Place: Chile

Highlights from the Asymptote Winter Issue

Our editors recommend their favorite pieces from the latest issue.

First off, we want to thank the five readers who heeded our appeal from our editor-in-chief and signed up to be sustaining members this past week. Welcome to the family, Justin Briggs, Gina Caputo, Monika Cassel, Michaela Jones, and Phillip Kim! For those who are still hesitating, take it from Lloyd Schwartz, who says, “Asymptote is one of the rare cultural enterprises that’s really worth supporting. It’s both a literary and a moral treasure.” If you’ve enjoyed our Winter 2017 issue, why not stand behind our mission by becoming a sustaining member today?

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One week after the launch of our massive Winter 2017 edition, we invited some section editors to talk up their favorite pieces:

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones on her favorite article:

My highlight from the Criticism section this January is Ottilie Mulzet’s review of Evelyn Dueck’s L’étranger intime, the work that gave us the title of this issue: ‘Intimate Strangers’. Mulzet translates from Hungarian and Mongolian, but (being prolifically multilingual) is also able to offer us a detailed, thoughtful, and well-informed review of a hefty work of French translation scholarship. Dueck’s book is a study of French translations of Paul Celan’s poetry from the 1970s to the present day (focussing on André du Bouchet, Michel Deguy, Marthine Broda, and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre) and is, in Mulzet’s estimation, ‘an indispensable map for the practice of the translator’s art’. One of this review’s many strengths is the way it positions Dueck’s book in relationship to its counterparts in Anglophone translation scholarship; another is its close reading of passages from individual poems in order to illustrate differences in approach among the translators; a third is the way Mulzet uses Dueck’s work as a springboard to do her own thinking about translational paratexts, and to offer potential areas for further research. The reviewer describes L’étranger intime as ‘stellar in every way’—the same might be said of the review, too.

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek, who stepped in to edit our Writers on Writers section for the current issue, had this to say: 

When asked to pick a highlight from this issue’s Writers on Writers feature, I was torn between Victoria Livingstone’s intimate exploration of Xánath Caraza’s fascinating oeuvre and Philip Holden’s searching essay on Singapore’s multilingual—even multivocal—literary history, but the latter finally won out for its sheer depth and detail. Moving from day-to-day encounters with language to literary landmarks of the page and stage, Holden surveys the city’s shifting tonalities with cinematic ease, achieving what he himself claims is impossible: representing a ‘polylingual lived reality’ to the unfamiliar reader. And as a Singaporean abroad myself, Holden’s conclusion sums it up perfectly: the piece is ‘a return to that language of the body, of the heart’.

Visual Editor Eva Heisler’s recommendation:

Indian artist Shilpa Gupta addresses issues of nationhood, cultural identity, diaspora, and globalization in complex inquiry-based and site-specific installations.  The experience of Gupta’s work is explored by Poorna Swami in her essay ‘Possessing Skies’, the title of which alludes to a work in which large LED light structures, installed across Bombay beaches, announce, in both English and Hindi, ‘I live under your sky too.’  Gupta’s work, Swami writes, ‘positions her spectator in an irresolvable conversation between the abstracted artwork and a tangible sense of the so-called real world, with all its ideologies, idiosyncrasies, and fragilities’.

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What’s New in Translation? January 2017

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books from Spanish, German, and Occitan.

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Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry, tr. by Paul Blackburn, edited and introduced by George Economou. New York Review Books.

Review: Nozomi Saito, Executive Assistant

Translated from the Occitan by Paul Blackburn, Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry is a remarkable collection of troubadour poetry, which had vast influence on major literary figures, including Dante and Ezra Pound. As poems of the twelfth century, the historic weight of troubadour poetry might intimidate some, but the lively language in Paul Blackburn’s translations is sure to shock and delight twenty-first century readers in the same way that these poems did for their contemporary audiences.

The context surrounding the original publication of Proensa in 1978 is nearly as interesting as the troubadour poems themselves. Although Proensa was in fact ready for publication in the late 1950s, lacking only an introduction, the collection was not published until seven years after Paul Blackburn’s death. The manuscript was then given to George Economou, who edited the collection and saw to its posthumous publication.

The circumstances of the publication of Proensa, of the pseudo-collaboration between a deceased translator and a living editor, are reminiscent of another publication that came out in 1916, Certain Noble Plays of Japan. This manuscript was a collection of Noh plays translated by Ernest Fenollosa, which Ezra Pound received after Fenollosa’s death.

Interestingly, it was Ezra Pound’s influence and the great importance he placed on the troubadours that ignited the fire of translation within Blackburn.  Pound, as Economou explains, “did more than any other twentieth-century poet to introduce the troubadours and their legacy to the English-speaking world”. Pound viewed the translation of the troubadours as an all-important task, and Paul Blackburn answered the call-to-action.

Six degrees of Ezra Pound. The coincidence (if it is one) begs the question of why Proensa is being reprinted now, thirty-nine years after its original publication, and one hundred years after the publication of Certain Noble Plays.

