Monthly Archives: September 2017

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Traveling the world, one book at a time!

Your weekly shot of global literary news is here! Today we travel to Austria, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Morocco to find out about the latest prizes, performances and literary festivals. 

Contributor Flora Brandl reporting from Austria: 

In the southern state of Styria, the oldest Austrian festival for contemporary art, Steirischer Herbst (Styrian Autumn), recently opened with a powerful speech by the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas. Styrian-born, Haas is one of the most renowned figures of the international New Music scene and currently teaches at Columbia University.

In his opening speech, Haas reflected on the dynamics of the remnants of Nazism and the burgeoning avant-garde art scene in Styria. While Nazism was always at the forefront of fighting so-called “degenerate art”—“for they knew: art is dangerous for them”—it also provided fertile grounds for a creative form of resistance: “We [artists] were spurred by the pain and the rage and the grief,” Haas recounted. He ended with an invocation that the role of artists today is to “spread the virus of humanitarianism” in the wake of a worldwide rise of fundamentalism. A political speech with a very personal note, the entire speech can be read in the original German here.

Fittingly, a symposium entitled Hoffnung als Provokation (Hope as Provocation) will explore the resistive potential of hope in response to nationalism and authoritarian political systems—how can hope go beyond its connotations of passivity? One of the invited guest speakers is Aslı Erdoğan, a female Turkish writer who was recently imprisoned for her connections to a Kurdish newspaper. The city of Graz has granted her permanent asylum, and the festival organisers hope she will be permitted to leave Turkey and attend the symposium on September 28.

Ending with another Styrian-born contemporary Austrian artist, experimental documentary filmmaker Michael Glawogger once described the task of a filmmaker as to “drift with no direction except one’s own curiosity and intuition.” In 2014, during a shooting in Liberia for his documentary Untitled, Glawogger tragically died of malaria. The film, which was completed by his long-term collaborator Monika Willi, will be shown at the BFI London Film Festival on October 11 and 13.

Editor-at-Large for Guatemala, José García, on events in Central America:  

Recently the committee of the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature announced its latest recipient: the writer, literary critic, and journalist Francisco Alejandro Méndez. Author of over ten books, Francisco joins Mario Monteforte Toledo, Augusto Monterroso, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, and many others who have received Guatemala’s most prestigious literary recognition. Francisco will receive the award on October 19, the birth anniversary of Guatemalan author Miguel Ángel Asturias. The ceremony will also serve as part of the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Asturias’ Nobel Prize win.

Last week Guatemala’s National Symphonic dedicated a show to Miguel Ángel with music written by Joaquín Orellana, Igor de Gandarias, and Sergio Reyes Mendoza, and visual interventions by the photographer and visual artist Daniel Hernández Salazar. Among Asturia’s most famous works are El Señor Presidente, and Men of Maize. Miguel Angel Asturias was the second Latin American writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and remains the only Central American to do so.

Additionally, F&G Editores recently released Valeria Cerezo’s debut novel La Flor Oscura, which was shortlisted for this year’s BAM Letras Novel National Prize. Cerezo’s story The Cage, translated into English by David Unger, was recently featured on Asymptote Translation Tuesday. The Cage is part of Valeria’s short story collection La muerte de Darling that also got shortlisted for the 2016 edition of the BAM Letras National Prize, in the short story category.

Finally, in Costa Rica, Uruk Editores released Neblina Púrpura, the latest novel of the Aquileo J. Echeverría National Short Story Prize winner, Vernor Muñoz. Neblina Púrpura revolves around the golden era of rock music in Costa Rica.

Hodna Nuernberg, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Morocco:

In September 2014, Morocco and Algeria celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the closing of the 1,600 kilometer-long land border by building twin walls; in September 2017, the inaugural Maghrebi Book Fair, Lettres du Maghreb, took place in Oujda, a city of about half a million some fifteen kilometers west of the walls. 200-odd intellectuals, for the most part from the Greater Maghreb, but also representing Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, gathered for four days of roundtable discussions, readings, and workshops, united by co-organizer Abdelkader Retnani’s rallying cry: “For us, the future is Maghrebi!” Here’s hoping that the festival’s symbolic opening of borders translates into a real rapprochement.

Morocco’s rentrée littéraire, the new publishing season, has been in full swing, with a regional book fair in Sidi Kacem featuring a strong showing of local publishing houses and writers from September 19 to 24, and the promise of a 40-author-strong literary extravaganza organized by Nadia Essalmi at Salé’s Quai des créateurs on October 7.

Meanwhile, we’re all on tenterhooks awaiting the November announcement of the 2017 laureate of the prestigious Prix Renaudot—two Moroccan authors are in the running: Mahi Binebine for his novel Le Fou du Roi (The King’s Jester), and Leïla Slimani for her essay collection Sexe et mensonges: La vie sexuelle au Maroc (Sex and Lies: Sex Lives in Morocco).

