Monthly Archives: April 2017

Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Lee Seong-Bok

That day the sun beat down on the blue china shards, all day long, and the blade of grass, slightly wilted, was a blade of grass.

Courtesy of Literature Translation Institute of Korea, we are pleased to showcase the work of Lee Seong-Bok, translated by Yea Jung Park. Wistful for lost opportunity, these urgent, insistent prose poems hark back to a time of youth, and are sure to evoke strong personal memories.


1) Sister, the boat we rode on that day

My love, my sister,
do dream of the sweet happiness
of going there and living, just the two of us!

— Charles Baudelaire, “Invitation to a Voyage”

That year in late spring, one night spent in the bungalow by the reservoir. Tens of thousands of stars whizzing above the campfire. The night-long cuckoo cry engraved a tattoo on my forearm in the shadow-shape of a heaving wooden ship, and sister, in the morning all those day-lily blossoms, I did not know where to find your eyes among them. Eyes with yellow petals hung like the wings of a fan, eyes rolling like iron hoops to the sound of buzzing. Even now, at the cuckoo’s cry my crazed arms will mimic the rowing of a boat, and sister, the boat we rode on that day advances carefully through the buzzing day-lily stars, searching for the eyes you have lost in the night.
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Section Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2017

Insights from the experts on the Spring 2017 Issue of Asymptote

Looking for new entry points into the latest issue of the journal? The section editors of this behemoth cash of international literature, out just last week, are here to guide you!  

In this spring issue, the drama section features two complementary pieces—one from Catalonia and the other from Poland. Both portray hellish, nightmarish worlds in a distinct, unique theatrical manner. Grzegorz Wroblewski’s The New Colony in translation by Agnieska Pokojska depicts a claustrophobic asylum where patients/citizens live out their days in a state of restless, mocking unease. Wroblewski’s text is typical of what has been deemed “post-dramatic” theatre (in Hans Lehmann’s terms). It is an open text which offers its audience an intentionally disorientating roadmap to a contemporary world that is fractured and broken, where individuals seek wholeness despite all signs that such a search is hopeless.

Written as a proto-feminist cabaret, Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaret in translation by Phyllis Zatlin, looks at an elemental Eve, channeling visions of historical female icons throughout history. Is guilt a woman? To whom will society place its blame in times of war? Helen of Troy? Other alluring, bewitching sirens up to no good? Escudé i Gallès teases and cajoles her audience in a piece that through anarchic humor questions the roles we all play to claim concepts of territory, identity, and ownership. Both Wroblewski and Escudé I Gallès are from the same generation, even though they represent different cultures and sensibilities as dramatists. It’s fascinating to see two skilled and provocative playwrights, in fine translations, address states of fear and anxiety all too prevalent in the modern world.

—Drama Editor Caridad Svich

Among three exceptional essays—including one that introduces readers to the brilliant but tortured Swiss writer, Hermann Burger, and another that briefly loiters at the fork in Iran’s contemporary literary scene—I found myself particularly drawn to Noh Anothai‘s generous and intimate reflections on a world turned akimbo, seen through the eyes of Thai poet, Saksiri Meesomsueb. As we follow Anothai through the pages of Meesomsueb’s award-winning collection, That Hand is White, and from north Bangkok to Chicago and back, I’m reminded once more of literature’s gift in transgressing borders, its necessary lucidity, kindness, and prescience; and consequently, its call for response. Only with clean hands can we clean the world, Meesomsueb tells us. Dear Reader, what will you do next?

—Writers on Writers Editor Ah-reum Han

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Teach This – Banned Countries Special Feature

UT Arlington’s Gabe Mamola on The Meta-Poem

Welcome to Teach This, Asymptote for Educators’ answer to the current issue’s Banned Countries Special Feature. We believe that the classroom is the perfect setting for young people to be exposed to diverse, contemporary voices, both allowing them to challenge their assumptions and to engage them with living literature… a conversation in which their own voices matter. To that end, Asymptote for Educators has launched this weekly blog series in which global educators share how and why they would teach the feature’s articles. We hope you and your students enjoy!

Are you an educator with your own lesson plan ideas? Teach This – Banned Countries Special Feature is currently open for submissions. Email education@asymptotejournal.com for more information.

Technology is changing the way we think about information. We not only collect data, but we collect data about that data, i.e. meta-data. By thinking about the patterns, concerns, images and word choices that we find not only in one poem but across several, we can use the language of information technology and meta-data as an intriguing and topical portal through which to access poetry. What does poetry or a poem become when we subject it to the kinds of processes we use to organize other kinds of data? Do we learn more about the poets or poems by comparing them to other poets and poems in this way? And what (if anything) is lost when we do so?

