish Book Institute

Discussing the role of history in 21st century Polish fiction, Tokarczuk—whom moderator Rosie Goldsmith introduced as the “Margaret Atwood of Central Europe“—declared: “Objective history doesn’t really exist. What is located in the archives is just a collection of facts; history is a projection, our interpretation.” London-based Libyan author Hisham Matar concurred, suggesting that “all writing about the past is vigorously about the present.”  Science fiction writer Jacek Dukaj pointed out that films and books can shape our own memory of events, while poet, writer, and translator Jacek Dehnel explained that he doesn’t write non-fiction because in literature you often have to lie to make it more true.

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Ida Börjel Invents New Language to Examine Authoritarianism, Resistance, and Sabotage

what happens if the cute start to speak, if they start making claims on our way of reasoning?

Born in Lund, Sweden, Ida Börjel is one of the most radical voices in contemporary conceptual poetry. Since her multiple award-winning debut collection Sond (Probe, 2004), Börjel has been investigating the current conditions of our world, raising questions such as ”Why do we walk in circles when we are lost?”, and, ”what is a waist measure of nationalistic characters?” Her poetry absorbs and reinvents language from consumer law, juridicial clauses, racist radio, political pamphlets and other sprawling sources to expose our contemporary, linguistic, and societal circumstances in relation to various forms and systems of power and authority. Her collection Miximum Ca’Canny the Sabotage Manuals (Commune Editions, 2016) is available to English-language readers in the translation of Jennifer Hayashida. Hayashida is working on a forthcoming translation of Ma, Börjel’s most widely-acclaimed book, which received many awards in the original, including the prestigious Erik Lindegren prize and Albert Bonnier’s poetry prize.

Asymptote‘s Sohini Basak caught up with the poet over email last month.      

Sohini Basak (SB): In your collection Miximum Ca’Canny the Sabotage Manuals, a collective of industrial workers’ voices confound and sabotage capitalist machinery and “the boss” in various ways, including providing instructions for what to do when they “cutta da pay”: hide paperwork, peel off labels, forget tools, embrace slowness, hold meetings, ask questions—it’s a very real and fascinating interaction between materiality and ownership of language. I’m interested in the blueprints of this collection. Where did you begin?

Ida Börjel (IB): It began, I guess, with that old question about free will, about akrasia and how we might come to deviate from a given pattern. What compels a person to step across the threshold, out on the piazza, into action? Or to activate a gesture of refusal, discontinuation, or silence? And, in addition, the question I’ve been dragging along in my writing since day one: How, in what kind of language, can I think differently about a system of which we are a part? In which we are apart?

So, in pursuing those questions, I conducted a minor survey of sabotage in time and space, from above and below, inside and out: from Elisabeth Gurley Flynn and her 1916 pamphlet ”Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Worker’s Industrial Efficiency,” to—still in the U.S. but directed overseas—the OSS (a predecessor to the CIA) pamphlet ”Sabotage: A Simple Field Manual,” which suggests the ”citizen-saboteurs” in France and Norway during WWII issue two tickets for one seat on the train in order to set up an ”interesting” argument, just to name example. It also states that ”purposeful stupidity is contrary to human nature,” so the citizen-saboteur ”frequently needs pressure, stimulation or assurance.” From there, I I looked at contemporary workers in the textile industry in Pakistan or the closing of an Ericsson factory in Gävle, Sweden, in 2009, and many others—there are pamphlets, diaries, blog texts, conversations, memories to sift through. There is much to be found and read out there, though there are sources that need to stay anonymous.

SB: That’s very immersive … and once you had points of references, memories, material, how did you map it all out?

IB: What seemed urgent to me in rewording and sampling texts from these various sources was not a simple whodunnit, but rather, how does one find and pick up that ”fine thread of deviation,” as Gurley Flynn puts it, in the present order of things? In the factory or at the office, yes, but also in factory life outside of the factory. In the prevailing social structures, in our daily lives… Do we speak, think, write, like in a factory? Leslie Kaplan, author of Excess– The Factory, asks this.

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In Review: Can Xue’s Frontier

[Grace] thought one of the frontier’s major characteristics was that the scenery outside exerted tremendous pressure on people.

Luijin lives in Pebble Town, a place that lies between two peripheries. People often travel there from the interior, as her parents once did, moving farther and farther north until they arrive at the border of the frontier. The Snow Mountain, eternally white, watches over the townspeople in the slight distance. ‘Surreal’ and ‘mystical’ can perhaps describe the lives of those who live and work in Pebble Town, with its disappearing, floating tropical gardens, the grove of Poplar trees, roaming snow leopards and the impalpable Design Institute.

The narrative unfolds through a dozen or so perspectives, each a unique unveiling of the subtle yet marvelous flow of life that plays out in the mind of its author, Can Xue. And here is where our plot summary ends, at least in the typical sense. The narrative arc is perhaps the least helpful point of reference for a reader of Can Xue, and it would do no service here, to either reader or subject, to continue. That is not to say the story lacks structure (more on that later), but that to focus on it here would be to disregard what makes her work so unique. It is what lies behind the walls of narrative and concrete plot points that interests Can Xue: the intangible is valued over the material.

