Place: Czech Republic

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

A trip around the literary world, from USA to Latin America to the Czech Republic.

The weekend is upon us—here’s a detailed look at the week that was by our editors-at-large. In the United States, Madeline Jones reports directly from the trenches of the Book Expo in New York City. A gathering of publishers, booksellers, agents, librarians, and authors, the event is the largest of its kind in North America. We also have Sarah Moses filling us in with tidings from Colombia and Argentina, and updates on the Bogotá39, a group of thirty-nine Latin American writers considered to be the finest of their generation. Finally, Julia Sherwood brings us some hot off the press literary news from the Czech Republic. Settle in and get reading.

Madeline Jones, Editor-at-Large, reports from the United States:

Last week in New York City, Book Expo (formerly Book Expo America) set up shop at the famously-disliked Javits Center on western edge of Midtown Manhattan. Publishers, literary agencies, scouts, booksellers, and readers gathered for discussions about the future of publishing, meetings about foreign rights deals, publicity and media “speed-dating” sessions, and more. Authors and editors spoke about their latest books for audiences of industry insiders, and lines trailed from various publisher booths for galley signings.

Though the floor was noticeably quieter than previous years, and certainly nothing compared to the busy hub of foreign rights negotiations that the London and Frankfurt book fairs are, Asymptote readers will be pleased to hear that multiple panel discussions and presentations were dedicated to foreign publishers, the viability of selling translations in the U.S., and indie books (which more often tend to be translations than major trade publishers’ books). READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your one-stop spot for all you want to know about world literature

This week we bring you news from Spain, Slovakia, and Brazil. We will begin our journey with Editor-at-Large Carmen Morawski who captures the excitement leading up to the Madrid Book Fair. We will land next in Slovakia where Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood updates us about the buzz surrounding the country’s most prestigious literary prize, Anasoft Litera. We will finish our journey across the world in Brazil to read Maíra Mendes Galvão’s report of writers’ protests against the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. 

Carmen Morawski, Editor-at-Large from Spain, reports:

In its seventy-sixth year, the Madrid Book Fair (Feria del Libro de Madrid) has yet again marked the transition from spring to summer for Spanish book lovers. Taking place in the Buen Retiro Park in Madrid from May 26 to June 11, this year’s fair will open with a lecture by Eduardo Lourenco, the Portuguese essayist and philosopher, in the Pabellón Bankia de Actividades Culturales.

Although a detailed schedule for this year’s fair isn’t available yet, a glance through last year’s schedule should give Asymptote readers a flavor for the lectures, readings, and other events typical to the fair. Whether on the look out for children’s literature, YA or adult fiction, non-fiction reportage, essay collections, philosophy, specialty and minority literatures, visitors to the fair can browse a wide array of contemporary offerings from the Spanish publishing scene, take advantage of special discounts, and even meet a favorite author at one of the many book signing sessions. If you want to learn more about the  history of the fair and are interested in sampling previous years’ fairs, you may enjoy this brief video of the 2014 fair.

Asymptote readers interested in more historical literary fare might prefer to visit the Spanish National Library’s (Biblioteca Nacional de España) special exhibition, Scripta: Tesoros manuscritos de la Universidad de Salamanca. Intended to commemorate the 800-year anniversary of Alfonso IX’s order to create ‘Schools in Salamanca,’ that in turn led to the founding of the first universities in Europe, the exhibition showcases 23 pieces spanning the history of the manuscript in Europe, from medieval Visigoth codexes belonging from the eleventh and twelfth centuries through the sixteenth century. The exhibition is on loan from the University of Salamanca and is divided into four main sections. It includes a section devoted to Humanism and the Vulgate languages, thereby acknowledging the prominent role of romance languages derived from Latin as vehicles for literature and scientific works. The exhibition runs from May 4 to June 4.

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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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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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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your Friday update from Spain, Morocco, and Slovakia!

This week, we begin our world tour on the Iberian Peninsula in the midst of political unrest—Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James is on the ground in Spain with the full report. Then south to Morocco: we’ll catch up with Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman about the latest book fairs and literary trends. And finally, we’ll wrap up in Slovakia with Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood, who has the scoop on the latest Slovak poetry available to English readers and more.

Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James reports from Spain:

Political actions and gestures have been more overtly woven through the Spanish literary scene as writers seek to speak back against increasingly divisive governments. Writers called for remembrance of fifteen people killed in Tarajal on the two year anniversary of their deaths on February 6, 2014; a documentary about the tragedy was made to both inform the public and denounce such instances of institutional racism in the country.

Amidst celebrations of women’s roles in science, Bellver, the cultural journal of the Diario de Mallorca, highlighted three recent anthologies written by women: Poesía soy yo, 20 con 20,  and (Tras)lúcidas.

Another recent book has been getting a lot of attention not for its political weight, but because of the strange circumstances under which it’s being published. Michi Panero, who came from a very literary family but died young in 2004 has had his first book, Funerales vikingos, published by Bartelby Editores. La Movida madrileña called him the writer without books, as he had famously shunned the writing life. He wrote in secret, however, and eventually entrusted the work to his stepson, Javier Mendoza, who has finally sought to publish the unedited stories, together with his own work narrating his relationship with Panero. The product is bound to be an interesting read.

Similarly mysterious and posthumously discovered is a recent gift to the Madrid art world: drawings and sketches by the painter Francis Bacon that were previously unascertained. Bacon had also famously declared that he did not sketch or plan in this way, but some nearly 800 drawings were given to Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino, the journalist and a partner of Bacon’s for some years. The works will be on display in the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid until May 21.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary updates from the Czech Republic, Iran, and England

This Friday, we present three very distinct reports from the world of literature. Slovakian Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood looks back at what was a great year of Czech literature in translation and gives us a sneak peek at what to look forward to this year. Her Iranian colleague Poupeh Missaghi reports on language-related issues in a human rights Twitter campaign. And finally, the UK Editor-at-Large M. René Bradshaw tells us where to head for great readings in London this month and next.

Julia Sherwood, our Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, has good news from the publishing world:

Last year proved to be a big year for Czech literature in English translation, with no fewer than eighteen publications from eight different presses at the latest count. They include, to mention just a few, Worm-Eaten Time, poet Pavel Šrut’s elegy for his homeland after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, translated by Deborah Garfinkle, and symbolist poet Jaroslav Durych‘s (1886-1962) 1956 novella God’s Rainbow on the expulsion of the German-speaking population from Bohemia after World War II. First published in censored form in 1969, it is now available in full in David Short’s translation as part of Karolínum Press’s Modern Classics series, which also features Eva M. Kandler’s translation of the World War II literary horror The Cremator by Ladislav Fuks, a study of the totalitarian mindset that still resonates today (extract in BODY Literature), and served as the basis for one of the key films of the Czech new wave, directed by Juraj Herz.

Stoppard_and_Bajaja,_photo_by_Pavel_Stojar

On 30 November, a packed audience at the launch of Antonín Bajaja’s Burying the Season (also translated by David Short) at Waterstones Piccadilly in the heart of London included the playwright Tom Stoppard. Stoppard’s father came from the town of Zlín, the setting for this novel depicting the early years of communism in Czechoslovakia. Czech literature scholar Rajendra Chitnis introduces the book as part of an Istros Conversations podcast on Audioboom, while Michael Tate of Jantar Publishing discusses on Czech radio the challenges of bringing Central European literature to English readers.

World Literature Today picked Czech writer Magdaléna Platzová’s The Attempt as one of its Notable translations of 2016, characterizing it as “historical fiction at its best”. In an interview with the Czech cultural bi-weekly A2, the novel’s translator Alex Zucker points out that while more books by Czech authors are now being published than ever before, they don’t necessarily reach many more readers since—like translated literature in general—quite a few are brought out by small independent presses and are therefore not visible in major bookshops and rarely reviewed.

In 2017, we can look forward to Zucker’s translations of two the most acclaimed contemporary Czech writers: Jáchym Topol’s Angel Station is due from Dalkey Archive in May, and Petra Hůlová’s taboo-breaking Plastic Three Rooms will be brought out by Jantar Publishing. Budding UK translators keen to be part of this unprecedented boom in Czech literature in English can participate in the fourth annual international competition for young translators, who this year are asked to tackle an excerpt from Bianca Bellová’s The Lake by 31 March (see their call for submissions). Budding Czech-to-English translators can also dip into the treasure trove of tricky issues, complete with solutions generously shared by Melvyn Clarke, in his blog post Translating Hrdý Budžes.

