Monthly Archives: December 2015

My 2015 as a BTBA Judge, and Reading Resolutions for 2016

Asked to review my year in reading and from it form reading resolutions, my immediate response is something I need to call an excited sigh.

Asked to review my year in reading and from it form reading resolutions, my immediate response is something I need to call an excited sigh. For months now, as a judge for the Best Translated Book Award, all I’ve read are eligible books, books published in the US translated for the first time this year. Yet, there were a few months before that reading took over. For years now, I’ve taken pleasure in not being partway through any books when the new year begins, so as to open each year fresh. This year, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov’s The Golden Calf (trans. Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich) made for a great New Year’s Day read. (To call it fitting, however, would be a lie.) The novel is hysterical, absurd, and clever, fueled by ambitious and clueless characters, fleeing and bumbling in pursuit of fortune.

Taking advantage of a bitter winter, I read the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy from Javier Marias (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). It is rare for a project so vast to also be unflagging in both its entertainment and ability to find new shades and twists for its ideas: of cultural memories, of what it is to read another human being, of violence and intimacy. But this trilogy accomplishes it. From it alone, I could pluck a number of examples of one of my favorite narrative tricks: to make a scene continue endlessly through digression after digression. Unlike any other art form, the novel is thus able to manipulate the experience of time, both of the readers’ and the characters’.

But yes, this year has been a culmination of reading more and more books the year they’re published. The best way I can think about it is by describing the books that stand out in little, meaningful ways. Starting with where I live, in Vermont, so close to Montreal, Quebec literature has had much of my affection this year. Not just the translations, like the Raymond Bock and Samuel Archibald story collections Atavisms (trans. Pablo Strauss) and Arvida (trans. Donald Winkler)­—so similar in their arc as collections and interest in familial depths but with different approaches and destinations—but also classics like the narratively unsettled Kamouraska (trans. Norman Shapiro). Anne Hébert’s novel is as much a story of a women trapped by culture and time, and her murder plot, as it is a stylistic achievement, melding aesthetic with the narrator’s psychology. READ MORE…

My 2015

Having managed to sidestep Ferrante's Neapolitan novels all year, I did, however, enjoy two Italian writers greatly.

Having managed to sidestep Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels all year, I did, however, enjoy two Italian writers greatly.

In the early 1950s, the Italian Luce D’Eramo (1925- 2001) wrote a series of unusual short stories that were first published in journals by the likes of Alberto Moravia and later collected under the evocative if rather literal title of Racconti Quasi di Guerra [Almost Stories of War]. In the first of these she published, ‘Idilli’, we hear the alternating accounts of a young couple living a precarious life as casual labourers on the outskirts of a war-torn city, in a style shorn of every embellishment but nonetheless poetic in its sparseness. Another,  ‘Straniera’, is the first-person narrative of a migrant worker in Nazi Germany. We see her strategies of survival: forging medical letters, exchanging contraband cigarettes for bread, and stealing books from burning libraries, until she (nearly) gets caught for defaming the Reich. In the now iconic ‘Il 25 luglio’, the young narrator discovers that Mussolini has been arrested and fascism has fallen.

These, and other stories from her entire career, have now been collected in Tutti I racconti (2014); I’m working my way through the later ones now, and am surprised that d’Eramo, who is probably best known for her novel Deviazione, a devastating account of the narrator’s adolescent infatuation—and subsequent disillusion—with Nazism, hasn’t yet been translated into English, and I hope that someone will soon translate at least one story from this collection for Asymptote. READ MORE…

My 2015

For me, being able to chew on something I’ve read throughout my day is as essential as the coffee that gets things moving in the morning.

I’ve been lucky enough to have enjoyed most everything I’ve read this year and a number stick out in my mind (Erpenbeck’s End of Days and Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth for instance), but the two I’m writing about here occurred one after the other in the past month: Enrique Vila-Matas’ Because She Never Asked and Daniel Sada’s One Out of Two. I wonder, though, if it’s not recency-bias so much as the circumstances under which I read them.

I’ve been working a short term job–which happens to have ended today, which sounds like the intro to one of Vila-Matas’ books, come to think of it–and found myself riding the L on a daily basis for the first time in years. I try to travel without a bag, so having books that fit into an inner pocket of my vest is somewhat key (and inner pockets in one’s jacket: so very, very key). Both these volumes, slim and not overly tall, were ideal travel companions on those grounds and, what’s more, somehow enhanced the physical experience of riding the train, too.

