Monthly Archives: November 2019

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

This week's literary news comes from Chile, Guatemala, and the UK.

This week our writers report on a timely translation of a Chilean novel, a new translation of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s classic, The Little Prince, into Kaqchikel, literary prizes in Guatemala, and grime rapper Stormzy’s pop-up publishing event in London. Read on to find out more!

Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Santiago

In a recent op-ed in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera (October 19, 2019; trans. Natasha Wimmer published in The Paris Review), writer Nona Fernández speculates as to the nature of the “big joke” responsible for the massive protests against President Sebastián Piñera’s neoliberal policies, among other social and political issues:

The fare hike? The minister of the economy’s advice to take advantage of cheaper early morning fares and get up at 6 A.M.? The pizza that President Piñera is eating right now at an upscale Santiago restaurant, deaf to the voice of the city? The pathetic pensions of our retirees? The depressing state of our public education? Our public health? The water that doesn’t belong to us? The militarization of Wallmapu, the ancestral territory of the Mapuche people? The incidents apparently staged by soldiers to incriminate Mapuches? The shameful treatment of our immigrants? The hobbling of our timid abortion law, due to government approval of conscientious objection for conservative doctors? The ridiculous concentration of privileges in the hands of a small minority? Persistent tax evasion by that same minority? The corruption and embezzlement scandals within the armed forces and the national police? The media monopoly of the big conglomerates, owners of television channels, newspapers, and radio stations? The constitution written under the dictatorship that still governs us to this day? Our mayors, representatives, and senators who once worked for Pinochet? Our pseudodemocracy?

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What’s New with the Crew? (Nov 2019)

From being appointed President of ALTA to launching new poetry collections, Asymptote staff have been dazzling the world!

Is Asymptote edited anonymously? That was what someone seemed to suggest recently on Twitter—as if we were a bunch of bots. As a matter of fact, our editor-in-chief—and only full-time team member—is based in Taipei (although he made an appearance in a London translation symposium recently, which you can read about below), where he collaborates with 90+ team members from around the globe. Being virtual means our team members are often active (and physically present) literary citizens in other arenas. For evidence, look no further than this quarterly update celebrating our staff’s recent accomplishments.

Chris Tanasescu (aka MARGENTO, editor-at-large for Romania & Moldova) jointly presented with Diana Inkpen a paper on “Poetry beyond Poetry: Applying GraphPoem Outcomes in DH, NLP, and Performance” at DH Benelux 2019.

Please join us in congratulating Ellen Elias-Bursać, contributing editor, appointed to President of the American Literary Translators Association on Nov 7.

Editor-at large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood‘s most recent co-translations with Peter Sherwood Big Love by Balla and The Night Circus and Other Stories by Ursula Kovalyk were recently reviewed in The London Magazine by assistant editor Andreea Scridon.

José García Escobar, editor-at-large for Central America, published the first installment in a four-part series about last year’s migrant caravan at the Evergreen Review on Oct 30. READ MORE…

Wind and Wood and Word Sonnets: Toward a Multilingual Tradition in Translation

Wind and Wood reveals new possibilities for translation and reinforces the maxim that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Poetry is a living creature; the aim of translators is not to tame it, but to cut its reins so that it may run free. This exceptional variousness is exemplified in the quadrilingual edition of word sonnets by Seymour Mayne: Wind and Wood, published in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. This work is the second sequence of Mayne’s larger collection, Cusp: Word Sonnets (2014), which marked fifty years since his poetry first appeared in Montreal. A translation of the entire collection into Russian (translated by Mikhail Rykov, Silver Age press) was launched on October 24 at Library and Archives Canada. In this essay, Daniel Persia, Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Brazil, discusses the new territory that this tremendous edition breaches, the generous particularities of Mayne’s form, and the dimensions of a single line, in different clothing.

