Book Club

An Interview with Jordan Stump

The words on the page told me everything I needed to know.

Our final Asymptote Book Club selection for 2018 was The Barefoot Woman, Scholastique Mukasonga’s “haunted and haunting love letter” to her mother. In this latest edition of our Book Club interview series, translator Jordan Stump tells Asymptote’s Alyea Canada why he leapt at the chance to translate both The Barefoot Woman and Scholastique Mukasonga’s earlier memoir, Cockroaches, and why “this is a really good time for translation.”

Already broken a few New Year’s resolutions? How about making one you’ll really enjoy? Like reading the world with Asymptote Book Club, now open to E.U. residents! It’s still not too late to pledge to read adventurously in 2019: Sign up for the Asymptote Book Club by Jan 16 and receive your first book in January!

Alyea Canada (AC): How did you come to translate The Barefoot Woman? What drew you to Scholastique Mukasonga’s work in general and to this book in particular?

Jordan Stump (JS): It was Jill Schoolman who introduced me to Mukasonga’s work, not long after Notre-Dame du Nil was published. I was immediately taken by it, so when the chance to translate Cockroaches and The Barefoot Woman came along, I leapt at it immediately. I translate books that say something in a way that strikes me as so perfect I want to try to say it myself—like learning to play a piece of music you particularly love instead of simply listening to it.  Reading is like listening; translating is like playing. There are always many reasons why a given book has that effect on me, but in this case I loved the sharpness of Mukasonga’s eye, the graceful construction of her chapters, the way a story wrapped up in unimaginable loss is told with a little smile, and the way in which that smile sometimes abruptly disappears.

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Announcing our December Book Club Selection: The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

In telling her mother’s story, Mukasonga returns agency to Stefania and the other women of her village.

The Asymptote Book Club enters its second year with a first African title: Scholastique Mukasonga’s The Barefoot Woman, translated by Jordan Stump and published by Archipelago, is a moving tribute to the author’s mother, one of the victims of the Rwandan Genocide.

After visits to Turkey and Croatia in the previous two months, we again find ourselves confronting “the dark and bloody face of history” through the mirror of prose. Mukasonga’s homage to her mother, though, “radiates . . . with warmth and affection,” in the words of our reviewer. “This slim memoir,” says Alyea Canada, “is a haunted and haunting love letter.”

Head to our online discussion page to add your voice to the discussion on The Barefoot Woman. All the information you need to subscribe for future Book Club selections is available on our Asymptote Book Club site, together with a full overview of our first twelve months.

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In Conversation: Ivana Bodrožić

When you tell and retell something, sometimes you reach a point when you can no longer remember the event itself, but only the story.

To mark the anniversary of the Asymptote Book Club, we’re delighted to be publishing our first author-translator interview. Ivana Bodrožić, author of The Hotel Tito, speaks to her English translator, Ellen Elias-Bursać, about the events that led to her debut novel, the book’s initial reception in Croatia and Serbia, and how she went from being “everybody’s sweetheart” to being attacked by nationalist critics.

In a conversation that gets to the heart of the novel, Ivana Bodrožić reveals which scene was most difficult to convey on the page, and explains why she needed a police guard for her book-signing in Belgrade.

Ellen Elias-Bursać (EEB): What started you writing The Hotel Tito?

Ivana Bodrožić (IB): Ever since I first learned how to write I have been writing down anything that seemed important, the things that formed me and my world; in my pre-teen years it was wise sayings, when the war was raging around us I copied out the lyrics of Nirvana and R.E.M songs, I kept a diary. Then I tried my hand at writing my own poetry: when I was sixteen I’d shut myself in my room and by the light of a candle, with a little bottle of vodka, I’d imagine I was Yesenin—until my mother knocked at the door. Writing was always something important for me and a little exalted; I see this now as an attempt at interrogating the world around me. When I came to understand, as an adult, that my childhood had been out of the ordinary, I began to think that in time I’d forget, as people do, all that had made my life what it was, what made my world and me as I am today. That is when I began jotting down fragments of memories and after I’d written out some forty pages I realized I was writing prose that said something, to me. That was the point when I realized I needed a protagonist through whose eyes and heart I’d narrate this piece of my life and the life of my whole generation who grew up during the war. My love of reading and writing and my specific life experience quickly gave The Hotel Tito its shape.

