Stuck in a literary rut? Our editors-at-large are back with up-to-the-minute recommendations for new translations, current literary festivals and exhibitions, and even an award-winning film!
Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large for Chile, reporting from the United States
In this second month of 2019, I would like to highlight some recent and forthcoming translations of Chilean poetry, since there have been several superb late-2018 publications and some exciting works slated to appear in 2019.
First, in September 2018, Cardboard House Press published Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría’s remarkable translation of poète maudit Rodrigo Lira’s Testimony of Circumstances. This extraordinary book has received ample coverage in Asymptote—an excerpt of the translation appeared in the Winter 2017 issue, and an insightful review by Garrett Phelps appeared on the Asymptote blog. Late 2018 also saw the publication of Urayoán Noel’s brilliant translation of Pablo de Rokha’s poetry, titled Architecture of Dispersed Life. These inspired translations show off the complexity of de Rokha’s dark and humorous textualities and are “absolutely modern” in the Rimbaudian sense of the word. Also of note is the New and Selected Poems of Cecilia Vicuña (edited by Rosa Alcalá), which is particularly fascinating not only for the profound poetic and visual art explorations undertaken by Vicuña, but also for the work it features by several of Vicuña’s sharpest translators. And finally, I encourage readers to seek out Mónica de la Torre’s translation of Omar Cáceres’ Defense of the Idol (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018). Cáceres was a cult poet highly praised by ranking members of the pantheon of Chilean literature, such as Vicente Huidobro and Pablo Neruda.
In 2019, several important translations of Chilean poetry will be published. First up is Alec Schumacher’s rendering of Elvira Hernández’s minimalist, intensely political Chilean Flag (Kenning Editions); an excerpt appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Asymptote. Second, I am looking forward to seeing Michael Leong and Ignacio Infante’s translation of Vicente Huidobro’s avant-garde long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven, from Co·im·press (previewed in Asymptote’s Spring 2016 issue). Finally, I’d like to sneak in a reference to a novel about young poets (rather than a book of poems), which will surely be of interest to Asymptote readers: a posthumous novel by the late superstar Roberto Bolaño, titled The Spirit of Science Fiction (Penguin Random House, translated by Natasha Wimmer), a book that recalls Bolaño’s obsessive focus on infrarrealism and innovative poetics in his masterpiece The Savage Detectives.
Vivian Szu-Chin Chih, Editor-at-Large for Taiwan, reporting from the USA
This year’s Zhejiang cultural festival is currently taking place in central Taiwan’s Changhua County, featuring a stage play about the bittersweet love story of Chinese historical figure Hu Shih (1891–1962). Beginning almost a century ago, when China’s thousand-year-long imperial system had just come to an end, the play, entitled “Hu Shih, Shin Shin Hotel,” aims to explore the complexity and struggles of this widely admired Chinese liberalist.
In other literary news, Taiwanese writer Sheng Wu, who has dedicated himself to raising awareness about the protection of the Taiwanese environment and natural farmlands, will see a collection of his works published in mid-February by the Hong Fan Publishing Company. The three-volume collection includes essays that Sheng Wu, who writes in both Chinese and Taiwanese, produced over the past twenty years. Many of the early pieces focus on his childhood and school memories, while the more recent essays lay out his concerns about Taiwan’s agricultural and environmental degradation.
Hu Bo, the Chinese film director and novelist who committed suicide in 2017, posthumously won the Golden Horse Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in late 2018 for his feature film An Elephant Sitting Still. The film is an adaptation of Hu’s own novel, Huge Crack, which received positive feedback from both readers and critics upon its recent publication in Taiwan by the China Times Publishing Company. While the novel has not yet been translated into English, Asymptote readers may be interested in watching An Elephant Sitting Still, praised by critic Sarah Ward as “a marriage of Jia Zhangke and Bela Tarr,” and especially notable for its use of long takes.
Finally, don’t miss the special exhibition currently on display at the Taipei World Trade Center. Organized by the National Museum of Taiwan Literature, the exhibition features all the literary works that have won the Taiwan Literature Awards since 2005. The works are categorized into five literary genres: fiction, poetry, essay, drama play, and native literature, with thirteen workshops organized during the exhibition period. This year, the National Museum of Taiwan Literature is also launching an annual “literary translators in town” program. Each year, two literary translators from other countries will be invited to stay in Tainan, where the museum is located, for around one month to interact with local writers, translators, and Taiwanese readers. The Japanese professor and translator Shimomura Sakujirou, as well as the German scholar and translator Thilo Diefenbach, will be the first two to visit Tainan later this month.
Filip Noubel, Editor-at-Large for Central Asia, reporting from the Czech Republic and Uzbekistan
Uzbek literature in English translation remains something of a rare bird. Thus, when a major novel of the modern Uzbek canon, Days Gone By, came out in its first English translation last month, the news provoked an understandable amount of curiosity, as well as surprise, in Tashkent. Clearly O’tkan Kunlar, as it is known in Uzbek, is a major masterpiece, penned in the 1920s by Abdulla Qodiriy. Hamid Ismailov, a leading Uzbek writer living in exile, who incidentally made Qodiriy the main character of his last novel, The Devils’ Dance, describes it as the Shoh Asar, the “King of Books” most Uzbeks would pick as the ultimate reference in their national literature.
The novel develops around an ill-fated love story, but operates mostly as a manifesto advocating deep social and cultural reforms in the fields of religion, gender, and identity. Qodiriy belonged to the Jadids, a loose group of artists and intellectuals who denounced corruption and the abuse of political power, seeking alternative models in the Ottoman Empire, Japan, and Europe, and questioning Tsarist Russia’s rule. Under Stalin, the Jadid ideology was banned; most Jadids were imprisoned, and eventually shot dead in the 1930s.
When Uzbekistan regained its independence in 1991, Jadidism resurfaced as a catalyst for a discourse on national identity. Yet the new government, led by Islam Karimov, who ruled supreme until 2016, remained ambivalent towards the Jadids as they openly criticized Uzbek traditions of paternalism. It is thus quite ironic that Carol Ermakova’s translation of Days Gone By was commissioned by the Karimov Foundation, led by none other than Karimov’s daughter Lola Karimova. Even more surprising is the fact that while Jadids are remembered and honored for crafting modern literary Uzbek, their most emblematic work was translated into English from the Russian (rather than directly from the Uzbek original).
As 2019 marks the 125th anniversary of Qodiriy’s birth, English readers have more reasons to rejoice: another translation of O’tkan Kunlar, by translator and Muloqot Cultural Engagement Program founder Mark Reese, who has dedicated fifteen years of his life to a direct translation from the Uzbek, is due in April of this year. As Reese concludes: “I will not translate the title as Bygone Days, or Days Gone By, but rather keep the title as it is: O’tkan Kunlar. Just like the Ramayana or the Shahnameh—the world now needs to learn some Uzbek!”
Read more on the Asymptote blog:
- Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature (February 8, 2019)
- Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature (February 1, 2019)
- Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature (January 25, 2019)