Monthly Archives: November 2016

Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

Imagine, a future in which we translators get to translate books that someone has actually bothered to edit already!

This week marks the final posting in our ever-captivating series with writer and translator Daniel Hahn. The question for this last column comes from Asymptote Editor-in-Chief, Lee Yew Leong, who also explains how he invited Daniel Hahn to be our columnist, a year ago:

When I asked this very specific favor of him over Michelin-starred dimsum last year, I expected Daniel to say he’d think about it and get back to me. This was our first meeting in person, after all. But he agreed immediately to do it for us—for free (we can’t afford to pay ourselves at Asymptote, let alone others). That’s how he came to field wide-ranging questions about the art of translation, from whether a code of ethics exists, to how a translator can improve—questions that came from Asymptote readers the world over.

Having submitted a column every month without fail since December 2015, Daniel now contributes his final essay, making it one full year as our agony uncle in residence. This time, he takes a question from me. I thought I’d try an ambitious one, make it a bit more difficult for him, you know? So I ask him to peer into the proverbial crystal ball. Scroll down below to read his nuanced, optimistic answer, acknowledging post-Brexit uncertainty. Whatever you make of his thrilling column (not to mention his Oulipian, or shall I say, Hahn-like, attempt to make a connection to all previous eleven essays), the future of translation is certainly a better one for Daniel’s advocacy, and willingness to shine the way ahead, that’s an inspiration to all of us working in world lit. Cheers, Danny, and thanks so much for this past year from all of us at Asymptote!

You’ve just returned from your nth Writers Festival this year—where you no doubt had the chance to observe the ‘state of translation’ (in a different country, on a different continent) up close. In fact, I can’t think of anyone more suitable to pose this question to: What does the future of literary translation hold for editors, translators, and readers, say, ten years from now?

Thanks, Yew Leong—like the other questions weren’t big and challenging enough already! How am I supposed to answer this?

Actually, though… Maybe it’s not so hard as all that? Because I’m not convinced that ten years from now things will be wildly different—not the things that matter, anyway.

For one thing, principles and values shouldn’t change just because context changes. We may well be entering a pretty dark time in political / social / economic terms—from the particular (western, Anglophone) place where I’m sitting, at least; but that doesn’t change the importance of what my colleagues do. On the contrary. Back in March I wrote about the translator’s responsibility and power in today’s too-divided world—and that sure as hell isn’t going away anytime soon; we just need to know that we can keep responding to challenges not with surrender but with defiance. (We will.) READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Look at Winter in a Certain Way” by Chou Meng-tieh

all fallen leaves are destined to return to their branches

Today is #GivingTuesday! If you’ve been enjoying our Translation Tuesday showcases at the Asymptote blog and on The Guardian, consider signing up to be a sustaining member at just $5 a day. We’re still several members short of reaching our target; each additional membership helps us get closer to being able to continue beyond April 2017.

For today’s showcase, we’re thrilled to present poetry by the celebrated poet Chou Meng-tieh, named the first Literature Laureate by Taiwan’s National Culture and Arts Foundation in 1997. But his literary achievement belied a lifetime of monastic poverty, decades of which he spent selling books out of a roadside stall. Two years after Chou’s passing in 2014, without any surviving family, our editor-in-chief presents a new translation of one of Chou’s seminal poems, marked by his characteristically ascetic vision.

look at winter in a certain way


look at winter in a certain way

start from sunlight—

clumps of parasites up to no good

puncturing holes in snow’s body


Meet the Publisher: Coach House Books

It’s just coming across things that look really interesting and that I feel need a home in the English language.

Coach House Books publishes and prints innovative Canadian fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and drama. The press was founded by Stan Bevington in 1965 and takes its name from the old coach house where he began putting out early works by many Canadian authors, including bpNichol and Michael Ondaatje. Since 1975, translations of Québécois literature have been an important part of the press’ catalogue. Poet, translator, and science writer Sarah Moses met with Alana Wilcox, Coach House’s editorial director since 2002, to discuss printing presses, bookish books, and translating French-Canadian authors.

Sarah Moses (SM): Could you begin by talking about the history of Coach House?

