Happy (belated) Thanksgiving to our American readers—and to all non-Americans, happy Friday! Anglophones certainly have something to be thankful for: one of William Shakespeare’s treasured First Folios has been uncovered, practically untouched, in a small chapel in France, where it is reported to have lain for over two hundred years. And any literature lover or archivist from the University of Texas might be feeling extra-thankful this week, as the complete archive of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez has been donated to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin. And at the Wall Street Journal, Jennifer Maloney opines that the proliferation of paperback books helped win World War II for the Americans.
This week in book buzz: British/Indian author Arundhati Roy is following up her 1997-Booker Prizewinning God of Small Things, at long last, after a period dedicated to political activism. Here’s a profile. You can look forward to more than that, what with an upcoming translation of German counterculture icon Jörg Fauser’s novel, Raw Material. Irish phenomenon and inspiration to all pining novelists Eimear McBride has snagged another award for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, which has already won the Goldsmiths and the Bailey’s Prizes, among others. The biggest international book prize, the IMPAC Dublin award, has announced its glorious longlist, and you might recognize a few titles (the list includes a title translated by Alex Zucker, blog contributor!). If you’re a skeptic to the prospect of awards in general, you might enjoy this look back at the National Book Awards, proving that even the most venerated intellectual institutions are subject to whim and fashion.
French existentialists, philosophers, and novelists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre didn’t end on the best of terms, but a forgotten letter from better times has reemerged. Same goes for American beats Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady: a letter from Cassady to Kerouac inspiring Jack’s iconic On the Road is set to be auctioned off.
Every get a 2-AM book craving? (We know you do). In Taiwan, the 24-hour bookstore is a welcome respite for weary clubbers and bookworms alike.
Emma Jacobs (assistant editor): I’ve been reading really haphazardly this month, dipping in and out of essays, short stories, and poetry. I tend to think of this as a bad habit, a symptom of my cyber-skewed hyper-active millennial-generation attention span, yadayadayada, but actually there’s something so rich about this chaotic way of reading and the unexpected connections that it sparks between very different books. Looking over some of my favourite reads from November, I notice that each one meditates in some way on the lightness of the ephemeral moment.
This is particularly prominent in Photographs Not Taken, a collection of essays by photographers reflecting on the most memorable images they never captured. These scenes went unphotographed for a variety of reasons, but most often it was because an elusive and overpowering feeling made the photographer hesitate just a second too long. What’s left is a collage of imaginary negatives, moments that are tangible only in their absence. But rather than reading like a catalogue of regrets, the book chips away at the mythology that surrounds the act of “taking” a photo in the first place. As each photographer considers the images that passed them by, they tackle questions of where the documentarian impulse comes from and how the existence of a photo changes our memory of the event itself. The quality of the writing is a little up and down, but there are many pockets of prose that crystallise the moment of perception in surprising ways.
On October 28, a crowd of more than 200 came out for Words Without Borders’ annual gala to celebrate the publication’s 11-year history of publishing and promoting international literature.
With a crowd from across the New York literary world, the evening was hosted by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. True to Words Without Borders form, the evening featured bilingual readings in English and from Belarusian, Chinese, and Sinhala by Valzhyna Mort, Yiyun Li, and Ru Freeman.
Emphasizing the importance of translation to cultivate conversation across time and place, Li read two poems from Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, herself under house arrest. Freeman drew a parallel between translation and the Sistine Chapel, suggesting translation is like Michelangelo’s depiction of the hands of God and Saint Michael, not quite touching yet still beautiful. READ MORE…
The interwebs’ hullabaloo around the recently-awarded (American) National Book Awards occupied much of the literary chitchat this week, but those of us in translation-conscious circles simply mourn that the Awards no longer carve a space for translation prizes. Also this past week: the American Literary Translation Association conference celebrated its largest award, the National Translation Award, given to Matlei Yankeivich and Asymptote-contributor Eugene Ostashevsky’s translation of Russian-language An Invitation for me to Think by Alexander Vvedensky. And the Korea Times announced its modern Korean literature in translation awards this week, too.
