Interviews

Ida Börjel Invents New Language to Examine Authoritarianism, Resistance, and Sabotage

what happens if the cute start to speak, if they start making claims on our way of reasoning?

Born in Lund, Sweden, Ida Börjel is one of the most radical voices in contemporary conceptual poetry. Since her multiple award-winning debut collection Sond (Probe, 2004), Börjel has been investigating the current conditions of our world, raising questions such as ”Why do we walk in circles when we are lost?”, and, ”what is a waist measure of nationalistic characters?” Her poetry absorbs and reinvents language from consumer law, juridicial clauses, racist radio, political pamphlets and other sprawling sources to expose our contemporary, linguistic, and societal circumstances in relation to various forms and systems of power and authority. Her collection Miximum Ca’Canny the Sabotage Manuals (Commune Editions, 2016) is available to English-language readers in the translation of Jennifer Hayashida. Hayashida is working on a forthcoming translation of Ma, Börjel’s most widely-acclaimed book, which received many awards in the original, including the prestigious Erik Lindegren prize and Albert Bonnier’s poetry prize.

Asymptote‘s Sohini Basak caught up with the poet over email last month.      

Sohini Basak (SB): In your collection Miximum Ca’Canny the Sabotage Manuals, a collective of industrial workers’ voices confound and sabotage capitalist machinery and “the boss” in various ways, including providing instructions for what to do when they “cutta da pay”: hide paperwork, peel off labels, forget tools, embrace slowness, hold meetings, ask questions—it’s a very real and fascinating interaction between materiality and ownership of language. I’m interested in the blueprints of this collection. Where did you begin?

Ida Börjel (IB): It began, I guess, with that old question about free will, about akrasia and how we might come to deviate from a given pattern. What compels a person to step across the threshold, out on the piazza, into action? Or to activate a gesture of refusal, discontinuation, or silence? And, in addition, the question I’ve been dragging along in my writing since day one: How, in what kind of language, can I think differently about a system of which we are a part? In which we are apart?

So, in pursuing those questions, I conducted a minor survey of sabotage in time and space, from above and below, inside and out: from Elisabeth Gurley Flynn and her 1916 pamphlet ”Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Worker’s Industrial Efficiency,” to—still in the U.S. but directed overseas—the OSS (a predecessor to the CIA) pamphlet ”Sabotage: A Simple Field Manual,” which suggests the ”citizen-saboteurs” in France and Norway during WWII issue two tickets for one seat on the train in order to set up an ”interesting” argument, just to name example. It also states that ”purposeful stupidity is contrary to human nature,” so the citizen-saboteur ”frequently needs pressure, stimulation or assurance.” From there, I I looked at contemporary workers in the textile industry in Pakistan or the closing of an Ericsson factory in Gävle, Sweden, in 2009, and many others—there are pamphlets, diaries, blog texts, conversations, memories to sift through. There is much to be found and read out there, though there are sources that need to stay anonymous.

SB: That’s very immersive … and once you had points of references, memories, material, how did you map it all out?

IB: What seemed urgent to me in rewording and sampling texts from these various sources was not a simple whodunnit, but rather, how does one find and pick up that ”fine thread of deviation,” as Gurley Flynn puts it, in the present order of things? In the factory or at the office, yes, but also in factory life outside of the factory. In the prevailing social structures, in our daily lives… Do we speak, think, write, like in a factory? Leslie Kaplan, author of Excess– The Factory, asks this.

READ MORE…

Translating Humor: Jessica Cohen Gets Jokes to Land in Second Language

“If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it isn’t.”

In his latest novel, the Israeli author David Grossman sets himself a near impossible task—to write a tale of tragedy set at a comedy club, all in the course of single stand-up set. As Gary Shteyngart warns in The New York Times Book Review, it’s a work that “only a true master—a Lenny Bruce, a Franz Kafka—could dream of replicating. Don’t try this at home, folks. I know I won’t.” A Horse Walks into a Bar, translated by Jessica Cohen and just longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, is a 194-page tour de force and, again citing Shteyngart, “there is nothing extraneous, not one comma, not one word, not one drop of comic’s sweat . . . Its technical proficiency is astounding.” Of course he’s referring here to the English-language edition, not to the original Hebrew, which makes this is in large part a compliment to Jessica Cohen, who somehow gets the jokes into English. This despite the translator’s three greatest obstacles: puns, idioms, and foreign context. Even the setting of the novel, Netanya—an apparently dumpy Israeli city—is the butt of countless jokes. Won’t the American reader, unfamiliar with the place or references, yawn through this all? Not this American reader, who read the novel in a single sitting, laughing and crying, at first in turns and, by the end, simultaneously. Figuring out how Cohen managed to “[turn] the performance into fluent, America-style patter, bad-a-bing bad-a-boom,” as Ken Kalfus writes for The Washington Post, is precisely why I’m talking to her now.