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Marianne Katoppo: The Frog who Left the Coconut Shell Far Behind

"Katoppo’s novels tell the story of independent women restrained by conservative men."

Writer and world-renowned feminist theologian Marianne Katoppo maintained that theology was rooted in language. Asymptote Indonesia Editor-at-Large and poet Norman Erikson Pasaribu makes the case that with her writing, Katoppo also challenged and defied the systemic injustices of Indonesian society that were inherent in language, too. Enjoy Norman’s beautiful essay in English and scroll down to read it in the original Indonesian. 

From approximately the 500 classic Malay proverbs that I had to memorize as a child, one of the proverbs I loved most was: ‘Like a frog under a coconut shell.’

The illustration is clear: a frog that never surpasses the boundaries of a coconut shell will only view the world as a dark, quiet, and limited place. If anyone were to tell it that there’s another world: a colorful and bright place, with music and an open natural landscape, this frog will say it’s a lie.

—Marianne Katoppo

“After all, language is where theology begins,” Marianne Katoppo writes in her revolutionary book, Compassionate and Free: An Asian Woman’s Theology (1979).

She then presents an argument about how sexism and patriarchy in the church are rooted in language. She says that in Hebrew, the Holy Spirit Ruakh is feminine, which evolved into Pneuma, a gender-neutral form in Greek by the Septuaginta translator, and then changed into the masculine in Latin. “Therefore, the Trinity we have now is entirely male,” Katoppo concludes.

Indonesia is a nation where people’s lives are strongly driven by religion. This is clear even in the first principle of Pancasila, the Indonesian state’s foundational philosophy: “Believe in the one Supreme God.” Thus, although the Indonesian language does not have the concept of gender in its grammar, it is unsurprising that the country’s religious institutions—which have been long dominated by men—have also contributed to an unfair system of privileges. Religious institutions often become the first barrier that “the other” has to face in order to be a whole individual.

Marianne Katoppo’s life was a constant battle against such oppressive structures. Born in 1943, Katoppo was raised in a family with feminist values. Her father was the minister of education of the short-lived State of East Indonesia (1946—1950), and he upheld gender equality among all of his ten children. Katoppo pursued her theological education at the Jakarta Theological Seminary before leaving Indonesia and continuing her theological studies in Switzerland, Japan, England, Korea, and Germany while also studying languages. Later, she continued to explore the edges of the world to teach feminist theology.

Katoppo’s interest in theology was entwined with her passion for languages. She published her first short story at the age of eight. Besides her seminal work, Compassionate and Free: An Asian Woman’s Theology, Katoppo also published five novels: Dunia Tak Bermusim (A World with No Season, 1974), Raumanen (1977), Anggrek Tak Pernah Berdusta (The Orchid Never Lies, 1977), Terbangnya Punai (The Green Pigeon Flies Away, 1978), Rumah di Atas Jembatan (The House on the Bridge, 1981). She won the prestigious Jakarta Arts Council Novel Competition in 1975 for Raumanen and became the first woman to win the SEA Write Award in 1982. Fluent in twelve languages, she translated Knut Hamsun, Nawal El Saadawi, and Elie Wiesel into Indonesian—all of which were published by Obor, a Catholic publishing house in Jakarta. Given the enormity of her achievements, I—born and raised in Indonesia—seriously believe that no Indonesian man has matched Katoppo’s accomplishments. READ MORE…

“2817 Perec”: The Celestial Eccentricity of Georges Perec’s Writing

A profile of the extraordinary French writer that explores how he used experimentation and imagination to understand the horrors of reality.

This article by the prodigious French writer Marie Darrieussecq appeared in Le Monde des Livres on May 11, 2017. The occasion was the publication of the two-volume La Pléiade edition of the Complete Works of Georges Perec, who died thirty-five years ago, in 1982. It is a huge honor for a writer’s work to be published (usually posthumously) in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, which is a critical edition, with annotations, notes, manuscript and editorial variations, and accompanying documents. The books are pocket format, leather bound, with gold lettering on the spine and printed on bible paper. The series was begun in 1931 by the editor Jacques Schiffrin and was brought into the Gallimard publishing company in 1936 by André Gide.

—Penny Hueston

Georges Perec is now part of the Pléiade series. The novelty of the list of his titles being collected in this edition might have brought a smile to his face. He used to say, “Nothing in the world is unique enough not to be able to be part of a list.”

But Perec is unique. More than anyone else’s, his collected works resemble a UFO. He is a successor to Jules Verne and Herman Melville, to Stendhal and Queneau, to Poe and Borges, to Rabelais and Mallarmé…And yet Perec stands alone, bearded, playful, coiffed with a cat in his hair, like an icon in our popular imagination. And, although a dizzying number of references are woven through his work, his way of writing is freakily inventive.

