Interviews

Meet the Publisher: Phoneme Media’s David Shook on Translations from Underrepresented Languages

I do think we’re living in a very good time for publishing translations.

Phoneme Media is a nonprofit company that produces books in translation into English and literary films. Based in Los Angeles, the company was founded by Brian Hewes and David Shook in 2013, though it wasn’t until 2015 that the press began publishing on a seasonal calendar. To date, Phoneme Media has put out over twenty titles of fiction and poetry, and is particularly interested in publishing works from languages and places that don’t often appear in English. Many of their books are accompanied by short films that take on different formats, from video poems to book trailers, and have been shot around the world. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to David Shook over Skype about publishing translations from underrepresented languages and some of the titles he’s excited about.

Sarah Moses (SM): How did Phoneme Media start?

David Shook (DS): It came about basically because of my own work as a poet and translator. In my own travels—when I was working in community-based development, mostly in East Central Africa and Latin America—through relationships, through friendships with writers, in places like Burundi and Equatorial Guinea, and writers working in indigenous languages in southern Mexico, for example, I was just encountering all of these writers that I felt deserved to be read in English, that would contribute something important to our literary dialogue and that couldn’t find homes in terms of publishers here in the United States and in the UK, too, for a couple of reasons. The first being the lack of translators working in those languages and familiar with those regions, and the second was the fact that these books were somewhat outside the purview of even the publishers who specialized in translation—some great publishers. I think of Open Letter, for example, which has largely focused on literature from European languages, which I also think is incredibly important, but something like a book of poetry from Isthmus Zapotec, or the first translation from the Lingala—a novel we’re preparing to publish later this year would definitely be a bit outside their wheel house.

SM: How do you find translators for languages like the ones you’ve mentioned?

DS: Well I think our reputation is such that, despite having been around a comparatively short time, we’re often approached by translators working in more unusual languages. Our translation from the Uyghur, for example, by Jeffrey Yang, and the author is Ahmatjan Osman, who was exiled in Canada, was exactly that situation. Jeffrey brought the translation to us because he knew of our editorial interests. In other cases, like our book of Mongolian poetry, I was alerted to its existence because the translator won a PEN/Heim grant. And I do read widely, both in search of writers and of translators, who I think are important. For example, a place like Asymptote, which I read regularly with an eye toward acquisitions. I mean when we acquired, for example, this novel from the Lingala, the translation was a huge issue because there are very few, if any, literary translators from the Lingala, so I actually auditioned a few Congolese translators before finding this husband-and-wife team, Sara and Bienvenu Sene, who did a really great job. They’re really literary translators, whereas most of the translators I’d auditioned were technical translators or interpreters. And it’s pretty spectacular, considering I think English is their fourth language. I think a big part of my work is scouting out these translators and also encouraging a new generation of translators to go out into the world and find interesting books. I’m very proud that we’ve published many first-time translators on Phoneme Media.

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

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

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

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

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Translator Profile: Jennifer Scappettone

"We so desperately need to understand one another better—and not through facile orientalist or New Age appropriations."

An artist, poet, translator, and teacher, Jennifer Scappettone was born and raised in New York. The recipient of a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2005, she has lived in Italy, Virginia, Japan, California, and Chicago. Scappettone’s poetry has appeared in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2004, The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century (2007), The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, The Best American Experimental Writing 2016, and others. Her translations of the work of Amelia Rosselli from the Italian were published in Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli, and received the Raiziss/De Palchi Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Scappettone teaches at the University of Chicago.

Allegra Rosenbaum (AR): Who are you? What do you translate? (This is just a preliminary question! To be taken with an existential grain of salt.)

Jennifer Scappattone (JS): I am a poet and scholar of U.S. and Italian nationalities who grew up in New York, across the street from a highly toxic landfill recalling our family’s ancestral land outside of Naples, a zone laced with illegal poisonous dumps. I translate Fascists and anti-Fascists; Italian feminists and a notorious misogynists; inheritors of Futurism and the historical avant-garde; and contemporary poets who are attempting to grapple with the millennial burden of the “Italian” language, channeling or annulling voices from Saint Francis through autonomia.

AR: Describe your current or most recent project. Why is it cool? What should we know about it? 

JS: I have several current translation projects. One is a translation of an “aeronovel or aeropoem” by F.T. Marinetti composed in 1944, amidst the German occupation of a divided Italy during World War II. It is a desperate, breathless, un-punctuated, and unstable text that—in a gasp of last-ditch fascism—imagines the resurgence of Venice as a kitschy female colossus of Murano glass. That’s clearly as cool as it is problematic. Though it isn’t a prize-winning strategy, I believe it is necessary to understand Fascists and misogynists/woman-worshippers from the inside, through their own writing, in an epoch such as ours. No channel could be more intimate and potentially seditious.

I’m also translating selections from Reasonable Chesspiece, a collection of poetry by the art critic and founder of Lotta Femminista, Carla Lonzi. I am undertaking this project in collaboration with Judith Kirshner, who has studied Lonzi’s art writings for decades and will provide a historical introductory narrative, and Silvia Guslandi, a talented young translator who is working on the tape-recorded interviews of Lonzi’s Self-Portrait, a paradoxically titled collection of interviews with male artists from Lucio Fontana to Cy TwomblyWe will bring the pieces together in the hopes of drawing more attention to Italian feminism—both in English-speaking countries and in Italy, where it is dead and mostly forgotten.