Alana Wilcox (AW): Coach House has been around since 1965, so we celebrated our fiftieth anniversary last year—not me personally, but the larger undertaking. It’s always been a press that focuses on innovative work, poetry, more difficult fiction, that kind of thing. It’s a long and convoluted story, like that of many presses: more difficult years, less difficult years, but we’re still at it, still publishing translation.

SM: What do you mean by more difficult fiction?

AW: I would include translation in that. By difficult I don’t necessarily mean fiction that’s hard to read, but that’s hard for people to think that they want to read—even though they might love it when they get into it.

SM: Could you tell me a little about the printing side of Coach House?

AW: We print our books here: we have an old Heidelberg printing press and binding equipment. Printing on location has always been the thing with Coach House. It’s interesting when the means of production is available to the writers and the editors—it just makes publishing a more tangible, real process. We always make the authors come in and glue the first copy of their book, if they can. There’s just something so beautiful about that. READ MORE…

In Review: Yaghoub Yadali’s Rituals of Restlessness

Simple. Engineer Kamran Khosravi would die in a car accident. Easy, done.

Navid Hamzavi and Asymptote’s long-standing Contributing Editor Aamer Hussein review Yaghoub Yadali’s Rituals of Restlessness, translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili (Phoneme Media, 2016).

Nihilism in the Nietzschean sense is “one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!”

Rituals of Restlessness by Yaghoub Yadali seems to have a nihilistic outlook on life. Kamran Khosravi, the protagonist, wants to get rid of his real life in a fake accident in order to construct a new life in unknown territory. He chooses an Afghan migrant to replace him in a car crash down in the canyon. Spiking his tea, he makes his victim unconscious, puts his own clothes on him, sets his car on fire and pushes it down the canyon to make others believe that Kamran Khosravi is dead. We never know whether he is just imagining doing all this or, as the narrative suggests, actually goes through with it and later regrets it; whether he makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt, or whether he’s just on his way back to his wife who has left him. Much of the book is taken up with these three lines of interwoven plot, without shaping either a solid character, or identifying a cultural or philosophical issue.

Whether Rituals of Restlessness even comes close to addressing that crisis in Nietzsche’s quote, whether it recovers from its dull narrative to explore this question in greater depth, whether it comes anywhere near reflecting on philosophical or ontological aspects of life is open to debate.  The shallow characters, the superficial reading of folk culture in contrast to urban culture, and the lack of depth of social understanding, render the novel tedious and shut down a critical approach to it. The novel even fails to portray the roots of that restlessness so as to convey a better understanding of the antagonist’s logic for his (attempted) suicide, which in itself could have opened it up for broader interpretation. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Slovakia, Hungary, and the Nordic countries.

Friday is once again upon us, dear Asymptoters! This time, our report brings you the latest literature in translation news from Europe. Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has been at the Central European Forum conference and Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen attended the Helsinki Book Fair, while Zsofia Paulikovics has an update from Hungary. Enjoy the ride!

Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has these stories from Slovakia:

On 20 October, the emerging writer Dominika Madro’s story Svätyňa [Sanctuary] won the annual short story contest Poviedka 2016. Now in its twentieth year, the competition is run by the publisher Koloman Kertész Bagala and all submissions are anonymous. This year’s runner-up was the story Šváby [Cockroaches] by novelist and Elena Ferrante’s Slovak translator and Asymptote contributor Ivana Dobrakovová.

A survey of reading habits, commissioned by the Slovak Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association, has recently published very depressing findings: 72 percent of the public don’t buy a single book in any year; 40 percent read books only once a month and 28 percent don’t read at all. Nevertheless, judging by the crowds attending a huge variety of literary events taking place across the capital, Bratislava, over the past month, the picture isn’t perhaps quite as bleak as these figures suggest.

