To imagine the Great Leap Forward—an event that began as a febrile dream and ended as an apocalyptic nightmare—tests the limits of the lucid consciousness. In late 1957, Mao Zedong declared that China could “surpass the UK and catch up to the US” through backyard steel furnaces, experimental agricultural practices, and sheer force of will. Village officials vied with each other to promise impossibly high crop yields; newspapers printed staged photos of experimental rice fields planted so densely that they could support the weight of children. Now it’s hard to understand how anyone sincerely believed, or even pretended to believe, that such outcomes were possible. When famine hit in 1958, the crisis was compounded by an unwillingness on the part of the government to admit failure to Mao or to the citizenry. As a result, China exported grain while millions—anywhere between twenty to forty million between 1959 and 1961—starved to death. We may never know the true death toll, as the Great Famine is more taboo a topic in China than even the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution: where responsibility for the Cultural Revolution can be safely foisted onto a group of extremists, the Great Famine is the original sin of the People’s Republic. The Communist Party has therefore consistently sought to efface from public memory the realities of the most lethal famine in human history.
Yan Lianke's The Four Books, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's The Dead Mountaineer's Inn, and Addendum to a Photo Album by Vladislav Otroshenko
An all-new podcast episode! Listen to some of the best moments from our live event in London
If you missed our fourth anniversary event in London this January, never fear! Our newest podcast episode brings you highlights from the evening. Listen to Adam Thirlwell, Daniel Hahn, Stefan Tobler and Deborah Smith discuss books they love, translation pitfalls they avoid, and the meaning of the German euphemism “to shake the coconut from the palm tree.”
About the speakers:
Stefan Tobler is the publisher at And Other Stories, a young publishing house whose titles include the Booker Prize shortlisted Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and much literature in translation, including the Latin American authors Juan Pablo Villalobos, Iosi Havilio, Carlos Gamerro, Haroldo Conti, Yuri Herrera, Rodrigo de Souza Leão and Paulo Scott. He is a literary translator from Portuguese and German. Recent translations include All Dogs are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão, Água Viva by Clarice Lispector and Silence River by Antônio Moura. @stefantobler and @andothertweets
Adam Thirlwell’s new novel, Lurid & Cute, was published in January 2015. He has written two novels, a novella, and a project with translations that includes an essay-book and an anthology edited for McSweeney’s. He has twice been selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. His work has been translated into 30 languages.
Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator (from Portuguese, Spanish and French) with some forty books to his name. His work has won both the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award. He is currently chair of the Society of Authors and on the judging panel for the 2015 IMPAC Dublin Award.
Deborah Smith (@londonkoreanist) is the translator of The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015). She has also translated The Essayist’s Desk and The Low Hills of Seoul by Bae Suah. She is currently in the final year of a Korean literature PhD at SOAS, and is setting up a non-profit publishing company which will publish translations from Asian and African languages, after apprenticing with And Other Stories.
This week's literary highlights from around the world
Whoop, whoop, blog fiends—it’s Friday! You’ve probably already partaken in your fair share of literary personality quizzes (they provide a cheap alternative to psychoanalysis when your insurance goes bad, and it’s always heartening to read you’re more of a Dumbledore than a Malfoy), but the New Yorker‘s article contrasting Italian recluse Elena Ferrante with Norwegian road-tripper Karl Ove Knausgaard is of particular interest to those of us interested in more international literary trends. (Meanwhile, if you’re excited for the English-language release of Book 4 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, you can read an exclusive excerpt here). READ MORE…
Updates from Asymptote’s international team: new publications, plays, and exhibitions for the curious reader!
Past contributor Aya Ogawa is proud to see her play Ludic Proxy near its world premiere at New York’s The Play Company. Each act of this multi-media play centers around a distinct story: Act 1, in the past, takes place in Chernobyl; Act 2, in the present, is about Fukushima; and Act 3 takes viewers to the future. The play explores our relationship to technology and is a “beautiful, haunting and magical piece that pulls you into uncharted territory where memory, fantasy and virtual reality swirl together.” First previews begin April 1, and the not-to-be-missed play runs until May 2 at WalkerSpace in TriBeCa, 46 Walker St, NYC.