The Tower, by Uwe Tellkamp, may appear to be a monolithic, singularly heroic literary act by a surgeon and survivor of the indignities of the German Democratic Republic. This man, who lived to tell the tale, so to speak, penned an epic about a bourgeois family which has retreated into a kind of inner emigration in the crumbling but stately villas of the posh Weißer Hirsch neighborhood in Dresden. But The Tower is much more complex than that, and intellectually rich. The story, with echoes of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, focuses on three men of various ages and various levels of complicity with the putrefying system of 1980s GDR, and it is now (finally!) available in print in English translation.
Who are these three men? Christian is a pimply and ambitious young student who dreams of following his father, Richard, into the field of medicine; he ultimately signs up for three years of military service in the hopes of securing a spot as a medical student. His efforts to mimic Party loyalty are largely successful until his collapse as a soldier. His father Richard’s 50th birthday party opens the novel and initially Richard appears equally eloquent and morally blameless. However, numerous affairs and a secret second family make him a pawn in the hands of the Stasi. Finally, Meno, Christian’s maternal uncle—something of a mentor to the teenage boy, and a former botanist—works as an editor at one of the GDR’s few high-quality imprints that frequently ran short on paper, rounding out the trio of protagonists.
From October 1st to the 8th, the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York paid tribute to the centennial of Octavio Paz’s birth with a series of discussions, readings, concerts, and film screenings. A prolific poet, essayist, intellectual, translator, editor, publisher, and diplomat, Paz published his first poetry collection, Luna Silvestre (Wild Moon, 1933) at 19 years old, penning over 26 volumes of poetry until his death in 1998. Paz was also an accomplished essayist: his 1950 treatise on Mexican identity, El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude) is considered a seminal work of literature. The recipient of the Cervantes award in 1981, the American Neustadt Prize in 1982, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990, Paz founded three literary magazines, Taller, Plural, and Vuelta; Vuelta is still published as Letras Libres.
Now that we’ve gotten that dry but necessary introduction out of the way, let me truly begin.
The centennial celebration was a sumptuous banquet I wanted to gorge myself on until I developed gout, like those rich men of old. I eagerly chased Paz throughout New York City, from the second-floor gallery of the Mexican Consulate in Midtown to the ornate ballroom of the Americas Society in the Upper East Side, and finally to where the river meets the city, the “navel of the poetic universe,” as Paz’s translator Eliot Weinberger playfully referred to the Poets House in TriBeCa.
David Huerta wrote “Ayotzinapa” on November 2, 2014, “in anger, outrage, and horror.” It has already formed an installation at the Oaxaca Museum of Contemporary Art, been printed by Juan Nicanor Pascoe’s letterpress, and been read and excerpted in protest banners from Berlin to Xalapa. When I read it two weeks ago, I realised there was a very practical way for Asymptote, as a journal of international literature, to communicate Mexico’s rallying cry for change and justice in multiple languages. Juana Adcock’s English translation was the first in a chain that now stretches from Mexico to Scotland, China, Romania, Israel, Indonesia, Brazil, Greece, and beyond. Asymptote’s global “Ayotzinapa” has become a poetic event, an audible coming-together, which is one constructive way of responsibly renewing the word Ayotzinapa, as Valeria Luiselli suggests we must do in her introduction to the poem. All of the translations begin with the same, untouched word, Ayotzinapa; like David, all of our translators took pains to get across—rephrasing the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy—what these Ayotzinapas mean.
