Monthly Archives: January 2017

Translation Tuesday: Two Prose Poems by Ghayath Almadhoun

Massacre is a dead metaphor that is eating my friends, eating them without salt.

In solidarity with the refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries recently barred from entering the US, we spotlight today the work of Syria-born Ghayath Almadhoun, the poet to whom Jazra Khaleed dedicated his “The War is Coming” poem three weeks ago in this very showcase. Especially in the second poem, “Massacre,” the stark and brutal reality of war is driven home.

Shaken by the developments coming out of America in the past few days, we at Asymptote have been working around the clock to try to fundraise for a Special Feature spotlighting new writing from the seven banned countries in our next issue, in an attempt to offer a high-profile platform for those newly affected by the fallout of those developments. If you are an author who identifies as being from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen (or someone who translates such authors)—and would like to submit work for consideration, please get in touch at

How I became…

Her grief fell from the balcony and broke into pieces, so she needed a new grief. When I went with her to the market the prices were unreal, so I advised her to buy a used grief. We found one in excellent condition although it was a bit big. As the vendor told us, it belonged to a young poet who had killed himself the previous summer. She liked this grief so we decided to take it. We argued with the vendor over the price and he said he’d give us an angst dating from the sixties as a free gift if we bought the grief. We agreed, and I was happy with this unexpected angst. She sensed this and said ‘It’s yours’. I took it and put it in my bag and we went off. In the evening I remembered it and took it out of the bag and examined it closely. It was high quality and in excellent condition despite half a century of use. The vendor must have been unaware of its value otherwise he wouldn’t have given it to us in exchange for buying a young poet’s low quality grief. The thing that pleased me most about it was that it was existentialist angst, meticulously crafted and containing details of extraordinary subtlety and beauty. It must have belonged to an intellectual with encyclopedic knowledge or a former prisoner. I began to use it and insomnia became my constant companion. I became an enthusiastic supporter of peace negotiations and stopped visiting relatives. There were increasing numbers of memoirs in my bookshelves and I no longer voiced my opinion, except on rare occasions. Human beings became more precious to me than nations and I began to feel a general ennui, but what I noticed most was that I had become a poet.


Highlights from Our Winter 2017 Issue

The editors of our Indian Languages Special Feature share how they curated the incredible poetry lineup

We begin the week again with an update on a new initiative that will help us continue beyond April 2017: This week, we’re thrilled to welcome Shelley Schanfield and Fiona Le Brun as our new sustaining members! Our most updated tally, as reflected on the right-hand column, is now 37! If you’re considering becoming a part of the family too, why not let lighthouse keeper (and hit author) Reif Larsen take you on a tour, before you sign up here!


This body didn’t burn itself:
It was burnt down.
These bones didn’t scatter themselves:
They were scattered around.
The fire didn’t combust on its own:
It was lit and spread around.
The fight didn’t initiate on its own:
It was started somehow.
And the poem didn’t compose itself:
It was written down.

—from “Mohenjodaro” by Vidrohi, translated from the Hindi by Somrita Ganguly

India, according to its constitution, has twenty-two ‘scheduled’ languages, with hundreds more spoken across its twenty-nine states and seven union territories. While it is impossible to capture the full swath of India’s languages in a single Special Feature, Asymptote’s Winter 2017 issue offers a glimpse into the political and aesthetic possibilities of Indian languages. The Feature’s nine poets, covering seven languages, were chosen with the aim of celebrating the diversity and dissent within contemporary Indian language poetry.

Vidrohi’s “Mohenjodaro” emerges directly from a site of protest, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the revolutionary spirit of which has recently come under attack from various political factions. Vidrohi spent most of his life as the unofficial, resident poet-activist of JNU, reciting but never writing down his poems—as a mark of resistance. But his words have been preserved in differing transcriptions by various students. “Mohenjodaro,” like many of Vidrohi’s works, has no definitive text—it carries on the centuries-old tradition of oral poetry in the Indian subcontinent. Aggressive and unabashed, the poem, with each line, builds its indictment of patriarchy, colonialism, and of the nation itself. To honor the poem’s orality and to observe how literature can exist in multiple lives, the Special Feature includes two translations of “Mohenjodaro.” Each translation stems from a different ‘original,’ and so is markedly different, reminding us that language resides beyond the page, in telling, listening, and remembering.


Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Updates from Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and Austria

Would you believe we have already reached the end of January? We’ve already brought you reports from eleven different nations so far this year, but we’re thrilled to share more literary news from South America and central Europe this week. Our Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, brings us news of literary greats’ passing, while her new colleague Maíra Mendes Galvão covers a number of exciting events in Brazil. Finally, a University College London student, Flora Brandl, has the latest from German and Austrian.

Asymptote’s Argentina Editor-at-Large, Sarah Moses, writes about the death of two remarkable authors:

The end of 2016 was marked by the loss of Argentinian writer Alberto Laiseca, who passed away in Buenos Aires on December 22 at the age of seventy-five. The author of more than twenty books across genres, Laiseca is perhaps best known for his novel Los Sorias (Simurg, 1st edition, 1998), which is regarded as one of the masterworks of Argentinian literature.

Laiseca also appeared on television programs and in films such as El artista (2008). For many years, he led writing workshops in Buenos Aires, and a long list of contemporary Argentinian writers honed their craft with him.

Some two weeks after Laiseca’s passing, on January 6, the global literary community lost another great with the death of Ricardo Piglia, also aged seventy-five. Piglia was a literary critic and the author of numerous short stories and novels, including Respiración artificial (Pomaire, 1st edition, 1980), which was published in translation in 1994 by Duke University Press.

The first installments of Piglia’s personal diaries, Los diarios de Emilio Renzi, were recently released by Anagrama and are the subject of the film 327 cuadernos, by Argentinian filmmaker Andrés Di Tella. The film was shown on January 26 as part of the Museo Casa de Ricardo Rojas’s summer series “La literatura en el cine: los autores,” which features five films on contemporary authors and poets, including Witold Gombrowicz and Alejandra Pizarnik.

On January 11, the U.S. press New Directions organized an event at the bookstore Eterna Cadencia in anticipation of the February release of A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Argentinian journalist Leila Guerriero and translated by Frances Riddle. Guerriero discussed the book, which follows a malambo dancer as he trains for Argentina’s national competition, as well as her translation of works of non-fiction with fellow journalist and author Mariana Enriquez. Enriquez’s short story collection, Things We Lost in the Fire (Hogarth), translated by Megan McDowell, will also appear in English in February.


Spotlight on Indian Languages: Part II

Do not sing sad songs, O wind

This is the second installment in a five-week spotlight on Indian languages, to complement the Indian Poetry Special Feature in the new Winter Issue of Asymptote. For the next few Thursdays, you can discover a spectrum of new voices translated from different regional languages. These writers, in many cases, have never been featured on the blog or in English before. This week’s poem is Kshetri Prem’s translation of Arambam O Memchoubi’s Manipuri text “O wind, do not sing sad songs”. 


O wind, do not sing sad songs

O wind, do not sing sad songs
Look at the falling leaves
One after another, scattered
On a distant
Straw-strewn Jhum field
Look at the deserted pigeon
Sitting alone, sitting in agony
On a branch of a leafless oak tree
Don’t you hear
The plaintive song
Of a lifeless ravine
And, the reddened morning sun
From a night spent in tears.
Do not sing sad songs, O wind,
Do not tell sad stories any more
Tell me instead
How you spent the dreadful night
How you resurrect yourself on your grave again.

From Tuiphai O Ningthibi, (2012)


Recovery in Ruins: A Review of Bella Mia

Caterina has always identified herself in relation to her sister; she was the ‘other’ twin.

In the wake of the more recent earthquakes in central Italy it seems painfully appropriate that Calisi Press should choose to release the English translation of Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award winning Bella Mia, set in the aftermath of the devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake in L’Aqualia in 2009, the deadliest Italy had seen since 1980.

In the early hours of 6 April, 2009, amidst the chaos of the tremors, one woman dies. She leaves her only son behind, left in the care of her surviving twin sister, Caterina, and their elderly mother. The broken family becomes the center for Pietrantonio’s moving tale of recovery. Set in the ruins of a family and the wreckage of the city, the story details the delicate stages of grief as each character moves to re-build their lives after the disaster.

Caterina’s sister Olivia was a constant presence in her life, and one cannot help but think of the powerful female relationships depicted in Ferrante’s novels when reading Caterina’s memories of the two as children, surviving the complex and riddled world of the schoolyard and vying for attention from their peers. In her death, Olivia becomes omnipresent in the lives of those she has left behind: her son blindly chases cars driven by women who look like her; her mother builds her day around visiting her grave, her sister still wears her clothes for good luck. Caterina’s survival guilt is evident—she is ‘alive by mistake’ as far as her nephew is concerned—and the constant expectation that she ‘should be his spare mother’ rather than his grieving aunt torments her. ‘We could have swapped deaths, as we’d always swapped clothes, books, occasions,’ Caterina obsesses. She dwells on the inevitable, unanswerable question: why her? Why was fate kind to her and not her twin? For two people so tightly bound for so many years, why at this point in time were they so violently torn apart?