Here’s a quick run-down of the plot: Dov Greenstein (stage name: Dovaleh G) is an aging comedian with a tragic past. In one night of stand-up—to which he invites an old friend, Avishai Lazar, a witness to the defining event of this tragic past—Dov takes the crowd on something of a haunted hay ride. He cracks them up, taunts them, taunts (and hits) himself, bores them, entertains them again, loses their respect, and sheds his dignity openly, meanwhile sharply critiquing his native country and opening up important discussions about historical atrocities (his mother was a Holocaust survivor) and personal grief. The tale’s central event, recounted between barbs, potshots, and one-liners, takes place at a junior Israeli Army camp, when Dovaleh was 14—but that’s all I’ll say.

Todd (T): Here you have a book set in Netanya, a city that no American—and maybe no Israeli?—has ever heard of, and, as in most stand-up sets, the comedian breaks the ice by slamming the host city. Again and again. How did you approach this dilemma? Did you find yourself having to add context here and there, to let foreign readers in on the joke?

Jessica (J): Every translator knows she will run into something maddening in the course of a translation—a colloquialism with no equivalent in English, a culturally-specific term that can’t be neatly translated, etc. But I don’t usually expect to hit this brick wall in the very first sentence of a book, and that’s what happened with A Horse Walks into a Bar. The novel begins with the protagonist, a stand-up comedian named Dovaleh G, yelling from offstage (translated literally): “Good evening, good evening, good evening Ceasariyaaaah!!!” So right off the bat we have the set-up for a joke (which, as you mentioned, is always a challenge to translate), a city that most readers will never have heard of, and to make it worse, this is a line of dialogue, which means there’s little room for explication or “stealth glossing” (to borrow a term coined by Susan Bernofsky). Two paragraphs later, the joke unfolds: “Oh, wait a minute… this isn’t Caesarea, is it?” Dovaleh G then spends several lines building up (and hamming up) the realization that he is in fact not in Caesarea but in Netanya. At this point, if I’d just left things as is, most readers would probably have figured out that there is some sort of dichotomy here: Caesarea is not like Netanya; the speaker is disappointed with his actual location. But that’s not enough to make it funny, and so I needed to somehow get across the conflicting images of these two cities, which every Israeli reader is familiar with. I decided the only way was to add a touch of characterization at the beginning, which is why the final English translation reads: “Good evening! Good evening! Good evening to the majestic city of Ceasariyaaaah!” (the addition is underlined). My hope is that not only does this give an indication of what type of city Caesarea is (an exclusive seaside town populated by the rich and famous) but also gets across some of Dovaleh’s hallmark cynicism.

As for Netanya, it is the butt of many jokes in this book, and not completely without reason. It’s not a “dump” in the traditional sense—Netanya sits on the coast of the Mediterranean, only 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, and has some beautiful beaches. But that’s probably the best thing it has going for it. Roughly a third of its 200,000 residents are immigrants, many of whom are unemployed, and it has a long-standing association with organized crime, which is the main basis for the book’s Netanya-related jokes. I remember Grossman mentioning that among the many letters he received from readers after the book came out, quite a few were from Netanya residents who were outraged at his perpetuation of the stereotypes about their city! But back to the translation: once I had done what I could to establish the general schema of Caesarea vs. Netanya, I had to trust that the nuances of Netanya’s image would come through in the other jokes and put-downs that Dovaleh strews throughout his performance.

READ MORE…

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

"One of the most amazing things about learning Czech is that it has enabled me to study Mongolian..."

Ottilie Mulzet translates from Hungarian and Mongolian. Her translation of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below won the Best Translated Book Award in 2014. Her recent translations include Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai (Seagull Books, 2016); The Dispossessed (HarperCollins, 2016); and Berlin-Hamlet by Szilárd Borbély (NYRB Poets, 2016); forthcoming is her version of Lazarus by Gábor Schein (Seagull Books, 2017), as well as Krasznahorkai’s The Homecoming of Baron Wenckheim (New Directions). She is also working on an anthology of Mongolian Buddhist legends. In 2016 she served as one of the judges of Asymptote’s Close Approximations translation competition and is on the jury for the 2017 ALTA National Translation Award in Prose.

Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood, spoke with Mulzet via email. Below is the first part of their enlightening correspondence. Stay tuned for part 2!

Julia Sherwood (JS): You translate from the Hungarian, are doing a PhD in Mongolian and are based in Prague.  Your recent Asymptote review of Richard Weiner’s Game for Real shows that you also have an impressive command of Czech, enabling a close reading of the original and an in-depth review of the translation. How did your involvement with Hungarian begin and what is it like to live between all these languages?

