Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

From the contemporary to the ancient, this week's roundup of literary news covers Argentina, Latin America, and Hong Kong.

This week, we’re taking a look at the precise and haunting work of a thrilling young Argentinian writer, celebrating and revelling in Latin American Indigenous literatures, and queuing up for a veritable mélange of literary and artistic events in the international hub of Hong Kong. It’s been a pretty good month.

Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large for Chile, reporting from Buenos Aires and Berlin:

On January 1, 2019, the New York Times reviewed Megan McDowell’s powerful translation of Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s book of short stories, Mouthful of Birds (originally titled Pájaros en la boca). In this review, the Times reveals what fans of contemporary Latin American fiction have known for years: that Schweblin’s haunting, claustrophobic writing is fascinating and addictive. Admittedly, Schweblin had previously received ample praise from critics in both the Spanish-speaking and Anglophone world. Among other accolades, we might consider: in 2010, the British magazine Granta named her a top young Spanish-language writer; Schweblin is a winner of the prestigious Juan Rulfo short story prize; she appeared on the Bogotá 39 list (2017), which lauded the top 39 Spanish-language authors under 40 years of age. READ MORE…

Classic Philosophy Meets Arabic Language: A Dialogue with Professor Peter Adamson

A tenth-century resident of Baghdad could read Arabic versions of just about everything by Aristotle that we can read today.

The great Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries changed the Near East and beyond politically, culturally, and, in a particularly profound and lasting way, linguistically, resulting in the near hegemony of the Arabic language. This new Islamic world took shape around an original and powerful new religion, but the consolidation of an Islamic civilisation was also a period of immense cultural exchange and mutual influence, not only from fellow Abrahamic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity, but also from the world of classical Mediterranean antiquity. Indeed, while knowledge of classical Greek science and philosophy fell into virtual oblivion in the Christian West, Islamic scholars kept the tradition alive by means of large scale translation projects and sophisticated philosophical works, from the Persian Avicenna to Baghdad’s legendary house of learning and the Andalusian polymath Averroes. In this interview, Professor Peter Adamson of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München talks us through this fascinating and often overlooked period in philosophical history by exploring the works of translation that made it possible.

Jonathan Egid (JE): By the time the grand translation projects of the early Islamic world began, the wonders of classical Greek philosophy had attained the status of ancient wisdom, almost one thousand years old and already much discussed and much translated. How did the works of Greek thinkers come to be translated into Arabic, and what was the interest in these ancient and foreign ideas?

Peter Adamson (PA): This was a process that unfolded over the course of centuries. The translation movement begins already in the eighth century CE and continues well into the tenth century. It was basically an initiative of the elites under the Abbasid caliphate, including even caliphs themselves and the caliphal family, who also had philosophers as court scholars. For instance, al-Kindī, the first philosopher to make explicit use of Hellenic materials in his own writing, was tutor to a caliph’s son and dedicated his most important work to the caliph himself. The translators were well paid experts, so this was a very deliberate and expensive undertaking managed from the top down. It should, however, be said that it was not something that was undertaken in a vacuum. For quite a long time there had already been translations made from Greek into Syriac and other Semitic languages, and these were a model for the Arabic translations (sometimes literally: it was known for works to be translated first into Syriac for the purpose of making an Arabic version on that basis). Also I would say the translation movement had a kind of momentum of its own: whereas at first the texts to be translated were really selected by the elite and for a variety of practical or political motives, eventually they get to the stage where they are translating the entire output of certain thinkers, or at least everything they can get their hands on, in a kind of completist project. So for instance, one of the greatest translators, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, was clearly trying to translate whatever he could by Galen, the most important Greek medical authority, while his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn worked his way through Aristotle.