Translation Tuesday: Three poems by Choi Seung-ja

Last night’s dreams, sins of the past, unlivable dreams, the sin of living incompletely.

Relentless time is the subject of these poems by Choi Seung-ja, an iconic figure in Korean literature, so influential that she was called “the common pronoun of the 80s’ poets.” But the existential despair captured in broad bravura strokes here transcends both culture and era.


Two Kinds of Death

Like a rumor or drifting cloud
the lodger in Cheongpa-dong passes away
and morning’s black phone call rings.
Suddenly at the edge of the dining table
the species of mothers and fathers
melt into the longing spirit of water and fire
the rice and soup in a chorus
recite the deceased’s prehumous words:

Wishing to die
yet going mad

A black boat appears from the blue sky.
Full of cosmic humidity
transmitting an extraterrestrial Morse code
on and off
Death sends us a message.

Someday in Manhattan
John Lennon dies and
the voice of the dead is floating.

Mama don’t go
Daddy come home


At the End of the Deserted Street

The smell of sin, the smell of sin, ruins of sadness,
still lingering in my soul.

Every day I wake up at the end of the deserted street.
Last night’s dreams, sins of the past,
unlivable dreams, the sin of living incompletely.
In the dark of last night
the clock that measured all of me
keeps ticking in the same countdown.

Run, time, run
putting on my frail weight
made of only dream and sin
speed like a bullet.
I want to watch my bones shatter.
I want to snigger in the windblown
dust of my bones.


Fearful Green

The earth emits mysterious heat.
The chirping of birds withers midair.
While the ashen sky retreats
aching leaves turn.
The thirsty verdure grows by degrees.
At last green’s fearful chaos pours out.
Everything will be over.
Time will come to rest.
In the air, the sneer of green afire.

Into the deep, deep earth, the sap drains.
The barren background sways.
The sun comes to a halt forever.
Like a ghost only green remains in the world.


Translated from the Korean by Lei Kim


Choi Seung-ja was born in 1952 and made her literary debut in 1979. Shortly afterwards, she became the icon of youth and freedom in Korean literature. She lived through the 1980s, the Dark Age in modern Korean history, both in political and social aspects, and she was called “the common pronoun of the 80s’ poets.” For her the time was “time… feeding me shit / yet ruthlessly leaving me alive” (“Unforgettableness or Oblivion”) and “never-ending period.” She declared herself “the priest of void” and executed poems that manifested the indignity of the period. Among her poems, the expression of assumed evil, masochism, self-contempt, and stark vulgarism signal the advent of a new style of poetry. Women in the patriarchal society are bound to live with self-abuse as a pathetic defense to overcome the crisis of self-existence. Her works show how far she has pushed the bar set by the male dominant system, and in some point, she made her own escape from the conventional women’s poetry. In consequence, she is reputed to have started “feminist poetry” for the first time in the history of Korean poetry, so it is nonsense, without consideration of her impact on others, to talk about Korean women’s poetry. Her works include The Love Of This Age, A Merry Journal, The House Of Memory, My Green Grave, and Lonely And Faraway.

Lei Kim is a literary translator. She has translated Lee Jangwook’s poetry collection, Request Line at Noon (Codhill Press, 2016), and received the Modern Korean Literature Translation Commendation Award.


Read More Translation Tuesdays:



Highlights from the Asymptote Winter Issue

Our editors recommend their favorite pieces from the latest issue.

First off, we want to thank the five readers who heeded our appeal from our editor-in-chief and signed up to be sustaining members this past week. Welcome to the family, Justin Briggs, Gina Caputo, Monika Cassel, Michaela Jones, and Phillip Kim! For those who are still hesitating, take it from Lloyd Schwartz, who says, “Asymptote is one of the rare cultural enterprises that’s really worth supporting. It’s both a literary and a moral treasure.” If you’ve enjoyed our Winter 2017 issue, why not stand behind our mission by becoming a sustaining member today?


