Monthly Archives: May 2017

In Conversation: Lesley Saunders on translation, poetic collaboration and creating new writing with refugees

I think there’s a place opening up where poet-translators can have a kind of collective presence

Lesley Saunders has published several books of poetry, and a new collection Nominy Dominy is due out from Two Rivers Press next year. She has won several awards for her poetry, including the inaugural Manchester Poetry Prize, the Stephen Spender Award for poetry in translation and The Poetry Business 2016/17 International Book & Pamphlet Competition; she is currently working on a book of translations of selected poems by the acclaimed Portuguese writer Maria Teresa Horta. Find our more about her work at

Theophilus Kwek (TK): Congratulations on winning the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation with your lovely translation of Poema by Maria Teresa Horta! In your commentary, you write about that striking central image of the poem—a ‘prowler-intruder’—which, as compared to Hughes’ ‘thought-fox’, is felt rather than seen. Did you face any challenges in rendering such a tactile ‘muse’ in a different language?

Lesley Saunders (LS): This is a really hard question! I’m very much guided, in my translation, by a text I’ve come across quite recently: James Underhill’s Voice and Versification in Translating Poems, which is wonderful – and which I first discovered by being asked to review it. I started reading the book more out of duty, then was completely captivated by how Underhill describes the difficult but not impossible challenge of translating poetry.


Translation Tuesday: The Scent of a Dream by Alberto Ruy-Sanchez

The unorthodox torment of Don Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo

The feelings of guilt and uncertainty that dominate this stand-alone addendum to Alberto Ruy-Sanchez’s 1987 novel, Los demonios de la lengua, wrestle with the tension between religion and eroticism that was central to the author’s Jesuit upbringing. The story’s prose-poetry style prioritises diction and imagery over narrative, making for a complex and rewarding read.

Among Apples

Not words but serpents emerged from his mouth. And some of these vipers had the heads of goats, of iguanas, salamanders, toads; they were eagles without wings, fish without rivers, tongues without saliva. One tongue divided in two, in three, in ten, in six times one hundred and eleven nightmares. And the odor that emanated from these tongues, reminiscent of the rotten fish that serve as a delicacy in Sweden and an omen of tragedy in Denmark, was so dense as to be visible—and it looked back at us. It was a cloud with eyes, horns, jaws, a bristly beard and pointed ears. It looked like Satan on the verge of unleashing his fury, but it was only the scent of Don Marcelino’s breath as he dozed at midday.


The End of Eddy Review: Édouard Louis’s story of rejection, queerness and trauma in working-class France

He tried with such violent passion and self-betrayal, even self-degradation, to fit in with these people—his people

Édouard Louis’s debut novel The End of Eddy gives voice to a demographic often excluded from mainstream literature—the elusive “white working class” so frequently cited by politicians and publishers lately—while also telling the story of a young man who is completely rejected by that same group. In this apparent contradiction lies the work’s most remarkable achievement: to illuminate the lives of, and even empower, the narrator’s own antagonists—without forgiving them.

Bear in mind this is a work of autofiction, á la Knausgaard’s My Struggle opus or Sergio del Molino’s Lo que a nadie le importa, completed when the author was just twenty years old. Any editor would expect a manuscript so early in a writer’s life and career to lack “perspective,” to need some “distance,” especially given the drama and violence in this story in particular. Most memoirists don’t like to be too close to the time and people they’re writing about—and I did have to continually remind myself I was not reading a memoir while falling headfirst into Louis’s story. The lumps the character Eddy has taken have certainly not gone down, but that they are still swollen and purple is just what makes the read so engrossing, and makes the strange duality of the characters’ sympathetic and reproachable natures believable.

The book was first published in France in 2013 to great acclaim, making the now 24-year-old something of a literary star. Out this month in the U.S. with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and translated by Michael Lucey, the work has begun to receive a lot of attention in English, too. Louis has had his critics, however, particularly regarding the work’s believability—a plight that perhaps inevitably threatens the autofiction writer. There is something inherently uncomfortable about reading such a novel; you can’t settle in and let the story carry you to a made-up place and time, but at the same time you can’t walk away feeling you know something for sure, something you can report to a friend later. One can’t help but want to know after all, is it real or not?


Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your one-stop spot for all you want to know about world literature

This week we bring you news from Spain, Slovakia, and Brazil. We will begin our journey with Editor-at-Large Carmen Morawski who captures the excitement leading up to the Madrid Book Fair. We will land next in Slovakia where Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood updates us about the buzz surrounding the country’s most prestigious literary prize, Anasoft Litera. We will finish our journey across the world in Brazil to read Maíra Mendes Galvão’s report of writers’ protests against the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. 

