Monthly Archives: July 2019

Translation Tuesday: Three Poems by Zackary Sholem Berger

The night sings in my arms. / It’s bedtime, flesh-and-blood.

The newest issue of Asymptote is coming out this Thursday, and in anticipation of our special Yiddish Poetry Feature, we bring you three poems from poet and translator Zackary Sholem Berger. Translated from the Yiddish, these poems are inventive and playful even as they explore serious and philosophical themes.

Guilty

This bird in town

Eyes me up and down:

My sin is known

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What’s New in Translation: July 2019

Four reviews of translations you won't want to miss this month!

From translations by heavyweights like Ann Goldstein and Jennifer Croft to novels by writers appearing for the first time in English, July brings a host of exciting new books in translation. Read on for coming-of-age stories set in Italy and Poland, a drama in rural Argentina, and the tale of a young man and his pet lizard in Japan. 

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A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

In A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award-winning novel, a nameless young woman retrospectively narrates the defining event of her adolescence—the year when the only family she has ever known returns her to her birth family. From the title, the reader can already sense the protagonist’s conundrum. A passive object of the act of being returned, her passivity in her own uprooting threatens to define her identity. Ann Goldstein’s searing translation from the Italian inspires the reader both to accompany the narrator as she wades through the tender memories of that time and to reflect on her or his own family relationships through a new lens.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Literary updates from our editors on the ground in Albania and Slovakia.

As central Europe heats up this month, so does the literary scene! In Albania, an unprecedented $10,000 prize was awarded, while in Slovakia, readings are taking place everywhere: in gardens, on trams, and at an old mill! Read on for details.

Barbara Halla, Assistant Editor, reporting from Albania

Although it is only in its fifth year, the Kadare Prize is one of the most important prizes in Albanian literature at the moment. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that I use this label because the prize bears Kadare’s name, but I think its importance relies more on a few other elements, the first of which is not strictly literary. First of all, the Kadare Prize proclaims to award its winners the sum of $10,000 (though there has been gossip floating around that the awarding body has not been forthcoming with the cash) that includes financial help to get the book published in the first place. A not insignificant amount of money to consider, especially as in the Albanian publishing world, literary agents don’t exist and new authors have to pay publishing houses to get published in the first place.

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That Unnameable “Something”: Mario Levrero’s Empty Words in Review

This struggle for clarity through self-regulated therapy-by-writing is what makes the novel so compelling.

Empty Words by Mario Levrero, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott, Coffee House Press, 2019

“The best part about Coffee House Press books is that they are often difficult to categorise, difficult to describe . . . because they are pushing the boundaries of form, language, syntax, genre, and so on,” says Chris Fischbach, publisher for Coffee House, in a recent interview with Asymptote’s Sarah Moses. Empty Words, the first book by Uruguayan author Mario Levrero to be translated into English (by Annie McDermott), fits this description to a tee. The premise is simple: the narrator, whose voice Levrero claims to be his own with some (potentially heavy) editing, is determined to alter his personality through altering his handwriting. Since, according to graphology, “there’s a profound connection between a person’s handwriting and his or her character,” surely altering one’s handwriting through diligent daily practice would bring about discernible changes in personality.

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Intricacies Through Imagination: The Book of Cairo in Review

The Book of Cairo invites us to this very complex city without committing the crime of exoticizing it.

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The Book of Cairo, A City in Short Fiction, edited by Raph Cormack, translated from the Arabic by multiple translators, Comma Press, 2019

The Book of Cairo, A City in Short Fiction, edited by Raph Cormack, is the newest addition to the “Reading the City” series published by Comma Press (Manchester, UK), collecting stories by local authors from cities around the world. Each story in the book (like those of the other books in the series) is translated into English by a different translator, which makes the book even more multi-vocal, introducing readers to not only writers, but also to translators working from a particular language into English, in this case Arabic.