As with much of Can Xue’s translated work, people and things, time and space, all tend to envelope each other like a mist. Perhaps most notable in her short stories, her ability to find careful footing in the space between the real and the surreal is unique and achieves a balance that is both remarkable and often unsettling. In Frontier (Open Letter, 2017), her newest novel to appear in English, this balance is penetrating and comes through most forcefully in the town itself. In a letter to her parents, who have left Pebble Town to return to the city, one of the primary characters, Luijin, writes, “she felt that Pebble Town was a slumbering city. Every day, some people and things were revived in the wind. They came to life suddenly and unexpectedly.” For the reader, Pebble Town both grounds and disorientates us at the same time, without interruption. It serves as neither a character nor a place, but magnifies what is around it; enhances and completes it. Can Xue leaves no landmarks or way points to light the path when navigating this curious place, except to remind us “on snowy days, one’s field of vision widens.”

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of “Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge” by Ezzedine C. Fishere

She was a victim of her own mythmaking about the mysterious Orient.

Shortlisted for the Arabic Booker when it first appeared in 2011, Ezzedine C. Fishere’s Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge has already been reprinted eleven times. Ahead of its English publication on 1 April, we collaborated with exciting new publisher Hoopoe to present the excerpt below. Brimming with observation, this vignette provides a searing glimpse into the life of Egyptian diaspora coming to terms with a hyphenated identity.

Though he had spent five years in London writing up his doctoral thesis, he hadn’t met Jane there, but in Cairo, which surprised their small circle of friends. Jane was tall, slim, shapely, and beautiful, with long chestnut-brown hair, which she would either let hang around her shoulders or pin up with whatever was to hand, normally a pencil. She had come to Cairo for a year to learn Arabic, on some scholarship or another. She grew to love the city in all its chaos and ended up settling there. They gradually got to know each other, and grew closer until they ended up more or less living together in an apartment in Giza, behind the zoo.

The thought of marrying Jane had occurred to him early on: she had many of the qualities he sought in a partner. But something about her unnerved him, so he didn’t tell Leila or Youssef about her until he was sure of their relationship.

He traveled with her to Britain to visit her parents, who lived on the outskirts of Glasgow. They walked to the riverbank where she had played as a girl, gazing across the endless pastures. She took him to the local pub, where throngs of young men had pestered her as a teenager. And they met all the neighbors who wanted to see “this Egyptian Jane has fetched back.”

Jane was a good-hearted, decent sort of person, but her relationship with Egypt was confused. She told Darwish when they first met how much she loved the Egyptian people’s good-naturedness, and their warmth and humanity. She found something in them that she had felt lacking from her life in Britain. He laughed to himself, being someone who actually loved the cool standoffishness of the British, finding in their respect for privacy something he lamented as sorely missing from Egyptian life. They found themselves in reversed positions, as he criticized she defended Egyptian life and people: “Yes, she is lying. From a legal point of view, she’s lying. But it’s not a real lie”; “This is not a weakness, it’s caution”; “No that’s not nepotism, it’s really just an expression of gratitude”; “It’s absolutely not a class thing; it’s a different view of roles and responsibilities.”

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What’s New in Translation? March 2017

Our team reviews some of the newest translations published in English this month

heretics

Heretics by Leonardo Padura, tr. by Anna Kushner, FSG

Review: Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor

Leonardo Padura’s novel, Heretics, has finally made its way to North American shores and English speakers everywhere thanks to translator Anna Kushner’s work for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Originally published by Tusquets Editores of Spain as Herejes in 2013, Heretics is a startlingly, and in many ways disturbingly, relevant work for 2017—as rising levels of xenophobia and nationalism are straining already tense relationships across many borders and affecting refugees throughout Europe and North America. Padura’s novel opens in the Havana of 1939 with the rejection of the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner sailing from Hamburg whose 937 almost entirely Jewish passengers were fleeing the Third Reich. Their tragic return to Europe—a effective death sentence—is watched by Daniel Kaminsky, the first character introduced and the namesake of the first of the novel’s four sections. Daniel has high hopes in his nine-year-old heart that his parents and sister aboard the ship will make it to land.

At 525 pages, Padura has ample space to leap through an ever thickening plot as his characters become more and more entangled in a seemingly unlikely series of events. Yet the read is a quick one, driven forward by drastic jumps between Havana and Amsterdam and a narrative structure which throws the reader several curveballs in the pages where a more traditional detective story might feel the need for resolution. It’s especially relentless in its final two dozen pages. This book, addicting in and of itself, will also compel readers to dive into the real history of the events on which it centers; they are oftentimes much stranger than any fiction could hope to be, even though Padura tells us right before we embark that “history, reality, and novels run on different engines.” However, to describe the work as a historic thriller, or even to focus on the mystery of a stolen Rembrandt that is woven throughout the larger plot, only hits at one level of Padura’s game. He lets us fall through history almost effortlessly, revealing the inevitable repetition of human cruelty from biblical times through the 17th century, the 20th and up through our own muddy 21st. He neither sugar coats nor exploits these horrors, to his credit.