His books were only intermittently successful in his lifetime, but after his premature death at the age of forty-six in 1982, his reputation grew exponentially. Perec quickly became the most recent of our classics. “A contemporary classic,” as the editor of this Pléiade edition of his Complete Works, Christelle Reggiani, writes in her preface, but an odd classic, both amusing and melancholic, whose humour shaped his despair.

His lipograms, constrained writing (the speciality of Oulipo, of which he was without doubt the most famous member), play around an absent centre, a missing letter, or an alphabetical prison house. His novel, A Void (1969), written without the letter “e,” is therefore written without them: without his father, who was killed in the war, without his mother, who was murdered in Auschwitz.

What seems to be Perec’s pleasant game with words is his way of saying the unsayable, of giving shape to absence, of proclaiming the abomination of the death of his mother and of the destruction of the Jews of Europe. He had what it takes to write that. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Excerpts from Tempodrome by Simona Popescu

"You have as many countries as the languages you speak."

Today’s Translation Tuesday is brought to you by MARGENTO, Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova. The lyrical excerpts from Romanian essayist and poet Simona Popescu’s writing explore a mood—memories of the nineties related as if at a remove, stating plainly what the narrator saw, while encapsulating the myriad complications simmering beneath the still surface of the narration. 

“I confess I do not believe in time. I like
to fold my magic carpet, after use,
in such a way as to superimpose one part
of the pattern upon another.”
—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

“Then everything regroups as if in a hot fog
where things recover among the obscure
plantations of the accidental.”
—Gellu Naum, The Blue Riverbank

“I have no idea of time, and I don’t wish to have”
—Wislawa Szymborska, On the Tower of Babel

In the house of my childhood, somewhere in my parents’ mixed up bookcase, leaning on a couple of books stood a black teddy bear in a white sash ribbon with some red lettering on it saying Grüsse aus Berlin. On other shelves there were other “souvenirs” from Abroad. For instance, a wooden cylinder with a lid in the shape of a Russian church dome, with a rose and the word “Bulgaria” burnt onto it. Inside was a vial of Bulgarian rose perfume. My folks never traveled Abroad. In fact, nobody in our little town ever traveled Abroad. Not even the Saxons and the Hungarians who, judging by the language they spoke, had to have another country somewhere, if push came to shove, right? You have as many countries as the languages you speak, the saying went. The Hungarians and the Saxons were therefore half foreign. But even so, even they never got Abroad—it was only the old people that sometimes went, but they always returned. Nobody needed them and they didn’t need anybody or anything except a quiet life in their homes. Only old people returned. They and the migrating birds.

It was me who had brought the rose perfume home. I was 12 when I went, without my parents, on a trip—well, yes—Abroad. I don’t recall much. It was I think in spring, there was I think a crisp sun, I was on a terrace I think by the sea, somewhere on a cliff, there were breakers I think in front of me, not very close though, I think I never went down the stairs to dip my toes in the sea. In the “vision” conjured by the word “Bulgaria” in which I’m a child a milky light and a bluish expanse approach me. And I’m all alone there, for a second, my back turned on everybody else. And I can hear a roaring wind. (I am back there anytime I want. I’m 12 and then—as I keep adding now—44. I hold an invisible butterfly net in my hand and collect images with it.) READ MORE…

Close Approximations: In Conversation with Poetry Winner Anca Roncea

On translation as an impossible object, and the possibility of a direction.

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its third edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our interviews with poetry runners-up Keith Payne and Sarah Timmer Harvey, we are thrilled to bring you poetry winner Anca Roncea in a short but illuminating conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Anca Roncea is a poet and translator. She is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently attending the University of Iowa’s M.F.A. program in literary translation. In 2012–2013 she was a Fulbright visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She was born and raised in Romania and now lives in Iowa City where she writes and translates poems. She is working on translations of Romanian poetry, an experimental translation of Tristan Tzara, as well as her first book of poetry. She explores the space where language can create pivots in the midst of displacement while incorporating the aesthetics of Constantin Brancusi. She is the 2017 winner of the Omnidawn Single Poem Broadside Contest. Her work can be found in Omniverse, Berkeley Poetry Review, Beecher’s Magazine, and The Des Moines Register.

Close Approximations poetry judge Sawako Nakayasu writes, “I’m thrilled to have selected this year’s winner for poetry: “wrong connections” by Andra Rotaru, in Anca Roncea’s excellent translation from the Romanian. I love how this work reads like a film that can only take place in the mind of the reader. The scenes (I read them like scenes) carry you through a changing landscape that can be menacing, historical, scientific, or downright violent—all in torqued connection with each other like the “incorrect connections” of the tribar.

“Ms. Roncea brings to our attention a new voice in contemporary Romanian poetry: Ms. Rotaru’s work has already been translated into numerous European languages, but very little has been translated into English so far—though this is soon to be remedied, I believe.”

Claire Jacobson (CJ): In your translator’s note you refer to the tribar, or “the geometrical concept of an impossible triangle whose three sides do not connect but still exist in the form of a triangle, creating a direction for movement.” What are some ways you see Andra Rotaru’s work embodying the “wrong connections” of this impossible shape, and how have you recreated those moments in English?

