Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Day I Got Hit on the Head with Books by Chan Koonchung

"When the population of book readers shrank to a critical point, all book readers in the town realized that they had acquired a sixth sense."

Translator’s note: The story was inspired by an accident that took place on 4 February 2008, in which the owner, Law Chi-wah, of a famous independent bookshop in Hong Kong, Ching Man Bookshop, was buried alive by almost two dozen boxes of books when he was sorting the books in the bookshop’s warehouse. Law Chi-wah was a veteran Hong Kong culturati. He took over the running of Ching Man Bookshop in 1988. Ching Man Bookshop suspended its retail business in 2006 because of rental issues, and its book stock was moved to a warehouse while its publishing business continued. A new location for reopening the bookshop had already been arranged before the accident. Ching Man Bookshop was permanently closed upon the death of Law. The story also pays tributes to independent bookshops in Hong Kong, as running an independent bookshop is a very difficult task in the city with its high property rent. More independent bookshops have moved to higher floors in old buildings or even closed down due to financial stress.


Deng3. Cantonese for hit, throw, strike, smash or toss with force 

At some point today, a pile of books fell on my head. According to the Society’s memorandum, if one of its members is hit on the head with books, that person is to report, record, and file his case immediately and go to the designated location for emergency treatment. The European grammar of the memorandum’s written Chinese phrases this in the passive voice as “being hit with books,” as if there is another subject, such as a person, who is doing the throwing. But this time, books simply fell on my head. The books themselves were the subject. Whether I was hit as defined is hard to say; I am not good at grammar. Maybe a certain unwitting action of mine triggered, or even my long-term habitual pretense eventually led to a chain reaction, the butterfly effect, quantitative and qualitative changes etc. that caused the books above my head inevitably to fall on me at a certain time. As such, I was the one who hit myself, I become the subject who threw the books. Although in this case, to say the books “hit” me is somewhat inappropriate; they “fell on” or, better, “smashed” me. But who cares about such a semantic trifle? The fact is, books have fallen on my head. My metamorphosis is about to take place.

I hesitate to disturb comrades of the Book Preservation Society. I don’t want to cause any trouble for them. They are accustomed to hiding in the city like phantoms. With only a few exceptions, most of them don’t enjoy interacting, let alone attracting attention. Only when they occasionally bump into each other do they greet themselves timidly, like hedgehogs in winter that can only touch each other hastily, who want to snuggle for warmth but are put off by a greater fear of being hurt by others’ spines. Sorry, passive voice again.


A Dispatch from The World in Words: From Ainu to Zaza

"The loss of language implies the loss of people. But before it dies, a language halts, gets stuck in the mud..."

A young man from a mountain village in Tibet arrives in Texas to study. He is alone and isolated. A Ford Mustang is parked on the street-the racing horse on the grill with MUSTANG embossed below prominently featured. His heart rate spikes and a smile spreads across his face, a sign from home! A Texan woman with blond locks and Daisy Dukes gets in the car and drives off. The moment of excitement flips to complete loneliness. Mustang is the mountain village he calls home where his small community speaks Mustangi, a little-known language on the verge of erasure, “one of those village languages.” The man flees Texas for Jackson Heights, Queens. Among the great diversity of languages spoken in the neighborhood, he unexpectedly finds a small community of Mustangi speakers (and fewer Ford Mustangs)—the true home a long way from home.

Aline Simone told this story at a live taping of the podcast The World in Words at the New York Public Library on June 21st. In the episode, “From Ainu to Zaza,” Hosts Patrick Cox and Nina Porzucki focused on endangered languages and the people fighting both to preserve them and to keep them alive. In the conversations, stories and music of the evening, the guests and hosts kept coming back to this question of stories. Cox began the episode with a discussion of Ainu (he has reported on the language before). Ainu has no linguistic relatives. Linguists can map neither the origins of the language, nor of its speakers. Ignored by the government and universities alike, the dominant culture erases the history of the language and its people. Few Ainu speakers remain and yet fewer use the language in conversation—as an active, used language Ainu has all but dissolved.  READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of “Pierced by the Sun” by Laura Esquivel

"The white sheets she was ironing became a small movie screen on which images from that afternoon began to play out in front of her eyes."

From the award-winning author of Like Water for Chocolate comes a new tale of murder and redemption. For today’s Translation Tuesday showcase, we present the opening chapter of Laura Esquivel’s new novel, Pierced by the Sun, slated for release in bookstores on July 1.


