Essays

“Old seams of the ancient world”: Reading Patrick Chamoiseau’s manifesto against borders

“The dream and the political vision must arise, and that is when the poetic word is as fundamental as that of experts or economists.”

In our Spring Issue this year, we ran a special feature covering literature from countries affected by President Trump’s infamous “Muslim Ban.” This was in recognition that literature is reflective of political conditions and that it is a powerful form of protest against oppression. In today’s piece, Fiona Le Brun looks at the manifesto against the Muslim Ban penned by Patrick Chamoiseau, a Prix Goncourt recipient and notable figure in Créolité literature. As France emerges from a divisive election against the backdrop of the unprecedented European refugee crisis, reading Chamoiseau reminds us that literature enables us to conceptualize cultural openness. 

This February, Martiniquais author Patrick Chamoiseau, whose previous works include the Goncourt-winning novel Texaco (1992. Translated into English by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997),  launched a call for solidarity with migrants of the world. Not only was this call a reaction to President Trump’s executive order blocking citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, but also a reaction against Europe’s palpable fear revealed by Brexit and the several manifestations of the rejection of migrants.

A couple of months later in May 2017—between the two rounds of the closely watched French presidential election—his essay Frères migrants: Contre la barbarie (Migrant Brothers: Against Barbarism) was released. This invitation to resist intolerance, racism, and indifference is concluded by his manifesto, Les Poètes déclarent (Declaration of Poets).

Today Chamoiseau’s manifesto is more relevant than ever, for both the United States and France. While the French are rejoicing in the victory of the youthful, moderate and well-read Emmanuel Macron over the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, the latter still gathered over 10 million votes, mostly motivated by immigration topics. This temporary relief must not have us overlook the fact that France, whose leaders never miss an opportunity to cast the country as the nation of human rights, has welcomed only a little over 25,000 refugees last year, far less than Germany or Sweden over the same period of time. The results of this election sure bring a glimmer of hope, as the winning candidate seems interested in real change and wants to work hand in hand with fellow EU countries. He also appears to be ready to wipe the dust off our old colonial shelves: back in February, while on a trip to Algeria, Macron called France’s colonial past a “crime against humanity,” and stood firm in the face of attacks by right-wingers. But his task remains difficult. He still has to convince millions of French citizens to support his agenda. The upcoming parliamentary elections will be decisive for Macron’s mandate in a very divided country, as well as for the uncertain future of the EU.

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Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Understanding narrative structures in their historical context has a direct impact on a translator’s word choice, tone, and register of diction.

We’re starting the week with the fifth installment of the Translator’s Diary, a column by Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. As Kling translates the 909-page  Die Strudlhofstiege by Heimito von Doderer for New York Review Books, he is allowing us to peek into the ebb and flow of his thought process. Here is Kling’s dispatch from the prestigious Omi International Arts Center. (Intrigued? Don’t miss the first, second, third and fourth installments.) 

Abstraction Meets Craft: My dateline this month is Ghent, New York, where I am writing from the idyllic Ledig House at the Omi International Arts Center. Ten translators, five from English to German and five from German to English, are presenting work in progress during a week of close reading and feedback. I’m grateful for the practical comments about the part of Strudlhofstiege I presented, especially suggestions for bringing out more fully the playfully interwoven levels of the narrator’s voice. That’s crucial, because he’s not only the main event, he’s the only event, the sole governing sensibility, digressing and freely associating as eccentrically as the narrator of Tristram Shandy. He loves the drollery and irony of shifting registers, creating variety by deft incongruities in elevating or lowering the diction. An example: two characters challenge a third character’s plan, because they know from experience it will miscarry. The passage I brought to the workshop said that they were “stubbornly resistant,” but the native German speakers found my rendering one level too high. I had mistakenly retained the narrator’s formality from the beginning of the sentence to the end, even after he had adroitly switched gears. We entertained “they nixed the plan” or “they put the kibosh on the plan”—both now a level too low, we agreed—until I settled on “they balked” or “they dug in their heels.” General endorsement; on to the next refinement.