Ottilie Mulzet (OM): Part of the difference is due to my involvement with each of these languages.  I started studying Hungarian because of my family background (two of my grandparents emigrated from Hungary), although I didn’t speak it as a child. I decided to learn it in adulthood as the result of some kind of fatal attraction, I guess, and never even realized I would end up translating. Hungarian grammar struck me as being so strange that I couldn’t wait to get onto the next lesson to see if what followed could possibly be any stranger than what I just learnt. I used a hopelessly out-of-date textbook with pen-and-ink illustrations of women in 1950s coiffures having a cigarette in front of a prefabricated housing estate. They spent their evenings complimenting each other on their clothes, sipping tea and playing match games, all the while making sure they were back at their parents’ houses by 8 pm. In retrospect, this textbook actually encoded, along with Hungarian grammar, a manual to the kind of “petty bourgeois-dom” that was so characteristic of central European socialism in the 1980s.

ottilie

An illustration from my first Hungarian textbook. Here we are introduced to Mr. Comrade Nagy, and his lovely wife, Mrs. Comrade Nagy.

I learned Czech more for practical reasons, because of living in Prague, but there are many aspects of the language I’ve come to love, not least its humour and slang. I try to keep up with what’s going on in Czech literature, although I don’t translate from it.  One of the most amazing things about learning Czech is that it has enabled me to study Mongolian—at Charles University, an institution with extraordinary language pedagogy with roots in the pre-war Prague Linguistic Circle, and an astonishing array of languages on offer—from Manchurian and Jagnobi (a descendant of Sogdian) to Jakut and Bengali. One can only hope, given the current trend toward mindless rationalisation, i.e. shutting down whatever seems too impractical or exotic, that the university will stay that way. It’s impossible to understand anything really essential about another culture without knowing something about the language: and the more you know about the language, the better off you are.

READ MORE…

Translator Profile: Katia Grubisic on Contemporary Canadian Literature

They push at these familial forces, the draw of the origin story, and the magic and tragedy as they try on and define new selves...

In this email interview conducted by Editor-in-Chief Lee Yew Leong, award-winning poet and translator Katia Grubisic took time out of her busy schedule to discuss the state of Canadian literature (in English and in French) as well as the challenges she faced translating David Clerson’s lyrical novel, Brothers (recently featured in our Translation Tuesday showcase at The Guardian), including “the ‘bitch’ problem.”

Lee Yew Leong (LYL): David Clerson’s haunting novel Brothers, in your outstanding translation, would not be out of place in the fiction section of our Winter 2017 edition, not only because of the seaward-facing figures connecting many of the pieces but also because of the strong animal motifs. Among the other elements that make up this story’s poetic permutation: brothers and fathers, dreams, the very act of story-telling. As the translator—and therefore arguably the closest reader of the novel—what do you think David Clerson is trying to say with Brothers, and how do you think these elements come together to fit the overall arc?

Katia Grubisic (KG): Thank you for your kind words.

Yes, the novel’s sea-journey theme, the search for the father, the pretty far-out cynanthropy, the origin story, the twin motif—it almost feels mythological, and David’s baroque style in this book lends it a kind of timeless timbre.

As the translator, I may, in fact, be the worst placed to comment on what it’s about, second perhaps only to the author himself! What drew me to the narrative was first the landscape, the way the sea and the briny hills become almost their own character, anchoring and tormenting the brothers (who try to escape their identity as determined by the place they’re from), and drawing them to their inevitable return. Brothers explores how who we are and who we become is shaped by those who make us, including in this case, literally the knife-wielding though well-intentioned mother, who wants to give her firstborn son a companion as a buffer against the cruel world. The brothers are shaped also by their absent “dog of a father,” or rather—and this is telling—by the often conflicting stories told about him. Yet they push at these familial forces, the draw of the origin story, and the magic and tragedy as they try on and define new selves, and their own universe, has such compelling pathos. You don’t want to be them, but you can’t look away.

LYL: The novel at once reminds me of The Return, a film by Andrey Zvyagintsev about two brothers waiting for their father’s return, and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which not only involves an odyssey on a boat, but also similarly injects a magical realism into the story-telling. What other literary ‘predecessors’ might I, as a non-Canadian, have missed? 

KG: I don’t know that Brothers’ ancestry is nationally bound. When I first read the book, it reminded me of Agota Kristof’s Le Grand cahier—the brothers, the old mother, the violence. Pas du tout, David told me; in an interview, he said he had been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy at the time! He wrote it too at the height of the Printemps érable student and popular uprising in 2012, which subtly tinged the narrative. Though I agree that both The Return and Life of Pi could be seen as kin, in terms of devices and preoccupations.

The wonderful thing about fiction is that it can belong to whichever reader happens to crack the spine. The region David evokes spoke to me so vividly of the Baie des Chaleurs shores in eastern Quebec and northern New Brunswick, but when I asked him about it, he conceded that many had pegged his setting as the Gaspésie region, but spoke instead of the imprint left by work he had read in his youth, including Golding and Stevenson, and even of a dream he once had, in which he saw himself fishing a dead dog out of a lagoon.

READ MORE…

Translating Finnegans Wake: An Interview with Hervé Michel

I would advise that a reader approach Finnegans Wake like a work of art—a composition of sounds and colors, music and painting...

Can Finnegans Wake be translated into another language? As the joke well-known amongst Joyceans goes, “Which language are you translating it from?”

