Essays

#3arabizi: Arabic in the Internet Era

While the classical/dialectal debate rages, crowdsourced Arabic transliteration rises from the Internet, spreading among the multinational youth.

A language is alive—it’s a breathing, blooming entity that metamorphoses as worlds turn. Often, we turn to the literary when charting these changes, but language goes where the people are. Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Morocco, Hodna Nuernberg,  writes about the changes that the Internet—blogs, texting, social media—is catalyzing in transliterated versions of spoken Arabic around the world. 

According to the United Nation’s 2016 Measuring the Information Society Report, approximately 47 percent of the world’s population are internet users, and nearly 3.6 billion people are expected to rely on messaging apps as a primary means of communication by 2018. Thanks in no small part to the pervasiveness of computer-mediated communication, we are reading and writing more than ever—in fact, Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University and principal investigator for the Stanford Study of Writing, speaks of a literacy revolution in which “life writing” (in the form of texts, tweets, emails, status updates, or blogs) accounts for a massive 38 percent of the average Stanford student’s written production.

For many of us, the distance between our spoken language and its written form is small enough as to seem nonexistent, so converting our speech into print is a fairly straightforward process. But this isn’t always the case.

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In Review: Conversations (Volume 3) by Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari

“Ferrari and I tried to let our words flow through us, perhaps despite ourselves" - Jorge Luis Borges

“What else remains for an 85-year-old to do but repeat himself?” asks Jorge Luis Borges in the first volume of these conversations between the author of Ficciones and the poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari. Still playful a mere year before his death in 1986, Borges then offers a sly nod to the listener of these radio dialogues that can now reach English readers: “Or try variations, which comes to the same thing.” Such a remark recalls a classic Borges piece like “The Library of Babel,” with its intricately intertwined ideas of repetition and variation, and in his preface Ferrari even alludes to Borges’ “zenithal perception of everything,” suggesting that the author of  “The Aleph” or “The Zahir” might resemble his own creations. Detecting such subtle intersections between page and personality can certainly serve as one entertaining way into this newly released—and both occasionally and charmingly repetitive—third volume of radio conversations published by Seagull Books. But these pages become truly fascinating as we encounter not one Borges but many: the poet, the critic, the writer of fictions that tend toward the philosophical, and, perhaps most importantly, the attentive reader capable of discovering some delight or insight on every page.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Summer 2017

The blog team's top picks from the Summer Issue!

Juxtapositions are rife in Intan Paramaditha’s enchanting story, “Visiting a Haunted House,” translated from the Indonesian by Stephen Epstein. To me it read almost like an incantation, the words constantly looping memory upon the story’s present. As a granddaughter visits her dead grandmother’s house, she paints a pointillist picture of her grandmother’s life, whose colors soon run into her own. A broken red lipstick, a cloudy mirror, vanished smells of Gudang Garam cigarettes—the world spins, and so do familial memories, ancestral souvenirs, and time.

The granddaughter is an eternal migrant, “dashing around in bus terminals and airports with a backpack.” She remembers how her grandmother had always wanted to go abroad but contented herself with the thrill of riding a minibus to market while dressed in a flowery cotton dress. The story is ostensibly a simple tale of returning to an ancestral home. But the narrator’s voice soon bifurcates like a snake’s tongue, each sentence describing the grandmother and the granddaughter both. When speaking of a kuntilanak, “a woman no longer here, in our world, but not ‘over there’ either,” is she describing the ghost, or herself?

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Portrait of the Translator as Neologist

Translating neologism resembles a tiny model of the whole process of translation

The Horde of Counterwind, written by the French writer Alain Damasio, takes place in a world of violent winds where a band of hardened, élite travelers make their arduous way toward the Upper Reaches, from where the winds are said to originate. Translating the thickly packed, virtuosic prose of this singular Science Fiction/Fantasy epic is a bit like having to join the Horde to battle against the winds. Skeptical readers have declared the Horde untranslatable, filled to the brim as it is with wordplay and even a long jeu-parti, or poetic duel, between the improvising troubadour Caracole and his ultraformalist counterpart, Seleme the Stylite. The poetic duel involves palindromes, among other enormous challenges to the translator. Translation, through the Horde of Counterwind, becomes a test of vigor and endurance for both writer and translator, who must faire bloc—become a single vital force—before the shattering gale of language.

Yet the Horde’s translator ultimately spends a great deal more time working on single words than on entire passages. The most difficult task facing the translator of the Horde, and indeed of many works of so-called speculative fiction, lies in the proper rendering of the novel’s innumerable neologisms. Within the first page, the Horde’s translator is called upon to translate the word furvent, a term denoting one of the most violent forms of the wind. After several hours of live discussion by Skype, and after brainstorming literally dozens of possible alternatives, Damasio and I settled on the term threshgale. Furvent derives in large part from the word furieux (furious), and the French word for wind (vent), whereas the neologism retains neither component, preferring winnowing and thrashing to fury, and the storm or gale in place of the mere wind.