Slovak-Swiss writer and journalist Irena Brežná, Polish novelist Grażyna Plebanek, and recent Neustadt Prize winner Dubravka Ugrešić sought antidotes for despair as part of Bratislava’s annual Central European Forum conference from 11 to 13 November (video recordings here); Dubravka Ugrešić also read from her book of essays, Europe in Sepia, which will be published soon in a Slovak translation by Tomáš Čelovský. Parallel with the conference, some 200 publishers displayed their recent publications at the Bibliotéka Book Fair, held in the somewhat drab Incheba exhibition halls and vying for space with a “World of Minerals” exhibition. At the Centre for the Information of Literature stand two young authors, Peter Balko and Peter Prokopec, along with graphic designer David Koronczi, introduced their new “anti-logy” of Slovak writing. Aimed at schools but very far from being a stuffy textbook, Literatúra bodka sk ( aims to show that contemporary authors inhabit the same world and share the same sensibilities as young readers, and includes samples of fiction and non-fiction as well as a graphic novel, Rudo, by Daniel Majling. Rudo started life as a Facebook cartoon strip and has now been issued in book form by Czech publisher Labyrint (in a Czech translation!).


On the other side of the Danube, housed inside the Slovak National Gallery and overlooking the river, Café Berlinka is fast establishing itself as a vibrant literary venue, in association with the adjoining Ex Libris bookshop. Since September 2016, the café has been hosting Literárny kvocient [Literature quotient], a series of debates featuring leading literature scholars and critics.  Of the many book launches that took place over the past few weeks, the liveliest must have been the feminist press Aspekt’s presentation of a selection of poems by Hungarian activist poet Virág Erdős, Moja vina [My Fault].  The book was translated into Slovak by Eva Andrejčáková (a past Asymptote blog contributor) in cooperation with poet Vlado Janček, who read some of the hilariously outrageous poems to his own guitar accompaniment (you can watch Virág Erdős perform “Van egy ország”/ “There is a Country” in Hungarian with the band Rájátszás here). READ MORE…

Waking Up in David Lynch’s American Dream

He’s already inspiring greatness by bringing out the best in those of us who can no longer sit idly by.

In Trump’s America, a Muslim-American filmmaker living in Los Angeles discovers that art meets reality.

The night of the US Presidential Election felt like a moment that could have been stolen from a David Lynch film. At once surreal and subversive, yet strangely fitting, Donald Trump was chosen as the President of the United States. Like Lynch’s own protagonists, an eerie detachment swept over me as I witnessed Trump take the stage to deliver his victory speech.

As a Muslim-American and a son of immigrants, that nightmarish disbelief turned into anger and resentment when I awoke the next day. How could a country built by immigrants on the bedrock of religious freedom elect a candidate who prided himself on xenophobia, racism, and religious intolerance? Yes. I’ve heard the many arguments showing that Trump supporters had very real concerns about the economy and individual prosperity that outweighed worries about his racist and misogynistic rants. But in one fell swoop, my perspective on the American electorate and the promises of this country changed dramatically.

In better times, I imagined the American Dream much the same way Francis Ford Coppola envisioned it in The Godfather, Part II:

Thousands of immigrants rise to their feet and stare at the Statue of Liberty with hope in their eyes as they head to Ellis Island. The camera pans to capture individual faces. The Godfather theme crescendos and then fades away. Cut to a young Vito Corleone standing in line at the Ellis Island Immigration Station. He’s interviewed by an immigration official and sent to quarantine. Fast-forward sixteen years. Vito lives safely in New York with his wife and infant son, over 4,000 miles away from the torment of mob-ruled Sicily.

That is a place where hard work, loyalty, and intelligence get rewarded. Sure, Coppola romanticizes the sometimes harsh facts of the early 20th century. Living in New York’s Little Italy during the 1920s, Vito’s meteoric rise from squalor to fortune has a fantastic quality. We don’t see the America with deep racial divides or a country on the verge of economic collapse. But that idyllic portrayal represents an image that immigrant families have clung to for centuries as they arrived in the United States.

It’s been over two weeks since the election, and the reality of a Trump presidency along with a Republican majority in the House and Senate has begun to settle. But a sense of safety, trust in our neighbors, and a greater vision for a pluralistic society have been lost in the face of an increase of reported hate crimes that personify Trump’s hateful campaign rhetoric.

In some ways, I consider myself lucky in that regard. Outside of my brown skin and the beard on my face, there aren’t many symbols that make me easily identifiable as a Muslim. Verbal and physical attacks appear to be reserved for Muslim women, who are easily recognized by their headscarves.

