Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

From literary festivals to prize winners, this is the week in world literature.

This week, dispatches from Spain and Central America witness the rise of Spanish-language writers and events that support and promote the literatures of up-and-comers alongside established stars of the field. To celebrate the community of world literature is a necessary joy, and our editors are here with the revelry. 

Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain  

It was time for big celebrations in a tiny, trilingual bookshop located in the centre of Madrid on the night of May 10. Francesca Reece had been named winner of the second ever Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize, and ten other writers were being honoured alongside her in the publication of Eleven Stories 2019, the shortlist for the competition which follows after the sold out original Eleven Stories from their inaugural 2018 contest.

The event celebrated the launch of the mini collection with readings from ten of the eleven shortlisted authors. The project is an international prize based out of the bookshop Desperate Literature in Madrid, but with partners in London, Paris, and New York, it has drastically evolved over just its first year. After feedback from the inaugural winner and shortlist, the founders decided to add a one week stay as the artist-in-residence at the Civitella Ranieri in Italy, and a consultation with a New York literary agent who works for Foundry Literary + Media. With the aim of giving as much support to emerging and non-traditional writers as possible, they sought to develop additional assistance alongside a cash prize and are looking to continue this line of development for next year’s iteration. This year they partnered with five literary journals: 3:AM, Structo Magazine, Helter Skelter, The London Magazine, and The Second Shelf (women only), who will publish stories from the shortlist throughout the year. They also added a collaboration with the Casa Ana in Andalucia, who selected Jay G Ying from the shortlist for another residency.

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Thirteen Keys to a Doorless House in Toledo: On Tela de sevoya by Myriam Moscona

The Ladino language has etched on her tongue the addresses of countless houses in the Jewish Quarters of Toledo and Burgos.

Myriam Moscona’s Tela de sevoya (Onioncloth) was published in English in 2017, translated from the Ladino by Antena (Jen Hofer with John Pluecker). In today’s essay, Asymptote’s Sergio Sarano, himself a Ladino speaker, uses Moscona’s book as a starting point to explore the language and its history, shaped by the complex migrations of the Jewish diaspora. Sergio also discusses Ladino’s current status as an endangered language and highlights the important role that Moscona, as one of just a few writers who continue to publish in Ladino, has to play in keeping the language alive.

“I come upon a city
I remember
that there lived
my two mothers
and I wet my feet
in the rivers
that from these and other waters
arrive to this place”

—Myriam Moscona

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Philosophical Thriller: Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Chaos: A Fable in Review

Chaos might have the pace of a thriller, but it has the timely relevance and pointed insight of many a great novel.

Chaos: A Fable by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray, AmazonCrossing, 2019.

Imagine finding yourself in an unknown country, with no understanding of how you got there and the taste of dread in your mouth, and you’ll have a good sense of how it feels to read acclaimed Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novella Chaos: A Fable. According to the publisher’s synopsis, Chaos sets out to be both a “provocative morality tale” and a “high-tech thriller,” and, indeed, it seems to land somewhere between the two: think John le Carré “espionoir” meets Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

Translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray, Chaos is Rey Rosa’s nineteenth novel (the seventh to be translated into English). It follows Mexican writer Rubirosa as he reconnects with an old friend in Morocco and, by agreeing to a seemingly simple favor, finds himself drawn into an international plot to end human suffering by bringing about a technological apocalypse. Chaos indeed.

For a novel titled Chaos, it is perhaps unsurprising that I found the reading experience itself disorientating; so much so, in fact, that as soon as I read the last line, I had to flick back to page one and read it all again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. (Fortunately, at only 197 pages, you can pretty much do so in one sitting.) Starting—mundanely enough—at a book fair in Tangier, the novella takes the reader on a breath-taking ride via the United States and Greece to Turkey. And I’m sure that, even on a second read, there were allusions and references that went far over my head.