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Zeinab Hefny’s A Pillow for Your Love: Confronting the Shiite-Sunni Conflict

Hefny boldly punctures Saudi biases with a taboo-shattering love story.

This is the second in our series of essays highlighting women writers from Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia who have never been translated into English before. One of Asymptote’s core goals is to provide a platform for work from regions generally underrepresented in translation. Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have long been marginalized in the realm of translations from Arabic to English. The contributors have chosen to focus on women writers because they face greater hardships in getting published. The latest essay focuses on the firebrand Saudi writer, Zeinab Hefny.

A dominant conflict in Arab society is the one between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. This conflict has led to extreme violence against the Shiites, from political marginalization in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, genocide by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to confiscation of property, captivity of women and bombing by ISIS. Recently, a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia struck Shiite targets in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the region, that left hundreds dead and wounded. Despite these atrocities, very few Arab writers have discussed the Shiites’ daily suffering and the violation of their political rights.

However, one who has stood up to condemn this racist sectarianism is the Sunni Saudi writer Zeinab Hefny. She plays an important role as an activist-writer who touches on multiple Saudi taboos—social, sexual, and religious—from the Shiite-Sunni issue to women’s rights.

Zefny’s novel, A Pillow for Your Love (2011), is a worthy addition to the canon of dauntless Arab literature attempting to expose the cultural, political, social and religious crises in Arab society that few Arab writers have confronted out of fear of prosecution. In the novel, Hefny discusses religious anathemas in the Arab community. She highlights the plight of the Shiite sect in the predominantly Sunni Saudi society. READ MORE…

In Review: Xtámbaa—Piel de Tierra by Hubert Malina

Paul Worley reviews the first volume of poetry to be published in the Me’phaa language of Mexico.

In a 2015 Washington Post article on the state of world languages, Rick Noack and Lazaro Gamio note that of the roughly 7000 languages currently spoken on the planet, almost half that number—some 3500—are expected to die out by 2100. Although the authors themselves do not make such a connection, when they state that “Linguistic extinction will hit some countries and regions harder than others,” the areas they designate as those that stand to be hardest hit (Native American reservations in the Western and mid-Western US, the Amazon rainforest, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceana, Australia, and Southeast Asia) coincides roughly with a map of where global capitalism has increasingly sought to expand its reach into indigenous communities during the first few years of the 21st century. As evidenced by conflicts such as #NoDAPL in the US and the dynamiting of a sacred Munduruku site to make was for a dam in the Brazilian Amazon, the extinction of languages and cultures all too frequently goes hand-in-hand with state sponsored development projects that forcibly eject indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands in the name of national progress. When one comes to an understanding that language death is as much an economic as it is a cultural phenomenon, where do indigenous peoples, cultures, and languages fit within 21st century nation-states, if at all?

In comparison with many other countries in Latin America and the rest of the world, contemporary indigenous literatures from Mexico are notable precisely for this delicate dance between the Mexican state, a major sponsor of indigenous literatures since the late 1970s, and indigenous authors whose literary, linguistic, and political aims tend to diverge from those of their state-sanctioned patrons. In particular, the bilingual format of virtually all indigenous literatures published in Mexico during the past 40 years speaks to the realities of a complex relationship in which authors seek to represent themselves to themselves and their communities in their native languages, while simultaneously making these same selves intelligible to non-indigenous outsiders living in their same country.

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Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

​Like most other translators, I’m plagued by the feeling that it can be done better, though not by me, not here, not now.

This week we bring you the sixth installment of 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 allows us to peek into the translation process, including the anxieties of the translator. You might like to revisit the first, second, thirdfourth, and fifth installments to follow his progress.  

Same Thomism, Different Place: Last month I wrote from Ghent, New York, where ten translators had gathered for a week of all-day workshop sessions. Warm thanks to Shelley Frisch and Karen Nölle for their expert guidance. Now I’m in Straelen, Germany until late June, at the European Translators’ Colloquium, meeting colleagues from all over (Turkey, Japan, Italy, Albania, Canada, and more) and free to concentrate on Strudlhofstiege. That’s just as well, because I’m at a very difficult place, working even more slowly than usual. My colleagues keep saying, “Es wird schon”—“It’ll turn out fine,” but it doesn’t feel that way.

And while I want to get back to specifics of Doderer’s novel, I’m finding more to say about Thomism, since I’m starting to consider the influence of Aquinas more and more central to my understanding of what happens in Strudlhofstiegewhat happens and how it happens.

