Monthly Archives: March 2016

Patria o Muerte by Alberto Barrera Tyszka

“Everything is fiction, even reality"

A striking meditation on the power of affective marketing to infiltrate and manipulate the national and individual psyche delivered in a gripping, suspenseful narrative web, Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s Patria o Muerte, winner of last year’s Tusquets Prize, is among the many novels that are garnering praise among Spanish language readers but have not yet reached American readers. Offering an intimate glimpse into a climactic moment in Venezuela’s sociopolitical trajectory, it resonates eerily with the media’s current stronghold in American politics.

The novel’s intertwined narratives unravel between 2011 and 2013, amidst the secrecy and suspense surrounding Chávez’s cancer diagnosis, treatment in Cuba and eventual death, during a propaganda campaign that sustained his political grip in a country plagued by mass unemployment, a housing crisis, extreme media censorship, unprecedented violence and an astounding fifty-two deaths a day. Chávez’s physical absence through most of the novel paradoxically strengthens his cult of personality and his power over the Venezuelan citizenry as uncertainty about the future imbues the character’s lives with constant, palpable paranoia, insecurity, and fear of the menace of violence. After his diagnosis, catastrophic collapse appears imminent but its approach is excruciatingly slow.

The action centers on Miguel Sanabria, a melancholic retired oncologist suffering from insomnia, who lives in Caracas with his wife, Beatriz, a fervent antichavista, in a building he manages. He attributes his psychic unease to his advancing age until it dawns on him that its real source is Venezuela’s state of suspense—a symptom of the national psyche in the vacuum of information about Chávez health.

At various points throughout the novel, Miguel and his brother Antonio, a fervent Bolivarian, argue about the legitimacy of Chávez’s revolution—the viability of the transition from capitalism to socialism—as the country dissolves into poverty and violence. As Chávez undergoes chemotherapy in Cuba, Vladimir, Antonio’s son and one of the president’s trusted officials, fearing the president’s mounting paranoia, asks Sanabria to keep a cell phone with compromising recordings of the gravely ill Chávez from the operating table, entangling Sanabria, who had always willfully abstained from involvement in politics, in the president’s fiction of immortality.


In Conversation with Chris and Ali Rodley: The Creators of the Magical Realism Bot

"A famous librarian discovers a painting that depicts every single owl in the world."

In his 1940 essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Walter Benjamin tells story of a chess playing automaton. Dressed as a Turk, with a turban and the obligatory hookah in its mouth, the machine would impress with feats of competitive ingenuity. Unbeknownst to the crowd, a dwarf was hidden within its workings. An excellent chess player, he guided the automaton’s hand by means of stings. Originally meant as a critique on materialist theories of history, Benjamin’s allegory has been extended to critique automatism in general. In this enlarged formulation, the internet, for instance, is not a self-directed entity with a fixed set of properties but rather an aggregate of people and institutions using computer networks to advance a divergent set of very human agendas. Beyoncé might periodically win it, but the internet is no more a sufficient reason for human phenomena than any other factor, or so the argument goes. No matter how sophisticated the automaton, the human is always in some sense at the controls.

But how would the allegory change if the Mechanical Turk wrote instead of played chess? This is not idle speculation. Last year, the Associated Press used automated processes to write quarterly earnings reports for 3,000 companies, roughly ten times the number produced by human counterparts previously. Automated writing is not limited utilitarian forms like business news and product descriptions. The results, however, are decidedly more mixed. NaNoGenMo, the programmer’s version of National Novel Writing Month, was started 2013 by the Portland, OR based web artist Darius Kazemi. The object of the project is to complete a 50,000 page book by the end of November, only it must be written with software rather than the human hand. The computer generated novels are, as their programmers freely admit, mostly unreadable. Sustained narrative remains a problem.

