During Madrid’s Year of Lorca, which commemorates the centenary of the poet’s arrival to the city, podcast editor Layla Benitez-James speaks with Rebecca Seiferle, whose brilliant essay on Lorca translations appears in Into English. A multi-award winning poet and noted translator of César Vallejo and other Spanish language poets, Seiferle is deeply passionate about teaching and served as the poet laureate of Tucson, Arizona between 2012 and 2016. On this edition of the podcast, she discusses how her translation practice has woven its way through her own writing and teaching, and reminds us of the importance of interrogating each and every word to get at the very heart and origin of a text’s language.
"I'm constantly trying to disrupt what I think I know."
Explore the very latest in world literature, from Asymptote contributors!
Our dispatches this week range from the celebratory to the urgent. Slovak literature is victorious after a splendid showing in Paris, Guatemalan independent literature stakes out a spot on the main stage, and in Albania, writers have taken admirable steps in order to bring the importance of reading to public attention. Read on to keep up with the thrilling advances of these three national literatures.
Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Slovakia
Slovak literature has been making waves in France: Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, was the city of honour at this year’s Salon du Livre, held from March 15 to 18. Years of painstaking preparations, spearheaded by the Slovak Centre for Information on Literature, have resulted in twenty-six brand new translations of books by Slovak authors being translated into French in the past year or so—twice the number published in the thirty years since Slovakia’s independence. Book launches and presentations were accompanied by readings, discussions, and exhibitions, featuring over a dozen writers, playwrights, and journalists, with a good sprinkling of graphic designers, artists, filmmakers, publishers, musicians, as well as some government representatives, which attracted scores of the reading public and captured the attention of the media (find links to the press coverage on the Embassy of Slovakia’s Facebook page).
The star authors included Pavel Vilikovský, the undisputed grand old man of Slovak fiction (he would surely reject this label), who rarely travels abroad these days, but could not turn down the invitation to Paris given that three of his books have appeared in French translation. He has also beaten another record, as his most recent book, RAJc je preč (The Thrill is Gone, 2018) has just been nominated for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft Litera. This is his fifth nomination since the prize was first awarded in 2006; he won it that year as well as in 2014, and judging by this book’s first reviews, he may well manage a hat-trick this year. READ MORE…
These chapters are not stories of failed relationships; they are stories of a woman trusting herself and giving herself to others without regret.
Monique Schwitter’s multi-award-winning One Another, a contemporary set of love stories with classical echoes, was described in Switzerland as having “the gentlest gaze and the hardest kick.” The original (Eins im Andern) was shortlisted for the German Book Prize before winning both the Swiss Book Prize and the Swiss Prize for Literature.
Tess Lewis’ English translation, published by Persea Books, is our Asymptote Book Club selection for March, and is currently heading to our subscribers across North America and the EU. To join us in time for next month’s title, you can subscribe via our website.
One Another by Monique Schwitter, translated from the German by Tess Lewis, Persea Books, 2019
One Another is an honest novel about love. The narrator, who also claims to be the author, and in later chapters references writing and titling the earlier ones, finds out about the unexpected death of a former boyfriend, Petrus. This provokes her to describe every romance she’s ever experienced. She devotes a chapter to each. The best part of this book is an honest account of contemporary womanhood that is not pious, ashamed, or guilty. An undramatic consensus ends almost every one of these vignettes. She never begs anyone to stay. She has cheated but she isn’t consumed with guilt. Certain complications in these affairs lead the reader to expect the familiar sentimentalism of broken hearts, but the narrator is much too rational for that. READ MORE…
It’s a Euclidean landscape, stripped down and elementary, where desire is literally having to feel around in the dark.
How did a book of Greek poetry become one of the most-discussed and most-lauded pieces of contemporary European literature? Garrett Phelps, Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote, explains what makes Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy is so unusual—and so difficult to describe.
Late last year, Shoestring Press published a complete edition of Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy, translated into English from a newly revised text. Not long after the first volume appeared in 2009, the work became the subject of near-unanimous praise. Fastforward about a decade and it’s widely acknowledged as a crucial addition to the literary canon, the strongest signs being its frequent inclusion in university curricula and its reputation in high circles as a masterwork, a post-modern epic, and a dystopian allegory for the cultural collapse of the West, whose legacy is only despair and rubble and war. Translations into French, English, and German have made it one of the most reviewed works of contemporary European literature, which is rare for any book of poetry and especially one written in Greek. That it’s a masterwork, or at least really near being one, is true. I gathered as much after my first encounter with it a few years ago, when Asymptote featured an extract from Shorsha Sullivan’s translation of Z213: Exit. It floored me back then and still does now.
