Place: Morocco

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly ride around the literary universe!

This week we will bring you up to speed on what’s happening in Central America, Morocco, and Spain. José brings us the latest news from the world of independent bookstores and publishing houses that are a treat for bibliophiles in Central America. Layla too has updates about exciting literary festivals and meets in Spain which bring book lovers together. Jessie shares some sad news from Morocco which however, on an optimistic note, reminds us of the universal reach of literature. 

José García, a cultural journalist from Guatemala, covers Central America for us this week:

On June 20 in San José, Costa Rica, Uruk Editores released Bernabé Berrocal’s second novel Archosaurio (Archosaur). Fellow Costa Rican writers like Aquileo J. Echeverría Prize winner Warren Ulloa and philologist Manuela Álvarez Escobar have called Archosaurio disturbing and captivating.

In late 2016 los tres editores publishing house announced its creation in Costa Rica. On June 21 they revealed their first title, Vamos a tocar el agua (Let’s Go Touch the Water) by Luis Chaves, a celebrated author of eleven books, whose work has been translated into German and is considered one of the leading figures of contemporary in Costa Rican poetry. los tres editores is yet to announced the publication date of Chaves’s book.

Additionally, the renowned Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon and Guggenheim fellow—whose work has been translated into several language including English, French, and Italian—on June 22  presented his novels Pan y Cerveza (Bread and Beer) and Saturno (Saturn). These novels were originally published by Alfaguara in 2003 as a single book titled Esto no es una pipa, Saturno (This is not a pipe, Saturno), and are now separate, as the author originally intended them to be. Pan y Cerveza and Saturno were published thanks to the work of Guatemalan bookstore SOPHOS and Spanish publishing house Jekyll & Jill. Eduardo has also a new book entitled Duelo (Duel) coming out later this year.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Presenting literary news from Egypt, USA, Morocco, and Qatar!

We are back with your weekly dose of literary news from around the world. Our very own Jessie Stoolman takes you on a journey through the cultural landscape of Morocco and Qatar. Following, our editor-at-large on the ground Omar El Adl writes about the latest goings-on in Egypt, and last but not least, Reverie Powell brings you the latest from the buzzing literary scene in Texas.

Jessie Stoolman, Editor-at-Large from Morocco, reports from Morocco and Qatar:

The 21st Annual Salon International de Tanger des Livres et des Arts just wrapped up on May 7 after four days of roundtables, workshops, concerts (including the iconic Moroccan rock band, Hoba Hoba Spirit), and appearances from world-renowned authors like Mohamed Kacimi (featured in our latest issue), Sapho, and Tahar Ben Jelloun (Prix Goncourt winner).  In conjunction with the book fair, Darna Theater’s Dakirat al Mostakbal – Memoires d’Avenir presented “Nous Sommes”, a piece outlining the lives of two young Moroccans that asks “[s]ommes-nous condamnés à n’être que ce que l’on nous sommes d’être?” Darna Theater is a local non-profit situated outside Tangier’s old city that provides community members opportunities in drama education. “Nous Sommes” was presented in both French and Darija (Moroccan Arabic.)

Don’t fret if you weren’t able to attend the book fair because there is still a chance to see Abdellah Taïa at the Librairie des Colonnes in Tangier on May 9, where he will present a brand-new translation of his novel, Un pays pour mourir, into Arabic (بلد للموت).  At the book fair, Taïa gave a conference about his writing and the difficulties facing society today which was structured as a conversation between him and young Tangerines. Taïa’s letter “Homosexuality Explained to My Mother” and an interview with the author appeared in Asymptote’s July 2012 issue.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2017

Insights from the experts on the Spring 2017 Issue of Asymptote

Looking for new entry points into the latest issue of the journal? The section editors of this behemoth cash of international literature, out just last week, are here to guide you!  

In this spring issue, the drama section features two complementary pieces—one from Catalonia and the other from Poland. Both portray hellish, nightmarish worlds in a distinct, unique theatrical manner. Grzegorz Wroblewski’s The New Colony in translation by Agnieska Pokojska depicts a claustrophobic asylum where patients/citizens live out their days in a state of restless, mocking unease. Wroblewski’s text is typical of what has been deemed “post-dramatic” theatre (in Hans Lehmann’s terms). It is an open text which offers its audience an intentionally disorientating roadmap to a contemporary world that is fractured and broken, where individuals seek wholeness despite all signs that such a search is hopeless.

