Monthly Archives: April 2019

Our Spring 2019 Issue Has Landed!

Our brand-new issue features Dubravka Ugrešić, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Raymond Queneau, and a Special Feature on Translation!

Trace “Cosmic Connections” in Asymptote’s Spring 2019 edition, including 27 countries and 17 languages from every corner of our beautiful globe! Start with our double-whammy interviews with Viet Thanh Nguyen and Dubravka Ugrešić, or dance upon our “big old blue sphere” with the illustrious co-founder of Oulipo, Raymond Queneau. And don’t miss this quarter’s Special Feature, spotlighting creative reflections on the art of translation!

Translation can transport us to exotic locales—near or far. Daniel Guebel travels the lost world of Jewish pilpul, or “spicy thought,” an ancient method of interpreting the Talmud, while reconciling with the fact that the sages’ dialectical complexities cannot heal his dying father. Yet a life isn’t a mere journey from beginning to simple end: “All roads lead anywhere,” sings acclaimed Bulgarian poet Georgi Gospodinov, “not only to death.” For Mohsen Namjoo, the road must lead beyond nostalgia for hallowed national pasts to address the problems of the present. READ MORE…

‘Une Belle Inconnue’: Slovak Literature in Paris

I spent four days at the stand, listening to the discussions and watching books being snatched from the counter.

As we reported in Asymptote’s weekly dispatch a few weeks ago, Slovak literature made waves at this year’s Salon du Livre in Paris, where thirty-seven books by Slovak authors, including twenty-five brand new translations, were presented. Also in attendance was writer and past Asymptote contributor Marek Vadas, on this occasion wearing his hat as staff member of LIC (Centre for Information on Literature), the agency responsible for promoting Slovak literature abroad. He has agreed to share his insider’s view of the book fair with us.

There are two kind of stands at international book fairs. The first attract attention because of their long-term reputation, literary stars and talent, thoughtful cultural policy and diplomacy or, simply, thanks to the money lavished on them. The second kind­—old-fashioned, lacking in invention or sophistication—rarely attract anyone apart from a narrow circle of specialists or the odd passerby. This year, all of a sudden, the Slovak stand found itself in the first category. What happened? READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Erri De Luca

We pave roads, shovel snow, / smooth lawns, beat carpets, / gather tomatoes and insults, / we are the feet and know every inch of the land.

In this Translation Tuesday, Italian poet Erri De Luca reflects on the Mediterranean migrant crisis and movement across borders, seas, and languages. From desert crossings and the “thrashing of dust in columns” to exploitation in the first world, De Luca poignantly evokes the struggles faced by the newest Europeans.

 

Six voices

 

It was not the sea that welcomed us

we welcomed the sea with open arms.

 

Descending from highlands burnt by war and not the sun

we crossed the desert of the Tropic of Cancer.

 

When from a high ground we were able to view the sea

it was a finish line, a caress of waves at our feet.

 

Ending there was Africa, the under-sole of ants,

from them caravans had learned to tread.

 

Under the thrashing of dust in columns

the first man alone is required to raise his eyes.

 

The others follow the heel that precedes them,

the voyage on foot is a trail of backs.

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What’s New in Translation: April 2019

The latest in translated fiction, reviewed by members of the Asymptote team.

Looking for new books to read this April? Look no further with this edition of What’s New in Translation, featuring new releases translated from Thai, German, and Brazilian Portuguese. Read on to find out more about Clarice Lispector’s literature of exile, tales of a collection of eccentric villagers, and a comic book adaptation of Bertolt Brecht.

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Tales of Mr. Keuner by Bertolt Brecht and Ulf K., translated from the German by James Reidel, Seagull Books, 2019

Review by Josefina Massot, Assistant Managing Editor

If Brecht’s bite-sized, biting tales of Mr. Keuner can be thought of as a corpus, it isn’t by virtue of their “what,” “when,” “where,” or “how”: they deal with everything from existentialism to Marxist politics, have often hazy settings, and run the gamut from parable to poem; it’s the titular “who” that pulls these sundry musings together.

