Posts by Julia Sherwood

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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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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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Brazil, Singapore, the Czech Republic, and Spain!

We have a busy schedule this week, Readers, so pack light and wear comfy shoes! First stop is Brazil, where we’ll board book-selling buses and more. Then we’re off to Singapore to check out a nation-wide, month-long poetry project before visiting a new cultural hub in the Czech Republic. And final destination: the vibrant literary scene in Spain! 

Maíra Mendes Galvão, Editor-at-Large for Brazil, gives us the latest:

Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll passed away at age 70 on March 29 in his house in Porto Alegre, in the State of Rio Grande do Sul. Noll stood out among his contemporaries in the 1980s for his language-driven writing at a time when Brazilian literature favored narrative and plot. His novels Quiet Creature in the Corner and Hotel Atlântico were translated into English by Adam Morris, and Harmada was translated by David Treece.

Rizoma Livros is an itinerant bookstore on a bus that tours the city of São Paulo, Brazil, offering books by independent publishers such as n-1 and elefante. It will be parked in front of Middle-Eastern food restaurant Al Janiah, owned by Palestinian refugees and Brazilian friends, in the Bixiga neighborhood of São Paulo until the end of April.

Another book bus is touring the Northeast State of Ceará as part of the project “Ceará Leitor” [Ceará Reader], aimed at encouraging the population of smaller towns such as Baturité, Aquiraz, Maracanaú and Horizonte to read more by offering discounted books by publishing houses from Ceará. The will also donate book baskets to the visited municipalities’ book collections for public and school libraries, and offer an orientation on how to start book clubs. Organized by the Viva Brasil institute and the Ceará Book Chamber, with the support of SEBRAE, the Secretariat of Culture of the State of Ceará, and the Government of the State of Ceará, the project hopes to open up, for as many people as possible, the possibility of acquiring the habit of reading as a form of entertainment and education.

The Brazilian Academy of Letters has elected writer and diplomat João Almino as a new member, taking up its 22nd Chair, previously occupied by the recently deceased physician and academic Ivo Pitanguy. Some of Almino’s fiction work has been translated into English, French, Spanish and Italian, and he’s also written non-fiction books about historical and political philosophy.

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

But his was a mind that never stopped questioning and was exquisitely attuned to the pain of the world.

Here to relieve the unbearable suspense we left you in after part I are Julia Sherwood and Ottilie Mulzet, picking up where they left off in their chat about Mulzet’s translations from Hungarian and Mongolian, and more! 

JS: Not all translators take on both fiction and poetry, but you have also translated Szilárd Borbély’s poetry for Asymptote, and your revised and expanded collection of his Berlin-Hamlet came out in the US last year. In what ways is your approach different when translating poetry and prose?  And given that in Hungary, Szilárd Borbély was primarily known as a poet, there is a whole treasure trove out there waiting for the English reader—are you planning to tackle any more of his poetry?

OM: I’ve actually already translated two other volumes by Borbély: Final Matters: Sequences, and To the Body: Odes and Legends. Final Matters has been described as a monument to his mother, who was murdered by thugs who broke into her home in a tiny village on the night before Christmas Eve, 1999. She was murdered brutally in her bed, Borbély’s father was left for dead but survived. (He passed away in 2006.) Borbély was the one who found them, and well, I don’t think it takes too much imagination to picture the unspeakably deep trauma this must have occasioned.

Final Matters is like a three-part memorial to her, although it doesn’t address her murder directly; instead, Borbély employs allegorical language—he drew his inspiration for the first part from central European Baroque folk poetry about Christ and the Virgin Mary, in particular the poetry of Angelus Silesius—to talk about death and the body. There’s a lot of brutally direct detail and philosophical language at the same time. In reading The Dispossessed, though, you see exactly where this comes from—the little boy is confronted with brutal details all day long, but in his own mind, he is preoccupied with abstraction, his love for prime numbers. In the second part of Final Matters, Borbély turns to the myth of Amor and Psyche to explore questions of physicality and immateriality. And in the third part, he reworks another part of Hungarian religious-poetic culture that’s been largely forgotten: the legends and parables of the Hungarian-speaking Szatmár Hassidic Jews from Hungary’s rural northeast. (Now, of course, the Szatmár region is mostly in Romania, and the Szatmár Hassidim, except for the Yiddish-speaking Satmari in Brooklyn, were almost all murdered in the Holocaust.) And yet through these three sections, which he terms ‘Sequences’, he causes the three great western traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and the world of the ancient Greeks—to confront each other, form a dialogue with each other; they all cause the others to be seen in a different light.