Underlying these questions is the more fundamental fact that all our thinking and talking and writing about poetry is itself a kind of meta poem: a new thing we construct with our insights, our speculations, our assumptions, and yes, the words and contexts of the poems. This exercise is an attempt to make this fact clear and accessible to students in a way that also touches on our current digital concerns about anonymity, technology, and data.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest news from our word-nerds in Finland, Cuba, and Morocco!

Contributor Hanna Heiskanen checks in from Finland:

Over in Finland, several prominent authors have expressed their concern for the writing skills of today’s young people. What began as a Facebook post by Anja Snellman, who has written more than 20 novels and is a recipient the Pro Finlandia Medal, on the quality of the letters she receives from school children around the country, has since been echoed by Salla Simukka and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, authors of the Snow White Trilogy (Hot Key Books/Amazon Children’s Publishing) and The Rabbit Back Literature Society (Pushkin Press/Thomas Dunne), respectively. Children and teenagers appear to struggle with understanding metaphor and long sentences, and are increasingly unable to write in literary, rather than spoken, language, the authors said. Reading is still generally held in high regard in the country, with 50 million books borrowed from libraries by the 5 million strong population in 2014, though these figures have been in decline.

The national broadcaster YLE shines a light on Elina Ahlbäck, the founder and director of the Elina Ahlback Literary Agency. The eight-year-old agency is behind the string of success stories of the aforementioned Salla Simukka who, like Maria Turtschaninoff, also represented by Ahlbäck, signed a Hollywood film deal some months back. Other good news for the agency is the recent nomination of Laura Lindstedt’s Oneiron for the Nordic Council’s 2017 literature prize, the winner of which will be announced in November. Finnish literature in translation is having a moment, according to Ahlbäck: “Finland is an undiscovered treasure trove, and a source of unique stories and storytelling,” she says in the article. The country still lags behind its western neighbour, however, when it comes to marketing efforts: more than 30 agencies work to export Swedish literature, now a familiar sight on global bestseller lists.

The literature festival Helsinki Lit has published its schedule for this year. The event, May 12-13, will feature discussions with the likes of Orhan Pamuk, Linda Boström Knausgård, and Laurent Binet.

And to wrap up on a more unusual note, a Danish crime literature festival has gained nationwide interest for an advertising campaign gone awry. The Krimimessen festival, the largest of its kind in the Nordic countries and organised earlier this month, was advertised by staging fake crime scenes using fake human bodies. After, naturally, distressed reactions from the general public, the campaign was promptly terminated. “I am horribly sorry”, said the organising town’s Mayor, according to the Copenhagen Post Online.

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Translator Sean Sell on Contemporary Indigenous Literature in Mexico

Political concerns are in the back of my mind, and when translating I try to keep them back there. I hope the works can speak for themselves.

During the past thirty years indigenous literatures in Spanish and indigenous languages have slowly emerged onto the literary scenes of many Latin American countries. Despite what many refer to as a literary renaissance, these literatures garner scant attention beyond the region, and many masterworks of contemporary indigenous letters remain unavailable in English translation. A graduate student at the University of California-Davis, Sean Sell recently published an excellent translation of Maya literature from the Mexican state of Chiapas with the University of Oklahoma Press. We caught up with Sell to discuss his work, that of the authors he translates, and his role as a conduit of indigenous writing in English.

Paul Worley & Kelsey Woodburn (W&W): What led you to an interest in Mayan languages and literatures?

Sean Sell (SS): Credit the Zapatistas, I suppose. Their uprising captured my attention as it did with so many others, so in 2000 when I was looking to visit Mexico and work on my Spanish, I got involved with the organization Escuelas para Chiapas or Schools for Chiapas. I figured I could improve my Spanish and support this intriguing project at the same time.  Schools for Chiapas is based, at least on this side of the border, in San Diego, where I’ve lived most of my life. They regularly organize trips to Zapatista territory. Our group helped prepare a site for school construction in one of the communities. But the trips are as much about cultural exchange as they are about any particular project.

It was on this trip that I first learned of indigenous languages like Tsotsil and Tseltal. Organizers told us that many of the Zapatistas we would meet did not speak Spanish, and for those who did it was probably their second language.

Years later I was getting a master’s at San Diego State University, and I took a class called Mexican Sociolinguistics.  I thought it would be about Mexican variations and regionalisms in Spanish, but it was all about indigenous languages—their history, their variety, their different levels of health today. Estimates of how many indigenous languages remain in Mexico range from 68 (the number with government recognition) to almost 300, with some disagreement as to when languages are distinct rather than different dialects of the same one. It was fascinating to learn about this, as each language represents a particular cultural world.  I drew from my experience in Chiapas for the class.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2017

Dive into our Spring Issue, starting with an Italian short story, Assamese poetry, and Catalan drama!