Written as a proto-feminist cabaret, Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaret in translation by Phyllis Zatlin, looks at an elemental Eve, channeling visions of historical female icons throughout history. Is guilt a woman? To whom will society place its blame in times of war? Helen of Troy? Other alluring, bewitching sirens up to no good? Escudé i Gallès teases and cajoles her audience in a piece that through anarchic humor questions the roles we all play to claim concepts of territory, identity, and ownership. Both Wroblewski and Escudé I Gallès are from the same generation, even though they represent different cultures and sensibilities as dramatists. It’s fascinating to see two skilled and provocative playwrights, in fine translations, address states of fear and anxiety all too prevalent in the modern world.

—Drama Editor Caridad Svich

Among three exceptional essays—including one that introduces readers to the brilliant but tortured Swiss writer, Hermann Burger, and another that briefly loiters at the fork in Iran’s contemporary literary scene—I found myself particularly drawn to Noh Anothai‘s generous and intimate reflections on a world turned akimbo, seen through the eyes of Thai poet, Saksiri Meesomsueb. As we follow Anothai through the pages of Meesomsueb’s award-winning collection, That Hand is White, and from north Bangkok to Chicago and back, I’m reminded once more of literature’s gift in transgressing borders, its necessary lucidity, kindness, and prescience; and consequently, its call for response. Only with clean hands can we clean the world, Meesomsueb tells us. Dear Reader, what will you do next?

—Writers on Writers Editor Ah-reum Han

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest news from our word-nerds in Finland, Cuba, and Morocco!

Contributor Hanna Heiskanen checks in from Finland:

Over in Finland, several prominent authors have expressed their concern for the writing skills of today’s young people. What began as a Facebook post by Anja Snellman, who has written more than 20 novels and is a recipient the Pro Finlandia Medal, on the quality of the letters she receives from school children around the country, has since been echoed by Salla Simukka and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, authors of the Snow White Trilogy (Hot Key Books/Amazon Children’s Publishing) and The Rabbit Back Literature Society (Pushkin Press/Thomas Dunne), respectively. Children and teenagers appear to struggle with understanding metaphor and long sentences, and are increasingly unable to write in literary, rather than spoken, language, the authors said. Reading is still generally held in high regard in the country, with 50 million books borrowed from libraries by the 5 million strong population in 2014, though these figures have been in decline.

The national broadcaster YLE shines a light on Elina Ahlbäck, the founder and director of the Elina Ahlback Literary Agency. The eight-year-old agency is behind the string of success stories of the aforementioned Salla Simukka who, like Maria Turtschaninoff, also represented by Ahlbäck, signed a Hollywood film deal some months back. Other good news for the agency is the recent nomination of Laura Lindstedt’s Oneiron for the Nordic Council’s 2017 literature prize, the winner of which will be announced in November. Finnish literature in translation is having a moment, according to Ahlbäck: “Finland is an undiscovered treasure trove, and a source of unique stories and storytelling,” she says in the article. The country still lags behind its western neighbour, however, when it comes to marketing efforts: more than 30 agencies work to export Swedish literature, now a familiar sight on global bestseller lists.

The literature festival Helsinki Lit has published its schedule for this year. The event, May 12-13, will feature discussions with the likes of Orhan Pamuk, Linda Boström Knausgård, and Laurent Binet.

And to wrap up on a more unusual note, a Danish crime literature festival has gained nationwide interest for an advertising campaign gone awry. The Krimimessen festival, the largest of its kind in the Nordic countries and organised earlier this month, was advertised by staging fake crime scenes using fake human bodies. After, naturally, distressed reactions from the general public, the campaign was promptly terminated. “I am horribly sorry”, said the organising town’s Mayor, according to the Copenhagen Post Online.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest from Iran, the United States, and Morocco!

Ready for your Friday World Tour? We touch down in Iran just in time for the New Year celebrations—for which thousands of books are exchanged! Then off to the States, where writers of all backgrounds are reacting to the political tumult of the times. Finally in Morocco, we’ll catch the National Conference on the Arabic Language. Let’s get going!