If it is possible to translate Finnegans Wake, the next question might be: who on earth is willing and able to undertake such a task? Who even has the time to translate this work Joyce spent 17 years writing?

The Wake has been translated into French twice. Philippe Lavergne translated the book in the early 1980s, but unsatisfied with this edition, Hervé Michel has spent the last two decades working on a translation of his own.

Michel was born to French parents, in 1950s Morocco. He spent his youth “wandering across Europe, America, Africa and the Near East.” From 1979 until 1984 he lived in Casablanca, studying Arabic. Michel joined the French civil service in 1986 and eventually attended the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA). With an annual acceptance rate of only 6%, ENA is an extremely elite graduate school for French government administrators and officials. After a decade of varied work ranging from finance to international relations, in 1996 Michel accepted a high-ranking position within the French Ministry of Defense.

In his spare time, Michel reads the Wake. He first encountered the book in 1980 and began translating the text in 1997. He has tried at various times to find a publisher for his translation, but the audience for Finnegans Wake translations is limited. In 2004 Michel decided to publish his translation as Veillée Pinouilles online, a format that allows him to make ongoing updates and revisions à la Leaves of Grass.

As Michel prepared to retire from his career in the civil service, he graciously took the time to speak with me about this longstanding fascination with the Wake. The interview was conducted over email, a format allowing for conversation as well as textual elucidation and analysis.

Derek Pyle (DP): How did you first get interested in Joyce?

Hervé Michel (HM): My interest first went to Finnegans Wake, not to James Joyce. By 1985, I had returned to Paris from a five-year sojourn in Morocco—a country where I happened to be born and raised from 1950 to 1962 and where I had returned with my newly-met wife Constance Hélène in 1980—where I had spent a jolly good time studying Arabic and reading the Qur’an. Back in Paris I felt compelled to go to the Galignani English bookshop on Rue de Rivoli to buy Finnegans Wake, on the back cover of which I discovered the man-in-the-street allure of James Joyce which was a sort of a shock. For me, Finnegans Wake was the Sacred Scripture of the Modern Era. I was not to be deceived by a text displaying all the phatic function I expected and smearing a thick semiotic matter, so I immediately felt the need to have it rendered in French.

DP: So you began with Finnegans Wake. Did you go the bookshop specifically seeking out the Wake? Or did it just one day catch your eye, while you were in the bookshop? Can you also explain a bit more what you mean that this was a text ”displaying all the phatic function… and smearing a thick semiotic matter”?

HM: Reference to James Joyce was paramount in the French literary critique between 1960 and 1980, people like Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, all drove me to consider Finnegans Wake as the nexus of the modern literary fabric, which I, with my gross ignorance of the finesse of the English language and of the encyclopedic richness of Joyce’s culture, took at first as the thick material somebody like Jackson Pollock smeared on his canvasses, but eventually I craved to emulate this latter Indian creation dance myself with the French language.

READ MORE…

Zsuzanna Gahse’s Europe: Like Her New Book, It’s a Collection

Translations are more or less a doubling of life, or rather, a translation is the doubling of a book’s life.

Zsuzanna Gahse’s strange and eloquent meditation on the question of what, or rather, who “Europe” is has only become more relevant over the course of the past year in politics. Gahse’s Europe is the continent that shares her name with a princess abducted by Zeus. “Europe consists of its disintegration,” she writes. Gahse’s writing is all the more relevant for not being “topical”: these prescient thoughts on Europe’s disintegration date from 2004, the year of the EU’s most ambitious expansion. Her Europe is composed of a collection of accents, languages, and landscapes, “a collection of mountain ridges wrinkling the earth.” It’s an Europe for travellers, migrants, and lovers.

Her first book to be published in English comes out this month with Dalkey Archive in Chenxin Jiang’s translation. The translator and writer spoke shortly before the book’s release.

Chenxin Jiang (CJ): The Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote of you a few days ago: “As a master of short prose, she has become a truly European author.” Is the short prose form central to your being a European author?

Zsuzanna Ghase (ZG): Short compact narratives and even individual sentences can be memorable and indeed arresting. Whether in prose, poetry, or drama, these types of writing have a remarkable role to play in the modern world, and the endless (serious and unserious) ways of playing on them constitute an experimental challenge. As for being a European author, I certainly am one, in that I don’t focus on any one country (or my so-called “own” country) in my books, but am interested in many different countries.

CJ: In what sense are the pieces in Volatile Texts part of what the first piece would call “a collection”?

ZG: The word “collection” only applies to the first piece in the book and the pictures of Europe it presents. Europe can be described as a collection of various customs and histories, different languages, climates, political arrangements and so on; a collection that is both well- and less-than-well-developed. You could spend a long time surveying the cuisines alone. All that taken together is Europe: in other words, a collection.

But the individual pieces in Volatile Texts are carefully composed. As such, they do not constitute an arbitrarily assembled collection—hence the subtext of Europe that runs throughout. The fact that a Hamburger can become a Roman and a woman from France an American in one of the Volatile Texts speaks to the porousness of identity, to the existence of a collection of identities.