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Translation Tuesday: “Winter is Good for Fish” by Anna Weidenholzer

When your house pet freezes to death in the refrigerator, you’re faced with an unpleasant situation.

This week’s Translation Tuesday draws us into the mind of a middle-aged woman named Maria, who is struggling to find a job. As she moves through her humdrum morning routine, Maria’s thoughts stray to her parents, her husband, and her former employer, and, from these fragmentary memories, we begin to piece together the circumstances that led to her current situation. In a prose colored with pathos and loneliness, Anna Weidenholzer, in Elisabeth Lauffer’s translation, nevertheless maintains a lightness and humor that make this story a pleasure to read. 

When he opens the door, I’ll say, Thank you for the invitation. I’ll say, My name is Maria Beerenberger, pleased to meet you. Have a seat, he’ll say, offering me a chair. I will have known what to wear. I will have thought about how I’d describe myself as a person. He’ll be wearing a necktie and a silver wristwatch. He’ll say, Frau Beerenberger, tell me a little bit about yourself. Gladly, I’ll say, gladly. I am familiar with the material. At least I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. And now we wait. What are you saying, he’ll ask. Frau Beerenberger, what are you talking about. Well, I’ll say, I am sitting across from you because I know the things people say, people who know what life is all about, because I’ll be one of those people. I didn’t believe in myself, you see, I didn’t believe in my future. Why, he’ll ask. Please explain. Then he’ll fall silent, lean back in his seat. Very well, I will say. As you wish. The day goes on, the light goes out, my neighbor used to say. Let’s start at the end.

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Announcing a New Contest Judged by Nobel Prizewinner J. M. Coetzee

Tell us about a writer who deserves to be better known in the Anglophone world.

We’re thrilled to announce that none other than Nobel Prizewinner J. M. Coetzee (pictured above) will be helping us ring in our 9th anniversary in a special way—by helping us award up to $1,000 in prizes through an essay contest.

Open to translators and non-translators alike, this competition “invites essays introducing a writer working in a language other than English whose oeuvre deserves more attention than it currently receives from the English-speaking world.”

After checking out the two Writers on Writers essays—introducing Samanta Schweblin and Wang Shuo—from our latest issue, get cracking on your own essay (full guidelines can be found here). As long as you enter by October 1st, you stand a chance of winning a share of the prize money and publication in our special Winter 2020 edition. If you frequent an English university department or cool bookstores or cafes, help spread the word by printing and putting up this poster below!  READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation: May 2019

Your guide to this month’s newest literature in translation.

This month brings us a set of novels in translation from some of the giants of international literature: László Krasznahorkai, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Ananda Devi. These reviews by Asymptote team members will give you a taste of an exiled baron’s return to his home town, a meditation on fascism and gender relations, and the decline of an older woman living in a London divided by race and class. 

baron

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, New Directions, 2019

Review by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor

“With this novel,” László Krasznahorkai told Adam Thirwell in their conversation for the Paris Review, “I can prove that I really wrote just one book in my life . . . When you read it, you’ll understand. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming must be the last.”

Ottilie Mulzet’s English translation of Báró Wenckheim hazatér has, understandably, been one of this year’s most keenly-anticipated books. It opens with a “Warning,” a labyrinthine eight-page sentence ending with a sigh of weariness that merits quoting at some length:

I don’t like at all what we are about to bring together here now, I confess, because I’m the one who is supervising everything here, I am the one—not creating anything—but who is simply present before every sound, because I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

This week in literary news, we recognize the ones who created the world we live in.

We are out for justice this week on “Around the World with Asymptote.” From Brazil, a question of diversity is in the spotlight of contemporary literature. In China, the hundred-year-old May Fourth Movement continues to captivate with its relevance. And over in the UK, the fight for the Man Booker is on. We’re taking you around the world to the major literary events and publications of today, and it’s pretty clear: there are still plenty of us out there fighting the good fight.

Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Brazil

It’s been a controversial few weeks here in Brazil, as the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS) canceled one of its upcoming events in Rio de Janeiro, scheduled to take place from May 7-9. The workshop, Oficina Irritada (Poetas Falam), received heavy backlash for the lineup’s lack of diversity; though the program claimed to represent “different generations” and “diverse trajectories,” not a single one of the eighteen poets invited was an author of color. Writers, readers and critics alike took to social media to comment—both on the event, and more broadly on the state of literary affairs in Brazil. In contrast, a successful twelfth iteration of FestiPoa Literária, in Porto Alegre, took on the theme of Afro-Brazilian literature, paying homage to writer and philosopher Sueli Carneiro.  

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Universal Things: An Interview with Esther Gerritsen

In the Netherlands, we often make the mistake of thinking that the emancipation of women has been completely achieved.

Boekenweek is a week-long festival of Dutch-language literature held annually in the Netherlands since 1932. Aside from the now legendary Boekenweek ball in Amsterdam, readings, panels, and other literary events are organized throughout the Netherlands and Flanders, and a prominent writer is commissioned to write a novella which is then gifted to the public during the ten-day festival. In 2016, Dutch writer Esther Gerritsen was given the honor of writing the Boekenweek novella, one of only two women to do so in the past eighteen years. This year, Gerritsen’s novel Craving was one of several recently published Dutch-language novels in translation featured at the World Editions Boekenweek celebration at Flanders House in New York City. One of the most celebrated novelists in the Netherlands, Gerritsen also works as a screenwriter and columnist and is the recipient of numerous awards including the 2014 Frans Kellendonk prize for her entire oeuvre. Craving, artfully translated by Michele Hutchison, is Gerritsen’s meticulous excavation of a complex mother-daughter relationship which is further complicated when the daughter moves back into her childhood home to take care of her dying mother. In honor of Boekenweek, Asymptote asked Esther Gerritsen to share her thoughts on Craving, radical thinkers, and gender equity in the Dutch-language literary world.

-Sarah Timmer Harvey, New York, April 2019

STH: Craving opens with a powerful scene in which the mother, Elisabeth, spots her daughter biking on a busy street in Amsterdam and decides it is the right moment to tell her that she is dying. Immediately, the reader is made aware that the mother isn’t neurotypical and that the relationship between mother and daughter is quite strained. What drew you to these characters and inspired their story?

EG: I started writing about the mother, Elisabeth, first. I wanted to write about ‘stuff.’ Objects, materials, the love human beings have for things. I originally had Elisabeth talking posthumously about all the things in her life, from the first blanket she’d slept under and her childhood toys to the furniture she owned when she was older, even the bed on which she died. In her version of heaven, everything she ever possessed was there, new and complete; shoes without scratches, puzzles with no missing pieces—an ideal, silent world filled with beautiful stuff. Of course, then the story became very . . . silent. And I thought: for a person who likes quietness, order, and perfection, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I knew then that she should have a child—and that’s where the daughter comes in. Coco is her mother’s opposite, chaotic and messy. They live in different worlds, but both have the best intentions and would love to be closer, but are just too dissimilar. When the mother is dying, and the daughter is already an adult, they try to form a closer relationship before it’s too late and end up tormenting each other with their good intentions. Coco and Elisabeth really can’t stand one another, but because they are family, they are inextricably linked. READ MORE…

What’s New with the Crew? (May 2019)

With new publications and festivals, Asymptote staff are being celebrated all around the world!

We have such an amazing collective of literary talent over here at Asymptote. Check out some of our news from the past quarter and stay tuned for more of the international literature you love! If you are interested in being a part of the team, please note that we will be extending our recruitment drive for two more weeks through May 21, out of consideration for those of you who are busy with end-of-semester work and graduation! 

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow published a long poem, The Song of Lisaine, at the journal X-Peri.

