On May 25, 1970, Joan Brossa (Barcelona, 1919–1998) spoke out at the first Festival of Catalan Poetry at the Price Theatre, Barcelona, in solidarity with the political prisoners under Franco’s dictatorship. Just a few months ago, in November 2017, the Catalan president controversially announced that in the context of the referendum for independence held in Catalonia, Spain once again had political prisoners. Captured on film by Pere Portabella in a clandestine documentary, fragments of the poems recited by Joan Brossa and other renowned names in Catalan literature are now being shown at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA). For an artist, political activist and Catalan nationalist, this intriguing exhibition that offers a new reading of Brossa’s complete works could not be more timely.
Through the end of February, a retrospective exhibit on the life and work of the influential Catalan poet.
My grandmother's head was cold and in places translucent, like ice that had started to melt.
This piece comes from a published collection of mostly short prose. Many of the stories draw on themes of childhood, memory, unrequited love, and inner conflict, often using strong imagery of hunger and smells. As a translator, what drew me to the stories was the author’s ability to take ordinary and daily experiences and display them in a way that is surreal or fantastical, with a focus on the physicality of our bodies and the objects around us—and to do it all in very short stories (100-150 words each). In this format the subtle differences in syntax and grammar between Greek and English become particularly pronounced. Foskolou often uses longer sentences with one or more dependent clauses, in a way that is not unusual in Greek but would sound awkward or wrong in English. Similarly, the author uses the Greek past imperfect tense to evoke a sense of time and events, and the emotions that surround these events, that is incomplete, deferred, imperfect. English does not have a past imperfect tense, forcing the translator to use other linguistic devices to create a similar effect.
"I don’t want my translations to come across as definitive."
Much of our Winter 2018 issue, from the poetry to the microfiction, shows a strongly surrealist bent; writers like Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine and Nina Iskrenko have an almost limitless capacity to juxtapose discordant words that come off like explosive charges. Against this backdrop, Paul Cunningham’s translations of Helena Österlund appear somewhat sparser, though no less jarring. Ôsterlund’s Words and Colors features a pared-down, repetitive voice, a movement through snowy woods, and a terrifying encounter with a sharp-toothed creature. For me, Words and Colors is reminiscent of Beckett’s How It Is, another work where the contours of individual identity seem to dissolve into a blind, frantic momentum through past, present and future.
Paul Cunningham’s work has been on my radar for some time: not only his translations but also his original writing and video art. In his translations, Cunningham tends to avoid domesticating the poems into a “natural-sounding” English, instead directly transferring the Swedish language’s natural use of compound words. Imagine if we spoke of the German Schadenfreude as “damagejoy” or Poltergeist as “crashghost,” and you might have an idea of the strange effects this can produce in English.
I am always interested in the origin stories of my fellow Scandinavian translators: how they became interested in the languages and their general translation philosophy. I was thrilled to be able to ask Paul a few questions about his previous translations of Sara Tuss Efrik, his video art, and his translation of Österlund’s Words and Colors in the Winter 2018 issue.
David Smith (DS): Your former MFA teacher, Johannes Göransson, has written of your translation approach: “Cunningham is not a Swede or a scholar of Swedish culture . . . he only has rudimentary knowledge of Sweden or Swedish, but uses his artistic instincts and dictionaries . . . His work evidences that rather than demanding some kind of scholarly mastery, sometimes translation demands fascination, interest, and a willingness to be vulnerable, to get it done without having legitimized status as Master.” This is beautifully put and intriguing on multiple levels. But I thought I’d start just by asking you to fill in your story a little. What was it that brought you to learn Swedish, specifically? And what was the “fascination and interest” that led you to literary translation?
Bringing this week's greatest hits from Mexico, the Czech Republic, and France!
Still happily reading through all the amazing pieces included in the brand new Winter 2018 issue, we bring you the latest literary news from around the world. Up first is Paul Worley with news about recent publications and translations. Julia Sherwood then fils us in on the latest from the Czech Republic. To close things out, Barbara Halla reports from France.