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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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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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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your Friday update from Spain, Morocco, and Slovakia!

This week, we begin our world tour on the Iberian Peninsula in the midst of political unrest—Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James is on the ground in Spain with the full report. Then south to Morocco: we’ll catch up with Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman about the latest book fairs and literary trends. And finally, we’ll wrap up in Slovakia with Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood, who has the scoop on the latest Slovak poetry available to English readers and more.

Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James reports from Spain:

Political actions and gestures have been more overtly woven through the Spanish literary scene as writers seek to speak back against increasingly divisive governments. Writers called for remembrance of fifteen people killed in Tarajal on the two year anniversary of their deaths on February 6, 2014; a documentary about the tragedy was made to both inform the public and denounce such instances of institutional racism in the country.

Amidst celebrations of women’s roles in science, Bellver, the cultural journal of the Diario de Mallorca, highlighted three recent anthologies written by women: Poesía soy yo, 20 con 20,  and (Tras)lúcidas.

Another recent book has been getting a lot of attention not for its political weight, but because of the strange circumstances under which it’s being published. Michi Panero, who came from a very literary family but died young in 2004 has had his first book, Funerales vikingos, published by Bartelby Editores. La Movida madrileña called him the writer without books, as he had famously shunned the writing life. He wrote in secret, however, and eventually entrusted the work to his stepson, Javier Mendoza, who has finally sought to publish the unedited stories, together with his own work narrating his relationship with Panero. The product is bound to be an interesting read.

Similarly mysterious and posthumously discovered is a recent gift to the Madrid art world: drawings and sketches by the painter Francis Bacon that were previously unascertained. Bacon had also famously declared that he did not sketch or plan in this way, but some nearly 800 drawings were given to Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino, the journalist and a partner of Bacon’s for some years. The works will be on display in the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid until May 21.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary updates from the Czech Republic, Iran, and England

This Friday, we present three very distinct reports from the world of literature. Slovakian Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood looks back at what was a great year of Czech literature in translation and gives us a sneak peek at what to look forward to this year. Her Iranian colleague Poupeh Missaghi reports on language-related issues in a human rights Twitter campaign. And finally, the UK Editor-at-Large M. René Bradshaw tells us where to head for great readings in London this month and next.

Julia Sherwood, our Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, has good news from the publishing world:

Last year proved to be a big year for Czech literature in English translation, with no fewer than eighteen publications from eight different presses at the latest count. They include, to mention just a few, Worm-Eaten Time, poet Pavel Šrut’s elegy for his homeland after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, translated by Deborah Garfinkle, and symbolist poet Jaroslav Durych‘s (1886-1962) 1956 novella God’s Rainbow on the expulsion of the German-speaking population from Bohemia after World War II. First published in censored form in 1969, it is now available in full in David Short’s translation as part of Karolínum Press’s Modern Classics series, which also features Eva M. Kandler’s translation of the World War II literary horror The Cremator by Ladislav Fuks, a study of the totalitarian mindset that still resonates today (extract in BODY Literature), and served as the basis for one of the key films of the Czech new wave, directed by Juraj Herz.

Stoppard_and_Bajaja,_photo_by_Pavel_Stojar

On 30 November, a packed audience at the launch of Antonín Bajaja’s Burying the Season (also translated by David Short) at Waterstones Piccadilly in the heart of London included the playwright Tom Stoppard. Stoppard’s father came from the town of Zlín, the setting for this novel depicting the early years of communism in Czechoslovakia. Czech literature scholar Rajendra Chitnis introduces the book as part of an Istros Conversations podcast on Audioboom, while Michael Tate of Jantar Publishing discusses on Czech radio the challenges of bringing Central European literature to English readers.

World Literature Today picked Czech writer Magdaléna Platzová’s The Attempt as one of its Notable translations of 2016, characterizing it as “historical fiction at its best”. In an interview with the Czech cultural bi-weekly A2, the novel’s translator Alex Zucker points out that while more books by Czech authors are now being published than ever before, they don’t necessarily reach many more readers since—like translated literature in general—quite a few are brought out by small independent presses and are therefore not visible in major bookshops and rarely reviewed.

In 2017, we can look forward to Zucker’s translations of two the most acclaimed contemporary Czech writers: Jáchym Topol’s Angel Station is due from Dalkey Archive in May, and Petra Hůlová’s taboo-breaking Plastic Three Rooms will be brought out by Jantar Publishing. Budding UK translators keen to be part of this unprecedented boom in Czech literature in English can participate in the fourth annual international competition for young translators, who this year are asked to tackle an excerpt from Bianca Bellová’s The Lake by 31 March (see their call for submissions). Budding Czech-to-English translators can also dip into the treasure trove of tricky issues, complete with solutions generously shared by Melvyn Clarke, in his blog post Translating Hrdý Budžes.

