Monthly Archives: June 2014

Publisher Profile: University of California Press

"In a different era, colleagues translated books because they believed in the project. That’s not a luxury I have today."

University of California Press Acquisitions Editor Kate Marshall specializes in publishing books on food, the environment, and Latin America in the social sciences and humanities. I talked to Kate during the editor’s week of the Buenos Aires Book Fair.

Frances Riddle: What gap in the publishing landscape does UC Press aim to fill?

Kate Marshall: UC Press is one of the leading university presses in the United States, the largest university press west of the Mississippi and the only major press affiliated with a public university. We publish in many fields but our press is especially known for publishing on progressive social issues, like inequality, human rights, and the environment. We do a lot of books in interdisciplinary fields, books that transcend formal disciplines. 


Weekly News Roundup, 27th June 2014: Bilingual immorality, soccer on the brain

This week's literary highlights from across the world

Remember the “trolley problem?” (Should you kill one person in order to save five?). If it seems like your moral compass is irrefutable, you’re wrong: the ethical judgement you make depends on the language in which you are called to make it.

Shadowy truths: the origin of Yiddish is nebulous, and it may remain so indefinitely. At Tablet, the latest in an ongoing series examining how the academic field is destroying its own attempt to map an etymology. More verboten things: the Moscow Times takes a peek in a Soviet Union-era erotica collection.


The Latest from Asymptote’s Contributors and Editors

It's that time: essays, interviews, stories, and poems from those who make Asymptote happen

Aditi Machado, Asymptote poetry editor, saw her poems appear in the April issue of MiPOesias and the new issue of Transom. To read her poetry is a pleasure; to hear it a delight – so check out a video of her reading at Counterpath, Denver.

Asymptote’s chief executive assistant Berny Tan and Sher Chew launched Isle-to-Isle, a collaborative data visualization and experimental reading project based on Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. Pictured above, it’s a yearlong project with weekly updates – an exciting endeavor that will ultimately become “a mammoth illustration of Verne’s adventure classic.”

Is foreignness an inherently fertile imaginative/observational state for you? contributor Brittani Sonnenberg asks in an interview-essay published in The Millions. Deeply related to notions of diaspora raised in Asymptote’s April 2014 issue, the interview is in depth and worth reading. To her question, past contributor Jeremy Tiang answers that he thrives on dislocation, so maybe now is the time to take that trip you’ve been putting off (it’s for your writing, after all).


Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime VIII and IX

Mime 8 is romantic; Mime 9 dark (when was the last time you read the words "torturer’s hill?"). Phillip Griffith and Susie Cronin translate!

Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here

Mime VIII. The Nuptial Eve

This new-wicked lamp burns a fine, pellucid oil before the evening star. The threshold is scattered with roses that the children have not gathered up. Dancers balance the last torches that wave fiery fingers into the shadows. The little flutist has blown three more harsh notes into his flute of bone. Porters have come bearing cases brimming with translucent anklets. This one has coated his face in soot and has sung me a song that mocks his deme. Two women, veiled in red, smile in the settled air, rubbing their hands with cinnabar.

The evening star rises and the heavy flowers close. Near the wine vat covered by sculpted stone, a laughing child sits, his radiant feet strapped into sandals of gold. He waves a pine torch and its vermillion braids whip out into the night. His lips hang open like the halves of a gaping fruit. He sneezes to the left and the metal sounds at his feet. One bound and I know he will be gone.

Io! Here comes the virgin’s yellow veil! Her ladies hold her up beneath her arms. Do away with the torches! The wedding bed awaits, and I will guide her into the plush glimmer of the purple cloth. Io! Plunge the wick into the sweet-scented oil. It sputters and dies. Put out the torches! Oh my bride, I lift you to my chest, that your feet do not crush the threshold roses.


Five poems by Darko Cvijetic

Translated by Mirza Purić


You can hear the dreaming of a bird
The close-eyed water

Every moment a sound
A soundlet
Leaves the heart

The lamp dissolves the skin of someone’s shadow
By the chair leg

And you’re the eye of a calf

God may approach you

The Cantos inhabits
Dead men have no mothers

(I’m feeling uncountable
relax relax darling
after all these years)

I’m pregnant she says

There is more
Soil in me than usual READ MORE…

Translators’ Tools: Objects from Asymptote’s Virtual Translation Museum

The Jawi Typewriter

Arabic Typewriter

Manufactured: c. 1966

Height: 5.9 inches, width: 15 inches

On display at the Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore

Jawi, an Arabic alphabet, was the dominant form of written Malay in Malaysia and Singapore for more than 600 years, but these days it’s in danger of becoming as obsolete as the typewriter.