I’m thankful that I read it before looking at anyone else’s thoughts, because the label “post-modern epic” is misleading, useful only for jacket copy. It reminds me of somebody like Umberto Eco, whose novels are long and fussy, and more about literature itself than that other rich wellspring known as real life. Dimitris Lyacos’ trilogy is definitely not that: whatever runs through its heart is too raw. Other postmodernists with actual talent, like Kathy Acker, are also a very different cut of writer. They tend to deal with ubiquitous cultural products—e.g., movies, music, targeted ad copy, the novel—whose influence pervades, or even dictates, modernity. Their work is heavy on pastiche and ready to relate, sometimes in a single breath, subjects as disparate as Nascar and archaic Greek poetry. Lyacos shares their skepticism of reigning cultural myths, although for him they’re free from the baggage of ideology, manifest destiny, and sense of self. Instead, myths revert to their most embryonic forms, such as the Homeric journey, leading some critics to argue that Poena Damni is in fact more modernist than post-modern. They’re right, too, but the claim sounds so dry when read aloud that I’ve already lost interest. Anxiety about missing the point usually means literature is doing its job. READ MORE…
in an invisible layer: / an imperceptible figment of skin, and an inherited voice: / more kora than cello / and played to a European beat
In this week’s Translation Tuesday, we follow a moving lyrical meditation on family, belonging, and racial identity in an Angolan-Portuguese family as Ana Luísa Amaral traces the elements of a ‘glorious imperfection’ through music, photography, and the contours of the human face.
Genealogies, Imprints, and Flights
My great-great-grandmother was Angolan and black,
the other day I found her name on the reverse
not of a poem stuffed in a drawer,
but of a piece of paper imprinted
with silver salts and light
That’s what I want for Jabuticaba. We do not want to grow. We just want to keep doing good books.
Marcelo Lotufo is a literary translator and founder of Edições Jabuticaba, an independent Brazilian press with a unique focus on poetry in translation. In today’s post, he sits down with Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Brazil, Lara Norgaard, to discuss the burgeoning indie publishing scene in São Paulo and the role of translation in Brazilian literature.
Lara Norgaard (LN): What was your vision when your started Jabuticaba? How did you see it fitting into the Brazilian publishing scene?
Marcelo Lotufo (ML): I had the sense that an indie scene was starting in Brazil. Lote 42, for instance, was a press that had started a few years before Jabuticaba. Editora Patuá had started around the same time. And Marília Garcia, who is a poet, she and her husband, Leonardo Gandolfi, who is also a poet, also started a press, LunaParque. The scene had been around for four, maybe five years before Jabuticaba started. Before, there were some smaller presses that didn’t last for very long. People would start self-publishing and then a bigger press would invite them to their offices and then they would close the press. You saw that happen with Daniel Galera and other groups.
Poetry has always been sidelined, though. Brazil doesn’t have a big poetry market in the big presses, so smaller presses tend to crop up and do a lot of poetry. 7Letras and Azougue, which are both from Rio, have been around for almost twenty years and they’ve done a lot of poetry. But for a long time there wasn’t exactly a scene.
From the contemporary to the ancient, this week's roundup of literary news covers Argentina, Latin America, and Hong Kong.
This week, we’re taking a look at the precise and haunting work of a thrilling young Argentinian writer, celebrating and revelling in Latin American Indigenous literatures, and queuing up for a veritable mélange of literary and artistic events in the international hub of Hong Kong. It’s been a pretty good month.
Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large for Chile, reporting from Buenos Aires and Berlin:
On January 1, 2019, the New York Times reviewed Megan McDowell’s powerful translation of Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s book of short stories, Mouthful of Birds (originally titled Pájaros en la boca). In this review, the Times reveals what fans of contemporary Latin American fiction have known for years: that Schweblin’s haunting, claustrophobic writing is fascinating and addictive. Admittedly, Schweblin had previously received ample praise from critics in both the Spanish-speaking and Anglophone world. Among other accolades, we might consider: in 2010, the British magazine Granta named her a top young Spanish-language writer; Schweblin is a winner of the prestigious Juan Rulfo short story prize; she appeared on the Bogotá 39 list (2017), which lauded the top 39 Spanish-language authors under 40 years of age. READ MORE…
A tenth-century resident of Baghdad could read Arabic versions of just about everything by Aristotle that we can read today.