Acclaimed writer Zuzana Brabcová, who sadly passed away in 2015, was posthumously awarded the Josef Škvorecký prize for her haunting last novel Voliéry [Aviaries]. And as the year drew to a close, scores of students and literature lovers mourned the loss of the legendary Fišer bookstore in Kaprova Street near Prague’s Old Town Square, which closed its doors after selling books since the 1930s.

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A Dispatch from European Literature Days 2016: On Colonialism and Literature

Two writers and a publisher from three different places around the world shared the same story: each, at age sixteen, felt their life was changed.

In early November, the picturesque, if rather overcast hills and vineyards along the Danube in Spitz, Austria provided a luscious backdrop to literary discussions ranging from Haiti to Hungary, Brazil to Burkina Faso, Slovenia to South Africa and Brazil to Zimbabwe. Headlined “The Colonists”, the European Literature Days 2016 brought together writers, translators and literary critics to debate cultural appropriation and colonialism in literature in both the literal and metaphorical senses, with literary readings and wine tastings to boot.

danube

© Julia Sherwood

“Every country in the world is a hostage of its history from which there is no escape,” German reportage writer Hans Christoph Buch declared in his keynote speech (reproduced in full in the daily Die Presse). Since first visiting Haiti—the country of his father’s birth—in 1968, Buch has traversed the world, concluding that, although he might have written about the Caribbean and Africa, experience is not transferable across continents.  But isn’t a white author writing about Haiti stealing the country’s stories? Do writers have the right to write about countries that are not their own or does it turn them into colonists? Media and cultural scholar Karin Harrasser posed these questions to Zimbabwean lawyer and novelist Petina Gappah and Cuban author and cultural journalist Yania Suárez.

hans-christoph-buch-2-osaka-1

Hans Cristoph Buch © Sascha Osaka

They certainly do, according to Gappah. But with the privilege to tell stories, especially those that are not yours, comes responsibility to tell the truth, she added. She deemed Hans Christoph Buch to have passed this test with flying colours.  She stressed the value of the external gaze but warned about striving for authenticity, which is the death of fiction: “If you go down the rabbit hole of authenticity you end up with memoirs.”  Suárez agreed that people have the right to write about other countries but only if they’ve spent enough time there to get to know their surroundings properly. Those who haven’t immersed themselves in the culture often misrepresent and fetishize Cuba, for example, creating fantasy narratives and appropriating its recent history to support their own romantic ideas (ideas echoed only a few weeks later by the accolades heaped upon the late Fidel Castro).

petina-gappa-osakah-1

Petina Gappah © Sascha Osaka

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Slovakia, Hungary, and the Nordic countries.

Friday is once again upon us, dear Asymptoters! This time, our report brings you the latest literature in translation news from Europe. Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has been at the Central European Forum conference and Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen attended the Helsinki Book Fair, while Zsofia Paulikovics has an update from Hungary. Enjoy the ride!

Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has these stories from Slovakia:

On 20 October, the emerging writer Dominika Madro’s story Svätyňa [Sanctuary] won the annual short story contest Poviedka 2016. Now in its twentieth year, the competition is run by the publisher Koloman Kertész Bagala and all submissions are anonymous. This year’s runner-up was the story Šváby [Cockroaches] by novelist and Elena Ferrante’s Slovak translator and Asymptote contributor Ivana Dobrakovová.

A survey of reading habits, commissioned by the Slovak Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association, has recently published very depressing findings: 72 percent of the public don’t buy a single book in any year; 40 percent read books only once a month and 28 percent don’t read at all. Nevertheless, judging by the crowds attending a huge variety of literary events taking place across the capital, Bratislava, over the past month, the picture isn’t perhaps quite as bleak as these figures suggest.

