In Review: Ismat Chughtai’s Quit India

This varied and beautifully calibrated volume succeeds in sustaining the legacy of one of India’s most radical twentieth-century authors.

Twenty-six years after her death, Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) is one of Urdu’s most famous short story writers; among her immediate contemporaries, only Saadat Hasan Manto’s reputation matches hers, and we can confidently say that she has no successor.

The Quilt, the first of her works to be presented to international audiences in the year of her death, was a collection of her short fiction. The title story, which had a lesbian theme, created a scandal and attracted the ire of colonial censors when it was first published in the early forties. Other stories in the volume proved the author to be a storyteller of the finest calibre. In 1995, more than half a century after its original debut, a translation of her magnificent feminist bildungsroman, The Crooked Line (1942), where the heroine’s life paralleled her own, pre-empted and fictionalised many of the ideas from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Although it is still in print in the US with the pioneering Feminist Press, the UK edition has been discontinued. Several more translations of her stories, essays, memoirs, and long and short fiction, accompanied by a slew of biographical and critical studies, have enhanced her reputation year by year and made her one of the most translated writers across the subcontinent. However, they have only been published in India and Pakistan and have not been picked up by Anglo-American publishers.

Chughtai’s fiction ranges from stories for children and reminiscences of her friends and family, to the harrowing low life in Bombay’s slums and drug-fuelled high life in the city’s gaudy film world, to a novel about Islam’s first martyrs—a choice that surprises admirers of this iconic socialist-feminist icon. But even today some critics claim that The Quilt overshadows her other fictions and use the early stories to measure her later work. Others, including myself, would say this is grossly untrue: Ismat, though she preferred to write about what she knew best, was versatile within her chosen range of subversive kitchen sink drama and outspoken social satire, as we can see from the several renditions into English of all her major works by Tahira Naqvi, her most frequent translator, which are published in Delhi by the pioneering Women Unlimited (Penguin India also publishes a handful of translations by Mohammad Asaduddin).

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Editors in Slovak Publishing Houses: An Endangered Species?

It cannot be repeated often enough that the editor’s work on a book is as important as the work of those responsible for its physical production.

No longer plagued by censors and paper shortages since the end of communism, the publishing industry in former Czechoslovakia has faced other kinds of constraints that it shares with much of the commercially-driven world in which we live. Literary scholar and critic Ivana Taranenková shares with Asymptote’s Slovak editor-at-large Julia Sherwood the findings of a survey comparing editorial practices in Czech and Slovak publishing houses before and after 1989. The survey was carried out by the web journal Platform for Literature and Research, which Taranenková runs together with her colleagues Radoslav Passia and Vladimír Barborík.

Recent publications of new literary works by Slovak authors as well as works in translation have exposed a trend that is trivial yet irksome. While the number of published books continues to grow and their visual quality is improving, pundits have increasingly noted the declining standard of manuscript editing. This is a problem not just for literary reviewers, but also for those who judge literary awards when they assess each year’s literary output.

Editorial standards are often so dismal that these poorly edited manuscripts can no longer be seen as just isolated instances of incompetence or failure on the part of individual editors (as some reviewers have suggested), but rather as a systemic issue. Other than in some major publishing houses, the profession of editor appears to be waning, a victim of the drive for “increased efficiency” in publishing, and a growing reliance on outsourcing that requires a smaller investment of time and money per book, ultimately resulting in dilettantism. The same also applies to emerging independent publishers.

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpts from Mediterranean Suite by Florin Caragiu

Not far away, the frescoes catch in their fishing nets The memory and the wind. Closely following behind us, the dolphins.

Today’s Translation Tuesday is brought to you by MARGENTO, Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, and poet and translator Marius Surleac. As you immerse yourself in these lines, it is worth keeping in mind Florin’s unique profile and approach to creation as he combines poetry, mathematics, and Eastern Orthodox theology. There is a specific emphasis on mystical practice, particularly the kind that involves “iconic Hesychasm.” These excerpts from Florin Caragiu’s work, Mediterranean Suiteexplore a sense of nostalgia, loss, and change.