The great Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries changed the Near East and beyond politically, culturally, and, in a particularly profound and lasting way, linguistically, resulting in the near hegemony of the Arabic language. This new Islamic world took shape around an original and powerful new religion, but the consolidation of an Islamic civilisation was also a period of immense cultural exchange and mutual influence, not only from fellow Abrahamic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity, but also from the world of classical Mediterranean antiquity. Indeed, while knowledge of classical Greek science and philosophy fell into virtual oblivion in the Christian West, Islamic scholars kept the tradition alive by means of large scale translation projects and sophisticated philosophical works, from the Persian Avicenna to Baghdad’s legendary house of learning and the Andalusian polymath Averroes. In this interview, Professor Peter Adamson of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München talks us through this fascinating and often overlooked period in philosophical history by exploring the works of translation that made it possible.
Jonathan Egid (JE): By the time the grand translation projects of the early Islamic world began, the wonders of classical Greek philosophy had attained the status of ancient wisdom, almost one thousand years old and already much discussed and much translated. How did the works of Greek thinkers come to be translated into Arabic, and what was the interest in these ancient and foreign ideas?
Peter Adamson (PA): This was a process that unfolded over the course of centuries. The translation movement begins already in the eighth century CE and continues well into the tenth century. It was basically an initiative of the elites under the Abbasid caliphate, including even caliphs themselves and the caliphal family, who also had philosophers as court scholars. For instance, al-Kindī, the first philosopher to make explicit use of Hellenic materials in his own writing, was tutor to a caliph’s son and dedicated his most important work to the caliph himself. The translators were well paid experts, so this was a very deliberate and expensive undertaking managed from the top down. It should, however, be said that it was not something that was undertaken in a vacuum. For quite a long time there had already been translations made from Greek into Syriac and other Semitic languages, and these were a model for the Arabic translations (sometimes literally: it was known for works to be translated first into Syriac for the purpose of making an Arabic version on that basis). Also I would say the translation movement had a kind of momentum of its own: whereas at first the texts to be translated were really selected by the elite and for a variety of practical or political motives, eventually they get to the stage where they are translating the entire output of certain thinkers, or at least everything they can get their hands on, in a kind of completist project. So for instance, one of the greatest translators, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, was clearly trying to translate whatever he could by Galen, the most important Greek medical authority, while his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn worked his way through Aristotle.
from solitude I try to excavate / the human / but what I pull off are hairs from the haunches / of an animal
Poetry is a never-ending lesson in precision. The distillation of thirst, the evocation of experience, the cauterization of an open wound. Between the poets of the world and their various works there is a common acknowledgement of restraint—there is only so much we can do with words, and only so much words can mean. Claude Lévi-Strauss originated the term “floating signifier” to describe language that has only vague or contextual denotation, and in our contact with literature we gradually come to understand that such abstraction is the enemy of poetry. So we step gingerly around the words we know contain too much to unpack. Words like “hurt,” or “death,” or “love.”
Floating signifiers are especially insecure in translation, in which one often has to choose between music and intention, double meanings or single ones, visual effect or faithful retellings. They present a particular dilemma because a floating signifier in one language may not be one in the other. The Chinese language, painting with a full palette of the pictorial, the symbolic, the historical, and the literal, has a tangibility that does not lapse into the vague as easily as English does. Ernest Fenollosa, in his (flawed but admirable) studies, characterized Chinese characters as a medium for poetry. It is not that Chinese is inherently more possessive of the elusive idea of poetics, but rather that the facets of Chinese language that enchanted Fenollosa with their invocation of poetry are also what result in headaches for translators. We do not count our losses in translation. Instead, we admire the growth a poem may undergo as it leaves its writer’s hand and wanders onto the page, how it may cross oceans and national borders, how it lives, how it is alive, the way we know language to be.
I allied with your former lovers / emerged victorious / in the midst of the void
In this week’s Translation Tuesday, we are witnesses to a protest pulled forth from the body by outrage, sorrow, and an inherited music. Oriette D’Angelo’s poem is set to a revolutionary thrum of defiance against injustice. As we move with its lines, we arrive at a place that is not quite as simple as solace, but a space that resounds with the necessity for love.
Forbidden to pass by and stay
My country is a protest march
a cry of rage
with thunder and dance music
You couldn’t handle the birds sleeping on my forehead
you fractured the entire structure of my deformed breasts
squeezed the throat to silence my body
so it wouldn’t scream: I don’t like what you say!
Characters can take on a life of their own as you write them, and that can hold a great amount of interest and suspense for me.
In late 2016, the Guatemalan publishing house SOPHOS put out Rodrigo Fuentes’s literary debut, entitled Trucha panza arriba. The book follows, sometimes closely and at other times tangentially, Don Henrik, a white landowner living in Guatemala, and the way his decisions and economic and emotional downfall affect those around him. The book includes intense dramas like “Dive”—available in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 Issue—and “Ubaldo’s Island”; vibrating suspense stories like “Whisky”; and profound character explorations like “Henrik.” And all of them are wrapped in exquisite dialogue, like “Terrace,” my favorite story. I told Rodrigo it was my favorite.