Meanwhile, my efforts in earlier posts to trace the ancestry of that narrating voice as an aid to grasping its full scope and range—thank you, readers, for not logging off—made me afraid I was straying too far from the practicality of craft. However, the group showed me how a seemingly abstract concern, which I feared might be taking me away from the text, was in fact leading me back to it, since understanding narrative structures in their historical context has a direct impact on a translator’s word choice, tone, and register of diction.

“Learned Wit,” Scholastic Universality, Baroque Elaboration: One participant ratified my search by encouraging me to read Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s German novel The Island of Second Sight (published 1953, translated into English by Donald O. White in 2010). It’s a wonderful discovery in itself and eye-opening in its kinship with Doderer. Thelen subtitles his book a volume of “applied recollections,” a term applicable in moderation to Strudlhofstiege as well, since the narrator is likewise the sole presence and presents a mammoth set of memories that lie decades in the past. Vigoleis, Thelen’s alter ego, similarly glories in asides, digressions, parentheses, addresses to the reader, convoluted backtracking and remote tangents, filigree, pyrotechnics, set-piece lyric rhapsodies, and meta fiction, proclaiming his joy at leading us on wild goose chases and detours around the mulberry bush. These narrators even digress to explain why they’re digressing! Same associative approach, then, but Thelen hews closer to linearity than his Doderer “cousin,” who reconfigures the narrative line into curlicues and zigzags of the kind Sterne draws in Tristram Shandy. Thelen develops from the base line of a story in straight chronological order; Doderer skillfully blends and blurs two time periods, 1908–1910 and 1923–1925. In both cases, the distance in time between the incidents themselves and their accounts creates reflective irony as the basic mode of observation.

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Recipes in Translation: Traditional Southeast Asian Soups for New Mothers

Postpartum recipes have been passed down orally for generations in Asia. Now a multilingual cookbook is attempting to preserve them.

In many Asian cultures, new mothers are offered delicious dishes and nutritious soups after giving birth. The postpartum recipes fortify a new mother and ensure sufficient lactation for her newborn. These centuries-old traditions have been kept alive through orally sharing recipes and cooking for one another from one generation to the next. However, with growing assimilation of Western culture and a lack of documentation, this shared cultural knowledge may soon be lost.

Interested in the preservation of these recipes, in 2014 students who were a part of the Asian Pacific Islander Health Research Group (AAPIHRG) at UC Berkeley started a Postpartum Nutrition Folklore Project. We interviewed our mothers, grandmothers, and other relatives to document the recipes in their original languages and then translated them to English. Some of us asked our mothers or grandmothers to cook the dishes and soups in person so we could write down clearer instructions (and sample the delicious recipes!) Others conducted the interviews via phone calls and video chats. Most of us were bilingual so we did the English translation by ourselves and asked friends and family members to review our spelling and punctuation. Ultimately, we collected over thirty recipes from six different cultures—Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Hmong, Cambodian and Filipino—and published them as a multilingual cookbook titled From Mothers to Mothers: A Collection of Traditional Asian Postpartum Recipes.

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What To Do With an Untranslatable Text? Translate It Into Music

Translators and musicians team up on a sweeping audio interpretation of Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake, the final book by Irish writer James Joyce, is a bit like the alien language in the movie Arrival. As the film’s spaceships tower mysteriously over the Earth, so Joyce’s book casts its strange shadow over world literature. Most literary minded people are aware of the text’s presence, but no one actually knows how to read the book, save for a select few who claim it is the greatest thing ever written.

In order to read Finnegans Wake, you must become a translator. You must translate the text out of it’s idiosyncratic, multilingual semi-nonsensical language, and into… music? For example, see Rebecca Hanssens-Reed’s interview with Mariana Lanari, about the process of translating the Wake into music.

For the last three years I’ve pursued the music that is Finnegans Wake. I organize an ongoing project called Waywords and Meansigns, setting the book to music. This week we release our latest audio, which is 18 hours of music created by over 100 musicians, artists and readers from 15 countries. We give away all the audio for free at our website (and you can even record your own passage, so get involved!)

Listen to a clip of the project here!

It might sound strange, but translating the book into music is easier than, say, translating it into another foreign language. But that hasn’t deterred Fuat Sevimay, who translated the book into Turkish, nor has it stopped Hervé Michel, who calls his French rendering a “traduction” rather than a “translation.”

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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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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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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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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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