Though the Malaysian ministry of education attempted to revive Jawi learning in the past—in 1970, elementary schools began teaching Jawi, and soon after high schools followed suit—by 1981, when I started Standard One (Malaysian first grade), Jawi was no longer part of the national curriculum. By 2006, Malaysia’s only remaining Jawi newspaper, the Utusan Melayu, which first appeared in Singapore in 1939, had ceased publishing.

As a translator of Malay into English, I’ve long been interested in Jawi, and when I spotted what I thought was a Jawi typewriter at the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) in Singapore, I was immediately curious. I wanted to know where it came from, how old it was, who had owned it, how it was used. What follows is the conversation I had with the MHC concerning its typewriter, carried out over email. Noorashikin Zulkifli, Head of Curation and Programs at the MHC, helped trace the typewriter’s origins and explained its features. Encik Syed Ali Semait, Managing Director of Singapore-based Pustaka Nasional Pte. Ltd, the publishing and typesetting company that donated the typewriter to the MHC in 2012, helped identify the typewriter’s original owner. READ MORE…

Weekly News Roundup, 19th June 2014: World Cup in Books, New Neruda

This week's literary highlights from across the world

(Re)discovering familiar authors. Those familiar with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (that is to say: everybody) might be happy to discover that more than twenty previously unknown poems have been uncovered and are slated for publication later this year in Latin America (no word on translations quite yet).

Big, big news in letters across the globe (especially for us Asymptote-fans): the shortlists for the PEN Literary Awards have been announced, and the translation categories are peppered with our very own past contributors. In the prose category, Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook sports a nomination. You can read an excerpt from the novel, translated by Elizabeth and Robert Chandler, in our January 2013 issue! And Asymptote alum and professor Michael Hoffman is up in the same category for his translation of The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth (read his essay on Wolfgang Koeppen in our January 2014 issue here). We like to see our past contributors doing big things: Reif Larsen, frequent contributor and goofy Asymptote friend, writes in The Guardian on the trials of seeing his first novel receive the Hollywood treatment.


Pop Around the World: I Suoni D’estate

A Musical Journey to Italy

Celebrating summer though music is best done by letting the outside world mix your playlist. Instead of being bunkered up inside, we best give ourselves over to the choices of others, through song snippets wafting out of open windows and automobiles, that ubiquitous song of the summer blasting at regular intervals from shoe stores and gaudy discotheques, the presets or record collections of your Airbnb hosts, or foreign radio stations in your rental car. If the songs are in another language, the effect is that much more transformative, creating a wonderfully schizophrenic sense of anonymity in incomprehensibility and of endless possibility in the unknown.

Yet it also has to be admitted that there is as much crap music abroad as there is at home. And it will definitely seem to be a much higher percentage at first, because how would you even know where to start, which station to start streaming? It helps when your favorite artists sidestep into a foreign language. Erlend Oye, for instance, a Norwegian singer who makes up half of the much-beloved twee popsters Kings of Convenience (and more recently fronted the now defunct Whitest Boy Alive) last year surprised the world with a rare solo single in Italian. Though the album it was supposed to be a part of hasn’t yet materialized, this first taste is an infectiously strummy tribute to the grand Italian pop tradition of the 1960s and 70s. READ MORE…

Interview with Suzanne Jill Levine

"A greater problem is that there are fewer and fewer readers interested in serious or innovative literary works."

Luis Negrón’s short story collection Mundo Cruelrecently translated into English by Suzanne Jill Levine, has met the acclaim it well deserves. The first translated work to win a Lambda Literary Award for gay general fiction, Negrón’s debut book is an exceptional merging of absurdist humor (one story chronicles a man’s desperate attempts to have his dead dog stuffed), naturalism (the characters’ voices instantly take shape, come to life), and melodrama. In an interview with translator Suzanne Jill Levine, winner of PEN USA’s Translation Award, Levine discusses what drew her to Negrón’s work, and her career as a writer, translator, and educator.


Eva Richter: How did you first learn about Luis Negrón’s work, and how did you come to translate him?  

Suzanne Jill Levine: Out of the blue I received an email from a young editor at Seven Stories Press, Gabriel Espinal, asking me to consider translating Mundo Cruel. The stories and the author, Luis—who is now a dear friend—were totally unknown. At first glance through the book, I was skeptical. Then Gabe invited me to visit him in NYC to talk about it. I was touched by his enthusiasm, the story of how he discovered Luis, and I felt admiration for the work of Seven Stories Press, and so I agreed to do a sample.

As I began translating, I found myself smiling and even laughing as I went along. A miracle: I had discovered a new writer who had a sly sense of humor, and who was dealing with such a destitute, sometimes sordid microcosm, which in his hands became a rich kasbah of living speech, ordinary yet extraordinary characters, depicted with pathos, wit and penetrating wisdom. I was sold.

ER: Mundo Cruel recently won the 26th Lambda Literary Award for gay fiction. Could you speak a little about contemporary LGBT literature in English translation? 

