Interviews

Between two worlds: An exclusive interview with Ubah Cristina Ali Farah

"The language we choose to write has a powerful political meaning."

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is a poet, novelist, playwright, and oral performer of Italian and Somali heritage, best known for her novels Madre piccola (2007) and Il comandante del fiume (2014). Her piece, “A Dhow Crosses the Sea” recently appeared in the April issue of Asymptote, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson of the University of Iowa.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): What can you tell me about the oral storytelling quality of your work?

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (UCAF): While I was studying at the Sapienza University of Rome, my favorite authors were Amos Tutuola, Amadou Hampâté Bâ and the great Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa. I learned to love the oral, anonymous poetry of the medieval bards, the romancero evoked by García Lorca, Italo Calvino’s rewriting of traditional Italian tales, and Pierpaolo Pasolini’s striking collection of popular songs and poems. However, my first loves, the texts that influenced me most, were the Somali oral poems and tales, under the wings of which I grew up. I was looking for the oneiric feeling that resonated in the oral poetry, a text disconnected but at the same time coherent, a voice encompassing both colloquial and erudite styles and registers of language. A storytelling that could embody the throbbing power of the voice.

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Spotlight on Banned Countries Feature

A Q&A with ALTA director Aron Aji and co-translator Bakhit Bakhit

After our Blog Editors’ and Section Editors’ Highlights, we turn our attention to our Banned Countries Special Feature, put together by founding editor Lee Yew Leong. These Q&As by new Assistant Interviews Editor Claire Jacobson shed further light on the creative process of translation. First up, we are thrilled to be joined today by Dr. Aron Aji and Bakhit Bakhit, who collaborated on a translation of Mohamed Abd-Alhai’s poem “Al-Salmandel at the Edge of Absence”. Bakhit, originally hailing from Sudan, is an MFA candidate in literary translation at the University of Iowa, where Dr. Aji is his advisor. 

Beyond the obvious differences between the Arabic and English grammar, Abd-Alhai’s syntax presents particular challenges to the translator. Often adverbs and adjectives are placed to accentuate sound and rhythm, more than sense. To ‘correct’ their placement in order to conform to the English usage would hurt the sound structures in the poem. Likewise, each stanza presents a single thought unit through the network of linked images and ideas developed across the four or more more lines. It is not unusual for particles or pronouns to simultaneously refer both to a preceding verb, noun, or image and to one that might follow. The translation, therefore, has to reflect these simultaneous links, working against a conventional linear reading. The actual process involves breaking down the original stanzas into phrasal units and to reconstruct them with these links in mind. A good example are the lines:

She on her loom waiting
driving time, onward once, then back

that should capture the movement of the loom back and forth and the workings of her mind between memory of loss and the longing for return.

Bakhit Bakhit’s collaboration with Aron Aji, too, involves the weaving together of two discrete translation processes that yield or resist to each other—now interrogating now complementing—hopefully moving toward an English version remains sensitive to the Arabic cadences—in sound, sense, or imagery.

—Bakhit Bakhit and Aron Aji

In your translators’ note above, you mention your “two discrete translation processes” that work together to produce a single translation. Can you describe the different approaches you take to the text, and how you were able work together to produce this translation?

Bakhit is the one who knows the poet, the poem, its aesthetic and socio-cultural context. Our collaboration begins after Bakhit completes a relatively advanced draft; then Aron enters into the process, silently reading the poem while listening to Bakhit read the original in Arabic; Aron marks the translation according to the rhythms and sounds he hears in Bakhit’s reading, in places where the Arabic feels more resonant, more charged. What follows is a rich conversation about individual words, lines, etc., in order to tease out this “charge.” Some inevitable semantic revisions notwithstanding, our conversation is about carrying into English the subtler, less intellectual, more intuitive aspects of the original, what belongs not so much to the body of the poem, but maybe to its soul.

Can you talk about your decision to leave the words al-samandel and hijra wal awda in Arabic?

We preferred keeping the Arabic phrase hijra wal awda to counteract the negative reception of the words, immigration and immigrant, nowadays. In Abd Alhai’s poem, immigration as hijra is always attached with return as al-awda. It is a journey where the immigrant always comes back after attaining self-knowledge and knowledge of his/her roots. Coming back may not always mean physical return to the homeland. But it always means growth, recognition, wisdom that has to do with a reconciliation with, a consummation of the past.  He may be welcome with songs and celebrations or he may die with honor, “if lost in his inclination to the sea ….”

As for al-samandel, the English translation is “salamander” but does not necessarily carry the mythic resonance that Al-Samandel does.