Excerpts from Mediterranean Suite

It was only after long that we found the poet’s grave

In the graveyard by the sea. We barely made out

His name on the burial stone. We had passed

The spot several times

Without noticing it. Just as day after day people keep reaching

Your sight and you have no idea what they’re holding back.

Just as the blotchy calligraphic lettering

Overshadows a voice and its sharp beams

Coming out of a cloud of sea gulls, out of the lighted beacon

Piercing the sea’s costa and its coastal heart,

The wave amphitheater, and the city’s watery arteries.

 

Not far away, the frescoes catch in their fishing nets

The memory and the wind. Closely following behind us, the dolphins.

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In Conversation: Annaliza Bakri on the Politics of Malay Language and Literature in Singapore

I consider translation to be a key to understanding and elevating humanity

Annaliza Bakri is an educator and translator. She believes that literary works can be the subliminal voice that cultivates greater understanding, awareness and consciousness of the past, present and future. An ardent advocate of works that are beautifully penned in Singapore’s national language, she strongly believes in the divine art of translation where shared heritage and mutual discovery promote humanity. Our Editor-At-Large for Singapore, Tse Hao Guang, recently caught up with Annaliza about her work and about the politics of language and literature in Singapore.

Tse Hao Guang (HG): You teach, write papers, translate Malay texts into English, and organise programmes and panels on Malay culture, language and heritage. What is the driving force behind all this work? What first got you interested in this? You seem to be one of a few people here doing what I’d call literary activism.

Annaliza Barki (AB): There’s a lot of commitment and responsibility when you call yourself an activist. I don’t think it’s as much about activism as it is about sharing ideas and knowledge. In class, I use literature to teach the Malay language. Grammar and syntax can make for a dry learning experience. With literature, however, you examine ideas, explore culture, and enrich your worldview. Literature reveals intricacies of the human identity to us, and, I believe, reignites in us a flame of humanity. This is also one of the many reasons why I translate literary works. What I gain from the interweaving of cultures in my translation work allows me to better understand humanity and human predicaments.

I was part of the organising team that initiated the cultural-literary seminar series CITA@The Arts House in 2012. We provided a platform for the sharing of Malay culture, in both English and Malay, to both adults and students. Part of CITA involved inviting our older writers to speak about their work, writers who were active in the 1970s and still continue to write today. The kind of honour and gratitude we have for them made younger people curious to attend and listen, as it had been a while since we last heard from them. It was interesting for me too, as a teacher who had read and even taught their books, but had no idea who they were apart from their role as writers, or what their aspirations were. Beyond giving these writers prizes like the Cultural Medallion or the Tun Sri Lanang, I think we, as a nation, honour them by giving them a chance to engage an audience in person once again.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your news from the literary world, all in one place.

Here we are with this week’s news on exciting developments in the world of literature! Our Editor-At-Large for Singapore, Tse Hao Guang, updates us on new translation initiatives and experimental literary events. Sarah Moses, our Editor-At-Large for Argentina and Uruguay, fills us in on recent literary festivals and on an event honoring everyone’s favorite cartoon cynic. Finally, Tomás Cohen, our Editor-At-Large for Chile, tells us about some exciting new publications appearing in the region.

Tse Hao Guang, Editor-At-Large, with the latest updates from Singapore: 

In the spirit of experimentation, stalwart independent bookstore Booksactually devised a Book Prescription Day (Sep 30) in conjunction with #BuySingLit, inviting the public to meet seven authors one-on-one as they administered literary balm to all manner of ailments. Literary nonprofit Sing Lit Station put on a zany, rave-reviewed, pro-wrestling-meets-spoken-word spectacle Sing Lit Body Slam (October 6-7), selling out on opening night. Sing Lit Station also announced the 2018 Hawker Prize for Southeast Asian Poetry, awarding the best poems published by SEA-affiliated journals to a combined tune of SGD$2500 (USD$1800). Finally, Singapore played host to the 2nd Asian Women Writers’ Festival (September 29-30), with Singaporean novelists Balli Kaur Jaswal and Nuraliah Norasid speaking alongside other writers from the UK, the Philippines, Pakistan, and India.