SJL: I cannot comment authoritatively on this, though I presume that LBGT literature receives more recognition now than when I began translating in the 1970s. Translations in general have a double challenge in an English-speaking world—or should I say marketplace—where publishing literature even written originally in English is getting more and more difficult. I wasn’t aware, either, that Lambda had never in its history awarded a [fiction] translation, though I was struck by the fact that mine was the only translation considered this year. Maybe Lambda should add a category for works in translation? Anyway, in the context of Latin American literature, I was among the first to seek out and translate gay writers Severo Sarduy and Manuel Puig, subversively marginal among the Boom writers such as Garcia Marquez—and can only hope that this helped paved the way for others. Puig, from Argentina, was an important pioneer and spokesman for Latin America in this respect.

ER: What were some challenges you faced when translating Mundo Cruel? There are two short stories told by narrators speaking on the phone, using slang, colloquialisms, which I thought specifically must have been demanding. 

SJL: The challenges are precisely what make translation worth doing, but yes, the language in these stories is often a very private language, spoken by a particular group in a particular barrio of San Juan. All the stories are “spoken” with the author as eavesdropper, but there is actually only one in which the narrator is speaking on the phone and it is hysterical because the reader hears only one side of the conversation, a device Manuel Puig used in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth.  The main character, the speaker, is gossiping about “La Edwin,” for example: “The thing is that La Edwin fell for this little ‘Che Guevara’ and she’s got it bad… but when it comes to you-know-what the big machetero can’t even use his machete in the name of the Cuban Revolution… No, girl. That’s not the problem. It’s that the guy was and is straight.” Etc. The best way to explain to you is to show you, right? I also recommend that you read my book The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, in which I recreate the process of translating slang, puns, and other “impossibles.” In a sense your question is like asking how a musician performs a piece of music; it’s a matter of ear.

ER: Did Luis Negrón engage in the translation process?

SJL: Luis, whose English is great, was a wonderful collaborator and the perfect source, of course, for any questions I had about gay slang, meaning, register, tone: we basically hunkered down for three days in a friend’s apartment in NYC and went through the manuscript. I also went over the text with another Puerto Rican writer and colleague in Santa Barbara, Leo Cabranes-Grant. 

ER: A number of contributors to Asymptote blog have discussed Americans’ “lack of interest” [Nicolás Kanellos] in Spanish-language literature. Javier Molea, of McNally Jackson, said, “With few exceptions, there is no connection between the Spanish literary world and the English one. Any literary event in Spanish is allocated to the community events section of the newspaper, while a literary event in English is highlighted in the culture section.” As an acclaimed translator of Manuel Puig, Jose Donoso, and now Luis Negrón, what are your thoughts on this topic? 

 SJL: I think that what Javier is trying to say is that writers play a more important role in Spain and Latin American countries than they do in the United States (I hesitate to speak for Canada and the UK). A literary event in Bogotá will probably bring in a larger audience than in lower Manhattan. A greater problem is that there are fewer and fewer readers interested in serious or innovative literary works. Here and there a significant writer receives recognition, but more often, from what I’ve observed, there seem to be certain fashionable writers who come to represent their culture or nation in the global marketplace, mainly because of a generally superficial knowledge we have of literature as well as of other cultures and countries. Tim Parks has written on this topic, and I think he is completely accurate.

ER: Regarding the diminished appreciation of serious or innovative literature, why do you think that is? How has it affected your work?  

SJL: In part I am speaking as an educator regarding this sense of a diminishing literary readership. My friends in publishing have plenty to say about this problem as well. In the past 30 odd years in academe I have watched the Humanities lose ground to the Social Sciences, but even more so, I have watched generations of students turn from the written word to the video/digital world: they are becoming increasingly illiterate, either uninterested or unable to read.

Obviously there are elite groups that continue to cultivate the study and appreciation of literature, and of course many will say that literature is evolving into other equally creative forms—and no doubt some of this is true.

How does the diminishing interest in literature affect me? There are fewer books I want to translate and fewer opportunities for publishers to translate the works of writers I like.

This being said, I am working more with poetry—and have discovered wonderful new poets from Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua—and also on my own creative non-fiction. After all, translation is a rite of passage, as someone once said. In 2012 I came out with my first poetry chapbook (Reckoning: Finishing Line Press), which brings together poems I’ve written with poems I have translated—and the translations seem almost more autobiographical than the originals…

ER: Do you have a translation philosophy that guides your work? How did it serve you (or not) in your translation of Mundo Cruel? 

SJL: The Subversive Scribe speaks about translation as creation or “transcreation.” A writer, a translator succeeds in creating when s/he finds a voice: I would say that this happened in the translation of Mundo Cruel, but only you, the reader, can tell me if this is true.


