Monthly Archives: May 2015

Weekly News Roundup, 28 May 2015: PEN! BTBA! IFFP!

This week's literary highlights from across the world

Happy Friday, Asymptote! For those of us interested in translation—and the funds to pay for it—the day the PEN/Heim Translation Fund awards/fellowships are announced is always good. Special congrats to Dong Li, Asymptote blog friend—but he’s by no means the only familiar name on the list. Big congrats to all the winners, and the blog wishes you luck on all your projects!

And. Continuing the theme of huge news (for translators, writers, and readers at least—and aren’t we all?), Three Percent has announced the winners for the Best Translated Book Awards! In the fiction category, top honors go to Chinese author Can Xue (who we interviewed in the journal over a year ago) for her novel The Last Lover translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, and Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, which was translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong. Pride note: new blog co-editor, Katrine Jensen, was a member of the judging panel—so you can trust these picks! READ MORE…

Signes: A Review of Ciarán Carson’s “From Elsewhere”

Farisa Khalid reviews the masterful work of a translating poet

For a poet, there are easier things than translations. The translating poet inevitably has to face the gnawing burden of writing for two people. “It’s a desperate system of double-entry bookkeeping,” Howard Nemerov lamented. The spectral presence of the author is always hovering somewhere, ready to strike whenever the nuance of a word or phrase falters. Even then, the process of translation is seductive. It provides a poet with the rare opportunity to examine the art of another writer, often with intriguing results. The cryptologist’s glee at unveiling messages and new lines of thought converge into the creation of a new kind of work that is as dependent on the translator’s moment in time as much as it is to the author’s.

Many readers may be familiar with Ciarán Carson’s work as translator. His versions of seminal Irish texts Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) and Cúirt An Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court) have a robust freshness and vitality that readily appeals to contemporary audiences. Reading Carson’s Táin, one can sense the sounds, smells, and voices of that particular world of pre-Christian Ireland (now so heavily appropriated into the pop-culture fabric of Game of Thrones).

His newest work, From Elsewhere (Gallery Books, 2014), is a collection of 81 short poems by the French poet Jean Follain (1903-1971), each accompanied by a short poem of Carson’s, an original work inspired by the Follain poem, or, as Carson describes it: “a translation of the translation.” From Elsewhere is certainly not Carson’s first foray into French translation. In 1998 he translated an array of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé in The Alexandrine Plan and in 2012 he published his translations of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, In the Light Of (both published by Wake Forest University Press). READ MORE…

What’s a Tomme Cheese?

In her continued column about food & language, Nina Sparling examines just what—and how—"tomme" cheese has come to mean

Some words for foods are easily translatable. The word’s functional meaning shifts effortlessly between tongues. Tomato and pomodoro both indicate Solanum lycopersicum, member of the nightshade family. Poulet, pollo, and chicken look the same rubbed with oil and garlic roasting in a hot oven. In these cases, there is little room for deliberation: oil, butter, wine. Rice, wheat, corn. Their translations are patently accessible. Learning the words for foods in other languages is particularly satisfying. There’s immediate sensory recognition: the words indicate familiar tastes, smells, textures, and sights. The intimacy with what we eat follows. In learning to say tomato in another language, we begin to feel in it also.

But this question of feeling is where it gets finicky. While most anything carries a “literal” meaning in another language, its usage and implication remain awkward in translation. A New York bakery and a Parisian boulangerie operate in different ways. In both places flour is mixed with yeast and water, let to rise and baked. Yet we do not eat bread in the same ways, and the bread we eat is not the same.

Take, for example, the French word tomme. My first day of work at the cheese shop a colleague asked me what kind of cheese I liked. Tomme, I said. He was quick to call me out.

Tomme is not a kind of cheese. Be more specific.” READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Poems by Boris Vian

Translated by Jeremy Page


To Odette Bost


Into the houses where children die

Go some very old people.

They sit down in the antechamber

Their sticks between their black knees.

They listen, nod their heads.


Every time the child coughs

Their hands clutch their hearts

And make big yellow spiders

And the cough, rising through the furnishings,

Is shredded, listless as a pale butterfly.


They have vague smiles

And the child’s cough stops

And the big yellow spiders

Rest, shaking,

On the polished boxwood handles

Of the sticks, between their hard knees.


And then, when the child is dead

They get up, and go elsewhere…


In Review: “Unknown Soldiers” by Vaino Linna

Daniel Goulden reviews a book "so good it hurts to read."