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Asymptote Blog Wants YOU to Lead the Conversation!

Asymptote blog is on the constant lookout for individual voices, probing analysis, and topicality.

Fran Leibowitz once said: “Magazines all too frequently lead to books and should be regarded by the prudent as the heavy petting of literature.” In that spirit, the Asymptote blog is looking for more book-lovers like yourself to contribute to the global conversation on literature and the arts in translation.  

Showcasing new translations and daily writings on world literature and culture, Asymptote blog is on the constant lookout for individual voices, probing analysis, and topicality in our postings. We have published pieces on topics ranging from pop music and children’s books to political calls-to-action. Apart from essays, we run dispatches from international literary events, interviews, weekly new translations, book reviews, and more. Like our journal, we are looking for creative, original, and highly engaging work that considers the role of translation in literature, the arts, and the fabric of everyday life.

We encourage writers of all stripes and colours to engage with global issues as well as particular interests. At Asymptote, we’re all about breaking borders and boundaries, and are looking for writing that does the same.

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Meet The Publisher: Antares Press’s Margarita Feliciano on Publishing from Spanish, French, and Indigenous Languages

I’m interested in bringing to the attention of readers in the world the fact that there are other languages—not known languages.

ANTARES Publishing House of Spanish Culture is a trilingual press located at York University’s Glendon Campus in Toronto, Canada. ANTARES aims to bring literary and scholarly works from the Spanish-speaking world to North American readers. With this in mind, the press publishes non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and theater either written in or translated from Spanish, English, and French. In recent years, ANTARES’s interests have expanded to include the literature of indigenous languages such as Quechua and Ojibwe. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, met with director Margarita Feliciano to chat about ANTARES’s catalog and their commitment to publishing translations of works written in Spanish and indigenous languages.

Sarah Moses: How did ANTARES get started?

Margarita Feliciano: The press started in the year 2005, but officially we started to publish in the year 2006. I’ve been a professor at York University since 1969 and I’ve always taught literature. In 1989, I started to publish a magazine called Indigo—before Indigo the store; I didn’t have a chance to register it. The subtitle of the magazine was The Spanish/Canadian Presence in the Arts. Things were not done in translation but published in their original language—it could be Spanish, English, or French.

I was forced to retire in 2005 because at the time we had lost a strike and one of the requirements was mandatory retirement for people aged sixty-five. The law is now gone but I unfortunately fell in that category. So in view of that, I decided to create ANTARES—to continue to do what I was doing and at the same time keep me at university because in my life all I’ve done is either be a student or a teacher. So I wanted to continue my work.

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from Formaldehyde by Carla Faesler

​"There is a human heart the size of a fist inside of a jar."

This glimpse into a new work by Carla Faesler offers an intriguing portrait of a married couple’s life and the spectre of their daughter, memories of a deceased mother, and a heart preserved in a jar. This excerpt seems to almost represent a cross-section of the story, focusing on one particular, seemingly normal day, yet with flickers of the past as well as into the future. The ending leaves us unsettled, but wanting more—we’ve become witness to a family’s mysterious secret, and we won’t be let go just yet. 

Excerpt from Formaldehyde

“The heart, if it could think, would stop.”

—Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet

Febe, Larca’s mother, swallows her pills in the morning. Her circulatory system pumps the pharmaceuticals in minutes. Only then can she cook breakfast. When the effect peaks, she’s finishing her second cup of coffee. Larca walks to school hand in hand with Celso, her father, while Febe, engrossed like a hen, perches in her armchair, purveying a section of foliage out the window, a bit of sky, the fraction of a lamp post, to wonder how her husband, after dropping off their daughter, can walk to the hardware store and hoist the storefront’s heavy curtain under the constant watch of the guards. The physical force flushes red Celso’s face, supplied with blood by a network of fine veins. Then Febe, pallid, stands to fix her hair and slip something on in time for her husband to come home. Once he’s climbed the stairs, they greet one another with the warmth of a hand resting on a shoulder or the idle motion of clothes settling. Immediately then, two mannequins long out of fashion go down the white wood stairs. They drive to the market to buy food, and they check up on grandma’s house, which is really the house of Cristina, Celso’s dead mother, where everything remains unchanged thanks to Aurora who, despite her ponderous age, has held to her thrifty ways. They leave behind some groceries and the daily request that she resist the cloisters that have her walled in, consumed. It’s not that there are ghosts, with the family legend there would be enough dead to populate a country, it’s Aurora who frightens herself, the terrible appearance of her varicose veins, her wearied insides burdening her with the notion that she won’t ever disappear.

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What’s New In Translation: October 2017

Looking for your next novel? Here are three of the most exciting new releases from around the world.

Every month, batches of books arrive fresh on the shelves of bookstores around the world. Our team has handpicked three exciting new reads to help you make up your minds on what to sink your teeth into, including novels from Italy, Brazil and Norway. 

Dust-MC

Dust by Adrian Bravi, translated from the Italian by Patience Haggin, Dalkey Archive Press.

Reviewed by Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-Large, Brazil.

“‘How long will I have to flail about, drowning in the world of the microscopic?’”

This is one of the many questions that the narrator, Anselmo, of Antonio Bravi’s novel Dust anxiously asks himself while coping with his total phobia of dust. The depth of his internal interrogation hinges on the word “microscopic”: Anselmo faces not the literal question of clean living, but instead the concept of infinite accumulation and infinite loss—of seconds and minutes, of words and ideas, of skin and hair and other shavings of the physical self.

To read Patience Higgin’s forthcoming English translation of Dust (Dalkey Archive Press, October 2017) is to slowly sink into an ocean of everyday minutiae. The book centers on Anselmo, a librarian living with his wife Elena in the fictional city of Catinari, Italy, and his daily routine of cataloguing books, obsessively dusting surfaces, and frequently writing letters that invariably never reach their destination.

What gives this novel its power is not the literal subject matter of the book, which often threatens to overtake the prose in its tedium, but instead the artful language that invites us to meditate conceptually on the simple life represented. Anselmo, at one point, compares his monotonous work cataloguing books to that of a “simple mortician sorting bodies for burial according to their profession”; at another moment, his wife Elena says that reading newly published books is akin to, “‘studying smoke your whole life when you’ve never seen fire.’” These metaphors broaden a seemingly narrow scope, bringing us closer to fully imagining humanity’s constant and immense decay.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your news from the literary world, all in one place.

We’re back with another week full of exciting, new developments in the world of literature! Our Editor-At-Large for Australia, Tiffany Tsao, updates us with a fresh report of prizes and publications and the inauguration of an exciting new festival. Julia Sherwood, Editor-At-Large for Slovakia, is filling us in on the latest exciting news in neighbouring Poland, involving prizes, authors and translators. Last but not least, our Editor-At-Large for Indonesia, Valent Mustamin, serves up a full platter of festivals, publications and awards. 

Tiffany Tsao, Editor-At-Large, with the latest updates from Australia: 

Congratulations to Josephine Wilson, author of the novel Extinctions, for winning the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize. The results were announced early last month.

Felicitations also to Stephanie Guest (former Asymptote Australia Editor-at-Large) and Kate Riggs on the publication of their piece “An Architecture of Early Motherhood (and Independence)” in The Lifted Brow’s September issue. The piece received the The Lifted Brow and non/fiction Lab Prize for Experimental Non-Fiction (announced at the end of August) and was lauded by the judges for its “determined fidelity to the banality and logistics of early motherhood—states of radical and ongoing beholden-ness—juxtaposed against reflections from an autonomous life in the margins.”