Suzanne Jill Levine’s acclaimed translations, which include books by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (Three Trapped Tigers) and Manuel Puig (Betrayed by Rita Hayworth), have helped introduce the world to some of the icons of contemporary Latin American literature. She is also an editor of Penguin Classics’ essays and poetry of Jorge Luis Borges and the author of The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction. She is the winner of PEN USA’s Translation Award 2012 for her translation of Jose Donoso’s The Lizard’s Tale.

Translation Tuesday: The Unavoidable Weight of Pigeons

"…he hated the pigeons; but he hated most the lovers of the pigeons; and especially the lovers of the pigeons of Notre Dame." – Carlos Yushimito

Some nights the pigeons made noises, and Mitsuo—an imaginative man, always willing to see things in a favorable light—wondered, as he got out of his bed, if it wasn’t the cold that ruffled them up, if that wasn’t their way, by nature, of keeping warm, rubbing their chins against their gizzards, searching for the winding sound that curled their craw and let them escape, all at once, whenever he approached them, through the window bars. Because as soon as he moved across the bed, the flapping of their wings began to make a mess of his clutter; and he, with his own involuntary movements, alarmed them, and they flew away.

Once, even, a porcelain cup had fallen onto the floor, creating a small catastrophe.


The Festival that Won by Knockout

A dispatch from the Festival of the European Short Story in Zagreb and Šibenik, Croatia

Zagreb’s vibrant cultural scene was home to the Festival of the European Short Story last week: an appropriate end to what has certainly been a great season of culture, music, and activism in Croatia’s small (yet exciting!) capital.

This was the festival’s thirteenth year running, and the festival featured Brazil as its partner country. The festival was delightfully lively and action-packed, featuring not only readings and discussion panels, but also a charitable football game, an introduction to Brazilian fiction, a Portuguese translation workshop, and a cook-off (?). Some of the festival took place in Šibenik, a town on the Croatian coast (a sound decision, as the Croatian culture scene is becoming notoriously monocentric, with virtually all of the events and manifestations happening in Zagreb).


Weekly News Roundup, 13th June 2014: Soccer/Football Inspiration, Stroking Our Egos

This week's literary highlights from across the world

Without a doubt, you’re reading this from a screen, and probably the only thing you’re smelling is your morning coffee. But now chemists have quantified and explained that long-coveted “old book smell,” for better or worse… Some old books, like 19th-century French writer Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame, are bound in human skin (ew). Good news if you’d prefer to stick to the scanned: HathiTrust, the scannable digital library, has won the court case permitting the agency to continue uploading books for those who cannot read them in person.

Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez has scored the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for The Sound of Things Falling (translated by Anne McLean, who snagged 25 percent of the award’s cash prize!). The newest United States Poet Laureate has been announced: Charles Wright, Pulitzer Prize winner and translator of Italian writer Eugenio Montale, will preside over the country’s most eminent poetic spot.


Dilemmas of a Bilingual Delhi-ite

"I am now coming to terms with the fact that I call myself a literature student from India, without ever having read a novel in my own language."

“Umm. I’ve studied in English… but my mother tongue is Hindi, of course,” I said confidently to my Nigerian housemate, who had asked about my “first language” while I was struggling with my newly acquired culinary skills during breakfast.

In a heterogeneous environment, students collect crumbs of the languages around them, believing they are true connoisseurs of culture. I should have anticipated her next question: “So how do you say ‘Good Morning’ in your language?”

Shubh Prabhat. I had stored it somewhere in my preconscious memory. It’s one of those things that you know you know, but you can’t remember at the urgent moment. That’s forgivable when it’s an uncommon word. But this was “good morning”—probably one of the first phrases one learns while learning a new language. And this wasn’t a new language: it was supposed to be my “mother tongue.” READ MORE…

Publisher Profile: Arte Público Press

"We exist to give access to Latino writers and to Latino intellectuals."

Arte Público Press of the University of Houston is the oldest and most esteemed publisher of Hispanic authors in the U.S. Dedicated to publishing contemporary Hispanic literature, Arte Público also boasts a successful children’s book imprint, Piñata Books, and the Recovery Project, which aims to recover Latino writings that were lost from the colonial period to the 1960s. At their offices in Houston, Texas, I sat down with Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, founder and director of Arte Público Press.

Frances Riddle: How did Arte Público Press start out?

Nicolás Kanellos: I first founded and edited a literary magazine, the Revista Chicano-Riqueña for some eight, nine years. This came out of the Latino Civil Rights movement where I had worked with lots of writers who didn’t have any place to publish. We founded the magazine in 1972, and by 1979, we decided that we could publish books. First we published poetry books by Nuyorican [New York Puerto Rican] writers and then went on to prose. It’s called Arte Público because we were influenced by the public art movement, which meant we believed that there was art and culture in the community, and we wanted to take that art and format it and give it back to the community and make it known to everyone.