CJ: In Volatile Texts, you write that “languages [are] shaped by landscape, by topography.” How has your own attentiveness to language and your writing been shaped by living in Switzerland?

ZG: In the mountains, in order to make yourself understood between the cliffs, you need a different voice from the voice you’d use on the plains. It must be true in the Rockies too, that voices have to prevail against the mountains. Conditions are different on the tranquil plains: for instance, in windswept northern Germany, I’ve observed that people talk with a distinct singsong, so that the wind doesn’t take all their syllables and sounds with it. The striking number of phonological shifts in Swiss German, which might have to do with the topography of the landscape, has always interested me—not to mention the fact that Switzerland has four languages. Because of these linguistic boundaries and the different regions within Switzerland, I began playing with the idea of depicting Switzerland, of all places, as Europe—since, as you know, Switzerland is part of the continent but not part of the EU.

READ MORE…

Meet the Publisher: Juliet Mabey on Oneworld’s Roots and the Business of Publishing Translations

When you start fresh, you’re not burdened with a big list to look after that perhaps stops you from spotting these little gems...

Oneworld was founded in 1986 by Juliet Mabey and her husband Novin Doostdar. The press is now based in London and publishes over 100 books a year. Most of these continue to be non-fiction titles across a broad range of subject areas. In 2009, Oneworld launched their fiction list, and shortly thereafter began releasing novels in translation. To date, the press has published authors from 40 countries and works originally written in 26 languages. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to Juliet Mabey over Skype to discuss the importance of reading fiction from across the globe and Oneworld’s commitment to diversity in publishing literature in translation.

Sarah Moses: Can you tell me a bit about how Oneworld came to be?

Juliet Mabey: My husband Novin Doostdar and I had always been interested in books and bookshops. We were in university in Edinburgh together, where we met and got married, and we decided that we wanted to set up a company ourselves. It was really a choice between setting up a bookshop or a publishing company. In fact, originally we wanted to set up both, but we never really had time to do the bookshop. We set up Oneworld in 1986, very much with a view of publishing accessible, authoritative narrative non-fiction across quite a broad range of subjects.

At that time there was no Internet. If you wanted to learn a bit more about psychology, and you went into a bookshop, all you could find were say, the complete works of Freud or an A-level textbook of an introductory nature. So we felt there was a big gap in the market for books that were written by experts or academics but in an accessible style. That was very much what we intended to do, across philosophy, psychology, history, popular science. In fact, it’s still very much the core of our non-fiction list. The first year in 1986 I think we published four books. We then built it up very slowly. Neither my husband nor I came from a publishing background so we learned as we went along and talked to booksellers and that sort of thing.

SM: How did you decide to make the move into fiction?

JM: That’s a really interesting question. There were certain factors that came to a head around the same time. On the one hand, I kept reading novels that I felt were very sympathetic to our kind of ethos in our non-fiction list; that if we had a fiction list, we would be interested in publishing ourselves. But of course we didn’t. That went on for a few years before we took the plunge.

For example, novels like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus offered a very interesting way of learning all about Nigerian culture, its history, and that part of the world. They’re fantastic novels in their own right. They weren’t a worthy introduction to Nigeria at all, but they took you there. That seemed to be very much the sort of thing I would have loved to publish if we’d had a fiction list. By this point we’d been in publishing for just over twenty years. Finally I just thought, you know what, I’m going to tell everybody that I’m interested in starting a fiction list, and we’ll see what happens. So we went to Frankfurt in 2008 and I started telling people, “By the way, we’re hoping to start up a fiction list.”

One of the first novels that was suggested to me was Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, which we went on to publish the following September, in 2009. That was the start of our fiction list. So we were just incredibly lucky. You know, sometimes it happens. And when you start fresh, you’re not burdened with a big list to look after that perhaps stops you from spotting these little gems that are sitting there, which (in the case of James’s novel) everybody had turned down already because it was written entirely in Jamaican pidgin English. Then his next novel—the second novel we published of his—went on to win the Man Booker Prize in 2015. So it was truly a very propitious start to our fiction list.

READ MORE…

Spotlight on Indian Languages: Part VI

she will continue her quest / for a world bereft of homes.

We’re thrilled to present the sixth and final installment of our Indian Languages Special Feature here at the blog. This time, Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan gives us an inside look at the life of the featured poet via the following interview. Thanks for sticking with us on our tour of the language-rich Indian subcontinent! 

Images of writer Salma receiving honours and awards from Chief Ministers and Presidents line the living room walls of her Chennai flat. It’s the home of an acclaimed public figure, but she has fought to be able to declare this success as a writer, even to herself. Having grown up in an orthodox Muslim community in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and married at nineteen into a conservative family, Salma had to hide her identity as a writer. Her years of struggle as an imprisoned woman are well recorded, including in an award-winning documentary by Kim Longinotto. Her poems, short stories, and novels are deeply melancholic reflections on life as a woman in her culture. “I don’t think I have ever felt happy. Not even when I receive recognition for my work. I always feel a sense of sorrow, having lost a lot,” she said during our interview.