One week after the launch of our massive Winter 2017 edition, we invited some section editors to talk up their favorite pieces:

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones on her favorite article:

My highlight from the Criticism section this January is Ottilie Mulzet’s review of Evelyn Dueck’s L’étranger intime, the work that gave us the title of this issue: ‘Intimate Strangers’. Mulzet translates from Hungarian and Mongolian, but (being prolifically multilingual) is also able to offer us a detailed, thoughtful, and well-informed review of a hefty work of French translation scholarship. Dueck’s book is a study of French translations of Paul Celan’s poetry from the 1970s to the present day (focussing on André du Bouchet, Michel Deguy, Marthine Broda, and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre) and is, in Mulzet’s estimation, ‘an indispensable map for the practice of the translator’s art’. One of this review’s many strengths is the way it positions Dueck’s book in relationship to its counterparts in Anglophone translation scholarship; another is its close reading of passages from individual poems in order to illustrate differences in approach among the translators; a third is the way Mulzet uses Dueck’s work as a springboard to do her own thinking about translational paratexts, and to offer potential areas for further research. The reviewer describes L’étranger intime as ‘stellar in every way’—the same might be said of the review, too.

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek, who stepped in to edit our Writers on Writers section for the current issue, had this to say: 

When asked to pick a highlight from this issue’s Writers on Writers feature, I was torn between Victoria Livingstone’s intimate exploration of Xánath Caraza’s fascinating oeuvre and Philip Holden’s searching essay on Singapore’s multilingual—even multivocal—literary history, but the latter finally won out for its sheer depth and detail. Moving from day-to-day encounters with language to literary landmarks of the page and stage, Holden surveys the city’s shifting tonalities with cinematic ease, achieving what he himself claims is impossible: representing a ‘polylingual lived reality’ to the unfamiliar reader. And as a Singaporean abroad myself, Holden’s conclusion sums it up perfectly: the piece is ‘a return to that language of the body, of the heart’.

Visual Editor Eva Heisler’s recommendation:

Indian artist Shilpa Gupta addresses issues of nationhood, cultural identity, diaspora, and globalization in complex inquiry-based and site-specific installations.  The experience of Gupta’s work is explored by Poorna Swami in her essay ‘Possessing Skies’, the title of which alludes to a work in which large LED light structures, installed across Bombay beaches, announce, in both English and Hindi, ‘I live under your sky too.’  Gupta’s work, Swami writes, ‘positions her spectator in an irresolvable conversation between the abstracted artwork and a tangible sense of the so-called real world, with all its ideologies, idiosyncrasies, and fragilities’.


Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Updates from Spain, Morocco, and the United States, from the Asymptote team

This week, we visit Morocco with new Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman, who tells us about a new play based on a classic novel. Then in Spain, we have a publishing update with Editor-at-Large Carmen Morawski, and onto the United States, we strap in for today’s Presidential Inauguration and writers’ reactions to the historic event. 

Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman reports from Morocco:

A theatrical interpretation of Mohammed Khair Ed-dine’s novel Le Déterreur [نباش القبور], adapted by Cédric Gourmelon and starring Ghassan El-Hakim, is currently on tour in Morocco, with the next performance set to take place on January 21 at the House of Culture [دار الثقابة] in Tetouan.  In the novel, a man from southern Morocco shares his countercurrent perspectives on living in a marginalized community inside a wider, fractured, postcolonial space as he recounts his life story.

Winner of numerous literary awards, including Jean Cocteau’s Les infants terribles literary prize for his novel Agadir, Khair Ed-dine (or “The Blue Bird,” as he is sometimes called) mainly wrote poetry and novels in French. He is credited with establishing a new style of writing, what he coined guérilla linguistique, that resists, in both form and content, linguistic or societal domination. Considering his prolific contributions to the genre of revolutionary writing, it is unsurprising that Khair Ed-dine is commonly grouped among renowned, twentieth century North African authors writing in French, such as Assia Djebar, Yacine Kateb, Abdellatif Laabi, Driss Chraibi, and Tahar Ben Jelloun.

Some of Khair Ed-dine’s work has been translated into German and English. For more about the German translation of his posthumously published novel Once Upon a Time There Was a Happy Couple (Es war einmal ein glückliches Paar), published this article, which includes a summary of the book with excerpts and information about the writer.  Similarly, to read a sample of Khair-Eddine’s poetry translated into English, see this piece from Jadaliyya, that includes four poems from his collection Ce Maroc!

In other literary news, only a few more weeks until Morocco’s largest book fair will be back!  The 23rd edition of the International Book Fair in Casablanca will open on February 9.


Spotlight on Indian Languages: Part I

The entire city was a river—impossible to find a shore.