Anca Roncea (AR): I think that in some ways Andra’s “wrong connections” in her tribar here are speaking to the interesting ways that poetry works to create human experience. It made me think of one of Lyn Hejinian’s lines in her book My Life that says: “You put two things next to each other they start resembling each other.” In Andra’s poems there are strong tactile images next to visual memory next to literary quotes and even descriptions of chemical elements and they all connect and speak to each other even though they technically shouldn’t, but together form an experience. In the translation process, I tried to make the images as visceral as possible because I knew the connections would come through the more the reader could experience these different elements.

CJ: Can you talk about the shifting format of these poems? Moving from citation to almost-prose to definition and back to free verse, how did you maintain the threads of connection between these disparate elements?

AR: That was one of my favorite things about this poem in the Romanian—the fact that the text felt free enough to move through all of these different formal gestures to express what it needed to. One of the biggest challenges was that in Romanian there were quotes in English, and the question was whether to show that and how to do it. In Romanian, the quotations sounded to me like an external voice that comes in the text and is somehow able to be inhabited by the speaker and become part of the tribar, and in English the graphic gesture of leaving them in quotes and citing the author in addition to the change in tone in those moments came through in a very similar way.

CJ: Do these citations—among them Bruno Ernst, Aldous Huxley, and Anne-Marie Blanchard—have significance to a Romanian readership? How does this linguistic and cultural cross-pollination affect the way these poems are perceived?

AR: I couldn’t speak for every Romanian reader but I think it’s different for every one of them. Aldous Huxley might be more recognizable than Susan Howe in Romania, but what I found interesting about these citations is the fact that it shows a poet who is influenced by and in conversation with a range of genres and discourses across time and space from 20th century fiction to 21st century poetry to psychology. You really get to see how the poem is in conversation with what the poet is reading and thinking about.

CJ: You write in your translator’s note, “The poems shift from the movement and breath of a child’s body—the powers and limits of her movement—to those of a dead, ghostly body—its visibility and invisibility.” How do these images interact and overlap throughout the work?

AR: These antithetical images I think connect through how visceral they are. You really see and hear what the child is going through even if you don’t get a narrative of these scenes they play out in the senses—it’s almost an inner perspective which then shifts to an outer perspective when death comes in the poem, but the speaker is still using senses to connect by hearing and feeling their way through. I think it gives the whole work presence in a different way than what I have seen before in Romanian poetry, and it ultimately felt much more haunting to me.

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We’re currently raising funds for the next edition of our annual translation contest. If you’ve enjoyed this showcase and would like to support us in our mission to advocate for emerging translators from underrepresented languages, consider a one-time tax-deductible donation (for Americans) or join us as a sustaining member today!

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Read more interviews with Close Approximations winners:

In Conversation: Daniel Mendelsohn on his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic

What I’m interested in creating is something that combines all the things that I do in my life as a reader and writer and teacher

Memoirist, critic, and translator Daniel Mendelsohn is perhaps best known for the application of mythic paradigms from the Western classics to the analysis of popular and literary culture. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006 for The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, and finalist again in 2012 for his essay collection Waiting for the Barbarians, his criticism frequently graces the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. The forthcoming release (Knopf, September 12) of his new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic—about his octogenarian father’s experience auditing his Odyssey freshman seminar at Bard College and their subsequent voyage aboard an Odyssey-themed cruise—occasioned this conversation with Asymptote Interviews Editor Henry Ace Knight.

Can you tell me about the genesis of the book? Was it taking shape in your mind as early as your dad’s request to sit in on the Odyssey course?

No, not at all. The sequence was that early in 2011, before the semester began, he approached me about taking my course; I knew that he was interested in rereading the classics in his old age, and I said, “Well, I’m doing this Odyssey course in the spring…” And he said, “Oh, can I take it?” It didn’t occur to me at the time that it might be something that I would write about. Then, about halfway through the course, at which point so many interesting and funny things were happening, I started taking notes—his interactions with the kids, the things he said about the text. Much of the book is based on the notes I took right after class, memorable exchanges I recorded. Around the midterm, I thought, “OK, somehow I’ve got to write about this,” although I hardly envisioned a book at that point. In fact, at the end of the semester, when Froma [Zeitlin, a Classics professor at Princeton and Mendelsohn’s mentor] told me about the “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise, I called a friend of mine who was the editor of a travel magazine, and I said, “My dad and I are going on this Odyssey cruise and I think I want to write about it.” But I only thought I was going to write a magazine article! Then, when my dad fell ill, I started thinking all of this was…suddenly it took on a shape, you know: the class and the cruise and his illness. And so I started thinking, in a sort of inchoate way, of how all of this could add up to something: him taking the class, us going on the cruise, and him suddenly having a stroke and thereby raising the question of whether he could be his old ‘self’—a very Odyssean question indeed. I started to see it all as one event moving along an arc and that that arc was the arc of the Odyssey.