Why settle for a good poem in one language when you can read it in four? Canadian poet and translator Seymour Mayne takes the art of the word sonnet to a new level in his quadrilingual collection Wind and Wood, published by Malisia Editorial (Argentina) just last year. In addition to an interview with Mayne himself—in which the author talks about the “intimate and creative relationship” between writer and translator—the collection brings thirty-three word sonnets, originally written in English, into Spanish (Mariá Laura Spoturno et al.,) French (Véronique Lessard and Marc Charron,) and Portuguese (Maria da Conceição Vinciprova Fonesca). Transcending the traditional two-language paradigm while exploring themes of aging, nostalgia, and the passing of time, Wind and Wood reveals new possibilities for translation and reinforces the age-old maxim that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
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Translation Tuesday: “The Most Solemn Song” and “Asleep in a Haze” by Nadia Anjuman

No one reads the book of your heart’s happy anthems

This week’s Translation Tuesday features the devotional work of Nadia Anjuman. Under pressure, the poems sing out—but not so much to the divine Patriarch as do many religious songs. Created under political pressure in Afghanistan, Anjuman’s poems speak to a feminine subject free from repressive structures. When she says “If one strand of hope finds me” one gets the impression that the “me” is the subject who speaks free of the restraints of strict gender norms. The self is shuttled into wispy metaphors of string and haze, surviving, on the back of lyric, as opaque lightness. The style of Islamic mystics is breathlessly combined with resolutely feminist concerns—the result is a dire urgency. Anjuman ultimately died under the same oppression she was writing against, and her poems give testament to the pervasiveness and resilience of song. The stakes are high here—read carefully. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation: November 2019

November’s best new translations, chosen by the Asymptote staff.

November brings plenty of exciting new translations and our writers have chosen four varied, yet equally enriching and timely works: Bohumil Hrabal’s memoir that is at once a detailed study of humans’ relationship with cats and an exploration of dealing with mounting pressures and stress; a debut collection of Chilean short stories which explores social and economic difficulties and sheds light on some of the causes behind Chile’s recent social unrest; Hiromi Kawakami’s follow-up novella to the international bestseller, Strange Weather in Tokyo; and a novel set on the Chagos Archipelago which recounts the expulsion of Chagossians from the island of Diego Garcia and examines cultural identity and exile. Read on to find out more!

hrabal_all_my_cats_jacket

All My Cats by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson, New Directions, 2019

Review by Katarzyna Bartoszyńska, Educational Arm Assistant

Bohumil Hrabal’s All My Cats is not for the faint of heart. Though fans of the author will recognize and appreciate the quirky humor and lyrical melancholy, one must also be prepared to take on the harsher aspects of the story, and I suspect that the uninitiated may find the descriptions of cats being murdered a bit much to take. The short memoir documents the author’s relationship to the feral cats living in his country cottage in Kersko, and his anguished labors to brutally limit their number. It is a lovely homage, and a richly evocative account of the pleasures of feline companionship, with lush descriptions of their delicate paws and velvety noses. We become acquainted with each individual kitty and their distinctive markings, habits, and personalities, but these rhapsodic stories are punctuated by episodes of grim slaughter that are depressingly specific—a morose account of an awful deed. And so, gradually, horrifyingly, this becomes a book about guilt and how it shapes one’s worldview, producing a strange reckoning of crime and punishment that reads retribution in the random alignments of events.

Witnessing Hrabal shuttling back and forth between his life in Prague and Kersko, we begin to notice that his concerns about his cats are combined with a steadily accumulating sense of anxiety and torment about his work, neighbors, and life. “What are we going to do with all those cats?” his wife asks, in an echoing refrain, as new litters of kittens, inexorably, arrive. The book is about the cats, but we start to realize that it is also not about the cats, not really, but rather, about how Hrabal struggles to manage the various stresses of his life more generally as he gains success and recognition as a writer. Haunted by his guilt over the murdered creatures, he surveys the world around him, reflecting on the relationship between art and suffering, and increasingly begins to feel that he is a plaything of fate, doomed to unhappiness, with no choice but surrender. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Our editors have you covered with the latest news in world literature!

This week, our editors report on the commemoration of Amjad Nasser, one of Jordan’s most celebrated writers, as well as Syrian poet Adonis’ discussion with his translator Khaled Mattawa at London’s Southbank Centre. From Brazil, the International Literary Festival of the Peripheries (FLUP) and the Mulherio das Letras have taken place, with both festivals seeking to give voice to underrepresented writers and speakers. In France, the winners of two of the most prestigious literary awards were announced at the beginning of the week. Read on to find out more!