We’re thrilled to present the first installment in a five-week spotlight on Indian languages, to compliment the Indian Poetry Special Feature in the new Winter Issue of Asymptote. For the next few Thursdays, you can discover a spectrum of new voices translated from different regional languages, which, in many cases, have never been featured on the blog or in English before. To kick things off, we have Niyati Bhat’s translation of Naseem Shafaie’s Kashmiri poem, “Tale of a City,” for you today. 

Tale of a City

Those who lived by the river Vyeth, now naked,
are drowning in their shame today.
They, who wrapped themselves in Shahtoosh and Pashmina
and wore silk brocades from head to toe everyday.
A delicate thread of that vanity
slowly came apart.
The skies, too, loosened the reins, a little.
King Nimrod would’ve fled
at the sight of this spectacle.
It took one moment, just one
to wipe out the entire city.
Those who lived by the river Vyeth, now naked,
were stupefied.
No pillar, no mud wall to hold on to,
No one lending their arms across the window sill for rescue,
No one at the doorway to quench their thirst.
They were flooded over their heads,
The entire city was a river—
impossible to find a shore.
They, with empty hands and empty pockets,
had no coins to pay the ferryman
to take them across.
Nor any murmurs to console each other.
Those who lived by the river Vyeth, now naked,
used to be rich until yesterday.
Those who lived by the river Vyeth, now naked,
lived in palaces until yesterday.


Highlights from Our Winter 2017 Issue

The blog editors share their favorite pieces from our latest issue!

Here at the blog, we’ve been mesmerized by the new Winter 2017 Issue since its launch on Monday. We hope you’ve had time to dive in, too, but if not, here are a few great places to start!

“Daland” by Lika Tcheishvili, translated from the Georgian by Ekaterine Chialashvili and Alex Scrivener, is a curious little story, told in the first person by an unnamed dock worker in Bandar Abbas, Iran. Anyone who has seen or read about Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton will find themselves in familiar territory when the narrator becomes the unlikely participant in a duel. Any sense of familiarity stops there, however. The man who challenges him is a mysterious smoker with a perpetually fresh lily—flowers foreign to Bandar Abbas—in his lapel and an appointment with a schooner no one has heard of…

I also cannot get the words of Christiane Singer out of my head. In her essay, “The Feminine, Land of Welcome,” translated from the French by Hélène Cardona, she writes to women, “stand bewitched and ready to leap: the queen, the sister, the lover, the friend, the mother—all those who have the genius for relationship, for welcoming. The genius for inventing life.” She highlights the danger of defining women only by their commonalities, as well as the horrors that could have come to pass—and could still—in a world without women. Their absence would be powerfully felt, even in comparison to situations in which they are already roundly ignored or discredited.

—Madeline Jones, Blog Editor

In “Always Already Translated: Questions of Language in Singaporean Literature”, Boston-born Philip Holden, who has lived in Singapore for more than 20 years, writes lyrically about this multilingual city-state. Having worked with languages Holden mentions—Malay, Malayalam, Javanese, and many others—I loved his description of situations where “I speak in Mandarin to Chinese patients, and they reply not to me but to my Chinese co-worker, who looks back at me in incomprehension. She speaks in Malay to older Chinese and Malay patients, and they reply in Malay not to her but to the third of us, the Indian woman who wears a tudung that marks her out as Muslim and, by a process of mistaken association, Malay.” Multilingual societies are sadly often depicted as wrought with conflict. While language in Singapore is, like everywhere in the world, a political issue, too, Holden focuses on the opportunities it provides for performing and literary arts. We don’t have to search for a common language, he argues—it’s more interesting to find “holes between languages that everyday translation continually fills up”.

I have never read Albanian literature before, however. If you are like me, I can warmly recommend the three poems by Luljeta Lleshanaku, one of the country’s most important writers, as an introduction. Taken from the collection Negative Space and translated by Ani Gjika, the poems describe a simple life: apple trees, a butcher carving meat, “gardens hidden behind houses like sensual neck bites”. But behind each poem is a rotten apple, or cold floors, and getting one’s way without any real gain—poetic realism. Do also have a listen to the translator reading the original text in Albanian!

—Hanna Heiskanen, Blog Editor

Check out the gorgeous video preview of the new issue here:


Read More from the Asymptote team:

Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Shubham Shree

I know this poem is really weak—just like a menstruating woman.