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On Yu Yoyo, Language, and the Unsayable

from solitude I try to excavate / the human / but what I pull off are hairs from the haunches / of an animal

Poetry is a never-ending lesson in precision. The distillation of thirst, the evocation of experience, the cauterization of an open wound. Between the poets of the world and their various works there is a common acknowledgement of restraint—there is only so much we can do with words, and only so much words can mean. Claude Lévi-Strauss originated the term “floating signifier” to describe language that has only vague or contextual denotation, and in our contact with literature we gradually come to understand that such abstraction is the enemy of poetry. So we step gingerly around the words we know contain too much to unpack. Words like “hurt,” or “death,” or “love.”

Floating signifiers are especially insecure in translation, in which one often has to choose between music and intention, double meanings or single ones, visual effect or faithful retellings. They present a particular dilemma because a floating signifier in one language may not be one in the other. The Chinese language, painting with a full palette of the pictorial, the symbolic, the historical, and the literal, has a tangibility that does not lapse into the vague as easily as English does. Ernest Fenollosa, in his (flawed but admirable) studies, characterized Chinese characters as a medium for poetry. It is not that Chinese is inherently more possessive of the elusive idea of poetics, but rather that the facets of Chinese language that enchanted Fenollosa with their invocation of poetry are also what result in headaches for translators. We do not count our losses in translation. Instead, we admire the growth a poem may undergo as it leaves its writer’s hand and wanders onto the page, how it may cross oceans and national borders, how it lives, how it is alive, the way we know language to be.

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Translation Tuesday: “Forbidden to pass by and stay” by Oriette D’Angelo

I allied with your former lovers / emerged victorious / in the midst of the void

In this week’s Translation Tuesday, we are witnesses to a protest pulled forth from the body by outrage, sorrow, and an inherited music. Oriette D’Angelo’s poem is set to a revolutionary thrum of defiance against injustice. As we move with its lines, we arrive at a place that is not quite as simple as solace, but a space that resounds with the necessity for love. 

Forbidden to pass by and stay

My country is a protest march
a cry of rage
with thunder and dance music

You couldn’t handle the birds sleeping on my forehead
you fractured the entire structure of my deformed breasts
squeezed the throat to silence my body
so it wouldn’t scream:                    I don’t like what you say!

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Jumping Between the Urban and the Rural: An Interview with Rodrigo Fuentes

Characters can take on a life of their own as you write them, and that can hold a great amount of interest and suspense for me.

In late 2016, the Guatemalan publishing house SOPHOS put out Rodrigo Fuentes’s literary debut, entitled Trucha panza arriba. The book follows, sometimes closely and at other times tangentially, Don Henrik, a white landowner living in Guatemala, and the way his decisions and economic and emotional downfall affect those around him. The book includes intense dramas like “Dive—available in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 Issue—and “Ubaldo’s Island”; vibrating suspense stories like “Whisky”; and profound character explorations like “Henrik.” And all of them are wrapped in exquisite dialogue, like “Terrace,” my favorite story. I told Rodrigo it was my favorite.

“Really?” Rodrigo said, somehow confused.

“Sí,” I told him, and said it was a tight story. “Apretada,” I said, “elegantly condensed, effective, quick as a flash.” READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Start your weekend with up-to-the-minute literary dispatches from around the world!

This week, we highlight a new Latinx literary magazine, an award-winning Catalan poet and translator, and a German-American literary festival in New York. We also learn about a Salvadoran who hopes to increase access to literature in his city by raising enough funds to build and stock a new library.

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

The Fall 2018 debut of Palabritas, an online Latinx literary magazine founded by Ruben Reyes Jr., is good news for Latinx writers from a variety of genres, especially those who are unpublished. Palabritas’ creation was inspired by a night of celebration of spoken word, poetry, and performances hosted by Fuerza Latina, a pan-Latinx organization of Harvard College. Reyes, a Harvard student and the son of Salvadoran immigrants, felt it was important to give access to unpublished writers from Latinx communities that are often ignored, such as LGBTQ+, the diaspora, and mixed-race communities. By providing a space for Latinx writers from all communities, Reyes hopes to minimize the exclusivity of published writers and bring them side-by-side with previously unpublished writers in the magazine.