The shortlist for this year’s Richell Prize for Emerging Writers was announced earlier this week. The five finalist entries are: Michelle Barraclough’s “As I Am”; Sam Coley’s “State Highway One”; Julie Keys’ “Triptych”; Miranda Debljakovich’s “Waiting for the Sun”; and Karen Wyld’s “Where the Fruit Falls.” The prize was launched in 2015 as a joint initiative by the Emerging Writers Festival and the Guardian Australia. The winner will be announced November 1.

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Rape à la Polonaise, or Whose Side Are You on, Maria?

"A hundred thousand furious women wearing black, armed with symbolic umbrellas. One hundred thousand women, undeterred by pouring rain."

A year ago in 2016, thousands of Polish women went on strike from work, dressed in all black and marched on the streets waving black flags and umbrellas to protest a proposal that would make abortion completely inaccessible to them. While they succeeded, Poland still has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. On the anniversary of the Black Protests this Tuesday, on Oct 3, 2017, Polish women marched again to demand greater reproductive freedom. Feminist writer and columnist Grażyna Plebanek recaps for Asymptote the year of struggle for Polish women’s rights and the role of literature in the protests. —Julia Sherwood

A year ago we women went out into the streets together—young and old, teenagers, mothers, grandmothers. Women from all walks of life. Women from small towns and big cities, educated and uneducated. When I first canvassed women in a Polish shop in Brussels to take part in the Black March last October, I was worried that the shop assistants and shoppers might respond in the time-honoured way: “I’m not interested in politics” or “I’ll leave it to the politicians.” Or the excuse that’s really hard to argue with: “I’ve got enough on my plate already.”

As it turned out, this is an issue that concerns us all: the issue of our freedom and dignity. In October 2016, every one of us in that shop—customers and shop assistants—poured out our grief over what “they” were planning to do to us, by introducing a near-total ban on abortion, making what is already one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in Europe even stricter. The following day we marched shoulder to shoulder, united by a real threat—that of being robbed of the basic right over our own bodies. We were being dragged back to the status of women during the Napoleonic times. We would no longer be equal to men and have our lives directed by others, as if we were children.

We went out into the streets in Poland, in Brussels, Berlin, London, Stockholm, New York, and many other cities across the world. In Poland one hundred thousand women joined the protest. A hundred thousand furious women wearing black, armed with symbolic umbrellas. One hundred thousand women, undeterred by pouring rain.

Untitled

Sea of umbrellas. Warsaw, 3 October 2016. Photo © Tytus Duchnowski

The protests worked but in late August, almost a year later, Polish women once again went out into the streets of Łódź. Again, we wore black. However, this was a smaller and quieter march, an expression of grief. We were grieving for a young woman held captive for ten days by two men who had tortured and raped her. She ran away but later died in hospital. Her injuries were so severe that the doctors couldn’t save her.

What has happened in Poland between the two black marches—between the protests of 2016 and the funeral procession of 2017? READ MORE…

Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Purism itself could be in turn labeled fuddy-duddy timidity considering how much adaptability translation requires in practice.

Here is another installment of our long running Translator’s Diary by Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. Today’s column is a beautiful meditation on how words hold memories, nostalgia, and traditions hidden within them. Kling ponders the difficulty of translating the cultural weight of the untranslatable. 

How many international airports have a distinct look or layout of their own? What upscale shopping street lacks a Gucci or a Prada store, a Cartier or Bulgari, no matter the city? It’s easy—and largely accurate—to deplore increasing sameness everywhere, including the false belief that everybody speaks English. Yet consumerism still hasn’t quite flattened everything. Take food, for example: American childhood is unthinkable without peanut butter, as much an emotional as a physical nourishment; most Europeans find it seriously disgusting. My Australian friends are crazy for Vegemite; elsewhere, the taste for it is baffling. Or sports: try even explaining baseball to Europeans, let alone inducing them to watch a game. Have any of Goodreads’ list of the 103 Best Baseball Novels of All Time been successful in translation? An American colleague taught a course in the baseball novel as a guest professor in Germany at the students’ request; the students dutifully acquired some technical knowledge of the rules, he told me, but they never began to grasp the emotional weight, the quality of ritual, the glory and the heartbreak, the sense of pastoral innocence.