Ruba Abughaida, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Lebanon

This week, word-lovers celebrate the life and work of Jordanian poet, novelist, essayist, and travel memoirist Amjad Nasser (1955-2019), who launched his writing career as a journalist and activist for Palestinian rights. His debut poetry collection, Praise for Another Café, was published in 1979 when he was just twenty-four years old. A Map of Signs and Scents, a collection of sixty poems spanning from 1979-2014 and published by Northwestern University Press, features new English translations of his work by Fady Joudah and Khaled Mattawa.

In 2014, his poem A Song and Three Questions, was praised by Saison Poetry Library as “one of the fifty greatest love poems of the last fifty years.” Translator Jonathan Wright said of Nasser’s lyrical novel Land of No Rain: “I’m not sure what to call Land of No Rain. The publishers call it a novel. I call it a meditation.” 

The UK’s Southbank Literature Festival saw Syrian poet Adonis in conversation with Khaled Mattawa, Libyan poet and Adonis’ regular translator. They discussed poetry, translation, the blurred cultural lines between geographical points of East and West, and read their poems to a packed audience.  READ MORE…

Announcing Our October Book Club Selection: And the Bride Closed the Door by Ronit Matalon

Redemption, Matalon appears to be saying, demands something like inclusive ambiguity.

Ronit Matalon is known for her unwavering aesthetic, keen social awareness, and profound insight into family. For the month of October, Asymptote Book Club is proud to present her latest novel, And the Bride Closed the Door. Awarded Israel’s prestigious Brenner Prize a day before she died of cancer, this humorous and tender work captures a chaotic politics in the intimate microcosm of a single family, combining Matalon’s tremendous literary talents with her passion for interrogating identity, both public and private.

An apology and very special thank you to our European subscribers, who’ve had to wait a bit longer than usual for the book to reach them (hence, too, this somewhat late announcement). Though it’s been famously said that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays couriers from the swift completion of their rounds,” today’s postal service must fend with much more than the elements; there’s no accounting for logistic mishaps on a global scale! Luckily, thanks to New Vessel and Asymptote’s efforts, Europe-bound copies of the book were finally rescued from postal limbo. Our loyal subscribers will now all receive a lasting gift: a brilliant author and activist writing in her singular language, rescuing empathy from the tumult.

The Asymptote Book Club is bringing the foremost titles in translated fiction every month to readers in the US, the UK, and the EU. For as little as USD15 per book, you can sign up to receive next month’s selection on our website; once you’re a member, you can join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

And the Bride Closed the Door by Ronit Matalon, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, New Vessel Press, 2019

Young Margie locks herself up in her bedroom on her wedding day. Save for a brief but damning avowal“Not getting married. Not getting married. Not getting married”—she falls silent for hours. Efforts to dissuade her prove useless: after pleading, pounding, and heatedly debating the merits of a locksmith, her relatives turn to a company said to quell pre-wedding jitters. The firm’s appointed expert can’t get the bride to open the door, but manages to tap on her third-floor window after an electrician from the Palestinian Authority chips in with his lift truck. Little comes of their gymnastics, however: Margie issues a handwritten “sorry” and retreats. The scant missive and a gender-tweaked excerpt from a classic Israeli poem are her only hints at communication. READ MORE…

The Harmony of Normalcy: Wang Anyi’s Fu Ping in Review

In the patchwork format by which this novel takes its shape, the reader is as involved and intimate with the surroundings as one of the characters.

Fu Ping by Wang Anyi, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, Columbia University Press, 2019

First, do not create extraordinary circumstances or extraordinary characters. Second, do not use too much material. Three, do not over-stylize the language. Four, do not aspire to be singular.

These strange and somewhat alienating pillars of writing philosophy are passed on to us by Wang Anyi, one of China’s most accomplished and notorious authors. Famed for her meticulous portrayals of female tenacity, ordinary citizens, and everyday minutia, she is both stylistically audacious and devoted to her subjects. Fu Ping, her most recent novel to be translated into English, and taken into a wonderfully equal rendition by Howard Goldblatt, exemplifies the thematic and aesthetic constants prevalent in her oeuvre, while simultaneously creating an illumination of city and community that leaves remarkably deep impressions by way of its quietude. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “The Hot-Air Balloon” by Vassilis Alexakis

In reality, it’s like all words, with good and bad attributes, capable of protecting a thought as much as betraying a meaning.