Paul Worley, Editor-at-Large, Reporting from Mexico:
From Quintana Roo, Mexico, The Maya cultural site La cueva del tapir (The Tapir’s Cave), announced the forthcoming publication of a new Maya arts and culture magazine, Sujuy Ts’ono’ot: El arte de los territorios en resistencia. The unveiling of the issue will be held February 3 at 7 PM in Bacalar’s International House of the Writer. According to the information released on Facebook, contributors to the first issue will include Maya writers from the region, in addition to writers from Guatemala (Walter Paz Joj) and Bolivia (Elías Caurey).
Those who speak out against oppression, especially women, form the foundation of a better future.
The Restless by Gerty Dambury (The Feminist Press, 2018). Translated by Judith G. Miller
Gerty Dambury’s The Restless, translated from the French by Judith G. Miller, takes place in her native Guadeloupe, a Caribbean island that has been an overseas department of France since just after the second World War. Guadeloupeans of different ages, genders, and social statuses narrate the events surrounding the violent confrontation between the construction workers’ union and the French prefecture that took place on May 26th, 1967. On this day, as workers gathered outside the building where the union negotiated wage raises with business owners, the French prefect ordered troops to fire on the crowd, and the situation degenerated from there. The lynchpin of the novel is a little girl, Émilienne, who’s waiting for her father to come home so he can explain to her why her teacher has disappeared. While she waits in the courtyard of her home, a chorus of her family members and neighbors (both living and dead) contextualize the two absences and how they relate to the broader experiences of the island.
Though Émilienne acts as the focalizer, the chief narrators are her eight brothers and sisters, who speak with a more-or-less undifferentiated voice. They proclaim themselves the “callers” of the story, which they structure after the Caribbean quadrille, a sort of creolized version of a French square-dance. The caller of the quadrille is conventionally singular and male, but Émilienne’s siblings are happy to innovate. They often hand over the reins to guest narrators, who act as temporary callers. Each section of the narrative has a primary caller, though others often chime in, and corresponds to one of the four quadrille figures in rhythm and mood. Émilienne’s siblings helpfully guide the unfamiliar reader’s expectations of the musical conventions at the beginning of each figure/chapter. The multivocality and musicality of the text, two of its most distinguishing features, could have posed a challenge to Miller’s translation. The differences between the figures and the characters’ voices are discussed more than demonstrated.
Our editors choose their favorites from the Winter 2018 Issue.
Asymptote’s new Winter 2018 issue is replete with spectacular writing. See what our section editors have to say about the pieces closest to their hearts:
It’s a struggle to pick just one poet to highlight from this momentous issue of our journal, but perhaps I will mention the Infrarealist Mexican poet José Vicente Anaya whose work Heriberto Yépez described as “revelation, a sacred practice against brainwashing and lobotomy” (source: translator’s note). Much as each poet in this issue and the set of circumstances in which they write are distinct, I read all their works as sacred, necessary attempts to counter the forces of obliteration and oblivion against which they—and we—strive. In Anaya’s case, a core element of the ritual is híkuri (”peyote” in the indigenous language of Rarámuri), the ingestion of which makes the speaker spiral, psychedelically, inward and outward, so that nothing is quite separate from everything else. The revelation is this: we’ve overbuilt the world and left ourselves broken. Joshua Pollock’s translation recreates the visionary spirit of the hyperlingual source text to bring us the ferocity of lines such as these:
On Superhighways we hallucinate
in order to carry on living, Victor,
let’s build an anti-neutron bomb
that leaves life standing
demolishing suffocating buildings /
new machines working for everyone
so that time raises us
to joy / and
HUMANity governs without government
—Aditi Machado, Poetry Editor
“[there are also] a number of young writers who are emerging, for instance, in the Gambia, who are also catering a lot to the local market. They are to come.” — Tijan M. Sallah at an interview at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, 2012
It is impossible to think of Gambian literature without thinking of the poetry, short stories, and essays of Tijan M. Sallah. Sallah is The Gambia’s most renowned and prolific literary figure, but what makes him most remarkable is his generosity. Sallah, like many of the great Gambian writers before him, balanced his “day job” while continuing his tireless support of other writers and The Gambia’s burgeoning literary scene. For writers such as Lenrie Peters, it was being a medical doctor, while holding literary workshops for aspiring young Gambian writers; for Tijan M. Sallah, it was a successful career as an economist at the World Bank, while continuing to foster community among the Gambian diaspora’s literary voices, his early contributions to the Timbooktoo Bookstore, or even—lucky for us at Asymptote—his willingness to write this essay on some of The Gambia’s emerging poets. Sallah’s essay is both a tribute to the previous wave of Gambian writers and a passing on of the baton to the next generation of poets. In this essay, he spotlights three of the exciting new voices in the Gambian literary landscape today. It’s a must-read from this issue.