Our Winter 2017 issue, hot off the presses yesterday, celebrated our six years of publishing world literature with new work from 27 countries by authors such as Colm Tóibín, Cesare Pavese and Monika Rinck, alongside a Special Feature on Indian poetry focusing on marginalized voices. Here, via acclaimed translator Daisy Rockwell, we present two works from this Special Feature by 2016 Bharat Bhushan Agrawal Prize winner Shubham Shree—who recently caused great controversy with her bold use of slang and English words, considered a desecration of the tradition of Hindi poetry.

My Boyfriend

(An essay proposed for the Grade Six Moral Education Curriculum)

My boyfriend is a two-legged boy human
He has two hands, two feet, and one tail
(Note—I’m the only one who can see his tail)
My boyfriend’s name is Honey
At home, he’s Babloo, on his notebooks, Umashankar
His name is also Baby, Sweetie-pie, and Darling
I call my boyfriend Babu
Babu also calls me Babu
Babu has dandruff in his hair
Babu crunches when he eats
Babu slurps when he drinks
When he’s annoyed he packs a 440 volt punch
He has vaccine scars on his arms, twin half-lemons
If you poke them he screams
My Babu also cries
in a hiccupy sort of way
And he laughs with his eyes closed
He loooves salty food
When he sleeps, he snores from his nose and mouth
I am a good girlfriend
I swat away the flies trying to sneak into his mouth
I even smacked a mosquito on his belly
I always start laughing when I see him
He has very nice cheeks
If you stretch them out they get five centimeters bigger
He gave me a teddy bear named Kitty
We are the world’s best couple
Our anniversary is the 15th of May
Please congratulate us

*What we learn from my boyfriend
Is that you should smack mosquitos on your boyfriend’s belly
And swat flies away from his mouth

Book Recommendations for the New Normal

Suggested reading for the fast-approaching U.S. Presidential Inauguration and our changing world politics

This Friday, real estate mogul Donald Trump will be sworn is in as the 45th President of the United States. Last month, Italy’s citizenry voted effectively for the resignation of its Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in a referendum applauded by France’s right-wing, nationalist party leader Marine Le Pen, while another far-right conservative, Francois Fillon, is expected to win the French presidential election in May. Last summer, the world watched the historic Brexit vote, and Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, who ran on the promise of an Austrian Brexit, lost the nation’s vote by a very close margin last month.  

The political climate all over the west is profoundly changing, and those who failed to predict the current developments are scrambling to make sense of them. Book proposals by diplomats, pundits, and economists are flooding publishers’ inboxes, all claiming to have the most accurate analysis of the causes of Trump’s win or Britain’s isolationism. But a look at the past, and some past literature, suggests that perhaps we should be surprised at our own surprise. We gathered some book recommendations to prepare you for this Friday and the vast challenges ahead because—wait for it—knowledge is power (sorry!) and there are many already-published texts, many in the history category, with a wealth of relevant knowledge to impart.

Asymptote’s Marketing Manager David Maclean suggests you check out:

Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday , translated by Anthea Bell (Pushkin Press, 2013)

“As a great many political pundits have pointed out, the resurgence of nationalist and far-right movements throughout Europe has more than a passing resemblance to the initial rise of fascist groups prior to the Second World War. Disguised as an autobiography, Zweig’s The World of Yesterday offers a coruscating portrayal of the idealism of pre-war Europe and the European cross-cultural project, as well as the fragility of the ideals of Enlightenment in the face of (dangerously) cynical realpolitik, ignorance, and the fostering of prejudice. The nation cannot be loved above all else, warned Simone Weil, since it has no soul—and indeed it is the balkanization of Europe that Zweig portrays as a logical result of nationalist movements that propagate loyalty to the nation above all else. His book is also one of resistance, of the possibility for literature and art to resist the totalitarianism of thought imposed upon us through exercising our creative imaginations—an understated but underestimated daily act of resistance.”

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula le Guin (Tor Books, 2010)

“I had thought to include Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book The Silent Spring, which arguably thrust eco-criticism and global conservation into the mainstream debate, but since the United States’ president-elect seems intent on living in a fantasy world regarding man-made climate change, I decided to be magnanimous and stick with his chosen genre. The novella details a logging colony established on the fictional planet of Athshe by Earth’s military-industrial complex, which is slowly but surely denuding the planet of its primary resources and leaving vast swathes of it barren and lifeless. The novel hinges on a conflict of ideologies between the native population, which may be well be seen as a surrogate for nature, and ourselves (the Terrans) who view nature as a disposable resource for immediate consumption and have little to no regard for the long-term consequences. In the Athshean language, the word for “forest” is also the word for “world”, showing the dependence of the Athshean culture upon the forest, much as we all depend upon a fecund, hospitable world that continues to dance on the brink of ecological ruin.”