The country also faces an enormous political divide as protesters march in the streets in over a dozen cities to let their disaffection be known. President-elect Trump continues to vilify his opposition through Twitter and criticize the mainstream media. The events since the election are a far cry from the American Dream Coppola portrayed in The Godfather, and even David Lynch’s peculiar world no longer serves as an adequate metaphor for the current state of affairs. Instead, I find myself thinking of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and its depiction of the violent, nativist reaction to Irish-Catholic immigration in the 1860s.

But succumbing to that kind of negativity is a trap that leads to cynicism. Throughout the week I’ve witnessed glimmers of hope and courage from my own community. Three days after Trump’s win, the Islamic Society of Southern California’s interfaith allies from the Episcopal Church, in collaboration with local synagogues, stood in front the mosque’s doors with signs of solidarity. Later that week, I joined a group of protesters in downtown Los Angeles, where we chanted “No Hate! No Fear! Immigrants are welcome here!”

Donald Trump started his campaign on the vague promise of making America great again. By the looks of it, he’s already inspiring greatness by bringing out the best in those of us who can no longer sit idly by in this new America. Let’s just hope he meets us halfway.

Jawad Qadir is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.


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“They Cannot Be Pigeonholed”: Julie Koh on Racial Nepotism and Asian Writing

I’m not overly interested in waiting around for reform to take place in publishing in the West. Instead, I’d prefer to create a new center.

This month sees the launch of BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016—the first edition of a new annual anthology comprising what indie Singaporean bookstore BooksActually considers to be the best short fiction from cult writers of East and Southeast Asia, and the diaspora. Most significantly, the anthology is overtly political: a protest against how Asian writing is curated in the West and an effort to establish a new center for Asian writing within Asia.    

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Julie Koh, the inaugural editor and co-founder of the Gold Standard. I’ve long been troubled by the problems that arise from editors and publishers outside Asia curating Asian writing (a topic I explored at length here). I was naturally excited when Koh invited me both to translate for and contribute to the anthology, but it was only through our conversations that I got a fuller sense of the passion fueling the anthology’s creation and goals.

                    Tiffany Tsao, Indonesia Editor-at-Large, Asymptote

Tiffany Tsao (TT): In its promotional matter, the BooksActually’s Gold Standard anthology describes an attempt at a literary reformation: an effort to “redefine how Asian voices are promoted—providing a counterweight to the often tokenistic way in which Asian writing is curated in the West.” In your opinion, what is wrong with how Asia is currently promoted and curated in the West, and how exactly does the anthology counter it? 

Julie Koh (JK): The best way to begin to explain the rationale behind BooksActually’s Gold Standard is with reference to the controversy surrounding The Best American Poetry 2015, where the editor Sherman Alexie discovered that one of the poems picked for publication, by a “Yi-Fen Chou,” was in fact by a white male poet named Michael Derrick Hudson submitting his work under a pseudonym—more specifically, a name he had stolen from a former high school classmate. Hudson was trying to make a point about how the political correctness of contemporary literary culture unfairly favors Asian writers. Alexie ultimately decided to retain the poem, along with the pseudonym, admitting “racial nepotism” as a major reason for his choice.

As an Australian writer of Chinese-Malaysian descent, my reaction to this controversy was one of shame. It cast a different light on the curation of work by writers of East and Southeast Asian descent across the West. To me, the decision suggested that achievements by such writers were attributable to some external agenda, not to the quality of our writing.

There was also the egregiousness of Hudson’s claim—that Asian-Americans get ahead of white male writers because of their race. This is patently untrue. Any writer of color in the West knows the difficulties inherent in trying to ascend the literary ladder. In the Australian context, for people of East and Southeast Asian descent, the “bamboo ceiling” exists across many sectors—the literary industry being no exception. Although I’ve been fortunate enough to have had many good experiences with Australian publishers, the fact remains that there are generally few people of color in positions of power in the literary game, and this has a direct impact on the type and quantity of work by writers of color that makes it to publication, how writers of color are promoted, and how their work is understood. This in turn can influence what writers of color believe they must write to get published.

In considering the logic of Alexie’s decision, I came to the conclusion that “racial nepotism” was a jolly good idea, and that it should be taken even further—that there was a clear gap in the market for an edgy “best of” collection originating in Asia and transparently curated by “nepotists.”