In the case of Certain Noble Plays, the significance of its publication was that Pound (as well as William Butler Yeats) felt that the Noh plays could revitalize Anglo-American poetry and drama in ways that suited modernist aesthetics. One might wonder if the same intention lies behind the reprinting of Proensa—if these troubadour poems are appearing again to twenty-first century readers to revitalize poetry and performance using literary forms from the past. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: A selection from Poems for Michael Jordan by Francisco Ide Wolletter

fate is the phenomenon of the ball passing through empty space to arrive at your empty hands

Awarded first place in the CNCAs Roberto Bolaño Prize for Young Literary Creation in the Poetry category, twenty-seven-year-old Francisco Ide Wolleter stands out from the latest generation of Chilean litterateurs. His “Poems for Michael Jordan” are miracles of observation, imbuing quotidian life with existential drama. You won’t ever watch basketball the same way again after this.

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 the ball’s porous plane

makes me think of human skin

 

a tactile nostalgia

though contact is always illusory

 

the facts are thus: we’re structured on emptiness

built of atoms,

atoms whose nature is to repel

and be repelled.

 

that’s why we don’t mix with things

that’s why when we touch

we haven’t really touched anything at all

 

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Translation Tuesday: Two Short Nonfiction Pieces by Roberto Merino

Waiting may be the most thoroughly human activity there is.

Described by Argentina’s Clarín newspaper as Chilean literature’s “best-kept secret,” Roberto Merino recently wrote evocatively about a childhood submerged in television for our Summer 2016 issue. Today we bring you two short nonfictions, about seasonal change, from the same pen.

Just Wait

I am waiting for something to change. While I wait, the days, weeks and seasons pass. Conversations from nearby buildings drift through my open window on summer evenings, snatches of song, appalled laughter. Hammers ring out in the afternoons. I get up very early each morning and before I know it I am taking taxis, making phone calls, setting my various affairs in motion.

The change I am waiting for will come from outside, and its causes will be revealed to me when whatever it is actually transpires. I am told that there can hardly be such a thing as chance, and that whatever happens to us is a consequence of our own doings: the law of karma, or of action and reaction. Gurdjieff says very much this: that what is happening to me now is the corollary of what I did yesterday, so today’s blunders will be sure to come back and weigh me down tomorrow or the day after.

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Albina and the Dog-Men

"I am a wound awaiting the gaze of another in order to heal. A frog who will never turn into a princess."

Like all Chileans, Crabby spoke in a singsong way, her voice vibrating in her nose. She laughed at everything, even celebrity deaths, and made cruel jokes. She drank red wine until she collapsed in snores, only to wake up barefoot because someone had stolen her shoes. She ate empanadas and sea urchin tongues in green sauce seasoned with fresh, extra-hot chili. Whenever the cops beat a “political agitator” to death, she turned a blind eye, pretending not to notice. Actually she wasn’t Chilean but Lithuanian.

She landed in Valparaíso when she was two, pulled along by her mother, a fat redhead who spoke only Yiddish, and her father a tall (almost seven-foot), skinny fellow as light on his feet as a bird. His profession was the most pedestrian imaginable: callus remover. Using prayer, he made the calluses on people’s feet fall off. Since his name was Abraham and his wife’s name was Sarah, he dreamed—for too many years—of having a son he could name Isaac, which in Hebrew means, “he laughs.” After anguished efforts, ten months of gestation, anemia, forceps, a cesarean, a strangling umbilical chord, Sarah finally gave birth to a daughter. Abraham stubbornly insisted on naming her Isaac, but very early in life, even before she began to walk, the girl would burst into an angry fit of wailing the instant she heard that persistent “Isaac.” Only a teaspoon of honey would calm her down.  READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Bin Bags” by Enrique Winter

No matter whether they were men or women, he had always liked the bad ones.

Every morning Brian is in the habit of washing his arsehole with balsam, the way Eugenio used to like it. The upstairs bathroom is also shared, but it’s kept clean enough, because of the big window and because he’s included in a rota that the girls on that floor had inherited from other girls. He lathers his legs, the hair’s growing back, and he asks himself how something so obvious—that if you love someone you never stop loving them, dead or alive—is mentioned neither by the people giving advice nor by those taking it. When you’ve loved someone, you’ll always love them. That’s all there is to it. He closes his eyes to rinse himself off. You can survive with that, with or without your loved ones. You don’t replace them, you add to them. He dries himself, some parts better shaven than others, and the towel keeps Eugenio at the forefront of his mind: once, Eugenio, wrapped in a towel, said he made people see what they didn’t know they didn’t want to see. Brian then demanded an explanation and Eugenio spoke at length while he got dressed about how he’d manage to provoke people who swore they were as liberal as can be.