This week’s Translation Tuesday features microfiction by Vassilis Alexakis. “The Hot-Air Balloon” begins and ends in an ambiguity, thickly described. The prose is structured around a choice without mooring, a choice that presents itself only to give way to the realization that a language system is something that only appears all-encompassing. By intellectualizing the feeling of infinite choice within a closed system and the eventual choice to leave it, Alexakis acutely describes a weightlessness only obtainable by those who walk between epistemologies. In the end, it is the feeling of the transcendence of the system, thematized as an air-balloon, that prevails. It is only through a meditation on words that we can unmoor ourselves from a system. This airy story depicts well the critical posture, especially of those with multiple languages to rely on.

I was asked to write a definition for a word without knowing which one. I had no hesitation. The more arduous a task, the more it fills me with joy. If I’d been given a word, I would’ve felt some pressure; I would’ve felt trapped. Now that I’ve briefly surveyed the entirety of the lexicon, I feel free as if I were being carried in a hot-air balloon.

Is it a masculine or feminine-gendered word? From my point of view, this question is of no concern. Besides, it’s not uncommon for a word’s synonyms to be of the opposite gender. READ MORE…

Olga Tokarczuk and Polish Literature’s Home Army

Poland has been using art to revitalize—or reform—its postwar image.

“I and motherland are one. My name is Million, because for millions do I love and suffer agonies.” Adam Mickiewicz’s words from his dramatic cycle Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) are indicative of Poland’s long tradition of voicing resistance and examining its national identity through literature. Last month, acclaimed Polish writer and past Asymptote contributor Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, and yet has also outraged many conservatives in her own country. In this essay, Cynthia Gralla takes us through the history of resistance in Polish literature in the twentieth century, before examining Tokarczuk’s own challenge, defiance, and her place in such a history.

The past hundred years in Polish literature have been, by one reading, a history of resistance through weaponized words.

Poland has made resistance an art. Born into a Polish-American family, I have heard tales of my relatives’ wartime resistance work since childhood. Between 2012 and 2014, I lived in Lublin, Poland, conducting research into their activities during Nazi occupation with the help of a Fulbright grant. My relatives served as ski couriers in what eventually became known, in 1942, as the Armia Krajowa—literally “the Home Army.” Before that, it was called Związek Walki Zbrojnej, or “the Union of Armed Struggle”, and the Służba Zwycięstwu Polski, or “Polish Victory Service”. The name mattered little; all were incarnations of the Polish Resistance, the heart of a national body so conditioned by the vicissitudes of history and occupation that it began beating again as soon as Germany invaded. It also beat steadily throughout the nineteenth-century partitioning of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, in the classrooms of that century’s “flying university” (which educated luminaries like Marie Salomea Skłodowska, also known as Marie Curie, when teaching youth in Polish was forbidden,) and during the parched years of Communism. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

The latest in world letters from Beijing, Oklahoma, and the UK.

Three superpowers this week compete for our attention with their respective updates in the realm of national literature. Our editors bring you news this week from the Beijing Literature Summit, the results of the Neustadt Prize in Oklahoma, and the continued fallout of the 2019 Booker Prize award in the UK. Read on to find out more!  

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting for China

“Beijing is the country’s literary mecca,” articles enthusiastically parroted this month as the nation’s capital held the 4th Beijing Literature Summit on October 18. Though the multifold of equally rich literary cities in this vast country could dissent, the summit and forum nevertheless overtook headlines as well-established members of the Beijing literati took the stage in the square at Zhengyangmen, the immediate heart of the city. Attendees included preeminent novelists Liang Xiaosheng 梁晓声 and Liu Qingbang 刘庆邦, and the poet Yang Qingxiang 杨庆祥 (a leader of “new scar poetry”), as well as an assembly of Beijing’s foremost scholars, critics, and publishers.

The talks concentrated around three predominant themes: the past, present, and future of Beijing literature. Throughout the seventy years of the People’s Republic of China, literary culture in Beijing remained at the forefront of the country’s social and cultural reality, thereby receiving the most immediate impact from the tumultuous chronology of the country as a whole. In discussing the tremendous weight of history, Liang stated that the past is not overbearing but exists in a continuous exchange with the present. The question is, he said: “How should we use the text to state it?”

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