In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland in hopes of annexing Karelia, a strip of forested lands on the border of Finland. It wanted Karelia as a buffer to safeguard nearby Leningrad. Finland fought back fiercely, but ultimately had to surrender portions of its Eastern Lands. Two years later, in June 1941 (when the Nazis broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact), Finland was trapped between two authoritarian regimes. Allying itself with Nazi Germany, Finland entered the war against the Soviet Union and attempted to regain the territory lost during the Winter War.

The novel Unknown Soldiers by Vaino Linna presents the morally ambitious events of the Continuation War. The story follows a company of soldiers, some excessively patriotic—and others considerably less so—as they march through the forests of Karelia. The perspective seamlessly switches from character to character, so the reader witnesses the war from multiple perspectives. Despite their differences, each character quickly realizes that the war is horrifying and pointless. The only characters who do not realize this ostensible truth of war are the deluded officers, more concerned about medals and careers than the lives of their men. READ MORE…

Weekly News Roundup, 21 May 2015: Booker, the Man

This week's literary highlights from across the globe

Happy Friday, Asymptoters! You must be rather cozy living under a rock if you haven’t heard the most explosive news of the week: Hungarian writer (and Asymptote contributor!) László Krasznahorkai has won the prestigious International Man Booker Prize this year. He received 60,000 pounds sterling, but a 15,000-pound prize for his English-language translators is split between George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet (also contributors to both blog and journal). This year’s snag means things are stacked two-for-two with regard to the Man Booker and Asymptote. Two years ago, Lydia Davis earned top honors—and you can see her work in the journal, herself translating from the Dutch in 2013. Furthermore in lit prizes: at Wall Street Journal, an interview with the most recent “Arab Booker”—also known as the International Prize for Arab Fiction—prizewinner: Tunisian novelist and prizwinner Shukri Mabkhout opens up on novelizing the political crises and opening literary doors in the region.   READ MORE…

From the Archives: “Resistance Is Futile” by Walter Siti

In this ongoing series, a look at fiction from our January 2015 issue translated by Antony Shugaar

What is “autofiction?”

I don’t know. I really don’t. “Autofiction” belongs to the category of words I’ll habitually skim over in lieu of context clues. (Also in this category: “antifiction,” “matron literature,” “ergodic literature”—any ideas?). Critics toss around categories such as these so flippantly, practically taunting their readers to look them up on Wikipedia, but unless I get the sense that the term is particularly operative, I am likely to continue reading.

I came across “autofiction” more recently: after reading the incredible excerpt from Walter Siti’s Resistance is Futile from our latest issue (translated from the Italian by longtime blog contributor/superstar translator Antony Shugaar). In his translator’s note, Shugaar says that Siti’s “approach is called autofiction” and that “Siti seems to swing it over his head recklessly like a heavy gold chain.”

I’m intrigued. But first and foremost, I’m intrigued by the excerpt itself, because Resistence is Futile is incredible. Written in increasingly circular retrospect, the story’s more a taut deferral of linearly cruel memory than anything resembling realist fiction, but that’s not to say it isn’t visceral, gutting, utterly material, and wrenching, as it recounts the youth of an unfortunately corpulent young boy, Tommaso.

The boy’s fat—that’s because he was a slow eater as an infant—and worse still, even that’s because the mother may or may not have “somehow been jinxed, conceived under a bad star” after she “got it stuck in her head that the child had been generated the very night that her husband came home drunk (and as far as that went, nothing out of the ordinary), cursing and washing the blood off himself.” READ MORE…

I Have Changed Nothing: Seven Paradoxes in Pursuit of Arthur Waley

Fourth in Josh Billings' "Lives of the Translators" Series


Of all outdoor sports, skiing is the most dependent on “conditions”; so it is with some confusion that we come across this incredible sentence, from Arthur Waley’s short essay “Waiting for the New”:

But the truth is that for the skier time does not count.

As truths go, this one sounds strange—especially coming from the man who essentially introduced ancient Chinese and Japanese literature to 20th century-English readers. But Waley knew what he was talking about. Over four decades and over two dozen books (an output rivaled only by his fellow Fabian, Constance Garnett), he developed an exquisite ear for the way that time changed words. At the same time, as a poet, he understood that the gulfs separating two seemingly distant eras could be bridged, unexpectedly, by a single act. Later in the same article, he described the skier’s patience:

Waiting is waiting, whether it be for a night or for six months; and inversely the prospect of a ski-run is as exciting, day after day, to the rentier or pensioner who spends Michaelmas to May Day on the snow, as to the breadwinner who snatches a fortnight at Christmas. Each, on waking, thrills at the thought ‘today I am going to ski’; each has sat for hours in heavy and perhaps wet skiing boots, merely to put off the moment when he must confess to himself ‘today the skiing is over.’