Here at the Asymptote blog, we’re mining the new Spring 2017 Issue for all its treasures and have selected a few our favorite pieces to introduce here. And while we’re making introductions, I’m pleased to present two new members of the Asymptote team, Assistant Blog Editors Stefan and Sneha, who will have much more content and expertise to share in the coming months. For now, enjoy our highlights from the new issue! 

‘A Dhow Crosses the Sea’ by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson, is a story that rises and falls from dreams to the visceral reality of the author’s roots in Somalia and Italy. Between dreams of the protagonist’s grandmother, an ecological disaster, and a capsizing dhow (a type of traditional sailing vessel), the sea is at the very heart of the narrative, its significance alternating between loss and attachment, hope and tragedy. Farah’s blending of Somali oral tradition into her writing also gives an incantatory quality to the work, wrapping you up in its sounds and smells. Those few lines from Somali, “a dhow crosses the sea, carrying incense and myrrh,” have stayed with me, sweet and comforting on the one hand, but on the other filled with an inescapable sense of danger and apprehension.”

—Assistant Blog Editor Stefan Kielbasiewicz

“Of all the uniquely special pieces in the Spring Issue brought to you by the Asymptote staff, Sananta Tanty’s poems spoke the most to me, not least because the poems were originally written in Assamese, my first language.

The fact that the poems are by an Assamese poet is significant. As you might be aware, Assam is the major language spoken in the Northeast Indian state of Assam. The region is widely regarded to have a distinct social and cultural identity compared to ‘mainstream’ India. These differences have unfortunately led to its neglect by the power centres of mainstream India, and the region has been marked by ethnic strife, political conflict, and insurgencies against the Indian state since Independence from the erstwhile British Empire. Highlighting Assamese poetry probes the fault-lines of marginality, underwriting that, even as Indian literature has been a recurring focus of the journal in an attempt to break away from the Western canon, engagement with identity politics requires constant reflection and self-reflexivity.

It is also important to note that the poet was born to a family of tea plantation workers. Assam is known around the world for tea, a legacy of British colonialism. Unfortunately the tea gardens are notorious to this day for deep class divides between the upper management and the manual labourers who were drawn from Central Indian tribal communities to work in the estates by the British tea planters in conditions many argue are akin to slavery.  Tanty, a name carrying the history of his working class background, thus writes a poetry of protest against the indignities of the conditions of his community’s existence: “All twelve men were landless and without independence”. Tanty’s modernist verse is brought out in all its sparkling clarity by the translator, Dibyajoti Sarma, who is a poet and has written introspective pieces on the politics of representing literature from Northeast India in the Indian publishing industry. You can read more of Tanty’s work in the book Selected Poems Sananta Tanty, translated to English by Dibyajoti Sarma. You can also have a look at Sameer Tanti’s poems (translated by Sarma) for similar themes.”

—Assistant Blog Editor Sneha Khaund

“The excerpt from Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaret, translated by Phyllis Zatlin, made me so excited. I realize that is probably a bizarre thing to say about a rather absurd, darkly comic work of social commentary, but I couldn’t help but imagine some of my theater friends from college working on this in the basement of a dorm in preparation for an amateur production that we would have imbued with overblown significance and that uniquely naïve brand of activism that can only flourish in a walled-off university setting. It might have turned out decently and not remotely done justice to the script.

So that’s not to say there is anything naïve or amateurish about the play in the least. It’s only to say that reading the excerpt was an experience I’m sure you’ve all had: a spark of joy, perhaps even bringing you to a giggle, that is completely incongruous with the tone of what you’re reading, but that’s a result of being surprised and tickled by how incredibly good it is. Which, though I’m sure it wasn’t the reason for the title, makes calling it a cabaret more than apt. Part corrective history, part satire, and part poignant, confessional monologue, this piece of the Diabolic Cabaret was not enough for me. Here’s hoping the entire play gets staged, and published, in English very soon.”

—Blog Editor Madeline Jones

 *****

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Translation Tuesday: “The Emergency Brake” by Hermann Burger

Everyone has a red handle over his head. All that’s required is the courage to pull down.