“How did you reach my apartment? Did you take a taxi?” she asks. My scooter gets a nod of approval. “Parava illaye!” [“Not bad!”] A woman must have mobility. She sits down with a newspaper upon which she cleans and removes spinach leaves from their stems to prepare lunch, while we speak about her life and art. Later, she takes a picture with me and the spinach as a rebuke to Tamil writer B. Jeyamohan, who once insulted a bank teller, suggesting she was not capable even of picking spinach leaves.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview, translated by the interviewer and Asymptote’s Assistant Managing Editor, Janani Ganesen, as well as one of Salma’s poems, translated by N Kalyan Raman.

Janani (J): Your life and struggle has been widely recorded. Yet, for the sake of our readers, I hope you wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. You grew up in a cloistered environment. How did you access books?

Salma (S): There was a library in my town that I liked going to. It wasn’t big, but I read as much as I could. In those days, New Century Book House used to bring out translations of Russian writers. I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others. I read and admired Tamil writers like Balakumaran. But it is from these Russian greats that I got a sense of what literature is about. I also read Periyar and wondered, “Why am I not being allowed to go to school or do the things that my brother is allowed to do? How am I different?” I felt angry.

J: When did you start writing?

S: Although I wrote my first short story when I was in class seven, I wouldn’t look at it as my beginning. It was about a woman, whose husband abandons her and yet she goes back to help him when he is in need. I was influenced by the movies I watched and what older people told me: “Kallanalum Kanavan.” [“A husband remains a husband even when he is hard like a stone.”]

I would say my writing career began with the publication of the poem “Swasam” [“Breath”] in a little magazine called Suttum Vizhi Chuddar, when I was seventeen.  I received a lot of reviews only after that poem.

J: What is “Swasam” about?

S: What is my identity? Things were happening around me without my being aware of it. My breath should be mine. Somebody else can’t breathe on my behalf. But that was how it was. Everybody else was deciding the course of my life. My education, my activities, my movements, my marriage, all of this was decided by someone else. That’s what the poem is about. The poem became controversial in my village. “How could you let a girl who has attained puberty let her name be printed? It’s a disgrace for her to show her face outside. A disgrace to the family. A disgrace to her society,” they said. I didn’t understand this then. Why could you not print my name? A girl’s name is printed in a marriage invitation; is that a disgrace too? But I couldn’t argue with them.

READ MORE…

In Conversation: Yousif M. Qasmiyeh on Language and Liminality

Refugees and gods always compete for the same place.

Born in Baddawi refugee camp in Lebanon, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh is a Palestinian poet and translator who currently teaches Arabic at Oxford University. His poems, translations, and essays have appeared in Arabic in An-Nahar and Al-Ghawoon, and in English in journals including Critical Quarterly, GeoHumanities, and Modern Poetry in Translation. Much of his recent research, as the Writer in Residence for the Refugee Hosts Project, focuses on ‘writing the camp’ and the dialectics of hospitality in both life and death.

Last year, Qasmiyeh collaborated with the Oxford University Poetry Society, the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group and Oxford University PEN to translate Arabic-language poems pertaining to the Syrian refugee crisis for a small anthology, Flight, subsequently sold to raise funds for the Oxfam Refugee Appeal and an Oxford-based charity, OXPAND. It was in this capacity that I first met Qasmiyeh. The following exchange took place in late January, 2017.

—Theophilus Kwek, Chief Executive Assistant at Asymptote

 

Theophilus Kwek (TK): You’ve just returned from Oxford to Lebanon for several weeks over the winter, visiting the refugee camps while you were there. Each of these journeys must involve a complex set of changes: not least in your immediate linguistic and cultural context. Was there an aspect of this most recent journey that was most compelling to you as a writer?

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh (YMQ): These journeys have become regular since I obtained my British passport in early-2012. Their regularity is largely initiated by a combination of familial and research commitments. I mainly visit Baddawi camp (my place of birth) and the Nahr Al-Bared camp in North Lebanon. We might say that I go to the camps ‘through Lebanon’ and never ‘to Lebanon’. Indeed, this has been a recurring theme in my and Elena’s research with new [refugee] arrivals in Baddawi, in so far as refugees’ “arrival in the camp” has become the ultimate dynamic that has punctuated many refugees’ understanding of the occurrence of arrival [in Lebanon].

For me, as a person born in Baddawi, my arrival in that place has always been contingent on the presence of the camp. You may also say these are seasonal pilgrimages to one’s memories and traces, as I have argued in a co-authored piece titled ‘Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation.’