Below you can read and listen to David Huerta’s original Spanish-language poem. You can also use the drop-down menu like a map to read translations of his poem in 20 languages. Listen, too, to our translators’ audio recordings, and particularly to their pronunciation of the unchanged title, “Ayotzinapa.” Above all, this global translation is about resisting the state of speechlessness that is easy to fall into when what you are witnessing is beyond imagination; about learning how to say Ayotzinapa; about stopping the word Ayotzinapa from being a strange, unrelated Mexican sound. #WeAreAllAyotzinapa #WritersWithAyotzinapa — Sophie Hughes, Editor-at-large, Mexico
Susan Bernofsky, Translationista + director of literary translation at Columbia University
Translating well is pretty difficult, so it stands to reason that a certain number of the translations you find out in the world are going to stink. And lousy translations can be of as many different types as Tolstoy’s unhappy families—or at least it might seem so at first blush. But when it really comes down to it, most translations that fail to live up to their potential sin in one of two fundamental ways. In the first case, the translator just doesn’t know what he’s doing. This can mean that he fails to master the original language he’s translating from to the point of being able to understand everything the author is up to, whether it’s stylistically, tonally or even on the basic level of plot (of stories, of sentences). Let’s face it: if you don’t know a language well enough to unpack a syntactically knotty sentence or recognize slang expressions and figures of speech, it’s pretty hopeless. If you read in a translation from the English about someone refusing to donate the posterior of a rodent when it’s really just a rat’s ass he’s not giving, well, that’s a nifty example of lost in translation. Or maybe the translator knows the language pretty well, but the writer has set the work in a milieu where the translator doesn’t know his way around enough to decipher the signposts that show whether a bit of dialogue is to be read as sarcastic or heartfelt, aggressive or shy. Or he’s never eaten that particular sort of food and doesn’t know how to find the words for it. Or he’s lazy and hasn’t bothered to study the work he’s translating carefully enough to really see how it ticks. Or or or. That’s the first set of things that can go wrong. These are all eminently fixable. The translator can do research, or ask for help, or get a work ethic, or plot to spend time in a place that will provide him with the cultural literacy he lacks. This mediocre translator might still be on his way to becoming a good one. The second category of ills is more dire. These are problems that arise when the translator just isn’t a good writer in English. And that’s a hard one to remedy. Why should translators be any less prone to Tin Ear than writers of other sorts? We’ve all encountered sentences that sound like something large and heavy being dragged downstairs. Occasionally a writer does this on purpose, for effect, but usually not. And the dirty secret of translation is that the very activity of translating tends to turn elegant writers into awkward ones. It’s because when you’re translating (especially if you’re fairly new to the activity), you’re likely to spend too much time hanging out in the part of your brain that learns foreign languages, makes rational decisions and does math. Look, I’m not a neuroscientist. But remember all those exercises your creative writing teachers used to throw at you? (Here’s six words, make a sestina right now, go!) They were mostly designed to trick you into switching off the rational part of your brain long enough for you to be able to write something. Good writing is most likely to come into being not by force of will but by relaxing into a sort of loose focus that lets the wiser part of your brain (the part where flashes of insight strike) take control. And it’s really hard to make simultaneous use of the writerly and rational parts of your brain, as brilliant translation requires. This is my private explanation for why so many translations fall short of delightfulness. Ideally, a translation of a literary work should be a work of literature in its own right, displaying a sense of style, tone, rhythm, voice and language succulent enough to make you want to read it all over again. And if the translator can’t really write well, that’s not going to happen. Still, there’s a bit of hope left. Like other sorts of writers, translators can get better at what they do by reading a lot of well-written books and thinking and talking about what they read. I’m not convinced that taste and a sense of style can be taught, but I’m pretty sure they can be learned. READ MORE…
Manoel de Barros began writing poetry at the age of thirteen. For the next eighty years, until his death on November 13, 2014, at ninety-eight, he wrote of the wetlands like no other Brazilian poet before him or since. He invented a language to speak not for his own experience of the wetlands but for how the birds experienced it. He wrote of the world as seen by the ants and of the music heard at the bottom of the river and of a humbleness before nature that was not of a poet who visited for a weekend or a month to escape urban life but of a poet who was born into a lush green place and felt himself to be such a part of it that he never lived anywhere else.