Because She Never Asked is as playful as any of Vila-Matas’ work: stories within stories, diving and looping in and out of one another; narrators less unreliable than slowly unhinging; a prose that skips along at a pace at once jaunty and leisurely. In many ways (and as Michael Orthofer suggested in his review), Because She Never Asked functions as a great entry point to Vila-Matas, but I would also offer that this work is perfectly suited for a short trip on public transit. The story moves along, sure, which is something of a key component to anything read in a public space, but it also possesses a light density: that is, one can dip in and out without feeling like anything has been lost, but at some point, some aspect of the story will go off in one’s head, motivating a return to story, a desire to dive back in and parse it further. For me, being able to chew on something I’ve read throughout my day is as essential as the coffee that gets things moving in the morning. READ MORE…

My 2015: A Frazzled New Mother’s Year in Reading

Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower took me by the hand, led me up the stairs, and pushed me off the roof.

2015 was an eventful year, to put things mildly. I lumbered into it heavy with child, in mid-March I gave birth to a bundle of joy, and post-mid-March has been spent living with said bundle of joy—an experience filled for the most part with elation, excitement, and gratefulness, with a good dose of exhaustion, frustration, and terror.

In other news, I completed the manuscript of my second novel, worked with my publisher to see my first novel The Oddfits through the final stages of editing and proofing (it comes out on February 1, 2016!), and filled in remaining cracks with a few smaller projects—translation, writing, and editing. Chaos took the opportunity to reign supreme in our apartment. What you could see of the apartment between the eternal hillocks of yet-to-be-folded laundry.

Don’t look at the bathroom. For the love of God, don’t look at the bathroom.

And somehow, thankfully, I managed to read. In hindsight, reading is perhaps what kept me sane…if it could be called sanity. Audiobooks were useful when I didn’t have a hand free but still needed to be in motion. And it was nice to be read to, though my choices were hardly the stuff comforting bedtime stories are made of. With the relentless cynicism of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh cackling in my ears, I saw the world’s cheeks drained of their rosy hue; and I cackled along. Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower took me by the hand, led me up the stairs, and pushed me off the roof. Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son set me adrift on a nightmarish sea, the pitching so constant, however, that I almost felt as if I were being rocked in a cradle. READ MORE…

My 2015

Sometimes there are books that you leave the store reading and can’t put down, and there have been quite a few of those this year.

It’s been a fantastic year for literature and, consequently, not such a stellar year for my bank balance as all these purchases have begun taking over my apartment. I recently discovered that there is a word for this condition in Japanese, “tsundoku”; letting books pile up unread as you buy new ones to add to the literary Tower of Babel rising ever higher in your apartment. But sometimes there are books that you leave the store reading and can’t put down, and there have been quite a few of those this year.

Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life was one such book, a lucid and meticulously researched biography of the late poet, who also acted as a champion of translation and literary internationalism through Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT), the magazine he co-founded in 1965 with Daniel Weissbort, through the founding of Poetry International in 1967, and through his own efforts at translation. Most notable of these efforts were his translations of Hungarian poets during the 1960s and 1970s, living in ‘the Other Europe’ of the Cold War era.

In what might well be a q-memory, I recall coming across Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ at an early age within an anthology of British poetry owned by my great-granddad. Though I wasn’t to know it at the time, The Hawk in the Rain would later become a touchstone during my teenage years in rural North Yorkshire. Coming from a similarly unremarkable background, Hughes was someone who didn’t forget his countryside roots, but was in fact sustained by them; in short, he was one of us. Though there has been a huge amount of press around the book for its more scurrilous content, an unavoidable consequence of the ever-profitable ‘Plath industry’, Bate successfully puts Hughes over as someone who lived and breathed for his art; contained it within the marrow of his bones, and pursued an unwavering, unforgiving dedication to his art that brought terrible costs to his life off the page.

After featuring in our summer issue, I quickly snatched up a copy of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth when Christine MacSweeney’s wonderful translation hit the shelves of my local bookstore in September. Shortly after beginning the novel, it becomes obvious that Luiselli is sitting comfortably on the edge of greatness; uproariously funny and scathing in its critique of the absurdities and banalities of modern life, the book was just a delight to read from beginning to end. For lovers of the adroit wordplay of Joyce and the ironic farces of Ionesco, this book will make a perfect stocking filler.