Fresh from releasing our massive quarterly edition gathering new work from 30 countries (a sixth of which make up our Special Feature on Literatures from Banned Countries), we’re thrilled to present one of the issue’s many amazing highlights: a new story by Hermann Burger, “one of the truly great authors of the German language: a writer of consummate control and range, with a singular and haunting worldview.” German critic Uwe Schütte goes on to lament: “Yet it is not surprising that he fell into obscurity after his death, from an overdose of barbiturates at age forty-six. He shares this fate with many of the most august names from the peripheries of German-language literature who, never managing to escape from the ghetto of Austrian or Swiss publishing, either gave up in exhaustion, or went on writing and were forgotten nonetheless.” When you’re finished with this brilliant story, don’t forget to check out Schütte’s accompanying critical introduction in our free portal for world literature.

I sit in the dining car in my customary place. On the table stands a plaque: Réservé. I have the table to myself, although at this hour, the dining car is always rather full. I’m free to invite someone over, as I often do, to have someone to talk to during the long journey. The express train left punctually from the station concourse with its frosted glass, brown platforms, hurried people, plastic voices in the loudspeakers, and races now through the industrial quarter past the roadworks, apartment blocks, refineries, and silos. As always, a certain comfortable feeling of movement; the rhythm of the track joints is soft. A park with bright yellow building machines, which always look to me like giant dinosaurs from a vanished era, stretches out in the blinding midday light. Backhoes, fangs raised skyward, heavy dump trucks with ribs on their laterals, graders and excavators, a tranquil family, all together. I love how the landscape whizzes past in the train, this fleeing joy from a picture book. A bridge, a brief, hollow sound—and already, the river with the birches returns.

Punctual as ever, the service has begun, the waiter takes the place settings from my table. “Monsieur?” he says, as I close the menu. I nod in agreement with the menu of the day, and order a bottle of Dôle to accompany it. “Monsieur,” the waiter says again, after bringing me the soup, a consommé finished with white wine, sloshing slightly from the shuddering of the train car. Bon appétit, I wish myself, breaking my bread and giving the server a sideways bow. He knows he has a good tip coming, and is right to give a conspicuous smile. Monsieur, Monsieur, one hears from the other tables. It is an elegant proceeding. The waiters in their khaki coats speak fluent French and broken German. This team in particular serves quickly and with grace. One simply must see with what precision my waiters lay the spinach on the plate, how they post on one leg and balance the meat platter with its perilously whipped-up sauce through a curve, or how they pour the wine without spilling a drop. That is service! The guests, business travelers in dark suits, mostly, take pains to spoon their soup as soundlessly as possible. The chef de service greets the newcomers with the question: “zum Essen, pour manger?” When they refuse, they are dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. I understand the head waiter’s verdict. There are always travelers who think one can sit in the middle of the dining car and order a peppermint tea or a plate of terrine. In fact, we, the regulars and staff, have no desire for our established ceremony to be spoiled over a bit of terrine. I always say: after all, it’s called the dining car, not the picnic wagon. By the way the other guests pour, I see whether they have dining car experience or not. The neophytes let the glass stand on the table, so that, naturally, the beverage spills over and leaves spots behind on the blinding white tablecloth. The old hands hold the glass in front of the bottle’s neck, but without bracing their elbow. I, and I say this not without pride, am an old hand.

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A Lexicon Like No Other

“The crushing of the Prague Spring was followed by another communist party crackdown. Dozens of translations...were banned."

Oľga Kovačičová, PhD is a Slovak literature scholar and specialist in old Russian literature and translation studies. She works at the Institute for Literary Studies at the Slovak Academy of Sciences where for the past few years she has been the driving force behind a unique project, “The Lexicon of 20th century Slovak translators,“ which she co-edited and contributed some 80 of the total 400 entries. She has agreed to share some reflections on the special role literary translation played in shaping Slovak language and culture with Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Julia Sherwood, who then translated her insights into English.

Translated literature necessarily plays a more important role in smaller countries compared with bigger nations where much of the reading public’s literary and general cultural needs are met by local literary output. When it comes to a really small country like Slovakia, even without citing statistical data it is obvious that the ratio of translated to domestic literary production is roughly the converse of that in Western Europe, where translations represent 12% (Germany) or 20% (Italy) of book publishing overall, let alone English speaking countries with the notorious 3-4% of translated books.

Lexicon cover

Another big difference is that while the major European cultures have had access to the great works of world literature in their own language for many centuries, in Slovakia the process of reception was basically condensed into the 20th century, since Slovak as a literary language was only constituted in the second half of the 1840s.  Volume I of the Lexicon of Slovak 20th century Literary Translators (Slovník slovenských prekladateľov umeleckej literatúry 20. storočia), published in 2015 by the Slovak Academy of Sciences (volume II is almost complete), provides a fascinating glimpse of this frantic catching up process.