Copy Editor Anna Aresi recently ran her Italian translation of Pulitzer-winning Forrest Gander’s “On a Sentence by Fernanda Melchor” on Interno Poesia’s Blog.

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones had an excerpt of her translation of Nancy by Bruno Lloret—forthcoming from Giramondo Publishing in 2020—showcased in a feature on Chilean domestic life in Words Without Borders. Her review of Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds was also printed in The Irish Times. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from The Bird God by Susanne Röckel

Cowering in the gloom, I was overcome with exhaustion as the bird dove without haste from the precipice.

In the prologue to Susanne Röckel’s uncanny novel The Bird God, we are transported to a remote, unnamed corner of Europe, sometime during the twentieth century. The vagueness of the setting is entirely intentional and adds to the unworldly character of the story. This opening passage reads like an ornithological expedition to the back of beyond. Indeed, the text is presented as the unpublished account of an inveterate birdwatcher, Konrad Weyde, whose unbridled ambitions and inner demons eventually prove to be his undoing.

Prologue

. . . It was, as I soon realized, that fabled region about which I’d read so much by the greats of my field. While the battered old locomotive was towed off to a depot, I was approached by several local taxi drivers sporting mustaches and muddy rubber boots who offered to drive me over the winding and pothole-ridden mountain road to the next railway station, but after glancing at the sky, which promised to be unusually bright and clear, I decided to remain right where I was and seek accommodation in the village of Z.—an irregular assemblage of leaning structures perched high among the cragged rocks, like the nesting site of a peregrine falcon.

The path that had been pointed out to me wound its way gently upwards through meadows, groves, and fields. At first glance, the landscape appeared picturesque, but as I trudged with my heavy bags I realized that my gaze had been clouded by the memory of the books that I’d read. Pechstein and von Boettiger had rhapsodized over the diverse views of the cultivated fields, green hills, gushing springs, and charming woodlands, with the stunning silhouette of the rocky peaks rising in the distance. Droste had—I particularly recall this passage from his Wanderings of an Inveterate Birdwatcher—described how the melodious singing of industrious peasant women had blended with the devout exultation of the larks. READ MORE…

On Criticizing Translation: An Interview with Tim Parks

Rather than developing some special antenna for translation, we might all do well simply to read more attentively in general.

Late last year, Benjamin Moser’s critical NYT review of Kate Briggs’s This Little Art occasioned a rousing debate in the literary translation community about the nature of translation quality and criticism. The review prompted a scathing letter to the editor from a group of translation heavyweights, including Susan Bernofsky and Lawrence Venuti. Tim Parks weighed in with an NYR Daily piece, “Why Translation Deserves Scrutiny,” which outlined some challenges of criticizing translation and defended the effort.

In this conversation, Parks elaborates on the role of the translation critic, clarifies his notion of mistakes, and explains how translation theory affects his criticism. Raucous debates about quality and criticism have characterized conversations about translation for centuries. The conversation continues here.

Allison Braden (AB): At a translation conference, I heard a panelist argue that mistakes in translation, as long as they don’t significantly impede the author’s message, are irrelevant. He then went on to say that he tries to avoid making mistakes as much as possible. Later, an audience member argued that as her career as a translator has progressed, she’s found herself making more “mistakes,” because of the increased latitude that experience affords. For a group that would seem to value semantic precision, there appears to be an alarming blurriness around the notion of mistakes versus agency. How do you conceive of the relationship between the two?

Tim Parks (TP): A literary text comes alive when a reader can bring to it the kind of competence and cultural reference that gives sense to the words. Since a translator is someone who reads a foreign text for those of us who can’t read it directly ourselves, we hope that he or she is such a reader and has that competence and knowledge. Of course becoming a deep and accurate reader in a language that is not your mother tongue is not an easy proposition. Almost all of us have our lacunae. So there are going to be times when the translator misses something, doesn’t recognize that a certain phrase is an idiom, doesn’t realize that in a certain context this or that word can have an unusual connotation; then when they write down their version we have a mistake. The importance of the mistake will depend on its place in the text and the kind of text it is. It may indeed be irrelevant or minor. But equally it may be crucial. Or frequent small mistakes may eventually amount to an overall difference in tone or feeling. Whatever the case, mistakes—and I can’t see one can call them anything but that—are hardly desirable.