Translating his poems dramatically changed my thinking about the relationship between nature and language. For Manoel de Barros, nature and language were one and the same. He sought words that were the birds and therefore “belonged to no language.” As we lose species after species to human destruction, Manoel de Barros speaks for what we are losing with a swiftness that it is nearly unfathomable. – Idra Novey
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re Internet-savvy (or at least Internet-literate, which is an appealing almost-rhyme—so you’re a poet, too). And those who use the Internet know what “clickbait” is, or think they do—but it may be time to rethink what that coinage actually means. (Speaking of regrettable words: Time Magazine has a poll asking readers what words/phrases they’d like to ban from the English language—and the word “feminist” is in the list. Seriously?!). While the Internet allows us to look back and cringe at photos, messages, and comments of yesteryear and today, prolific authors are rarely asked to do the same. Here are six authors (including Philip Roth, Asymptote friend Lydia Davis, and Junot Díaz) on some of their earliest work.
Famed French OULIPO member Georges Perec may no longer be living, but a recently discovered manuscript lets readers uncover more of his infuriatingly clever work: A Portrait of a Man was found inside a closet and hits the English-language market this week, thanks to a translation by none other than David Bellos. Yet more literature resurfaces: from famed American writer John Steinbeck, a story read by Orson Welles on radio never reached print—until now. And fans of tragic Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (including yours truly), rejoice: nineteen new poems of his have been uncovered. Now you might understand his tragedy! Finally, Holocaust survivor and Polish memoirist Mary Berg’s archival scrapbooks and journals have surfaced, shedding new light on a lifetime marked by trauma.
When Asymptote’s October issue came out nearly a month ago, I (that is to say, your trusty blog editor Patty Nash, with my co-editor Eva Richter) promised that the favorites we had picked were merely the tip of the iceberg. That there were more where those came from, which is to say that they weren’t favorites at all, per se, because the word “favorite” implies absoluteness. And in an issue as large and diverse as ours, sticking to one or two final picks feels like an unnecessary burden: as blog editors, we do make the rules, after all. READ MORE…
The strength of Wolfgang Koeppen’s Youth (Jugend), an autobiographical account of the German author’s formation, lies in the small stuff: its sentence constructions, its often-startling words. These sentences can go on endlessly, such as the evocation of its setting that starts the book. After a first, short sentence—“My mother was afraid of snakes”—Koeppen goes on to describe the area of Rosental in one elaborate sentence that continues for the next three pages. This sentence twists and grows, covering furniture, landmarks, food, even the history of the young narrator’s family, until the speaker plunges into a fantastic rant against the place:
[…] while all around the streets smelled complacently of the anatomy of clinics, the sweat of patients, the horror of the dying, the fear of the examinee and the guilty innocents at the mercy of the prison-warders […] of the vanity of professors, the dead hearts of officials, the frowst of the laws, and then the poverty of the Lange Reihe and the indurated humiliation of the gray school, how I hated the city and wished it consigned to the snakes (5).
Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here.
Mime XVIII. Hermes the Psychagôgos
(trans. Sam Gordon)
I conduct the dead, whether they be shut up in sculpted stone sarcophagi or contained in the bellies of metal or clay urns, bedecked or gilded, or painted in blue, or eviscerated and without brains, or wrapped in strips of linen, and with my herald’s staff I guide their step as I usher them on.
We continue along a rapid way men cannot see. Courtesans press against virgins and murderers against philosophers, and mothers against those who refused to give birth, and priests against perjurers. For they are seeking forgiveness for their crimes, whether they imagined them in their heads, or committed them with their hands. And having not been free in life, bound as they were by laws and customs, or by their own memory, they fear isolation and lend one another support. She who slept naked amongst men in flagstoned chambers consoles a young girl who died before her wedding, and who dreams determinedly of love. One who used to kill at the roadside—face sullied with ash and soot—places a hand on the brow of a thinker who wanted to renew the world, who foretold death. The woman who loved her children and suffered by them hides her head in the breast of a Hetaira who was willfully sterile. The man draped in a long robe who had convinced himself to believe in his god, forcing himself down on bended knee, weeps on the shoulder of the cynic who had broken the oaths of the flesh and mind before the eyes of the citizens. In this way, they help each other throughout their journey, walking beneath the yoke of memory.