Monthly Archives: February 2016

In Conversation with Oonagh Stransky: Part One

Read an interview with the translator of Pope Francis: also available in Asymptote's Fortnightly Airmail

Oonagh Stransky is a writer, translator, and editor based in Italy. She is known, most recently, as the English translator of The Name of God is Mercy, a book-length dialogue between Pope Francis and Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli. Here’s the first part of a conversation Stransky had via e-mail with Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly about translating the Pope.​


My first question is simple. What was it like to translate the Pope? I grew up Catholic, considered myself Agnostic when I was in college, and now, like many, consider myself on a spiritual journey but am unsure what to call myself. The Pope’s words are incredibly moving, especially as he reflects on his experiences as a young confessor, and can no doubt effect, I think, nonbelievers. What was it like to translate these words, and what were your goals as the translator?

Translating the Pope’s words and ideas was a challenging and moving experience for me, as most literary translations are. I would say it was even a transformative one, too. Because I had a limited amount of time to work on the translation, as I will explain, the experience was especially intense and personal, even more than if I had had a lot of time to work on it. I had to immerse myself entirely in the text. In so doing, I not only discovered a gentle, deeply human side to this Pope, I felt something change or soften inside me.

As I mentioned, everything about the experience was intense. One day, out of the blue, I was contacted by Will Murphy, a Random House editor based in New York. I worked with Random House many years ago but have not collaborated with them since then. Murphy told me about the project, asked if I was available and interested, and suggested I do a sample. I agreed and sent it back to him that same day. Three days later I walked in to the Random House offices in Manhattan and left with a handshake and deal. I have been living in Tuscany now since 2009 and moved here from New York—I missed this kind of efficiency and directness! My negotiations led to a contract—which did not include everything I hoped for—but it was a job that I cared about and, of course, as a freelancer I have to be ready to bite the bullet.


Weekly News Roundup, 26th February 2016: Digi-Musee

This week's literary highlights from around the world

Happy Friday, Asymptote. We missed it last week, but here it is: friend of the blog (and source of a great deal of the roundup’s news), Michael A. Orthofer (of the Complete Review) is finally recognized as the meticulous literary heavyweight he is.

Is the future now (or never)? Here’s what robots might learn from literature, according to the Guardian (harumph). And in Paris, France, the City of Light (and Egregious Museums) is set to open a “museum of digital reading” (harumph, indeed).

In Iran, forty different media outlets have (allegedly) pooled money for British author Salman Rushdie’s fatwa, adding over six hundred thousand (!) pounds to the already-hefty sum. Meanwhile, here’s Rushdie on literature and politics—in his own words. The “Free the Word!” event at PEN International might be worth a gander for all this censorship. (Meanwhile, at the Eurovision song contest: is the Ukraine‘s submission an attack on Russia?).

Every once in a while, the non-translation media makes a revelation we knew all along. This time, it’s what we can learn by comparing translations of the Bible (via an interview with Aviya Kushner, author of the absolutely awesome translation memoir, The Grammar of God). Speaking of non-translation (but translation-friendly) texts: Lispector translator Idra Novey’s first novel, Ways to Disappear, features a “disappearing translation superhero.” And the Armenian Weekly emphasizes the point: here’s why it’s important to translate (and re-translate!) the country’s most foundational texts.

In India, there are so, so many literary festivals—about 100! The New York Times argues that these fests are more than strictly literary affairs, but occasions in which “India talks to itself.”

You may have caught the blog’s recent graphic novel in translation—here’s another kind of translation, namely that of culture shock and pictograms, by Chinese visual artist Yang Liu living in Berlin, Germany. 

Graphic Novel in Translation: Karim Zaimović’s “The Invisible Man from Sarajevo,” Part III

Part III in Asymptote blog's first-ever graphic novel in translation

Click here for Parts I and II in this series. 


Elena Ferrante in Slovak(ia): In Conversation with Ivana Dobrakovová and Aňa Ostrihoňová

"Although Slovak authors do give interviews and appear in public, events where the author is represented by their translator are very rare."

My Brilliant Friend is the 30th book to be published by INAQUE, a small independent publisher in Bratislava, and one of very few in Slovakia to specialise in translated literature. Elena Ferrante’s books appear in INAQUE’s Women’s Fiction series, which features stories by Jamie Quatro and Tessa Hadley, among others.  Titles planned for 2016 include The Story of a New Name, part two of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan saga, Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days and Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, life stories of distinguished and unjustly forgotten women who lead a full and fascinating life without the need for fathers, brothers or husbands.


Julia Sherwood: Sometimes an encounter with a book or an author is almost a story in its own right. Where did your own stories intersect with those of Elena Ferrante’s novels?