Carmen Morawski, Editor-at-Large from Spain, reports:

In its seventy-sixth year, the Madrid Book Fair (Feria del Libro de Madrid) has yet again marked the transition from spring to summer for Spanish book lovers. Taking place in the Buen Retiro Park in Madrid from May 26 to June 11, this year’s fair will open with a lecture by Eduardo Lourenco, the Portuguese essayist and philosopher, in the Pabellón Bankia de Actividades Culturales.

Although a detailed schedule for this year’s fair isn’t available yet, a glance through last year’s schedule should give Asymptote readers a flavor for the lectures, readings, and other events typical to the fair. Whether on the look out for children’s literature, YA or adult fiction, non-fiction reportage, essay collections, philosophy, specialty and minority literatures, visitors to the fair can browse a wide array of contemporary offerings from the Spanish publishing scene, take advantage of special discounts, and even meet a favorite author at one of the many book signing sessions. If you want to learn more about the  history of the fair and are interested in sampling previous years’ fairs, you may enjoy this brief video of the 2014 fair.

Asymptote readers interested in more historical literary fare might prefer to visit the Spanish National Library’s (Biblioteca Nacional de España) special exhibition, Scripta: Tesoros manuscritos de la Universidad de Salamanca. Intended to commemorate the 800-year anniversary of Alfonso IX’s order to create ‘Schools in Salamanca,’ that in turn led to the founding of the first universities in Europe, the exhibition showcases 23 pieces spanning the history of the manuscript in Europe, from medieval Visigoth codexes belonging from the eleventh and twelfth centuries through the sixteenth century. The exhibition is on loan from the University of Salamanca and is divided into four main sections. It includes a section devoted to Humanism and the Vulgate languages, thereby acknowledging the prominent role of romance languages derived from Latin as vehicles for literature and scientific works. The exhibition runs from May 4 to June 4.


“Old Seams of the Ancient World”: Reading Patrick Chamoiseau’s Manifesto Against Borders

“The dream and the political vision must arise, and that is when the poetic word is as fundamental as that of experts or economists.”

In our Spring Issue this year, we ran a special feature covering literature from countries affected by President Trump’s infamous “Muslim Ban.” This was in recognition that literature is reflective of political conditions and that it is a powerful form of protest against oppression. In today’s piece, Fiona Le Brun looks at the manifesto against the Muslim Ban penned by Patrick Chamoiseau, a Prix Goncourt recipient and notable figure in Créolité literature. As France emerges from a divisive election against the backdrop of the unprecedented European refugee crisis, reading Chamoiseau reminds us that literature enables us to conceptualize cultural openness. 

This February, Martiniquais author Patrick Chamoiseau, whose previous works include the Goncourt-winning novel Texaco (1992. Translated into English by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997),  launched a call for solidarity with migrants of the world. Not only was this call a reaction to President Trump’s executive order blocking citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, but also a reaction against Europe’s palpable fear revealed by Brexit and the several manifestations of the rejection of migrants.

A couple of months later in May 2017—between the two rounds of the closely watched French presidential election—his essay Frères migrants: Contre la barbarie (Migrant Brothers: Against Barbarism) was released. This invitation to resist intolerance, racism, and indifference is concluded by his manifesto, Les Poètes déclarent (Declaration of Poets).

Today Chamoiseau’s manifesto is more relevant than ever, for both the United States and France. While the French are rejoicing in the victory of the youthful, moderate and well-read Emmanuel Macron over the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, the latter still gathered over 10 million votes, mostly motivated by immigration topics. This temporary relief must not have us overlook the fact that France, whose leaders never miss an opportunity to cast the country as the nation of human rights, has welcomed only a little over 25,000 refugees last year, far less than Germany or Sweden over the same period of time. The results of this election sure bring a glimmer of hope, as the winning candidate seems interested in real change and wants to work hand in hand with fellow EU countries. He also appears to be ready to wipe the dust off our old colonial shelves: back in February, while on a trip to Algeria, Macron called France’s colonial past a “crime against humanity,” and stood firm in the face of attacks by right-wingers. But his task remains difficult. He still has to convince millions of French citizens to support his agenda. The upcoming parliamentary elections will be decisive for Macron’s mandate in a very divided country, as well as for the uncertain future of the EU.


In Conversation with Iranian-American poet and translator Kaveh Akbar

"How do you change everything about a poem and still preserve the essence of the thing?"