I decided it was important to question whether we, as writers of Asia and the diaspora, should always to look to the West for cues on how literature should be read, what kinds of literature should be valued, and what our place is within it.

And I’m not overly interested in waiting around for reform to take place in publishing in the West. Instead, I’d prefer to create a new center which doesn’t rely on others to curate us—and the BooksActually’s Gold Standard is an effort to contribute to the work already being done in Southeast Asia to create this new center.


Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from “Brothers” by David Clerson

In his dream, he was walking on the ocean as one might walk across a desert, an ocean covered in bodies, a dry sea, not fit for life.

David Clerson’s Brothers is an original, phantasmagoric piece of fiction that is steeped in myth and fable. In a world of “gruesome, gargantuan creatures, two-headed fish, turtles with shells as big as islands, whales with mouths so large they could consume entire cities,” two brothers set out to find their dog of a father. The elder brother is missing an arm, while his younger brother has been fashioned by his mother from that arm. Excess and adventure abound as fresh, original writing draws us in to “surreal, hostile worlds.” We meet the leech-boys, a wooden puppet the brothers drag from the sea to become a member of the family, six pig-children, and more, all conveyed in a tone that lies somewhere between delirium and a disturbing dream.

The sailboat was small and light, made of wood, and it glided on the ocean, attended by graceful seagulls and a few cormorants. This craft was much easier to handle than the brothers’ rowboat. This time, the older brother headed straight out to the open sea, pushed by fair, warm summer winds.

He had secured Puppet’s head to the bow, leaving his figurehead clad in the grey pelt. Often, the wind would fill the pelt, moving the body and limbs. It seemed to dance at the bow, and it made the older brother smile, a fleeting happiness.

There had been a barrel of fresh water in the boat when he set sail, along with a few dry biscuits and some smoked herring. The older brother ate parsimoniously, nearly fasting, and he almost never slept, his eyes wide open over dark circles carved out by a scalpel.


Book Design in Translation

Talented publishers around the world are pursuing new designs through collaboration and experimentation.

In 1915, Franz Kafka pleaded with his publisher Kurt Wolff Verlag not to show the beetle on the cover of Metamorphosis. It had to remain unseen. If the cover displayed one illustration of the beetle, Gregor might never be glimpsed or guessed at again through the sheer language of the story.

When a book travels and changes, publishers won’t always present it in quite the same way. And when the translations multiply sometimes you have a series of cover artworks no longer focused on exactly the same thing. Outside the English language there are a great many talented publishers pursuing new designs through collaboration and experimentation rather than borrowing set formulas. In all languages we may now have covers illustrating beetles, but there are hundreds of variations and the details keep changing.



Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from South Africa, Nigeria, Hong Kong, and Singapore

Catch up with latest book festivals, translation awards, and advances in the fight against free speech restrictions with the Asymptote team this week. Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong Charlie Ng reports on the a new PEN branch, while Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek sends us the scoop on graffiti-poetry and more from Singapore. Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs knows the best new publications coming out of South Africa and Nigeria and takes us along on the lit festival circuit. 

Editor-at-Large Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan calls in the news from Hong Kong:

PEN Hong Kong was re-established this September. The official launch of the organisation was held on 13 November to introduce its mission, work, and founding members to the community of writers, journalists, translators, publishers, and those interested in writing or concerned with free expression in Hong Kong. The re-launch at this timely moment is aimed at addressing the restraints on freedom of speech in Hong Kong in face of tightening political control from the Chinese Government, seen in such incidents as the disappearance of five members of a Hong Kong bookstore that sold publications critical of Chinese leaders. Additionally, Beijing’s interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law has led to the disqualification of two newly elected pro-democratic Legislative Councillors.

Besides featuring the launch of PEN Hong Kong, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival this year put together a broad range of activities for all literary lovers. Hong Kong-born, Chinese-British poet and winner of the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize Sarah Howe read from her poetry collection Loop of Jade and gave a lecture at the University of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, renowned Chinese Misty poet Bei Dao also gave a poetry reading in the Festival. The two panels, ‘Lost and Found in Translation I and II‘, shed light on the significance of translation for poetry, fiction, and cultural exchange.