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large for Iran, updates on the New Year celebrations:

The Persian year of 1395 (SH for solar Hijri calendar) will come to an end and give way to the year 1396 on Monday March 21st, the day of the spring equinox, at exactly 13:58:40 Iran’s local time. The arrival of the New Year and spring is celebrated with various Nowruz (literally meaning “new day”) traditions such as haft sin, the special table spreading that consists of seven different items all starting with the Persian letter س [sin or the “s” letter], each symbolizing one thing or another. The International Nowruz Day was inscribed on the list of UN’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

To welcome the New Year, the Iranian literary community, like the previous year, has set up a campaign entitled Eydane ye Ketab [Nowruz gifts of book]. It began on March 5th and will run for a month, aiming to promote buying books as eydi (gifts for the Persian New Year) for friends and family instead of offering money or other gifts, or even as replacements for the calendars that companies widely give out as promotional year-end gifts. More than four thousand publishers around the country are part of this campaign and offer more than one million titles with special prices. In the first seven days of the campaign, more than 190,000 books were sold.

Some of the translation titles on the bestsellers list of the Eydane, have included: The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi by Elif Şafak; Me Before You by Jojo Moyes; A Fraction of a Whole by Steve Totlz; After You by Jojo Moyes; Asshole No More, The Original Self-Help Guide for Recovering Assholes and Their Victims by Xavier Crement; The 52-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton; One Plus One by Jojo Moyes; and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

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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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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

Updates from Spain, Morocco, and the United States, from the Asymptote team

This week, we visit Morocco with new Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman, who tells us about a new play based on a classic novel. Then in Spain, we have a publishing update with Editor-at-Large Carmen Morawski, and onto the United States, we strap in for today’s Presidential Inauguration and writers’ reactions to the historic event. 

Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman reports from Morocco:

A theatrical interpretation of Mohammed Khair Ed-dine’s novel Le Déterreur [نباش القبور], adapted by Cédric Gourmelon and starring Ghassan El-Hakim, is currently on tour in Morocco, with the next performance set to take place on January 21 at the House of Culture [دار الثقابة] in Tetouan.  In the novel, a man from southern Morocco shares his countercurrent perspectives on living in a marginalized community inside a wider, fractured, postcolonial space as he recounts his life story.

Winner of numerous literary awards, including Jean Cocteau’s Les infants terribles literary prize for his novel Agadir, Khair Ed-dine (or “The Blue Bird,” as he is sometimes called) mainly wrote poetry and novels in French. He is credited with establishing a new style of writing, what he coined guérilla linguistique, that resists, in both form and content, linguistic or societal domination. Considering his prolific contributions to the genre of revolutionary writing, it is unsurprising that Khair Ed-dine is commonly grouped among renowned, twentieth century North African authors writing in French, such as Assia Djebar, Yacine Kateb, Abdellatif Laabi, Driss Chraibi, and Tahar Ben Jelloun.

Some of Khair Ed-dine’s work has been translated into German and English. For more about the German translation of his posthumously published novel Once Upon a Time There Was a Happy Couple (Es war einmal ein glückliches Paar), Qantara.de published this article, which includes a summary of the book with excerpts and information about the writer.  Similarly, to read a sample of Khair-Eddine’s poetry translated into English, see this piece from Jadaliyya, that includes four poems from his collection Ce Maroc!

In other literary news, only a few more weeks until Morocco’s largest book fair will be back!  The 23rd edition of the International Book Fair in Casablanca will open on February 9.

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Monthly Update from the Asymptote Team

New year, same busy Asymptote members! Check out what we've been up to, from the page to the stage.

Poetry Editor Aditi Machado‘s translation project, ‘Sentences / Sententiae’, has been published in its current form in the latest issue of Almost Island. Her work also appears in Folder Magazine‘s latest print collection, and you can read a section of her recently-published translation of Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia in The Guardian. 

‘After Orlando’, a theatre action piece co-led by Drama Editor Caridad Svich, was performed in New York and London, and featured in Exeunt Magazine. Her review of Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field: Changing Theatre in a Changing World, was also published in the Contemporary Theatre Review. 

India Editor-at-Large, Poorna Swami, has a poem in the third issue of Prelude Magazine. Her interview with art critic and photographer Sadanand Menon on ‘Nationalism and Dance’ has also been featured in Ligament. 

A new short story by English Social Media Manager Sohini Basak has been published in the latest issue of Out of Print, and another was published earlier in December in 3:AM Magazine. 

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek‘s New Year’s Eve round-up on ‘2016: A Year in Translation’ was published in The Oxford Culture Review. He also has a new poem in the current issue of The London Magazine. 