The Word Made Flesh: To a Thomistic-minded creative writer, every use of words is an incarnation (capital ‘I’ included), an exercise in logos. All creation came about through God’s words: “‘Let there be light’: and there was light” (Genesis 1:3-5). No gap, no sequence, no first and second steps. Logos makes the word and the deed, the name of the thing and the thing itself, indissolubly identical. From the moment God gave Adam the power of naming the animals, a shadow of logos (Genesis 2:19-20); in the rapture empowering Coleridge’s Kubla Khan simply to “decree” a pleasure dome and make it rise; in the all-encompassing mythic vision of the America Hart Crane created in The Bridge; in the hermetic compression of Paul Celan’s late verse—threatening to enter a black hole of linguistic density—the dream of all writers has been to make the utterance the actuality, to make the word flesh. (The opening of John’s gospel is a kind of refresher course.)

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Trishanku―Language as Purgatory

“My adulthood is covered with the bubble-wrap of English.”

So here’s a story―Trishanku was a mythological king, the ancestor of the Hindu god Ram. When Trishanku grew old, the gods invited his soul to heaven, but he wanted to rise to paradise in his earthly body. “Impossible,” the gods shuddered. Trishanku went to the sage Vishwamitra for help. Vishwamitra conducted a great yagya for Trishanku, and with the power of his ritual, started levitating Trishanku―body and all―towards heaven. But when the gods barred the gates, Vishwamitra built an entirely new universe between heaven and earth where Trishanku dangles, upside down, for eternity.

As a bilingual writer, I often feel like Trishanku. Having grown up in a postcolonial country with the shadow of a foreign language colouring every aspect of my existence, a duplicity cleaves my life. I inhabit two languages―English and Hindi―but I’m never fully comfortable in either. It’s telling perhaps that Trishanku is also the name of a constellation that in English is known as Crux. This confusion of languages I reside in, this no woman’s land of living between tongues defines me.

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Sustaining Diversity: Translating the Literatures of Smaller European Nations

A new study investigates whether the growth in translations from literatures of smaller European countries is matched by an increase in diversity.

Smaller European literatures don’t necessarily come from geographically or numerically small nations, but they are generally clustered in what for, say, English, French, or German readers, are European peripheries like the Balkans, the Baltic, Central and Eastern Europe, the Low Countries, the Mediterranean and Scandinavia. They are written in less widely spoken languages, come from less familiar traditions and depend on translation to reach an international audience. A project called ‘Translating the Literatures of Small European Nations’, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, aimed to understand both the challenges and opportunities that exist for these literatures as they try to break into the cultural mainstream in the UK, and in June 2017 we finally published a report on our findings.

Our project brought together four academics from the UK who promote very different smaller literatures―not only through their teaching and research, but also through various kinds of public engagement and publisher collaboration: I work on Czech and Slovak at Bristol, Rhian Atkin on Portuguese at Cardiff, Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen on Scandinavian and Zoran Milutinović on South Slav at UCL. We sensed that we work quite similarly, in parallel or even in competition, without much opportunity to discuss how our smaller literatures perceive and promote themselves internationally and how they are received by readers. We suspected that this parallel, competitive experience applied more generally to other professional advocates of smaller European literatures, whether translators, publishers, literary agents or state and third-sector promoters.

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The Invisibility of the Translator

We were taught to imagine a sliding scale between “Author,” “Text” and “Reader."

For English literature students, it has almost become cliché to mention Roland Barthes’s 1964 essay, The Death of the Author, which argued for prioritizing the reader’s response in the meaning of a text rather than the supposed intentions of the author. As students, we were encouraged to focus more on texts themselves, their connection to other texts, discourses, and historical contexts. Whatever decisions the author may have consciously made were to be treated with heavy skepticism—authors no longer had a say in the interpretation of their own work as much as readers and critics. Like many other literary theorists, Barthes’s text arrived to me through translation, and whole branches of the degree I finished one year ago gave me the chance to study a variety of literature in translation.

I never seriously questioned how a translation can affect the meaning of a text until we were assigned to read the French theorist Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967), translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I found it incomprehensible, along with many of my classmates. The one-hour lecture we had as a kind of introduction essentially came to, “Just keep reading the original text and you’ll understand it,” and I remember telling a friend at the time that the actual, original text was in French; perhaps the translation had something to do with it. Granted, even in French Derrida’s text is notoriously difficult to understand, but there could very well have been issues with Spivak’s translation, as one reviewer for the Los Angeles Review of Books suggested.

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On The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite by Yemeni Novelist Mohammed “Al-Gharby” Amran Followed by an Interview with the Author

There is only one voice and it is the voice of violence.

The Yemeni literary scene is replete with examples of fiction that accompany the tragic events Yemen is going through, principally the war, on the one hand, and on the other the desire for social and political change. This phenomenon is clear in many Yemeni fictional works, including novels by Wejdi Al-Ahdal and Nadia Al-Kawkabani, as well as the short stories of Huda Al-Attas, Arwa ‘Abd Uthman, Saleh Ba Amer, and others. Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran in particular is among those who have touched the heart of real life in Yemen, and whose voice has reached the wider Arabic nation.

Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran’s most recent novel, The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite, was published by Dar As-Saqi in 2014. Prior to that, he had written two significant works, The Red Quran, published by Dar Riyadh Arreyis in 2010, and Yael or Yael’s Darkness.The former produced strong reactions, especially in Yemen, where the book was banned because of its bold ideas, and the latter received the Tayyeb Saleh Award in 2012. He has also written short story collections, including Bed Sheets[1] (1997), published in Damascus by The Union of Arab Authors, and Black Minaret, published in 2004 by The Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers.

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Huda al-Attas: A Writer Who Speaks for the Women of Yemen

In her stories, Al-Attas documents Arab women’s lives in general and Yemeni women’s lives in particular.

This essay is the first of a series of three which will highlight three women writers from Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia who never before have been translated into English. The series was catalyzed by Asymptote’s call this past winter for a Special Feature for the Spring Issue dedicated to literature from the countries covered by Trump’s travel ban on certain predominantly Muslim countries. One of Asymptote’s core goals is to provide a platform for work from regions generally underrepresented in translation. Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have long been marginalized in the realm of translations from Arabic to English. The contributors have chosen to focus on women writers because they tend to face greater hardships in getting published, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Yemeni writer and journalist Huda al-Attas, born in 1971, is a pioneer of women’s short-story writing in Yemen and other Arab countries. Al-Attas has been writing for more than two decades. She was born in Hudarmut, in southern Yemen, and was raised in Aden with her brothers by her mother. Her family members are her biggest fans and greatest supporters. As a journalist, she is a regular Yemeni newspaper columnist. Her short stories have been published in Yemen and all over the Arab world.

Al-Attas has a broad fan base, consisting of not only conservative middle-aged literary readers but also a new generation of young, liberal readers. Contrary to stereotypes about the Arab world, Yemeni culture has been hospitable to writers, male and female alike. Interestingly, Al-Attas’s Yemeni audience can be divided into two parts: a liberal, secular audience that desires progressive change and a conservative audience that does not believe in women’s rights and even goes so far as to believe that a woman could not be the author of such daring work.

Well regarded by writers around the Arab world, Al-Attas is known as a liberal advocate of human rights and equality between people. She was well known before the Arab Spring as a bold writer who shed light on religious, social, sexual, and political taboos in a conservative society that shackles both men’s and women’s rights and prevent progress. Her personal bearing is as daring as her literary work: for example, pictures of her not wearing a scarf (a breaking of taboo in her culture) appear frequently in newspapers. She has received awards from many different Arab countries, such as Yemen and UAE. Her collections of short stories include Obsessed Spirit…Obsessed Body (hājisrūḥwahājisjasad, 1995), Because She (li’annaha, 2001), and Lightning Training to Be Light (bariqyatadarrabalada’, 2003). Her work has been translated into many languages. Topics that she addresses include incest, patriarchal ownership of women’s bodies, child brides, child begging, child labor, and khat addiction, to name a few. She explores these topics through innovative literary techniques that are as liberating as her subject matter.

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In Review: Doomi Golo by Boubacar Boris Diop

Jessie Stoolman on the first book ever to be translated to English from Wolof, an indigenous language of Senegal.

Doomi Golo is the first book to be translated into English from Wolof, an indigenous language widely spoken in Senegal. In its interesting linguistic journey, the Francophone author Boubacar Boris Diop has also personally translated the novel from Wolof to French.

The protagonist Nguirane Faye’s six notebooks written for his grandson compose the heft of the novel. One of the many iconic passages in the book tackles a central question facing the decolonizing world:

I am perfectly aware, Badou, that turning one’s back on the outside world is tantamount to the kiss of death.  It’s bound to be a good thing if a nation lets the winds that are blowing from all corners of the globe expand its chest, but not unless we do what we can to preserve the crucible destined to receive its breath when they are blowing.  Life, after all, is not born out of the void.

Every aspect of Diop’s masterpiece, from its content to choice of language to its translation, addresses this struggle to preserve marginalized identities in a globalized context. It is unsurprising that this pioneering novel was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award 2017, founded by Three Percent.

Interestingly, Diop decided to translate Doomi Golo from Wolof after being “inundated with requests,” according to Vera Wülfing-Leckie, one of the two translators of the English version. Adding intrigue to the situation, Wülfing-Leckie notes in her captivating introduction that some scholars argue that the French version, entitled Les petits de la guenon, “was a new novel that merely bore close similarities to the original.“ As for the English translation, Wülfing-Leckie mainly worked with the French version. However, El Hadji Moustapha Diop, Boubacar Boris Diop’s son and the second person in the translating duo, consulted the Wolof version as well.

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“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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