Essays

Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

this dehumanization excises the heart of the crime story, its exploration of community, of which language is the most unmistakable evidence.

This month Vincent Kling gives us his take on what Die Strudlhofstiege isn’t—detective fiction—and its main protagonist, language.

“a collection of scenes, dialogues, and portraits,
humorous or affecting, intermixed with much wit,
and with much learning, original or borrowed.”

—Walter Scott on Laurence Sterne

“to the highest excess rambling, excursive, and
intermingled with the greatest absurdities.”

—Scott on Rabelais

What Strudlhofstiege Isn’t. It doesn’t take long for a motivated reader of Strudl­hofstiege to develop cognitive dissonance. Does any other novel so totally thwart the “Apparent Narrative Rationale”—George Saunders’s name for “what the writer and reader have tacitly agreed the book is ‘about’” (The Braindead Megaphone)? Behind the three-pillared façade erected by realist-minded readers and upheld by Doderer’s impish misdirection—the intricate plot, the memorable characters, the vivid settings—stands a novel shaped from vastly different models and traditions.

Strudlhofstiege is brilliantly plotted; all that’s missing is a plot. The novel undercuts rising action by “building up” to a horrible accident that was announced in the very first sentence. Other elements are patchworks of trite set pieces and inane crime-story devices requisitioned with such overt irony as to throw the very foundations of narrative into question—an unsuspected twin, an inept plan to smuggle cigarettes, an elopement foiled by an irate father. Doderer himself wrote, “A work of narrative art is all the more successful the less one can get an idea of it through a plot summary.” As early as 1928, Ronald A. Knox had drawn up a tongue-in-cheek “Decalogue” of “thou-shalt-nots” for detective fiction; number 10 forbade twins or doubles, but Doderer treats us to both.

The characters are striking, but as dexterously elaborated variations on ancient types or stock figures, not as individuals like those found in Dostoyevsky or James, Proust or Mann. Herr Stangeler is the classic peevish old man, the senex iratus, for instance: Scheichsbeutel the cunning servant, the servus callidus; Editha Pastré the strumpet ormeretrix; Eulenfeld the blustering soldier, miles gloriosus; and Thea Rokitzer the innocent young girl, the puella delicata morphed into the Viennese “süßes Mädl.” These unforgettable characters function as vehicles, not ends in themselves, just as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus in Ulysses are symbolic recreations of Odysseus and Telemachus as well as brilliantly plausible modern Dubliners.

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Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for more from Kling’s translator’s diary next month!
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Postmarked from Iran: An Open Letter to the American People

It was only after President Ahmadinejad that we became grateful for what we had, like, for example, ice water.

Dear Americans,

Hi guys. How are you? Accept my condolences on the ending of President Obama’s presidency. I’m sorry that I must also send my condolences that it’s the beginning of President Trump’s era. It’s as if spring has immediately been replaced by winter. Or as if you’re in the passenger seat of a Ferrari, the driver suddenly falls asleep, the car goes crashing in a valley; then you are brought out of the Ferrari, escorted to a horse-drawn carriage whose coachman is one who has just gotten his license. But don’t worry. I totally feel for you. My country’s president during the Eight Years Reform era was a Ferrari driver and we had so much fun. Then, well, for the eight years after him, we rode in a carriage and I really need to thank the president who rode in that carriage, because at the end of his term, he turned the rules of physics upside down and set new Guinness World Records.

You ask how? This is how: he rode the carriage forward but we kept going backward. If Einstein were alive, he would probably die of a stroke trying to solve that problem.

Anyway, don’t be too worried. This President Trump of yours will make you want to emigrate. This will be very good for you, because until now you have always seen immigrants but never been immigrants yourselves. We Iranians have widely emigrated to the U.S. ourselves. So you are more than welcome here; if you have it too hard, move here. Whatever the conditions are here, they are better than being known with Trump after Obama. Think about it: so far, we Iranians have imagined American life to be like the film The Matrix; it is truly a pity to see it as American Pie now, or something even stupider than that.

Can you believe it? Under President Ahmadinejad, we sympathized with Japan when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Since the inauguration of President Trump, perhaps you have been sympathizing with the universe during the Big Bang.