Aňa Ostrihoňová: Sometime in 2006 in Villerupt in France, I went to see Days of Abandonment during a festival of Italian cinema. A friend was keen to see the movie because, like three other movies shown that day, it starred her favourite actor Luca Zingaretti. I was struck by one scene in particular, in which Olga, the protagonist, is talking to the editor of a publishing house who has asked her to translate a novel. The editor tells her that the manuscript she delivered is a great story but it’s not the book she was supposed to translate. Later I realized this was a ploy the scriptwriter used in order to include in the movie the story of La Poverella, which comes back to haunt Olga in hallucinations from her Naples childhood. The scene doesn’t occur in the book.


Translation Tuesday: “A Fence” by Patricio Pron

She thinks, if God were a just writer, he would create a fence made of words so that his characters wouldn't wander off and wind up lost.


One morning (it doesn’t really matter which, but it’s March, it’s Saturday, it’s the year 2010, it’s the twenty-seventh) a young man is jogging with his dog down a quiet street in a residential neighborhood south of the German city of Hanau when something happens—the dog runs ahead or lags behind or darts off in search of something that caught its eye and is hit by a car. When the car’s bumper strikes the dog’s ribs, the bottom of the bumper, which is particularly sharp, slits the animal’s stomach open and turns red; immediately afterward, the rest of the dog’s body is swallowed by the car, which stops after a few meters, when it’s already too late. When the dog’s owner rushes to the car and sees that the animal has been run over, he quickly calculates that the chances of saving the dog are zero; nevertheless, the animal is still panting softly and tries to stand, all the while looking up at him, its eyes nearly popping out of its head. The dog, of course, is unable to stand since its body has been sliced in half, and the dog’s owner kneels next to it and begins to pet it and whisper soothing words as tears stream down his face. The animal stops breathing seconds later, and, when the young man goes to pick up the dead body, he notices its intestines are full of Argiope spider larvae; since the young man is studying to be a veterinarian, he is able to identify the larvae on the spot, and then remembers two things he recently learned in one of his classes: first, that the females of the species simulate coitus with each other to entice the males to mate; and second, that after consummation the males release their sperm-filled sex organs inside the females and try to flee, but are typically caught and devoured by them. READ MORE…

The Lives of the Translators: the Whence and the How

"Kafka’s fluent homelessness began to look more and more prescient to the Muirs as the years passed..."

Translation, like marriage, is the art of making things work; so it should be no surprise that some of the best translations in literary history were made by married couples.

Frequently this is a matter of convenience, or at least begins that way. One partner is fluent in one language; one is a better writer; one has more time. Talents assert themselves and sacrifices are made, until eventually the two sides work things out enough for the garbage to get taken out and the dog fed. The book gets done, in other words, which is another way of saying that the labor that produced it disappears behind a finish so perfect that it confuses pets and makes guests wish their own lives were so spotless.

For Willa and Edwin Muir, the Scottish couple whose translations of Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch and many others introduced English-language readers to some of the greatest German modernists, translation was a gift and a curse. On the one hand, it offered them money and a sense of accomplishment; on the other, it encroached on the writing that both of them, at different points in their lives, considered a true calling. But no matter how they thought about it, translation remained a means of survival for the couple: a lifeboat in which they bobbed, happily or at odds, through some of the most treacherous waters of the 20th century.


Graphic Novel in Translation: Karim Zaimović’s “The Invisible Man from Sarajevo,” Part II

Part II of Asymptote blog's first-ever graphic-novel-in-translation

For Part I in this series, click here







Download part one, part two, and part three.

Karim Zaimović (1971-1995) was a comic strip artist and writer for the weekly magazine BH Dani in Sarajevo. During the war he hosted a radio show on Radio Wall, Sarajevo, called “Joseph and His Brothers.” At 24, he was killed in Sarajevo, in August 1995, only three months before the Dayton Peace Accords brought an end to the fighting. His stories and the transcripts of his radio shows were lovingly assembled in the book, The Secret of Raspberry Jam, by his friends and colleagues, and were produced for the stage in a play of the same name by theater director Selma Spahić.

Aleksandar Brezar was born in Sarajevo in 1984. He has worked as a journalist at Radio 202 and a translator on several documentary films and other film-related projects for PBS, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Al Jazeera English, among others. His translations have appeared in the Massachusetts Review, Brooklyn Rail, Asymptote, Peščanik, and Lupiga. His graphic novel adaptation of Karim Zaimović’s story “The Secret of Nikola Tesla,” illustrated by Enis Čišić, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015.

Boris Stapić is a graphic designer and illustrator from Sarajevo. He studied in Zagreb, Croatia, at the School of Applied Arts and Design, and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He has worked at several advertising agencies as a designer and creative director. Boris has co-founded the TripleClaim Game Collective, a video game, app, and new media studio. Of the adaptation, he says, “adapting the original text was a great challenge because Karim’s stories seem to arise from an external creative impulse. They are a melting pot of ideas, obsessions and anxieties of the entire twentieth century, and a playful and engaging literary game of motifs and intimate fascinations.