In these instances, we were not deliberately trying to be foreignizing or to provide a cultural flavoring. Rather, both hijra wal awada and al-samandel are meant to function like windows through which the sincerely curious reader will look and find out much that would have otherwise seemed lost.

What do you see as Abd-Alhai’s contribution to the conversation on banned countries, given that he wrote in a different time and context? 

The “Inclination to the sea” is about the nomad condition—whether of the hero, the immigrant, or the refuge—which lies at the heart of Homer’s The Odyssey as it does of Abdl-Alhai’s poem, which, in fact, directly engages the classical epic. The woman at the loom may be Penelope or Fatima, but also represent homeland, a place of real or imaginary return.

Find Mohamed Abd Alhai’s poem “Al-Salmandel at the Edge of Absence” in Bakhit Bakhit and Aron Aji’s translation here, where you can also listen to Bakhit Bakhit’s reading of the poem in the original Arabic.

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Anita Gopalan on the Joys of Translation

These references are woven inside the text, sometimes explicitly, sometimes covertly. They pulsate with meaning...

Anita Gopalan, a Bangalore-based translator, received the 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of the Hindi novella Simsim by Geet Chaturvedi. Despite India producing a wealth of literature, Gopalan is only the second Indian to have received this grant. Over email, Poorna Swami asked Gopalan about Hindi literature and translating Chaturvedi.

Poorna Swami (PS): So you have a rather unconventional literary background, and even worked for many years in the banking sector. How did you find your way into translation? What do you enjoy most about it?

Anita Gopalan (AG): Although I don’t have a conventional literary background, I am striking out on a new path that is only natural to me. You see, when I was young I wanted to become a writer. Our house in Pilani was filled with books and I had access to all kinds of texts. At age eleven, I started on unabridged Dickens, by thirteen, it was Bonjour Tristesse and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and I had already written a whole book of poems (in Hindi, English, and Marwari). I read my poetry out loud to all our house maids and they were the ones who lovingly listened to it. But something happened that even I can’t fathom—my last poem was about suicide, and that was that. I did not become a writer. Rather, I thrived doing math—Hilbert spaces, isomorphisms—and moved on to banking technology and had a wonderful career in that field.

Years later, I had to cut down on my hectic work schedule due to a health condition and suddenly there was a vacuum. “To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life,” Czesław Miłosz said, and that fit my condition perfectly. I again turned to writing, and Facebook became the medium for me to post my writings and music. Here, I became acquainted with the wonderful writer Geet Chaturvedi. Interestingly, his first work that I read was not poetry or fiction—the genres he is famous for—but a short essay on music. His splendid poetic prose and sharp insights were evident even in that post. I fell in love with his writings. It was his poems that enchanted me most. A couple of years ago, he suddenly asked me to translate them. I was taken aback. I hadn’t translated anything before, but at the same time I was thrilled.

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Translator Sean Sell on Contemporary Indigenous Literature in Mexico

Political concerns are in the back of my mind, and when translating I try to keep them back there. I hope the works can speak for themselves.

During the past thirty years indigenous literatures in Spanish and indigenous languages have slowly emerged onto the literary scenes of many Latin American countries. Despite what many refer to as a literary renaissance, these literatures garner scant attention beyond the region, and many masterworks of contemporary indigenous letters remain unavailable in English translation. A graduate student at the University of California-Davis, Sean Sell recently published an excellent translation of Maya literature from the Mexican state of Chiapas with the University of Oklahoma Press. We caught up with Sell to discuss his work, that of the authors he translates, and his role as a conduit of indigenous writing in English.

Paul Worley & Kelsey Woodburn (W&W): What led you to an interest in Mayan languages and literatures?

Sean Sell (SS): Credit the Zapatistas, I suppose. Their uprising captured my attention as it did with so many others, so in 2000 when I was looking to visit Mexico and work on my Spanish, I got involved with the organization Escuelas para Chiapas or Schools for Chiapas. I figured I could improve my Spanish and support this intriguing project at the same time.  Schools for Chiapas is based, at least on this side of the border, in San Diego, where I’ve lived most of my life. They regularly organize trips to Zapatista territory. Our group helped prepare a site for school construction in one of the communities. But the trips are as much about cultural exchange as they are about any particular project.

It was on this trip that I first learned of indigenous languages like Tsotsil and Tseltal. Organizers told us that many of the Zapatistas we would meet did not speak Spanish, and for those who did it was probably their second language.

Years later I was getting a master’s at San Diego State University, and I took a class called Mexican Sociolinguistics.  I thought it would be about Mexican variations and regionalisms in Spanish, but it was all about indigenous languages—their history, their variety, their different levels of health today. Estimates of how many indigenous languages remain in Mexico range from 68 (the number with government recognition) to almost 300, with some disagreement as to when languages are distinct rather than different dialects of the same one. It was fascinating to learn about this, as each language represents a particular cultural world.  I drew from my experience in Chiapas for the class.