Did you start to draw more and more parallels between the Odyssey and your relationship to your father as the semester progressed?

I’ve done this with several books now, this entwining ancient texts and personal narratives. I did it in my first memoir, The Elusive Embrace, in which I wrapped exegeses of various classical texts around a story about me and my family and being a gay man who decided to become a father—my story was interwoven with musings on classical texts about desire and parenting and so on. And then I did it in The Lost, in which the intertext is not a classical text but a biblical text: I used Genesis, with its memorable narratives about fratricide and global destruction and wandering and miraculous survivals, as a kind of foil for this family story about the Holocaust. Once you start thinking about a text, these parallels to your life start to present themselves. So in this case, because my mind was on the Odyssey, everything about what happened to Dad and me, the course, the cruise, started presenting itself as “odyssean,” as potential material, and the parallels between the personal narrative and the text started to make themselves felt. So, for instance, the first major section of my book, which recreates the first weeks of the Odyssey course and our discussions of the first four books of the Odyssey, which are about Odysseus’s son Telemachus going on a sort of fact-finding mission to learn what happened to his absent father, twines around flashbacks to my childhood in which I too am a boy searching for his father, trying to understand who he is. And so on.

What happens when I start thinking about a memoir is that I’ll have an intuition about how a certain text is going to structure the memoir, and then once I’m thinking that way it just takes off. But of course it’s only in the writing that you can really carefully work out the parallels and draw attention to them in a rather purposeful, literary way; so in this sense I’m also creating the parallels, I’m establishing them in my text for the reader. I know the Odyssey intimately, so as things were happening in real life I would think, “Oh my God, this is so Odyssean!”—like the guy on the boat with the scar. [A major revelation in An Odyssey turns on an encounter between Mendelsohn and an elderly fellow passenger who had a scar on his thigh dating to an incident in World War II. In Homer’s Odyssey, a climactic moment is linked to the history of a scar on Odysseus’s thigh.] When I met that old gentleman with the scar I thought, “You cannot make this stuff up!”—as it was happening, I was thinking that no one was going to believe this, it was just too good to be true. But it really happened!

READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly dose of literary news

A quick zip through the literary world with Asymptote! Today we are visiting Iran, Brazil, and South Africa. Literary festivals, new books, and a lot more await you. 

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, fills you up on what’s been happening in Iran:

The Persian translation of Oriana Fallaci’s Nothing and Amen finding its way into Iran’s bestsellers list almost fifty years after the first publication of the translation. The book was translated in 1971 by Lili Golestan, translator and prominent Iranian art gallery owner in Tehran, and since then has had more than a dozen editions published. The most recent round of sales is related to Golestan giving a TEDx talk in Tehran a few weeks ago about her life in which she spoke of how that book was the first she ever translated and how its publication and becoming a bestseller has changed her life.

In other exciting news from Iran, the Tehran Book Garden opened its doors to the public recently. Advertised as “the largest bookstore in the world,” the space is more of a cultural complex consisting of cinemas, cultural centers, art galleries, a children’s library, science and game halls, and more. One of the key goals of the complex is to cater to families and provide the youth with a space for literary, cultural, scientific, educational, and entertainment activities. The complex is considered a significant cultural investment for the the Iranian capital of more than twelve million residents and it has since its opening become a popular destination with people of different ages and interests.

Finally, a piece of news related to translation from Iran that is amusing but also quite disturbing. It relates to the simultaneous interpretation into Persian of President Trump’s speech in the recent U.N. General Assembly broadcasted live on Iranian state-run TV (IRIB). The interpreter mistranslated several of his sentences about Iran and during some others he remained silent and completely refrained from translating. When the act was denounced by many, the interpreter published a video (aired by the IRIB news channel and available on @shahrvand_paper’s twitter account) in which he explained that he did not want to voice the antagonistic words of Trump against his country and people. This video started another round of responses. Under the tweeted video, many users reminded him of the ethics of the profession and the role of translators/interpreters, while others used the occasion to discuss the issue of censorship and the problematic performance of IRIB in general.

READ MORE…

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet and the destruction of the “I”

The original text must be boiled down to its constituent parts and lovingly re-moulded into new forms

The dissolution of authorship is intrinsic to the act of translation. Far from being mechanical vessels for the words of another, translators invariably leave a phantom imprint of themselves upon a piece of writing. They are the invisible co-authors of a text, the ghost writers who flit across linguistic frontiers, flirting with multiple literary identities. It seems unsurprising, then, that the most elusive of Portuguese modernist poets, the godfather of urban melancholia and man of many selves, Fernando Pessoa, should have worked as a translator for much of his life.