“The surreal atmosphere of Self-Portrait in Green began to create disturbances in my own reality,” writes assistant editor Erin Gilbert in her review of Marie NDiaye’s obsessive memoir, now up on Brevity. She also has a poem in Issue 13 of Structo.
Editor-at-large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood saw her and Peter Sherwood’s translation of Ilona: My Life with the Bard published by Calypso Editions. The duo deliver a “superb translation [that] renders faithfully the sense of a woman’s world around the nostalgic period of the fin de siècle,” according to Martin Votruba of the University of Pittsburgh—just one bit of the extensive praise that Jana Juráňová’s novel-in-English-translation has received.
Yardenne Greenspan and Marcia Lynx Qualey on the choices we translators can make
M. Lynx Qualey: The most important decision a translator must make is: Will I translate this text?
Being an essentially freelance profession, translation has a mountain of drawbacks, but it does make a bit more allowance for choice. The injunction to “translate only what you love” works—as long as you have a stable income outside of translating. I prefer Samah Selim’s version: “Never translate a book you don’t like unless you have to.” Or my own: “Never translate a text you think you’ll regret (unless creditors are outside the window).”
Yet what makes for a “politically problematic” text may have less to do with the text itself and more to do with context. Propagandists thrive on selective translation. The MEMRI “media monitoring organization,” described by Guardian reporter Brian Whitaker, is perhaps the largest ongoing Arabic-English translation project. Some of the individual news and cultural texts that MEMRI translates might be innocuous, but the project as a whole furthers a political agenda.
Translated by Randi Ward
Under Black Sails
questioning why the fog’s green
is my goodnight to the godless
and my good evening
to a hasty summer
of trains that don’t run on time
and rain that always wants to be first
with the freshest of the fresh
so the dance can bloom
on the great sloom’s deck
as it heads straight into a glare of cold
where the comatose lie
awaiting passage home to the dull life
the superficial love
because they don’t think
there’s anything else
when a person can’t be
like a garbage truck in paradise
that’s forgotten its way
to the incinerator
Beyond Brothers Grimm, beyond Hans Christian Andersen: "There's nothing like this collection in English."
The following is an interview with translator Maria Tatar, of Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth’s The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Tales, available here—and if you’d like a taste, check out our recent Translation Tuesday, featuring the short story “The Enchanted Fiddle!”
Could you talk about the Turnip Princess and what sort of fairy tales they are?
Schönwerth collected his stories from farmhands, domestic servants, artisans —people who worked for a living and were experts in the art of gossip, improvisation, talk, and storytelling. His official work took him into royal quarters, but he was deeply committed to capturing tales told by adults in workrooms and around the hearth. Unlike the Grimms, who were equal-opportunity collectors, begging and borrowing from all social classes, Schönwerth wanted tales untainted by literary influences—hence the rough-hewn quality of many of his stories. He did not smooth out rough edges, add psychological motivation, or make stylistic “improvements.” The Turnip Princess lets us listen in to storytelling sessions from times past. And suddenly, once you’ve read a a dozen or so of these tales, you begin to see how they were put together and animated for audiences.
How did you prepare to translate this sort of writing?
I suppose I could say that I have been preparing for this work all my life. I was trilingual for a brief period as a child, speaking Hungarian, German, and English—never confusing them according to my parents, and thank goodness for that. My graduate work in German Studies took a literary turn, and I did not begin research on folklore and fairy tales in earnest until I started reading fairy tales to my children in the 1980s. Translating the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen for my annotated editions of their work was in some ways actually not the best training ground for Schönwerth. The Grimms and Andersen strive for a carefully constructed folksy tone; Schönwerth by contrast just puts on the page what he hears. I often had to resist the temptation to smooth out the rough edges and create a reader-friendly story. READ MORE…
This week's literary highlights from across the world
Yay, it’s Friday! Here at Asymptote we are especially giddy this weekend because of a gosh-wow shortlist nomination from the London Book Fair—alongside two other notable organizations, Asymptote journal is nominated for an International Excellence Award, for Initiative in International Translation. Keep your fingers crossed for us!—but really, it is such an honor to be recognized for the hard literary work we do. And the PEN Awards longlists have been announced—of special interest to us, of course, are the poetry in translation and fiction in translation categories (we’re happy to note that Danish writer Naja Marie Aidt, blog interviewee, has been nominated—read a selection of Baboon, featured on Translation Tuesday, here)!