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Translating Zahia Rahmani: An Interview with Matt Reeck

I would say translating allows the translator to find new parts of him/herself, instead of leaving parts behind.

“I’m always surprised by how docile American intellectuals are when they enter the public space,” says Matt Reeck, the translator of Zahia Rahmani’s strikingly bold “Muslim”: A Novel. In the course of a wide-ranging interview with Asymptote Assistant Editor Erik Noonan, Reeck aims to challenge that dominant paradigm of always being “on our best behaviour.”

In our most in-depth Book Club interview to date, Reeck sifts through the “layers of imperial cultural history in Algeria”, makes an eloquent plea for the widening of the capital/cultural space currently allotted to translation, and suggests that “the translation of texts that are already domesticated work[s] against translation in a broader sense.”

Erik Noonan (EN): Discussing the role of the translator in your statement for the National Endowment for the Arts, you say that “In a globalized world, while we know more about many parts of the world that we didn’t have access to previously, often what we know seems to get cemented quickly into easy stereotypes. Then, in a way, we don’t know much more at all; we just know what we think we know.” Dealing with the potential of certain texts to expand our knowledge of the world, you also say, in a piece in The Los Angeles Review: “While university presses help by publishing some of these [truly exotic] works, they don’t take on others: the manuscript must match a list, and this list consolidates established emphases of teaching and research.” Your work includes research and teaching in the Comparative Literature Department at UCLA, I believe, as well as translation. How is your teaching related to your research and your translating, and has that relationship changed in any way over time?

Matt Reeck (MR): I’m interested in many things, and they don’t all necessarily fit anyone’s idea of a single pursuit, a single trajectory, a single work. But they do for me. They are unified by being the things I’m interested in! It would be nice to be able to teach things that match my translating interests and my research interests, but to date I’ve been able to do that only here and there. Fingers crossed this will change soon.

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What’s New in Translation: March 2019

Reviews of the newest and most exciting fiction from Korea, Denmark, and France, by Asymptote team members.

March brings with it a host of noteworthy new books in translation. In today’s post, Asymptote team members cover two novels set in the early twentieth century—Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time and Marcus Malte’s The Boy—along with Kim Yideum’s Blood Sisters, an exploration of a young woman’s traumatic coming-of-age.

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A Change of Time by Ida Jessen, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, Archipelago Books (2019)

Review by Rachael Pennington, Assistant Managing Editor

Weaving together diary entries, poems, letters (both opened and unopened) and song, Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, is a stirring reflection on death and mourning, loneliness, and female identity in a changing 20th century Denmark. Fru Bragge—almost always referred to by her married name—has just lost her husband. During a loveless marriage spanning more than two decades, she endured Vigand’s lack of affection and derisive comments in silence. Although she has finally gained her freedom in losing him, she has also lost all direction in life:

I feel like a person standing in a landscape so empty and open that it matters not a bit in which direction I choose to go. There would be no difference: north, south, east, or west, it would be the same wherever I went.

It is in this vast landscape, the heathlands of Denmark, that she begins to sift through her memories, uncovering the girl she was before she became Fru Bragge. During the day, she welcomes courteous visitors who come to pay their respects and packs away her late husband’s belongings for donation; during the evening, after darkness has fallen and the oil lamp in the window of her empty home is lit, she feels most comfortable. Here, surrounded by a “silence greater than silence” she writes in her diary, giving voice to a part of herself she had almost forgotten: “Thinking back, I almost feel envious of that young school-mistress. In fact, there is no almost about it.”

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Translation Tuesday: “Untimely Love” by Konstantinos Poulis

She’s grabbed Nikos tightly by the arm and they’re making their way together, huddled in a crowd trying its best not to run and cause a stampede.