Indonesia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao appeared on a segment of ABC iview’s ‘Bookish’ programme to discuss the question, “What is ‘Asian’ Literature?” Her novel, The Oddfits, appears on 2016’s ‘Top 5’ list of Superhero Novels 

Chile Editor-at-Large, Tomás Cohen, helped to present ‘Hafen Lesung #9‘, a multilingual literary evening in Hamburg. His poem, ‘Andarivel’ (from his collection, Redoble del ronroneo), was featured on Vallejo and Co., while a Greek translation of the same poem was also published this month in Vakxicon. 

Finally, if you missed it in December, check out Asymptote‘s lovely feature in The Hindu, and read the full version of our Editor-in-Chief Lee Yew Leong’s interview on our blog!

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from Prosopopoeia by Farid Tali

That autumn I believed in God for three months while the metro trains screeched along, especially where there were bends.

Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia is a hybrid novella—a work of postmodern elegy that narrates the death of a young man from AIDS. We are told this story by the deceased man’s brother, who is at times tormented and mournful, at times disengaged from his French-Moroccan family’s forms of grieving. With “cold curiosity” he even describes the decomposition of his brother’s corpse in dense, poetic language. In the excerpt included here, the narrator reveals his conflicted feelings about religion even as the power and beauty of the Quranic verses sustain him, give him—in the midst of this death song—life.

Forty days would have passed between the first ceremony and the last: there was a time, a dead time that followed the death of the body, which was calm, having been abandoned by pain and now engulfed by two long songs which got mixed up. It was neither a period nor a duration, just a time, sensed too early and known too late. It’s to keep company with the deceased, someone said, so that he knows where he’s going, that he won’t be alone there. His room had been emptied of all furniture; it was also the room in which I slept. I was crouched in a corner: old, Arab men with receptive palms were sitting in an almost perfect circle in which each one in his place rhymed with another. And those soft, rhyming words, whose meaning I could not understand, seemed to be coming out of their palms. I knew they were from the Quran, that it was music, I recognized its rhythm. I breathed in the syllables, they cure tuberculosis. I hung on to each successive rhyme, each time it was the same. I puffed out my chest at the beginning of every verse, it was like nectar for my lungs. The words came loose as though liquid and, flowing in a single gush, came to rest on my lips as at the source of a garden as old as several years of drought. The words came but in written form only, dressed in strength and glory, borne in those sacred characters that symbolized for me the essence of the divine. They had neither body nor flesh but were men. They came from the bottom of the throat—from the base of the larynx, to be more precise. From the voices of those one seldom hears, beyond the commonness of the everyday, composed of a balance between breath and sculpted air. They possessed nothing more than the appeal of written things and they were no less beautiful for it. I thought this as I listened, and I listened. It might have been God or madness or love, but so what. Certainly I was wrong to think that to love this singing as I did meant I believed in God, that there could be no beauty in a moment such as this without it having been dictated by him. I didn’t think I could be this deluded, that I could be so unhappy as to confuse pleasure with faith. I saw truth where there was none, as is the case often.

That autumn I believed in God for three months while the metro trains screeched along, especially where there were bends. I believed because I was reading the Quran (and I was haunted by the idea that my hands were too dirty to touch it, that for every page I turned I needed water—or sand, as I’d heard it said of those primitives, Muslims of the desert, who in the absence of water were permitted, by way of ablution, to rub their bodies and hands with a stone or with sand) and because it made me fear God.

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In Review: The Tongue of Adam by Abdelfattah Kilito

All languages had the same value . . . The plurality of tongues was synonymous with cohesion—diversity with unity.

In the afterword to the book, Abdelfattah Kilito, a Moroccan writer who writes in both French and Arabic, speaks about his obsession with “the fact of language”. And this obsession is exactly what we get a great introduction to in his intriguing new book of essays, The Tongue of Adam (New Directions, 2016, tr. Robyn Creswell).

The book is divided into several chapters: “Babblings,” “Babels,” “A Babelian Eden,” “The Oldest Poem in the World,” “Poet or Prophet?” “The Oblivion of Adam,” “Poetic Destiny,” and the afterword entitled “That’s . . . nice.” In these chapters, he takes us on an exploration into our origins of language, multilingualism, poetry, history, religion, myth, translation, and much more, consulting ancient Arabic sources throughout.