The stories (except for one) were originally published between 2013 and 2018, making them of the present time and place, and giving us access into the current literary scene of Cairo. The authors are all born in the late 1970s and the ’80s, which makes them part of the young, hopeful generation who took part in the Tahrir Square protests, who made the Arab Spring possible, and who imagined a different future for their country. And it is through the diverse, imagined worlds in the present collection that they investigate the present moment of a city mutually rooted in history and moving toward the future.

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Haim Nachman Bialik 

There is Love in the world, they say. / Love—what is it?

This week features the Hebrew language poetry of Haim Nachman Bialik, a poet and cultural leader who influenced twentieth century Hebrew and Yiddish poetry like few others. Bialik’s commitment to innovation in stylistic Hebrew comes across in these skillful translations, which carry emotion upon a poignant succession of nouns that cover a stirring breadth of emotion in relatively few words. Verdant religious language is foiled by a personal lack. Yearning, the language evokes a sense of constantly thwarted arrival met with evacuation. Yet, the poems brim with hope for the future, foregrounding the hope which gives meaning to the barren condition of the present. Bialik remains the national poet of Israel.

Drops a Sprig in Silence

Drops a sprig in silence
To the fence.
Like him,
I’m mute. Shorn of fruit,
Estranged from branch and tree.
Shorn of fruit, the flower
Memory forgotten,
The leaves do sway,
Sure victims for the gale to slay.
Then the nights do come.
The nightmare—
The gall—
I thrash about in the dark,
I knock my head against the wall.
And spring will come.
Is splendour
A foil
To me, a barren twig,
Which bringeth forth
No fruit, nor flower, nor nill.

Take Me Under Your Wings

Take me under your wings,
Be to me sister and mother.
Let your bosom shelter my head,
Nestle my banished prayers.

Then in twilight, the hour of mercy,
Bend down to me, my anguish I’ll tell thee:
There is Youth in the world, they say.
My youth—where is it?

And another secret I’ll tell:
My soul, it is all burnt out.
There is Love in the world, they say.
Love—what is it?

The stars have all deceived me.
There was a dream, it too has passed.
I have not a thing in the world now.
I have nothing, at last.

Take me under your wings,
Be to me sister and mother.
Let your bosom shelter my head,
Nestle my banished prayers.

Translated from the Hebrew by Dahlia Ephrat 

Haim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), recognized today as the national poet of Israel, wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish. Born in the former Russian Empire, Bialik, who wrote passionately about the persecution of the Jewish people in Russia, moved to Germany and then to Tel Aviv. He had a relationship with Ira Jan, a painter and writer who followed him to Tel Aviv. After his untimely death in surgery, a massive funeral procession mourned down the street which now bears his name, showing his importance as an icon of an emergent Jewish literary movement and a significant cultural leader. During his productive career, Bialik wrote extensively, and his poems are well known to the Israeli public. On top of his poetry and essays, which have now been translated into more than thirty languages and set to music, Bialik translated a book of Talmudic legends called Sefer Ha’agada (The Book of Legends). 

Dahlia Ephrat lives in Tel Aviv, where she was born. She began writing poetry at a young age, and began work as a translator at eighteen. She has translated scores of English language poetry into Hebrew. She remains interested in Hebrew, and embarks on linguistic studies of Hebrew etymology and thought. 

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Read more translations on the Asymptote blog:

Translating Contemporary Tibet: In Conversation with Christopher Peacock

We could say that there isn’t a demand to undermine or challenge our preconceptions of Tibet.

Publishing since the 1980s, Tsering Döndrup’s novels and short stories have been honored with Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese literary prizes. He’s among the most prominent Tibetan writers working today, but as with the great majority of Tibetan fiction, translations of his work remain scarce. This winter, Columbia University Press released the first collection of Döndrup’s work in English, with a suite of stories selected and translated by Christopher Peacock. 

Populated by a dizzying cast of characters—from corrupt lamas and venal deities to the incorrigible Ralo and the souls of the recently deceased—the collection The Handsome Monk and Other Stories presents us with both the diversity of subject matter that only decades of craft and experience can bring, and the discernible unity of vision we expect of a great artist. Peacock’s translation lucidly animates the stories, even as their author arranges separate realities for the action of each to unfold inside. Also preserved is the author’s humor: at times profoundly bleak, but always incisive. In this conversation, we discuss the challenges of translating Tsering Döndrup’s fiction, as well as the position of Tibetan fiction outside Tibet.