—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor
I will therefore continue to numb the sorrows of old age by manufacturing my hand-made lace in the shadows.
Playing with food imagery and writing in a jazzy rhythm, this metafictional musing on the economic reality of being a writer gives the reader a glimpse at the rationale behind microfiction. The sprinkling of French terms places us in a specific context, but the endeavor feels universal as the narrator works to eat. For more microfiction, head over to the brand new Winter 2018 issue of Asymptote!
Business is much too slack these days to imagine treating oneself to a simple sherbet dip after a day spent scribbling in the light of the desk lamp, and going off, just like that, to lick the liquorice stick while daydreaming under the moonlight. It’s drummed into me from all sides that one must breathe frugally and through clenched lips, measure my steps parsimoniously, mind the tallow on the end of the candle and above all cut down on my extravagances. Times are for cutting the kipper in quarters, you see, my wife said to me just yesterday and as we sat down to eat, and I won’t even go into how much your ciggies are costing us. I blushed slightly. Soon we’ll have to go up the stairs two by two to protect the steps, I thought in petto, not wanting to be outdone.
Our blog editors pick their favorite pieces from the Winter 2018 issue!
To celebrate our seventh birthday here at Asymptote, the blog editors have chosen some of our favorite pieces from the Winter 2018 issue to showcase. This issue truly shines with a diversity of voices and literary styles, including a special feature on micro fiction, and it was such a pleasure for us to read through it. With work from thirty different countries, this issue has been gathered under the theme of “A Different Light.” Enjoy these highlights!
I’ve always admired Asymptote‘s advocacy for literatures that not only are underrepresented, but that take chances, resist easy reduction or interpretation by the reader. Poems that dare to be “the awkward spectacle of the untried move, not grace” (to borrow a phrase from American poet Don Byrd). Poets like Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine. The poems from Arachnid Sun shock me with their bold imagery, impelling me to read again and again. I latch on to certain repeated images: insect, illusion, blood. And definitely a noticeable theme of authoritarian rulers: “spider-eggs perfuming the silence the dictator” and “harpoon the king-shark who flees the riverbeds of polar scrubland.”
Bringing this week's greatest hits from the four corners of the literary globe!
Our weekly news update continues in the dawn of this exciting and unpredictable year, but before we get down to business, Asymptote has some very important news of its own (in case you missed it): our new Winter 2018 issue has launched and is buzzing with extraordinary writing across every literary genre! Meanwhile, our ever-committed Editors-at-Large—this week from Brazil, Hungary and Singapore—have selected the most important events, publications and prizes from their regions, all right here at your disposal.
Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Singapore:
2017 ended on a high note as Singapore’s literary community celebrated the successes—and homecomings—of four fiction writers who have gained international acclaim: Krishna Udayasankar, Rachel Heng, JY Yang, and Sharlene Teo. At a packed reading organized by local literary non-profit Sing Lit Station on December 30th, the four read excerpts from their recent or forthcoming work, from Yang’s Singlish-laced speculative short fiction, to fragments of Teo’s novel Ponti, winner of the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award. The following weekend, Udayasankar and Heng joined other Singapore-based writers such as Toh Hsien Min and Elaine Chiew for two panel discussions on aspects of international publishing, which aimed to promote legal and ethical awareness among the community here.