On August 20, 2018, Greece officially exited from the series of bailout programs that had imposed vicious austerity on the Greek people ever since 2010. Now, an international narrative of Grecovery—a tale in which austerity triumphs and the curtain falls on the country’s alleged recent return to “normalcy”—has firmly taken root. But Greece’s so-called clean exit is much dirtier than they’d have us believe: the ongoing relief program ensures that the country will be shouldered with a brutal debt burden until at least 2060.

Konstantinos Poulis’ story “Untimely Love,” from his 2014 collection Thermostat, was first published when Greece’s crisis was a fixture of international headlines. Though it shares with Poulis’ other stories an interest in the power and perils of the human imagination, “Untimely Love” differs in the kinds of questions that it poses about its limits. How do we carry on when the outside world seems to have little space or patience for imagination? What happens to storytelling when circumstances (such as police strikes and teargas) conspire to cut short our daydreams of happy endings?

This was one of very few stories in Thermostat to foreground the crisis. Now, against the fairytale of Grecovery, Nikos and Maria’s untimely love acquires a new kind of timeliness. The national victory claimed by politicians (“We reached our destination,” Alexis Tsipras triumphantly pronounced on August 20, 2018) is hardly the kind of ending that, according to this story’s logic, would allow Nikos and Maria their own happily-ever-after. And though politicians and media have pronounced the crisis over, daily realities constantly shatter that illusion—just as they shatter Nikos’ fantasies of romance. In a manner of speaking, it still “simply isn’t an age for falling in love.”

—Translator Johanna Hanink

 

It was the sweetest love story that blossomed after the outbreak of the sovereign debt crisis. Times were tough, and no one would have expected that, in a tense era of rapacious capitalistic attacks on working people, at a time when the international capitalist financiers had declared open war, Nikos would fall in love with a girl, a regular sweetheart. She’d happened to pass by the office to see a colleague, Anastasia, who worked in Accounting. The problem is that Nikos didn’t have much of a relationship with Anastasia, so he didn’t have the courage to find out more about her friend. He just gazed at her every time she happened to drop by to get Anastasia so the two could leave together in the afternoon.

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Misshapen Shards: Yū Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station in Review

Yū Miri brings the periphery of tragedy into focus in dreamy, kaleidoscopic visions.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yū Miri, translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press, 2019

Tokyo Ueno Station, originally published in Japanese in 2014, is Yū Miri’s latest novel to arrive in English via the efforts of translator Morgan Giles and publisher Tilted Axis Press. Yū Miri was born in Yokohama, Japan, as a Zainichi, or a Korean living permanently in Japan. In 1997, she was awarded Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her semi-autobiographical novel Kazoku Shinema (Family Cinema). Her past writing has explored damaging family relationships and outsider identity in a predominantly homogenous Japanese society.1

In Ueno Park, one of Tokyo’s most famous public grounds, the blue tents of homeless communities, or “squatters,” have become an unfortunate icon. A simple Google search of “homeless Ueno Park” will return videos, articles, and even tourist reviews of the park, detailing the homeless camps found there. In Tokyo Ueno Station, Miri tells the story of a homeless man named Kazu who lives in one of these camps. Told from Kazu’s perspective, the novel reflects on the tragic events that landed him finally under the blue tents of Ueno Park. But no story can exist or be told in isolation: Yū Miri brings the periphery of tragedy into focus in dreamy, kaleidoscopic visions, intertwining Kazu’s past, the history of Ueno Park, and the state of modern Japanese society. Tokyo Ueno Station is a shattered mirror of prose, made of misshapen shards that don’t always connect but together reflect an image of a lost life and inevitable misfortune.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week, catch up on the latest literary news from Morocco, France, and Hong Kong!

