Place: USA

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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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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“Old Seams of the Ancient World”: Reading Patrick Chamoiseau’s Manifesto Against Borders

“The dream and the political vision must arise, and that is when the poetic word is as fundamental as that of experts or economists.”

In our Spring Issue this year, we ran a special feature covering literature from countries affected by President Trump’s infamous “Muslim Ban.” This was in recognition that literature is reflective of political conditions and that it is a powerful form of protest against oppression. In today’s piece, Fiona Le Brun looks at the manifesto against the Muslim Ban penned by Patrick Chamoiseau, a Prix Goncourt recipient and notable figure in Créolité literature. As France emerges from a divisive election against the backdrop of the unprecedented European refugee crisis, reading Chamoiseau reminds us that literature enables us to conceptualize cultural openness. 

This February, Martiniquais author Patrick Chamoiseau, whose previous works include the Goncourt-winning novel Texaco (1992. Translated into English by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997),  launched a call for solidarity with migrants of the world. Not only was this call a reaction to President Trump’s executive order blocking citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, but also a reaction against Europe’s palpable fear revealed by Brexit and the several manifestations of the rejection of migrants.

A couple of months later in May 2017—between the two rounds of the closely watched French presidential election—his essay Frères migrants: Contre la barbarie (Migrant Brothers: Against Barbarism) was released. This invitation to resist intolerance, racism, and indifference is concluded by his manifesto, Les Poètes déclarent (Declaration of Poets).

Today Chamoiseau’s manifesto is more relevant than ever, for both the United States and France. While the French are rejoicing in the victory of the youthful, moderate and well-read Emmanuel Macron over the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, the latter still gathered over 10 million votes, mostly motivated by immigration topics. This temporary relief must not have us overlook the fact that France, whose leaders never miss an opportunity to cast the country as the nation of human rights, has welcomed only a little over 25,000 refugees last year, far less than Germany or Sweden over the same period of time. The results of this election sure bring a glimmer of hope, as the winning candidate seems interested in real change and wants to work hand in hand with fellow EU countries. He also appears to be ready to wipe the dust off our old colonial shelves: back in February, while on a trip to Algeria, Macron called France’s colonial past a “crime against humanity,” and stood firm in the face of attacks by right-wingers. But his task remains difficult. He still has to convince millions of French citizens to support his agenda. The upcoming parliamentary elections will be decisive for Macron’s mandate in a very divided country, as well as for the uncertain future of the EU.

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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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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Today we delve into the literary goings-on in USA, UK and Singapore

New week, new happenings in the world of literature. President Trump continues to make headlines (read our Spring Issue for an exploration of literature in the Trump era). Madeline Jone, Editor-at-Large for USA reports how it has affected the publishing industry. Across the Atlantic, Cassie Lawrence, Executive Assistant at Asymptote, relays heartening news about women in publishing and the buzz of literary festivals in London this weekend. Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek reports how Singapore’s novelists are fighting back, and more.  

Editor-at-Large Madeline Jones gives us the round-up from USA:

US media narratives have been deluged with news of presidential catastrophes. No surprise, then, that this is reflecting in the publishing world, from book publishers struggling to understand how to talk about Trump to children, to books about the electoral process. With timing that seems ominous, in the light of the very popular TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the book has edged its way between a Danielle Steel and a James Patterson on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Another notable that has been on the list is Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

Speaking of which, the annual Book Expo America, popularly known as the BEA, is scheduled from May 31 to June 2, and Hillary Clinton is one of its top draws this year. A gathering of publishers, booksellers, agents, librarians, and authors in New York City, the Book Expo is the biggest event of its kind in North America.

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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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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

From launching journals to winning literary prizes, our team has had a wonderful month!

Incoming Communications Manager Alexander Dickow has recently received tenure from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech. He currently serves as Assistant Professor of French.

Spanish Social Media Manager Arthur Dixon has launched the second issue of Latin American Literature Today, a new journal where he serves as Managing Editor and Translator.

Drama Editor Caridad Svich has been named one of 2017’s O’Neill Finalists at the National Playwrights Conference for her play, Town Hall.

Romania and Moldova Editor-at-Large Chris Tanasescu (MARGENTO) has launched a book titled poetryartexchange, co-authored with 8 other British and Romanian poets and artists, at the Birmingham Literary Festival. The project is a collaboration between University of Bucharest Press and Centrala, and will see more events in London and Birmingham in May through early June.

Contributing Editor Ellen Elias-Bursac will speak alongside poets Athena Farrokhzad and Noemi Jaffe, and fellow translators Jennifer Hayashida and Julia Sanches, on a panel entitled ‘Corrosive Power’ at PEN America’s World Voices Festival.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Tibet, North America, and South Africa.

