Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Catch up on this week’s latest news in Morocco, Sweden, Vietnam, and France!

This week, our editors are bringing you news from Morocco, Sweden, Vietnam, and France In Morocco, changes to the ministry of communication are affecting book imports. In Sweden, the announcement of the August Prize has brought excitement, whilst the awarding of the Tucholsky Prize to Swedish-Chinese writer Gui Minhai has been met with indignation in China. In Vietnam, the sales of a much-anticipated translation of bestseller South Korean writer Cho Nam-joo have not been as expected. In France, the centennial of Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop was celebrated. Read on to find out more!

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

Last month, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI ordered major bureaucratic reform, slashing the government’s thirty-nine member cabinet to just twenty-four—the smallest ever—and doing away with the ministry of communication. While the official line was that the ministry was no longer necessary to regulate the kingdom’s newspapers (a convincing argument, given the state of Morocco’s oppositional press), the abolition of the ministry has had a perhaps unintended side effect: all book imports have been blocked in customs since early October.

The first article of Morocco’s 2003 Press Code guaranteed the freedom of domestic publications. Foreign books, on the other hand, were subject to the ministry of communication’s control. Prior to the October reform, this control was carried out by the foreign publications bureau of the ministry’s public relations division. As such, the bureau was responsible for “analyzing the content of foreign publications” and delivering (or not) the visas necessary for importation. Although Morocco does not officially practice state censorship, this process allowed the king to uphold his three red lines (the monarchy, the kingdom’s “territorial integrity,” and Islam), which were enshrined in article 29 of the Press Code. READ MORE…

The Troubling Biography of Corneliu M. Popescu

Rhyming “outblaze” with “always” suggests an intuitive understanding of the English language.

In 1977, a massive earthquake erupted from sinister pith of the Vrancea Mountains, with a magnitude of 7.2 on the Richter Scale. The city of Bucharest partially crumbled on top of itself. In weight of damage, that meant destruction to approximately 33,000 buildings, wounds to 11,300 people, and death to 1,578 people—including actors, singers, film directors, writers . . . and a nineteen-year-old translator named Corneliu M. Popescu.

Born at the end of the 1950s, a decade that represented the height of communist censorship, Corneliu Popescu was ultimately swept away by the violent waves of the era he lived in. The sporty and sociable son of a lawyer, “Cornel” was offered a good education: while most people studied Russian in school, Cornel studied English with Ion Kleanthe Gheorghiu, who had been Romania’s ambassador in London, shortly before being imprisoned for anti-communist activities. Much of the boy’s short life seemed governed by the power of the moment, polymorphous in its guise as coincidence or destiny: perhaps subconsciously aware of the importance of now, he was effectively a savant, translating Treasure Island into Romanian at age ten. At around sixteen, enamored with the foamy intensity of Mihai Eminescu’s poetry, he began translating the poet, something only his parents and teachers knew about. Agreeing to postpone publication so that he could fully dedicate himself to preparing for medical school (a scholarship at Humboldt University had been lined up for him), Cornel edited his manuscript up to the day of his death: March 4, 1977. As he had arrived home from a tutoring session earlier than expected, the earthquake caught up to him at home. He was found in the arms of his mother the next day, amidst the rubble.


The Grammar of Allegory: A Review of Hebe Uhart’s The Scent of Buenos Aires

Uhart’s characters often tread this line between innocence and incredible wisdom.

The Scent of Buenos Aires by Hebe Uhart, translated from the Spanish by Maureen Shaughnessy, Archipelago, 2019

Hebe Uhart’s The Scent of Buenos Aires is a series of musings on the complex makings of place that embodies the spirit of this city, revealing a secret magic woven into the countless lives that buzz at its center. Her stories highlight mundane, quotidian experience—from dinner parties to rides on the subway—but the aura of each piece is tinged with the surreal, the uncanny, emanating a subtle strangeness unique to her characteristic voice.

Prior to her death in 2018, Uhart’s life was defined by her meticulous attention to the world and its inhabitants, a perspective that enriched her interest in literature and philosophy. Her authorial career spanned several novels, Spanish-language short story collections, and literary workshops; she also served as a professor of philosophy at Argentina’s National University of Lomas de Zamora for several years. Uhart’s work has won numerous accolades (including Argentina’s 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Prize) and is defined by its ambiguous narrators, quietly humorous characters who display a certain skepticism about the world and the fickle nature of life. Although her stories reverberate with rich description, intricate details, and lively personalities—often functioning as direct projections of her own lived experiences—plot is never of major importance, the absence of which renders her work somewhat still, devoid of much action or narrative thrust. Instead, Uhart’s concern is that of the particulars, the subtle ways that perception unfurls from a specific point of focus, and though her life was dense with movement and progression, her work invites us to pause and pay attention to how we, ourselves, perceive our surroundings. 