Brian could spend a long time sitting with his eyes fixed on the back of Eugenio’s knees, while he stood cooking. They were always the beginning of something and Eugenio let him look—with one foot he could stroke his calf as though itching it, or straighten out his shorts with one hand without taking the other off the frying pan or plate or whatever it was. He would whistle or sing slowly, and Brian heard the tune as though it was coming directly from those knees, bending every now and again, hinting at the thighs beyond, which he wouldn’t see until later. But Brian would always touch them through Eugenio’s shorts without even getting up from the sofa they had in the kitchen. With just his nails or his fingertips, he’d trace the edges of his boxer shorts until he was told to stop. But that didn’t always happen, and sometimes the tap would be left running or the water would evaporate on the hob. When they’d finished fucking, Brian would become quite the chatterbox, and Eugenio would half listen from the kitchen, in his dressing gown. READ MORE…

In Review: “Sign Tongue” by Enrique Winter

Amy Rebecca Klein reviews David McLoghlin's translation: "to read Winter is to surrender to the flood of images we live in."

The title of Enrique Winter’s new chapbook, “Sign Tongue,” translated by David McLoghlin, poses a challenge for poetry: Can the flat mirror of language contain the fullness of the tongue, the way we taste and even kiss? Can we ever translate a single mother tongue into a form of collective experience when the real has no language at all, but has given rise to so many? Winter, who hails from Chile and has lived and studied in New York, and whose poems appear in “Sign Tongue” side-by-side in English and Spanish forms, understands that to name the world in only one language is to impose borders on his imagination.

Yes, if naming the world was the first thing Adam did, then it was also the task he could never do well enough—besides, of course, keeping Eve happy. How can one word—‘tongue’—mean both the cold and analytical and the warm and sensual? The sign, whether word or image, is always too simple to convey the thing we see.

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Close All Tabs But This One—Alejandro Zambra’s “My Documents” in Review

If you read the review all the way to the end, you'll win a prize (I'm serious). But I don't need to cajole you into finishing the book.

Alejandro Zambra deserves his very own sentence (so here it is).

I’ve come across far too many breathy, overeager reviews that are downright giddy to liken Zambra—Chilean writer, very of-the-moment—with someone entirely different. Predictably, Zambra’s equally hip literary/national compatriot Roberto Bolaño is at the tip of everyone’s tongue. And then there are other authors, nearly all of them translated—Karl Ove Knausgaard, Daniel Kehlmann, Elena Ferrante, Ben Lerner—who are inevitably mentioned in the same breathless swoop. It’s true that these writers are at-least-obliquely occupied with Zambra’s brand of hyper-real, genre-eliding, syntactically all-too-acute, auto-fictive and/or meta-fictive literary fiction, but there’s something decidedly pungent—and utterly unique—about Alejandro Zambra’s particular kind of fiction.

Did you count the hyphenations I needed to describe Zambra’s writing? There were eight of them. They’re intentional—as Zambra’s work, too, doubles, triples, even quadruples multiple intensities at once, though without the agglutinative slog that sentence carried (I am so sorry, dear reader). Zambra’s fiction occasions a rather hefty sleight of hand.

This is true, even with his latest publication—My Documents, translated by (Asymptote’s own former team member!) Megan McDowell and published by McSweeney’s this month. It’s his longest in English to date, and still a mere 240 pages long. I read it in a single sitting, but like I mentioned in this month’s What We’re Reading, I’ve kept chewing for weeks to follow.  READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Obituario (El estudiante)”

"His last words—how to explain without telling her the rest?—had not come out of his mouth."

When it was all over, the mother knocked on the door to my office. She sat down in the only chair that faced mine from the other side of the desk, in the same place where the student had been a few minutes before he fell to the floor. To mask my discomfort, I offered her a box of tissues and she wiped her eyes. I had been the last person to see him the way she would have wanted to remember him. Now it would be impossible after the legal process, the photos, the morgue, and the many stories in the newspapers. She told me about his last few months, avoiding all uncomfortable commentary. Suddenly she paused. She wanted to know what his last words had been. I inhaled deeply: his last words—how to explain without telling her the rest—had not come out of his mouth.

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Translation Tuesday: Dead Stars by Álvaro Bisama

"The past is that: a photo taken in a hotel we wish was our home—false photographs, proof of the life we never had."

Forthcoming from Ox and Pigeon Press is Megan McDowell’s English translation of Álvaro Bisama’s Dead Stars, which won the 2011 Santiago Municipal Prize for Literature and the 2011 Premio Academia, given out by the Chilean Academy of Language for the best book of 2010.

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Alejandro Zambra’s “The Novel I Lost”

The Chilean writer reflects on the film adaptation of his novel

Alejandro Zambra is a Chilean writer at the forefront of literature today. The appearance in 2006 of Bonsái, his first novel, was an event—“A bloodletting,” as Marcela Valdes called it. In 2007 he was one of the Hay Festival’s “39 under 39” list of the best young Latin American writers, and in 2010 he was featured in Granta’s Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists issue. He has written two more novels: La vida privada de los arboles (tr. The Private Lives of Trees, Open Letter), and Formas de volver a casa (tr. Ways of Going Home, FSG); his new collection of short stories, Mis documentos, will be out from Anagrama in early 2014.

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