Automated writing of the creative variety becomes much more convincing on a small scale. One standout example is Magical Realism Bot, an automated text generating program on Twitter, developed by the brother and sister team of Ali and Chris Rodley. Magic Realism Bot generates a different 140 character story every two hours, using random combinations of the various elements that define the genre: academic characters, mythical creatures, philosophical disputations, etc. The output can be amusingly absurd, such as “A fortune teller turns over a tarot card with a Gummi bear on it. Your destiny is to become a psychiatrist,’ he says to you.” But it can also resemble the work of real authors, at least in summary. “A learned society of mathematicians meet once a year inside a ruined synagogue to decide the fate of life on earth,” reads more like the scene from an Umberto Eco novel than the instantiation of a simple computer program.

Magic Realist Bot points toward a complimentary relationship that can exist between the modernist experiment in literature of the 20th century and the digital culture of the 21st. Both modes of thing involve subjecting language to intense analysis, natural language or machine language, taking apart its most basic components in the search for new modes of representing reality. Identifiable people still remain at the controls of these writing automatons, working as programmers rather than puppeteers, but the speed and sophistication by which these automatons fulfil their commands represents a difference in kind from past experiments in replicating human culture. Perhaps a new allegory is needed to replace the Mechanical Turk. Magic Realism Bot might very well generate one.  

Ali and Chris talked to Asymptote about the technical basis for the Magic Realism Bot how that relates to how they engage with the practice of writing.


Matthew Spencer: Give us some background on yourselves. Specifically, I’m interested in how your efforts in social media, computer science and literature came to intersect.

Chris Rodley: I’ve wanted to be a writer since my early teens, and my literary heroes were the great experimental modernists like Woolf, Joyce, Brecht. Of course many contemporary writers of fiction and playwriting have turned away from this kind of bold, free-wheeling experimentation, maybe in part because where do you go after Finnegans Wake? This would sometimes frustrate me! READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “IN THAT PHOTO, FIX THE PIT STAINS ON MY SHIRT” by Luis Chaves

The drizzle like infinitesimal pinpricks, the sensation of __________.

Someone’s going to dream about this.
Head in the second house, the body
centered: a brick, a bar,
equidistant from two gringos.

We were about to go somewhere else
when an alarm began to signal
another reality:
“In that photo”—it tells me— “fix
the pit stains on my shirt.”

Climate change is listening
to summer’s hit song
in the winter.
A word like antiretroviral
in even the most visionary poem. READ MORE…

Ask a Translator by Daniel Hahn

"As a translator, I feel some responsibility to the writers I translate."

Our literary translator on the street, award-winning writer and editor Daniel Hahn, is back with another installment of “Ask a Translator,” the monthly column responding to readers’ deepest questions about the day-to-day practice of literary translation. This time around, Asymptote reader Mandy Doll from Singapore asked the following:​

Is there a code of ethics when it comes to translation?​

This is how the world looks today, according to the evening news:

Militant groups kill dozens in Brussels bombings!
Britain’s campaign to split from the E.U. heats up!
Trump and G.O.P. rivals escalate anti-immigrant rhetoric!

These are stories of division.

They are stories of a failure of empathy, a failure of imagination. Stories of willful misunderstanding. Stories that tell us how the powerful capitalise on failed media and failed education systems to persuade the powerless that the only thing that really matters is how people are different, not how they are the same.

Every assumption that underpins the translator’s work is in opposition to this. Translation is optimistic. Translation is generous. Translation assumes that—however unlikely—mutual understanding is possible. Translation says, Listen—see that guy over there? Give him a chance, ’cause what he’s saying is worth hearing. Translation assumes that my story can mean something to you, that her concerns way over there are not fundamentally different to his worries over here. Come to that, doesn’t all literature make that assumption? READ MORE…

Weekly News Roundup, 25th March 2016: Another Darkness and Another Noon

This week's literary highlights from across the world

Happy Friday, Asymptote friends! Can you believe we’ve already sprung forward (in the United States, at least)? This means we’re already a quarter-way through the year. Luckily, time flies slowly when digging through the archives: on finding German writer Arthuer Koester’s Darkness at Noon—a masterpiece known to the world only through translation—in its original, maybe. And speaking of the archive: with only black-and-white photos, what color were Franz Kafka’s eyes? This—and 99 other “finds”—in Reiner Stauch’s fascinating curation of Kafkanalia.

