Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Egypt, Bangladesh, the ALTA conference and on the recent Nobel Prize list.

Welcome to this edition of Asymptote’s weekly update, a hop, step, and jump tour de force bringing you the latest from three continents of literature in translation. To kick off, our Egyptian Editor-at-Large Omar El Adi sends us his bulletin, including news on literary prizes and an upcoming event in London. We then zoom in on Bangladesh, where Editor-at-Large for India Naheed Patel reports on recent festivals and the passing of Bangla authors. Also, US-based Assistant Editor Julia Leverone visited the ALTA conference so you didn’t have to. And finally Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan gives us the round-up from the literary world on the Nobel Prize in Literature being awarded to Bob Dylan. 

Editor-at Large Omar El Adi has the latest literary news from Egypt:

The inaugural annual lecture of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation will be given by Palestinian author Anton Shammas at the British Library in London on 14 October. The jury for this year’s prize includes last year’s winning translator Paul Starkey, professor of Arabic Zahia Smail Salhi, writer and journalist Lucy Popescu, and literary consultant and publisher Bill Swainson. Paul Starkey’s 2015 win came for his translation of Youssef Rakha’s The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars (2014). An excerpt of Rakha’s third book Paulo (forthcoming in English) was featured in the Spring 2016 issue of Asymptote. The winner of the prize will be announced this December.

In Alexandria, Tara Al-Bahr, an interactive online platform, is launching its second print edition with original essays as well as translations into Arabic on the topics of cultural and artistic practices and urban change in contemporary Alexandria. Tara Al-Bahr launched in May this year, and its second printed edition came out on Thursday, 6 October.

The Facebook group Alexandria Scholars is commencing a series of talks, titled “The City Dialogue Series”, with the support of the Swedish Institute in Alexandria, and curated by the sociologist Amro Ali. The first lecture, “Alexandria and the search for meaning”, was on 10 October and explored solutions to the city’s problems “through the terrain of historical, urban, and philosophical analysis”. Future events involving writers, academics, political figures, and researchers have already been planned for November and December.

In publishing news, Mohamed Rabie’s Otared (2016) was released in English translation in September by AUC Press. The novel was shortlisted for the International Prize in Arabic Fiction in 2016 and is set in a dystopian post-revolutionary Egypt. An excerpt is available here.

Halal If You Hear Me, a forthcoming anthology of writings by Muslims who are queer, women, gender nonconforming or transgender, is calling for submissions. Editors Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo are looking for submissions of up to five poems or two essays, including a cover letter with contact info and a short bio. Those interested should email halalifyouhearme@gmail.com before 1 December, 2016.

Editor-at-Large for India Naheed Patel shares some stories from the neighbouring Bangladesh:

Next month sees Bangladesh’s capital revving up for the annual Dhaka Literary Festival, which runs from November 17-19.  The festival has been held at the historic Bangla Academy since 2012, and is directed and produced by Sadaf Saaz, Ahsan Akbar, and K. Anis Ahmed. In the face of numerous recent Freedom of Expression violations in Bangladesh, the festival marks a resurgence of Bangladeshi literary culture, reaching across a number of different disciplines and genres: from fiction and literary non-fiction to history, politics and society; from poetry and translations to science, mathematics, philosophy and religion. The festival has more than 20,000 attendees and past contributors include Vikram Seth, Tariq Ali, Rosie Boycott, William Dalrymple, Ahdaf Soueif, Shashi Tharoor, Jung Chang, and Pankaj Mishra as well famous writers of Bangla literature like Hasan Azizul Huq, Selina Hossain, Debesh Roy, and Nirmalendu Goon.

In August and September Bangladesh mourned the passing of two prominent Bangla poets. Author, poet, and playwright Syed Shamsul Haq died at the age of 81 in Dhaka on September 27, 2016, and renowned Bangladeshi poet Shaheed Quaderi passed away in New York at the age of 74 on August 28, 2016. Haq was given the Bangla Academy Award in 1966 and the Ekushey Padak, the highest national award of Bangladesh, in 1984. He was also honored with a Swadhinata Padak in 2000 for his contribution to Bangla Literature. Payer Awaj Paoa Jay’ [We Hear the Footsteps] and Nuruldiner Sara Jibon [The Entire Life of Nuruldin], his most popular plays, are considered to be cornerstones of Bangladeshi theatre. Shaheed Quaderi received the Ekushey Padak in the category of Language and Literature in 2011 and was previously awarded the Bangla Academy Award in 1973. Prominent Bengali scholars such as Kabir Chowdhury, Kaiser Haq, and Farida Majid have translated his poems into English.

Leading Dhaka publisher University Press Limited launched a new Bangla translation of Goethe’s Faust by Debabrata Rej at the 6th Bangladeshi Boimela (Book Fair) in Kolkata. Rej had completed the translation, which is from the original German, in 1967, but passed away before it could get published. His son then approached UPL with the translation, which was released on September 7. The book launch included a discussion between German language scholar Professor Sunanda Bose and writer Shankarlal Bhattachaya. Academic and German language expert Dr. Subharanjan Dasgupta moderated the session.

