Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Bringing this week's greatest hits from the four corners of the literary globe!

We’re back with another round of exciting literary news from around the globe. This week’s dispatches take us to El Salvador, South Africa, and Tunisia. 

Nestor Gomez, Editor-at-Large, reporting from El Salvador:

It was announced in early June that Centroamerica Cuenta awarded writer and LGBT+ activist Alejandro Córdova the 6th annual Central American Prize for the Short Story. At 24 years old, Córdova is the first Salvadoran to win the prize for the Central American region. His short story “Lugares Comunes” (“Common Places”) took him 2 years to finish and is narrated from the perspective of a son attempting to reconstruct the events of how his parents met during the Salvadoran Civil War. Córdova was born just at the end of the war but commented in an interview with InformaTVX that fiction was a marvelous way of trying to comprehend a history that was not his. Córdova also comments on the status of Salvadoran literature and how it is alive and well, not necessarily because of support from the state or from various literary circles, but due to the collective suffering of a complex society in El Salvador. Those complexities can be seen in the country’s literature, which Córdova likens to a strange flower born in the desert, a type of rarity that makes Salvadoran literature even more alluring than other Central American regions.

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In Conversation: Naoki Sakai

We have to learn to address ourselves to multiple audiences, to speak as foreigners to other foreigners.

Naoki Sakai, professor of comparative literature and Asian studies at Cornell University, does the brilliant work of bringing translation theory into dialogue with other disciplines. In his writings on Japanese studies, cultural studies, comparative literature and philosophy, the gritty questions of translation, national language, nationhood, and subjectivity emerge at the heart. His book Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism undermines the mainstream understanding that writers and readers are defined—or confined—by national language and culture.

In this interview, there is much talk of a specific “representation of translation.” Translation is most commonly represented in today’s world as a practice that happens between two wholly different national languages. Tell anyone you’re a translator and they will ask: “between what languages?” However, this is actually only one version of events. While translation can be explored in much broader terms, Sakai suggests that this particular story about translation serves to reinforce the often-menacing architecture of the nation state.

In TRACES, a one-of-a-kind multilingual, cross-disciplinary journal led by Sakai, a new sort of community is created beyond the nation’s walls in which contributors speak with a “forked tongue.” As Sakai’s words suggest and as we know full well at Asymptote, this is the exciting potential of translation; it opens up new shared spaces and spaces for sharing.

Mattea Cussel, Asymptote Assistant Managing Editor, spoke with Sakai about some of the questions raised in his work to invite our readers to ponder the constructedness of national language and culture, as well as to add new working definitions to our entry on that slippery word “translation.”

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So you want to be a literary translator . . .

. . . but don't know where to start? Here's what you need to know.

Literary translators come from a multitude of backgrounds. Many are authors first of all, for whom translation is a natural extension of their work. Others are literary critics or academics, who translate to give a wider audience access to the works they study. With the growing popularity and visibility of global literature in the English-speaking world, on the other hand, has come increased visibility of literary translation as an art of its own.

As an American high schooler, I knew I wanted to translate books. But unlike my friends who wanted to be writers or performers, editors or scientists, I had no idea how to make that happen. I fumbled my way through, doing plenty of research and seeking out guidance from people in the translation industry wherever possible. I now work as a full-time translator on a combination of literary and non-literary projects, something I wouldn’t have believed possible at the age of 17 or 18.

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Translation Tuesday: “The End of Summer” by Zoran Pilić

Goodbye, Lucky, goodbye, my dear friend, I told myself, I’ll avenge you, sooner or later.

Today’s translation continues the theme of childhood we’ve had for several Tuesdays now. Zoran Pilić’s story depicts a young man struggling with how to emulate masculinity: admiring the great male chess champions, trying to build the biggest biceps, competing for the affections of a woman. And the memory of a beloved pig, a sacrificial animal whose fate echoes tragically in the conclusion. For more stories that explore the conflicts of childhood, check out the fiction from the Spring 2018 issue of Asymptote.

I loved that pig. Unlike all other pigs that I’ve seen until and since then, Lucky had that something—personality. In the late, late fall of 1975, Misho and I were chopping pumpkins, and Lucky watched us from his pigsty, grunting with satisfaction.

I know that’s for me, as if he wanted to say, there’s no one else here, oink-oink-oink!

“What are you doing?” my old man asked as he walked by distributing tobacco on his rolling paper.

“Chopping pumpkins,” I said. “For Lucky’s breakfast.”

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In Conversation: Eduardo Halfon

All of my books are intimately related, like brothers who live far away.