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In Conversation: Carol Apollonio on Serving the Spirit of Communication in Translation

"We read translated literature to access a common humanity that transcends borders."

Carol Apollonio translated the first Dagestani novel available in English, The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva. Anglophone readers will find much to relate to in the novel’s premise—a rumor that the Russian government is building a wall between the Muslim provinces of the Caucasus and the rest of Russia. In this free-wheeling, clear-eyed interview with Hannah Weber, Apollonio takes an impassioned look at literatures in translation, and at the simplest yet most complex human propensity—the desire to read.

Hannah Weber (HW): You’re a scholar of Russian literature and translate works from both Russian and Japanese. What led to your interest in these particular languages?

Carol Apollonio (CA): Most of your life path is luck. I knew early on that learning languages came easy to me, so I kept on doing it. After French, it was quite a shock to realize that for Russian you didn’t just plug the words into grammar you already knew. You had to change everything around in your brain. Plus, all the words were different. Anyway, if you’re rebellious enough, you decide it’s worth putting in the effort. It helped that I’d studied some Latin early on.

So, why Russian? Here’s how a Cold War eighteen-year-old radical hippie thinks in 1973: “The Russians are our enemies; the only problem is that Americans don’t know Russian. I’ll learn Russian, become president of the USA, we’ll all learn to love one another, and that will solve the whole problem.” So, I went to college and studied Russian and politics. As it turned out, I was too impatient and tactless for politics. As for Russian, at that time basically there were three paths for Russian-language students: one, learn about the complicated grammar and crazy vocabulary—recoil, and turn to economics or psychology; two, learn the language, recoil from the politics, and go into national security; three, learn the language, love it, read the literature and have your head explode. I’m one of the survivors with the exploded heads. READ MORE…

An interview with Edil Hassan: Writing poetry rooted in migration, otherness and Somali heritage

When I write of those days now, there is something fuller and heavier

Edil Hassan is a poet of Somali background based in New England. Two of her poems appeared in Asymptote’s most recent issue in the feature on banned countries. Ms. Hassan graciously answered a few questions about her work and inspiration.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): Your poems are so grounded in deep family relationships and stories from the past. Can you talk about the inspiration for these poems? What drove you to write them?

Edil Hassan (EH): The Drought for a long time was only the last stanza. I had seen a picture of a capsized migrant boat in the Mediterranean on some news site—a new picture every week or month, never the same boat. It’s like those videos of Black girls and boys who are killed; I’m waiting to know the person behind the camera. I knew though that this poem was incomplete, and like all stories is layered. Migration comes with a loss of place, and mediating on family helps me track that disappearance.

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In Conversation: Lesley Saunders on translation, poetic collaboration and creating new writing with refugees

I think there’s a place opening up where poet-translators can have a kind of collective presence

Lesley Saunders has published several books of poetry, and a new collection Nominy Dominy is due out from Two Rivers Press next year. She has won several awards for her poetry, including the inaugural Manchester Poetry Prize, the Stephen Spender Award for poetry in translation and The Poetry Business 2016/17 International Book & Pamphlet Competition; she is currently working on a book of translations of selected poems by the acclaimed Portuguese writer Maria Teresa Horta. Find our more about her work at www.lesleysaunders.org.uk

Theophilus Kwek (TK): Congratulations on winning the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation with your lovely translation of Poema by Maria Teresa Horta! In your commentary, you write about that striking central image of the poem—a ‘prowler-intruder’—which, as compared to Hughes’ ‘thought-fox’, is felt rather than seen. Did you face any challenges in rendering such a tactile ‘muse’ in a different language?

Lesley Saunders (LS): This is a really hard question! I’m very much guided, in my translation, by a text I’ve come across quite recently: James Underhill’s Voice and Versification in Translating Poems, which is wonderful – and which I first discovered by being asked to review it. I started reading the book more out of duty, then was completely captivated by how Underhill describes the difficult but not impossible challenge of translating poetry.

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In Conversation with Iranian-American poet and translator Kaveh Akbar

"How do you change everything about a poem and still preserve the essence of the thing?"

Kaveh Akbar is a recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. He was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida. His newest collection, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, is forthcoming from Alice James Books this fall. Earlier this year, Mr. Akbar was featured on PBS after tweeting poems from banned countries in response to President Trump’s infamous travel ban, and translated Negar Emrani’s poetry for Asymptote’s feature on banned countries in the Spring Issue. Claire Jacobson spoke to Mr. Akbar about the experience. 

Claire Jacobson (CJ): What are some of the limitations you found in translating between Farsi and English, in general or specific to poetry?

Kaveh Akbar (KA): I can speak to my own limitations as a translator—I don’t actually speak Farsi, not really, and so I rely on Negar’s patient explication of her own poems. She provides me with the trot, and then allows me to ask question after question after question about connotations and specific meanings and idioms. It’s a time-consuming process, but it’s necessary to ensure a kind of fidelity.

CJ: How does working with the author change the way you approach the process (as opposed to, say, translating someone who is no longer living)?

KA: Being able to work directly with Negar, who speaks English well enough to talk me through her poems and answer my questions, has been such a treasure. She signs off on the final drafts (and often rejects many earlier ones), which affords me a kind of confidence in the fidelity of the final translations. Besides that, she’s an absolutely original poetic mind, and being able to spend time talking with her and exploring the cosmology of her verse has taught me so much about poems in general.

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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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