Another translated work that has stuck with me throughout the year, particularly in light of the refugee crisis in Syria and the ongoing debates around military action against the self-styled Islamic State, has been Mary McCarthy’s translation of Simone Weil’s seminal essay, ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force’. A meditation on the nature of war and violence, it shows, on the one hand, why the classics are still relevant to our understanding and navigation of the issues thrown at us in the modern world. On the other, it reaffirms warfare and violence as a dehumanising force that strips both victim and aggressor of all humanity. Written on the eve of war in 1939, it remains one of the most moving literary essays ever written.

David Maclean is a freelance journalist and writer based in Manchester, United Kingdom. He is a Marketing Manager for Asymptote and Editor of Angle Grinder Magazine. Their inaugural issue, “North,” will be released in January 2016.

My 2015

The off-white of the page and the off-white of the walls. The world outside the door. And you reading.

What is the memory of reading? How do you remember reading? For me, I cannot simply recall the book in question, but also when I read it, why I had chosen to read it if there was a choice involved, or how I chanced upon it, and most significantly, where I read it: in which rooms and in which seats. I have moved around a lot this year, both travelling and relocating, but at the same time, my memories of reading certain books invoke stillness, the kind where you notice the slightest movement of daylight changing the hours. The off-white of the page and the off-white of the walls. The world outside the door. And you reading. And then there are some books that do not ask for a stupor, but an attention where you want to see or imagine it being made, you want to know what it looked like in its first stages and what conversations transformed it into its finished present state. Well-arranged poetry anthologies have this effect on me. When I heard Robert Chandler speak about The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry at the Place for Poetry conference, at Goldsmiths in London earlier this year, I knew I had to spend time looking at the way he had organized the contents and think back to what he had said about editorial choices, about being both editor and translator, and working with co-editors. How does one take on the challenge of representing 200 years of Russian poetry to be published in 2015 and under the banner of a Penguin Classic? The key, Chandler said was in striking a balance between what is available and what should ideally be available. So he had to go beyond the ‘seductive neatness’ of the four that most representation of Russian poetry is over-fixated on (Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva), and include a few non-Russian poets, and have over fifty contemporary translators work on the anthology. READ MORE…

My 2015

Let her short but full life be an example to us readers: make hay (and read books) while the sun shines!

When I think about the best books I read this year, I inevitably think about when and where I read them. Starting in late December of last year, I spent many nights hunched over my desk, reading The Plum in the Golden Vase, the late 16th century Chinese masterpiece about the lecherous, murderous, thoroughly corrupt local magnate Ximen Qing and his six equally infamous wives, alongside David Tod Roy’s now complete five-volume translation (Princeton University Press, 1993-2013). When I finished reading both, it had become a warm Boston spring. The giant Chinese novels of the late Ming and early Qing periods (from the 16th to the late 18th century) are long for a reason: when you spend months in the world of the novel, that world becomes a significant part of your own life, heightening the sensation of microcosm. In the case of The Plum in the Golden Vase, this immersion imperils the soul. The novel reads like a thousands-page long sneer—it depicts a world in which everyone and everything, great and small, is morally compromised, and it seems to delight in its own bleak view of the world. Consequently, it’s a novel that is easy to admire and hard to love. The translation, too, wears on the reader by the end. It is complete and readable, but the occasional awkward, overly literal interpretations that are tolerable in the first volume become irritating by the fifth. “Short-life,” for example, Roy’s literal translation of the late Ming curse duanming, loses its amusing novelty by the thousandth repetition. Yet Roy’s translation is a masterwork for other reasons. Each volume comes with about a hundred-odd pages of footnotes tracing the origin of each and every oblique reference and piece of quoted poetry and prose in the novel. Roy’s scholarly tenacity borders on obsession: in order to get the jargon of Ming-era dominoes just right, Roy consults no less than four extant domino manuals from the Ming and Qing. Working through a massive scholarly apparatus that took over twenty years to construct puts the scant four or five months it takes to read the translation in perspective. There’s careful reading, and then there’s careful reading. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Hedgehogs” by Amanda Michalopoulou

How do hedgehogs do it? She imagined them upright, then lying down, going at it all aquiver, jabbing each other with their spines.