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Announcing our November Book Club selection: The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić

“We talked,” the narrator tells us, “about what it would be like when we returned home,” but the awful truth is that a return becomes impossible.

This November, we’re celebrating the first full year of the Asymptote Book Club. Over the last twelve months, the Book Club has brought its subscribers newly-translated fiction from twelve different languages, taking readers on a journey from the Arctic Circle down to the forests of Bengal, from the Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century to Bangkok in the postmodern era.

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For our November Book Club selection, we’re excited to be showcasing one of the most powerful novels written since the independence of Croatia: a breathtakingly original coming-of-age story set in the aftermath of perhaps the most shocking massacre in recent European history.

For more information on Ivana Bodrožić’s The Hotel Tito, published in English by Seven Stories Press, read Assistant Managing Editor Jacob Silkstone’s review below or head to our online discussion group. If you’re not a Book Club member yet but would like to join us as we head into our second year, all the information you need is available on our Book Club page.

The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Seven Stories Press, 2018

Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone

Literature, according to Ahmet Altan, is our best method of confronting “the dark and bloody face of history.The Hotel Tito, which follows the first volume of Altan’s Ottoman Quartet as an Asymptote Book Club selection, spotlights a particularly dark and bloody episode of Europe’s recent past. Its chosen method of confronting history is no less courageous for being characterised by an impressively original subtlety and a surprising lightness of touch. While the earliest novels about the Yugoslav Wars (Slavenka Drakulić’s As If I Am Not There perhaps foremost among them) seethe with raw energy and anger, Bodrožić’s equally harrowing stories are interspersed with moments of humour: the comedy serves to enhance the tragedy.

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Translating the Ottoman Quartet: An Interview with Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi

In practical terms, communication with the author is difficult: we can only communicate through his lawyers.

Ahmet Altan’s writing is sprawling, ambitious, radical—so radical that the author is currently serving a life sentence on charges of inciting the plotters behind Turkey’s 2016 failed coup. In the latest instalment of the Asymptote Book Club interview series, Altan’s co-translators, Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi, reveal that their only contact with the author is through his lawyers. No written materials can be carried into or out of the prison where Altan is serving his sentence, but work continues on the final volume of the monumental Ottoman Quartet.

In conversation with Asymptote’s Garrett Phelps, Freely and Türedi give us an insight into how they came to translate Altan’s work, and why a novel sequence of novels dealing with the events of the early twentieth century has never felt fresher or more contemporary.

Garrett Phelps (GP): Like a Sword Wound is set during a momentous period in Turkish history and details the cycle of chaos which ultimately results in the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. As translators, did you feel the setting added to your burden of responsibilities?

Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi (BF/YT): Both of us are quite familiar with this period, so the setting as such did not present any particular problem. However, we were aware of the echoes of the current political situation in Turkey, and of how little the main political currents seem to have changed in over a hundred years. In practical terms, although Like a Sword Wound was written in modern Turkish rather than Ottoman Turkish, Ahmet Altan made an effort to reflect the language of the period, often choosing outdated words and phrases. In our initial meeting to discuss the translation, he was concerned about how we would approach this. We agreed to take the same approach he did—that is, to prefer older words and phrasing to evoke the mindset of the period while still keeping the language current enough to avoid alienating contemporary readers.

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Announcing our October Book Club selection: Like A Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan

The novel is a breathless portrait of late-19th century Istanbul — the corrupt, violent and authoritarian core of a failing empire...

Our October Asymptote Book Club selection is the first novel in a quartet that aims to reveal “the dark and bloody face of history.” Earlier this month, a Turkish court upheld a life sentence for the quartet’s author, Ahmet Altan, on charges of aiding the plotters behind the failed military coup in 2016. He continues to work on the final volume of the quartet from inside his cell. Like a Sword Wound can be read as an autopsy on “the sick man of Europe”, the ailing Ottoman Empire at the turn of the last century, but also as a powerful indictment of despotic regimes across history.