Translation Tuesday: “Theory of Affections” by Luca Argel

I always thought that this was a universal truth.

For this week’s Translation Tuesday, Luca Argel spins a simple observation into a theory of relation and attachment. Trafficking in clichés that are made vivid by honest prose, this piece of micro-fiction outlines an order of love in what is often considered an extremely sterile place, devoid of culture: the supermarket. For the narrator, the simple task of prioritizing food on a shelf based on the date it was produced or purchased leads to a revelation about duration and relationships. It is not often that fiction so accurately represents the metonymic understandings that are developed at young ages by considering relations between things and people. Argel’s writing suggests that metaphor is alive and well in the mind of a child; and these metaphors stay with us as comforting touchstones throughout our lives.

I’ve enjoyed supermarkets a lot more ever since I left my parents’ house. I remember my mother telling me that they always place the almost-expired products in the front, and the newer ones in the back. I always thought that this was a universal truth: “all supermarkets have a policy of storing newer products in the back and older products in the front, so customers grab the older ones first.” But that’s not always the case. Today, for instance, the peas on the back of the shelf have the same expiration date as the peas on the front of the shelf. Generally, in the canned goods section, this rule doesn’t apply. But it does in the bakery section; in the bakery section, it never fails! You always need to look for the fresher products, for the ones that will last longer. When we got home, my father would arrange the groceries like that: recently purchased food went to the back of the pantry, while everything that had been there for a while came to the front. At a certain point in my childhood, I began to suspect that my parents had met at a supermarket. One day, she was looking for the freshest heart of palm; he was in the aisle behind her, looking for the freshest mayonnaise, and when they got to the back of the shelf, they realized that the shelf didn’t have a back, one looking right at the other.


An Impeccable English: Notes on the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature

The unstated significance of the way the books are written in English is the meaning of the Translated Literature Award.

As both writers and readers anticipate the results of the National Book Awards this upcoming Wednesday, we at Asymptote, to no surprise, are keeping a particular eye out for the outcome of the Translated Literature category. In this following essay, Assistant Editor Erik Noonan gives us a probing and interrogative look at the five books on the shortlist, looking beyond content to pursue answers regarding the linguistic journeys that these works have taken, in order to be chosen.

With the reinstatement of the Translated Literature category, the National Book Foundation is clearly attempting to correct the gender and culture biases of years past. From the beginning of the category in 1967 until 1983, when it was discontinued, every winning author was European with only four exceptions: Yasunari Kawabata in 1971, the anonymous author of The Confessions of Lady Nijo in 1974, the anonymous Chinese author(s) of Master Tung’s Wester Chamber Romance in 1977, and Ichiyō Higuchi with the Japanese authors of the Ten Thousand Leaves anthology in 1982. Lady Nijō and Higuchi were the only two women, albeit long deceased, to be awarded during the prize’s first iteration. Among the translators, Karen Brazell and Helen R. Lane won in 1974, Clara Winston won with Richard Winston in 1978, and Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link won in 1980. The rest were male. In 2018, the category was reinstated and the entry criteria revised, so that both the author and the translator had to be alive at the beginning of the awards cycle to qualify. Last year, the first of its new phase, author Yōko Tawada and translator Margaret Mitsutani took the award for The Emissary. This year, you can expect this corrective trend to continue (for example, every book on the longlist was written in a different language). READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

This week's literary news comes from Chile, Guatemala, and the UK.

This week our writers report on a timely translation of a Chilean novel, a new translation of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s classic, The Little Prince, into Kaqchikel, literary prizes in Guatemala, and grime rapper Stormzy’s pop-up publishing event in London. Read on to find out more!

Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Santiago

In a recent op-ed in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera (October 19, 2019; trans. Natasha Wimmer published in The Paris Review), writer Nona Fernández speculates as to the nature of the “big joke” responsible for the massive protests against President Sebastián Piñera’s neoliberal policies, among other social and political issues:

The fare hike? The minister of the economy’s advice to take advantage of cheaper early morning fares and get up at 6 A.M.? The pizza that President Piñera is eating right now at an upscale Santiago restaurant, deaf to the voice of the city? The pathetic pensions of our retirees? The depressing state of our public education? Our public health? The water that doesn’t belong to us? The militarization of Wallmapu, the ancestral territory of the Mapuche people? The incidents apparently staged by soldiers to incriminate Mapuches? The shameful treatment of our immigrants? The hobbling of our timid abortion law, due to government approval of conscientious objection for conservative doctors? The ridiculous concentration of privileges in the hands of a small minority? Persistent tax evasion by that same minority? The corruption and embezzlement scandals within the armed forces and the national police? The media monopoly of the big conglomerates, owners of television channels, newspapers, and radio stations? The constitution written under the dictatorship that still governs us to this day? Our mayors, representatives, and senators who once worked for Pinochet? Our pseudodemocracy?


What’s New with the Crew? (Nov 2019)

From being appointed President of ALTA to launching new poetry collections, Asymptote staff have been dazzling the world!

Is Asymptote edited anonymously? That was what someone seemed to suggest recently on Twitter—as if we were a bunch of bots. As a matter of fact, our editor-in-chief—and only full-time team member—is based in Taipei (although he made an appearance in a London translation symposium recently, which you can read about below), where he collaborates with 90+ team members from around the globe. Being virtual means our team members are often active (and physically present) literary citizens in other arenas. For evidence, look no further than this quarterly update celebrating our staff’s recent accomplishments.

Chris Tanasescu (aka MARGENTO, editor-at-large for Romania & Moldova) jointly presented with Diana Inkpen a paper on “Poetry beyond Poetry: Applying GraphPoem Outcomes in DH, NLP, and Performance” at DH Benelux 2019.

Please join us in congratulating Ellen Elias-Bursać, contributing editor, appointed to President of the American Literary Translators Association on Nov 7.

Editor-at large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood‘s most recent co-translations with Peter Sherwood Big Love by Balla and The Night Circus and Other Stories by Ursula Kovalyk were recently reviewed in The London Magazine by assistant editor Andreea Scridon.

José García Escobar, editor-at-large for Central America, published the first installment in a four-part series about last year’s migrant caravan at the Evergreen Review on Oct 30. READ MORE…

Wind and Wood and Word Sonnets: Toward a Multilingual Tradition in Translation

Wind and Wood reveals new possibilities for translation and reinforces the maxim that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Poetry is a living creature; the aim of translators is not to tame it, but to cut its reins so that it may run free. This exceptional variousness is exemplified in the quadrilingual edition of word sonnets by Seymour Mayne: Wind and Wood, published in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. This work is the second sequence of Mayne’s larger collection, Cusp: Word Sonnets (2014), which marked fifty years since his poetry first appeared in Montreal. A translation of the entire collection into Russian (translated by Mikhail Rykov, Silver Age press) was launched on October 24 at Library and Archives Canada. In this essay, Daniel Persia, Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Brazil, discusses the new territory that this tremendous edition breaches, the generous particularities of Mayne’s form, and the dimensions of a single line, in different clothing.

Why settle for a good poem in one language when you can read it in four? Canadian poet and translator Seymour Mayne takes the art of the word sonnet to a new level in his quadrilingual collection Wind and Wood, published by Malisia Editorial (Argentina) just last year. In addition to an interview with Mayne himself—in which the author talks about the “intimate and creative relationship” between writer and translator—the collection brings thirty-three word sonnets, originally written in English, into Spanish (Mariá Laura Spoturno et al.,) French (Véronique Lessard and Marc Charron,) and Portuguese (Maria da Conceição Vinciprova Fonesca). Transcending the traditional two-language paradigm while exploring themes of aging, nostalgia, and the passing of time, Wind and Wood reveals new possibilities for translation and reinforces the age-old maxim that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Translation Tuesday: “The Most Solemn Song” and “Asleep in a Haze” by Nadia Anjuman

No one reads the book of your heart’s happy anthems

This week’s Translation Tuesday features the devotional work of Nadia Anjuman. Under pressure, the poems sing out—but not so much to the divine Patriarch as do many religious songs. Created under political pressure in Afghanistan, Anjuman’s poems speak to a feminine subject free from repressive structures. When she says “If one strand of hope finds me” one gets the impression that the “me” is the subject who speaks free of the restraints of strict gender norms. The self is shuttled into wispy metaphors of string and haze, surviving, on the back of lyric, as opaque lightness. The style of Islamic mystics is breathlessly combined with resolutely feminist concerns—the result is a dire urgency. Anjuman ultimately died under the same oppression she was writing against, and her poems give testament to the pervasiveness and resilience of song. The stakes are high here—read carefully. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation: November 2019

November’s best new translations, chosen by the Asymptote staff.