Pessoa’s writing spans countless styles and modes, but perhaps his most famous innovation lies in his use of ‘heteronyms,’ the multiple literary identities under which he wrote. Centred around the core triumvirate of Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos, Pessoa’s heteronyms continue to be discovered today, with over 130 currently known to us. Some of the heteronyms are even characterized by linguistic divisions, such as Alexander Search who wrote uniquely in English. As Pessoa scholar Darlene Sadlier points out, Pessoa’s splintering of authorship was in a sense symptomatic of the “general crisis of subjectivity in nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophy,” suggesting that the self is something to be created rather than preordained, and, therefore, that it can contain multitudes.

This summer has seen the publication of a new English edition of the work that brought Pessoa posthumous renown, the modernist masterpiece entitled The Book of Disquiet. The publication history of this work has become the stuff of legends. On his death in 1935 aged forty-seven, Pessoa left behind at least two large wooden trunks filled with thousands upon thousands of scribbled scraps of manuscript paper, a life’s work in fragmentary form. Out of these fragments, Pessoa’s project for a work called Livro do Desassossego (once translated as The Book of Disquietude, now as The Book of Disquiet) was discovered, but the “book” was found to have multiple authors, no discernible order, and was never completed. Here was the ultimate modernist text: a “deconstructed” book that could be infinitely reassembled out of thousands of scraps of paper lying in a trunk.

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The Good Bad Translator: Celina Wieniewska And Her Bruno Schulz

"Wieniewska was correct in her intuition about ‘how much Schulz' the reader was prepared to handle."

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) is one of the relatively few Polish authors of fiction who enjoy international recognition. Originally published in the 1930s, since the early 1960s the Polish-Jewish writer and visual artist’s oneiric short stories have been translated and retranslated into almost forty languages, despite their seemingly untranslatable style: an exquisitely rich poetic prose, comprised of meandering syntax and multi-tiered metaphors. In English-speaking countries, Schulz’s name was made in the late 1970s, when his Street of Crocodiles, first published in English in 1963 in both the UK and the US (the British edition was titled Cinnamon Shops, following closely the original Polish Sklepy cynamonowe), was reissued in Philip Roth’s influential Penguin series Writers from the Other Europe (1977), alongside Milan Kundera and other authors from behind the Iron Curtain whom the West had yet to discover. Schulz’s second story collection, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass (Polish: Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą), followed shortly (1978), and ever since then both volumes have been regularly republished and reprinted, as well as in series such as Picador Classics (1988), Penguin 20th Century Classics (1992), and Penguin Classics (2008).

This summer, the Northwestern University Press announced that “an authoritative new translation of the complete fiction of Bruno Schulz” by Madeline Levine, Professor Emerita of Slavic Literatures at the University of North Carolina, is forthcoming in March 2018. Commissioned by the Polish Book Institute and publicized already since 2012, this retranslation has been impatiently awaited, especially by Schulz scholars dissatisfied with the old translation by Celina Wieniewska. Indeed, it’s great that Levine’s version is finally going to see the light of day—it is certainly going to yet strengthen Schulz’s already strong position. Unfortunately, the preferred (and easiest) way of promoting retranslations is to criticize and ridicule previous translations and, more often than not, translators. Even though the retranslator herself has spoken of her predecessor with much respect, showing understanding of Wieniewska’s goals, strategies, and the historical context in which she was working, I doubt that journalists, critics, and bloggers are going to show as much consideration.

In an attempt to counter this trend, I would like to present an overview of the life and work of Celina Wieniewska, since I believe that rather than being representative of a certain kind of invisibility as a translator (her name brought up only in connection with her ‘faults’), she deserves attention as the co-author of Schulz’s international success. Much like Edwin and Willa Muir, whose translations of Kafka have been criticised as dated and error-ridden, but proved successful in their day, Wieniewska’s version was instrumental in introducing Schulz’s writing to English-speaking readers around the world. Before Levine’s retranslation takes over, let’s take a moment to celebrate her predecessor, who was a truly extraordinary figure and has been undeservedly forgotten.

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The Cage by Valeria Cerezo

Finn didn’t respect anyone who had made his Grandma suffer, even if it had happened a long time ago.

A piece that will bring you face to face with the anxieties of childhood, with a dollop of the sticky sweetness of dulce de leche. It is a gorgeous treat that has been brought exclusively for Asymptote readers in translation by the Miguel Angel Asturias National Literature Prize for lifetime achievement winner, David Unger.

Finn is under the bed, perhaps the safest place in the world. The boy feels he has nothing to fear and yet, there he is, under the bed in the waning half-light. First he lies face down in back near the headboard. He finds a hair curler under the bed and spins it. He’s happy because sometimes the curler spins in a circle and other times it veers to the right or left.

There’s dust under the bed, a fine layer of dust. Finisberto imagines that his finger is a crayon and he draws the outline of a doll. He thinks it’s a good drawing. He turns on his back, counting the bed slats above him. He can hear someone calling his name from far off. It’s the calm voice of his grandmother, soft and sweet. “Fiiinnnn.” He likes the smell of his grandmother’s hands. Sometimes he grabs one of them and run it over his cheeks while watching television.