The skier in Waley’s description no more ignores the weather than the translator would ignore the echoes of an archaic verb tense; on the contrary, he steeps himself in the conditions of his art, sure that if he waits long enough, his moment will come. The clouds will part and time collapse like a Mad Fold-In, creating a moment that is simultaneously a repetition of previous moments and unique. The name that Waley’s article gives to this miracle will be familiar to readers of either ancient Chinese literature or 20th century poetry. It is “The New.”


In a note to his 1934 translation and study of the Tao Te Ching, Waley explains the concept of fan-yen:

The ‘which of you can assume murkiness…to be clear’ is a fan-yen, a paradox, reversal of common speech. Thus ‘the more you clean it, the dirtier it becomes’ is a common saying, applied to the way in which slander ‘sticks’. But the Taoist must apply the paradoxical rule: ‘The more you dirty it, the cleaner it becomes.’

As a tool for thought, paradox has a long history in Western and Eastern literatures, but its use in biography has been limited. The mythmaking urge is too great, which means that most of the time biographers from Samuel Johnson to David Remnick have found themselves “cleaning” their subjects’ lives in a way that may sound and even be true, but which hides a certain messiness. The life in question becomes a story with a plot and theme—which is all well and good until you think about your own life, and the thousand things that any story about it would have to leave out in order to make any sense.

The life of Arthur Waley breaks the biographer’s storytelling urge in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that Waley didn’t write much about himself. He kept no diary and destroyed his letters, leaving a space, or network of spaces, where most of his contemporaries left maps. Perhaps most importantly, his insane productivity occurred almost exclusively in translation—a discipline that traditionally prides itself on self-erasure. Because of this, any attempt to make a story out of him has to confront the fact that there is, ostensibly at least, not much “him” to make a story out of. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Poems by Anna Margolin

Translated from the Yiddish by Maia Evrona

Mother Earth


Mother earth, much trodden, sun-washed,

dark slave and mistress

I am, beloved.

From me, the humble and the sullen,

you burst forth—a powerful stem.

And like the eternal stars, and as the flame from the sun,

I circle in long and blind silence

through your roots, through your branches

and half in vigil, and half in slumber,

I search, through you, for the high sky. READ MORE…

In Review: Theo Dorgan’s “Nine Bright Shiners”

"Nine Bright Shiners is certainly one of the best new collections of poetry to have come out in the 2014-2015 (literary) year."

I first came across Theo Dorgan’s work in a charming anthology of art writing from the National Gallery of Ireland, Lines of Vision (Thames & Hudson, 2014). A group of acclaimed Irish novelists and poets wrote about which paintings had most affected them as artists. Dorgan chose an evocative little history painting by Ernest Messionier, Group of Cavalry in the Snow: Moreau and Dessoles before Hohenlinden (1875), depicting two of Napoleon’s generals contemplating their chances on the eve of the wintry battle of Hohenlinden in December of 1800. It’s an intimate scene, and its effect, as described in rapturous detail by Dorgan, especially its effect on the imagination of a young boy, is enchanting:

There’s a self riding down out of the picture, no two selves. One of them

stolid and wary, wondering what these damn officers are about to get

us into…my mind is full of the coming battle, my sympathies with men

breathing this cold air tonight who will not be breathing it tomorrow…


All this and so much more, so very much more, out of one small

painting—and I close my eyes for one brief instant, leaving the gallery,

not sure when I open them where I shall find myself, on a Dublin street,

so long familiar, or on a wooded slope with a sky fill of lead-heavy snow

above my head, hearing the creak of leather beneath me, feeling the

solid heat of the animal bearing me down off that crest towards some

tomorrow at once unknown, unknowable and absurdly unfamiliar.