Returning though to the “blurriness” you observe in regard to what is hardly a difficult question, one can’t help feeling it arises from a sense of vulnerability about the translator’s competence in the source language. There is a tendency these days to suggest that you only need have a basic grip on a foreign language and a neat turn of phrase in your English and you can translate successfully, even win prizes. Or that it’s enough to do an MA in Translation Studies. But language is a rich feast and literature exploits and intensifies that richness. We love a fine piece of writing for the abundance of allusion and wit and suggestion it conjures up, and the feeling that when we read it again we will find more. It’s not easy to arrive at the kind of second-language competence where one genuinely gets all this, or even most of it. So some translators are understandably defensive or vague. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Three continents in a ten-minute read. We're bringing you literary news from Morocco to Poland to the USA.

This week, publishing gets political in Morocco, Polish authors show us their best hands, and a scatter of multilingual literary soirées light up eastern USA. Paul Bowles once said that Tangier is more New York than New York, and this week, you can make the comparison. Our editors around the world have snagged a front-row view, and here are their postcards. 

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

The 23rd edition of Le Printemps du Livre et des Arts took place in Tangier from April 18-21. This literary event, hosted by the Institut Français in the stately Palais des Institutions Italiennes, stood in stark contrast to the hurly-burly of the Casablanca book fair. A reverent hush filled the air at Le Printemps as small clusters of well-heeled attendees browsed the books on offer or closed their eyes to drink in the plaintive melodies of the malhoun music playing in the palm-lined courtyard.

To further its stated mission of “fostering debate and discussion between writers and thinkers on both sides of the Mediterranean,” Le Printemps offered ten roundtable discussions and conferences—all delivered in French (Morocco’s official languages are Arabic and Amazigh). Questioning the sidelining of Arabic, journalist and publisher Kenza Sefrioui called French a “caste language” and a social marker during a standout roundtable discussion on publishing.

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Taking Up the Translator’s Baton: An Interview with David Colmer

The crucial part is what is revealed, not the particular set of circumstances that make the revelation possible.

“Do maintain the colloquial tone,” David Colmer reminded me during a recent exchange about editing. And it was far from the first time I’d heard the Amsterdam-based Australian translator emphasize the importance of respecting and preserving the vernacular. Certainly, David’s almost chameleon-like ability to absorb and translate divergent Dutch and Flemish voices in fiction and poetry has led to his name becoming synonymous with Dutch-language literature in translation.

Over the past two decades, David Colmer has translated the work of celebrated novelists including Gerbrand Bakker, Dimitri Verhulst, and Peter Terrin; the poetry of Anna Enquist, Hugo Claus, Martinus Nijhoff; former Poet Laureates Ramsey Nasr and Ester Naomi Perquin; and the work of iconic Dutch children’s author, Annie M.G. Schmidt. Colmer has received numerous prizes, including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his translation of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour, The Vondel Prize for his translation of Dimitri Verhulst’s The Misfortunates, and the NSW Premier’s Prize and PEN trophy for his entire oeuvre.

In spite of his numerous achievements, David is most comfortable discussing his current projects and the challenges faced by translators at all stages of their career. For David, keeping it “colloquial” also seems to be code for not getting carried away, a timely reminder that the original voice and tone of any text should remain the translator’s constant anchor. With this in mind, I invoked the Dutch-peppered Australian we both speak, and asked David about his recently published translation of W.F. Hermans’s classic postwar novella, An Untouched House, the art of switching Englishes and his advice for up-and-coming translators.