Acclaimed writer Zuzana Brabcová, who sadly passed away in 2015, was posthumously awarded the Josef Škvorecký prize for her haunting last novel Voliéry [Aviaries]. And as the year drew to a close, scores of students and literature lovers mourned the loss of the legendary Fišer bookstore in Kaprova Street near Prague’s Old Town Square, which closed its doors after selling books since the 1930s.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Pakistan, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Argentina

The Asymptote world tour this time begins in Pakistan, with an update on the Punjabi literary scene from Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor. Then, we fly north, where Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large in Slovakia, shares the latest publications and literary events in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Our last stop takes us southwest to Argentina, where Assistant Editor Alexis Almeida talks poetry festivals, feminism, and politics. Welcome aboard, and enjoy the ride.

Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor, with news from Pakistan:

It’s been 250 years since one of the most famous renderings of the Punjabi tragic romance came into being—Heer by Waris Shah, which remains an influence on Punjabi literature and folk traditions. But Punjabi has suffered as a consequence of marginalization during the colonial rule (when Urdu was patronized) as well as the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan, when (Punjabi-speaking) Sikhs were forced to leave their homeland in Pakistani Punjab (while Urdu and Muslims were expunged from India).

Amidst a growing Punjabi literary movement to correct this historical wrong, Asymptote encountered a reading club in Lahore dedicated to and named after this legendary text—the Heer Study Circle.

Ghulam Ali Sher, co-founder of the group, shares its purpose with Asymptote: “to inculcate an interest for Punjabi reading among university youth; to do away with the religiously-oriented sufistic reading of such Punjabi folktales for a more pluralistic and people-oriented interpretation; and to trace the socio-economic patterns of pre-colonial Punjab through popular historical sources, like this folktale, against the biases of mainstream historiography.”

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What’s New in Translation? March 2016

So many new translations this month!—Here's what you've got to know, from Asymptote's own.

Michal Ajvaz, Empty Streets (Dalkey Archive). Translated by Andrew Oaklandreview by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Contributing Editor

Empty_Streets_AI_cover

Empty Streets, originally published in Czech in 2004, sets its writer-protagonist out on a search for a missing woman. However, in typical Ajvaz fashion, the quest begins as a search for a mysterious symbol. Early in the novel, the unnamed narrator stumbles, literally, on a double trident, a three-foot-long object that pierces his foot while he’s walking through a dump. This kicks off a sequence reminiscent of “This is the house that Jack built”: a double-trident logo appears a few days later when the narrator is using his friend’s computer; the friend tells the story of spotting the symbol in a mysterious painting; the owner of the painting, an elderly literary professor, tells him about the work of art and also adds a story about the disappearance of his daughter, whom he asks the narrator to find; the search takes him to the painter, who tells the narrator a story about . . . and so on, from one playful and inventive twist to the next, through 14 stories over the course of 470 pages.

In keeping with the novel’s sense of abundance, the prose brims with sensory experience in passages that translator Andrew Oakland renders with delicacy and precision. Notably, Oakland also leaves room for the narrator’s lack of precision, in instances like the “strange fragrance, one that is terribly difficult to describe” which he says has “several components including the scent of roses and the sharp smell of steel.” Similarly, when describing sound, the narrator says he “unpicked from the blocks of silence various rustlings, creakings, something somewhere knocking into something, something rolling around something and then stopping, something pointed that was scratching, something crumbling”—all noises that “might have been tiny sounds on the outer wall of a house, or a din softened by a great distance.”

But most pervasive are images of light and shadow, such as the observation of a sunset descending on the city, leaving only the upper-floor balconies in sunlight: “I had the feeling I was looking up at a distant shore from the bottom of a deep lake whose waters were crystal-clear.” READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from Radka Denemarková’s A Contribution to the History of Joy

“Call the police. This is what I want to say but words won't make it past my lips, my lips hurt, everything hurts, I’m all torn like an animal.”