The last time Eduardo and I talked, in July of 2015, days before he presented his latest book, Signor Hoffman, we were both weeks away from coming to New York City, though each for different reasons. “You got a Fulbright to do your MFA? That’s impressive,” he said, smiling. “You’ll be the writer-in-residence at Baruch College?” I said. “I’m not sure what that means, but it also sounds impressive.”

Eduardo and I had met in Guatemala, near his house, at a brand new mall that, according to him, was now between local residents and a lush view of tall trees, misty mountains, and coppery sunrises. Or sunsets? Within five minutes he dismantled most of the questions I had prepared for the interview.

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Asymptote Podcast: Translating Blackness

Listen in on a conversation with the eloquent Lawrence Schimel on translating blackness, female authors, and more!

In this episode of the Asymptote Podcast, we explore the identities of translators and authors via an interview with translator Lawrence Schimel whose groundbreaking translation from the Spanish of Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda was recently reviewed on the Asymptote blog. (Obono is the first female author from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English.) Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James, returning from her sabbatical, sits down with Schimel in Madrid to discuss the challenges of translating this novel in the light of John Keene’s essay, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness.” We also delve into Schimel’s work at the helm of A Midsummer Night’s Press, the challenge of getting more female authors translated into English, and how to advocate for a more inclusive global literature.

Produced by:
Layla Benitez-James Featuring: Lawrence Schimel Music: Studio Mali – Wake Up – “It’s Africa Calling” by IntraHealth International. Creative Commons licenses can be found at http://freemusicarchive.org/. Some changes were made to these tracks. Photograph: Nieves Guerra

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to Albania, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

It is a summery Friday in the Northern Hemisphere and that means sun-filled afternoon beverages and literary updates from around the world! Barbara Halla discusses recent publications from Albania and delves into the political debates with which they engage. Daljinder Johal discusses conversations about libraries and marketing that were held at literary festivals around the United Kingdom. Finally, reporting from Australia, Tiffany Tsao discusses the controversy surrounding a recent literary journal cover and provides information on opportunities for emerging writers.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Albania:

At barely three million people living in Albania, it has become a national sport of sorts to look for traces of Albanians and Albanian influences in other cultures. In this vein, one of the most anticipated books of the season has been Luan Rama’s Mbresa Parisiane (Parisian Impressions). Luan Rama is both a writer and a diplomat. Between 1991 and 1992 he was the Albanian ambassador to France, where has spent most of his life since, writing several titles on Albanian culture and its ties to France. A good portion of this new book veers toward familiar territory, dwelling on the lives of famous authors that made Paris their home. Yet its real appeal is Rama’s research into Albanians who lived in Paris and, more simply, reading the perspective of an Albanian writing about his life in Paris.

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His Defiance: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Struggle for an Independent African Literature

These words cannot just exist in a vacuum; they provoke reactions that demand political change.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was born 5 January, 1938 in Limuru, Kenya and is a perennial favourite for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ngũgĩ is at the forefront of a war of resistance regarding the use of language that has spanned many decades. He advocates that African writers write in their mother tongues, because he understands how integral language is to a culture and its identity. Since African literature is mostly written in languages of the minority, the language of the colonizers, Ngũgĩ asserts that this choice stifles the imagination of Africans and their propensity to be creative.

Nearly fifty years ago, Ngũgĩ wrote his first novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), the first written in English by an Eastern African. Ngaahika Ndeenda (1977), translated as I Will Marry When I Want, was co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii. It is a play that depicts the injustices and excesses of post-colonial Kenya. It was acted by “non-intellectuals” in an open-air theater at the Kamirithu Educational and Cultural Center, Limuru. Ngũgĩ’s Gikuyu play sought to bring the theatre closer to the masses and encourage the audience to interact with the play. The play appealed to a wide audience and, because of the resultant reaction by people, the Kenyan government threw Ngũgĩ in prison for a year.

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Nicky Harman

The novel is savagely realistic in its description of relationships between squabbling siblings and its forensic teasing-out of a family’s secrets.

Continuing our Asymptote Book Club interview series, Assistant Editor Kevin Wang talks to Nicky Harman, translator of Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. In addition to co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors), Nicky Harman is one of the foremost contemporary Chinese-to-English translators and a passionate advocate for Chinese literature in English. Her previous work includes translations of novels by Jia Pingwa and Xu Xiaobin.

Read on to find out why Yan Ge asked for the swearing to be made more “colourful” in the English version of her work, which sections of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan were almost untranslatable, and why relying on Google Images can sometimes be a dangerous approach to translating…

Kevin Wang (KW): In your acknowledgements, you mention that Yan Ge “went above and beyond the call of duty in examining and discussing the English text.” How would you describe the differences between working with an author closely involved in the process and translating a nonliving author? 