Dancing with the child I was, cheating the monoworld. READ MORE…

Weekly News Roundup, 15th Mary 2015: PEN or Sword, Too Many Prizes

This week's literary highlights from across the world

Happy Friday, Asymptote friends! Another day, another dollar, another slew of literary prizes to report. This week, the PEN prizes were of special interest: Two Lines Press’ translation of Baboon, written by Danish author Naja Marie Aidt with translation by Denise Neuman has snagged the PEN Translation Prize (for a short-story excerpt from Baboon, click here!—or better yet: read Eric MIchael Becker’s exclusive interview with the author here). Meanwhile, the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize (for translations of German-into-English) is slated to go to Catherine Schelbert, for her translation of Hugo Ball’s Flametti. And the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize has announced its shortlist, which includes our own friend of the blog (and Tiff-ster) Susan Bernofsky, for her translation of German writer Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (coincidentally reviewed here in our latest issue). READ MORE…

Working Title: Pereira Maintains

“A single phrase, used regularly throughout the text, changes it drastically, invoking a sinister atmosphere. Who is Pereira telling his story to?”

“In a special action of the case the plaintiff declares, that he is a hackney coachman.” “The defendant maintains that he accidentally stood naked in front of the window.” These excerpts are taken from courtroom reports dated, respectively, the late 17th and early 21st century. Although the reporting verbs used in these two cases are, technically speaking, interchangeable, “declare” would look more out of place in the second example than “maintain” in the first. Today we usually declare love or bankruptcy, war or independence, profits or goods, but rarely our personal details.

The protagonist of Sostiene Pereira, a 1994 novel by Antonio Tabucchi, declares a great many things in Patrick Creagh’s translation, titled Declares Pereira and first published in 1995 by Harvill, a London-based press with an interest in European literature. When the book was reprinted in the US, the title lost its inversion, becoming Pereira Declares (perhaps in line with the advice given in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, whose authors, Dave King and Renni Browne, think that “‘said he’ fell out of favor sometime during the Taft administration”), and the story, initially billed as A True Account, became A Testimony (and thus closer to the original Italian subtitle Una testimonianza), but the declarations remained in the text. They stayed there until 2010, when the independent British publisher Canongate reissued Creagh’s translation as Pereira Maintains. The only difference between this version and the earlier ones is that “declares” is replaced by “maintains” throughout—a change that, despite being easily made with a find-and-replace tool, produces a profound effect.


Swedish Camels, Part II

An ignoble literary translator’s journal by André Naffis-Sahely

My experience with publishers thus far—eight books with eight different imprints—has not left a positive impression. Editors often grumble about having to actually edit manuscripts because they’ve been assigned too many titles to look after, and as a result, they end up emotionally and intellectually detached from their own projects.


The old-fashioned editor was part sleuth and part sidekick. Above all, they displayed an unwavering commitment to what they believed would enrich the public consciousness. Alas, I wager the modern equivalents of Maxwell Perkins, Diana Athill, Carmen Callil, and Gordon Lish simply wouldn’t get past the interview stage any more. Who wants to take those sorts of risks, or better yet, invest that kind of money? Publishing in London, for instance, is neatly dominated by youngsters in their twenties and early thirties, who should by all rights be paid interns—stress on paid—but are instead hired because it’s easier to pay them ridiculously low wages rather than for those companies to hire real professionals.



In Review: “Self-Portrait in Green” by Marie NDiaye

Translated by Jordan Stump, and published by Two Lines Press

Let me talk about selfies.

Are you annoyed yet? I promise this isn’t a curmudgeonly thinkpiece about millennials; nor is it a listicle written by said millennials in defense of the selfie.* No, I’d like to talk about self-portraiture, which became conceivable as soon as mirrors and other reflective surfaces were available. (Narcissus may have enjoyed his reflection in antiquity, but he wasn’t real, and pools of water are never that smooth). The idea here is objectivity. A stable you that you can see.

Even without gadgetry (mirrors, glassy ponds, cameras et al)—I don’t think a selfie is a foray into solipsism. More the opposite: the way the self-it-self has been constructed is a result of the litany of selves surrounding it. We adjust to resemble, even when affirming our individual self-ness. Every selfie (can we say “self-portrait” now? I’m sorry!) exists as an algorithmic product of the selves around it, which, through refraction and contortion, inform whatever “self” is portrait-ed. This is true even sans Instagram.

This, at least, is my hypothesis after reading Two Lines Press’ 2014 publication, Self Portrait in Green, by French writer Marie NDiaye and meticulously translated by Jordan Stump. The slender novella is written in the first person against the stark relief of an ominous threat, one of a flood that is slated to destroy the village the narrator inhabits, by 2003. Through a series of recollections, Self Portrait in Green navigates a universe of threat, both environmental and interpersonal, through an interconnected series of engagements the narrator litanies against women afflicted by the color green.  READ MORE…