Until recently, their fellowship was purely formal: Mr. Keuner (also known as Mr. K) was practically nondescript, a mere “thinking man” whom Walter Benjamin traced back to the Greek keunos and the German keiner—a universal no one. This seemingly baffling figure would have made sense given the original tales’ fifth W, their “why”: since they were meant to edify general audiences, they would have gained from as null a champion as possible. After all, a man stripped of his traits is stripped of individuality, untainted by bias; he is the ultimate thinker, the voice of global truth. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

On our itinerary are independent bookstores in Boston, a bistro on the Tripoli port, and the curious outskirts of Paris.

This week, we’ve come across a spoil of literary riches! Big international names come to show in eastern USA, cultural collectives take full advantage of the historic wonders of Lebanon, and, in France, the académie Goncourt is always up to something. Our editors at the front are here to share the treasures.

Nina Perrotta, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the USA:

New York may be the undisputed publishing capital of the US, but the nearby city of Boston, just a few hours away by car, is also home to a thriving literary scene. Birthplace of the 19th century American Transcendentalism movement (notable members include Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott), Boston boasts one of the country’s richest literary traditions, and it remains a hub for writers and independent booksellers today.

Early last year, one of the city’s most prominent bookstores, the Brookline Booksmith, launched the Transnational Literature Series in partnership with Words Without Borders and the Forum Network. The series “focuses on books concerned with migration, displacement, and exile, with particular emphasis on works in translation,” and hosts conversations between writers and their translators. Previous Transnational Literature Series events have featured Ivana Bodrožić with translator Ellen Elias-Bursać, Olga Tokarczuk with translator Jennifer Croft, and Luljeta Lleshanaku with translator Ani Gjika.

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Translator of the Month: Tess Lewis

To me, much of the most exciting and innovative writing in any language takes place on the margins.

Award-winning translator Tess Lewis was first drawn to the Swiss author Monique Schwitter by two “quirky and rather dark” short story collections. Schwitter’s first full novel, One Another, is now an Asymptote Book Club selection, and Tess Lewis tells Asymptote Assistant Editor Chris Power why she couldn’t wait for a chance to translate it to English.

In the latest edition of our monthly Book Club interview series, we also discover the roles Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill played (indirectly!) in translating One Another and learn why a particular type of coffee nearly led to the English edition of the book being published with extensive endnotes.

Chris Power (CP): How did you end up translating One Another?

Tess Lewis (TL): Monique’s quirky and rather dark short stories in Goldfish Memory and If it Snows at the Crocodile Pen won me over when I read them years ago. So when I had the opportunity in 2014 and ’15 to curate Festival Neue Literatur, the New York City literary festival that showcases fiction from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, she was at the top of my list of writers. In 2015, the Festival’s theme was “Love and Money,” and because so many of her stories are about the different forms intimacy can take, about connections made and abysses that open up between friends, lovers, family members, and even strangers, she was a perfect fit for the “love” side. In fact, her participation in the festival was a great preview of how deftly she plays with readers’ expectations on a topic as well-trodden as love, sometimes meeting these expectations, sometimes subverting them, and sometimes going off on a tangent.

I couldn’t wait for her to finish her first novel—which turned out to be One Another—and am delighted that I was able to translate it.

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Close Approximations: In Conversation with Poetry Winner Daniel Owen

It's like an exorcism and a prayer for long life in one breath.

This year’s winner of the Poetry category in Asymptote’s fourth annual Close Approximations Translation Contest was Daniel Owen. Poetry judge Eugene Ostashevsky called Alfizal Malna’s text “intellectual poetry of the highest caliber,” praising Owen for his “elegant, reserved English,” and for offering readers “a beautiful thing of clear obscurity” in his translations of Malna’s Document Shredding Museum.

We recently caught up with Yogyakarta-based Daniel to learn more about his work with the legendary Afrizal Malna, the process of “unsomeoneification,” and what he has been up to since winning the Close Approximations contest in January.

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): I found your translations of Document Shredding Museum to be incredibly beautiful and inviting; no easy feat given the complexity of Malna’s writing. How did you first come to Afrizal Malna and his work?