Kaveh Akbar is a recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. He was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida. His newest collection, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, is forthcoming from Alice James Books this fall. Earlier this year, Mr. Akbar was featured on PBS after tweeting poems from banned countries in response to President Trump’s infamous travel ban, and translated Negar Emrani’s poetry for Asymptote’s feature on banned countries in the Spring Issue. Claire Jacobson spoke to Mr. Akbar about the experience. 

Claire Jacobson (CJ): What are some of the limitations you found in translating between Farsi and English, in general or specific to poetry?

Kaveh Akbar (KA): I can speak to my own limitations as a translator—I don’t actually speak Farsi, not really, and so I rely on Negar’s patient explication of her own poems. She provides me with the trot, and then allows me to ask question after question after question about connotations and specific meanings and idioms. It’s a time-consuming process, but it’s necessary to ensure a kind of fidelity.

CJ: How does working with the author change the way you approach the process (as opposed to, say, translating someone who is no longer living)?

KA: Being able to work directly with Negar, who speaks English well enough to talk me through her poems and answer my questions, has been such a treasure. She signs off on the final drafts (and often rejects many earlier ones), which affords me a kind of confidence in the fidelity of the final translations. Besides that, she’s an absolutely original poetic mind, and being able to spend time talking with her and exploring the cosmology of her verse has taught me so much about poems in general.


Translation Tuesday: “Icelanders” by Vanda Rozenbergová

But it’s wintertime, it’s been snowing a lot and as long as the weather stays like this the sky will be the same every day.

Shortlisted for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft Litera, it will not be unfair to say that Vanda Rozenbergová is a master of the short story form. In this story, she explores domestic tensions and dashed dreams through the skillful use of a child narrator.

I was in my room playing with my toy cars but Becko kept taking my black sports car away so I had to give him a slap on the hand, Stop it, Becko! I said. I’d been working on a racetrack for my lorries but because it was a Sunday I had to listen to my mum cursing ‘cause the kitchen is next to my room. “Bloody Sundays,” she said, then I heard a pot lid bang on the floor and a knife strike a chopping board. I used to think she was crying but she was just moaning aloud about having to cook. “I’m as lonely as little orphan Annie,” she kept shouting but Daddy and I had no idea who little orphan Annie was. And there’s another thing I don’t get: why does my mum keep doing stuff she hates, why does she keep roasting meat, peeling potatoes, grating carrots, baking and frying, and why does she always clean up afterwards but never sit down with us to eat and instead say she’s had her fill, having breathed in all the cooking smells. And then in the morning she pulls my trousers up to my ears, bundles me into the car and starts doing her hair as we’re driving and tells me with hairpins in her mouth to eat all my sandwiches at school ‘cause she made them for me even though she didn’t feel like it, she hates making sandwiches, as if I didn’t know she hates making them. I’m sure by next year I’ll be making my own sandwiches. But why does she keep on doing stuff she hates? Why doesn’t she just stay in bed and rest and receive visitors, why doesn’t she give me, Daddy, and Becko a hug and ask us to bring her a cup of tea?

When I ask her about it she blames it all on Daddy, but he’s totally not like her, he loves to lounge around and crack jokes, never in a hurry to go anywhere, not even to work. All my friends like him, and sometimes they go to see him for a chat ‘cause he works in the kebab shop next to our school. He doesn’t serve people at the counter, he’s at the back prepping vegetables. He brings home kebabs and doughnuts but Mum doesn’t eat that kind of stuff so it never makes her happy. Becko is not my real brother, I’ve made him up. I told Dad about him and he said that it was OK, that there was this other world and Becko does exist there. When he said that he was lying on a rug under the window looking at the sky, and then he told me a secret, which is that sometimes on his way home from work he stops by the hospital to see his friend who’s sick. I didn’t know what to say so I asked if at least his friend had a nice room, if it had a telly and stuff like that. Of course there’s a telly, said Daddy, and went over to the next room to put some Icelanders on the stereo. Because my Dad loves Icelanders. He loves Icelandic music and Icelandic people.


Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Understanding narrative structures in their historical context has a direct impact on a translator’s word choice, tone, and register of diction.

We’re starting the week with the fifth installment of the Translator’s Diary, a column by Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. As Kling translates the 909-page  Die Strudlhofstiege by Heimito von Doderer for New York Review Books, he is allowing us to peek into the ebb and flow of his thought process. Here is Kling’s dispatch from the prestigious Omi International Arts Center. (Intrigued? Don’t miss the first, second, third and fourth installments.) 