While the novel takes one of Padura’s recurring characters, Mario Conde, as its hero, a reader uninitiated into this Cubano’s world will have no trouble becoming quickly acquainted. His prose style is elliptical; events and ideas are repeated by different characters as if Padura holds each piece of plot up to the light like a precious stone, turning it this way and that to appreciate its different angles and facets. Though Salinger undoubtedly receives the most attention, influences from Chandler, Hemmingway, Murakami, Kundera, and the occasional phrases from Voltaire’s Candide, which perhaps even inspired the name of Conde’s most pious friend, Candito, also find their place. Readers will note quite a bit of Nietzsche, too, as our hero is forced to try and make sense of the emo subculture springing up on the Island, not to mention a healthy dose of Blade Runner and Nirvana references to even things out.

Perhaps one of the most delightful plays between reality and fiction is the one Padura plays with the genre itself.  Despite some dark passages, the work is deeply humorous and self-reflective, especially in the periodic wish of our narrator to compose his own hard-boiled thriller as he continually feels trapped in one himself. No stranger to taking on huge historical figures (from Adiós Hemmingway to The Man Who Loved Dogs, which stars Leon Trotsky), Padura’s Rembrant is compelling and once again does that work of blurring fact and fiction that inspires a desire for the work to have come wholly from the real world.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest from Iran, the United States, and Morocco!

Ready for your Friday World Tour? We touch down in Iran just in time for the New Year celebrations—for which thousands of books are exchanged! Then off to the States, where writers of all backgrounds are reacting to the political tumult of the times. Finally in Morocco, we’ll catch the National Conference on the Arabic Language. Let’s get going!

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large for Iran, updates on the New Year celebrations:

The Persian year of 1395 (SH for solar Hijri calendar) will come to an end and give way to the year 1396 on Monday March 21st, the day of the spring equinox, at exactly 13:58:40 Iran’s local time. The arrival of the New Year and spring is celebrated with various Nowruz (literally meaning “new day”) traditions such as haft sin, the special table spreading that consists of seven different items all starting with the Persian letter س [sin or the “s” letter], each symbolizing one thing or another. The International Nowruz Day was inscribed on the list of UN’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

To welcome the New Year, the Iranian literary community, like the previous year, has set up a campaign entitled Eydane ye Ketab [Nowruz gifts of book]. It began on March 5th and will run for a month, aiming to promote buying books as eydi (gifts for the Persian New Year) for friends and family instead of offering money or other gifts, or even as replacements for the calendars that companies widely give out as promotional year-end gifts. More than four thousand publishers around the country are part of this campaign and offer more than one million titles with special prices. In the first seven days of the campaign, more than 190,000 books were sold.

Some of the translation titles on the bestsellers list of the Eydane, have included: The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi by Elif Şafak; Me Before You by Jojo Moyes; A Fraction of a Whole by Steve Totlz; After You by Jojo Moyes; Asshole No More, The Original Self-Help Guide for Recovering Assholes and Their Victims by Xavier Crement; The 52-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton; One Plus One by Jojo Moyes; and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

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Translating Humor: Jessica Cohen Gets Jokes to Land in Second Language

“If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it isn’t.”

In his latest novel, the Israeli author David Grossman sets himself a near impossible task—to write a tale of tragedy set at a comedy club, all in the course of single stand-up set. As Gary Shteyngart warns in The New York Times Book Review, it’s a work that “only a true master—a Lenny Bruce, a Franz Kafka—could dream of replicating. Don’t try this at home, folks. I know I won’t.” A Horse Walks into a Bar, translated by Jessica Cohen and just longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, is a 194-page tour de force and, again citing Shteyngart, “there is nothing extraneous, not one comma, not one word, not one drop of comic’s sweat . . . Its technical proficiency is astounding.” Of course he’s referring here to the English-language edition, not to the original Hebrew, which makes this is in large part a compliment to Jessica Cohen, who somehow gets the jokes into English. This despite the translator’s three greatest obstacles: puns, idioms, and foreign context. Even the setting of the novel, Netanya—an apparently dumpy Israeli city—is the butt of countless jokes. Won’t the American reader, unfamiliar with the place or references, yawn through this all? Not this American reader, who read the novel in a single sitting, laughing and crying, at first in turns and, by the end, simultaneously. Figuring out how Cohen managed to “[turn] the performance into fluent, America-style patter, bad-a-bing bad-a-boom,” as Ken Kalfus writes for The Washington Post, is precisely why I’m talking to her now.