Daniel Owen (DO): I met Afrizal at Kampung Buku Jogja, an annual literary event in Yogyakarta with a book fair, readings, and discussions. I had just come to stay awhile in Jogja to intensively study Indonesian language and to read and subsequently translate Indonesian literature. While my Indonesian was okay when we first met, I hadn’t yet read much and was quite ignorant of the literary landscape. We were introduced by my friends, the writers and small press publishers Lelaki Budiman and Tiaswening Maharsi, after Afrizal’s discussion on theater and poetry with Gunawan Maryanto. I bought a copy of his new book of short stories, Pagi Yang Miring Ke Kanan (Nyala, 2017) and we chatted a bit. Following our initial meeting, I started reading Afrizal’s work pretty intensely, the short stories along with poems I found on the internet, and then his book of essays Sesuatu Indonesia. I found myself entranced by the poems; it was like encountering something extremely familiar yet at the same time novel. That kind of tickling of the sensibilities that’s both troubling and pleasurable, takes you, as a reader, outside yourself while making you feel more yourself. I started translating these poems which I’d found online, primarily to see what would happen and to share them with non-Indonesian-speaking friends who asked about what I was reading, thinking about, engaging with. And then I borrowed Museum Penghancur Dokumen from Budiman, read the whole thing and started translating it.

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Translation Tuesday: “Mulberries” by Mahmoud Saeed

I offered him my heartfelt thanks while panting because I was so frightened that my spirit had virtually left my body. Privately I praised God.

In this week’s Translation Tuesday, Mahmoud Saeed brings us a tale that transverses multiple nations and seemingly multiple visions of time. With the transitive nature of a fable and the striking imagery of reality, this story turns and dreams and lingers, much like the sweetness of remembered fruit.

I wasn’t merely delighted when I saw a mulberry tree in Chicago, I was so ecstatic that—as we say in Iraq—I felt I was flying. When we say this, we really feel we are aloft, even though none of us ever did fly into the air whether from happiness or sorrow. The point is that I rushed over to it and stood beneath its branches, which were heavily laden with a crop of delectable fruit.  Many mulberries had fallen and created a large, solid circle around it, turning the earth a deep blue-black color. I didn’t even know how long it had been since I tasted a mulberry! Perhaps it had been a quarter century, and that had been in Turkey, where I had eaten white mulberries that gleamed in the sunshine. Each of those mulberries had been almost as long as my thumb, but thicker, and that was the first time I had seen such large mulberries. Their taste was extremely delicious, and each one almost melted between my teeth, filling my mouth with its unique juice. Once this enters the stomach, it is a balm that cures almost all digestive complaints.

In America, there are a few types of mulberry, but none of them rivals the distinctive taste of the mulberry that grows back home in Iraq. The taste here is either sweet-sour or sweet in such a flavorless way that it doesn’t appeal to the taste buds. It may also be sweet but have a bitter aftertaste. In any case, in America I’ve never found a variety of mulberry I like without reservation. When I spotted this particular tree with its black mulberries, I decided to try them and put some in my mouth. READ MORE…

Small Streams That Grow into the Main Flow of the Novel: An Interview with Radka Denemarková

I just want to speak the truth because I cannot stay silent about the pain affecting others.

Radka Denemarková is a unique phenomenon on the Czech literary scene. A true polymath, she has written plays, scenarios, short and long novels, a double novel that can be read from both ends, translations, and essays. On April 7, she was awarded the Book of the Year award at the Magnesia Litera ceremony, making her the only four-time winner of the most prestigious literary award in the Czech Republic. Her most noticeable works include Money from Hitler (2006), which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who returns to her home village in Czechoslovakia only to be denied existence; Sleeping Disorders, a humorous play featuring Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ivana Trump; and A Contribution to the History of Joy (2014)—of which Asymptote published a partial translation—a reflection on violence disguised as part essay, part crime novel. Finally, her most recent novel is Lead Hours, a major work expanding over 700 pages, spanning China and Europe, and exploring the fate of a series of characters witnessing the crumbling of their value system as they face life crises. Denemarková was also featured in Asymptote as a translator, and is now translated into over fifteen languages, including Chinese. She is currently working on her next novel.