Her voice edges closer, dangerously close. Finn scrunches himself at the farthest corner under the bed and closes his eyes. He recognizes her steps on the carpet, the rhythm of her pace on the bare floor. He stifles his laughter. His grandma will think he’s lost; she’ll sit on the corner of the bed and shout out his name, pleading with God to make him appear. And then Finn will stick his hand out from under the fringes of the bedcover making believe it´s a cat´s claw hunting for his grandmother´s ankles.

This time, however, he has to be more imaginative: his grandmother already knows the cat-under-the-bed trick. This time he’ll pretend to be a spider climbing up her leg. Grandma will sit at the edge of the bed and call out to St. Kahn D. Cane, the patron of lost boys.

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Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Vocabulary and pronunciation, and even spelling, mark larger histories of settlement and local adjustment

We return with another installment of Translator’s Diary where Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize, takes us through the nuances of translation. Today he discusses the intricacies of vocabulary and pronunciation and how history and geography combine to fashion complex, unique identities. 

Hoagie? Hero? Sub? Some weeks ago I was staying in the Rhineland, near the Dutch border, where I developed a pesky summer cold. When I told a close friend who lives in the area that I was “verkühlt,” he grinned and said my Austrian side was showing, since a German would say “erkältet.” This reply reminded me of those popular posts on social media that ask if you drink “soda” or “pop,” if your sandwich is a “hoagie” or a “sub” or a “hero,” if you call those luminous insects “lightning bugs” or “fireflies,” if you drive around a “rotary,” a “roundabout,” or a “traffic circle.” Then there are the arguments about pronunciation; do you wade in the “crick” (like brick) or the “creek” (like meek)? Vocabulary and pronunciation, and even spelling, mark larger histories of settlement and local adjustment, which might explain why amature language lovers also enjoy reading about Samuel Johnson’s vs. Noah Webster’s lexicography, or about the perceived level of crudity or finesse in this or that regional expression (quick disdain for Southern “y’all” or “might could”).

Translators from German likewise need to be aware of geographical and cultural forces; I confine myself here to differences between standard German in Germany (Bundesdeutsch) and Austrian German. (Swiss German is fascinating but outside our framework.) I know from experience through making my own mistakes (some of them in print!) what bloopers can arise from ignorance or inattentiveness. Of course, one approach to this topic would be to list variances in grammar and syntax, vocabulary (especially food), idioms, and the like; I’d rather recommend Robert Sedlaczek’s fine book Das österreichische Deutsch to readers of German and move on to a more comprehensive insight, one that traces a truly characterizing difference.

L’Académie allemande. German novelist Martin Mosebach reviews pertinent history about the German language in an essay about Doderer warning readers not to overlook vital cultural differences. Regrets are occasionally expressed, he remarks, that there was never an institution in the German-speaking world comparable to the norm-setting, regulating Académie française. But in fact there was, he claims: Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible regularized and unified German. Aside from its religious import, the Luther Bible is one of the essential documents in the history of the language, reconciling divergent regional usages, harmonizing dialects, fixing idioms, introducing needed abstract neologisms, and creating a normative language balanced between literary derivation and colloquialism and accessible to all German speakers. What we know as modern “High German” derives very largely from this one book; as Mosebach says, “German [meaning “High German”] is a Protestant dialect,” and “The Reformation was the German Academy.”

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly roundup of global literary news and intrigue.

Ever get the feeling that even with all the news happening right now in the world, you’re still not getting enough? Well, that’s what we’re here for, keeping you covered with the latest in global literary news from our Editors-at-Large who are on the ground as we speak. This week we have reports about censorship and activism from Singapore and Mexico, as well as important news about festivals and prizes in the UK, and much, much more. 

Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Singapore: 

The Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA)―launched in 2014 to revive the Singapore Arts Festival, a landmark event in Southeast Asia’s arts calendar―drew to a close this week, concluding a month of theatre, film, music, and visual arts shows. These included a number of international partnerships such as Trojan Women, a Korean retelling of Homer’s epic directed by the SIFA’s founding festival director Ong Keng Sen; as well as Becoming Graphic, a collaboration between Australian theatre practitioner Edith Podesta and Eisner Award-winning graphic artist Sonny Liew, who previously had his funding withdrawn by the National Arts Council for his alternative political history of Singapore.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Guardian to mark his final year as festival director, Ong (who has previously spoken out against the censorship of SIFA’s programs by the government) lamented the “restrictive” attitudes of state funding agencies towards the arts, and said that he felt “drained by the fighting” of the past four years. His successor, fellow theatre practitioner Gaurav Kripalani―currently artistic director at the Singapore Repertory Theatre―struck a more conciliatory position earlier this year, saying that he would opt for increasingly “mainstream” programming.