Here’s a quick run-down of the plot: Dov Greenstein (stage name: Dovaleh G) is an aging comedian with a tragic past. In one night of stand-up—to which he invites an old friend, Avishai Lazar, a witness to the defining event of this tragic past—Dov takes the crowd on something of a haunted hay ride. He cracks them up, taunts them, taunts (and hits) himself, bores them, entertains them again, loses their respect, and sheds his dignity openly, meanwhile sharply critiquing his native country and opening up important discussions about historical atrocities (his mother was a Holocaust survivor) and personal grief. The tale’s central event, recounted between barbs, potshots, and one-liners, takes place at a junior Israeli Army camp, when Dovaleh was 14—but that’s all I’ll say.

Todd (T): Here you have a book set in Netanya, a city that no American—and maybe no Israeli?—has ever heard of, and, as in most stand-up sets, the comedian breaks the ice by slamming the host city. Again and again. How did you approach this dilemma? Did you find yourself having to add context here and there, to let foreign readers in on the joke?

Jessica (J): Every translator knows she will run into something maddening in the course of a translation—a colloquialism with no equivalent in English, a culturally-specific term that can’t be neatly translated, etc. But I don’t usually expect to hit this brick wall in the very first sentence of a book, and that’s what happened with A Horse Walks into a Bar. The novel begins with the protagonist, a stand-up comedian named Dovaleh G, yelling from offstage (translated literally): “Good evening, good evening, good evening Ceasariyaaaah!!!” So right off the bat we have the set-up for a joke (which, as you mentioned, is always a challenge to translate), a city that most readers will never have heard of, and to make it worse, this is a line of dialogue, which means there’s little room for explication or “stealth glossing” (to borrow a term coined by Susan Bernofsky). Two paragraphs later, the joke unfolds: “Oh, wait a minute… this isn’t Caesarea, is it?” Dovaleh G then spends several lines building up (and hamming up) the realization that he is in fact not in Caesarea but in Netanya. At this point, if I’d just left things as is, most readers would probably have figured out that there is some sort of dichotomy here: Caesarea is not like Netanya; the speaker is disappointed with his actual location. But that’s not enough to make it funny, and so I needed to somehow get across the conflicting images of these two cities, which every Israeli reader is familiar with. I decided the only way was to add a touch of characterization at the beginning, which is why the final English translation reads: “Good evening! Good evening! Good evening to the majestic city of Ceasariyaaaah!” (the addition is underlined). My hope is that not only does this give an indication of what type of city Caesarea is (an exclusive seaside town populated by the rich and famous) but also gets across some of Dovaleh’s hallmark cynicism.

As for Netanya, it is the butt of many jokes in this book, and not completely without reason. It’s not a “dump” in the traditional sense—Netanya sits on the coast of the Mediterranean, only 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, and has some beautiful beaches. But that’s probably the best thing it has going for it. Roughly a third of its 200,000 residents are immigrants, many of whom are unemployed, and it has a long-standing association with organized crime, which is the main basis for the book’s Netanya-related jokes. I remember Grossman mentioning that among the many letters he received from readers after the book came out, quite a few were from Netanya residents who were outraged at his perpetuation of the stereotypes about their city! But back to the translation: once I had done what I could to establish the general schema of Caesarea vs. Netanya, I had to trust that the nuances of Netanya’s image would come through in the other jokes and put-downs that Dovaleh strews throughout his performance.

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In Conversation: Ottilie Mulzet on Multilingualism, Translation, and Contemporary Literary Culture

"One of the most amazing things about learning Czech is that it has enabled me to study Mongolian..."

Ottilie Mulzet translates from Hungarian and Mongolian. Her translation of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below won the Best Translated Book Award in 2014. Her recent translations include Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai (Seagull Books, 2016); The Dispossessed (HarperCollins, 2016); and Berlin-Hamlet by Szilárd Borbély (NYRB Poets, 2016); forthcoming is her version of Lazarus by Gábor Schein (Seagull Books, 2017), as well as Krasznahorkai’s The Homecoming of Baron Wenckheim (New Directions). She is also working on an anthology of Mongolian Buddhist legends. In 2016 she served as one of the judges of Asymptote’s Close Approximations translation competition and is on the jury for the 2017 ALTA National Translation Award in Prose.

Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood, spoke with Mulzet via email. Below is the first part of their enlightening correspondence. Stay tuned for part 2!

Julia Sherwood (JS): You translate from the Hungarian, are doing a PhD in Mongolian and are based in Prague.  Your recent Asymptote review of Richard Weiner’s Game for Real shows that you also have an impressive command of Czech, enabling a close reading of the original and an in-depth review of the translation. How did your involvement with Hungarian begin and what is it like to live between all these languages?