But be glad, because Mr. Trump is going to make you all grateful later. It was only after President Ahmadinejad that we became grateful for what we had, like, for example, ice water. No pill is going to cure your headache when you are furious about your president’s speeches; you’d do better to take an ice-cold shower and try to forget.

Believe me, there is no reason to panic. These days the medical field has improved a lot, and it can cure any cancerous tumor, even President Trump.

That said, one needs to be fair. President Trump might have a thousand and one vices, but he will have one great virtue. Rest assured that no matter how bad President Trump’s time in office is for everyone, it is going to be amazing for your satirists. They will have so much material they’ll be able to export half of it outside the U.S.

But President Trump has another virtue, as well: You will become so anxious that you will stop gaining weight. The Iranian people were each sixty-three kilos overweight, on average, before President Ahmadinejad. You won’t believe it, but by the day he left office, not only had we lost the extra weight, we almost disappeared. And if you get really lucky, your country will lose its extra weight, too. Our country was, for example, several thousand billions of rials and dollars thinner, and a few oil towers and gold bullion and foreign currency trailers lighter. The nation even lost millions of tons of its weight as a result of the decimation of buildings, forests, and lakes.

By the way, President Trump’s slogans are similar to President Ahmadinejad’s in that he keeps making promises to workers. I suggest that, no matter what your job, always hide a thousand dollars under your pillow, because these politicians, whenever they say they want to do a good job and benefit us, the first thing they do is take our jobs from us.

Truth is, if I were you, I would exchange all my dollars to rials. Why? Because if President Trump does to your economy what President Ahmadinejad did to ours, you will suddenly find yourselves able to buy only one can of Pepsi with one thousand dollars.

Also, why are you so troubled by President Trump’s anti-women talk? You should not forget President Clinton, who cheated on his wife and, of course, on you, while in the White House. Psychologists believe that people who appear to be nice are more likely to do bad things in their own homes and in the White House. Let’s hope that President Trump is all talk and no action. If President Clinton, who did not talk of such things at all, carried such acts, imagine what President Trump, who already talks of them, could do; if he is to act, you need to worry about the White House’s female cats and birds.

Anyway, as Americans would say, God bless you.

And, as Iranians would say, God bestow upon you real patience.

Yours truly,
Pouria Alami

Translated from the Persian by Poupeh Missaghi. This piece was originally published in Persian in two installments in Shargh newspaper on January 22nd and 23rd, 2017

Pouria Alami is a thirty-five-year-old satirist, journalist, and writer, based in Tehran, Iran. He has a daily sociopolitical satire column in Shargh newspaper, the largest independent newspaper in the country. He is the author of eleven books and teaches journalism, satire, and creative writing, as extracurricular classes in various universities. His work has also appeared in English in World Literature Today.

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Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Reader response... almost always borders on amazement at the intense, authentic poetry of these “mute” scenes...

Herewith, the second installment in our newest monthly column by past Asymptote contributor Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. As he translates the 909-page Heimito von Doderer’s Die Strudlhofstiege for New York Review Books, he’ll take us along for the inevitable twists and turns of his process. If you didn’t have a chance to read his first installment, check it out here!

“Peru.” Honesty begins at home. I balance my vehement defense earlier about preserving rhyme with a set of true confessions now, acting as my own devil’s advocate by pointing out choices that could be seen as fudging, padding, patching, cheating—all of which might argue against translating rhyme.

“Peru” in a bit, after working to it from another clarifying example. In one of his novella-length stories, Doderer has a character attend a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, and he includes a few lines from Leonore’s great solo in Act 1.

So leuchtet mir ein Farbenbogen,
Der hell auf dunklen Wolken ruht.
Der blickt so still, so friedlich nieder,
Der spiegelt alte Zeiten wieder,
Und neu besänftigt wallt mein Blut.

In me there gleams a shining rainbow,
Rests on gray clouds above the flood.
It looks down placidly, serenely,
Mirrors the old times’ image keenly;
With new-found calm now flows my blood.

Ludwig Wittgenstein or Karl Kraus would have my head for tautologies alone: clouds are of course above the flood—where else?; there’s nothing about a flood in the original anyway (but something had to rhyme with “blood”); can an image be “keenly” mirrored, instead of “sharply”?; doesn’t the displacement of the subject in the last line make the word order cheesily “poetic”?