Slovak-Swiss writer and journalist Irena Brežná, Polish novelist Grażyna Plebanek, and recent Neustadt Prize winner Dubravka Ugrešić sought antidotes for despair as part of Bratislava’s annual Central European Forum conference from 11 to 13 November (video recordings here); Dubravka Ugrešić also read from her book of essays, Europe in Sepia, which will be published soon in a Slovak translation by Tomáš Čelovský. Parallel with the conference, some 200 publishers displayed their recent publications at the Bibliotéka Book Fair, held in the somewhat drab Incheba exhibition halls and vying for space with a “World of Minerals” exhibition. At the Centre for the Information of Literature stand two young authors, Peter Balko and Peter Prokopec, along with graphic designer David Koronczi, introduced their new “anti-logy” of Slovak writing. Aimed at schools but very far from being a stuffy textbook, Literatúra bodka sk (Literature.dot.sk) aims to show that contemporary authors inhabit the same world and share the same sensibilities as young readers, and includes samples of fiction and non-fiction as well as a graphic novel, Rudo, by Daniel Majling. Rudo started life as a Facebook cartoon strip and has now been issued in book form by Czech publisher Labyrint (in a Czech translation!).

slovakiaimage_rudo_obalka

On the other side of the Danube, housed inside the Slovak National Gallery and overlooking the river, Café Berlinka is fast establishing itself as a vibrant literary venue, in association with the adjoining Ex Libris bookshop. Since September 2016, the café has been hosting Literárny kvocient [Literature quotient], a series of debates featuring leading literature scholars and critics.  Of the many book launches that took place over the past few weeks, the liveliest must have been the feminist press Aspekt’s presentation of a selection of poems by Hungarian activist poet Virág Erdős, Moja vina [My Fault].  The book was translated into Slovak by Eva Andrejčáková (a past Asymptote blog contributor) in cooperation with poet Vlado Janček, who read some of the hilariously outrageous poems to his own guitar accompaniment (you can watch Virág Erdős perform “Van egy ország”/ “There is a Country” in Hungarian with the band Rájátszás here). READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from the Nordic countries, the UK and Israel.

The week is nearly over, which not only means it’s the weekend but also that it’s time for our literary catch-up! For this edition, Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen shares updates on the upcoming awards season, among other news from Scandinavia. Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood then reports on literary happenings from the UK. Rounding it all up is our correspondent for Israel, Alma Beck, currently residing in New Orleans, where she teaches philosophy for children.

Obligatory reminder: After you’ve caught up with all the news, head over to our just-launched Fall 2016 issue here!

First up, Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen has the latest from the Nordic countries:

Lars Huldén, the Swedish-speaking Finn poet, has passed away at the age of 90. Born in Pietarsaari, Finland, Huldén was a much loved and highly regarded writer, scholar, translator, and recipient of the Swedish Academy Nordic Prize in 2000. He grew up among a tradition of oral storytelling in the local Swedish dialect and worked tirelessly throughout his adult life, publishing a large collection of poetry, prose, plays, and sonnets, among other works. He also produced Swedish translations of Finnish and English classics, such as the Finns’ national epic, Kalevala, and Shakespearean texts.

Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) is accepting applications for grants until November 1. If you are a publisher, translator, author, or event organizer interested in working with Finnish literature, FILI has a handy guide on their site to guide you through the options. FILI, founded in 1977, hands out approximately 700,000€ worth of grants annually, in addition to hosting translator residencies and maintaining a database of translations of Finnish literature.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Zambia, South Africa, Czechia, Singapore and the 82nd PEN International Congress

All aboard the Asymptote Express, first stop: Zambia! Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reports on the latest literary events, and then takes us to the PEN International Congress in Spain and to South Africa, where the defense of freedom of expression is the issue of the hour. From Czechia, Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood notes the most recent publications and endeavors to widen the readership of Czech literature, and from Singapore, Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek gives us the rundown on awards, festivals, and funding concerns. Enjoy the ride!

Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reports from Zambia, South Africa, and the 82nd PEN International Congress:

Zambia’s inaugural Tilembe Literary Festival took place over three days last week in the country’s capital, Lusaka. The festival theme was “Celebrating the Art of the Liberation Struggle”, inspired by a quote from South Africa’s poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile: “In a situation of oppression, there are no choices beyond didactic writing: either you are a tool of oppression or an instrument of liberation.” The festival’s headline guest, Malawian Shadreck Chikoti, explores this theme in his work in both English and Chichewa.

The theme of protest writing and writing in protest was also on the agenda at the 82nd PEN International Congress, which began on September 29 in Ourense, Spain and brought together over 200 writers and PEN members from around the world. PEN South Africa and PEN Mexico proposed a change to the PEN Charter that would build on the initial mandate to help dispel race, class, and national prejudices. The amendment calls to dispel discrimination based on religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation. PEN South Africa also submitted a resolution, seconded by PEN Uganda, for Egyptian government to free writers and activists detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression, guarantee the independence of the Egyptian Writers Union and Egyptian Journalist’s Syndicate, and repeal certain restrictive laws. Speaking about this year’s congress, PEN International President Jennifer Clement quoted former President Arthur Miller: “When political people have finished with repression and violence, PEN can indeed be forgotten.”