Other celebrations in the first fortnight of 2018 took on more deep-seated local issues. Writers, musicians and artists from among Singapore’s migrant community presented a truly cosmopolitan evening of song and poetry to a 400-strong audience that included fellow migrant workers, migrant rights activists, and members of the Singaporean public. Among the performers were the three winners of 2017’s Migrant Workers’ Poetry Competition, alongside Rubel Arnab, founder of the Migrants’ Library, and Shivaji Das, a prominent translator and community organizer. Several days after, indie print magazine Mynah—the first of its kind dedicated to long-form, investigative nonfiction—launched their second issue with a hard-hitting panel on ‘History and Storytelling’. Contributors Kirsten Han, Faris Joraimi and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow all spoke persuasively about contesting Singapore’s official narratives of progress and stability, and the role of writers in that truth-seeking work.
Celebrate our 7th anniversary with this new issue, gathering never-before-published work from 30 countries!
We interrupt our regular programming to announce the launch of Asymptote‘s Winter 2018 issue! Here’s a tour of some of the outstanding new work from 30 different countries, which we’ve gathered under the theme of “A Different Light”:
In “Aeschylus, the Lost,” Albania’s Ismail Kadare imagines a “murky light” filtering through oiled window paper in the ancient workroom of the father of Greek tragedy. A conversation with acclaimed translator Daniel Mendelsohn reveals the “Homeric funneling” behind his latest memoir. Polish author Marta Zelwan headlines our Microfiction Special Feature, where meaning gleams through the veil of allegory. Light glows ever brighter in poet Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s “syntactically frenetic” “Arachnid Sun”; and in Erika Kobayashi’s fiction, nuclear devastation blazes from Hiroshima to Fukushima.
The light around us is sometimes blinding, sometimes dim, “like a dream glimpsed through a glass that’s too thick,” as Argentine writer Roberto Arlt puts it, channeling Paul to the Corinthians in The Manufacturer of Ghosts. Something dreamlike indeed shines in César Moro’s Equestrian Turtle, where “the dawn emerges from your lips,” and, as if in echo, Mexican writer Hubert Matiúwàa prophecies for his people’s children “a house made of dawn.” With Matiúwàa’s Mè’phàà and our first works from Amharic and Montenegrin, we’ve now published translations from exactly 100 languages!
We hope you enjoy reading this milestone issue as much as everyone at Asymptote enjoyed putting it together. If you want to see us carry on for years to come, consider becoming a masthead member or a sustaining member today. Spread the word far and wide!
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Perhaps part of the uniqueness of Catalan comes from this awareness of its influence on and disconnection from Castilian and European traditions.
Part I: The Nineteenth Century
At first, I was hesitant to write an article on the uses of the Catalan language in literature throughout recent history. After the referendum for Catalan independence held this past October 1, which was deemed illegal by the Spanish government, and the subsequent episodes of violence that occurred in the region, the topic has come to be a sensitive matter for any national. However, where there is a language, there is a literature, and the history of Catalan is one of stubborn resistance. It is my contention that the history of a language is somehow lived out in those who speak it, insofar as a sentiment of ambiguity still informs contemporary critical debates on the usefulness and adaptability of Catalan literature. “Is Catalan literature diverse enough? Can it cultivate all genres? Is it economically viable?” are questions that have resonated among critics and the public alike. Catalan literature inherits a sense of shame from its own fruition, and it is this feeling that I want to explore with this genealogy of usages.
This is not a history of Catalan literature and the texts featured here have not been selected according to an aesthetic canon. This is an archive of perceptions of Catalan language and literature as experienced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from the literary resurgence known as La Renaixença in Catalan literary history (parallel to which political Catalan nationalism as we know it unfolds) to the relatively normalized literary field in existence today. While certainly not the only appropriate approach, in what follows I present a succession of events from the nineteenth century that Catalan historiography has employed to explain the evolution of the uses of the language.