We’re proud to be bringing our subscribers a novel of incredible courage, inspired by a belief that literature is close as we can come to finding “an antidote to the poison of power.

If you’re already an Asymptote Book Club subscriber, head to our official Facebook group to continue the discussion; if you haven’t joined us yet, Garrett Phelps’ review should give you a brief taste of the novel, and all the information you need in order to subscribe is available on our Book Club site.

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In Conversation: Mui Poopoksakul

Thailand has become politically divided...so many young Thai writers are now turning back toward the themes of politics and history.

September’s Asymptote Book Club selection, Moving Parts, is a dazzlingly original collection of short stories by Prabda Yoon, “the writer who popularized postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature.”

Translating from Thai to English can be daunting, to the extent that it sometimes feels as though “you can never do the right thing.” Continuing our monthly series of Book Club interviews, Mui Poopoksakul tells Lindsay Semel about the challenges of translating a language with “a multitude of pronouns that are extremely nuanced,” as well as an affinity for elaborate rhyme and alliteration.

Lindsay Semel (LS): I was immediately struck by the aurality of Moving Parts. It’s full of rhyming prose and onomatopoeia. When you interviewed Prabda Yoon for The Quarterly Conversation, you said, “I feel like the alliteration can be recreated sometimes, but rhyming is more of a problem because the Thai ear is far more used to it. Translating Thai, you face the problem of translating poetry. You can never do the right thing. Someone will always say you did the wrong thing because you kept the sound or you kept it straight. It’s a real problem.” His answer didn’t offer much of a solution. Can you talk about some of the more challenging or intriguing examples in Moving Parts of translating what in English might be considered poetic language in prose?  

Mui Poopoksakul (MP): In Thai, people like to say two or three or four synonyms in a row if they rhyme or if they’re alliterative. The sound play isn’t intended to create extra meaning. The Thai ear is used to that sing-song quality, so it doesn’t feel like someone is suddenly breaking into a nursery rhyme. Rhyme was more of an issue in this collection, whereas in The Sad Part Was, the first Prabda Yoon collection I translated, alliteration was more present. In Moving Parts, there were a couple of big moments where Prabda really played up the rhyming—in “Evil Tongue” and in “Eye Spy”—I think as a nod to that element of the Thai language, so I felt that I needed to carry those mini poems over to represent the sound. So there are sentences in those stories where every clause rhymes. With him, these moments aren’t always intended to be particularly lyrical—some are just playful. “Eye Spy” includes a rhyme about theater seats. There are also smaller instances of rhyming: in “Mock Tail,” for example, there’s “flip or slip.” I try to pepper them in, but I also have to watch out that there is not too much of a sing-song quality in the translation.

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Announcing our September Book Club Selection: Moving Parts by Prabda Yoon

Is it a sadder thing to throw oneself unnoticed from the top of a building or to live out one’s days without a functioning butt plug?

Moving Parts, our September Asymptote Book Club selection, is the second book-length English translation of Prabda Yoon’s work, but perhaps the first book (in any genre) ever to culminate in what our reviewer describes as one of life’s “most seductive question[s]: is it a sadder thing to throw oneself unnoticed from the top of a building or to live out one’s days without a functioning butt plug?”

In addition to translating A Clockwork Orange and Lolita into Thai, Prabda Yoon has, according to Words Without Borders, “popularized postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature.”  Bringing Prabda Yoon’s work into English (together with Tilted Axis), Mui Poopoksakul demonstrates a “facility for translating puns” and delivers one of this year’s must-read short story collections. We’re excited to be sharing it with our subscribers in the USA, Canada, and the UK.

If you’d like to receive next month’s Asymptote Book Club pick, all the necessary information is available on our official Book Club page. Current subscribers can join the discussion on Moving Parts, and each of our nine previous titles, through our facebook group.

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In Conversation: Emma Ramadan

I had to insert myself literally as a character, and be creative as a translator.