Filip Noubel (FN): Your latest novel, Hodiny z olova, which can be translated as Lead Hours, just came out in January. What does the title refer to, and why is China such a prominent theme in this 700 page-long major work? 

Radna Denemarková (RD): The reason for China being the center stage of my novel comes out of a series of trips I made to that country, the first in 2013. I was literally shocked by what I experienced there: the breaking down of a socio-political system combined with the consequences of globalization, and how all of this affects us in the most intimate way. Initially, I had a very idealized notion of China, shaped by the little knowledge I had about its poetry, calligraphy, and philosophy. What I hadn’t expected at all was the brutality of daily life.

The main issue in China we face concerns how economic pragmatism changes the human soul, and how we can bring back the notion of humanism in our daily language. While the world seems to embrace new forms of totalitarian ideologies, we need a new language. People are afraid to speak openly. People report on each other even within the family circle. In Beijing, in the case of a car accident, people accepted as normal the fact that the male driver of an expensive car hit a woman because she was poor and uneducated and had no business ‘getting in the way.’

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Start your spring off with literary dispatches from around the world!

With the arrival of spring comes a new slate of literary translations, festivals, and events all over the world. In Iran, we follow the sprouting of two new literary journals and several translations challenging the country’s censorship laws; in Hungary, we look forward to the 26th Budapest International Book Festival and the season of literary awards; and in Brazil, we discover a range of upcoming events celebrating such topics as independent publishing, the Portuguese language, and International Women’s Day.

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting for Iran

March 20 marked the spring equinox, Nowruz (the Persian New Year), and the celebrations around it. To see the previous year off and welcome the new one, in addition to providing their readers with reading material for the holiday season, Iranian journals have long published special issues, each covering a range of diverse topics including, but not limited to: economy, philosophy, sports, film, and literature.

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Reinventing the Novel: Gregor von Rezzori’s Abel and Cain in Review

This book is as much a novel as it is a repudiation and critique of novel-writing.

Abel and Cain by Gregor von Rezzori, introduction by Joshua Cohen, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel, and Marshall Yarbrough, New York Review Books, 2019

Gregor von Rezzori published Der Tod meines Bruders Abel in 1976, and the book was translated by Joachim Neugroschel into English in 1985. What the back of the book describes as a “prequel” (the term doesn’t quite fit) was published posthumously in German in 2001 as Kain. Das Letzte Manuskript and appears for the first time in English in this edition. The book is structured by four folders that lie in front of the narrator after he enjoys an evening with a prostitute: “Pneuma,” “A,” “B,” and “C.” The contents of the first three folders compose the first book (“Abel”), while “Cain” unveils the last folder (“C”).

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Classic Texts in Translation: David Buchta on the Bhagavad Gītā

It’s the fact that it’s been this vibrant text for millennia that makes it such an important text for us to read today.

Today’s post is the first installment in our new blog series, “Classic Texts in Translation,” in which we speak with scholars and experts about the challenges of translating canonical texts from around the world. In today’s interview, Assistant Blog Editor Nina Perrotta talks with Professor David Buchta of Brown University about the Bhagavad Gītā, an ancient Sanskrit text that forms part of the larger epic poem known as the Mahābhārata. Their conversation touches on the specific difficulties of translating complex philosophical and theological terms from Sanskrit into English, the questions around authorship that make interpreting classical Sanskrit texts particularly challenging, and the reasons that the Bhagavad Gītā has been such an influential text, both within India and around the world, for millennia.

Nina Perrotta (NP): I want to start off by asking you, in a general way, about some of the biggest challenges of translating Sanskrit into English.

David Buchta (DB): Sure. In some ways, it’s a hard question to answer in a general way, just because you’re talking about this language that has such an enormously long history, such a huge library of literature, and such a wide range. This would be the same for Latin or Greek—the kinds of challenges you face in one genre versus another are going to be radically different.