Friday, as you well know, is world literature news day here at Asymptote. This week, we delve into news from three continents. In Asia, Social Media Manager Sohini Basak has been following the Tibetan literary discussion, while in North America, Blog Editor Nina Sparling is keeping a close eye on post-election developments. Finally, we go to South Africa where Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs has plenty of awards news. 

Social Media Manager Sohini Basak sends us this fascinating report on the Tibetan literary scene:

Some very interesting work on Tibetan literature is in the pipelines, as we found out from writer and researcher Shelly Bhoil Sood. Sood is co-editing two anthologies of academic essays (forthcoming from Lexington Books in 2018) on Tibetan narratives in exile with Enrique Galvan Alvarez. These books will offer a comprehensive study of different cultural and socio-political narratives crafted by the Tibetan diaspora since the 1950s, and will cover the literary works of writers such as Jamyang Norbu, Tsewang Pemba, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Tenzin Tsundue as well as look at the cinematographic image of Tibet in the West and the music and dance of exile Tibet.

Speaking to Asymptote, Shelly expressed concern for indigenous Tibetan languages: ‘It is unfortunate that the condition of exile for Tibetans, while enabling secular education in English and Hindi, has been detrimental to the Tibetan language literacy among them.’ She also pointed towards important work being done by young translators of Tibetans like Tenzin Dickie and Riga Shakya and UK-based Dechen Pemba, who is dedicated to making available in English several resistance and banned writings from Tibet, including the blog posts of the Sinophone Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser (who is prohibited from travelling outside Tibet), on highpeakspureearth.com.

At Himal magazine, which Asymptote reported in an earlier column will suspend operations from November due to “non-cooperation of regulatory state agencies in Nepal”, writer and scholar Bhuchung D Sonam has pointed to another facet of Tibetan literature, in what could be one of the last issues of the magazine. In his essay, Sonam looks at the trend in Tibetan fiction to often use religion and religious metaphors as somewhat formulaic devices which ‘leaves little space for exploration and intellectual manoeuvring’. He sees this trend being adopted by several writers as a challenge to locate themselves ‘between the need to earn his bread and desire to write without fear, and between the need to tell a story and an urge to be vocal about political issues and faithful to religious beliefs.’ READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Amigos Mexicanos” by Juan Villoro

I was afraid he was going to ask me to give him back the money (...) I told him I was busy because a witch had put the evil eye on me.

1. Katzenberg

The phone rang twenty times. The caller must have been thinking that I live in a villa where it takes forever to get from the stables to the phone, or that there’s no such thing as cordless phones here, or that I experience fits of mystic uncertainty and have a hard time deciding to pick up the receiver. That last one was true, I’m sorry to say.

It was Samuel Katzenberg. He had come back to Mexico to do a story on violence. Last visit, he’d been traveling on The New Yorker’s dime. Now he was working for Point Blank, one of those publications that perfume their ads and print how-to’s on being a man of the world. It took him two minutes to tell me the move was an improvement.

“In Spanish, point blank is ‘a quemarropa.’” Katzenberg hadn’t grown tired of showing off how well he spoke the language. “The magazine doesn’t just publish fluff pieces; my editor looks for serious stories. She’s a very cool mujer, a one-woman fiesta. Mexico is magical, but confusing. I need your help to figure out which parts are horrible and which parts are Buñuel-esque.” He tongued the ñ as if he were sucking on a silver bullet and offered me a thousand dollars.

Then I explained why I was offended.

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“The Illustrated Woman” by Guillermo Rosales Translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner

Taking license with Ray Bradbury

If you ever pass through Citrus Park, I recommend that you not enter Miss Roberta Donovan’s bar. Keep going, at full speed, and try not to listen to the siren’s song of the women tattooed on that enormous madam. I had the bad luck of stopping in Citrus because my car broke down there. The radiator, the spark plugs, who knows what went wrong with my old ’69 Mazda. Today it’s gone forever in the sands of that ghost town.

Because, gentlemen, Citrus Park is a ghostly town. There are no garages, no markets, no pharmacies, no cafés: nothing. One glance is enough to understand that it’s completely uninhabited, perhaps due to those hurricanes in the early part of the century that beat the Florida coast with unusual fury. The houses are in ruins, the streets are made of white sand, and millions of gi­ant red ants crawl over everything in search of scarce shrubs found around the periphery. They’re enormous ants, perhaps the world’s largest, and they attack humans, leaving enormous terribly itchy welts. READ MORE…