Our latest Asymptote Book Club selection, Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator, depicts a terrifying scenario for many authors. According to its translator, the main character is “an author’s worst nightmare”: a translator with their own ulterior motives.

In the latest installment of the Book Club interview series, Emma Ramadan (herself one of numerous characters in the multi-layered English translation of Matthieussent’s novel) speaks to Mallory Truckenmiller. Read on to find out more Ramadan’s unique experience translating Revenge of the Translator — a text that offers us a glimpse into “some of our darkest fantasies as translators.”

Follow up this conversation’s insights into the art of translation with our #30issues30days program, celebrating 7 years of Asymptote.

Mallory Truckenmiller (MT): One defining quality of Revenge of the Translator is its translation within a translation structure, with the translator actually entering the plot of the novel. As the English translator, your role adds yet another layer to the work. How did you approach this position? Did you find ways to insert yourself as a new voice or character within your translation?

Emma Ramadan (ER): Because the French novel Vengeance du traducteur is framed as a French translation of a (non-existent) English original titled Translator’s Revenge, creating my own English translation got a bit complicated. I couldn’t use Translator’s Revenge as the title of my translation, and at the end, when the narrator mentions a supposed “American translator” of Vengeance du traducteur currently undertaking the translation of the book into English in their city, that translator had to be me, that city had to be Providence. It had to come full circle and the reader of the English translation had to understand that this was an explicit reference to the book they were currently holding in their hands, a reference to my work, otherwise, the whole conceit falls apart. Which, in turn, adds extra layers: how faithful is this translation I’ve been reading? How much has this book I’m currently holding in my hands about a rogue translator been messed with in turn by its own translator? I had to insert myself literally as a character, and be creative as a translator, to do justice to Matthieussent’s multi-layered work and keep it from veering into total insanity.

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Announcing Our August Book Club Selection: Revenge of the Translator by Brice Matthieussent

A novel in which a translator escapes from the confines of the translator’s note to enter and interact with the text he is translating.

At first glance, the plot of our August Asymptote Book Club selection is simple enough: we’re following the footnotes of an imaginary novel called Translator’s Revenge.

Translator’s Revenge is itself the story of a novel-in-translation, and our knowledge of the text is filtered through our narrator, Trad—a translator who feels that Translator’s Revenge is wholly inadequate and actively attempts to distort the original version. Add together those complex plot layers and you have Vengeance du traducteur, Brice Matthieussent’s perplexingly brilliant reconfiguration of translation theory. Add one further act of prestidigitation and you arrive at Emma Ramadan’s Revenge of the Translator, the English translation of Matthieussent’s prize-winning novel.

Our latest selection, then, comprises at least four books in one. If you’d like to join us in unraveling the threads of the plot, read Mallory Truckenmiller’s review below and then head to our dedicated online discussion page. If you’re not yet an Asymptote Book Club subscriber, there’s still time to sign up for our September selection: all the information you need is available on our official Book Club site.

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In Conversation: Adam Morris

History is not entirely objective; it is what posterity makes of conflicting memories.

“Talk… speak… voice”: each word appears dozens of times in I Didn’t Talk, our July Asymptote Book Club selection. Beatriz Bracher’s novel blends together a chorus of voices, orchestrated by retiring professor Gustavo, to explore one of the darkest periods of Brazil’s history.

In conversation with Asymptote’s Jacob Silkstone, translator Adam Morris outlines how the novel came to be translated into English, why it resonates with a contemporary audience, and why the central question of whether or not Gustavo talked is perhaps best left unanswered.

Jacob Silkstone (JS): What led to you translating I Didn’t Talk? It’s the first of Beatriz Bracher’s four full-length novels to appear in English: do you have a sense of how it compares to Bracher’s other work?

Adam Morris (AM): I proposed I Didn’t Talk for Bracher’s English debut because its thematic concerns, although universal, seemed to possess fresh urgency in the context of ongoing political upheaval in Brazil. Censorship and various forms of state repression have re-emerged, and so has openly expressed nostalgia for a law-and-order society like the one the dictatorships professed to uphold. The crisis of democracy in Brazil is so severe that occasional murmurs of a return to military rule must be taken as a serious threat.

