Posts filed under 'criticism'

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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The Tiff: How Should We Review Translations?

Sue Burke and Maia Evrona on the ideal review for a translation—and the tendency to forget the translator entirely.

Sue Burke: The book review said that Angelica Gorodischer “writes poetic, vigorous prose.” Yes, she does. And she doesn’t – that is, I wrote the poetic, vigorous prose.

I’m the translator for Gorodischer’s novel Prodigies, published this year by Small Beer Press. The review was in Kirkus. At least it listed me as the translator and it was favorable, even if it wasn’t ideal.

What would be an ideal review for a translation? While any book review has to cover a lot of ground, at some point I think it ought to explicitly acknowledge that the work being reviewed is a translation and mention its apparent approach, since a translation in some way rewrites the original. If possible, it might compare a passage of the original to the translation and note whether the translation wrestles successfully (or not) with linguistic and cultural challenges, captures its literary quality like elegance or immediacy or wit, and accurately conveys both the meaning and subtext.

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What’s New in Translation? October 2015

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

Eugene Vodolazkin, Laurus (Oneworld Publishers, October 2015). Translated by Lisa C. Haydenreview by Beau Lowenstern, Editor-at-Large Australia

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Laurus, the second novel by Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin (after Solovyov and Larionov, due to appear in English in 2016), is in one breath, a timeless epic, trekking the well-trodden fields of faith, love, and the infinite depth of loss and search for meaning. In another, it is pointed, touching, and at times humorous, unpredictably straying from the path and leading readers along a wild chase through time, language, and medieval Europe. Winner of both the National Big Book Prize (Russia) and the Yasnaya Polyana Award, Vodolazkin’s experimental style envelopes the reader, drawing them into a world far from their own, yet indescribably intimate.

Spanning late fifteenth-century Russia to early twentieth-century Italy, the novel recounts the multiple lives (or stages of life) of a saint and the story of his becoming. Born Arseny in 1440, he is raised by his grandfather after his parents die from the plague that torments much of Russia and Europe. Recognising the boy’s gift for healing, his grandfather instills in him knowledge of healing and herbalism. Arseny aids the pestilence-stricken villagers, yet his powers of healing are overshadowed by his helplessness in preventing his grandfather’s death, as well as the passing of his beloved Ustina. Abandoning his village, past and namesake, Arseny begins a voyage that will transcend country and identity. Kaleidoscopic in his language and reach, Vodolazkin takes us on a journey of discovery and absolution, threaded together through the various, often mystical lives of Arseny as a healer, husband, holy fool, pilgrim and hermit. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation? September 2015

So many translations hit the shelves this month—here's what you need to know, from Asymptote's own.

Mercè Rodoreda, Death in Spring (Open Letter, September 2015). Tr. from the Catalan by Martha Tennant—Review by Ellen Jones, Criticism Editor

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Martha Tennant’s translation of Death in Spring, the (posthumously published) final novel by Mercè Rodoreda, is republished in paperback this month by Open Letter, having been long out of print. Written while in exile from Franco’s Spain during the Civil War, the novel is considered Rodoreda’s most accomplished work, and can be read as an allegory of a repressive regime.

Told through the eyes of a nameless boy who seems perpetually on the cusp of manhood, the novel recounts the cruel, bewildering traditions of a village community constantly under threat of being washed away by the river that runs underneath it. The villagers’ brutalism is bizarre and often casual—they pour cement down people’s throats as they lie dying to prevent their souls from escaping, then bury them in hollowed out trees. A thief is imprisoned in a tiny cage until he begins to behave like an animal; children are locked in cupboards until they half-suffocate; and every year a young man is forced to swim underneath the village and endure inevitable mutilation or death.

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In Review: “Thought Flights” by Robert Musil

P. T. Smith reviews a newly translated collection of short pieces by Robert Musil

At first appearance, the newly translated collection of short pieces by Robert Musil, titled Thought Flights by translator Genese Grill (Contra Mundum Press), seems at odds with the writer’s reputation. After all, he is most famous for the massive, unfinished Man Without Qualities. Why would he take time away from that project he was so dedicated to so he could write pieces of fiction only a couple pages long, essays about whether the crawl stroke is an art or a science, and satirical fragments like “War Diary of a Flea”? And considering all that Musil articulated about society, gender, philosophy, art, etc. in Man Without Qualities, is there reason to read this instead of, or after, that? The quickest way to answer both questions is hinted at by Grill in her introduction. The first: for Musil to maintain his sanity by taking breaks. The second: if you admire both the intellect and aesthetics of Musil and the serious play that Walser brought to his feuilleton, this is a chance to see what comes about when those two styles are combined.

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In Review: “A Planet for Rent” by Yoss

Scott Beauchamp reviews the latest science fiction from Cuba, finally in English translation

Science fiction is an international project. It’s multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and accommodating enough as a genre to include authors of almost any identitification. So though it’s clear there isn’t a genre problem—there still is a publishing problem.

In America, for instance, there simply aren’t enough people of color and women authors being published. What’s more—further reflective of the problem of access to translated works in the United States (famously, only 3% of books published stateside are from translation)—the full range of exciting sci-fi published in Japan, China and India only makes its way to non-native readers in a slight trickle.

Cuban science fiction, however, is another problem entirely. All writing on the island was for decades subject to the whims of the Department of Revolutionary Orientation, and with trade in general being fairly limited in the 1960s and 1970s, Cuban science fiction has struggled to realize itself.