Max Berwald (MB): How did you first come to the work of Tsering Döndrup?

Christopher Peacock (CP): I first came to Döndrup through my academic work on contemporary Tibetan literature. I specialize in modern Chinese literature, and I am interested in the ways in which Tibetan writing does and doesn’t fit into the context of literature in modern China as a whole. Tibetan critics have interpreted Tsering Döndrup’s story “Ralo” as an equivalent of Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q, one of the most famous works of modern Chinese fiction. I went to interview the author to get his thoughts on the matter (he doesn’t exactly agree), and while I was writing on the subject I decided to translate “Ralo” for my own use.

I kept on reading his work, and the more I read the more I felt it was essential that such a unique and fascinating writer should be accessible to English readers, especially given the extreme scarcity of modern Tibetan literature available in English. I kept on translating, choosing some stories that I liked personally and some that the author recommended, and eventually we had a collection.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Reporting this week with news from Cambridge, New York, and the UK!

The east coast of the US is thriving this summer season with literary news celebrating new publications by Latin American poets in Cambridge, a reading series at the Bryant Park Reading Room, and many more notable events featuring acclaimed authors. Over in the United Kingdom, writers are also lighting up stages and claiming accolades. Our editors are taking you into this literary landscape.

Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large, reporting from the USA

On Friday, May 24, the famed Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, MA hosted a book launch for two spectacular volumes of Latin American poetry in translation, both of which were recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse: Materia Prima, by Amanda Berenguer (eds. Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson; reviewed in Asymptote in April 2019) and The Winter Garden Photograph, by Reina María Rodríguez (trans. Kristin Dykstra, with Nancy Gates Madsen). Grolier is truly hallowed ground; located on Plympton Street, around the corner from Harvard Square, this specialty bookstore has been in business since 1927 and boasts a collection of over fifteen thousand poetry titles. The launch of these two books took place off-site during the world’s largest conference of Latin American Studies, the Latin American Studies Association’s annual meeting, which featured over five thousand participants. 

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Recovering What Is Missing: In Conversation with C.J. Anderson-Wu

The collective denial of victimhood is the reason why dictatorship lasts, the far-right exists, and inequality prevails.

Chieh-Jane Anderson-Wu (吳介禎) is a Taiwanese author, translator, and publisher of Taiwanese literature in translation. She is partly inspired by the white spots of Taiwan’s recent history, namely the White Terror, a forty-year period of martial law which began in 1949 and witnessed systematic repression within the nation, particularly targeting intellectuals. Pervasive censorship during the White Terror affected literature, but also the lives of many families at a time when secrecy and denial turned into a survival strategy for many. Anderson-Wu has written several works, including the story collection Impossible to Swallow and “Life Looked at From A Single Window,” and is currently working on a new novel.

Filip Noubel (FN): Today Taiwan is one of the freest societies in Asia, yet martial law only ended in 1987, almost forty years after it was first imposed. This period, known as the White Terror, witnessed tremendous political violence: over one hundred and fifty thousand people, including many intellectuals, were arrested, and several thousands were executed. It is also the theme of your collection of short stories called Impossible to Swallow. What has led you to find inspiration in this particular period of Taiwan’s history?

C.J. Anderson-Wu (C.J. A-W): There are several causes, but one of them is my sense of guilt. I did not understand it until I had written several stories. After the Formorsa Incident in 1979, posters of the so-called rebels were everywhere. I was a kid and really believed that they were bad people, that they should be arrested and put in jail. Years went by and as more historical materials were released after the abolishment of martial law, I gradually realized what lies we had lived in. I feel so grateful to those who never backed down and sacrificed so much for the freedom we are enjoying today, and resent my gullibility.