They could hear them in the night. From the communal garden came a rasping, booming sound like an electric coffee maker empty of water.

“What the hell?” Martha said.

“It’s the hedgehogs,” Klaus answered.

“How do you know?”

“I know.” He muttered as he turned on his side.

She got up and opened the door to the balcony to hear better.

“Have you any idea what I do for a living?” Klaus shouted from under the covers.

Martha sighed and returned to bed. She lay down on the very edge, trying not to touch him. When he spoke to her like that, angrily and loudly in German, she punished him by increasing the distance between them.   At times, in the middle of the night she’d ask herself: Are we really sharing the same bed? Are we really Martha and Klaus?   She’d reach out with her hand, touch his knee to double-check and then immediately pull her hand away. The closeness they’d shared at one time now seemed unfathomable. READ MORE…

‘Ask a Translator’: A New Column by Daniel Hahn

When a publisher commissions me to translate a novel I do work under the pretence that I’m writing not a translation but the translation.

Ask a Translator,” a new feature in which acclaimed writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn answers reader questions about the ins and outs of literary translation, debuted in Asymptote‘s fortnightly airmail ten days ago (subscribe here). Since not all blog readers may have subscribed to the airmail, we decided to reprint this hugely popular column today!

Hahn has translated Nobel laureate José Saramago, among many distinguished others, and served as Chair of the Translators Association of the Society of Authors, and National Program Director at The British Centre for Literary Translation. For his first monthly column, Daniel picked a question from reader Raimy Shin to answer:

When comparing two translations of the same text, what does one look out for to determine which is the superior translation? Or does it all come down to different style?

Translation is never a neutral act. It cannot happen without interpretation or personality, and it can’t happen without context. Which also means one of the reasons it’s hard to compare translations, even of the same text, is that no two translators will be aspiring to quite the same thing. Certainly the premise behind the question is entirely correctany two translations of anything will differ, and those differences will have some significance. But those differences won’t always allow you to evaluate the versions side by side on the same metric scale.

You can assess a translationlike any work of artby its achievement of success in its own terms, how it manages what it’s set out to do. You can evaluate, too, whether you think that’s a thing worth doing at all. But the decision as to which of two translations is superior assumes they share the same goals. To take a crudely exaggerated examplesay you’re trying to compare King Lear, the Sistine Chapel ceiling and chocolate ice cream. Which is better? Impossible to say. They’re all supremely good examples of the kind of thing they are. If they were all judged by the same criteria, sure, that would be easier, but also kind of meaningless given their categorical differences. (Which of the three is the best play? Well, King Lear, but that hardly seems like a fair fight, does it?)

Now, when a publisher commissions me to translate a novel, I do work under the pretence that I’m writing not a translation but the translation. That’s the pretence, and aspirationas though what I’m writing is not personal and defined by its million individual choices, and not contingent. And yet I know, of course, that it must be, because another translator will notice things in the original that I don’t, or I’ll choose to privilege things that she won’t; because my palette for expression in English will be different from hers, because we all as writers of English have languages that are distinct, words or constructions we particularly like or don’t. The fact that my English is (mostly) British and (mostly) 21st century will play obviously into what I produce. And what about that publisheram I producing a translation for a big commercial publisher, or for an academic publisher, or for a “classics” list? Those things, and the assumed readerships they imply, will inform my intentions, too. (If you’re translating a play, is it for the sort of publication where you want every cultural detail preserved and explained or is it for performance where actors have to be able to speak the lines and you have to remember to punctuate in such a way that they can occasionally breathe?) As I say, the process is never neutral.

Your question pertains, mostly, to pretty long-lived texts (it’s unusual for a modern work to be translated multiply), which means that translations can themselves differ in period. Even within Tolstoy’s lifetime there were several competing English Wars and Peaces, each one working to a different agenda from Rosemary Edmonds in the 1950s, Anthony Briggs in the early 21st century, or the many in between. Each translators will have understood her/his role differently. (Should they seek to be invisible, hiding the fact that the book’s translated, making it sound naturally English, or draw attention to its foreignness? As much as anything, this is a matter of politics and fashion.) They will have made different assumptions about what their readers want, and how much their readers know. Are they working for scholarship, or to make a great story as accessible as possible to newcomers?