Blog Editor Madeline Jones found pertinent wisdom in:

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to Present by John Pomfret (Henry Holt, 2016)

“We all know that the U.S. president-elect likes to make China a scape goat for basically whatever he thinks is unsatisfactory about American affairs that he can’t conceivably blame on Crooked somebody or Lyin’ somebody else. Of Trump’s targets of aggression now that he’s been elected, China perhaps comes in second only to FAKE NEWS (caps his). We’ve all heard the “Gina” jokes. His lack of understanding of diplomacy generally but particularly regarding China is near-comical, so it’s difficult to even wrap your mind around the implications of his attitudes toward the world’s largest economy, but it is vital that at least someone in his administration does. In the meantime, I decided to try to understand the nuances of the relationship better myself. This book is invaluable—and highly readable—to that end. It’s not short, but it’s a one-stop shop.”

The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2016)

“Pointedly drawing inspiration from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ward has gathered responses from her generation’s most eminent voices on race in the form of critical essays, personal reflections, and poetry. From Jericho Brown to Daniel Jose Older, Claudia Rankine to Clint Smith, the contributors make this a worthwhile read for its own, aesthetic sake, but it’s also an emotional and timely reminder of the ways in which society has not changed since Baldwin was writing, the areas in which there is still vital need for improvement. While newspapers and magazines have been praising J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy since Trump won the Republican nomination as the book to understand America today, I found Ward’s book to be an important counterargument to that narrative, especially given Jeff Sessions’s imminent confirmation by the Senate. Vance’s book has merit, certainly, but the current focus on “understanding the white working class” cannot be emphasized at the expense of a focus on race relations and the continued economic and privilege gap between white Americans and black and Hispanic Americans. Reading Hillbilly Elegy is a worthwhile exercise in empathy, but it’s no more important than reading Ward’s collection. Baldwin wrote, ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.’ There is plenty of pain and heartbreak in The Fire This Time, too.”

Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen recommends:

The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It by Owen Jones (Penguin, 2014)

“British journalist and writer Owen Jones (b. 1984) hasn’t made a secret of his political inclinations (very left-wing, in case you haven’t heard), and he was a staunch critic of Donald Trump throughout his election campaign. His 2014 book, The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, which was met both with great praise and criticism, zooms in on the power structures of British society and is now more relevant than ever. Owen claims that while the people continue voting in elections, behind the scenes, a network of the unelected, unaccountable, and immensely powerful advisors and diplomats control our lives and steer decision-making. Though Jones’s book focused on the UK and some of its seemingly unique features, such as the grooming of the new ruling class at top universities, or the privatisation of public services, its fundamental premise applies to almost any country you could point to on the map. Whether you grew up in a Nordic welfare society or listening to stories about the American Dream, this makes for a relevant, albeit depressing, read.”

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848, 2015 Penguin)

“It might be old, and many would say old-fashioned, but the grand ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, capitalism and communism, continue to have an undeniable impact on our societies and politics. Many have explained the rise of the far-right and nationalist sentiments around the world with the collapse of traditional industries that would have supported generations of working families who now feel unnecessary or displaced. Now, with the rise of China as a world power, as well as a future in which robots will take over an increasing number of tasks from humans, Marx’s writings suddenly don’t seem as outdated anymore.”

And literary critic Harold Bloom offered:

“The only thing I can think of right now is Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’.”


Read More Book Recommendations:

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary updates from the Czech Republic, Iran, and England

This Friday, we present three very distinct reports from the world of literature. Slovakian Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood looks back at what was a great year of Czech literature in translation and gives us a sneak peek at what to look forward to this year. Her Iranian colleague Poupeh Missaghi reports on language-related issues in a human rights Twitter campaign. And finally, the UK Editor-at-Large M. René Bradshaw tells us where to head for great readings in London this month and next.

Julia Sherwood, our Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, has good news from the publishing world:

Last year proved to be a big year for Czech literature in English translation, with no fewer than eighteen publications from eight different presses at the latest count. They include, to mention just a few, Worm-Eaten Time, poet Pavel Šrut’s elegy for his homeland after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, translated by Deborah Garfinkle, and symbolist poet Jaroslav Durych‘s (1886-1962) 1956 novella God’s Rainbow on the expulsion of the German-speaking population from Bohemia after World War II. First published in censored form in 1969, it is now available in full in David Short’s translation as part of Karolínum Press’s Modern Classics series, which also features Eva M. Kandler’s translation of the World War II literary horror The Cremator by Ladislav Fuks, a study of the totalitarian mindset that still resonates today (extract in BODY Literature), and served as the basis for one of the key films of the Czech new wave, directed by Juraj Herz.