Another thing is that we never had transitional justice. We never had a Nuremberg Trial-type that conducted thorough investigation on what had really happened, why it happened, and who should be responsible. Thus we don’t know how we can prevent it from happening again. Today the past dictators are still worshipped, the days under authoritarian rules are still commemorated, and lies are still believed. I was shocked, in despair, and infuriated. How can people stay ignorant when all the evidence is presented in front of their eyes? How can people feel okay sacrificing the rights that were earned by blood, tears, and sweat?

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Creating What One Cannot Find: In Conversation with Deborah Ekoka

Cervantes called Sevilla “the chess board” because there were as many blacks as there were whites.

Today on the blog, podcast editor Layla Benitez-James draws us into the vibrant but seldom-discussed community of Black writers in Spain. In this essay-interview hybrid, she introduces us to two booksellers working to amplify the voices and and experiences of black Spanish writers.

In the past year, I have interviewed three of the panelists from the 2018 Tampa AWP panel sponsored by ALTA, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” for the Asymptote podcast: Lawrence Schimel, John Keene and, Aaron Coleman. My last interview with Coleman gave me a quote which has been rewritten at the beginning of each new journal I’ve started since December as it got at something that I have often felt but never expressed so well: literary translation is a tool to make more vivid the relationships between Afro-descendent people in the Americas and around the world.

I was reminded of the first time I read Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Of course, nothing overlapped with my life exactly, but there was this kind of constant shock and pleasure at recognizing pieces of my identity described by people from places I had never been, a sense of belonging and kinship.

Beyond dictionaries and historical reference works, in my latest projects I have relied heavily on community to understand the context of the text. I moved to Spain in 2014 to work on translation and improve my Spanish. I had fallen in love with the practice after a translation workshop at the University of Houston and started translating the work of Madrid-born and based poet Óscar Curieses. After a teaching placement in the city of Murcia flung me much farther south than I had originally planned, I began to find incredible Murcian poets, like Cristina Morano, Bea Mirales, José Daniel Espejo, and José Óscar López, whose work I wanted to bring into English.

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Allan Popa

How does one pass on to others / that which is clenched

Allan Popa’s poems are sublime examples of quiet that is every bit as piercing as a shout. Through visions of a body struggling to recognize the world, we are reminded through these subtle, yet vivid lines of what is kept, what is gone, and what is passed on. Wounds, light, reflection—all these things we see with our hands.

My Hands

Once again, I traced the path of a boat that healed the water. I whispered a courtesy and was permitted to pass the same old route. You haven’t gone far, said the stone that first wounded my knee. Yet I had believed it and let the hurrying damselflies through the window. On the roof, the leaves of the coconut are still sweeping their own shadow. The old neighbors are still trying to recognize themselves in the foggy mirror while my own face does not even recognize itself. Ay, if only my hands could be used for cover! How many times have I been let down? How many times have I tried cupping the water with my palms without my sense leaking out? I have nothing to reach you save my hands.

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Impossible Technologies: Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations in Review

The characters and plot points can be imagined as stars in the night sky . . . that give the novel its visible, traceable structure.

Dark Constellations by Pola Oloixarac, translated from the Spanish by Roy Kesey, Soho Press, 2019

The Incas, according to Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations, didn’t see the night sky as we do: instead of what we might call “connecting the dots,” they focused on the darkness between the stars, the shapes formed by negative space. If true—and it’s hard to know what, exactly, is true in Dark Constellations—it’s an intriguing image, one that informs our understanding of the novel’s structure as well as its content.

Dark Constellations, translated into English by Roy Kesey, is the second novel from Pola Oloixarac, one of Argentina’s rising literary stars (pun intended). Like her countrywoman Samanta Schweblin, whose story collection Mouthful of Birds has recently garnered considerable attention, Oloixarac tends to blur the line between science and the supernatural, taking a certain kind of pleasure in repeatedly throwing the reader off balance. Dark Constellations, however, has a much wider range than Schweblin’s stories, skillfully handling subjects as varied as botany, world history, and computer programming. The book’s publisher, Soho Press, calls Dark Constellations “ambitious,” and while I agree completely, I would argue that the novel’s ambition is its greatest weakness as well as one of its strengths. 

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