There are lexicons and then there are lexicons. Unlike pragmatic manuals of the “Who’s Who” type, the profiles of some 400 translators featured in The Lexicon aim to chart the trajectory of literary translation in the 20th century and through this, the history of reception of world literature in Slovakia. Individual entries are between three and five pages long, and apart from basic biographical details and each translator’s bibliography, they look at the works each of them translated and how he/she translated them.  The fruit of the painstaking labour of over 30 linguists and translation studies scholars, the book includes Katarína Bednárová’s comprehensive introductory essay on the history of literary translation in Slovakia and its international context, a bibliography of secondary sources, and an index. Volume II will feature an illustrated supplement, showcasing a selection of around 200 book covers, which doubles as a comprehensive survey of the evolution of Slovak book design, as well as lists of translators by source country.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest news from our bookish reporters on the ground in Indonesia, Spain, and India

Your weekly world tour kicks off in Indonesia this week, where we’ll hear about writers receiving special honors and new books out in Indonesian and English. Then we’ll jet to Spain because some of the biggest literary awards are being announced right now! And our final destination will be India, where…

Tiffany Tsao, Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, has some serious scoop:

In commemoration of the writer Sapardi Djoko Damono’s seventy-seventh birthday late last month, seven books were launched at the Bentara Budaya Jakarta cultural institute in South Jakarta: one new novel and six new editions of Sapardi’s previously published poetry collections. The novel, entitled Pingkan Melipat Jarak [Pingkan Folds Distance] is the second installment of a trilogy, the first novel of which is titled Hujan Bulan Juni [June Rain]. Sapardi is widely considered Indonesia’s pioneer of lyrical poetry. Well-known writer and journalist Goenawan Mohammad opened the evening with a few words about Sapardi’s work, followed by poetry readings—including musical renditions—by writers and musicians.

Several writers from the province of West Sumatra have put forth a proposal that the poet Chairil Anwar be officially recognized as one of Indonesia’s national heroes. Born in the Sumatran city of Medan in 1922, Chairil wrote poetry until his untimely death in 1949 at the age of 27. Critics consider his poetry to be revolutionary on several levels, notably his engagement with the Indonesian struggle for independence at the time, his introduction of Western-influenced themes into Indonesian poetry, and the groundbreaking way he wielded bahasa Indonesia, or Indonesian—the new official language of the nascent nation.

Feminist fiction writer and essayist Intan Paramaditha’s short-story collection Sihir Perempuan [Black Magic Woman] will be rereleased at the end of April by Indonesian publisher Gramedia Pustaka Utama. The collection was originally published in 2005 and shortlisted for the Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa Award.

The English translation of the Indonesian bestseller Perahu Kertas [Paper Boats], written by Dee Lestari will be released on May 1 by Amazon’s literature-in-translation imprint AmazonCrossing. Paper Boats is one of the seven Indonesian works that AmazonCrossing announced it would publish at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, at which Indonesia was the guest of honor. Last year saw the publication of Nirzona by Abidah El Khalieqy and translated by Annie Tucker, and The Question of Red, written in English and Indonesian by Laksmi Pamuntjak.

Editor-at-Large Carmen Morawski reports from Spain:

April is an important month for prizes in the Spanish literary world and as such, let’s begin with the most prestigious. Equivalent to the Nobel Prize for Spanish literature, the 2016 Cervantes Prize, will be awarded on April 23 to  Eduardo Mendoza for his contribution to Spanish letters. Created in 1975, the prize is awarded on April 23 to coincide with Día del Libro (World Book Day), the day selected by UNESCO to honor both Shakespeare and Cervantes, who died on the same calendar date though not on the same day. At 125,000 euros, it is Spanish literature’s biggest award for Castilian language writers, with recipients alternating each year between Latin America and Spain.

Also of note, the 2013 Cervantes award winner, Elena Poniatowska, presided over this week’s announcement of the 2017 Alfaguara award for the novel, Rendición, by Ray Loriga which, according to ABC, was described by Poniatowska as both a “Kafkaesque and Orwellian history on authority and collective manipulation.” Citing Juan Rulfo among his influences, this multitalented author, screen writer, and director, Jorge Loriga Torrenova, who is better known as Ray Loriga, chooses to describe his dystopic science fiction novel as having “little science.”

Also worth mentioning is the 2017 Premio Azorín awarded to the Basque author from Bilbao, Espido Freire, for her novel, Llamadme Alejandra [Call Me Alexandra] about the last Russian Tsarina. Created in 1994, as a joint venture between the provincial government of Alicante and the Spanish publisher Editorial Planeta, the prize carries the pseudonymous name Azorín, used by Augusto Trinidad Martínez Ruíz of the “Generation of 98,” to sign his work. To learn more about this important member of the Generation of 98 don’t miss ABC’s tribute to Azorín in this week’s culture section commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death.