In Review: Two New Books Mark a French Author’s English Debut

A network of veins, ponds, ferns, a system of gray stills saturated with a reddish glow in which, like a rainbow...suddenly appeared the Angel.

Asymptote reviews two new publications—a collection of short stories and a novel—by Roger Lewinter, born in 1941 in Montauban, France. The author currently lives in Switzerland and has worked as a writer, editor, and translator. These are two of his three works of fiction to date, and their publication with New Directions is Lewinter’s first appearance in English, in translations by Rachel Careau. 


Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter, tr. Rachel Careau, New Directions

Review: Thea Hawlin, Social Media Manager

New Directions certainly lives up to their name with this exciting new foray into the work of a long neglected French author. Story of Love in Solitude marks the first translation of Roger Lewinter into English. Lorenzo Valentin has compared Lewinter’s writing to “a Kashmir shawl in its infinite interlacing, woven in one piece and from a single thread” and the description is apt. The continual lacing of Lewinter’s prose is a beguiling process; it may confuse and frustrate, but in its complexity it also points to beauty.

This short but sweet collection combines three of Lewinter’s tales, ‘Story of Love in Solitude’, of the title, ‘Passion’, and ‘Nameless’. Intriguingly, rather than a facing-page translation, the publishers have decided to starkly separate the translation and its original counterpart in the book. This makes cross-referencing a lot more of a challenge, but equally forces the reader to take time with the translations and appreciate them as independent from their origin.

The first, and most lyrically titled of the three, begins with an all-too familiar scenario—spotting a spider before heading to bed. Except this occurrence becomes a sinister loop. The next night, another appears and the pattern continues. The scenario is episodic, a simple commentary in which the brevity of the encounters is such that they hardly have room to develop before being suddenly cut off.


Translating Iranian Poetry: A Conversation with Siavash Saadlou

As human beings, we need to truly acknowledge that we all are different hues of the same spectrum—that is the human spectrum.

Siavash Saadlou was born in Tehran, Iran. He started learning English at the age of 17, and has since worked as a sports journalist, translator, simultaneous interpreter, editor, and college professor. His English translations of the minimalist Iranian poet, Rasool Yoonan, have appeared in Washington Square Review, Blue Lyra Review, Visions International, The Writing Disorder, Indian Review, and in Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue. He was also a finalist for Slice Magazine’s 2015 Bridging the Gap writing contest for his creative non-fiction piece I Didn’t Mean It. Saadlou is currently a second-year MFA creative writing student and a teaching fellow at Saint Mary’s College of California.

Shortly before and after the US election, Asymptote’s Ryan Mihaly spoke with Saadlou about translating Persian, meeting Yoonan, and the importance of literature in breaking down barriers and transporting culturenow more than ever. 

Ryan Mihaly (RM): Yoonan’s humor seems to translate well into English. You’ve captured the dark humor of reassuring a friend that his corpse will be buried, and the silliness of a ‘Don Quixote’ who ‘wears a saucepan on his head’. Were these literal translations? How did you capture them in English?

Siavash Saadlou (SS): When it comes to translating Yoonan, I try to maintain a balance between literal and figurative language, although in the cases you mentioned, I have translated the text verbatim. I should mention that in the first example, the word ‘friend’ has been used sarcastically. There’s a lot of witty sarcasm in the Persian language and literature, and in this poem Yoonan is using a wry tone to describe tyranny by using the word ‘friend’. I have also tried to maintain Yoonan’s diction. For that purpose, I first read all of his poems over and over again and took note of his word choice. For example, the word mozhek could be translated as ‘absurd’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘ludicrous’, ‘inane’, or ‘preposterous’, but since I happened to have a holistic cognizance of Yoonan’s plain and unadorned tone, I chose the word ‘absurd’.


Translation Tuesday: “Shadow Puppets” by Wong Yoon Wah

With a dab of paint I become the singing, dancing doll everyone loves.