Karl Johns and Jorun Johns of Ariadne Press on Austrian literature in translation
Ariadne Press has been publishing translated Austrian literature since 1988 from Riverside, California. Their 260 titles range from exciting new fiction to autobiographies, pioneering critical work, and plays, on diverse subjects from Nazism to science fiction to music and humor. I spoke with editor Karl Johns and founding editor Jorun Johns on the phone about Ariadne, Austria’s modern literary masters, and the intersection of Vienna and California.
Eva Richter: How did Ariadne Press start?
Karl Johns: That’s interesting, how everything starts. The International Arthur Schnitzler Research Association was founded in 1962 to celebrate the 100th birthday of Arthur Schnitzler. When all the German-language refugees came to the United States, California was actually the second most popular goal after New York, in spite of the fact that the Midwest and Chicago already had German speakers and German newspapers and all that. So there were a lot of people in California and Los Angeles. Many of these people survived as psychoanalysts. They were the ones who were most prosperous, maybe. Some of them were the admirers of Arthur Schnitzler, and that’s how that was started, and that led to the journal, which became more and more general, not just Arthur Schnitzler but all of Austrian literature, and it was called Modern Austrian Literature. My mother, Jorun Johns, was one of the editors of that. It sort of grew, and it became the standard place for people to publish articles about modern Austrian authors.
The logical thing was that these people needed to publish books for their academic credentials. And it’s always difficult to find a publisher! So my mother founded Ariadne together with two colleagues, Donald Daviau at UC Riverside and Richard Lawson at San Diego State University. The first book they published was the memoir of Leon Askin, who had begun as an actor in Vienna and emigrated. Since then, Ariadne has put out 260 titles, and we have a number in the pipeline, including Shaking the Empire: Shaking Patriarchy, an anthology of feminist writings from Eastern European languages. All our books are translated into English, with one exception, and the idea is to make Austrian literature, authors, and studies of them available to the English-speaking audience. The Library of Congress does not distinguish Austria from Germany, but it really is a separate tradition.
“ Gradually, the hegemony of English over Japanese shifts from a personal, to a communal, to a national, and, ultimately, to a global concern”
In The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Minae Mizumura’s refusal to succumb to the dominance of the universal language is both political and aesthetic, as evidenced by the lyricism of her text. To her credit, the author does not employ theoretical jargon, but rather the same lucid prose that characterizes her novels. Luckily for English readers, Juliet Winters Carpenter and Mari Yoshihara’s skillfully crafted translation renders the nuances between katakana and hiragana into English. Indeed, Mizumura’s prose, use of narrative framing, and manipulation of the national language embed the justification for preserving the latter in the text.
This volume covers Mizumura’s encounter with the international writing community, the translingual formation of national languages, and a pragmatic assessment of education policy. It is not just Mizumura’s compelling prose, however, but also her use of literary techniques that gives her license to cover such a wide breadth of topics. Her introduction, in the form of a personal essay, conveys the ambiguous identity of a Japanese woman brought up in the U.S. and schooled in French literature. Readers witness how the author’s polyglot upbringing predisposes her to view writing as a medium one must struggle with, rather than one for free self-expression. As such, Mizumura makes a case for writers, not theorists, to ascertain the meaning of world literature. Gradually, the hegemony of English over Japanese shifts from a personal, to a communal, to a national, and, ultimately, to a global concern.
Translated by Elizabeth Davis
The way the snow falls
and covers the plain
that’s how I grew up
at the hearts of your eyes.
*** READ MORE…
We're on the hunt for new contributors!