Abstraction Meets Craft: My dateline this month is Ghent, New York, where I am writing from the idyllic Ledig House at the Omi International Arts Center. Ten translators, five from English to German and five from German to English, are presenting work in progress during a week of close reading and feedback. I’m grateful for the practical comments about the part of Strudlhofstiege I presented, especially suggestions for bringing out more fully the playfully interwoven levels of the narrator’s voice. That’s crucial, because he’s not only the main event, he’s the only event, the sole governing sensibility, digressing and freely associating as eccentrically as the narrator of Tristram Shandy. He loves the drollery and irony of shifting registers, creating variety by deft incongruities in elevating or lowering the diction. An example: two characters challenge a third character’s plan, because they know from experience it will miscarry. The passage I brought to the workshop said that they were “stubbornly resistant,” but the native German speakers found my rendering one level too high. I had mistakenly retained the narrator’s formality from the beginning of the sentence to the end, even after he had adroitly switched gears. We entertained “they nixed the plan” or “they put the kibosh on the plan”—both now a level too low, we agreed—until I settled on “they balked” or “they dug in their heels.” General endorsement; on to the next refinement.

Meanwhile, my efforts in earlier posts to trace the ancestry of that narrating voice as an aid to grasping its full scope and range—thank you, readers, for not logging off—made me afraid I was straying too far from the practicality of craft. However, the group showed me how a seemingly abstract concern, which I feared might be taking me away from the text, was in fact leading me back to it, since understanding narrative structures in their historical context has a direct impact on a translator’s word choice, tone, and register of diction.

“Learned Wit,” Scholastic Universality, Baroque Elaboration: One participant ratified my search by encouraging me to read Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s German novel The Island of Second Sight (published 1953, translated into English by Donald O. White in 2010). It’s a wonderful discovery in itself and eye-opening in its kinship with Doderer. Thelen subtitles his book a volume of “applied recollections,” a term applicable in moderation to Strudlhofstiege as well, since the narrator is likewise the sole presence and presents a mammoth set of memories that lie decades in the past. Vigoleis, Thelen’s alter ego, similarly glories in asides, digressions, parentheses, addresses to the reader, convoluted backtracking and remote tangents, filigree, pyrotechnics, set-piece lyric rhapsodies, and meta fiction, proclaiming his joy at leading us on wild goose chases and detours around the mulberry bush. These narrators even digress to explain why they’re digressing! Same associative approach, then, but Thelen hews closer to linearity than his Doderer “cousin,” who reconfigures the narrative line into curlicues and zigzags of the kind Sterne draws in Tristram Shandy. Thelen develops from the base line of a story in straight chronological order; Doderer skillfully blends and blurs two time periods, 1908–1910 and 1923–1925. In both cases, the distance in time between the incidents themselves and their accounts creates reflective irony as the basic mode of observation.


Asymptote Podcast: The Power of the In-Between

Voices from our Special Feature

In this week’s all new podcast, dive deeper into our Special Feature on Literature from Banned Nations from our Spring Issue with exclusive interviews with two of our contributors. Writer and educator Lauren Camp speaks about the experiences that inspired her poem Given a Continuous Function, We Define a New Function and what it’s like navigating family history though fragments. Then, translator Ghada Mourad talks with us about the striking work of Syrian poet and journalist Omar Youssef Souleimane, and her translation of his poem, Away from Damascus, which powerfully distills the experiences of Syrian refugees. We also discuss what it’s like to translate the work of those in exile and others from the in-between, and the power of poetry across borders. Welcome to the Asymptote Podcast, available to download today!

Podcast Editor and Host: Dominick Boyle

All sound recorded and produced by Dominick Boyle, or available in public domain.

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Today we delve into the literary goings-on in USA, UK and Singapore

New week, new happenings in the world of literature. President Trump continues to make headlines (read our Spring Issue for an exploration of literature in the Trump era). Madeline Jone, Editor-at-Large for USA reports how it has affected the publishing industry. Across the Atlantic, Cassie Lawrence, Executive Assistant at Asymptote, relays heartening news about women in publishing and the buzz of literary festivals in London this weekend. Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek reports how Singapore’s novelists are fighting back, and more.  

Editor-at-Large Madeline Jones gives us the round-up from USA:

US media narratives have been deluged with news of presidential catastrophes. No surprise, then, that this is reflecting in the publishing world, from book publishers struggling to understand how to talk about Trump to children, to books about the electoral process. With timing that seems ominous, in the light of the very popular TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the book has edged its way between a Danielle Steel and a James Patterson on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Another notable that has been on the list is Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

Speaking of which, the annual Book Expo America, popularly known as the BEA, is scheduled from May 31 to June 2, and Hillary Clinton is one of its top draws this year. A gathering of publishers, booksellers, agents, librarians, and authors in New York City, the Book Expo is the biggest event of its kind in North America.