We begin and end this week with a look at two of the winter’s biggest book fairs: Hodna Nuernberg accompanies us on a retrospective tour of the 25th Casablanca International Book Fair, while Barbara Halla lets us know what’s in store at next week’s Salon du Livre in Paris. Meanwhile, Editor-at-Large Jacqueline Leung, reporting from Hong Kong, updates us on a symposium taking place today to honor 2019 Newman Laureate Xi Xi.

Hodna Nuernberg, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Morocco

Oft-maligned by Morocco’s cultural elite, Casablanca’s international book fair came to a close on February 17. The twenty-fifth edition of the fair saw 560,000 visitors, or 62% more than in 2017, yet publishing houses bemoaned a lack of serious readers. Indeed, the book fair, whose 10-dirham entry fee—about $1—is roughly the price of a big-city café au lait, is a resolutely popular affair where boiled-chickpea sellers rub elbows with poets, children careen wildly from stand to stand clutching brand-new Barbie notebooks, and azans ring out on loop from the Saudi pavilion. This year, 720 exhibitors from forty-two countries offered up some 128,000 titles, about a quarter of which were literary works. Although 80% of books published in Morocco in 2017-2018 were in Arabic, French punches above its weight in the literary domain, accounting for 30% of all published novels.

Catastrophe was narrowly avoided when Éditions Malika’s stand went up in flames during the fair’s final weekend. Apparently the result of a poorly-wired outlet, the fire destroyed much of the small Casablanca-based publisher’s stock and could have done much worse given that there were no fire extinguishers on site when the fire broke out. Fortunately, the Council of the Moroccan Community Abroad had brought their own and saved the day. After the ashes were swept away and the shelves restocked, one of the book fair’s finest offerings could be found at Éditions Malika: the sumptuously illustrated Casablanca, nid d’artists by Kenza Sefrioui and Leïla Slimani, which features the work of 115 artists.

Meanwhile, New York-based artist Meriem Bennani is back in Morocco, working on a film project about French soft power and neocolonialism for the upcoming Whitney Biennale. The project involves filming the well heeled students of Bennani’s alma mater, Rabat’s Lycée Descartes—the crown jewel of the French Republic’s mission étrangère, whose tuition is about twice Morocco’s annual official minimum wage. Bennani describes it as a kind of “coming out” in the context of a society that has been quick to label her work as that of a marginalized minority artist.

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Rawness and Taboo: Kono Taeko’s Toddler Hunting and Other Stories in Review

There’s a rawness in these stories that leaves the reader feeling bare, visible, and reflective.

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Toddler Hunting and Other Stories, collection written by Kono Taeko, translated from the Japanese by Lucy North and Lucy Lower, New Directions, 2018

Reviewed by Clayton McKee, Copy Editor

Interior and exterior, public and private, Kono Taeko explores constructed façades in social situations and crashes them down in intimate settings. Each of the narratives in Toddler Hunting and Other Stories delves into the feminine psyche and investigates themes of motherhood and family. Shifts from exterior persona to interior desire rupture Kono’s cold prose, shocking the reader out of socially normative interactions and thrusting them into the taboos lurking deep inside, followed by a quick return to her straight-faced writing. This keeps readers on their toes, not knowing when the next rupture will occur. Contrasting the interior with the exterior and social expectations with personal desires has the effect of enrapturing, sometimes shocking the reader, plunging them into the depths of her/his own imaginary and propelling each story forward.

Kono Taeko is considered amongst the most influential Japanese women writers that first made an appearance in the 1960s. Her impressive portfolio includes over a dozen works in Japanese, all centered on unexplored aspects of human character—female characters in particular, further pushing the envelope not only on these unexplored aspects but also on a gender that was underexplored in Japanese literature at the time. Kono comes to the English-speaking world in this translated collection published by New Directions, which includes a lot of her short fiction written during the sixties. Not only was she the first woman to be on the committee for the Akutagawa Literary Prize, but she also received that prize in 1963, followed by the Yomiuri Prize in 1969 and the Tanizaki Prize in 1980. Before dying in 2015, she was also awarded a Bunka Kunshō, or Order of Culture, which is presented by the Emperor.