Finally, and certain to be of interest to Asymptote readers, is Laura Salas Rodríguez’s Spanish translation from the original French of Bosnian writer Velibor Colic’s Manual de exilio [Manual of Exile], available from Periférica. Based on his experience as a Balkan war refugee in France, Colic’s novel is particularly relevant now given the global refugee crisis. Be sure to read this Letras Libres interview, “Exile is Apprenticeship”, in which Colic discusses the paradox of writing in French, a language he didn’t begin to learn until the age of thirty.

And Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan checks in with us from India:

As festival season wraps, it’s becoming clear that one festival in particular made its mark this year. Not one of the literary heavyweights in the country (like the Jaipur Literature Festival), but the lesser-known Bookaroo, a children’s literature festival in its ninth year, came into the limelight when it won the Literary Festival of the Year award at the London Book Fair (LBF). You can read an interview with the organizers of the festival here.

At a time when, not only in India but also in countries across the world, there is a noticeable shift towards tightening borders and a clinging on to an “ahistoric” nationalism, this in-depth interview with historian Romila Thapar provides an understanding of the new phenomenon. In a five-part conversation with the India Cultural Forum—an organization that focusses on issues of concern to writers, educators, and cultural practitioners—Thapar says about nationalism, “We are at the moment today when nationalism means territory. We are all nationalists in our own way and our debate on nationalism in a post-independent nation like ours is yet to be broad-based and public.”

Vivek Shanbag’s Ghachar Ghochar, the first book translated from Kannada to have a release in the U.S (in February), has had  a grand reception with a 1000-word New York Times review—a welcome sign for translated literature from the country.

On the other hand, Indian language writing faced a sad month with the passing away of the legendary Tamil writer Ashokamitran in late March. A prolific writer with 200 short stories, 20 novellas, and 8 novels to his name, he brought into being a unique literary history in the country. This exhaustive tribute by one of his translators, N Kalyan Raman, compares his work and life to those of his contemporaries, shedding light on what distinguished Ashokamitran from his colleagues. As the translator notes, his 200 short stories “belong to one indivisible world and can be experienced as the one big story in which we may all find ourselves.” Other tributes to Ashokamitran have also pointed out and lamented the obscurity of a writer, who should be read and reread much more widely.

*****

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Risotto alla Milanese: A recipe by Carlo Emilio Gadda

Most important is to assign to the rite a mind fearful of the gods...grant entry...to only the finest of ingredients.

Welcome to the Asymptote blog’s new monthly column of recipes in translation! We’ll feature incredible dishes from around the world that are a joy to cook and an adventure just to read. 

The preparation of good risotto alla Milanese requires quality rice of the Vialone variety, with a wide grain somewhat harder than that of Carolina rice, which has an elongated, almost tapered form. A rice that isn’t entirely hulled—that is, not entirely stripped of its pericarp—finds favor among the true connoisseurs of Piedmont and Lombardy: the farmers who use it in their own kitchens. A careful observation of the grain reveals a coating of the residue of its shed film, the pericarp, a tattered walnut- or leather-colored garment of the lightest fabric. When cooked properly, it makes for excellent risotto that is nutritious and rich in the vitamins that distinguish common wheat and seeds with their shell-veils. Peasant-style risotto from these types of rice turns out particularly exquisitely, as does risotto alla Milanese: somewhat darker, it’s true, after and despite its golden baptism in saffron.

The classic receptacle for the preparation of risotto alla Milanese is a round—or even oval—tinned copper pan with an iron handle: the old, heavy pan that, after a certain point, we stopped hearing anything about. It’s a precious fitting of the old and ample kitchen: it was an essential component of the “kitchen copper” or “coppers”—one that the old poet, Bassano, did not fail to enumerate in his poetic “interiors” where, more than once, with lunch digested, the gleaming coppers hanging from the brick backsplash soak up and refract a ray of the setting sun. With the old copper abducted, all we can do is put our faith in its substitute: aluminum.

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Noah Birksted-Breen on Contemporary Russian Theatre

The conditions are very tough for a young playwright; you can only hope that you get picked up by a really good TV series

Noah Birksted-Breen is a theatre director, writer and translator. After doing a Modern Languages degree at Oxford University, including one year at the St. Petersburg State University, he completed an MA in Playwriting at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. In 2005 he co-founded Sputnik Theatre Company, which is dedicated to bringing contemporary Russian plays to the UK, and has so far produced five plays for his company. Sputnik also launched the first Russian Theatre Festival in the UK in 2010 with four new Russian-language plays translated into English and premiered at the Soho Theatre.  In 2006 Noah won the ITV Theatre Directors’ Award, working for a year and a half as resident director at Hampstead Theatre. He has translated plays by, among others, Oleg Bogaev, Yelena Gremina, Natalia Kolyada, Natalia Moshina, Yuri Klavdiev, and Yaroslava Pulinovich. 

Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Slovakia, caught up with Noah in the middle of his commute between Oxford, where he’s in the final stages of his doctoral dissertation, and London, where he lives with his family.

JS: I first came across Sputnik back in 2005 or 2006, when I saw your brilliant production of Russian National Mail at the Old Red Lion theatre. How did you discover this play, what sparked your interest in contemporary Russian drama and how did Sputnik Theatre start? 

NBB: I started hearing that new Russian playwriting was vibrant and began to actively look into it. I was travelling to Russia a lot at that time in my job as a project manager for an NGO that was working in that region, so I could also attend plays.  Then, in 2005 I co-founded Sputnik with Leila Gray and started producing new Russian plays. Russian National Mail by Oleg Bogaev was our first production. Right now Sputnik consists of me and then different collaborators for each project. I also have a Board of Trustees—people who are quite big in the industry and they help out. Ideally, I’d like to have a Russian set designer to work with on a permanent basis, and money to commission Russian playwrights, but funding is a problem.

Over the past 3 or 4 years I haven’t produced any plays as I’ve been working on my doctorate—on contemporary Russian playwriting between 2000 and 2014, focusing on four specific theatre companies and their programming of new plays. However, it is a practice-based doctorate, and it includes a non-academic part, in cooperation with Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, so I was able to continue the work I’ve been doing with Sputnik and bring it to a larger theatre. In consultation with the artistic director, Simon Stokes, we identified four plays, which I translated. As it is very difficult to sell a new Russian play in the UK in general and even more so to a regional audience, rather than doing full productions we decided to do them as rehearsed readings at the Frontline Club in London. This was January 2016. The first play was Dr. by Yelena Isaeva, one of the longest running productions of teatr.doc, the renowned studio theatre in Moscow. It’s a surprising, sometimes shocking, often funny and moving play about contemporary medicine in rural Russia. Then we did Joan, by Yaroslava Pulinovich, which is a play about a self-made businesswoman who has made it to the top for all the wrong reasons, and about the ruthless business practices of 1990s Russia and its gangster capitalism. For the third play, Grandchildren: The Second Act, Alexandra Polivanova and Mikhail Kaluzhsky interviewed the grandchildren of prominent Stalinists, whose testimonies bear witness to the very human desire to forgive those we love, even when we know their worst crimes. And last but not least, Mikhail Durnenkov’s The War Has Not Yet Started depicts the dehumanising effects of living in a society on the brink of an all-out war. (videos of post-performance discussions can be viewed here, here, here and here).

JS: I managed to catch two of the plays at the Frontline Club: Joan and Grandchildren; both were excellent and very different.  Are you planning to publish these four plays and can we expect to see full productions of any of them?

NBB: I published two of the plays, Dr. and Grandchildren, in a bilingual edition, and have included all the footnotes so you can get a full experience of the text, if you’re interested. I published them through Sputnik, funded by the Translation Institute (Institut perevoda) in Moscow. As for full productions, the rehearsed readings were very well received and Simon Stokes really liked one of the plays, The War Has Not Yet Started. He decided to do a full production at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth in May 2016, directed by Michael Fentiman. He is more of an auteur director, adding his own images, rather than a typical new play director, where you’re tend to be quite faithful to the script. The result worked extremely successful—very theatrical and enjoyable—though it felt rather eclectic in places.  It’s very hard to get attention for a new Russian play so it was covered mostly by the local press, and by the Stage, the industry paper.

It was good to see how well Durnenkov’s play worked in Plymouth as artistic directors often assume that a contemporary Russian play can only be staged in a niche theatre like the Royal Court, or The Bush, or the Gate or some other theatre that specializes in contemporary plays. In fact, a play like Joan is actually quite a crowd pleaser and the Royal Court would not necessarily be interested whereas—I may be hopelessly idealistic here—I feel that it could actually be staged in a more mainstream theatre. It’s a sort of revenge drama, which asks big questions but at the same time it’s a very entertaining piece with a great deal of situational comedy. The problem is how to convince theatre managers—I spoke to a couple of directors and they felt it could only be staged if there was a star actor in the main role, because otherwise no-one is going to come and see a new Russian play. But if you got Helen McCrory it could be put on at the Old Vic, or the Young Vic [laughs].

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Byung-rul Lee

The hour hand blankly moves, in spite of the dangling minute hand with a loose screw.