Weekly News Roundup, 19th February 2016:

This week's literary highlights from across the world

Happy Friday, Asymptote! This week feels like a doozy, and it was. If you’re Berlin-based (Hi, Florian!), you likely saw Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei’s impressive refugee-commemorating installation at the city’s Konzerthaus, furnished with lifejackets provided by the mayor of Lesbos. In that same city, in this same week (!), Berlinale, the city’s famed film festival, raises the question: why aren’t German films as good as they used to be? READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation? February 2016

So many new translations this month!—Here's what you've got to know, from Asymptote's own.

Mario Bellatin, The Large Glass (Eyewear Publishing, February 2016, United Kingdom and Phoneme Media, January 2016, United States). Translated by David Shook—review by Alice Inggs, Editor-at-large, South Africa


Can a life be expressed in a single narrative, or a single form; can it be confined to a single genre? Mario Bellatin’s experimental autobiography (or is it autobiographies?), The Large Glass, employs three different ways of writing a life, challenging the accepted idea of what constitutes biography, and therefore self-expression.

This is not the first time Bellatin has engaged with the genre. His 2013 novel, Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, is a satirical biography of a fictional Japanese author, which includes excerpts, photographs and a bibliography. As critic Diana Palaversich explains, “With Bellatin you are never on solid ground”.

The Large Glass is non-linear, and at times almost nonsensical, rendering memory as character. Bellatin’s style has been described as hewing closer to that of avant-garde filmmakers—Lynch, Cronenberg —than anything literary. This brand of inscrutability or opacity—inherent in all three sections of The Large Glass—means that to distil meaning from Bellatin’s work it is necessary to rely on aspects of the author’s “objective” biography. This has something of a Lazarus Effect on Barthes’s dead author. But to what end?

The Large Glass magnifies those fundamental philosophical questions: Are we the same person throughout our lives? How do experiences and the manner in which we experience them and remember experiencing them shape our understanding of ourselves? How do these memories fit into the narrative of a life? Does a life have a single narrative? Bellatin seems determined to “reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs,’ and not ‘me.’” READ MORE…

Join Asymptote in New York City!

Here's what's what for Asymptote's fifth birthday party in the Big Apple!

This March 3rd in New York City, we’re thrilled to be holding an event to celebrate our fifth anniversary, where we’ll be joined by two multi-award winning superstars of translation: Natasha Wimmer and Ann Goldstein. Between them, these women have brought some of the biggest names in contemporary literature to English-language readers. In anticipation of our event, here’s everything you need to know about our extraordinary guests and host, Frederic Tuten.

Award-winning translator Natasha Wimmer is best known for her translations from Spanish to English of the work of Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who was described by the New York Times as  “the most significant Latin American literary voice of his generation.”


Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Bin Bags” by Enrique Winter

No matter whether they were men or women, he had always liked the bad ones.

Every morning Brian is in the habit of washing his arsehole with balsam, the way Eugenio used to like it. The upstairs bathroom is also shared, but it’s kept clean enough, because of the big window and because he’s included in a rota that the girls on that floor had inherited from other girls. He lathers his legs, the hair’s growing back, and he asks himself how something so obvious—that if you love someone you never stop loving them, dead or alive—is mentioned neither by the people giving advice nor by those taking it. When you’ve loved someone, you’ll always love them. That’s all there is to it. He closes his eyes to rinse himself off. You can survive with that, with or without your loved ones. You don’t replace them, you add to them. He dries himself, some parts better shaven than others, and the towel keeps Eugenio at the forefront of his mind: once, Eugenio, wrapped in a towel, said he made people see what they didn’t know they didn’t want to see. Brian then demanded an explanation and Eugenio spoke at length while he got dressed about how he’d manage to provoke people who swore they were as liberal as can be.

Brian could spend a long time sitting with his eyes fixed on the back of Eugenio’s knees, while he stood cooking. They were always the beginning of something and Eugenio let him look—with one foot he could stroke his calf as though itching it, or straighten out his shorts with one hand without taking the other off the frying pan or plate or whatever it was. He would whistle or sing slowly, and Brian heard the tune as though it was coming directly from those knees, bending every now and again, hinting at the thighs beyond, which he wouldn’t see until later. But Brian would always touch them through Eugenio’s shorts without even getting up from the sofa they had in the kitchen. With just his nails or his fingertips, he’d trace the edges of his boxer shorts until he was told to stop. But that didn’t always happen, and sometimes the tap would be left running or the water would evaporate on the hob. When they’d finished fucking, Brian would become quite the chatterbox, and Eugenio would half listen from the kitchen, in his dressing gown. READ MORE…

A*** And I: In Conversation With Emma Ramadan

" shouldn’t be that hard to write a genderless novel in English in the first person, but it’s really hard to translate one from French."