Speaking of daylight savings, we sure saved daylight—and lost sleep—on UNESCO’s World Poetry Day this past March 21. Here’s everything you needed to know so you can plan in advance next time. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation? March 2016

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

Michal Ajvaz, Empty Streets (Dalkey Archive). Translated by Andrew Oaklandreview by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Contributing Editor


Empty Streets, originally published in Czech in 2004, sets its writer-protagonist out on a search for a missing woman. However, in typical Ajvaz fashion, the quest begins as a search for a mysterious symbol. Early in the novel, the unnamed narrator stumbles, literally, on a double trident, a three-foot-long object that pierces his foot while he’s walking through a dump. This kicks off a sequence reminiscent of “This is the house that Jack built”: a double-trident logo appears a few days later when the narrator is using his friend’s computer; the friend tells the story of spotting the symbol in a mysterious painting; the owner of the painting, an elderly literary professor, tells him about the work of art and also adds a story about the disappearance of his daughter, whom he asks the narrator to find; the search takes him to the painter, who tells the narrator a story about . . . and so on, from one playful and inventive twist to the next, through 14 stories over the course of 470 pages.

In keeping with the novel’s sense of abundance, the prose brims with sensory experience in passages that translator Andrew Oakland renders with delicacy and precision. Notably, Oakland also leaves room for the narrator’s lack of precision, in instances like the “strange fragrance, one that is terribly difficult to describe” which he says has “several components including the scent of roses and the sharp smell of steel.” Similarly, when describing sound, the narrator says he “unpicked from the blocks of silence various rustlings, creakings, something somewhere knocking into something, something rolling around something and then stopping, something pointed that was scratching, something crumbling”—all noises that “might have been tiny sounds on the outer wall of a house, or a din softened by a great distance.”

But most pervasive are images of light and shadow, such as the observation of a sunset descending on the city, leaving only the upper-floor balconies in sunlight: “I had the feeling I was looking up at a distant shore from the bottom of a deep lake whose waters were crystal-clear.” READ MORE…

The Silent Whip by Jana Juráňová

"Our society is unwilling and unable to fully and profoundly come to terms with the legacy of either totalitarian regime."

In December 2015, my new play, The Silent Whip, premiered on the small stage of the National Theatre in Bratislava. It was written as a warning about what might happen if my country, Slovakia, fails to come to terms with its wartime past, but in light of the recent general election there, which has swept a neo-Nazi party into parliament, it turned out to be a grim prediction.

My country’s history is marked by a recurrent loss of memory, mostly imposed from above. As someone who spent nearly half of my life under state socialism, with history lessons filled with blank pages and distortions, I have found history to be a never-ending fount of fascination and explored it through my writing, much of which is based on real figures from our more distant and recent history.

One such figure is the protagonist of The Silent Whip, the acclaimed 20th century Slovak writer Milo Urban. The best of his fiction, written before World War II, particularly the novel The Living Whip, still forms part of our literary canon. Yet he is also one of many Slovak writers who have sullied their reputation by getting entangled with one ideology or another.  In the four decades from 1948 until 1989 many authors genuinely believed in the idea of communism, or at least pretended to believe in it in order to be allowed to publish. During the much shorter existence of the wartime Slovak Republic (1939-1945), a satellite of Nazi Germany, quite a few distinguished writers embraced the national socialist ideology. Many of them were condemned after the war and some, for instance Jozef Cíger Hronský, emigrated to South America.


Translation Tuesday: Seven Micro Stories by Alex Epstein

"Take a deep breath. Write until the page turns blue."


In the religion column the robot wrote: human.