Of course, in the time since I first proposed the translation in 2016, authoritarianism has been on the march all across the world. I did not foresee that happening, but it makes the novel that much more timely—some fourteen years after its publication and nearly half a century since 1970, a pivotal year in Gustavo’s story.

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Announcing Our July Book Club Selection: I Didn’t Talk by Beatriz Bracher

With this translation, Adam Morris introduces a singularly powerful voice of Brazilian contemporary literature to English–language readers.

Under an authoritarian dictatorship, a single sentence can be the difference between life and death. In our July Asymptote Book Club selection, Beatriz Bracher’s I Didn’t Talk, retired professor Gustavo is preparing to leave São Paulo. First, though, he has a more demanding journey to make: a journey that will take him back to a darker time, when he and his brother-in-law were tortured by Brazil’s military regime. Did he talk?

Adam Morris’ English translation of I Didn’t Talk, published by New Directions, has been described as a “brilliant, enigmatic rumination of a novel.” We’re delighted to be sharing it with our Book Club subscribers across the USA, the UK, and Canada.

If you’re not yet a subscriber but want to sign up in time to receive next month’s selection, all the information you need is over on our official Book Club page. Meanwhile, subscribers are more than welcome to join the online discussion via our facebook group.

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Isabel Fargo Cole

What drew me to Berlin was curiosity about the people and their lives in the East.

Wolfgang Hilbig was once “one of German literature’s best kept secrets”, but that needn’t be the case any longer. Thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole’s translations, every bit as “enchantingly brilliant” as the original texts, Hilbig’s work is now available to English readers—including Asymptote Book Club subscribers.

In our monthly Book Club interview, Isabel Fargo Cole talks to Asymptote’s Josefina Massot about the challenges of preserving Hilbig’s “music” in English, and discusses her own journey across borders and languages.

Josefina Massot (JM): Wolfgang Hilbig’s prose has been described as lyrical, and your translation of The Tidings of the Trees certainly is. Part of what makes it so is its cadence—I often stopped to re-read passages out loud. How did you go about translating these? Did you allow yourself to play with sentence structure, for example, in order to preserve the “music” of the original? How do you feel about occasionally straying from the letter of a text in order to preserve its spirit?

Isabel Fargo Cole (IFC): There’s an element of cold analysis—is he using short or long words, terse or convoluted syntax, alliteration, assonance, similarities or contrasts in sound and structure? But often it comes down to an intuitive sense of where the key emphasis in a sentence or passage lies, and how to produce an equivalent in English. I try to preserve Hilbig’s sentence structure as far as possible in English, because that’s what creates much of the music and rhythm. His sentences can be fragmented or elliptical, or unfold into a whole cascade of clauses; the shifting syntax produces shifting rhythms, but also crucially reflects the narrator’s mental state. So the “music” isn’t a distinct element that can be separated out. In general, I’m not sure there’s a hard and fast distinction between the letter and the spirit of a text. It’s a matter of making judgement calls in each particular instance and deciding where the emphasis lies or what motivates the use of a certain word. If I sense that he’s using a word mainly for its sound value and less for its literal meaning, I might feel free to change it. But sometimes the sound value resonates with the meaning, so ideally the English word has to convey the same synthesis.

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Announcing Our June Book Club Selection: The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig

In just under a hundred pages, the protagonist traces a redemptive arc from artistic defeat to political defiance.

In its first seven months, the Asymptote Book Club has brought subscribers brand new translations from seven languages: Spanish, Bengali, Norwegian, Italian, Catalan, Chinese, and now German.

Our magnificent seventh selection will be Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Tidings of the Trees, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Two Lines Press. Writing for an Asymptote feature in memory of Hilbig, Ingo Schulze said that, “It is difficult to talk about Wolfgang Hilbig in terms of a magnum opus. His early or late poems, his early short prose, his novels, his stories—with him, everything is good.”

If you’re already a Book Club member and would like to join our discussion on the writer Krasznahorkai described as “an artist of immense stature”, head to our online discussion page now. If you’re not yet a member, find out how to become part of our community here.

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