Naturally, these cultural differences plague translators, who are sometimes confronted with the lack of a word for a thing because the thing itself doesn’t exist in their target language, at least not in any recognized form. The Wikipedia glossary of baseball terms would stagger the inventiveness of even a Georges Perec or a Harry Rowohlt. Never mind explaining the suicide squeeze­­—even finding a name for it would defeat most efforts.

Holiday customs might seem to present a lower barrier from country to country where Christmas is celebrated, but one of my colleagues from our workshop at Ledig House last June (see my earlier post) has found out differently. Yes, we all share sleigh bells and Christmas trees and mangers and a festive meal and some version of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus bringing presents. In fact, Santa Claus is rapidly catching up with the Christ Child in the German-speaking world as the bringer of gifts. The process may have started in 1947, when, as a small sign of Germany’s alleged vulgarization through Americanization, Erich Kästner translated Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” as “Als der Nikolaus kam,” complete with reindeer and all of Santa’s trappings, making no adaptation to German traditions.

Even with increasing overlap, however, Regina Rawlinson told our group at Ledig House about notable cultural differences when translating Jeanette Winterson’s delightful collection titled Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days. Think of the great overlap between English and American Christmas traditions: we Americans have holly, but not ivy, the latter familiar only from knowing the carol. Our fruitcake is a cousin, at least, of plum pudding. Many of our Christmas carols that are not German (“Silent Night”) are English. Yet how many of us Americans associate Christmas with robins, ubiquitous in English celebrations? We may have read about Christmas crackers, but we don’t have them here. Boxing Day is a concept, but not a practice in the United States.

Now, compound the unfamiliarity by transposing robins and crackers and holly and ivy and many other Christmas items and objects to the Continent, and you will be met with blankness. As if it weren’t enough of a challenge to find equivalents or explanations without resorting to footnotes—often the bane of translators—the stories in Winterson’s collection are interspersed with recipes for delicious British Christmas specialties mostly unknown on the Continent. Mince pies? You can find them in gourmet grocery stores, but you’d have to know what they are in the first place. Custard? No real equivalent. Sherry trifle? Practically no correspondence; tiramisu isn’t the same thing. Of course it’s a fairly mechanical operation to translate a recipe by changing ounces to grams and so on—Regina’s translation will surely yield just as yummy a mince pie—but how to explain all the associations, the nostalgia, the memories, the comfort of just-like-grandma-used-to-make? And from the other end, how could someone not from Central Europe experience the impact of tasting a Vanillekipferl, those crumbly crescent-shaped cookies with vanilla powdered sugar? Or Kletzenbrot, the dark country sweet bread with dried fruits and nuts is as powerful a stimulant as Proust’s madeleine. Recipes for all these are easy to download, but the cultural weight, the ethos and the pathos, the tropes of memory aren’t in the recipes. Good luck, Regina.

Similarly, single words often require glosses or paraphrases in Die Strudlhofstiege. More than one scene takes place in a Heuriger. If you go with your children, you can order them a Kracherl as a special treat. No Austrian or South German would ever have to be told what a Heuriger is, and to say it’s a semi-rustic inn on the outskirts of the city that serves wine grown from grapes on the property doesn’t begin to capture the flood of happy associations, images of cool air and arbors and relaxation. A Kracherl is a very sweet lemon- or raspberry-flavored carbonated soft drink, but until you’ve seen a kid’s face when one is served, you can’t know what it means to a delighted youngster. Several characters in the novel eat at their favorite Beisel, a kind of unpretentious, no-frills restaurant serving good, plain food that’s also a tavern but might be likened to an American diner (my Austrian friends find this comparison blasphemous).