“Really?” Rodrigo said, somehow confused.
“Sí,” I told him, and said it was a tight story. “Apretada,” I said, “elegantly condensed, effective, quick as a flash.” READ MORE…
Start your weekend with up-to-the-minute literary dispatches from around the world!
This week, we highlight a new Latinx literary magazine, an award-winning Catalan poet and translator, and a German-American literary festival in New York. We also learn about a Salvadoran who hopes to increase access to literature in his city by raising enough funds to build and stock a new library.
Nestor Gomez, Editor-at-Large for El Salvador, reporting from El Salvador
The Fall 2018 debut of Palabritas, an online Latinx literary magazine founded by Ruben Reyes Jr., is good news for Latinx writers from a variety of genres, especially those who are unpublished. Palabritas’ creation was inspired by a night of celebration of spoken word, poetry, and performances hosted by Fuerza Latina, a pan-Latinx organization of Harvard College. Reyes, a Harvard student and the son of Salvadoran immigrants, felt it was important to give access to unpublished writers from Latinx communities that are often ignored, such as LGBTQ+, the diaspora, and mixed-race communities. By providing a space for Latinx writers from all communities, Reyes hopes to minimize the exclusivity of published writers and bring them side-by-side with previously unpublished writers in the magazine.
I would say translating allows the translator to find new parts of him/herself, instead of leaving parts behind.
“I’m always surprised by how docile American intellectuals are when they enter the public space,” says Matt Reeck, the translator of Zahia Rahmani’s strikingly bold “Muslim”: A Novel. In the course of a wide-ranging interview with Asymptote Assistant Editor Erik Noonan, Reeck aims to challenge that dominant paradigm of always being “on our best behaviour.”
In our most in-depth Book Club interview to date, Reeck sifts through the “layers of imperial cultural history in Algeria”, makes an eloquent plea for the widening of the capital/cultural space currently allotted to translation, and suggests that “the translation of texts that are already domesticated work[s] against translation in a broader sense.”
Erik Noonan (EN): Discussing the role of the translator in your statement for the National Endowment for the Arts, you say that “In a globalized world, while we know more about many parts of the world that we didn’t have access to previously, often what we know seems to get cemented quickly into easy stereotypes. Then, in a way, we don’t know much more at all; we just know what we think we know.” Dealing with the potential of certain texts to expand our knowledge of the world, you also say, in a piece in The Los Angeles Review: “While university presses help by publishing some of these [truly exotic] works, they don’t take on others: the manuscript must match a list, and this list consolidates established emphases of teaching and research.” Your work includes research and teaching in the Comparative Literature Department at UCLA, I believe, as well as translation. How is your teaching related to your research and your translating, and has that relationship changed in any way over time?
Matt Reeck (MR): I’m interested in many things, and they don’t all necessarily fit anyone’s idea of a single pursuit, a single trajectory, a single work. But they do for me. They are unified by being the things I’m interested in! It would be nice to be able to teach things that match my translating interests and my research interests, but to date I’ve been able to do that only here and there. Fingers crossed this will change soon.
Reviews of the newest and most exciting fiction from Denmark and France!
March brings with it a host of noteworthy new books in translation. In today’s post, Asymptote team members cover two novels set in the early twentieth century: Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time and Marcus Malte’s The Boy.
A Change of Time by Ida Jessen, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, Archipelago Books (2019)
Review by Rachael Pennington, Assistant Managing Editor
Weaving together diary entries, poems, letters (both opened and unopened) and song, Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, is a stirring reflection on death and mourning, loneliness, and female identity in a changing 20th century Denmark. Fru Bragge—almost always referred to by her married name—has just lost her husband. During a loveless marriage spanning more than two decades, she endured Vigand’s lack of affection and derisive comments in silence. Although she has finally gained her freedom in losing him, she has also lost all direction in life:
I feel like a person standing in a landscape so empty and open that it matters not a bit in which direction I choose to go. There would be no difference: north, south, east, or west, it would be the same wherever I went.
It is in this vast landscape, the heathlands of Denmark, that she begins to sift through her memories, uncovering the girl she was before she became Fru Bragge. During the day, she welcomes courteous visitors who come to pay their respects and packs away her late husband’s belongings for donation; during the evening, after darkness has fallen and the oil lamp in the window of her empty home is lit, she feels most comfortable. Here, surrounded by a “silence greater than silence” she writes in her diary, giving voice to a part of herself she had almost forgotten: “Thinking back, I almost feel envious of that young school-mistress. In fact, there is no almost about it.”