She could spend long hours dedicated to this work and show no signs of fatigue. Ironing brought her peace. It was her favorite form of therapy and she turned to it daily, even after a long day of work. Lupita’s passion for ironing had been handed down to her by her mother, Doña Trini, who had washed and ironed other people’s clothes for a living her whole life. Lupita would invariably repeat the ritual learned from her sacrosanct mother, which began with the spraying of the garments. Modern-day steam irons do not require an article of clothing to be moist, but for Lupita there was no other way to iron. She considered it sacrilegious to skip this step.

That night when she got home, she immediately headed to the ironing board and began to spray the gar­ments. Her hands trembled like a hungover alcoholic’s, which made the spraying that much easier. It was impera­tive that she concentrate on something other than the murder of Licenciado Arturo Larreaga—the delegado of her district, Iztapalapa—which she had witnessed just a few hours earlier.

As soon as the clothes were properly sprayed she went into the bathroom and turned on the shower, giving the water time to warm up. She filled a bucket with a copious amount of detergent and placed it in the shower. Before she stepped in she opened a plastic bag and immediately recoiled from the stench of the urine-soaked pants that were inside. She submerged the pants in the bucket and started to wash herself. She scrubbed away the cloying smell of urine that had emanated from her body, but the shame that was embedded deep in her soul remained. READ MORE…

Dispatch from Translation Day at Oxford University

There is more wisdom in a poem than a poet herself possesses. Though necessarily incomplete, translation captures some of that expansive heritage.

‘I live half an hour away from Gaza. Two years ago, when we began work, we were at war.’

It’s an overcast day, and soft light floods into the room, filled with students, writers, academics, and publishers. I count translators from at least four languages, but these are only the regular faces I know. Many others have come into Oxford especially for the day, drawn by a rich programme of talks, readings, and workshops. Up front, the Israeli poet Agi Mishol is telling us how she and her translator, Joanna Chen, started collaborating on their recent volume of Mishol’s verse, Less Like A Dove.

‘We were hard at work on a poem when it came. The siren caught us with dictionaries open, and there was nothing we could do. We found ourselves laughing and panicking in the same language.’

Chen, like Mishol, speaks with a poet’s careful precision, and laughs and nods at the memory. They are joined, on the panel, by Adriana Jacobs from the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and open the session by reading some of the earliest poems Chen translated for the book. The poems are about place and displacement, and their voices, in Hebrew and English, rise and fall in turn. Call and response: a present-day liturgy of sorts.


Weekly News Roundup, 24 June 2016: Canon Great Once More

This week's literary highlights from across the world

Happy Friday, Asymptote. Translation lets us read to challenge our canon. And the Millions (satirically) wills us (Americans) to make the canon great again. And Taiwanese literature may be growing in its global presence, thanks to the National Museum of Taiwanese Literature’s translation initiative, which will sponsor literary translations into sixteen languages. Speaking of industry insiders wheeling-and-dealing, here’s Eida Rotor, Penguin Classics’ Filipino publisherREAD MORE…

What’s New in Translation? June 2016

This month's hottest titles—in translation

The Clouds by Juan José Saer, tr. Hillary Vaughn Dobel, Open Letter Books. Review: Hannah Berk, Digital Editor


The Clouds begins with the destruction of a mental asylum and ends with an arrival at its threshold. Its central journey takes place across a vast expanse of flatlands, every horizon so much the same that progressing and doubling back lose their distinction. This is a novel of contingent geometries. In some respects, it is linear: there is a journey in which a doctor leads a crew of five mental patients, two escort soldiers, and a guide across a desert to a mental hospital. At the same time, it carves layer upon layer into itself. The manuscript we read is a file on a floppy disk being read by one Pinchón Garay in a Paris apartment, haphazardly annotated by the man into whose hands the thing haphazardly fell.

Our narrator is Dr. Real, who works under a psychologist renowned for experimental treatment methods that mostly seem to entail allowing the mad live their lives just like anyone else. He is tasked with leading a group of patients on a long journey to a mental health facility in 1804 Argentina. His charges include a delusional narcissist, a nun convinced that the only way to approach consummate divinity is by consummating as many earthly relationships as possible, two brothers as incapable of communication as they are of silence, and a distraught philosophy student unable to unfurl his fists. Dr. Real promises a scientific account of their ailments at the outset, but the moment their journey begins, we are forced to question whether their responses are so outlandish for their circumstances, or, at their core, much different from our own.


In Conversation with Alessio Franko of Under InspeKtion

"But I think a core question that everyone can appreciate, track, and ponder through the series is that of what it means to be a 'good person.'"