These questions reveal nothing about which translation is “superior”, but rather indicate their differences in intent. A translation of a comic novel might produce more or less straight, stone-dead translations of the jokes with footnotes to explain the cultural references that underpin them; or it might reconstruct the jokes, changed to make Anglophones laugh, thereby losing some of the cultural specificity but obviating the need for reader-distracting footnotes. Is one of these decisions “superior”? Well, it depends what you like, what you want.

Go see Romeo and Juliet three times. One production might speak the verse beautifully, making you notice details you’d not noticed before. Another might be brilliantly paced, a really dramatic theatrical experience. A third might be a film, or Prokofiev, or West Side Story. They’re all the same, and not the same. Translations always are.

Some years ago when I finally decided to read Don Quixote in English, I chose Edith Grossman’s translation. I knew I wanted something more or less recent. I knew hers would be careful and sensitive, but also energetic, and I knew she also had the skill to make me laugh in the funny bits. I could have argued, of course, that the closest experience to reading Cervantes would have been Thomas Shelton’s translation, which is four hundred years old and would have been read by Cervantes’s own contemporaries (Shakespeare among them, of course). But I wanted something that bridged the gap between Cervantes and me in a certain way. Grossman’s translation was the perfect particular translation for me, but in part what that means is it did exactly what I wanted a translation of Quixote to do for me at that moment. It captured Cervantes’s book, but did it in a way that suited my sensibility, and what I like as a reader.

Does this mean there’s never any difference in quality between one translation and another, and it’s all a matter of taste, with everything indiscriminately valid? Of course not. Some translations are sophisticated and sensitive and effective; some display a profound failure to understand an original and a total inability to write pleasing, supple prose to replicate it. Some things are just mistakes. But difference is often just difference, too. So instead of assuming that one of two translations is necessarily superior and the other more flawed, consider what the differences tell us about what precisely the translator is actually trying to do and why. (I love books with a Translator’s Note.) Only then can you try to gauge whether it’s a success, but according to its own criteria, not somebody else’s.

Enjoyed this column? Subscribe to the next one here.

Margaret Atwood Wants You to Support Our Year-End Fundraiser!

Only three days and exactly $1,220 left to go! Donate to our fundraiser today.


This year was a big one for us at Asymptote! We won the 2015 London Book Fair Award for International Literary Translation Initiative and became the only member of The Guardian‘s Books Network dedicated to world literature. For the second year running, we made it to Entropy’s Best Magazines of the Year list, for doing “particularly exciting & generous things.” This was also the year we were mentioned in The New York Times, interviewed by Lianhe Zaobao, and praised in Der Tagesspeigel.

With your support, we were able to continue publishing our quarterly issues, as well as a monthly podcast, a daily blog, and our brand-new fortnightly airmails (with Daniel Hahn’s very popular column, “Ask a Translator”). Apart from releasing our first-ever educator’s guide, enabling teachers everywhere to use us as a classroom resource, we also kept our promise and organized a second edition of our international translation contest (still ongoing!). Judges Michael Hofmann, Ottilie Mulzet and Margaret Jull Costa will help us award $4,500 to six emerging translators.

Now, we’re raising funds to hold our most ambitious series of anniversary events around the world yet.


From January 2016 to April 2016, we are planning as many as 15 anniversary events around the globe, spread out over 5 continents. Confirmed participants include Ann Goldstein (translator of Ferrante), Forrest Gander (translator of Neruda), Natasha Wimmer (translator of Bolaño) and cult author Frederic Tuten in New York (Thursday, Mar 3, 2016), as well as acclaimed poet Caroline Bergvall in London (Wednesday, Mar 23, 2016). With our extensive experience (all previous 26 events documented here) we’re looking to curate a series of thoughtful readings and panel discussions in the name of promoting literary translation and world literature. All the money that we raise will go into organizing and publicizing these events, as well as marketing our fifth anniversary issue, so that even more readers can take advantage of our ever-expanding archive of world lit.

Junot Díaz, Yann Martel, Ingo Schulze and Sybille Lacan (daughter of the famous semiotician) have all contributed new and exclusive material to this milestone issue. And, for the first time in our pages, we will feature work from Uzbek, Mongolian, Guyanese and Sumerian, bringing our language tally up to 101—truly an achievement worth celebrating!