On the one hand, you’ve got these poems that have two meanings simultaneously, and that obviously is going to introduce one whole set of translation challenges. I often say this about Sanskrit: it’s such a highly cultivated language. In other words, the people who used the language cared about it, thought about it, put their time and energy into developing its toolbox. As a result, if you’re a skilled writer, you can, if you want to, be extremely precise and unambiguous, or you can be extremely ambiguous. There are these poems where you can tell seven stories all at once. It just depends on how the words are interpreted, whether the same sequence of syllables is broken into two words or three words, for example. You have these different ways that you can go if you’re skilled enough at using the language.

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Translation Tuesday: “Grandpa’s Little Glove” by Ilka Papp-Zakor

So I waited there under the tree, and Grandpa was slowly absorbed by the fog, which drizzled and grew ever thicker.

During a routine mushroom-picking expedition in the forest, a wheelchair-bound child gets separated from her grandfather and is left to face the forces of nature on her own. In today’s Translation Tuesday, Ilka Papp-Zakor takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that comes to a surreal and haunting conclusion.

Grandpa’s beard was made of cotton, and his face of crinkled crepe paper. His hands shook, so he almost always spilled his tea, but his eyes were beautiful. I liked to watch him read his old books in the evenings, squinting by the light of the oil lamp—we didn’t have electricity in our shack—rocking back and forth in his rocking chair, the corners of his eyes smiling delicately from time to time, which is how I could tell where he was in his book. I knew all his books by heart. That’s how our evenings would pass. He’d rock in his chair, I’d stare at him, and sometimes, when I’d grow bored of staring, I’d roll around in my wheelchair. Grandpa didn’t like that, because the wheels made an ugly sound on the uneven plank floors. But he loved me anyway.

He said I’d be a beautiful girl if it weren’t for my distorted features, my underdeveloped legs and mangled hands, but I was happy there was something about me that he liked. I had long, curly, golden hair, a little reddish. Grandpa said the bridge of my nose was freckled, though I’d never seen it myself, because our shack didn’t have a mirror either, and I couldn’t lean so far out of my wheelchair over puddles to catch my reflection clearly. In any case, Grandpa said these features were my sex appeal, and that when I’d have kids, I should strive to pass onto them only these two features, because they wouldn’t get very far with the rest. At the time, it was difficult to imagine that I’d someday have a family, and kids of my own, because I didn’t know anyone else besides Grandpa.

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Narrative Repatriation: Inari Sámi Folklore: Stories from Aanaar in Review

Frandy’s edition openly rebels against the moment when these stories were first recorded.

Inari Sámi Folklore: Stories from Aanaar by August V. Koskimies and Toivo I. Itkonen, revised by Lea Laitinen, and edited and translated by Tim Frandy, University of Wisconsin Press, 2019

Whatever the cosmopolitan politics of many people living in cities like London, New York, or Paris, the majority of museums in such places continue to struggle with the colonizing narratives forwarded not only by the layout of the physical space of the museum—a prime example being the room dedicated solely to Egypt, separate from the rest of the African continent—but also by the fact that many objects within these collections were stolen, looted, or otherwise removed from the communities that produced them.

Should these objects be returned or, in an argument that many see as dripping with colonial paternalism, are they indeed “safer” under the protection of Western institutions? One only need think of the ongoing controversy surrounding the so-called “Elgin” Marbles and their possible repatriation, or any number of recent developments concerning Native American peoples in the United States requesting the return of sacred objects, to understand how such objects touch on themes like intellectual and cultural sovereignty in the twenty-first century. The “Elgin” Marbles may have inspired Keats’s meditation on truth and beauty, but how would these same marbles appear, at a distance, to a poet writing from Greece during the Romantic period or in the age of Brexit? How would the nature of the marbles’ famed “truth” and “beauty” appear to someone who understood them as a piece of cultural heritage that had been looted for the express benefit of a cosmopolitan other? What would the return, or so-called repatriation, of such objects mean not only for those who have been robbed of such items, but for the descendants of those who stole them in the first place?

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