The titular story, “Toddler Hunting,” delves deep into the psyche of Akiko, a character with a strong distaste for little girls and a strange attraction to little boys. Her disgust for female children led her to not desire kids at all, and knowing that her “fear” is not logical, she hides behind a façade of disgust for all children. This disgust is contradicted, however, as she impulsively buys lavish clothing for young boys, only to gift them to her acquaintances’ boys in hopes to watch them “crossing [their] chubby arms over [their] chest, concentrating with all [their] might . . .”  just to take the shirt off by themselves. Akiko describes such things as an “intensely pleasurable.” READ MORE…

Waldeen’s Neruda: Translating the Dance

She understood the essential relationship between poetry and music and their common root in dance. This was her secret.

Yesterday’s Translation Tuesday featured Pablo Neruda’s “Coming of the Rivers” sequence in an astonishing and previously unpublished translation by Waldeen. How did Waldeen capture the voice and tone of Neruda’s poetry so accurately, and why have such elegant translations remained in obscurity for almost seventy years? Poet and translator Jonathan Cohen, a close friend of Waldeen, explains the history—and the secrets—behind her Neruda translations.

Waldeen von Falkenstein (1913–1993)—known as a dancer and writer by her first name alone—has yet to receive the full recognition she deserves for her work as a translator of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. The poetic achievement of her translations and their influence on American poetry merit more attention. Waldeen’s elegant renderings of poems that would form Neruda’s epic masterpiece, Canto General (1950), translations that she published in the late 1940s and early 1950s, introduced Neruda and his image-driven poetics to many readers. Among them were poets like the Beats looking for alternatives to the prevailing formalist mode of verse, who found in him, through her, a model poet.

Waldeen achieved fame in Mexico as the founder of modern dance there. In 1956, Diego Rivera, one of the principal gods of Mexican art, lavished praise on Waldeen for her contribution to Mexican culture (“In each of her dance movements, she offered our country a jewel”). His tribute to her appeared in a major newspaper of Mexico, where he went beyond his accolades of her dance work to also celebrate her as a poet-translator: “I can bear witness to this not only by the intensity of emotion I felt in the verses of this beautiful and admirable woman, but through the testimony, as well, of our Walt Whitman of Indo-America, Pablo Neruda, who wrote to her, deeply moved, after she translated poetry of his into English: ‘Waldeen, thank you, for your poems of my poems, which are better than mine.’ ”

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Translation Tuesday: “Coming of the Rivers” by Pablo Neruda, exclusive translation by Waldeen

You were fashioned out of streams / and lakes shimmered on your forehead.

Poet-translator Jonathan Cohen has recovered these stunning translations of Pablo Neruda’s poetry, made in 1950 by the extraordinary Waldeen. Who? Learn about her and the secret of her translations in Cohen’s essay, “Waldeen’s Neruda,” appearing on our blog tomorrow. Here, published for the first time in this week’s Translation Tuesday, is her rendering of the complete “Coming of the Rivers” sequence. Comprising five poems, the sequence comes from the opening section of Neruda’s epic Canto General titled “La lámpara en la tierra” (“Lamp in the Earth”) in which he celebrates the creation of South America.

 

Coming of the Rivers

Beloved of rivers, assailed by

blue water and transparent drops,

apparition like a tree of veins,

a dark goddess biting into apples:

then, when you awoke naked,

you were tattooed by rivers,

and on the wet summits your head

filled the world with new-found dew.

Water trembled about your waist.

You were fashioned out of streams

and lakes shimmered on your forehead.

From your dense mists, Mother, you

gathered water as if it were vital tears,

and dragged sources to the sands

across the planetary night,

traversing sharp massive rocks,

crushing in your pathway

all the salt of geology,

felling compact walls of forest,

splitting the muscles of quartz.

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