When I am there I try to spend time with my elderly parents, my siblings and their families, but I also try to observe the changes that are occurring in the camps. The camps are no longer the same nor are their residents the same people. In order to acknowledge both the humane and inhumane repercussions of such places we have to see the faces in their absolute gift—the features and cuts that never lie about what is happening around them. These are the faces of those who are unsure about the definition of a place or the tenets that make a place a place. Everything in the camps seems to move both horizontally and vertically at the same time. People enter the place to contribute to the mass or masses therein but also to the verticality that has embodied itself in all these fragile buildings that are being (or in the process of being) built. Other refugees are entering their archetypal place, one might say. The city (at least in Lebanon) is no longer the only destination for all these new refugees.

In this process, I think the linguistic and dialectal dimension has become strikingly obvious. The dialects that are heard are now what avows the faces. Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi dialects are now uttered in the same space, in camps that have transcended the “gathering” sign to become the “gatherer”; the active participle, the doer whose main presence is dependent on being occupied and used. We hear the dialect to observe the face. This (dis)order has always attracted me to my camp. It attracts me for it is the dialect that we at times suppress to conceal who we are. It attracts me when such dialects are exaggerated or perhaps elongated to occupy a place that is neither theirs nor ours. The shibboleth has never been clearer.

READ MORE…

Joshua Freeman talks Uyghur Poetry, Part II

The endless choices confronting a translator constitute a great deal of creative freedom.

Our latest issue features three poems by the Uyghur writer Tahir Hamut. Here, the Asymptote Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly talks to the translator, Joshua Freeman.

When we first spoke in October 2015, you mentioned your excitement about translating Tahir Hamut. It’s wonderful to see these poems now. How long have you been working with Hamut? Have you worked with him on translation issues?

Tahir Hamut was actually one of the first poets I translated, almost ten years ago. I met him soon after I started translating his work, since I was also living in Ürümchi, capital of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, at the time. He’s a terrific conversationalist with wide-ranging interests, and I’ve enjoyed exchanging ideas with him on all manner of subjects over the years. I used to ask him occasionally why he didn’t write much poetry anymore, since I regard him as one of the most talented living poets writing in Uyghur. (His poem “Returning to Kashgar” is perhaps my favorite.) Over the last couple years it’s been exciting for me that he’s suddenly reemerged with a torrent of new work, every bit as good as his work from the nineties.

When I translate work by a living poet—and most poets I translate are still around—I usually produce a semi-final draft of my translation, and then get in touch with the poet about any lingering questions of meaning or interpretation. Those conversations can be quite lengthy, and in fact I really enjoy them; as a non-poet myself, it’s a unique chance to have some access to the literary thought processes of poets I admire. Speaking with Tahir about his work, we’ll sometimes slip briefly from Uyghur into Chinese to discuss a word or a line from the “meta” level of a second language.

Interesting that you call yourself a non-poet. I wonder if you are of the camp that considers a translated poem a new poem all its own? Or do you think it is strictly a translation?

There’s lots of interesting theory on the subject by people who’ve thought about it longer than I have, so I’ll just share my own sense of it. A translated poem is not exactly a new poem, but it’s definitely distinct from the original work. The endless choices confronting a translator constitute a great deal of creative freedom, but the starting point of each choice is still the original poem, and in that sense translating poetry differs fundamentally from writing it. One analogy that comes to mind is music: different musicians will interpret a composer’s work differently, but their performance will still be guided by the same notes on the page. READ MORE…

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.

READ MORE…

Q&A with Polina Barskova, editor of Written in the Dark

For me, this anthology presents a great lesson of humanity.

Today, we feature editor-in-chief Lee Yew Leong in conversation with Polina Barskova, scholar of the devastating Siege of Leningrad, in which as many as one million perished from famine. Working with a team of historians and translators on “miraculous” archival material, Barskova produced Written in the Dark, an important human testament of its time. After reading this interview, be sure to check out a selection of works from the anthology which we arranged with The Guardian to showcase on a recent Translation Tuesday

Your project presents a literary phenomenon that has been “unknown even to Russian readers for 70 years,” according to the introduction accompanying the anthology. Can you give our (mostly non-Russian) readers a bit of background into the dire circumstances that resulted in the writing gathered here? Why was it unknown for 70 years, even in its native Russia?

The Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944) was a complex disaster indeed, resulting in around one million deaths from famine. But yet another dire consequence was Soviet power doing everything possible to conceal the humanitarian catastrophe that happened in the city. For decades, only the Soviet version of the heroic fight could be published; all other voices and opinions were suppressed. The poems collected here present the human suffering, not the official version of heroism.

Your work as a scholar on the Siege undoubtedly helped you unearth these important poems, whose survival has been called a “miracle.” Can you shed some light on the discovery, and the process of presenting an English anthology?

This anthology is a collective effort: many scholars worked to unearth and preserve and interpret these texts. My job was mainly to put them together, to organize them into one coherent poetic and historical statement. It is mainly due to the families and disciples of these poets that these texts have survived. In every case, their survival is a miracle.

And with this feeling of awe I’ve been talking about the anthology both in the West and in Russia, and curiously very different audiences receive the book with equal enthusiasm.

READ MORE…

In Conversation: Abnousse Shalmani on the Politics of the Female Body

To cover the female body with a veil, a burqa, a hijab, a burkini, is to accept that said body is a site of desire and only that.