Noted theatre group Loko Natyadal (Banani) performed its famous productions of Tagore’s comedy Boikunther as a part of the National Theatre Festival 2016, which began on September 24. The 18-day festival was organized by Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy and Bangladesh Group Theatre Federation, and featured 58 productions by theatre groups from across the country. Apart from the shows, there were lectures where actors and dramaturges talked about diverse topics related to local theatre. Current Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Noor inaugurated the festival and prominent theatre personalities such as Ramendu Majumdar and Ataur Rahman were in attendance at the event.

Assistant Editor Julia Leverone has this report on the recently concluded ALTA conference:

The 2016 ALTA (The American Literary Translators) conference had a historically large turnout. This year’s conference also had the best numbers for panels with stated intentions to discuss race in the practice of translation: Based on program descriptions, four this year (out of 52 not devoted to readings or workshops) focused primarily on the subject, compared to two, one, or no panels purporting to do so in the previous four conferences. This too was the inaugural year of the Peter K. Jansen Memorial Travel Fellowship for emerging translators of color or those working from an underrepresented language.

The translators I talked with between sessions were animated about furthering the discussion of race in translation in future conferences, in the classroom, and in the many venues in which we interact with translation. It’s still baffling (and also the opposite of baffling) that in 2016 we need advocacy for these discussions, rather than already having multiple opportunities for exchanges about inclusive translation approaches to representing cultures and experiences of people of color. Such discussions are obviously past-due, but markedly so because of translation’s own inherent radical generosity and advocacy for the beauty of two languages.

I took away from this particular conference that collaboration can be one impactful method for improving translatorly representation of race and for both cohering to and expanding translation’s generosity. Translations that more thickly convey an original can be produced through increased collaboration with authors—when reaching out becomes an advocating move, and tightens the spans between originals and translations. Collaboration can and should occur among translators, of course, especially where abilities or input don’t overlap; and if enacted on a grassroots level, an even more comprehensive engagement with language, culture, identity, and experience can take place—to promote part of Jen Hofer’s manifesto on “uplift” in translation from the “Inheriting the Future” panel.

Community celebration of and involvement in literature in translation crucially furthers translation’s tenet of generosity. Share links to translated pieces you love; give your family, friends, and neighbors a translated book; invite them to translation readings (like the Us&Them translation reading series in Brooklyn, next happening tomorrow night, October 15!). Languages—and lives—stand to benefit.

Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan highlights the reactions to Bob Dylan being announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize:

When Bob Dylan was announced the winner of Nobel Prize in Literature yesterday, the news overshadowed even the usually most controversial award in the Nobel repertoire—that of the Peace Prize. (It was awarded to President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, in case you are wondering.) Not least of the surprises in selecting Dylan is that he is the first American in the last two decades (since Toni Morrison in 1993) as well as the first musician ever to have won in the literature category. The seventy-five-year-old singer-songwriter was awarded the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Media publications have been sharing insights, criticisms, and his most popular lyrics on their online platforms. Also, inquiries into whether Bob Dylan has published anything have been made. Even though he has been awarded the Nobel for his lyrics, “Did he write a book?” is a question that can be entertained. His first published book, was a collection of experimental poetry titled Tarantula and published by Macmillan in 1971. Dylan’s lyrics, which are strewn with literary allusions, was published in a collection called The Lyrics: 1961­–2012 in 2014 by Simon & Schuster. Co-incidentally, the second edition of the book was scheduled to release later in November, but given the recent turn of events the release date has been advanced by a week to November 1. Simon & Schuster also published Dylan’s memoir Chronicles: Volume 1 in 2004. Some of his songs have also been made into picture books by the same publisher. When asked about a sequel, Dylan told the Rolling Stone in 2012, “Let’s hope [it happens]”.

As usual, the news of the award made some writers happy, and some not so. Salman Rushdie (who has been in the unofficial run for the Nobel for a while now), said to The Guardian, “The frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting that the Nobel prize recognizes that”. Meanwhile, others, like writer Will Self, wished that Dylan would refuse the prize, just like Sartre did.

Among all this serious debating on whether or not Bob Dylan should have been given the honour—for a genre he is not known for, from an academy prone to controversies and which has in the past made decisions seemingly influenced by politics and other outsider biases—here is a piece from the New Republic, published before the announcement of the awards, speculating on the speculation of who might win the Nobel: “Not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure”.

And before we leave you, here are some works by Nobel Laureates featured by Asymptote in the past: Afrikaans fiction translated by J M Coetzee, a translated excerpt from Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano, the essay The Space between Languages by Herta Müller, a collection of poetry by Czeslaw Milosz, and a translated excerpt from Fiasco by Imre Kertész. And glue your eyes to our website on October 17, when our new issue will feature the Nobel Laureate and Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness!


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