The examples from last month are wobbly as well. In the poem about the Strudlhof Steps, I added a word (“dying”) that’s nowhere in the original—it fits the spirit but strains the letter; the choice of “footfall” corresponds to “Tritte” in the German, and each word duly ends with an unaccented syllable, but the real need was to find a rhyme for “wall.” As for the Latin quatrain about the wine, I may have perpetrated an impossibility of usage. An adjective as generic noun is common in the plural (“The meek shall inherit the earth”; “The rich get richer”), but can that construction even exist in the possessive? Am I cheating with “the bad’s dismay” for “bös dem Schuft” = “pravis prave”? As a final example, consider my metrical change in a couplet from another novella: “Gewalt-Tat gegen Unbekannte / Löscht Feuer ehe es noch brannte” becomes “Violent deeds against men you don’t know / Extinguish a fire before its first glow.” The German four-beat line has an additional beat in English, and feminine end-rhymes become masculine. (As for that, what about the sexism of “men you don’t know”?) If I demand retention of rhyme, why am I allowed to change the meter? (NYRB, don’t fire me, please!)

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Highlights from Our Winter 2017 Issue

The editors of our Indian Languages Special Feature share how they curated the incredible poetry lineup

We begin the week again with an update on a new initiative that will help us continue beyond April 2017: This week, we’re thrilled to welcome Shelley Schanfield and Fiona Le Brun as our new sustaining members! Our most updated tally, as reflected on the right-hand column, is now 37! If you’re considering becoming a part of the family too, why not let lighthouse keeper (and hit author) Reif Larsen take you on a tour, before you sign up here!

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This body didn’t burn itself:
It was burnt down.
These bones didn’t scatter themselves:
They were scattered around.
The fire didn’t combust on its own:
It was lit and spread around.
The fight didn’t initiate on its own:
It was started somehow.
And the poem didn’t compose itself:
It was written down.

—from “Mohenjodaro” by Vidrohi, translated from the Hindi by Somrita Ganguly

India, according to its constitution, has twenty-two ‘scheduled’ languages, with hundreds more spoken across its twenty-nine states and seven union territories. While it is impossible to capture the full swath of India’s languages in a single Special Feature, Asymptote’s Winter 2017 issue offers a glimpse into the political and aesthetic possibilities of Indian languages. The Feature’s nine poets, covering seven languages, were chosen with the aim of celebrating the diversity and dissent within contemporary Indian language poetry.

Vidrohi’s “Mohenjodaro” emerges directly from a site of protest, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the revolutionary spirit of which has recently come under attack from various political factions. Vidrohi spent most of his life as the unofficial, resident poet-activist of JNU, reciting but never writing down his poems—as a mark of resistance. But his words have been preserved in differing transcriptions by various students. “Mohenjodaro,” like many of Vidrohi’s works, has no definitive text—it carries on the centuries-old tradition of oral poetry in the Indian subcontinent. Aggressive and unabashed, the poem, with each line, builds its indictment of patriarchy, colonialism, and of the nation itself. To honor the poem’s orality and to observe how literature can exist in multiple lives, the Special Feature includes two translations of “Mohenjodaro.” Each translation stems from a different ‘original,’ and so is markedly different, reminding us that language resides beyond the page, in telling, listening, and remembering.

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Reading Resolutions from the Asymptote Team (Part III)

More reading resolutions for 2017

Anna Aresi, Educational Arm Assistant

At the cost of sounding corny, I will say that my reading resolution for 2017 is more than partly informed by the prospect of becoming a mother this forthcoming June. As our baby will grow up in a trilingual environment, with Italian and Cantonese spoken at home and English everywhere else, doing research on trilingualism has intensified my awareness of the absolute need of being global citizens and global readers of the world, not only for one’s own benefit, but also as a major responsibility towards future generations.