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In Review: Grzegorz Wróblewski’s Zero Visibility

"Poems that, like objects on a beach, one can pick up, briefly examine, and set back down again."

While preparing to write this review, I came across an interview with Grzegorz Wróblewski in the Polish literary website Literacka Polska that began:

Rafał Gawin: For Polish readers, especially literary critics, it’s as if you’re a writer from another planet.
Grzegorz Wróblewski: Yes, it can seem that way from a certain distance. [My translation]

I think it’s safe to say the case is also true for English-speaking readers—Wróblewski’s most recent collection, Zero Visibility, translated by Piotr Gwiazda, really does feel like encountering a voice from a different world, albeit one that deals with all too real human (and often animal) concerns. Even on a surface reading it is clear that Wróblewski’s poems exhibit a remarkable range of tone, veering between seriousness and satire, surrealism and objectivity, grandiloquence and quiet, interior reflections. The first two poems, “Testing on Monkeys,” and “Makumba,” with their manic repetition and loud exclamations, are perhaps the two most frenetic and high-powered poems in the collection; they are suddenly followed by poems that are short and obscure, often dream-like and hallucinatory such as “The Great Fly Plague,” where “We abandoned our fingernails on the warm stones” or “Club Melon” which has “clones drinking juice made of organic, perfectly pressed worms”—poems that are at first disorientating, but at the same time openly invite the reader to attempt further interpretation.

Some of the best poems in the collection are the ones that, to put it bluntly, are about something recognisable, but also take time to construct and develop their ideas, such as “‘Bronisław Malinowski’s Moments of Weakness,”:

If I had a revolver, I’d shoot a pig!
A scholar’s clothes shouldn’t attract suspicions. Malinowski ordered
two Norfolk jackets from a tailor on Chancery Lane. Also a helmet
made of cork, with a lacquered canvas cover.
In one letter he wrote: Today I’m white with fury at the Niggers…
If I had a revolver, I’d shoot a pig!
His stay on the Trobriand Islands was pissing him off.
In spite of that, he became a distinguished anthropologist (27).

Another example is “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” a multilingual poem which examines methods of torture used at CIA black sites (one of them located in Poland) mixed with news about celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie:

It wasn’t until he was 39 years old that Tom Cruise decided to straighten and
even out his teeth!
Later, the CIA used additional “enhanced interrogation techniques”
that included: długotrwała nagość (prolonged nudity), manipulacje żywieniowe
(dietary manipulation), uderzanie po brzuchu (abdominal slap).

Two small planes with Poles on board went down (31). READ MORE…

Reevaluating the Urgent Political Relevance of 20th Century Brazilian Novelist Lima Barreto

"He’s the author who picks a fight with the republic, demanding more res publica."

Authors forgotten in their lifetimes sometimes resurface decades later, telling us stories that resonate far beyond their original historical moment. One such writer is Lima Barreto, whose poignant renderings of working class Brazilians from the turn of the twentieth century reverberate with contemporary relevance. Today, anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz tells Asymptote about her experience researching and writing the new biography of Lima Barreto, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, released in Brazil in July 2017.


Lara Norgaard (LN): In the biography you recently published, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, you read Lima Barreto’s fiction through the lens of history and anthropology. How was the experience of studying literature from that perspective? Why is historical context important for reading Lima’s work?

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (LMS): Disciplinary contact zones are engaging spaces, but they are contested. I place myself at the intersection of anthropology, history, and literary criticism. It was a great concern of mine not to see literature as a direct reflection of reality, since we know that Lima Barreto, while reflecting on reality, also created his own. At the same time, Lima said he wrote literaturamilitante, a term he himself used. That kind of committed literature dialogues with reality.

Lima even suffered for that approach in his time. What we now praise as high literature used to be considered unimaginative. Can you believe that? His contemporaries said that because he referenced reality and his own life, he didn’t have imagination. For me, that was a big step. I thought, I’m going to write this life by engaging with the reality that Lima lived, just as he himself did. Take his first novel, Recordações do EscrivãoIsaias Caminha, which is the story of a young black man, the son of a former slave who takes the train to the big city, as Lima did. In that city he experiences discrimination. And the second part of the book is entirely a roman à clef, as it calls attention to journalism as the fourth estate. The novel was so critical that the media blacklisted Lima, and the book was terribly received. His story “Numa e a Ninfa” critiqued politicians and his second novel, The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma, critiqued president Floriano Peixoto. Peixoto is part of the book. History enters the novel. And in that sense these novels dialogue with reality and invite the historian.

I also read the excellent North American biographer of Dostoevsky, Joseph Frank, who calls attention to how it’s possible for novels to structure a biography, not the other way around. So I tried to include Lima Barreto’s voice in my book. He’s the writer, and rather than explain something in his place it would be better to let him say it. And so, looking at the biography, you’ll find that I often intersperse my voice with Lima’s. Those were the methods I used working in the contact zones between disciplines.

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