“If Garréta’s composition of Sphinx was a high-wire act, then Emma Ramadan’s task in carrying it over into a language with at least one crucially important constitutional difference is, near as I can figure it, akin to one tightrope walker mimicking the high-wire act of a second walker on a steeply diverging tightrope, while also doing a handstand.” —Daniel Levin Becker

If DJs are “the new rock stars” (Forbes, 2012), and if Emma Ramadan is correct—there did not exist, until now (2015), a genderless love story written in English—how can we trust in our vision as a supposedly contemporary, world-changing literary public after discovering that Anne Garréta’s debut novel was published thirty years ago?

Sphinx (1986) is a love story that is simultaneously hijacked and elevated by its own language. Originally guided by a Jesuit priest cloaked as Dante’s Virgil, the novel’s nameless and genderless narrator descends from the aristocratic literati into Paris’s crepuscular underworld, arriving at the gates of the discothèque Apocryphe to become DJ royale and a devotee of the beautiful, also genderless, A*** (in whose tragic character we may find our Beatrice). The Apocryphe is the abyssal incubator of their folie à deux. To say that Sphinx is “ahead of its time” sounds stale, but stale-sounding things are often true. (In 2002, Garréta won France’s prestigious Prix Médicis, which is awarded each year to an author whose “fame does not yet match their talent.”)

Garréta’s method and style allow her to pillage the French language generously, often playfully, and she makes it clear that society, self-prescriptive by nature, is begging to see itself outside of binary gender distinctions. Ramadan’s translation has also given us the first full-length work by a female member of the Oulipo. The experimental French literary group is renowned for its exclusions—whole novels don’t include the letter “e,” extended texts employ only one vowel, poetry is written to be sliced up and reshuffled. It must be remembered, however, that Sphinx’s publication preceded Garréta’s invitation to join the Oulipo by more than a decade. Now, what does it mean to read the first English translation of such a novel, which teases out all our assumptions about identity, love, desire, relationships, with almost sacramental intensity?

We can, at least, trust in the simple counsel of the novel’s translator, who (after Garréta) made our reading possible in the first place: “If our pre-conceived notions about all of these things are defied by this text, what does that say about our pre-conceived notions? Reading Sphinx is one way to think about these questions, to question our ways of thinking.” Whether in spite of or due to its preciousness, Sphinx serves to remind us that it is us who are still woefully behind the times.


MB: First, I want to enquire about the context that instigated an English translation of Garréta’s novel now. Sphinx was published in 1986—when Garréta was only 23 years old. What made the impetus for this translation—nearly thirty years later—so urgent?

ER: Well, when I first found out about Sphinx, I heard about it in the context of Daniel Levin Becker. He wrote a book about Oulipians, and he briefly mentions Sphinx, and I assumed that it had already been translated. And then I went looking for the translation and I couldn’t find it, and when I realised it hadn’t been translated yet it just sort of seemed wild to me, you know, that no one had tried to translate this book. It was pretty wild to me that, despite the past, however many years going by since this book was published, it still feels very relevant, maybe more so now than then, because people are more interested in talking about gender and the way gender influences our lives, and influences our identities, the ways it kind of constricts us, and I feel now more so than in 1984—at least in the States.


Asymptote Podcast: Experiments

A new episode goes live!

In this episode, we dive into the innovative poetry and translations of Asymptote‘s Winter Issue. First, we take a look at the rhythmic poetry of South African poet Toast Coetzer, which blurs the line between music and poetry. Then we examine how Victoria Cóccaro and Rebekah Boudon translated Pablo Katchadjian’s supposedly untranslatable poem “Martin Fierro Ordered Alphabetically.” After that we’ll listen to Rajiv Mohabir wonderful translation of Lalbihari Sharma’s folk songs from Holi Songs of Demerara. And finally, we’ll see how Jared Pearce brought ancient Babylonia to America with his poetic translations from Babylonians as Americans as Babylonians. This is the Asymptote Podcast.

Weekly News Roundup, 12th February 2016: Circonflexing Muscles

This week's literary highlights from across the globe

Happy Friday, Asymptote people! Use the weekend to study for an up-to-date spelling test. This week witnessed a tragic end to that inexplicable squiggly line above (certain) vowels: the circonflexe mark (as in “î” or “û”) is going to be removed from official French orthography. And other weird French spellings (“oignon”) are going to be changed in the interest of logic (becoming “ognon”). Unsurprisingly, this #ReformeOrthographe has sparked quite the lively conversation… READ MORE…