The results of our 2016 Close Approximations Translation Contest are in! We were positively floored by a total of 391 submissions; not too shabby for only the second edition of our contest. Our panel of judges— acclaimed translators Michael Hofmann for poetry, Ottilie Mulzet for fiction, and Margaret Jull Costa for nonfiction—got back to us in record time with their winners and runners-up. Announced below (along with the judges’ citations and bios), each winner will be awarded $1,000 USD, with runners-up receiving $500 USD; and all will appear in our Spring 2016 issue, joining the many wonderful translators already published in Asymptote’s pages, including J.M. Coetzee, Lydia Davis, Susan Bernofsky, Robert Chandler, Ros Schwartz, Daniel Hahn, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Howard Goldblatt.
POETRY WINNER: Marie Silkeberg and co-translator Kelsi Vanada for their translation of Silkeberg’s “The Cities” from the Swedish
POETRY RUNNER-UP: Sophie Seita for her translation of Uljana Wolf’s “Subsisters” from the German
FICTION WINNER: Ruth Diver for her translation of Sophie Pujas’s Street Rounds in Paris from the French
FICTION RUNNER-UP: Jason Woodruff for his translation of Kim Kyung-uk’s “Spray” from the Korean
NONFICTION WINNER: Sean Gasper Bye for his translation of Filip Springer’s Miedzianka: The History of a Disappearance from the Polish
NONFICTION RUNNER-UP: Ona Bantjes-Ràfols for her translation of Albert Casals’s The World on Wheels from the Catalan
Michael Hofmann’s Citation (Poetry):
I was able to make a short list of eight, then five, fairly easily. Thereafter, things might have gone differently, all my choices were so incomparably dissimilar. In the end, I asked myself what poems would I most like to see published, to read a book of, to live with and deepen my understanding of, and that gave me my winner: the prose impressions of the Swedish poet Marie Silkeberg and her co-translator, Kelsi Vanada.
The Russian-Jewish short story writer Isaac Babel said a writer should use periods like dagger thrusts. Silkeberg uses them more like machine gun bullets. (I’m sorry about this martial stuff—it’s not me.) The effect is astonishing, and far from mechanical. Her portraits of cities—Hanoi, Istanbul, Berlin, others—read like the films I gather she also makes: "a man whose legs are capped off at the kneecaps moves across the sunlit sidewalk. a heavily loaded truck gets stuck in the broken street. sways. a phrase with two memories. the bottles clink. open so to speak. until they are wholly still. on both sides. thus set free. city glittering. in sunset search after eros."
Had I not been German, I might have given the prize to the German poet Uljana Wolf and her translator, Sophie Seita. I really enjoyed these careful, subtle, deliriously paronomastic (“the verse to wear, maybe hours after ohr”) Anglo-German macaronic variations about classic Hollywood films—but worried whether readers with other languages or no other language than English would find them as available. (It would be like being tickled in a room full of long faces.) Still, I found them deeply enjoyable and impressively done—and such fun.
Ottilie Mulzet’s Citation (Fiction):
The over 200 entries submitted to the 2016 Close Approximations contest [in fiction] spanned a truly impressive range of languages, from Tamil to Maltese to Yiddish, among others, and included a generous selection from the “usual suspects,” the major European languages. I encountered some new voices, making some very gratifying personal discoveries along the way. In some cases, an entry evinced truly outstanding writing, but in a translation that was not as accomplished as it could have been. In other cases, the translation was very polished, but the writing itself or the theme somewhat lacklustre. Most of the entries were, of course, very skilful translations of an excellent text.
The Asymptote editorial team very kindly went through all of the entries, selecting a final list of fifty for me to judge. I did, however, request that all the entries be sent to me. While I can’t make the claim that I read through every single one, I did read through most of the 209 entries, and for all of them, at least the first four or five pages.
The winning entry, Street Rounds in Paris by Sophie Pujas, translated by Ruth Diver, combines excitingly experimental writing in a wonderful translation. To me the English version reads perfectly, truly attaining that marvellous balance where, as readers, we are well aware of being privy to a textual world otherwise not available to the Anglophone reader: Diver steers well clear of over-domesticization, and yet at the same time, her translation never contains the infelicity of a clumsy rendering. The author’s voice—a combination of lucidity and ironic sympathy for her anonymous characters intersecting with the urban geography of Paris—is captured magnificently. I truly hope this work will find a home with a book publisher.
The runner-up was Jason Woodruff’s translation of “Spray” by Kim Kyung-uk, from the Korean, a modern, absurdist tale, rendered beautifully and convincingly in Woodruff’s translation. I hope we’ll be hearing more from this author and this translator.
Margaret Jull Costa’s Citation (Nonfiction):
Out of 36 entries, I made a rather long short list of ten. The languages included were German, Estonian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Russian. The subject matter ranged from sewage management in Bulgaria to a life of Mikhail Bulgakov to an artists’ colony in Argentina to an Estonian childhood blighted by fear of a nuclear war. All were fascinating, and the standard of translation was very high.
I chose the winning translation of Filip Springer by Sean Gasper Bye because I found the subject matter totally gripping—it’s set in 1944, when the Soviet counteroffensive has reached the Vistula River—and the prose itself is satisfyingly dense, and it has what I look for in any good translation, a very convincing voice.
The text I chose as runner-up (Albert Casals’s The World on Wheels, translated by Ona Bantjes-Ràfols) could not be more different. It is a travel memoir written by a young man who is wheelchair-bound, but who has been travelling the world on his own since he was fourteen. I really liked the lively, funny tone, which I felt the translator captured perfectly.
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Michael Hofmann (Poetry) was born in Germany, and grew up in England, Scotland, Austria, and the US. He has published six books of poetry, including Nights in the Iron Hotel, Acrimony, and a Selected Poems, winning a Cholmondeley Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and an English Arts Council grant. In addition to numerous prose translations (all from German), he has translated volumes from Durs Grünbein (Ashes for Breakfast), Günter Eich (Angina Days), and Gottfried Benn (Impromptus). He reviews for Poetry and the London Review of Books, and has brought out two critical collections: Behind the Lines (2001) and Where Have You Been? (2014) and introduced and edited the anthology Twentieth-Century German Poetry (2006). He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Deutsche Akademie der Künste, and has taught at the University of Florida for twenty years.
Ottilie Mulzet (Fiction) translates from Hungarian and Mongolian. Her translation of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below won the Best Translated Book Award in 2014, and in 2015, she shared the Translator’s Prize with poet and fellow translator George Szirtes for László Krasznahorkai’s lifetime achievement Man Booker International Prize. Forthcoming translations include: Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai (Seagull Books, 2016), The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély (HarperCollins, 2016), and Lazarus by Gábor Schein (Seagull Books, 2017). Some of Ottilie’s interviews about the work of László Krasznahorkai can be found at Quarterly Conversation; for other critical writings, see Hungarian Literature Online. In addition, she is completing a dissertation about Mongolian riddles and a book of translations of Mongolian Buddhist legends.
Margaret Jull Costa (Nonfiction) has been a literary translator for nearly thirty years and has translated works by such writers as Eça de Queiroz, José Saramago and Javier Marías. She has won various prizes, most recently the Marsh Award for Children’s Fiction in Translation for Bernardo Atxaga’s The Adventures of Shola. In 2013, she was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2014, was awarded an OBE for services to literature. In 2015, she was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Leeds.
This second edition of Close Approximations wouldn’t be possible without the support of our generous donors and judges. To help ensure that this contest becomes an annual event, please consider donating to Asymptote—together, we can make the far-flung world of translated literature feel a little bit closer!