Ottilie Mulzet (OM): Part of the difference is due to my involvement with each of these languages.  I started studying Hungarian because of my family background (two of my grandparents emigrated from Hungary), although I didn’t speak it as a child. I decided to learn it in adulthood as the result of some kind of fatal attraction, I guess, and never even realized I would end up translating. Hungarian grammar struck me as being so strange that I couldn’t wait to get onto the next lesson to see if what followed could possibly be any stranger than what I just learnt. I used a hopelessly out-of-date textbook with pen-and-ink illustrations of women in 1950s coiffures having a cigarette in front of a prefabricated housing estate. They spent their evenings complimenting each other on their clothes, sipping tea and playing match games, all the while making sure they were back at their parents’ houses by 8 pm. In retrospect, this textbook actually encoded, along with Hungarian grammar, a manual to the kind of “petty bourgeois-dom” that was so characteristic of central European socialism in the 1980s.

ottilie

An illustration from my first Hungarian textbook. Here we are introduced to Mr. Comrade Nagy, and his lovely wife, Mrs. Comrade Nagy.

I learned Czech more for practical reasons, because of living in Prague, but there are many aspects of the language I’ve come to love, not least its humour and slang. I try to keep up with what’s going on in Czech literature, although I don’t translate from it.  One of the most amazing things about learning Czech is that it has enabled me to study Mongolian—at Charles University, an institution with extraordinary language pedagogy with roots in the pre-war Prague Linguistic Circle, and an astonishing array of languages on offer—from Manchurian and Jagnobi (a descendant of Sogdian) to Jakut and Bengali. One can only hope, given the current trend toward mindless rationalisation, i.e. shutting down whatever seems too impractical or exotic, that the university will stay that way. It’s impossible to understand anything really essential about another culture without knowing something about the language: and the more you know about the language, the better off you are.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Moon Taejun

The things that she called upon spiralled in orderly circles and soared into the glistening winter sky.

As the editor of a world literature journal who’s read submissions across all genres for more than six years now, I’m always on the look-out for a certain cosmic echo when one piece of writing rhymes with another from a different continent, as if confirming our shared humanity. Last week’s poem by Portuguese poet Ana Luísa Amaral, addressed from mother to daughter, is perfectly answered by these elegiac verses by Korean counterpart Moon Taejun mourning a departed mother, and capturing a magnificent stillness. 

—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief

My Mother’s Prayer Beads

One day my mother sat blankly as she fingered her cold prayer beads.

My mother lowered her head as though mending some frayed clothes. She mustered the flowers, thunders, grasshoppers, and snowstorms; she also called upon my dead granny, me who was ailing, and my maternal uncle who lived afar. Silently, she bound up small scraps of cloth. Then she called upon the terrifying darkness, the valley fog, the roaring fire, and the stars on high. A faint, lengthy song arose from my mother’s bosom like it did when she used to sing me to sleep. She hummed the simplest song that all – the stag beetle, the puny bird, the eight-year-old child, the ninety-year-old granny, the parched verdure, the flock of sheep and its meadow, and creatures with menacing teeth – would know. The song my mother sang was fettered by her cold prayer beads while the things that she called upon spiralled in orderly circles and soared into the glistening winter sky.

A Faraway Place

Today the air teems with words of goodbye.
A handful, a handful at a time, I breathe the words of goodbye.
A faraway place comes forth.
As it pushes me little by little, a faraway place comes forth.
I would bring with me the first newly sprouted leaf, her lips, her crimson
cheeks, and her beaming eyes that make me shy.
The air raises my heart, like a fragile piece of ice, and passes me by.
The barren tree sheds and sheds its leaves and the rock governs the dim
light of the stone’s shadow.
The bench sits at the same spot all day long with a frame on which nobody
is seated even now.
Hands quivered, eyes damped, and at a loss for words.
When everybody speaks of farewells,
a faraway place comes forth,
somewhere we can hardly fathom.

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Translator Profile: Katia Grubisic on Contemporary Canadian Literature

They push at these familial forces, the draw of the origin story, and the magic and tragedy as they try on and define new selves...

In this email interview conducted by Editor-in-Chief Lee Yew Leong, award-winning poet and translator Katia Grubisic took time out of her busy schedule to discuss the state of Canadian literature (in English and in French) as well as the challenges she faced translating David Clerson’s lyrical novel, Brothers (recently featured in our Translation Tuesday showcase at The Guardian), including “the ‘bitch’ problem.”

Lee Yew Leong (LYL): David Clerson’s haunting novel Brothers, in your outstanding translation, would not be out of place in the fiction section of our Winter 2017 edition, not only because of the seaward-facing figures connecting many of the pieces but also because of the strong animal motifs. Among the other elements that make up this story’s poetic permutation: brothers and fathers, dreams, the very act of story-telling. As the translator—and therefore arguably the closest reader of the novel—what do you think David Clerson is trying to say with Brothers, and how do you think these elements come together to fit the overall arc?

Katia Grubisic (KG): Thank you for your kind words.

Yes, the novel’s sea-journey theme, the search for the father, the pretty far-out cynanthropy, the origin story, the twin motif—it almost feels mythological, and David’s baroque style in this book lends it a kind of timeless timbre.