November brings plenty of exciting new translations and our writers have chosen four varied, yet equally enriching and timely works: Bohumil Hrabal’s memoir that is at once a detailed study of humans’ relationship with cats and an exploration of dealing with mounting pressures and stress; a debut collection of Chilean short stories which explores social and economic difficulties and sheds light on some of the causes behind Chile’s recent social unrest; Hiromi Kawakami’s follow-up novella to the international bestseller, Strange Weather in Tokyo; and a novel set on the Chagos Archipelago which recounts the expulsion of Chagossians from the island of Diego Garcia and examines cultural identity and exile. Read on to find out more!


All My Cats by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson, New Directions, 2019

Review by Katarzyna Bartoszyńska, Educational Arm Assistant

Bohumil Hrabal’s All My Cats is not for the faint of heart. Though fans of the author will recognize and appreciate the quirky humor and lyrical melancholy, one must also be prepared to take on the harsher aspects of the story, and I suspect that the uninitiated may find the descriptions of cats being murdered a bit much to take. The short memoir documents the author’s relationship to the feral cats living in his country cottage in Kersko, and his anguished labors to brutally limit their number. It is a lovely homage, and a richly evocative account of the pleasures of feline companionship, with lush descriptions of their delicate paws and velvety noses. We become acquainted with each individual kitty and their distinctive markings, habits, and personalities, but these rhapsodic stories are punctuated by episodes of grim slaughter that are depressingly specific—a morose account of an awful deed. And so, gradually, horrifyingly, this becomes a book about guilt and how it shapes one’s worldview, producing a strange reckoning of crime and punishment that reads retribution in the random alignments of events.

Witnessing Hrabal shuttling back and forth between his life in Prague and Kersko, we begin to notice that his concerns about his cats are combined with a steadily accumulating sense of anxiety and torment about his work, neighbors, and life. “What are we going to do with all those cats?” his wife asks, in an echoing refrain, as new litters of kittens, inexorably, arrive. The book is about the cats, but we start to realize that it is also not about the cats, not really, but rather, about how Hrabal struggles to manage the various stresses of his life more generally as he gains success and recognition as a writer. Haunted by his guilt over the murdered creatures, he surveys the world around him, reflecting on the relationship between art and suffering, and increasingly begins to feel that he is a plaything of fate, doomed to unhappiness, with no choice but surrender. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Our editors have you covered with the latest news in world literature!

This week, our editors report on the commemoration of Amjad Nasser, one of Jordan’s most celebrated writers, as well as Syrian poet Adonis’ discussion with his translator Khaled Mattawa at London’s Southbank Centre. From Brazil, the International Literary Festival of the Peripheries (FLUP) and the Mulherio das Letras have taken place, with both festivals seeking to give voice to underrepresented writers and speakers. In France, the winners of two of the most prestigious literary awards were announced at the beginning of the week. Read on to find out more!

Ruba Abughaida, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Lebanon

This week, word-lovers celebrate the life and work of Jordanian poet, novelist, essayist, and travel memoirist Amjad Nasser (1955-2019), who launched his writing career as a journalist and activist for Palestinian rights. His debut poetry collection, Praise for Another Café, was published in 1979 when he was just twenty-four years old. A Map of Signs and Scents, a collection of sixty poems spanning from 1979-2014 and published by Northwestern University Press, features new English translations of his work by Fady Joudah and Khaled Mattawa.

In 2014, his poem A Song and Three Questions, was praised by Saison Poetry Library as “one of the fifty greatest love poems of the last fifty years.” Translator Jonathan Wright said of Nasser’s lyrical novel Land of No Rain: “I’m not sure what to call Land of No Rain. The publishers call it a novel. I call it a meditation.” 

The UK’s Southbank Literature Festival saw Syrian poet Adonis in conversation with Khaled Mattawa, Libyan poet and Adonis’ regular translator. They discussed poetry, translation, the blurred cultural lines between geographical points of East and West, and read their poems to a packed audience.  READ MORE…

Announcing Our October Book Club Selection: And the Bride Closed the Door by Ronit Matalon

Redemption, Matalon appears to be saying, demands something like inclusive ambiguity.