In South Africa, student protests over the right to free tertiary education and a decolonialized academic programme continue. A list of books inspiring the various student movements has been circulated online. Prominent authors include Steve Biko, Franz Fanon, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Meanwhile, the launch of Amagama eNkululeko! Words for freedom: Writing life under Apartheid will take place next week in Johannesburg. An anthology of short fiction, poetry, narrative journalism, and extracts from novels and memoirs, the book features writers like Nat Nakasa and RRR Dhlomo and aims to highlight local literature as a way to engage with South Africa’s past. In the foreword, author Zakes Mda offers the adage, “you will not know where you are going unless you know where you come from”, and urges the reader to keep a record of the present since “[t]here is a writer, or at least a storyteller, in all of us”.

Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has literary updates from Czechia:

In December 2014, Prague joined UNESCO’s Creative Cities network as one of eleven “Cities of Literature.” The city’s Municipal Library, which also offers residencies for translators and writers, has since organised several street projects as part of the initiative. One of the first beneficiaries, English author Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent), is currently working on a modern gothic novel set in Prague. Not everyone is convinced of the program’s merits, however. Writer Ivana Myšková, who resigned after a year on the project team, explained in the literary journal Host that without proper planning and coordination, it may “remain an end in itself, an empty political gesture”.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from Radka Denemarková’s A Contribution to the History of Joy

“Call the police. This is what I want to say but words won't make it past my lips, my lips hurt, everything hurts, I’m all torn like an animal.”

We mark International Women’s Day with an extract from the latest novel by the award-winning Czech writer and Nobel laureate Herta Müller translator Radka Denemarková. Disguised as a crime mystery set in Prague and mixing fact and fiction, “A Contribution to the History of Joy” (Příspěvek k dějinám radosti, 2014) is a passionate indictment of all forms of violence against women everywhere, spanning the past 70 years of history. In the extract below Denemarková puts herself in the shoes of a victim of an infamous Manchester (north of England) gang that groomed vulnerable teenagers and forced them into prostitution.

***

Chandra Namaskar, the moon salutation. This isn’t like Honey’s birthday party. Then, our classmates had swarmed around her parents‘ house sipping drinks and strutted around screaming and shouting and dancing to booming music that made the walls shake.

Here, no noise passes through the walls, only silence. Cigarette smoke and still-glowing ashes in overflowing ashtrays swallow up any trace of noise. The windows aren’t blacked out. At the door to the flat, a boy collects my mobile. I’m not happy about that. I’ve been saving up for it for a long time. This is a compulsory admission ritual. It’s for your own good, the boy says, to make sure you don’t lose it, I’m kind of like a hotel safe here, he says with a reassuring wink. We’ve both been chosen.

I tread across the thick pile of Persian carpet. There are carpets everywhere. They spill across thresholds continually like a dense lawn, sticking out their tongues under my steps. I look forward to having my pictures taken by a professional photographer. That’s what Honey promised me.

The boy ushers me into a smoke-filled lounge. A man is snogging a girl on a sofa. They’re like a classical statue emerging from the mist. The girl might be about thirteen. As they peel away from each other, tiny stones in the girl’s braces sparkle like diamonds in her mouth. The man seems old to me. They glance at me. He looks me up and down, from head to toe. The girl‘s eyes connect with mine, her stare is swept clean and empty, I can read nothing from it, then they latch onto each other again. Two glass bowls of white powder sit on the coffee table before them. The smoke and nicotine mist make me nauseous but I don’t let on, I want to belong, I do belong, I’ve made it. After weeks of soundings and failed attempts I’ve finally done it. Curiosity is making my head spin. Honey is making my head spin. Here she comes. She gives me a welcoming hug. I giggle trying to boost my courage and get rid of my fear. Honey hugs me and charms me, saying how lovely I look, in my excitement all I manage is a stutter. She hands me a bottle of chilled vodka. It’s drunk straight from the bottle here. She swings her arm around me and summons the boy who collects and stores mobiles by the door. She is bossy with him, it’s obvious who’s in charge here. That’ll be all for today, she tells him. I can’t tell if she’s talking about girls or mobiles. The boy rolls me a joint. I take a puff and shake my head. I give him the spliff back. The boy passes the joint to Honey, who sticks it in the hand of the man glued to the lips of the girl with diamonds in her mouth.

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