Reserve your tickets to our anniversary events with a donation now, if you’ve enjoyed what we’ve brought you this year. Support us so that we can bring our global conversation to a new city and give our fifth anniversary issue wings to reach more readers.

Furthermore the psychological boost that your donation represents (we’re all volunteers, remember) will help us carry on = PRICELESS.

Donate to Asymptote today.

Alberto Chimal on Star Wars: The Eternal Reign

Star Wars is not a religion but its myths are powerful.

I must admit that I am one of those who watched the first Star Wars movie in the seventies. In Mexico it was titled La guerra de las galaxias (War of the Galaxies): it arrived in late 1977 or early 1978. The movie was unprecedented in my life because I was a child, and not because I sensed how successful and influential it would become.

The TV commercials had piqued my interest, I remember, and also the lightsabers: they were the most popular toy of the time and were made out of a simple flashlight, attached to a translucent plastic tube. The light was colored by putting a piece of cellophane inside the tube, near the lightbulb. Some kids already had their sabers when my mom took us to the old Cine Hollywood theater to watch the movie. We went with a friend of hers and her children, and all of us watched in envy as those other kids ran around the theater with their swords glowing red, blue, or at times white, if they already had lost their cellophane.

In the end, everyone, us and them, came out singing John Williams’s theme, firing imaginary guns, thrilled by film quotes we rarely recognized as such and by the truly original moments, brilliant in their innocence and speed and beauty, made by George Lucas and his many contributors at Lucasfilm. READ MORE…

An Interview with Nicky Harman from Paper Republic

Read Paper Republic has been publishing one new Chinese fiction per week since June 2015. Our editor-in-chief talks with Nicky Harman about it.

Yesterday’s Translation Tuesday article was jointly published with Paper Republic, a collective of literary translators promoting new Chinese fiction in translation. Their new initiative, Read Paper Republic, is for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water. Between June 18, 2015 and June 16, 2016, Read Paper Republic is publishing a complete free-to-view short story (or essay or poem) by a contemporary Chinese writer, one per week for a year, 52 in total. Readers can browse them for free, on their computer, tablet or phone.

Our editor-in-chief, Lee Yew Leong, conducted a Skype interview with Nicky Harman, one of the founders of this new initiative, to find out more.

Lee Yew Leong: How did the idea for Read Paper Republic come about?

Nicky Harman: Well, we as translators are aware that our own passion for Chinese lit and our work doesn’t always match the general reading public’s interest so we decided on a project that would (a) bring a wide selection of contemporary work to readers, and (b) have a finite term, i.e. it wouldn’t go on forever so we could feel able to put all our energies into it. And we chose short stories because although they are an under-appreciated form in the West, they are nice and short (by definition!) and complete and Chinese writers write very good ones.

LYL: Who is “we” in this case?

NH: We’re Helen Wang and myself in London, and Eric Abrahamsen and Dave Haysom in Beijing. Eric, of course, founded Paper Republic, but we’ve worked as a collective for some time, and were all keen to revitalise the site. Dave is editor of Pathlight and was a brilliant addition to our team because of his editing skills.

LYL: All of you are also united by one thing: you’ve either contributed to Asymptote or taken part in an Asymptote event!

NH: Indeed. Asymptote has been a great inspiration to translators, and very deserving of the London Book Fair Award for International Literary Translation Initiative it got this year. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Venus” by Chen Xue

Jointly published with Read Paper Republic

There are works that I feel like translating because of their perspective and politics, and others where it is the language or the narrative that attracts me. In Chen Xue’s best work, and I think “Venus” is an example, she combines these two qualities. Acid, tender, provocative, realistic, fancifulshe has a real arsenal of literary moods and weapons. “Venus” did not get published in a couple of literary translation journals, specifically (I was told informally) because of its transgender perspective. While thanking Paper Republic and Asymptote for including it here, I call shenanigans. Anybody who values the transmission of Chinese-language literature in the English-speaking world ought to celebrate rather than suppress the diversity of Sinophone literatures.

Josh Stenberg


The silence of night falls on Phoenix’s room, it’s sometime in July, the dog days, it’s hot and stuffy outside, inside with the air-con on it gets down to 26 degrees, just the right temperature for an exchange of secrets.