Nicky Harman (NH): Well, I do like my authors to be alive! I almost always want to be able to raise a few queries with them. For instance, with Jia Pingwa, I needed to know more about a rudimentary cooker that the migrant workers used in 高兴 (Happy Dreams). He kindly did a sketch for me, and it turned out to be made from an old oil drum. That’s the kind of crucial information that you couldn’t get if the author was dead: in this case, the internet was no help.

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Translation Tuesday: “The Classmate” by Elsa Morante

Our classmate was so indulged by nature that none of us doubted that he was so treated by fortune.

This Translation Tuesday, we continue to showcase the theme of childhood, this time through a story from 1940’s Italy about the ways that children form their own narratives about their peers. The quiet intensity of Elsa Morante’s “The Classmate” gives us a compelling glimpse of the disruption of such narratives. Be sure to also check out the Spring 2018 Fiction section, which also explores childhood. Robert Walser, Joanna Bator, and Jacques Fux, for example, all consider the formative nature of childhood memory (or lack thereof) on identity. 

I was a boy of thirteen, a student in junior high school: among my many classmates, most of whom were neither particularly beautiful nor ugly, there was one who was extremely handsome.

He was too rebellious and lazy to be the first in the class, but everyone knew that even the slightest of effort on his part would have been enough to make him so. None us demonstrated an intellect like his, so limpid and fortunate. I was the first in the class; I had a poetic disposition and, at the thought of my classmate, I had the idea of calling him Arcangelo.

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Translating le multilinguisme

Translation is never a horizontal movement; there is always an uneven power dynamic between two languages.

Mektoub. Taleb. Mesquin. Cheb. Bezef. Each of these French words is also Arabic, albeit represented in French orthography. Through long proximity by colonization and immigration, Arabic influence has bled—at some moments more overtly than others—into the French language, and Azouz Begag’s 1986 autobiographical novel Le gone du Chaâba engages with this reality in each word choice and every line of dialogue.

The son of an Algerian migrant worker who settled permanently in France in 1949, not long before the brutal war for independence began, Begag employs a remarkable mixture of French, spoken Arabic, and Lyonnais slang to illustrate the linguistic realities of his community—something that poses problems for a translator who wants to retain its linguistic flavor without rendering the text totally opaque. Written in the eighties, the book and its projet linguistique is perhaps even more relevant at a time when so many Westerners think the Arabic phrase “Allahu akbar” is exclusively synonymous with terrorism.

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Uncover New Worlds, Join Asymptote Today!

Apply by June 18th to join our dynamic crew!

Old maps often feature cherubs blowing gusts of wind, baroque allegorical figures—or sea monsters lurking in unknown waters. But for the reader of world literature, there are no known lands, for even the familiar deserves to be explored with fresh eyes—including sea monsters! Now you too can join Asymptote’s intrepid explorers: just apply to our mid-year recruitment drive! From Assistant Blog Editor (yes, of this Blog no less!) and Copy Editor to Social Media Manager and Graphic Designer, check out all available volunteer positions here, and then be sure to submit an application by June 18th! Summer internships are available for most positions as well.

Don’t wait! Apply to join the Asymptote team today!

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week we report from Slovakia, Brazil, and Egypt.

Welcome back for a fresh batch of literary news, featuring the most exciting developments from Slovakia, Brazil, and Egypt. 

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Slovakia:

Hot on the heels of the prolonged Night of Literature, held from 16 to 18 May in sixteen towns and cities across Slovakia, the fifth annual independent book festival, BRaK, took place between 17 and 20 May in the capital, Bratislava. In keeping with the festival’s traditional focus on the visual side of books, the programme included bookbinding, typesetting and comic writing workshops, activities for children, and exhibitions of works by veteran Czech illustrator, poster and animation artist Jiří Šalamoun, as well as French illustrators Laurent Moreau and Anne-Margot Ramstein. The last two also held illustration masterclasses, while the German Reinhard Kleist launched the Slovak translation of his graphic novel Nick Cave: Mercy on Me, accompanied by a local band.

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On Translating Indigenous Languages

The translator bears a particular kind of ethical responsibility towards the text, the poet, and poet’s community.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but in 2018 translating Indigenous literatures in the Américas from Indigenous languages and/or Spanish is a political act. Even prior to now, at dinner parties and other settings for droll conversation in the United States, people have often perked up when I mention that I study Mesoamerican languages and cultures. With an interest typically grounded in lost civilizations, ancient mysteries, and, occasionally, UFOs, they usually then follow up with an inquiry as to why, if I study dead languages, I didn’t opt to study Latin, ancient Greek, or Biblical Hebrew instead. When I assert that no, Maya languages such as Yucatec and Tsotsil are far from dead, many people refuse to believe it and are more than happy to contest the point.

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