We mark International Women’s Day with an extract from the latest novel by the award-winning Czech writer and Nobel laureate Herta Müller translator Radka Denemarková. Disguised as a crime mystery set in Prague and mixing fact and fiction, “A Contribution to the History of Joy” (Příspěvek k dějinám radosti, 2014) is a passionate indictment of all forms of violence against women everywhere, spanning the past 70 years of history. In the extract below Denemarková puts herself in the shoes of a victim of an infamous Manchester (north of England) gang that groomed vulnerable teenagers and forced them into prostitution.

***

Chandra Namaskar, the moon salutation. This isn’t like Honey’s birthday party. Then, our classmates had swarmed around her parents‘ house sipping drinks and strutted around screaming and shouting and dancing to booming music that made the walls shake.

Here, no noise passes through the walls, only silence. Cigarette smoke and still-glowing ashes in overflowing ashtrays swallow up any trace of noise. The windows aren’t blacked out. At the door to the flat, a boy collects my mobile. I’m not happy about that. I’ve been saving up for it for a long time. This is a compulsory admission ritual. It’s for your own good, the boy says, to make sure you don’t lose it, I’m kind of like a hotel safe here, he says with a reassuring wink. We’ve both been chosen.

I tread across the thick pile of Persian carpet. There are carpets everywhere. They spill across thresholds continually like a dense lawn, sticking out their tongues under my steps. I look forward to having my pictures taken by a professional photographer. That’s what Honey promised me.

The boy ushers me into a smoke-filled lounge. A man is snogging a girl on a sofa. They’re like a classical statue emerging from the mist. The girl might be about thirteen. As they peel away from each other, tiny stones in the girl’s braces sparkle like diamonds in her mouth. The man seems old to me. They glance at me. He looks me up and down, from head to toe. The girl‘s eyes connect with mine, her stare is swept clean and empty, I can read nothing from it, then they latch onto each other again. Two glass bowls of white powder sit on the coffee table before them. The smoke and nicotine mist make me nauseous but I don’t let on, I want to belong, I do belong, I’ve made it. After weeks of soundings and failed attempts I’ve finally done it. Curiosity is making my head spin. Honey is making my head spin. Here she comes. She gives me a welcoming hug. I giggle trying to boost my courage and get rid of my fear. Honey hugs me and charms me, saying how lovely I look, in my excitement all I manage is a stutter. She hands me a bottle of chilled vodka. It’s drunk straight from the bottle here. She swings her arm around me and summons the boy who collects and stores mobiles by the door. She is bossy with him, it’s obvious who’s in charge here. That’ll be all for today, she tells him. I can’t tell if she’s talking about girls or mobiles. The boy rolls me a joint. I take a puff and shake my head. I give him the spliff back. The boy passes the joint to Honey, who sticks it in the hand of the man glued to the lips of the girl with diamonds in her mouth.

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Translation Tuesday: “Breaking Through the Drum” by Bohumil Hrabal

"and everything suddenly seemed so bizarre I thought my ticket-taker’s demon must have come back to play with my mind."

I never felt better than when I was tearing the stubs off people’s tickets and showing them to their seats. In primary school, I loved to make seating plans for the teacher. Then during the war, a weird thing happened to me. A kind of ticket-taker’s demon lit on my back and right in the middle of the newsreel, when the voice announced that eighty-eight enemy aircrafts had been shot down over Dortmund and only one German plane had gone missing, the perverse little imp whispered something in my ear, and I said in a loud voice: “Aw shucks, it’s bound to turn up again.” My voice sounded like it belonged to somebody else, so I turned up the house lights and ordered the person who’d said it to come forward. The other ushers and I walked through the audience, but no one confessed and so, invoking our official powers—we actually had such powers—I declared that the entire program, including the feature film, was hereby cancelled, the tickets were null and void and, as punishment, everyone had to go home without a refund. READ MORE…

In Review: “Word by Word”

"Saroyan’s comparison of his grandmother’s mustache to Stalin’s had to be blacked out by the editor in the whole print run."

Czechoslovak history is closely connected to language and culture; it follows that translation, in particular, is a mighty revolutionary tool in times of oppression…

The twenty-seven interviews with the oldest generation of Czech translators collected in Word by Word (With Translators on Translating) reveal the personal histories of the people who, for more than half a century, were the arbiters of the literary masterworks available to thousands of Czech and Slovak readers.

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