Somebody said that the healthiest ones die most easily.
Today’s Translation Tuesday comes from the Polish writer Mirka Szychowiak. “I’m Scared of Those Dots” is a haunting ellipsis of a story, concealing just as much as it reveals.
I came earlier today, let’s spend as much time together as we can, let’s enjoy each other’s company, stock up on it. As usual, we won’t be able to answer the same questions, but they will be asked nonetheless.
Zbyszek, who pushed you out of that dirty train? Your bloody blonde mop on the tracks, it still hurts. Who did it to us? How are you, Basia, do tell. What’s up? You were the fastest among us, made us so proud. Somebody said that the healthiest ones die most easily. You didn’t want to be an exception, did you? You passed away at a faster pace than when you broke the 100-metre record. Rysiu, your last letter made us angry. You better all come, you wrote. Your life with us was filled with laughter, but you were alone when you shot yourself for some strange girl. We were furious, but almost all of us did come. Almost, because Bolek had left by then, as was his custom, quietly. He fell over and that was it. Two hours after his death, he became a father. Both prematurely. Youth gave us no guarantees, we understood it early on and only Adam didn’t get it in time—it was the youth, which tore his heart apart, like a bullet. It was so literal it stripped him of all romanticism. It poured out of him, ripped him inside and that was it. Later it was Bożenka and Janusz. The two of them and the carbon monoxide from the stove. A potted fern—a nameday present—withered and then somebody called to say that there were less of us yet again.
"Walsh is relevant for American readers now, even if they don’t necessarily understand the nitty-gritty of the political situation of his time."
One challenge of translation is finding a text that appeals to an audience separated geographically and culturally from the author. Finding a nonfiction text with that kind of currency is all the more difficult. The translator of nonfiction is faced with a text tied to local events and often steeped in a historical, social, and political context. Why should the average international reader care about nonfiction in translation? Today, Asymptote sits down with Daniella Gitlin, the translator of the famous 1957 Argentinian reported novel, Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación Masacre (Operation Massacre), previously excerpted in our Summer 2013 issue, to discuss her encounters with a masterpiece of nonfiction and outline the urgent relevance of a text six decades old.
Lara Norgaard (LN): Tell me a bit about how you came to translate Operation Massacre.
Daniella Gitlin (DG): I spent the year after college in Buenos Aires working for a nonprofit, Poder Ciudadano, with a Princeton in Latin America Fellowship. I was back in Argentina for a visit and told my friends there that I was applying for the nonfiction writing program at Columbia. Before I left, my friend Dante gave me a copy of Operación Masacre with a dedication in it. He wrote, “Dani my dear, a little ‘Argentinian nonfiction’ will do you good. I hope you like it.” I took the book back with me. I had heard of Walsh, but I didn’t really know anything about him.
The first dispatches of 2018 bring us the literary news from Albania, Argentina, and the U.K.
As the new year gets underway, we are back with more literary news from all over the world. Barbara Halla updates us on the progress of the National Library in Albania. We learn about events in the Argentinian literary scene from Sarah Moses. Finally, Alice Fischer shares several articles highlighting the best books of 2017 and updates us about a new literary agency in the UK.
Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large for Albania:
2017 proved a difficult year for the field of Albanian studies: Prominent Albanologist Robert Elsie passed away in October 2017. Elsie left behind a vast bibliography on Albanian history and language, not to mention hundreds of English translations spanning centuries of Albanian literature, all available for free on a dedicated website. Despite the loss, some good news awaits his fans and researchers in this field. I.B. Tauris, an independent publishing house based in London, will issue in early 2018 two of Elsie’s never-before-published works: “Albanian Bektashis” and “The Book of Kosovo.” No definitive publication date is available yet, but interested readers can find many of Elsie’s previous books for sale on I.B. Tauris’s catalogue. Updates on the upcoming publications will be published on Elsie’s personal page, now maintained by his life-partner, Stephan Trieweiler.