The first time I heard Abnousse Shalmani speak was her TEDxParis talk, which opened with: Oh, putain de bordel de merde [oh, motherfucking shit]. The auditorium echoed with scattered titters of discomfort and appreciation. “It’s ugly, all these curse words in a woman’s mouth, at least that is what parents tell their daughters,” Shalmani continued, “but I think the opposite: that all these swear words—words of the mouths of men—in the mouths of women, are indispensable.” In the remainder of the talk Shalmani exhibited through personal anecdotes and precise historical and literary analysis how sexism and misogyny, through the constraints on women’s bodies, permeate the Republic celebrated for equality and liberty.

To Shalmani, freedom begins with the liberation of the body and the assurance of one’s ability to fulfill corporal desire without limits or restriction. In her first book, Khomeini, Sade, et Moi [Khomeini, Sade, and Me, tr. Charlotte Coombe, World Editions]—which toes the line between memoir, manifesto, and novel—Shalmani expands and elaborates upon these foundations. In September 2016, I had the opportunity to interview the author about her book, feminism, and the conundrums facing contemporary France

Nina Sparling (NS): In Khomeini, Sade and Me, you make the case for a renewed humanist project, a way past all forms of extremist thought. But you get there via an unusual intellectual trajectory: through the libertine literature of authors like the Marquis de Sade or Pierre de Louÿs, both of whom are often associated with the search for extreme—even cruel—sensations and thoughts. Is it possible to reconcile humanism and libertine literature?

Abnousse Shalmani (AS): Above all, I plead for the liberation of the female body. And that liberation is impossible without the erasure of prejudice. The intellectual paths I’ve taken might seem unusual, but under closer scrutiny, their trajectory fits perfectly within the tradition of Enlightenment thought.

I first ‘encountered’ Pierre Louÿs, the prolific erotic writer. What struck me most about this lover of Beauty (“Beauty is made from Greek perfection crowned with Oriental grace,” he wrote) in his erotic poems and pornographic novels was his playful vision of flesh, of sex. Born in Teheran under the Islamic Revolution, all I knew of the body was the drama it provoked, the gravity with which my world covered up the female body, the danger it represented. To read a poet—at fourteen—who laughed about the body, about sex, who took pleasure in both, this took the drama out of the body. I began to see my body as something besides a forbidden place. It began as a literary step; the politics followed.

READ MORE…

Dispatch from PEN Hong Kong: In Conversation with Jason Y. Ng

Hopelessness is not constructive—it plays into the hands of the oppressor.

PEN Hong Kong was officially re-launched on 13 November, as Asymptote noted recently. Originally established in the 1980s by expatriate writers in Hong Kong, the organisation later became inactive as key members left the city. A group of professionals working in the field of the written word revived the organisation in September in response to the increasingly hostile environment for free expression in Hong Kong.

Numerous incidents have indicated that freedom of speech in Hong Kong is declining after the handover. PEN America released two reports on the issue, in 2015 and 2016, to explore the deterioration of press freedoms and free expression in the city, as reflected in the increasing economic and political pressures targeted at pro-democracy mass media. The appalling abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers by Chinese authorities that was exposed earlier this year drew further attention to the issue. Self-censorship is also aggravating publishers, media, bookshops, and even academia. PEN Hong Kong’s members take up the mission of celebrating and promoting free, creative expression to guard against political suppression and censorship by uniting advocates who believe in the power of words in Hong Kong and China.

Asymptote’s Hong Kong Editor-at-Large recently interviewed PEN Hong Kong’s President, Jason Y. Ng, who tells us about the establishment of the organisation, its recent activities, future goals, and challenges.

Charlie Ng (CN): Defending freedom of speech in Hong Kong is definitely urgent and necessary in today’s political climate. Could you please introduce the current network of PEN Hong Kong members to us? What is your vision for developing that network in order to achieve the missions of the organisation?

Jason Y. Ng (JN): We’re very fortunate to have a number of prominent authors, academics, and journalists serving on our executive committee. They also represent a good balance between local Chinese writers and expatriates working and living in Hong Kong.

We encourage anyone interested in PEN Hong Kong to check out their bios at our website and to find out how to join us. An organization is only as good as its members, and we’re eager to recruit members of the literary community who are committed to promoting literature – in both Chinese and English – and defending free expression in Hong Kong.

CN: Would you like to tell us about PEN Hong Kong’s participation in the 82th PEN Congress?

JN: We sent three delegates – award-winning poet Nicholas Wong, seasoned journalist Kris Cheng, and human rights advocate Patrick Poon – to the Galicia Congress this past October. All three are founding members of PEN Hong Kong. They participated in several panel discussions, announcing the revival of our chapter and giving updates on the freedom of expression situation in Hong Kong. We were heartened to see that there was a lot of interest among the global audiences in the missing booksellers controversy and Beijing’s tightening grip on civil liberties in Hong Kong.

READ MORE…