As the translator, I may, in fact, be the worst placed to comment on what it’s about, second perhaps only to the author himself! What drew me to the narrative was first the landscape, the way the sea and the briny hills become almost their own character, anchoring and tormenting the brothers (who try to escape their identity as determined by the place they’re from), and drawing them to their inevitable return. Brothers explores how who we are and who we become is shaped by those who make us, including in this case, literally the knife-wielding though well-intentioned mother, who wants to give her firstborn son a companion as a buffer against the cruel world. The brothers are shaped also by their absent “dog of a father,” or rather—and this is telling—by the often conflicting stories told about him. Yet they push at these familial forces, the draw of the origin story, and the magic and tragedy as they try on and define new selves, and their own universe, has such compelling pathos. You don’t want to be them, but you can’t look away.

LYL: The novel at once reminds me of The Return, a film by Andrey Zvyagintsev about two brothers waiting for their father’s return, and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which not only involves an odyssey on a boat, but also similarly injects a magical realism into the story-telling. What other literary ‘predecessors’ might I, as a non-Canadian, have missed? 

KG: I don’t know that Brothers’ ancestry is nationally bound. When I first read the book, it reminded me of Agota Kristof’s Le Grand cahier—the brothers, the old mother, the violence. Pas du tout, David told me; in an interview, he said he had been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy at the time! He wrote it too at the height of the Printemps érable student and popular uprising in 2012, which subtly tinged the narrative. Though I agree that both The Return and Life of Pi could be seen as kin, in terms of devices and preoccupations.

The wonderful thing about fiction is that it can belong to whichever reader happens to crack the spine. The region David evokes spoke to me so vividly of the Baie des Chaleurs shores in eastern Quebec and northern New Brunswick, but when I asked him about it, he conceded that many had pegged his setting as the Gaspésie region, but spoke instead of the imprint left by work he had read in his youth, including Golding and Stevenson, and even of a dream he once had, in which he saw himself fishing a dead dog out of a lagoon.

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Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Hot off the press: the latest literary news from Latin America, Germany, and Austria!

This week, we set off from Buenos Aires, where Editor-at-Large Sarah Moses reports on the hottest literary events around the country. Then Editors-at-Large Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn take us from Argentina to Guatemala, Mexico, and more, updating us on the latest cultural happenings around Latin America. That’s all before we jet to Europe with contributor Flora Brandl for a rundown on the contemporary German and Austrian lit scene. Buckle up!

Sarah Moses, Editor-at-Large for Argentina, has the scoops on the latest literary events:    

The Ciclo Carne Argentina reading series held its first event of the year on February 17 at Nivangio Club Cultural in the Boedo neighbourhood. The series, which recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary, has become a Buenos Aires institution. Poets and authors, both acclaimed and just starting out, are invited to read at each event. Since the series began in 2006, over 150 authors have shared their work at different venues across the city. The February reading featured six writers including Vera Giaconi and Valeria Tentoni.

On March 3, the Seminario Permanente de Estudios de Traducción [Ongoing Seminar of Translation Studies] at the Instituto de Enseñanza Superior en Lenguas Vivas  “Juan Ramón Fernández” [Institute for Higher Education in Living Languages] started off the year with a special session. The series provides a space to discuss theoretical and critical texts in the field of translation studies, as well as one in which writers, translators, researchers, and teachers can interact. Canadian poet, translator, and professor Madeleine Stratford presented her research on creativity in translation through an examination of the process of bringing Marianne Apostolides’s novel Swim (BookThug, 2009) into French. Stratford’s translation, Elle nage (La Peuplade, 2016), was a finalist in the English-to-French translation category for the Governor General’s Award, a prestigious Canadian prize.

The British Council and the Filba Foundation, an NGO dedicated to the dissemination of literature, are hosting an upcoming conference and series of talks and workshops on the future of the public library. Gillian Daly, head of policy and projects at the Scottish Library & Information Council, will travel to Buenos Aires to share her experience, and the events are intended to serve as a dialogue between Scotland and Argentina. The conference will take place at the Museo del libro y de la lengua on March 10.

From April 6-9, Filba Nacional, the organization’s national literary festival, will bring together close to 30 Argentinian authors for talks, readings, and other activities. Each year, the event is organized in a different location in Argentina, and in 2017 the Patagonian city of Bariloche will host the festival.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

Another month and another slew of publications and projects by our team members!

Very quickly: two pieces of housekeeping news before our regular update! First, thanks to 84 backers, we’ve managed to raise $12,896 for our upcoming feature on the Muslim-majority countries banned by Trump, with 20% of funds raised donated toward the ACLU and Refugees Welcome. (This fundraiser has received coverage in The Bookseller and more will be forthcoming at The Chicago Review of Books and at the Ploughshares Blog. If you’re from a high-profile media outlet and would like to help us spread the word, please drop us a note!) The more we raise, the bigger and more comprehensive our April showcase can be; in fact, we’ve already launched our call for new work in response to Trump’s executive order (Deadline: Mar 15). Only 33 days remain to contribute to our fundraiser; don’t wait, make your stand against the #MuslimBan today!