Alessio Franko is a New York-based screenwriter and actor. In addition to writing the web series Under InspeKtion, he has studied TV writing at Columbia University and the University of Chicago and has written several original pilots. His work often experiments with the narrative portrayal of systems and thinks through how the systems we navigate affect our identities. Trained in acting at HB Studios, he has performed on a variety of New York stages including La Mama and the Ontological Theater and extensively with University Theater at the University of Chicago. I spoke with him via email to find out more about his webseries adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.


Allegra Rosenbaum: What is Under InspeKtion for those of us who don’t know?

Alessio Franko: Under InspeKtion is a serialized suspense-comedy webseries currently comprised of 14 roughly 10-minute episodes. You can see it on YouTube and on our website. Though inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Trial, it is an original story and no exposure to Kafka is needed to enjoy it.  READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Well, then?” by Lutz Seiler

"He looked at the bird through the windshield and the bird looked at him in the car. He didn’t move."

When K. went home early in the morning and turned his car into the short, ice-coated driveway, he saw the bird. It was a blackbird. It was standing on one of the posts without moving. Its bird feet were sticking in a thin layer of snow, which made it look as if it didn’t have any feet and was just lying there, in the snow, motionless, like a disoriented tennis ball that has been knocked a long way out of bounds. READ MORE…

Dear Britain: Notes of an Adopted Daughter

"Poking your ribs aside, Britain, we do not need to see our various hyphenations as fracture."

“Look, I admit I came to Paris to escape American provincial, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready for French traditional.”
—Audrey Hepburn, Charade

Dear Britain,

In spite of Murakami and the rural male youths of my mongrel pubescence informing me otherwise, I still prefer to think of a “morning glory” as a cat licking its paws through choppy rays of light—just at the moment when “rosy-fingered” dawn neatly vivisects your eyes and the living room in two (if the postmodern turn has accomplished anything worthwhile, it has bestowed scalpels on Homeric metaphors), leaving little else to do than bat the sand from your lashes and gulp down that third cup of coffee.

It was during of one these scenes from my everyday homeostasis, Britain, when I began to realize, at first rather absently, that for all legitimate reasons, my cat is British. READ MORE…

Weekly News Roundup, 17 June 2016: A Cloudy Complex Mirror

This week's literary highlights from across the world

Happy Friday, friends! This week witnessed the unfortunate passing of one of the best translators into English: Gregory Rabassa has passed away at age 94. He famously translated epic Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez and Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar, whose works defined what we think of as the Latin American “boom” in literature. And his mastery underlined the importance of translators in creating a “world literature.”  READ MORE…

In Review: Costume en Face: A Primer Of , choreographed by Tatsumi Hijikata

Why read choreography? Why read choreography—in translation?

This stunning translation of Tatsumi Hijikata’s Costume en Face Butoh choreography notations (transcribed by Moe Yamamoto) is the collaborative work of series editor (Yelena Gluzman, UDP), Hijikata scholars at Keio University (Takashi Morishita), the translator (Sawako Nakayasu), and the book designer (Steven Chodoriwsky). Although of course deeply relevant to scholarship on Butoh dance for English-speaking scholars, this book is a marvel of poetic elision and evocative design.

Nakayasu’s gifted compressions of Moe Yamamoto’s notes read as stage directions for a metaphysical revelation, textured by archetypal figures (from angels to Nazis), modernist paintings, and mythological figures. Her choice to include and briefly gloss specifically Japanese figures in brackets is clever and creates for a seamless experience that exposes the seams of audience. READ MORE…

Jamón, Jambon, Ham

"Each product comes from same part of a pig: the upper hind leg where thigh becomes rear. The consensus ends there."

In the 1992 melodrama Jamón Jamón a lovers’ quarrel turns violent. Class tensions drive the conflict. Jose Luis’ (Jorge Molla) parents own a factory. He falls in love with one of the workers, Silvia (Penelope Cruz), and gets her pregnant. His parents reject their plan for marriage and hire the fit, sexy Raul (Javier Bardem) to seduce the young woman. Raul sells jamón, with dreams of bullfighting and underwear modeling. In a spate of anger, Jose Luis arrives in Raul’s trailer with a club in hand. Legs of jamón hang from the ceiling. To defend himself, Raul grabs one of the hams and uses it as a weapon. Jose Luis meets a slick, salty end.