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Noah Birksted-Breen on Contemporary Russian Theatre

The conditions are very tough for a young playwright; you can only hope that you get picked up by a really good TV series

Noah Birksted-Breen is a theatre director, writer and translator. After doing a Modern Languages degree at Oxford University, including one year at the St. Petersburg State University, he completed an MA in Playwriting at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. In 2005 he co-founded Sputnik Theatre Company, which is dedicated to bringing contemporary Russian plays to the UK, and has so far produced five plays for his company. Sputnik also launched the first Russian Theatre Festival in the UK in 2010 with four new Russian-language plays translated into English and premiered at the Soho Theatre.  In 2006 Noah won the ITV Theatre Directors’ Award, working for a year and a half as resident director at Hampstead Theatre. He has translated plays by, among others, Oleg Bogaev, Yelena Gremina, Natalia Kolyada, Natalia Moshina, Yuri Klavdiev, and Yaroslava Pulinovich. 

Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Slovakia, caught up with Noah in the middle of his commute between Oxford, where he’s in the final stages of his doctoral dissertation, and London, where he lives with his family.

JS: I first came across Sputnik back in 2005 or 2006, when I saw your brilliant production of Russian National Mail at the Old Red Lion theatre. How did you discover this play, what sparked your interest in contemporary Russian drama and how did Sputnik Theatre start? 

NBB: I started hearing that new Russian playwriting was vibrant and began to actively look into it. I was travelling to Russia a lot at that time in my job as a project manager for an NGO that was working in that region, so I could also attend plays.  Then, in 2005 I co-founded Sputnik with Leila Gray and started producing new Russian plays. Russian National Mail by Oleg Bogaev was our first production. Right now Sputnik consists of me and then different collaborators for each project. I also have a Board of Trustees—people who are quite big in the industry and they help out. Ideally, I’d like to have a Russian set designer to work with on a permanent basis, and money to commission Russian playwrights, but funding is a problem.

Over the past 3 or 4 years I haven’t produced any plays as I’ve been working on my doctorate—on contemporary Russian playwriting between 2000 and 2014, focusing on four specific theatre companies and their programming of new plays. However, it is a practice-based doctorate, and it includes a non-academic part, in cooperation with Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, so I was able to continue the work I’ve been doing with Sputnik and bring it to a larger theatre. In consultation with the artistic director, Simon Stokes, we identified four plays, which I translated. As it is very difficult to sell a new Russian play in the UK in general and even more so to a regional audience, rather than doing full productions we decided to do them as rehearsed readings at the Frontline Club in London. This was January 2016. The first play was Dr. by Yelena Isaeva, one of the longest running productions of teatr.doc, the renowned studio theatre in Moscow. It’s a surprising, sometimes shocking, often funny and moving play about contemporary medicine in rural Russia. Then we did Joan, by Yaroslava Pulinovich, which is a play about a self-made businesswoman who has made it to the top for all the wrong reasons, and about the ruthless business practices of 1990s Russia and its gangster capitalism. For the third play, Grandchildren: The Second Act, Alexandra Polivanova and Mikhail Kaluzhsky interviewed the grandchildren of prominent Stalinists, whose testimonies bear witness to the very human desire to forgive those we love, even when we know their worst crimes. And last but not least, Mikhail Durnenkov’s The War Has Not Yet Started depicts the dehumanising effects of living in a society on the brink of an all-out war. (videos of post-performance discussions can be viewed here, here, here and here).

JS: I managed to catch two of the plays at the Frontline Club: Joan and Grandchildren; both were excellent and very different.  Are you planning to publish these four plays and can we expect to see full productions of any of them?

NBB: I published two of the plays, Dr. and Grandchildren, in a bilingual edition, and have included all the footnotes so you can get a full experience of the text, if you’re interested. I published them through Sputnik, funded by the Translation Institute (Institut perevoda) in Moscow. As for full productions, the rehearsed readings were very well received and Simon Stokes really liked one of the plays, The War Has Not Yet Started. He decided to do a full production at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth in May 2016, directed by Michael Fentiman. He is more of an auteur director, adding his own images, rather than a typical new play director, where you’re tend to be quite faithful to the script. The result worked extremely successful—very theatrical and enjoyable—though it felt rather eclectic in places.  It’s very hard to get attention for a new Russian play so it was covered mostly by the local press, and by the Stage, the industry paper.