Second, we’ve updated our ongoing recruitment call (deadline: Mar 17) to include two more positions: Assistant Blog Editor and Assistant Managing Editor. Check out all available volunteer positions here.

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Poetry Editor Aditi Machado was recently featured in conversation with Jane Wong on LitHub. She also spoke on a panel with Pierre Joris, James Shea, and Jennifer Kronovet about ‘Translation as a Political Act‘ at the AWP Conference 2017.

Assistant Editor Alexis Almeida‘s translation of Roberta Iannamico’s Wreckage has been selected for publication in chapbook form by Toad Press. It will be released in late summer or fall of this year.

Slovakia Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood‘s new translation of Balla’s award-winning novella In The Name Of The Father, co-translated with Peter Sherwood, has been announced as forthcoming from Jantar Publishing, scheduled for May.

UK Editor-at-Large M. René Bradshaw‘s review of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s Theatre, directed by John Tiffany, recently appeared in The London Magazine. 

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek has written an essay for the Stephen Spender Trust’s website on translation and displacement. He has also launched the second issue of his co-edited poetry journal, The Kindling, and published a new poem in Wildness Journal. 

Indonesia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao has published a translation of a poem by Norman Erikson Pasaribu in Cordite Poetry Review‘s special issue on “Confession”.

Chile Editor-at-Large Tomás Cohen has published poems in the most recent issues of Edit (Leipzig), and PARK (Berlin), in translation by the prize-winning poet and essayist Monika Rinck, a contributor in our Fall issue. Further poems of Tomás have been published bilingually in NOX, a journal for young literature from Hamburg.

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Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

No German-speaking city has been evoked... with quite the same topographical love and care.

This installment of Vincent Klings translator’s diary takes a closer look at the multiplicity of integral components in Doderers work. From plot to setting to characters, Kling praises the complexity of Doderers masterpiece.

“If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience
would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.”
Samuel Johnson on Pamela

Muriel Spark claimed she never revised; the first draft was always the one she submitted. As a translator, a fellow writer, that is—though one spared the burden of original, “from-scratch” invention—I wonder. Not every writer need agonize for hours over le mot juste, but if exhausting revision was an intrinsic part of the process for Yeats (“stitching and unstitching”) or Nabokov (“the strain and drain of composition”), then I can’t help doubting Spark. Yeats’s image pertains especially well to the translator, whose process requires extreme concentration; the craft of petit point is an apt comparison as the translator moves closer in to the text than perhaps any other reader, using a mental magnifying glass to study and replicate every tiny stitch of the original while keeping the whole design in view. I cannot be the only translator who wakes up from nightmares of having produced a dangling modifier or an ugly jangle of sound the Elizabethans would have called “too close chiming” or a tremendous blooper, like the famous translator—anticipating in reverse one of Oliver Sacks’s patients—who mistook a bowler hat (“Melone” in German) for a melon. I don’t believe it’s an overgeneralization to say that revising and revising again, second- and third- and fourth-guessing, reading aloud over and over for rhythm, intoning litanies of synonyms (miffed, peeved, irked, irritated, annoyed, etc. ad infinitum) are among the translator’s besetting obsessions and occupational hazards.

It’s this very extremity of painstaking scrutiny, though, that has solved to my satisfaction a persistent mystery, illustrated by the quotation above, about readers’ responses to Die Strudlhofstiege. I’ll spell out the mystery later, but it has to do in general with the discrepancy between what Doderer’s novel appears to be and what it actually is, between the surface features for which it’s constantly lauded and strata lying just below and configured very differently. First, then, a summary of positive assessments—which can’t account for many readers’ puzzlement and rejection—and then a look next month at what the magnifying lens reveals.

Doderer’s emphatic advocacy for the conventional novel with a beginning, middle, and end was an effective camouflage. Along with his resolutely tradition-minded critical writings, the novels themselves testify to a seemingly antiquated approach; many readers misjudge Strudlhofstiege as having been published decades before it was (1951). Nor was Doderer shy about disparaging Joyce, Proust, and above all Musil for essayism and showy-offy modernism. Partly at his encouragement, his plots, characters, and settings have all been read in the deceptive light of a solid, old-fashioned esthetic, especially in Strudlhofstiege.

As for plot, Doderer carefully sketched the extremely complex, interlocking events on a drawing board (pictured above), enabling him to achieve the virtuosic feat of having his vast array of characters all step out independently of each other onto the same square at the same moment, when the climatic action occurs. Across three hundred pages he has given precise indications of time and location in every scene to chronicle this astonishing convergence with such skill that readers never even see it coming until it’s upon them, which places them in the situation of the accident victim whose mishap forms the climactic disaster—Doderer’s plotting is almost unrivalled.