On 30 November, a packed audience at the launch of Antonín Bajaja’s Burying the Season (also translated by David Short) at Waterstones Piccadilly in the heart of London included the playwright Tom Stoppard. Stoppard’s father came from the town of Zlín, the setting for this novel depicting the early years of communism in Czechoslovakia. Czech literature scholar Rajendra Chitnis introduces the book as part of an Istros Conversations podcast on Audioboom, while Michael Tate of Jantar Publishing discusses on Czech radio the challenges of bringing Central European literature to English readers.

World Literature Today picked Czech writer Magdaléna Platzová’s The Attempt as one of its Notable translations of 2016, characterizing it as “historical fiction at its best”. In an interview with the Czech cultural bi-weekly A2, the novel’s translator Alex Zucker points out that while more books by Czech authors are now being published than ever before, they don’t necessarily reach many more readers since—like translated literature in general—quite a few are brought out by small independent presses and are therefore not visible in major bookshops and rarely reviewed.

In 2017, we can look forward to Zucker’s translations of two the most acclaimed contemporary Czech writers: Jáchym Topol’s Angel Station is due from Dalkey Archive in May, and Petra Hůlová’s taboo-breaking Plastic Three Rooms will be brought out by Jantar Publishing. Budding UK translators keen to be part of this unprecedented boom in Czech literature in English can participate in the fourth annual international competition for young translators, who this year are asked to tackle an excerpt from Bianca Bellová’s The Lake by 31 March (see their call for submissions). Budding Czech-to-English translators can also dip into the treasure trove of tricky issues, complete with solutions generously shared by Melvyn Clarke, in his blog post Translating Hrdý Budžes.

Acclaimed writer Zuzana Brabcová, who sadly passed away in 2015, was posthumously awarded the Josef Škvorecký prize for her haunting last novel Voliéry [Aviaries]. And as the year drew to a close, scores of students and literature lovers mourned the loss of the legendary Fišer bookstore in Kaprova Street near Prague’s Old Town Square, which closed its doors after selling books since the 1930s.


What’s New in Translation? January 2017

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books from Spanish, German, and Occitan.


Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry, tr. by Paul Blackburn, edited and introduced by George Economou. New York Review Books.

Review: Nozomi Saito, Executive Assistant

Translated from the Occitan by Paul Blackburn, Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry is a remarkable collection of troubadour poetry, which had vast influence on major literary figures, including Dante and Ezra Pound. As poems of the twelfth century, the historic weight of troubadour poetry might intimidate some, but the lively language in Paul Blackburn’s translations is sure to shock and delight twenty-first century readers in the same way that these poems did for their contemporary audiences.

The context surrounding the original publication of Proensa in 1978 is nearly as interesting as the troubadour poems themselves. Although Proensa was in fact ready for publication in the late 1950s, lacking only an introduction, the collection was not published until seven years after Paul Blackburn’s death. The manuscript was then given to George Economou, who edited the collection and saw to its posthumous publication.

The circumstances of the publication of Proensa, of the pseudo-collaboration between a deceased translator and a living editor, are reminiscent of another publication that came out in 1916, Certain Noble Plays of Japan. This manuscript was a collection of Noh plays translated by Ernest Fenollosa, which Ezra Pound received after Fenollosa’s death.

Interestingly, it was Ezra Pound’s influence and the great importance he placed on the troubadours that ignited the fire of translation within Blackburn.  Pound, as Economou explains, “did more than any other twentieth-century poet to introduce the troubadours and their legacy to the English-speaking world”. Pound viewed the translation of the troubadours as an all-important task, and Paul Blackburn answered the call-to-action.

Six degrees of Ezra Pound. The coincidence (if it is one) begs the question of why Proensa is being reprinted now, thirty-nine years after its original publication, and one hundred years after the publication of Certain Noble Plays.

In the case of Certain Noble Plays, the significance of its publication was that Pound (as well as William Butler Yeats) felt that the Noh plays could revitalize Anglo-American poetry and drama in ways that suited modernist aesthetics. One might wonder if the same intention lies behind the reprinting of Proensa—if these troubadour poems are appearing again to twenty-first century readers to revitalize poetry and performance using literary forms from the past. READ MORE…