To begin with, then, I wish to fill my own embarrassing lack of knowledge of Chinese literature —my husband’s from Hong Kong—perhaps beginning with Tong Xian Zhu’s play The Peony Pavillion, my father-in-law’s all time favorite, and moving on to Tong Xian Zhu’s Not Written Words, which figures in World Literature Today’s list of notable translations of 2016. Xi Xi’s work has been characterized as a portrayal of the “constantly shifting urban space of Hong Kong—between tradition and modernity—as well as the multilingual zones created by its Mandarin and Cantonese speakers;” I can’t wait for literature to do its magic and transport me to a land that I haven’t, so far, visited in person but to which I already feel deeply connected.

anna

Moving from my family’s terrain to the world at large, but staying in Asia, Korean literature will also be a protagonist of my 2017: if reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was a defining existential experience of my 2016 and Jung Young Su’s Aficionados, featured in the Autumn 2016 issue of Asymptote, made me laugh my belly off, I can only expect good things from Korea, perhaps beginning with poetry. The anthology Brother Enemy, curated by Ji-moon Suh, is a collection of poems written by twenty-one authors during and following the Korean War, attractive and promising by virtue of its very humane title: what could change if we recognized the enemy as our brother? I hope to find some illuminating words in this volume.

Finally, I wish to follow Daniel Hahn’s appeal and read more children’s book in translation (again, also in preparation for future evenings of bedtime adventures). A simple peek at Pushkin Press’s Children Books page, to name but one, opens up a whole new world; in this case I let my inner child pick the book by its cover and my attention was caught by Tomiko Inui’s The Secret of the Blue Glass (another Asian book! I promise I didn’t do it on purpose!). The scene opens in a dusty library in a Tokyo suburb…what beginning could be more auspicious?

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Reading Resolutions from the Asymptote Team (Part II)

More reading resolutions for 2017


Hannah Vose, Social Media Manager

I confess: 2016 was not a great reading year for me. Settling into a new job, traveling frequently—not to mention living through the U.S. election season!—made me retreat into videogames and the comforts of the suffering, over-handled paperbacks on my bookshelf. So in order to kick myself back out into the world of literature, I have two Reading Resolutions for 2017.

The first is to buy and read at least one book by an author from every continent, although since Antarctica is not awash in literature, Central America will be stepping in to play the role of the seventh. At a time when nationalism and xenophobia are rearing their ugly heads across the U.S. at an alarming rate, it feels more important than ever to remind myself of the incredible breadth and depth of international literature and to support the missions of the presses who publish and promote it by being an active consumer.

The second resolution is much simpler: to read at least one book in Spanish, because “rusty” is starting to become a generous description of my skill level.

hannah

Luckily, I’ve got my Spanish-language, European title all lined up. In Asymptote’s April 2016 issue, we published Close Approximations 2016 runner-up Ona Bantjes-Ràfols’s sample translation of El Mundo Sobre Ruedas by Albert Casals. As a sucker for travel narratives—and funny ones, at that—I was hooked. And since there’s no full English translation available, this is the perfect opportunity to work on my Spanish.

Africa also already has a spot on the reading roster. When Rochester Knockings by Hubert Haddad (trans. Jennifer Grotz) came out in 2015, it jumped straight onto my ever-growing wishlist. Written originally in French by a Tunisian author, it concerns the Fox Sisters, fraudulent mediums and Rochester, New York residents. As a former student of the University of Rochester, where Open Letter Books is based, and a two-time former Open Letter intern, this one is right up my alley. Supporting a favorite indie press and getting to read about fake mystics? Win-win!

Thinking ahead, I’m anticipating difficulties choosing an Australian title. Ideally, I would like to read something in translation from a native Australian language, but I’m having trouble finding something. Failing in that mission, I do want to read something by a native Australian author. As of now, The Swan Book by Alexis Wright and Swallow the Air by Tara June Winch have both entered consideration.

2017 should be a good year for reading. Two books picked out, five to go, and—sorry in advance for the cringe you’ll get out of this—a whole world to explore.

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Translation Tuesday: “Le Rouge et le Noir (Moving House and Farewell)” by Zsófia Bán

As we were leaving the paralyzed city and the country, we too were facing a journey, though rather than flight, it turned out to be a return.

An award-winning fiction writer, essayist, and critic who grew up in Hungary and Brazil and now teaches American literature, Zsófia Bán is no stranger to forking paths; the roads not taken. Her beautiful essay below segues quickly from house-moving to the broader and richer philosophical theme of derailment against the backdrop of the ongoing refugee crisis. We hope you like it as much as we do.