Recipes in Translation: Traditional Southeast Asian Soups for New Mothers

Postpartum recipes have been passed down orally for generations in Asia. Now a multilingual cookbook is attempting to preserve them.

In many Asian cultures, new mothers are offered delicious dishes and nutritious soups after giving birth. The postpartum recipes fortify a new mother and ensure sufficient lactation for her newborn. These centuries-old traditions have been kept alive through orally sharing recipes and cooking for one another from one generation to the next. However, with growing assimilation of Western culture and a lack of documentation, this shared cultural knowledge may soon be lost.

Interested in the preservation of these recipes, in 2014 students who were a part of the Asian Pacific Islander Health Research Group (AAPIHRG) at UC Berkeley started a Postpartum Nutrition Folklore Project. We interviewed our mothers, grandmothers, and other relatives to document the recipes in their original languages and then translated them to English. Some of us asked our mothers or grandmothers to cook the dishes and soups in person so we could write down clearer instructions (and sample the delicious recipes!) Others conducted the interviews via phone calls and video chats. Most of us were bilingual so we did the English translation by ourselves and asked friends and family members to review our spelling and punctuation. Ultimately, we collected over thirty recipes from six different cultures—Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Hmong, Cambodian and Filipino—and published them as a multilingual cookbook titled From Mothers to Mothers: A Collection of Traditional Asian Postpartum Recipes.


Brazilian Academic Raquel Parrine Remembers Antonio Candido, 1918-2017

Candido’s death has engendered a crisis of heritage and legacy.

Antonio Candido, born in 1918 in Rio de Janeiro, passed away last week on May 12 in São Paulo. A writer, editor, critic and academic, he remains one of the best known and most influential literary figures in Brazil. Candido joined the Brazilian Socialist Party in the 1940s and was an active member of the resistance under the dictatorship of Getúlio Dornelles Vargas. He reviewed the earliest work of Brazilian greats like João Cabral de Melo Neto and Clarice Lispector and went on to teach for many years at the University of São Paulo. He received the Alfonso Reyes International Prize for lifetime achievement—the first Brazilian to be so recognized—among many other awards and honors. Here, Raquel Parrine writes of his legacy and the empty space that a new generation of political thinkers and writers will need to fill. 

It is hard for me to write about Antonio Candido. The more I think about it, the more overwhelmed I feel by the impact he had on literary scholarship in Brazil, and on the country itself. Professor Candido was a moral compass, a political trailblazer, and a dearly beloved human being. It is hard to talk about him without resorting to grandiloquent terms, which would reduce his very significant impact on his familiars and on Brazilian society.

I don’t think there is any doubt that Professor Candido was Brazil’s most important literary critic. He belongs to a generation of sociologists and economists who took it upon themselves to inaugurate a properly Brazilian scholarship, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to own the political discourse about our culture, and our exceptionality.


Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Kim Haengsook

My nostrils were buried. I had breakfast in a world which didn’t smell at all.

In these two poems, the acclaimed South Korean poet Kim Haengsook focuses on the human face and its excess of meaning in a world where meaning itself is volatile and unstable. The face, always at the center of human relations, can signify the deepest feelings of happiness, loss and confusion, yet its silent vocabulary collides with the world of objects and our desire to communicate with other people. It is a pleasure to feature Haengsook’s thought-provoking work on Asymptote, translated by Lei Kim. 

The Fall of a Face

The face that stayed with me, like a brother-in-arms, ran away like another brother-in-arms into the skin of the infinite, placid night.


Between two worlds: An exclusive interview with Ubah Cristina Ali Farah

"The language we choose to write has a powerful political meaning."

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is a poet, novelist, playwright, and oral performer of Italian and Somali heritage, best known for her novels Madre piccola (2007) and Il comandante del fiume (2014). Her piece, “A Dhow Crosses the Sea” recently appeared in the April issue of Asymptote, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson of the University of Iowa.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): What can you tell me about the oral storytelling quality of your work?

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (UCAF): While I was studying at the Sapienza University of Rome, my favorite authors were Amos Tutuola, Amadou Hampâté Bâ and the great Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa. I learned to love the oral, anonymous poetry of the medieval bards, the romancero evoked by García Lorca, Italo Calvino’s rewriting of traditional Italian tales, and Pierpaolo Pasolini’s striking collection of popular songs and poems. However, my first loves, the texts that influenced me most, were the Somali oral poems and tales, under the wings of which I grew up. I was looking for the oneiric feeling that resonated in the oral poetry, a text disconnected but at the same time coherent, a voice encompassing both colloquial and erudite styles and registers of language. A storytelling that could embody the throbbing power of the voice.