It was an old spaceship with no windows (they couldn’t afford a new one). Before takeoff, they painted stars on the ceiling of their child’s bedroom.

A Children’s Story

All the children in the kindergarten had superpowers. One could move clouds (and furniture) through the power of thought. Another could walk on air as high as the tops of trees. A third (her name was Sappho) could stretch her arm up and touch the moon. There was also a child who could replace his stutter with a song.


In Conversation with Michael von Graffenried

"I’m a bit like a plant, I put down roots somewhere and then I see what grows."

Michael von Graffenried is what one might call a global photographer. He has projects from all over the world, slowly translating different worlds and lives into photographs. From Bern, Switzerland, he started out taking candid photos of the Swiss Parliament. His first major global work is from Algeria, where he went to document the civil war with a panoramic camera held at his waist. He has also taken photos in Egypt, India, New York, Germany, and many more. He works between Bern, Paris, and Brooklyn.


AR: You’ve done a lot of work with candid photos. What do you think is the advantage of that when you’re in a foreign country?

MVG: I don’t think it has to do with the foreign country, I think that the human being is different if he knows that he’s being photographed than if he doesn’t know that he’s being photographed. People behave differently when they know. Today, when you take up a camera, everyone knows it’s there. I like the real situation. People act differently, without the interference of the photographer. You have to be quick, and you have to be discreet. The best thing is not to put the camera in front of your eye, because then if even if they see the camera, they could think it’s at rest. That’s why the camera is only on the belly, because people can’t imagine that you could shoot blindly. With the rise of the digital camera and cameras on phones, shooting blindly is more common. But in 1991 and in Algeria, nobody thought I could shoot like that.


Weekly News Roundup, 18th March 2016: We Verb Hard

This week's literary highlights from across the world

Happy Friday, Asymptote! Did you miss the roundup last week? The podcast went up instead, and if you missed it, take a listen (especially recommended for traffic jams and spring cleaning sessions). This episode features highlights from our fifth-anniversary New York event—FOMO, begone. READ MORE…

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

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

invisibleMan_pg 28-min READ MORE…

In Conversation with Oonagh Stransky: Part Two

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

Our last Fornightly Airmail featured the first part of an interview with writer, translator, and editor Oonagh Stransky, best known for her English translation of The Name of God is Mercy, by Pope Francis and Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli. Here’s Part Two of the conversation Stransky recently had via e-mail with our Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly.


Let’s move on to the book itself. Pope Francis recites Bible passages from memory (it seems) several times throughout the book. Did you translate his Italian quotations from the Bible? Or do you know if the original version of the book used passages from a particular version of the Bible?

Great question. In the introduction, Andrea Tornielli, Vatican-watcher and longtime member of the Pope’s entourage of journalists, describes the particulars of the situation well. He mentions that he sent his questions in advance. He also describes how prepared the Pope was for the interview: “Francis was waiting for me sitting at a table with a Bible concordance on it and some quotations from the Church Fathers.” In other words, he didn’t quote all the passages from memory, but came ready to share some key stories both from the Bible and his life.

One of the first questions I asked Random House was which version of the Bible should I use for the quotations. The reply came direct from the Vatican. For the Random House version, which is distributed in North America, South America, and Canada, the New American Version of the Bible was used. This created a few problems for the British version, published by Macmillan Blue Bird, and released in UK, Europe and Rest of World (as I believe Oceania is called), for which the New Revised Standard Version was used. To some degree, the quotations—as with any quotation within a translation—are a legal matter and have little to do with the translator. But what is really interesting here—and this may be one of the reasons that the experience of translating this book was a transformative experience for me—was the way Pope Francis didn’t simply drop quotes from the Bible. No, every quotation was reinforced with his own, simple words, or with an illustrative anecdote. Pope Francis doesn’t use the Bible as an end, but as a beginning of discussion. I really enjoyed that.