* * *

In memory of Svetlana Boym

 

Tumultuous, yes, tumultuous is what the summer of 2015 was. An unruly, riotous, tempestuous, bewildered summer, ravaged by the lack of order. Only the weather would not stir, hellbent on keeping up the atmospheric conditions prevalent since the beginning of summer. All heat records were broken, with temperatures close to 40 degrees recorded in July and August. We were clearly making meteorological history in Europe. The dull blanket of heat paralyzed our reason just enough to keep us from realizing the obvious until it was too late: history was being made, quite apart from the weather. In fact, the masses, the tumult of refugees pouring through the southern border, then the large families stranded in railway stations in the heart of our city, the gathering of desperate, exhausted people robbed of almost all their possessions warned us clearly enough, that this was the time, here and now, of fateful events. As we were leaving the paralyzed city and the country, we too were facing a journey, though rather than flight, it turned out to be a return: the compulsive, perpetual return to memory, to absence, to the relentless rigor of facts.

On August 3 we packed the car and set out for Berlin. With an ingenious space-saving trick we packed the child’s plush animals into plastic bags shrunk with a vacuum cleaner, so even the plumpest specimens were docilely flattened to two dimensions.

1vacumedanimals1

Photograph by Zsófia Bán

Once taken out of their plastic bags upon arrival, they slowly regained their original dimensions: the breath of life gradually returned into them. Zserbó, the giant owl was the first to come to, then Dr Czuki-Czukermann, the anteater and finally Menyus, the ferret, Pöpe, the parrot and the rest, the whole sizeable coterie. The child greeted each miraculous resurrection with a dance of joy: her friends were saved, we had outwitted Archimedes or one of those types. The death news that came the day after our arrival flattened us to two dimensions the same way, except we held no hope of ever regaining our original shape. Remembrance, however alive, is inevitably flatter than the tumultuous nature of presence, the noisy, confusing, disorderly and yet, by virtue of the senses, coherent presence which only one word fits: the person’s name. The name that refers to the single being who is the sum of her traits: the voice, the gait, the colorful fabric of her mind, the fears and desires, the betrayals of the body, the dreams, and the loneliness. Her name is a message inscribed in stone, the imprint of sea-waves on prehistoric geological strata.

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New Year Reading Resolutions from the Asymptote team! (Part I)

From reading more small presses to children's literature in translation, here are our reading resolutions for 2017!

Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor

Rather than focusing on a single region in the coming year or trying to rectify one of my many reading deficiencies (such as an embarrassing lack of familiarity with Chinese or Arabic literature, to name just two), I will dedicate 2017 to exploring the work of those folks who are so dedicated to bringing us the best of world literature in book form: publishers. Not just any publishers, of course, but the small presses who tirelessly seek out the new voices that make the global literary conversation an exciting and ever-expanding one.

These small presses spread the wealth of work from across the globe, and my small contribution for the coming year will be to spread my meager wealth by monthly rewarding one of these risk-takers with the purchase of a recent release. This supplement to my regular habits will not only contribute a greater degree of diversity to my readings but also allow me to become better acquainted with the frequently impressive catalogs of these forward and outward looking publishers.

sam

To guide my exploration, I’ll be adding a further constraint by starting with those presses located close to home and working outward. Because I’m based in Ithaca, NY, I’ll turn to nearby Rochester’s Open Letter Books for my January pick, which will be Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House. A friend and inspiration to Clarice Lispector, Cardoso’s novel incorporates letters, diaries, and a variety of other documents from the characters in this sprawling tale of a family’s downfall.

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My 2016 by Lori Feathers

By happenstance a number of the books that I’ve read most recently explore the theme of redemption.