The film retains its Spanish-language title in its American release, with a parenthetical (Ham & Ham). Jamón Jamón evokes something aromatic, sensuous. The legs of ham that hang from the ceiling in Raul’s shop are lithe and firm. The translated title Ham & Ham highlights the campy humor of the movie, but misses on the sex appeal. The image conjured is not of golden and burgundy cured meat and fat, but of the pink, clove-studded, maple-glazed behemoths featured at holiday feasts or Easter brunch. It’s more Jaime Lee Curtis than Javier Bardem. The French Jambon Jambon hardly fairs better, rousing images of the boulangerie staple: le parisien, two slices of cooked ham sandwiched between a half a baguette, slathered with butter.  READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of “Life in the Court of Matane” by Eric Dupont

"The funny thing about memory is that it always ends up chasing its own tail. The most important thing is to keep it moving."

Nadia Comaneci’s gold-medal performance at the Olympic Games in Montreal is the starting point for a whole new generation. Eric Dupont watches the performance on TV, mesmerized. The son of a police officer (Henry VIII) and a professional cook—as he likes to remind us—he grows up in the depths of the Quebec countryside with a new address for almost every birthday and little but memories of his mother to hang on to. His parents have divorced, and the novel’s narrator relates his childhood, comparing it to a family gymnastics performance worthy of Nadia herself.

Life in the court of Matane is unforgiving, and we explore different facets of it (dreams of sovereignty, schoolyard bullying, imagined missions to Russia, poems by Baudelaire), each based around an encounter with a different animal, until the narrator befriends a great horned owl, summons up the courage to let go of the upper bar forever, and makes his glorious escape.


From the first lot we lived on, if you went down a big grassy hill and crossed the road you’d find us by the river. In the summer, the sand could become burning hot in the sun, despite the glacial currents that flowed down from Labrador. Reels of dried-up seaweed revealed how high the tides rose and stretched out in arcs from east to west. We found green sea urchin skeletons, blue shells, and pink tampon applicators. Sometimes we would step on a piece of glass polished by the salt. It would slide so smoothly between our fingers that we could barely imagine its sharp past. When we held it up to the sun it would look like part of a stained-glass window washed up on the beach at Matane. Coke and Pepsi bottles produced translucent shards of polished white. The green bits of glass came from 7UP bottles. Beer bottles splintered into small, dark amber pieces. On this strip of beach, the waves deposited at our feet the shattered stained-glass windows of a church sunk off the Matane coastline. My sister and I picked up the pieces without ever beginning the impossible task of putting them back together. We knew that they had once been part of a whole, but that an earthquake had probably separated them. The sea salt had made them smooth so that their edges no longer fit together. They had taken on a shape all their own. They could be traced back to a family only by their colour. A distant kinship. They had ended up where the Gulf of St. Lawrence melts into the northern blue sky, leaving ships arriving from the Atlantic in July dangling from an invisible thread. The horizon gives way to a blue void that draws the soul northward. The trip is pleasant enough. When you really let yourself go, you soar high above the gulf, the taiga, and the permafrost, until you reach the tundra, where on a sunny January day you can drift off into the light of the north. READ MORE…

In Conversation with Alfred MacAdam

"They are like magic formulas, and it’s not a good idea to tamper with magic."

Recently, Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly spoke via e-mail with Alfred MacAdam, translator of the likes of Fernando Pessoa and Surrealist filmmaker and novelist Alejandro Jodorowsky. For an excerpt from Jodorowsky’s Albina and the Dog-Men, check out this recent installment of Translation Tuesday. This interview is also available in the Asymptote Fortnightly Airmail. Subscribe here.


RM: What was it like translating Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Where the Bird Sings Best and Albina and the Dog-Men? Did Jodorowsky’s prose get under your skin? You are an experienced translator and are perhaps more immune to the novel’s effects, but I found Albina‘s dark mythology to be intoxicating. What was it like to translate that?

AM: First, let me say that when Ilan Stavans asked me if I might be interested in translating Jodorowsky, I was dumbfounded. To me he was the crazy filmmaker of the 1970s whose El topo or Fando and Lis knocked me and my friends silly. I had no idea he had metamorphosed into a novelist.

So when Ilan sent me Where the Bird Sings Best I was simply not prepared for what it was. First of all, the Jewish essence of the book, its tracing the circuitous route of Jews who end up in Spanish America, whose religion suffers innumerable modifications along the way, was, I thought, a subject whose time in Spanish American literature had long since come. By which I mean that in the U.S. we take our Jewish writers for granted, that the Bellows, the Malamuds, the Roths (both of them) are simply part of our culture. But where was the “great Jewish novel of the Spanish American world”?  READ MORE…