Mum and dad are just behind the wall in the main bedroom, but it’ll be alright. At three o’clock in the morning, the despairing and the hopeful are both awake. The world is so quiet that even the sound of breathing seems to be amplified, Phoenix’s long curly hair half-conceals the naked chest, the discarded clothing are strewn about, the tender, naked skin is lustrous, almost reflective, Winter Pine has considered putting on some music to ease his own anxiety, but instead he forces himself to swallow, it’s as though there were some kind of rhythm, inaudible to the ear, emanating from Phoenix’s body, stirring the air, creating waves, with a dizzying gesture she clutches at the bed with both hands, rising from her kneeling position, and when her pale and delicate thighs spread at the crotch, an edifice predicated on her knees, ivory columns perpendicular to the bed, tapering to points, something hidden in the delta between the legs appears, which the neat, even trim of the curly pubic hair makes especially conspicuous.

That something is her penis, she hasn’t had it removed yet, suddenly exposed, it’s flaccid, about ten centimeters long, accompanied by the two ovoid testicles, as her body rises they slowly emerge before Winter Pine’s eyes, so this is it, Phoenix cups it lightly, Winter Pine is staring at the thing in the palm of Phoenix’s hand, he once had a dream in which he had a thing like that, it’s so big he says, Phoenix says, for something so unnecessary it really is very big.

Do you want to touch it? Phoenix takes him by the hand, but he shrinks back, Wait. Winter Pine forces his breathing to grow regular, he nears the bed, crouches next to Phoenix, stretches his hand out to Phoenix’s crotch, gathers up the scrotum and penis in his palm, they’re quite heavy, except in film and television or pictures this is the first time he has seen this thing, this “penis” in real life, Winter Pine is surprised to find it so warm, and that it feels somehow frail, maybe that has to do with the hormone shots, was it bigger before? Winter Pine asked, when he says “before,” he means before she started transitioning, before Phoenix turned eighteen. READ MORE…

In Conversation with Isabel Allende

“In all my books there is a strong sense of place and my stories often have an epic breadth.”

The “eternal foreigner” sat down during the tail end of her U.S. book tour to discuss her new novel, The Japanese Lover, and writing across boundaries.

While working as a young reporter in Chile, Isabel Allende went to interview the great Don of twentieth-century poetry, Pablo Neruda. At least, she assumed as much when she accepted his invitation for a visit to his house on the coast.

In preparation for the event, Allende washed her car and bought a new tape recorder. She drove to Isla Negra. After she and Neruda shared a lunch of Chilean corvina and white wine, Allende proposed that they begin their interview. Neruda was surprised, and rebuffed her, saying, “My dear child, you must be the worst journalist in the country. You are incapable of being objective, you place yourself at the centre of everything you do, I suspect you’re not beyond fibbing, and when you don’t have news, you invent it.” He suggested that she switch to literature. Perhaps Allende never would have done so if she had foreseen how eager editors would be for her to repeat this fanciful anecdote over the years. Still, in radio interviews, her voice seems to soften into fondness during each retelling. 

The publication of her debut novel, The House of the Spirits, in 1982, allowed Allende to make a full-time career change. Her journo’s vice of placing herself “at the centre of everything” is transformed into a defining virtue through her fiction: she is an exemplar of using the third-person omniscient point of view. Allende’s works have been translated into 35 languages, and the Spanish-language edition of her latest book, El amante japonés, was released in September by Vintage Español. The English translation, The Japanese Lover, was released on November 3, from Atria.


Megan Bradshaw: Prior to moving to California, what was your familiarity with the history of Japanese internment camps in the United States? How did your initial historical research for The Japanese Lover influence your assumptions and the direction of the novel?

Isabel Allende: I had not heard about the internment camps before moving to California but in recent years there have a been a couple of novels that mention them. My research gave me a much deeper understanding of what this meant for the people who were in the camps, how they suffered, how they lost everything and how they felt dishonored and shamed. Of course, their situation can’t be compared to the victims of Nazi concentration camps because there was no forced labor, nobody starved and certainly there was no intention of exterminating them. I had not intended to dedicate full chapters to the camps in my novel but the material was fascinating. READ MORE…