It was good to see how well Durnenkov’s play worked in Plymouth as artistic directors often assume that a contemporary Russian play can only be staged in a niche theatre like the Royal Court, or The Bush, or the Gate or some other theatre that specializes in contemporary plays. In fact, a play like Joan is actually quite a crowd pleaser and the Royal Court would not necessarily be interested whereas—I may be hopelessly idealistic here—I feel that it could actually be staged in a more mainstream theatre. It’s a sort of revenge drama, which asks big questions but at the same time it’s a very entertaining piece with a great deal of situational comedy. The problem is how to convince theatre managers—I spoke to a couple of directors and they felt it could only be staged if there was a star actor in the main role, because otherwise no-one is going to come and see a new Russian play. But if you got Helen McCrory it could be put on at the Old Vic, or the Young Vic [laughs].

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Meet the Publisher: Open Letter’s Chad Post on the Industry’s Progress and Future

At least you’re not publishing purely into a void anymore.

Open Letter was founded in 2007 as the University of Rochester’s literary translation press. It aims to bring world literature to English readers as well as provide an opportunity for the university’s translation students to learn about the publishing process. Open Letter releases ten books a year, translated from languages and countries across the globe. The press also runs the Three Percent website, a platform for discussing contemporary literature in translation. The site is regularly updated with articles, reviews, and podcast episodes. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to publisher Chad Post over Skype about changes in the literary translation industry and some of the Open Letter titles he’s excited about.

Sarah Moses (SM): I’d like to begin by asking you how Open Letter got started.

Chad Post (CP): Open Letter got started back in 2007 when I came to the University of Rochester from Dalkey Archive Press with a couple of other people that had been working at Dalkey as well. The idea was that the University of Rochester wanted to put together a literary translation program for undergraduate and graduate students, and as part of that wanted there to be a practical component that would be publishing a high-quality line of books that would bring attention to the program and to the university, and also be providing a lot of resources for students so they could intern; they could learn how a book gets edited; how it gets published; why it gets published and some other book does not; and how to market and promote translations, as well. So reaching as wide a range of people as possible and being able to understand the business side of things to go along with the theory of translation stuff and the practice of having to do a full-length translation. Because here at the university, in the translation program for master’s students, your thesis is a full book-length translation that should be publishable. The way that it’s most publishable is if they work with us and learn that component of it rather than just being in the classroom and being disconnected from the actual community. So we were brought in to be that kind of bridge and a sort of connection.

The first book came out in September of 2008. We set everything up in the beginning of 2007, but we knew that it would be a year before the actual books came out and everything was in place.

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Camila von Holdefer on the State of Literary Criticism in Brazil

The critic, as a general rule, is someone who must know how to take a beating and how to hit back.

Camila von Holdefer, 28, is a Brazilian literature critic and philosophy academic. She publishes her reviews on her own website, in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, and on the Moreira Salles Institute blog and the Carambaia Publishing House’s blog, among others. In this interview, building on her ten-piece series on literary criticism in Brazil, she elaborates on some of the issues surrounding the literary readership in Brazil, as well as Brazilian book publishing in general and the role of the critic.

Maíra Mendes Galvão (MMG): As an opener to this interview, I’d love it if you could give us a brief description of the present Brazilian literature scene, from your point of view and a panorama of literary criticism in Brazil: who are the critics, where do they publish, where does the readership go in search of references?

Camila von Holdefer (CvH): Brazilian literature, it seems to me, is in a much better position than its criticism. Not long ago, writer Sérgio Sant’Anna published a piece in the newspaper Estadão insinuating that there’d been an explosion in the number of authors. Many people scoffed at his statement, but that is more or less what’s happening, I mean, Sant’Anna is right. There is a large number of published authors now. This happened because of an increase in both the number of small, quality publishing houses and the availability of self-publishing platforms and services that have little to no concern at all about the quality of the work.

So, what transpires is that it isn’t very difficult to get published. Actually, it’s never been easier. Consequently, the critics are faced with an amount of new books that they will never get around to reading. If there are three or four truly exceptional writers among the newcomers, it is unlikely that we’ll manage to get to them. And this is because there is a huge demand that reviewers can no longer meet. I get around ten e-mails a week from authors asking me to review their books. There isn’t the least chance that I will manage one third of that. Even with a joint effort by the critics, there wouldn’t be enough outlets where we could publish those reviews. There are few supplements, independent or in newspapers, that are still printing (or posting) reviews. The Ilustrada supplement of Folha de S.Paulo is one of them, perhaps the one that’s most attuned to diversity. O Globo and Estadão also include some reviews from time to time. There is Suplemento Pernambuco, with good articles and reviews, and Jornal Rascunho, of mixed quality (some collaborators are excellent, some are terrible: it’s all or nothing).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

ottilie

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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