A term for something unfamiliar cannot evoke its connotations, a feat that lies beyond the translator’s task; still, the simple terms themselves require explanation. But imagine a reader of Doderer’s novel having to consult three footnotes or endnotes. However conveniently placed, they slow the pace. One expedient is to embed clarification within the text; when Doctor Negria is planning to take Mary K. to a Heuriger, the single word suffices in the original, but I added an in-text explanation and referred to “one of those secluded little coun­try taverns called Heurige.” Out near the Stangelers’ country house lives a miller who hobbles and can’t walk easily. For comic contrast, the narrator quotes the first line of a famous (though not all that famous) Schubert song cycle—but only the one line, knowing that any German-language reader would immediately make the connection, whereas only lovers of the Lied would probably recognize the source. That led me to another in-text expansion: “forget about Schuber­t’s Die schöne Müllerin and its first line, ‘Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust’; ‘Roaming is the miller’s joy’!—because this miller walks all crooked; his left leg is shorter, so he hobbles.”

I haven’t yet found out how Regina proposes to transmit similar cultural information. Footnotes or endnotes are often considered preferable, since what I’m calling “in-text” expansions aren’t in-text at all. They could be judged as clumsy intrusions, in fact, efforts on the part of an ancillary person, the translator, to set himself equal to the author. Purism admittedly isn’t best served by this sort of hidden expansion, but purism itself could be in turn labeled fuddy-duddy timidity considering how much adaptability translation requires in practice. Translating has little in common with the meticulous art of establishing a definitive text, such as A. E. Housman did for Juvenal or Manilius. I haven’t yet seen actual fisticuffs in the debate over footnotes versus “in-text” expansions, but accusations of pedantry on one side (the “footnoters”) and brazen intrusion on the other (the “in-texters”) are always being traded. (Readers from the general public: did you know it could get this acrimonious?)

Familiar quotations from classic literature also require some context in English they never need in the original. One of Schiller’s most famous ballads, “Der Handschuh” (“The Glove”) tells the story of a knight treated so contemptuously by a lady that he rejects her sneering thanks for a deed of gallantry. Every German-speaking school child in Doderer’s time would have known the relevant line (“Den Dank, Dame, begehr’ ich nicht”) from memory with no context needed. The narrator of Strudlhofstiege puts that line to ironic use, aware that it could function as a quick, free-standing “zinger,” whereas I needed to set up a whole framework: “He could have quoted in reply that line from a ballad by Schiller, ‘Such thanks, fair one, I do not crave’ (‘Den Dank, Dame, begehr’ ich nicht’), but with the accent on the word ‘such,’ meaning ‘Don’t do me any favors.’” I’m not about to suggest that I “improved” the original, which would be preposterous, but I hope to have given enough surrounding information to make the passage intelligible. I sigh in agreement with Klaus Reichert, however, who says he’s always astonished at how much gets lost—odd that a loss results in this case from my adding.

The most formidable cultural challenges of all come from Doderer’s witty practice of using an idiom in its most literal meaning, extending it through whole paragraphs of character analysis. Picture taking English idioms about dogs—dog in the manger, raining cats and dogs, the Southernisms like “that dog won’t hunt” or “I be dog if . . . ”—and holding on to their literal meanings so that they have to be rendered as is in German, even if the language can’t accommodate them.

Next month, how “wo der Hund begraben ist” and “Sie kommen mir spanisch vor” kept me awake at night.

*****

Read More Columns by Vincent Kling:

Translation Tuesday: To a Girl Sleeping in the Street by Nazik al-Mala’ika

"people are a mask, artificial and fake, their sweet, gentle exteriors hide burning hate"

Though best known as the pioneer of “free verse” in Arabic, Nazik al-Mala’ika was in fact a fervent defender of Arabic meter, both in her poetry and in her criticism. Indeed, her theory of free verse was not very “free” at all, but rather took the undulating metrical feet of classical Arabic verse as the basis for a new prosodic system. Where classical poetry is governed by fixed line lengths and strict monorhyme, al-Mala’ika’s prosody allowed modern poets to vary the number of feet in each line and weave their rhymes as they saw fit. “Meter is the soul that electrifies literary material and transforms it into poetry,” she wrote in the critical text Issues in Contemporary Poetry. “Indeed, images and feelings do not become poetic, in the true sense, until they are touched by the fingers of music and the pulse of meter beats in their veins.”