And now that the long-awaited global thaw is finally happening, Restless Books, a Brooklyn-based publishing house, is taking the noteworthy step of translating some of the most interesting sci-fi writers on the island. Yoss (whose birth name is José Miguel Sánchez Gómez), the author of A Planet for Rent, is one such writer. READ MORE…

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…

In Review: “Signs Preceding the End of the World” by Yuri Herrera

Ethan Perets reads a new novel sure to be considered "an enduring document of world literature."

What kind of journey begins without the possibility or intention of return? And what kind of person sets out, all the while knowing this to be the case?

Tales of the epic quest often take such questions as starting points. But the latest novel from contemporary Mexican writer Yuri Herrera, titled Signs Preceding the End of the World, rejects each of these questions from the outset.

Recently translated into English by Lisa Dillman for And Other Stories, Signs Preceding the End of the World focuses on Makina, a young Mexican woman, as she travels from her rural village across alien towns, ice-green rivers and black mountain passes searching for her brother north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Equipped with the determination to return home after a short trek across the border, she leaves with few provisions, which include, among other things, “one white blouse and one with colorful embroidery, in case she came across any parties.”

As Makina meets up with the “top dogs” in her town who arrange for her trip, Herrera offers a glimpse of the men that loom behind Mexican organised crime: Mr. Double-U, “a joyful sight to see,” the hustling Mr. Aitch, who hangs with his gang of misfits at the literarily-named drinking establishment Pulquería Raskolnikova, and the tight-lipped Mr. Q, who “never resorted to violence—at least there was nobody who’d say he did.” Besides adding a touch of Tarantino-esque flair to these shady characters, Herrera essentially establishes a novel of personalities. Biggest among them is Makina herself. READ MORE…

What We’re Reading in December

This December: family sagas, American classics, flash fiction, and meta-translation

Tiffany Tsao (Editor-at-large, Indonesia): Family sagas make up my month’s leisure reading so far. Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Middlesex and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! have been on my to-read list for several years, and it was with a combination of sheepishness and triumph that I finally got round to cracking open their spines. One occupational hazard of being a literary academic is that you often lack the energy to graze beyond your particular fields of expertise. As a recent post-academic, it has been a great pleasure indeed to read more in the way of the American “classics”—and not just so I can finally stop embarrassing myself at dinner parties where I often disappoint fellow guests by not having read every work in the western canon, all the latest prize-winners, and everything listed on the latest “Top 100 great reads” list circulating the web.

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Fickle Fate, Fantastic Fakery: Daniel Kehlmann’s “F”

A review of Daniel Kehlmann's "F," translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Here are the surefire steps to prevent me from reading any book.

1. Describe it as “Holden-Caulfied-meets-X.”

2. Describe it as “(insert famous author here)-ian.” Don’t get me started on the god-awful neologisms “Dickensian,” or, even worse: “Kafkaesque.”

(But sometimes hapless reviewers like myself have no choice but to commit these crimes of equivalence. And reviewing translations is especially tricky).

Not only do critics fumble when appraising prose written by a translator (as opposed to the quote-unquote “original” author), but we even stumble in the face of plot and character: clueless as to if these are culturally determined and unique to their (unknowable) contexts. Even worse for us all, thanks to an education resolutely committed to politicizing every text, we reviewers (rather stupidly) cannot help but ask: where is the equivalence? What’s the project here? What does it mean?

For this review, I read Austro-German author Daniel Kehlmann’s latest novel, F, translated into English by superstar Knopf translator Carol Brown Janeway (who also translated some of Kehlmann’s other novels: Measuring the World and Fame). And in this review—I hope you’ll forgive me—I’m terribly guilty of equivalence. I hope you’ll see why.  READ MORE…

Reviewing “Red Monsoon,” Interviewing Eelum Dixit

"I think that Nepali cinema is at a point now where if people at the top work together, we can really create a proper industry. "

Red Monsoon, a Nepali-language feature film directed by young Nepali filmmaker Eelum Dixit, will open in Kathmandu multiplexes in May. A select crowd of Lalitpur intelligentsia, myself included (I say this with my tongue firmly in cheek!) were invited to preview the film last week in the more intimate atmosphere of the refurbished 1920s-era Yalamaya Kendra complex.

South Asian film is perhaps too often synonymous with Bollywood. The overwhelming image is of the colourful, sequined song-and-dance routine, melodrama, three-hour-plus duration, as well as big-budget, cartel-backed production.

But Red Monsoon contains only one of these characteristics. The low-budget film (starring several members of Eelum’s family) opens with footage of one of Kathmandu’s many crowd-pulling religious festivals, yet riot police are beating back revelers. In the next scene, a group of young men discuss migration to the Gulf. “Good luck with your new life in Dubai,” says one friend. READ MORE…

My l’esprit de l’escalier and Croatian literature abroad

"Should I be firm and show attitude, or rather go with the soft, constructive approach? I chose the second, and I made a grave mistake."

January and February marked a celebration of the third anniversary of a valuable international volunteer project: a journal dedicated to literary translation going under the unexpectedly mathematical name of Asymptote. Literary evenings and panels were organized in London, New York, Boston and Zagreb on this occasion (the birthday party lasts throughout April as well, venturing to Philadelphia, Shanghai, Berlin, Buenos Aires and Sydney). READ MORE…