For example, in the chapter “Too Much Mercy?” Pope Francis quotes from the Gospel of Luke, which says there would be more joy in heaven over a single repenting sinner than ninety-nine righteous people who do not repent. But read how he explicates it afterwards: “It does not say: and if he should then relapse and go back to his ways and commit more sins, that’s his problem!”

You can hear Francis’s voice talking about the Bible, giving us an example to help us understand what he thinks it is trying to say. He does not raise the message up to a place where it is out of reach; he brings it to us, with a casual but strong comment. And with an exclamation mark! I love the places where there are exclamation marks. It is this back and forth with the sacred text that makes his comments easy to read, easy to understand, and possible to emulate.

One thing I should mention is that the Bull of Indiction that appears at the end of the text was not translated by me. That is an official Vatican translation. Of course, this begs the question, why didn’t they use a Vatican certified translator to do the translation of the whole book? I can only presume that both Editoria Vaticana and Piemme publishers wanted to be able to count on the editorial, legal, marketing, and publicity expertise of international publishers, and that these companies wanted the freedom to choose their own translators.


Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from Joost de Vries’s “A Room of My Own”

My brother put on his big, fake, photo grin, while one of Kissinger’s assistants smiled professionally and said, firmly, 'Please, just one picture'

Henry Kissinger had a flabby mouth he was fond of using to make droll comments, like calling power the ultimate aphrodisiac, an aphorism he repeated so many times people started to believe it, encouraged by his own tendency to pose for the paparazzi at dinners and cocktail parties with a platinum-blond socialite or an aspiring starlet on his arm. Looking at those photos now, you see a square tuxedo with a man stuffed into it. A bulging face, no neck to speak of, tiny eyes behind enormous glasses, classic wavy hair. And a Barbarella babe next to him in a delirious dress, her teeth bared by a smile so strained it looks like she’s putting her face through an aerobics workout.

‘Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.’ He was referring to those women, but didn’t think his theory through enough to realise it applied to him too. In the run-up to the presidential election of 1968 he’d called Richard Nixon ‘unfit to be president’, but when President Nixon called him three weeks after winning to make him National Security Advisor, he didn’t hesitate for a moment. He too felt his knees quiver and his heart pound when faced with the true power of the White House.

‘Will you be my National Security Advisor?’

‘Oh, I will, Richard. Yes, I will.’


Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

Either I’m being a parasite on their work, or they’re being a parasite on mine—but either way, it’s potentially a delicate, complex relationship.

Once again, award-winning writer, editor, and translator Daniel Hahn is here to respond to reader queries about anything and everything relating to literary translation! This month, Daniel responds to a question from reader Marius Surleac:

How often do you discuss a translation with the author?

You can see why the whole business could make an author nervous. Imagine approaching pretty much any writer and saying, “Look, here’s the plan, we’re going to change lots of things in your book—no, I really mean lots of things, like all the words—then we’re going to publish it all over the world in your name, but you won’t get to see what it actually says… Sound OK?” They’d be within their rights to feel more than a little uneasy about it. A book over which they have absolutely no control, going out as though it were theirs, allowing all the world’s readers and critics to judge them, based on… what?

Sure, we may not really phrase the question quite like this, for obvious reasons (mostly because I’m guessing nobody would ever say yes), but this is essentially what a writer is signing up for every time she or he agrees to have a book published in translation. Translators have been known to grumble about their authors wanting to meddle in their translations, but I’m not one of those translators (OK, except that one time—you know who you are…), because I do understand the anxiety. Frankly, I’m rather surprised anyone lets translation happen at all.

I’ve done book-length literary translations of more than twenty different writers, and I have always sought to involve the writer in my process. (Well, the only exception was dead and, I assumed, probably past caring.) And they almost always express an eagerness to help. (Same single exception.) For various reasons, writers being translated into English tend to be far more involved in the process than writers being translated out of it, which suits me.

Sometimes I have a number of specific questions for them. (One novelist recently sent me the list of questions he’d already answered for his German translator, to save time. It ran to thirty-two pages.) These fall into four categories: READ MORE…