To honor al-Mala’ika’s belief in meter’s vitality—the way it can anchor meaning in the body, transforming ordinary speech into a form of incantation—I have rendered her metered, rhymed Arabic verse into English metrical forms that reproduce, in some form, the music of the Arabic. Where al-Mala’ika uses the mutadarik or “continuous” meter in Arabic, for example, I use anapestic hexameter, English’s answer to Arabic’s most galloping verse form. Al-Mala’ika’s poetry, with its balance between tradition and innovation, ultimately teaches us not to deal so violently with the past, but rather to tread lightly in poetry’s ancient footsteps. My hope is that my English renderings of her verse might begin to do precisely this.   

— Emily Drumsta

To A Girl Sleeping In The Street

In Karrada at night, wind and rain before dawn,
when the dark is a roof or a drape never drawn,

when the night’s at its peak and the dark’s full of rain,
and the wet silence roils like a fierce hurricane,

the lament of the wind fills the deserted street,
the arcades groan in pain, and the lamps softly weep.

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Milton Hatoum’s The Brothers and the Politics of Forgetting

Oppression builds insidiously, explodes in all its terror, and then slips quietly back under the surface.

I stand in my basement facing stacks of cardboard boxes, the remnants of my last cross-country move out to Boulder, CO. If you were to take a cross-section of each box, you would see the sediments of everyday objects: a top layer of clothes; the occasional sweater enveloping a ceramic mug; a layer of miscellaneous household necessities (clothes hangers, desk supplies, etc.); and finally, a thick deposit of books.

At the bottom of one of these boxes I found a thin book, barely visible between the thick spines of a heavily annotated copy of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and a fat collection of Pushkin short stories. I pulled out the paperback, which turned out to be a Brazilian novel, The Brothers, written by Milton Hatoum and translated into English by John Gledson. I couldn’t be sure if I had actually read the book before rediscovering it in the crevice of a cardboard box.

I flipped to the copyright information. The original was published in 2000, with the English translation released two years later. Milton Hatoum is a Brazilian author of Lebanese descent, born in 1952 in Manaus, a city in the Amazon. I flipped to the blurb, which promised the story of a Lebanese immigrant family, focusing on the rivalry between two twins, Yaqub and Omar, who live in Manaus in the latter half of the 20th century.

It’s an intriguing premise, one that draws on the age-old trope of brotherly rivalry, harkening back to Cain and Abel, to The Brothers Karamazov, and to Machado de Assis’s Esaú e Jacó. The novel promised to capture the author’s own experience as a man of Middle Eastern descent from a peripheral region of Brazil. I couldn’t remember how it went from my bookshelf to being snugly packed, which made me curious to investigate further. I left my final box unopened, sat down on the pillows and blankets I had piled on the floor, and began reading. The novel opens with an epigraph, a quote from a Carlos Drummond de Andrade poem:

 

   “The house was sold with all its memories

            all its furniture all its nightmares

            all the sins committed, or just about to be;

            the house was sold with the sound of its doors banging

            with its windy corridors its view of the world

                        its imponderables.”

 

The narrative then begins with Yaqub’s homecoming to Manaus from Lebanon, where he had spent some years of his youth, and the reuniting of the two twins under a single roof. Hatoum unveils ever-mounting tensions amongst members of the family through their domestic alliances and conflicts, and the touching and torrid backstories that define those relationships; rich descriptions of setting provide a fascinating portrait of Manaus, albeit one that is devoid of exoticization; and the complex exploration of character in simple, quotidian situations calls upon the wide-ranging tradition of the family saga in literature.

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