Ronit Matalon is known for her unwavering aesthetic, keen social awareness, and profound insight into family. For the month of October, Asymptote Book Club is proud to present her latest novel, And the Bride Closed the Door. Awarded Israel’s prestigious Brenner Prize a day before she died of cancer, this humorous and tender work captures a chaotic politics in the intimate microcosm of a single family, combining Matalon’s tremendous literary talents with her passion for interrogating identity, both public and private.

An apology and very special thank you to our European subscribers, who’ve had to wait a bit longer than usual for the book to reach them (hence, too, this somewhat late announcement). Though it’s been famously said that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays couriers from the swift completion of their rounds,” today’s postal service must fend with much more than the elements; there’s no accounting for logistic mishaps on a global scale! Luckily, thanks to New Vessel and Asymptote’s efforts, Europe-bound copies of the book were finally rescued from postal limbo. Our loyal subscribers will now all receive a lasting gift: a brilliant author and activist writing in her singular language, rescuing empathy from the tumult.

The Asymptote Book Club is bringing the foremost titles in translated fiction every month to readers in the US, the UK, and the EU. For as little as USD15 per book, you can sign up to receive next month’s selection on our website; once you’re a member, you can join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

And the Bride Closed the Door by Ronit Matalon, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, New Vessel Press, 2019

Young Margie locks herself up in her bedroom on her wedding day. Save for a brief but damning avowal“Not getting married. Not getting married. Not getting married”—she falls silent for hours. Efforts to dissuade her prove useless: after pleading, pounding, and heatedly debating the merits of a locksmith, her relatives turn to a company said to quell pre-wedding jitters. The firm’s appointed expert can’t get the bride to open the door, but manages to tap on her third-floor window after an electrician from the Palestinian Authority chips in with his lift truck. Little comes of their gymnastics, however: Margie issues a handwritten “sorry” and retreats. The scant missive and a gender-tweaked excerpt from a classic Israeli poem are her only hints at communication. READ MORE…

The Harmony of Normalcy: Wang Anyi’s Fu Ping in Review

In the patchwork format by which this novel takes its shape, the reader is as involved and intimate with the surroundings as one of the characters.

Fu Ping by Wang Anyi, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, Columbia University Press, 2019

First, do not create extraordinary circumstances or extraordinary characters. Second, do not use too much material. Three, do not over-stylize the language. Four, do not aspire to be singular.

These strange and somewhat alienating pillars of writing philosophy are passed on to us by Wang Anyi, one of China’s most accomplished and notorious authors. Famed for her meticulous portrayals of female tenacity, ordinary citizens, and everyday minutia, she is both stylistically audacious and devoted to her subjects. Fu Ping, her most recent novel to be translated into English, and taken into a wonderfully equal rendition by Howard Goldblatt, exemplifies the thematic and aesthetic constants prevalent in her oeuvre, while simultaneously creating an illumination of city and community that leaves remarkably deep impressions by way of its quietude. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “The Hot-Air Balloon” by Vassilis Alexakis

In reality, it’s like all words, with good and bad attributes, capable of protecting a thought as much as betraying a meaning.

This week’s Translation Tuesday features microfiction by Vassilis Alexakis. “The Hot-Air Balloon” begins and ends in an ambiguity, thickly described. The prose is structured around a choice without mooring, a choice that presents itself only to give way to the realization that a language system is something that only appears all-encompassing. By intellectualizing the feeling of infinite choice within a closed system and the eventual choice to leave it, Alexakis acutely describes a weightlessness only obtainable by those who walk between epistemologies. In the end, it is the feeling of the transcendence of the system, thematized as an air-balloon, that prevails. It is only through a meditation on words that we can unmoor ourselves from a system. This airy story depicts well the critical posture, especially of those with multiple languages to rely on.

I was asked to write a definition for a word without knowing which one. I had no hesitation. The more arduous a task, the more it fills me with joy. If I’d been given a word, I would’ve felt some pressure; I would’ve felt trapped. Now that I’ve briefly surveyed the entirety of the lexicon, I feel free as if I were being carried in a hot-air balloon.

Is it a masculine or feminine-gendered word? From my point of view, this question is of no concern. Besides, it’s not uncommon for a word’s synonyms to be of the opposite gender. READ MORE…