In a society where emotional restraint is prized, interactions can all of a sudden grow stilted or become suffused with a great silence as disappointment sinks in. In these exemplary poems by Korean poet Byung-rul Lee, tone and imagery hint at the emotional tumult hidden underneath the surface.

Great Sadness

Truly, an emotion the size of a single juice pack.

Something is stuck and will not come out.
A woman’s face full of the image of an afternoon garden,
sturdy roots of a tree growing through a wall,
a swarm of ants climbing up a pillar in lines,
that do not fall off or get brushed off, even when shaken.

The waist of a flower has accepted signs of death,
blood and murderous intent,
forearms holding up the breath of love

The hour hand blankly moves,
in spite of the dangling minute hand with a loose screw.
A metaphor hidden in the naked flesh of the picture.

I cannot give up this abyss.
If I wanted to hide it,
I would have to measure to see if I can take it out again.

As molten iron, once welded on, does not fall off,
this sadness, seared by fire, does not fall off.
Since it is my turn to step back a bit,
please, anybody, share some wine with my brothers.

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What’s New in Translation? April 2017

We review three new books available in English, from Hebrew poetry to haunting fairy tales.

milk of dreams

The Milk of Dreams, by Leonora Carrington, tr. by the author, New York Review Books

Reviewed by Beau Lowenstein, Editor-at-Large for Australia

Leonora Carrington grew up listening to folktales told by her Irish nanny in Crookhey Hall. She spent most of her life in Mexico City and became renowned as a Surrealist painter, artist and novelist. Her children recount how they used to sit in a large room on whose walls their mother’s fantastical stories were brought to life. There were deranged creatures and wild forests, and mystical persons standing amid steep, clouded mountains. Carrington’s breath as a storyteller was as broad as her genius for painting and imagery, and the paring of the two resulted in a small notebook she called The Milk of Dreams (New York Review Books, 2017) – perhaps the only surviving relic of that enchanting time where, each day for her children, she opened the door to a realm of fantasy and wonder.

We are introduced to Headless John on the first page, which immediately sets the tone:

The boy had wings instead of ears.

He looked strange.

“Look at my ears,” he said.
The people were afraid.

Her stories, which are often not much more than a few lines in length, give a sense of whimsical creativity; the kind that is not just rare in literature but exceedingly so in children’s stories. Meet George, who enjoys eating walls and eventually grows his head into a house; Don Crecencio the butcher and his goat’s meat roses; and the monster Chavela Ortiz, who has six legs, a golden jewel, pearls, and a portrait of Don Angel Vidrio Gonzalez, the head of the Sanitary Department. There is a freedom in Carrington’s tales that is both outrageous and unpredictable, and yet underlying is the realness of raw experience. These are not watered-down shadows of a story like so much of fantasy writing seen today – they delve into genuine emotions, which are often dark and complex.

And yet Carrington imbeds a wicked humour in her stories, too. In “The Horrible Story of the Little Meats,” an old and ugly woman is nicknamed Lolita by her friends and captures three children, imprisoning them and cutting off their heads. They are saved by a Green Indian who, in his ignorance, reattaches their heads to their hands and feet and buttocks, though, “the children were happy in spite of having their heads stuck on such funny places.”

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your Friday update from Argentina, Mexico, and Taiwan

TGIF because we have so much to tell you about the literary goings-on around the world! From book fairs in Argentina to new electronic media in indigenous languages from Mexico, to touring documentary screenings in Taiwan, this week has been packed with exciting news.

Sarah Moses, Editor-at-Large for Argentina, reports on upcoming events:

On March 22, The Museo del Libro y de la Lengua launched “Déjalo Beat. Insurgencia poética de los años 60,” an exhibit that seeks to bring attention to the beatniks porteños, a group of Buenos Aires authors and poets who embodied 1960s counterculture through works that were genre-bending and anti-academic. Open until July, the exhibit showcases magazines, photographs, early editions of novels, and other audiovisual material from writers including Reynaldo Mariani, Poni Micharvegas, Sergio Mulet, Ruy Rodríguez, and Néstor Sánchez. “Celebración Beat. La belleza de lo roto,” a multidisciplinary work of theatre based on texts from fifteen of the authors included in “Déjalo Beat” will be performed at the museum on April 7.

Bar Piglia, located in Buenos Aires’s Library of Congress, was inaugurated on March 31. The café commemorates Ricardo Piglia, who passed away on January 6; its walls are decorated with a mural and photos of the writer, and its shelves contain copies of his books. Piglia knew of the homage and, hours before his death, completed a piece tracing a history of the library and the role it had played in his life. The text was read by actress Cristina Banegas on the first night of “Palabras Vivas,” a reading series that will take place at the café.

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