I’m a fiction judge for this year’s Best Translated Book Award, which means evaluating the English translations of dozens of novels and story collections by writers representing many countries and languages, a thrilling assignment and one that richly sustained my 2016 reading. By happenstance a number of the books that I’ve read most recently explore the theme of redemption—fertile ground for authors to delve into a character’s sense of moral self, the tangle of thoughts and motivations that enable her to marginalize wrongs or justify culpability. The gifted authors of these books deserve our admiration for creating character-driven narratives that artfully articulate humankind’s innate hopefulness that past wrongs can be rectified and personal guilt, absolved.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s Reputations (translated by Anne McLean) places readers in the fictional world of Javier Mallarino, a renowned Columbian political cartoonist. Mallarino prides himself in exposing his country’s corruption and political scandals through his daily newspaper cartoon. He possesses the unwavering conviction that his drawings are vitally important for delivering potent truths, “like a stinger dipped in honey.” Years after one of his caricatures destroys the life of a prominent politician Mallarino becomes acquainted with the man’s alleged victim, and their discussions cause him to question the infallibility of his prior condemnation and the consequences of his influence. In an effort to rectify what might have been defamation Mallarino decides to go public with his doubts about the politician’s guilt, an act that will cause the media to turn on him, humiliating him in much the same way that his cartoons humiliated countless others in the past. Reputations is a fascinating study of a man whose entire sense of self-worth is his reputation—the very thing that he must sacrifice in order to redeem himself. READ MORE…

My 2016 by Lindsay Semel

I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves getting caught up in it.

This year, as I watched wide-eyed and drop-jawed the deeds and choices of my fellow humans, I read books that probe the alarming sensation of impotence in the face of inertia. I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves not stopping or redirecting the object in motion, but getting caught up in it.

I opened the year with a copy of S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, lent to me by the writer, activist, and academic, David Shulman, who penned its illuminating afterward. Yizhar’s slim novella, originally published in Hebrew in 1949 with no English translation until 2008, narrates the exile of Palestinian villagers during 1948-9—the time Israel celebrates as the birth of its statehood and Palestine laments as its nakba or catastrophe. The narrator is one of the young Israeli soldiers sent to relocate mostly children and the elderly from the village destined to be resettled by Jews. His extremely complex voice captures the haunting cruelty of the task at hand without forsaking responsibility for his complicity—a complicity assured as much by official narrative as by official order. The novella is an important one in Israel’s national memory and happens to be good. Its intimate and colorful narrative voice, rich with Biblical references, shies away from none of the narrator’s labyrinthine conflict. And it’s never been more relevant. As I was reading the novel, I was living in West Jerusalem and visiting Palestine every weekend, bearing witness to the inheritance of the nakba. Over tea in their large, carpeted tent, the inhabitants of one village (clinging to the rocky hillside with nothing but the conviction that it belonged there) described their 4 am wake-up call by Israeli soldiers with stun grenades. Their offence? Asking for the soldiers to give back the generator they’d stolen. And whether you’re the one throwing the stun grenades, the one protecting your kids from them, or the one horrified by it all, the grenades still get thrown. READ MORE…

My 2016 by Theophilus Kwek

Reading the Refugee Crisis

From today through Saturday, select Asymptote staff will be continuing our annual tradition of looking back on the year—specifically through the lens of literary discovery. First to go is Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek, who recently placed Second in the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation. 

It’s hard to imagine where we were a year ago: on the brink of a nuclear deal in Iran, standing firmly in Europe, and with a cluster of literary titans—including Elie Wiesel, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Max Ritvo and Leonard Cohen—to light the road ahead. The intervening months have taken us around blind corners that will, undoubtedly, take many more months to comprehend.

For many, however, that tumultuous journey has been more than metaphorical. From stories of asylum-seekers defying death to reach the Arctic Circle town of Neiden, to weekly reports of dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Bengal, we’ve been confronted this year by the brutal realities faced en route by 65.3 million displaced people worldwide, including 21.3 million refugees. The figures are mind-boggling on their own, but it’s another thing to remember that each statistic represents a fellow human who has braved trials we could never begin to understand.

Or can we? My 2016 has brought—along with border-crossing award-winners like Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith), Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, and Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation—a selection of powerful work bearing witness to the refugee experience, both by refugees themselves, and those involved first-hand in the asylum process. More than before, I am convinced that there are ways that we, as readers and writers, can know and share in these journeys. And in a publishing climate that remains overwhelmingly first-world, settled, and white, the least we can do (with our wealth and our words) is choose to look outside those brackets. READ MORE…

Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

In a work of art, sound and sense, content and form, can’t be separated.

Today, we are thrilled to introduce a new monthly column by past contributor Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck PrizeMaking his way through his current project—translating Heimito von Doderer’s 909-page Die Strudlhofstiege for New York Review Books, he generously shares with us some thoughts on the process from up close. In this first instalment, he tells us how he got started—and restarted—on this translation, and gives us a taste of the entanglements to come.