March 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): The last time we saw each other was at the end of 2018 when you were in New York for the publication of your translation of An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans. An Untouched House is a dark, confronting, and occasionally absurd novella about the final months of the Second World War first published in the Netherlands is 1951. How did you come to translate it?

David Colmer (DC): I was the next cab off the rank, I suppose. I read the original in the early nineties soon after starting to learn Dutch, and it made quite an impression. I remember being shocked by the disturbing clarity of the author’s amoral vision and the climactic eruption of violence. The way he managed to combine a coolly thoughtful, almost philosophical perspective with both gripping action and humor was inspiring. I made a mental note of it as a book I’d love to translate, as I sometimes did after I began reading in foreign languages in the late eighties. Hans Fallada’s The Drinker was another one that made a similar impression on me, but I never really counted on the opportunity coming along. Over the following fifteen years, though, two things happened that changed that. I began to establish my credentials as a translator of Dutch literature, and Hermans had a late, second wave of publication in English, with two of his best novels, The Darkroom of Damocles and Beyond Sleep, published in translations by Ina Rilke and being very well received. Then, three or four years ago, when a Hermans story was slated for inclusion in The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, Ina wasn’t available to translate it, so I was able to take up the baton.

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The Miracle Born of Everyday Reality, Or What We’ve Learnt About Ourselves

Yet, against all the odds, Čaputová prevailed. What does this mean for the future?

Image credit: Mikuláš Galanda

In an exclusive for Asymptote, Slovak writer Jana Juráňová reports on last month’s groundbreaking presidential election in her country.

It took just two weeks since Zuzana Čaputová was elected Slovakia’s first woman president for the press to stop talking about this astonishing event and pivot to other domestic issues. As our media are preoccupied with things like the malfunctioning ruling coalition, which insists on clinging to power come what may, the population has slowly reconciled itself to the fact that this gang will continue lining their own pockets and haemorrhaging Slovakia’s economy, even if it bankrupts the country. Robert Fico, the former Prime Minister and chairman of SMER-Social Democracy—the senior partner in the coalition government whose links with real social democracy are actually rather tenuous—keeps promising new “social packages,” like some freshly crowned fairy tale king tossing gold coins from a carriage, making economists shudder at the thought of how much all these “free” handouts will cost. A lot of coverage has also focused on the creation of a new party, announced by outgoing President Andrej Kiska after extensively agonising over whether to stay in politics or not. While he kept the public guessing with vague statements, two smaller parties emerged, including Progressive Slovakia, which nominated its deputy chairperson Zuzana Čaputová as its candidate in the presidential election (she resigned from her previous position after accepting the nomination). At that point, the party’s ratings were quite low and she was a relatively unknown environmental activist and lawyer. Despite losing ground, SMER-SD remains the strongest party in parliament, polling 20% support, a figure all the more remarkable in the wake of the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée a little over a year ago, and given the endless supply of scandals involving the party’s top officials. In this set-up, Kiska’s new party is likely to attract the mainstream electorate, currently composed of reluctant voters and non-voters. No wonder that passions are running high within the panicking coalition following the news of the President’s new party, as well as among opposition parties worried that the newcomer will take away their votes. Amidst this turmoil, the fact that the first woman president in Slovak history will take office almost 100 years since the day women’s suffrage was won in postwar Czechoslovakia in 1920 seems to have slipped people’s minds.

We have been plagued with so many problems that we regularly forget the most pressing of them. That the greatest scandal of recent years—the murder of Ján Kuciak—has not been forgotten is only thanks to the huge effort on the part of journalists who have managed to publish a steady trickle of news on the criminal investigation, as well as the young activists behind a new movement, For a Decent Slovakia. Other burning issues have been rapidly cooling off, as Slovakia returns to the state of the proverbial frog that didn’t manage to leap out of the boiling kettle in time and is slowly getting used to living at boiling point without even realising it’s been cooked.   READ MORE…