It’s that time of year again, dear readers—we at Asymptote blog are on the hunt for the freshest, funniest, most clever and on-the-pulse writing you’ve got, related to literature, translation, and the way words shape our world.
Like our journal, we are committed to publishing creative, original, and knife-sharp pieces in conversation with world literature, translation, and global culture—which means we love to read and publish original pieces and translations by writers, thinkers, and artists like you. So if you have something to say, read on—and get in touch!
Asymptote blog looks for voice, depth, and topicality in its postings. We welcome regular and one-time contributors, and publish essays, dispatches from literary events, interviews, book reviews, in-depth examinations of the world-at-literature and the world-at-large, as well as weekly new translations of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama!
Highlights from the blog’s recent past include:
Nina Sparling takes an up-close look at food, translation, and literature—how do we read “terroir,” Emile Zola’s Les Halles, and Colette’s kicked fish?
Florian Duijsens’s “Pop Around the World” column examines “House of the Rising Sun,” well, around the world.
Matthew Spencer’s on-the-edge column The Orbital Library teases out the intersections of the sci-fi genre and translation.
A conversation between two legends of Russian-to-English literary translation is uncovered—picking bones over a Russian restaurant menu, of all things.
Josh Billings discusses the often-fascinating histories behind the wheeling-and-dealing ghosts of world literature—its translators!
If you’d like to contribute, but don’t quite know where to start, here are a few simple ways you can join the list of blog contributors:
1. We’re looking for reviewers to write about new translated or translation-related books. In your e-mail, talk about a few works you would like to review and why.
2. We’re also looking for translations, published every Tuesday in an ongoing series (predictably dubbed Translation Tuesday). In your e-mail, let us know your translation ideas, as well as your connections with authors or specific works. Permission and rights are necessary prior to publishing.
3. We’re looking for general musings related to translation, poetics, writing, the industry, current events, politics, visual arts, film—whatever fits your fancy! We’re amenable to all sorts of different writing
Variety is our bread-and-butter, so if you have something new you’re itching to say, we might just be the platform for you! Please send us a proposal with some information about you, how you’d like to contribute, and a writing or translation sample at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rolling deadline.
This week's literary highlights from across the world
Is it spring yet? It’s certainly Friday, and awards season at the very least: one of our favorite worldwide translation-friendly prizes, the International Foreign Fiction Prize, has announced its longlist, and we’re happy to see some familiar names on the list—of the fifteen nominees, a whopping five of them were translated from the German, including Asymptote friend and alum Susan Bernofsky! German poet Jan Wagner also snagged the top prize for Belletristik at the Leipziger Buchmesse this week, quite the feat in competition with the language’s admittedly high-powered prose! In an altogether more Anglophone bent, the National Book Critics Circle has announced its award-winners, and the list includes Claudia Rankine’s Citizen in the poetry category and LIla by Marilynne Robinson for fiction, and the United Kingdom’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction has announced its impressive longlist. READ MORE…
Josh Billings delves into the life of the famed 17th-century translator of Rabelais in the latest installment of his series
Read all previous posts in Josh Billings’ Lives of the Translators here.
Translation is supposed to be an impersonal art, but one of the interesting things about studying translators’ lives is that it gives us a chance to see how patterns from their biographies reappear, like watermarks, in the works from which they’ve allegedly removed themselves.
Some of this reflection can be explained by affinity (translators translate authors they like), or chance, or an overactive critical imagination. At the same time, in many cases the parallels between a translator’s life and craft are obvious enough to make us think that something else is going on—something closer to the public soul-searching and -solving that we like to think occurs in more explicitly confessional arts.
A good example of this can be found in the great translation of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel by the 17th-century Scottish translator Sir Thomas Urquhart. A man of incredible energy, Urquhart spent the majority of his life dealing with the debts that his father had accumulated on their ancestral estate of Cromartie. His original books sink like barges under the weight of their pedantry; but his Pantagruel soars on a spume of high comedy, freed by its source material into a pitiless celebration of language’s unwillingness to pay back what it owes.