No translator’s dream is worth much unless it’s a nightmare as well. The craft requires compromise, meaning necessary loss. Those who argue for the intrinsic untranslatability of literature have a point, but it’s valid only in part and never seems to stop anyone. A rule of thumb (or maybe thumbscrew, considering the toil), is that if the effort doesn’t both drain and recharge at once, it’s probably not genuine. Still, Klaus Reichert’s extensive experience has taught him that the eureka moments and the rare flashes of just-right rendering compensate for the drudgery and frustration. Remembering that makes me stop my pity party and resume work after praying to my patron saints—Constance Garnett and Jean Starr Untermeyer; C. K. Scott-Moncrieff and Archibald Colquhoun.

A door to my current project opened again when a major award, the Schlegel-Tieck Prize, came my way unexpectedly a few years ago. I’d been translating for decades and had been working on Heimito von Doderer’s Die Strudlhofstiege oder Melzer und die Tiefe der Jahre (The Strudlhof Steps or Melzer and the Depth of the Years) in the early 1990s, only to have the publisher go bankrupt. (The title names an elaborate, beautiful public staircase in Vienna that becomes the novel’s main objective correlative.) Half of the long novel (909 pages, about 360,000 words) was finished, all ready to go but no place to go to, since Doderer’s disastrous reception in the early 1960s (Alfred A. Knopf called The Demons “our colossal failure”) made him publishers’ poison. But Edwin Frank of New York Review Books must be immune; his passion is the antidote, here as in so many other cases, so he sought me out in 2014 and asked me to finish my translation.

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On Editing an English Literary Journal as a Person Of Color

The matter-of-fact, even slightly cheerful, answer: "Have your characters come to the US!"

Hello! (Taps mic…) Our regular blog editors Madeline, Hanna and Nina are on leave today, so I’ll be guest-blogging to continue our daily programming. My name is Yew Leong (yes, that’s two words for my first name) and I’m the Singaporean editor working behind the scenes of the magazine since 2010. I’m thirty-nine this year (the photo of me, above, was taken in a yakisoba restaurant when I was thirty-six).

Some details of how I came to found the journal are mentioned in the interview I share below, so I won’t get into that here. What I will say to preface my breaking the fourth wall is this: After July 2011, I stopped signing the quarterly issues’ editor’s notes at least partly because, as the only full-time member at Asymptote, I didn’t want to overshadow the team’s collective efforts (for the same reason, I also declined to be videoed for our first-ever Indiegogo campaign). For several years thereafter, all editor’s notes were simply ascribed to “The Editors.”

In July 2016, I decided to sign my name after the editor’s note again: Prior to that, I’d seen Asymptote being written off as a mere “platform” by a prominent translator, but specifically in the derogatory sense of “editor X used the platform Asymptote to do Y” (Y being a massive translation project, requiring coordination across the different roles), as if all I had done was create a free-for-all Facebook or Twitter-like interface for providers of world literature. That could not be further from the truth: there is someone leading the magazine (although hopefully not off a cliff!), someone with a vision to boot, not merely a loose collective of editors, contributing whatever they’d like to contribute.

Secondly, I’d started wondering if, by not putting myself out there a little more, I had become complicit in, let’s just say, a certain racial oppression. This year, after six years of editing the magazine, I was happy to be invited to my first London Book Fair panel (actually any event not organized by Asymptote, although, as its editor-in-chief, I have played varying roles toward making 34 world literature events happen in four continents), and I remain eternally grateful to the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors in the UK for subsidizing my trip there (as I could not afford the flight ticket otherwise).

But, few know that, in 2014, about five years into helming the magazine, and surviving those five years by wearing many different hats to keep the journal going, an invitation was received by someone on the team to represent Asymptote at an international conference, with the offer to be flown in from wherever. The invitation was sent to a part-time White Assistant Managing Editor who’d been on board less than seven months, who actually lived further away from the conference than me, based on her current city at that time. I’d left the US many years ago to avoid being an invisibilized person of color, specifically in a literary environment (Junot Díaz and Ken Chen talk about this issue very eloquently), and suddenly there I was being overlooked again.

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