The stories told with Southeast Asia’s shadow puppets, better known in the region as ‘Wayang Kulit’, range from adaptations of ancient epics to familiar, domestic sagas. This poem was written in 1977, when the Malayan-born Wong Yoon Wah (by then an outspoken scholar, critic, and award-winning writer) was appointed Director of the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nanyang University—just as higher education in Singapore was experiencing a period of upheaval. In this poem, Wong holds his own multiple identities up to the light, and a candid sense of his inner self shines through.

i. Birth

A sharp knife
pares the leather into shape.
A ruthless awl
carves each nub of my character.

With a dab of paint
I become the singing, dancing doll
everyone loves.


ii. Family Background

Though I’m a shadow
acting in the night’s mystery,
I am a child of light,
nothing without its beam.

The village’s earth is a white gauze.
In this soiled world, I can’t find myself.

I’ve never left a footprint
on the path.
I sing movingly
but never with my own voice.
At home, I’m a shadow on the screen.
On stage: a self you can see.


iii. Confession

Don’t take me
for one who loves fights,
schemes to be king,
or hankers
after Solomon’s princesses. 

A shapeless thread holds each of my four limbs.
Being superstitious, I can’t refuse being fate’s plaything.
The old man backstage
has my voice in his hands.
Whether I’m crying or laughing,
he decides.


iv. Fate

If you go backstage
when the show ends,
you’ll find usheroes, ladiesall
in the arms of the ugly puppeteer.

After we’ve been played,
our heads are taken down,
bodies folded and stacked again
in his box, secured with string
where patiently, like prisoners,
we’ll wait to see the sun.

November, 1977

Translated from the Chinese by Theophilus Kwek

Born in Malaysia, Professor Wong Yoon Wah has won Singapore’s Cultural Medallion (1986), Thailand’s South-East Asia Write Award (1984), and the ASEAN Cultural Award (1993). He has published more than twenty books as well as over fifty articles on modern and postcolonial Chinese literature, and is presently Senior Vice President of Southern University College, Malaysia.

Theophilus Kwek has published three collections of poetry, most recently Giving Ground (2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets’ Prize in 2016, and his translation of ‘Moving House’ by Wong Yoon Wah placed second in this year’s Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation.


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In Review: Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Secondhand Time’s arrival in English serves as a timely antidote to reports in the Western press about Russian nationalism

Secondhand Time is one of the four books shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, UK’s most prestigious prize for nonfiction, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow. 

Russian thinkers in the nineteenth century began referring to the Russian soul (Russkaya dusha) as a way to crystalize a national identity around the idea that Russia and its people possess a singular, exceptional destiny. Be it Dostoevsky’s high-strung and philosophical protagonists, Goncharov’s ambitionless, sensitive Oblomov, or Tolstoy’s nature-inspired, contemplative heroes, Russia’s iconic authors portrayed their countrymen as uninterested in replicating Europe’s then burgeoning industrial capitalism and its protestant work ethic; rather, these characters’ thoughts and actions sprang from a loftier, more spiritual sensibility.

Today, Russians’ views of their country’s tumultuous history and uncertain, post-Soviet future are shaped, in no small part, by whether or not they believe in Russian exceptionalism, and this question frames Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich’s latest book to be published in English, Secondhand Time. As she did earlier with Voices from Chernobyl (1997), the work that precipitated her winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Secondhand Time, originally published in 2013, Ms. Alexievich gives readers history “in miniature,” by presenting the reflections of ordinary Russians as told in their own voices. For this latest book Ms. Alexievich collected Russians’ thoughts about their post-World War II history that she recorded between 1991 and 2012. She writes that she specially sought to interview “sovaks,” a term that Russians use pejoratively to describe those who remain stuck in Soviet attitudes and behaviors.

Secondhand Time’s arrival in English (Random House, 2016) serves as a timely antidote to reports in the Western press about Russian nationalism. It is a necessary rejoinder not because the reports are false; rather, too little attention has been given to the complicated reasons behind the nationalistic sentiment.

Ironically, most Soviets felt a sense of security under the old system, despite the government’s repression and cruelty. Without the dual rudders of government control over everyday life and the ideology that justified it, those who came of age under the Soviet system now feel uncomfortably adrift. There remains nothing to replace the old ideals that grounded their lives except empty consumerism:

“No one can convince me that we were given life just to eat and sleep to our hearts’ content.  That a hero is someone who buys something one place and sells it down the road for three kopecks more.”