The characters range across the whole spectrum of society. From aristocrats to working people, from incorruptible civil servants to petty conmen and schemers, from happily married couples to sexual adventurers, from small shopkeepers to business moguls and banking plutocrats, with solid, educated upper-middle-class people predominating, every last character has his or her distinctive idiolect. Doderer lays out a panoply of types worthy of Chaucer or Balzac or Dickens (or Joyce)—droll or menacing, devious or naïve, brilliant or plodding, real deal or wannabe. The main character, Melzer, is often considered bland, but that may be only because others are purposely heightened, colorful Viennese “originals.” After meeting them, there is no forgetting Zihal, the Pastrés, Eulenfeld, Paula Schachl, the Stangelers, “the Tick,” “the Mosquito,” “the Red Field Ant,” or “the Soggy Dinner Roll” (these are nicknames for characters).

The settings are a particular glory. Buildings, neighborhoods, streets; panoramas and pathways; parks and palaces are portrayed with a mastery that is uniformly praised. Last month I cited Paul Ellbogen; here is Ivar Ivask in the same vein: “No other German-speaking city has ever been evoked . . . with quite the same topographical love and care . . . as Vienna by Heimito von Dod­erer . . . Doderer’s Vienna is as ‘really real’ as the Paris of Proust, the Dublin of Joyce, and the Yoknapatawpha County of Faulkner.” A visitor could literally be guided from place to place by the descriptions in the novels alone. (This has been field-tested by myself and many others).

So what’s this about hanging ourselves? Wouldn’t readers flock to a novel with such engaging attributes? After all, Strudlhofstiege enjoys cult status, enthralling readers who treasure its droll humor, irony, and vividness. Yet even passionate admirers often admit they initially become bogged down and had to restart several times. And those are the advocates! There is probably no other novel—none, not The Man without Qualities, not The Death of Virgil, not Ulysses, not The Sound and the Fury—that so many have hopefully started but soon abandoned. I wish there were a way to measure that assertion quantitatively, but I have met an unusually large number of alert, intelligent readers who said they couldn’t get beyond the first hundred pages, if that many. Rambling, self-indulgent, formless, maddeningly digressive: these are frequent responses, often made in an offended or even indignant tone by people who act as if they’d somehow been hoodwinked. Whereas readers who abandon other novels often feel mildly shamefaced about not finishing, many who give up on Strudlhofstiege react irately. “Why am I being told what I’m being told?” asked one reader, a friend with keen literary discernment, after encountering early on a long passage about how men in 1910 generally wore suspenders but by 1925 (the two time periods of the novel) had taken to wearing a belt. The long passage is capped by a series of mock-sententious remarks about how the wearing of suspenders or a belt is a reliable indicator of a man’s character. “That’s when I lost it and put the book away, literally tossed it aside,” said my friend.

The assessment of Strudlhofstiege as a kaleidoscopic portrayal of people, places, and things—grippingly social, documentary, almost photographic, a realistic achievement on the grand scale (and it is all that, to be sure)—has encouraged misleading but persistent comparisons with Musil’s The Man without Qualities and Broch’s The Sleepwalkers. These comparisons create expectations that will inevitably be thwarted, because the pedigree is false. Musil and Broch draw on modernist technique but remain essentially realist at heart—even The Death of Virgil is largely a sequential narrative, though interiorized. By contrast, Doderer’s method is realistic on the surface but highly and unexpectedly experimental underneath.

Next month, then, my effort to sketch more pertinent ancestry and kinship, to show how far from conventionalism Strudlhofstiege is. Its dynamic is the same one Marjorie Perloff ascribed to Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March: “ . . . the ostensible realism of the narrative is itself a form of irony, designed to draw the reader into the hall of mirrors of this deeply ambivalent and complex novel.”

Stay tuned for more from Kling’s translator’s diary next month!
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Translation Tuesday: “Testament” by Ana Luísa Amaral

if I should die on a plane and be…a free-floating atom in the sky

To commemorate International Women’s Day coming up tomorrow, I’m thrilled to present the following poem by award-winning Portuguese poet, Ana Luísa Amaral, translated by the brilliant Margaret Jull Costa. Addressed to the narrator’s daughter (and, it seems, the daughter of that daughter), these words celebrate the hidden potentiality inside every woman—and the spontaneity of life itself, even in its contemplation of sudden death.

Testament

I’m about to fly off somewhere
and my fear of heights plus myself
finds me resorting to tranquillisers
and having confused dreams

If I should die
I want my daughter always to remember me
for someone to sing to her even if they can’t hold a tune
to offer her pure dreams
rather than a fixed timetable
or a well-made bed

To give her love and the ability
to look inside things
to dream of blue suns and brilliant skies
instead of teaching her how to add up
and how to peel potatoes

To prepare my daughter
for life
if I should die on a plane
and be separated from my body
and become a free-floating atom in the sky

Let my daughter
remember me
and later on say to her own daughter
that I flew off into the sky
and was all dazzle and contentment
to see that in her house none of the sums added up
and the potatoes were still in their sack forgotten
entire

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