In “Babblings”, Kilito writes, “No one bothers to ask about the tongue of Adam anymore. It’s a naïve question, vaguely embarrassing and irksome, like questions posed by children, which can only be answered rather stupidly. But for the ancients this question was serious and consequential. To answer it meant to take a stand”.  So that is where he begins: he asks about the tongue (the language and the organ) and discusses what the ancients thought about the original human language, approaching these questions with an attitude that is serious and playful at the same time.

The inquiry into humanity’s original language, Kilito informs us, can arise only “when multiple languages are found in a state of competition or rivalry. Every inquiry into the tongue of Adam hopes to uncover a beginning”—to identify the one and only language of origin—but such inquiries also point toward the one who asks the question: Why does my language differ from that of others? How can we explain the plurality of languages?” These are post-Babelian inquiries, implying a rupture between communities.

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Asymptote Podcast: Multilingual Writing

A new installment goes live!

In this episode, we crack a window into the creative impulses behind the multilingual writing in our Summer issue. There, Spanish and German, French and Arabic, Romanian, Sanskrit and Afrikaans all find their way woven in with English in poems and a story you don’t want to miss. Here, in this latest installment of the podcast, Omar Berrada and Klara du Plessis allow us a deeper understanding of how their linguistic backgrounds and travels shaped their current writing; while Greg Nissan uncovers other origins for his multilingual creations. So how does a translator go about translating a text already leaping across languages? And what does it take to write in the multilingual mode; does it create its own form, its own genre? What makes a writer feel driven and compelled to step outside the bounds of one language without leaving it entirely? To help us continue down this rabbit hole, Asymptote editor-at-large for Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO (Chris Tănăsescu), uncovers more about his process of translating Șerban Foarță’s poem “Buttérflyçion” for the Summer issue. We’ll explore radical nomadism, emotional chunks of language and more. This is the Asymptote podcast.

Podcast Editor and Host: Layla Benitez-James

Audio Editor: Mirza Puric

 

In Conversation with Lulu Norman and Ros Schwartz

Our editor-in-chief talks with the co-translators of Tahar Ben Jelloun's About My Mother

Lee Yew Leong: First of all, how would you classify this new book from Tahar Ben Jelloun? The story opens with an autobiographical narrator (Ben Jelloun himself) talking about his ailing mother, but then changes mode with italicized passages, where we get stories about his mother’s past recreated from her perspective.

Ros Schwartz: Do we have to classify it? I think there’s a problem with trying to categorize books by non-Western writers which often don’t follow a linear narrative arc according to traditional European classifications. I appreciate that doing so makes life easier for publishersand is essential when entering books for prizes and applying for subsidiesand for booksellers, but my experience of translating Francophone writers such as Ben Jelloun and Dominique Eddé (Lebanese author who writes in French) is that their books defy categorisation. So while this book is strongly autobiographical, recounting the demise of Ben Jelloun’s mother, it also has a strong fictional element where he imagines what might be going on in his mother’s Alzheimer’s-raddled mind.

Lulu Norman: Yes and also into the past, when he imagines her life as a girl and what it must have been like for her in the Fez of the 1940s; there’s a more obviously ‘fictional’ feel in those passages. The narrator, who is called Tahar, pieces together the story of her life, constructing a narrative out of what he knows and what he imagines. Ben Jelloun calls the book a novel, in order I suppose to give himself the fullest leeway and perhaps avoid any ruction in life, since everyone’s memory is so subjective.

LYL: Could you share with our readers what went on behind the scenes of this project? How both of you got attached to this translation, for example? How did English PEN play a part in the materialization of the book, and how long did you take to complete the manuscript?

RS
: This project is very dear to my heart. I’ve wanted to translate Ben Jelloun ever since I read L’enfant de sable in 1985. A couple of years ago I’d just finished translating Escape by Dominique Manotti for Gary Pulsifer at Arcadia and he mentioned that he’d just acquired Sur ma mère. Gary, this one’s for me, please. It’s funny because as a translator you can get typecast. Gary had me down as doing crime fiction. Anyway, he immediately said yes, and wrote to Tahar to make sure he was OK with my doing the translation. In the meantime, there was a radical change of management and direction at Arcadia, and the project was dropped. I was devastated and wrote to Anne-Solange Noble, rights director at Gallimard, to ask if I could seek another publisher. I took the book to Lynn Gaspard at Saqi who snapped it up. Sadly Gary passed away before the book was published, which is why we have dedicated our translation to him. READ MORE…