Book Club

Co-Translation Across Borders: An Interview with Rachel McNicholl and Sinéad Crowe

As in all good tales and legends, Jarawan’s own narrative style is full of recurring motifs, imagery, and phrases.

How did the co-translators of Pierre Jarawan’s The Storyteller work together to craft a polished final draft—while living in two different countries? In this interview, Rachel McNicholl and Sinéad Crowe, the translators of this month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, tell us about the ups and downs of their long-distance collaboration.

They also discuss how The Storyteller, a novel about a young man born in Germany to Lebanese parents, blends twenty-first century issues of migration and displacement with the ancient Arabic tradition of oral storytelling. Read on for more about the novel’s “central themes of rootlessness, the search for a sense of home and identity, family secrets, and the relationship between fathers and sons.”

Lindsay Semel (LS): Tell me about the experience of collaborating on the translation of a novel. You’ve said in a previous interview that you translated The Storyteller in alternating sections and then underwent an intensive revision process to come to a seamless final draft. Were there any passages that you interpreted differently?

Rachel McNicholl (RMcN): As with most translations, there were some details and nuances that we needed to check with the author. Occasionally, when reviewing each other’s chapters, Sinéad and I realised that we were visualising something slightly differently, even though we’d read the same German text. For example, how exactly the river Berdawni carves up the city of Zahle (in Part II, ch. 5). We consulted online maps and satellite images, of course, but being able to check with the author is even better!

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Announcing our April Book Club Selection: The Storyteller by Pierre Jarawan

The characters search for a sort of Holy Grail, a mystical solution to complicated problems, and they don’t find it.

The April Asymptote Book Club selection sends us to Lebanon for the first time, trailing the footsteps of protagonist Samir as he searches for his father and “struggles to resolve the contradictions and scars of his upbringing into a cohesive identity.”

Pierre Jarawan’s debut novel, The Storyteller, “does for Lebanon what Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner did for Afghanistan, [pulling] away the curtain of grim facts and figures to reveal the intimate story of an exiled family torn apart by civil war and guilt.” The English version of the novel, co-translated by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl, is available thanks to World Editions.

Our Book Club, catering to subscribers across North America and the EU (still including the UK!), has now published titles from seventeen different countries and thirteen different languages, and there’s still an opportunity to sign up for next month’s title via our website. If you’re already a member, join our online discussion here.

The Storyteller by Pierre Jarawan, translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl, World Editions, 2019

Reviewed by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

The protagonist of The Storyteller, Samir, is born in Germany to Lebanese parents who fled their country’s civil war in the 1980s. Like many of his real-life contemporaries, he struggles to resolve the contradictions and scars of his upbringing into a cohesive identity. Grazing liberally from various cultures for its influences and allusions, Pierre Jarawan’s debut novel weaves between a past that feels too recent to be considered one, a present that feels too immediate to be already written about, and a future too intangible to trust.

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Literature on the Margins: Tess Lewis on Translating Monique Schwitter

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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Announcing our March Book Club Selection: One Another by Monique Schwitter

These chapters are not stories of failed relationships; they are stories of a woman trusting herself and giving herself to others without regret.

Monique Schwitter’s multi-award-winning One Another, a contemporary set of love stories with classical echoes, was described in Switzerland as having “the gentlest gaze and the hardest kick.” The original (Eins im Andern) was shortlisted for the German Book Prize before winning both the Swiss Book Prize and the Swiss Prize for Literature.

Tess Lewis’ English translation, published by Persea Books, is our Asymptote Book Club selection for March, and is currently heading to our subscribers across North America and the EU. To join us in time for next month’s title, you can subscribe via our website.

One Another by Monique Schwitter, translated from the German by Tess Lewis, Persea Books, 2019

One Another is an honest novel about love. The narrator, who also claims to be the author, and in later chapters references writing and titling the earlier ones, finds out about the unexpected death of a former boyfriend, Petrus. This provokes her to describe every romance she’s ever experienced. She devotes a chapter to each. The best part of this book is an honest account of contemporary womanhood that is not pious, ashamed, or guilty. An undramatic consensus ends almost every one of these vignettes. She never begs anyone to stay. She has cheated but she isn’t consumed with guilt. Certain complications in these affairs lead the reader to expect the familiar sentimentalism of broken hearts, but the narrator is much too rational for that. READ MORE…

Translating Zahia Rahmani: An Interview with Matt Reeck

I would say translating allows the translator to find new parts of him/herself, instead of leaving parts behind.

“I’m always surprised by how docile American intellectuals are when they enter the public space,” says Matt Reeck, the translator of Zahia Rahmani’s strikingly bold “Muslim”: A Novel. In the course of a wide-ranging interview with Asymptote Assistant Editor Erik Noonan, Reeck aims to challenge that dominant paradigm of always being “on our best behaviour.”

In our most in-depth Book Club interview to date, Reeck sifts through the “layers of imperial cultural history in Algeria”, makes an eloquent plea for the widening of the capital/cultural space currently allotted to translation, and suggests that “the translation of texts that are already domesticated work[s] against translation in a broader sense.”

Erik Noonan (EN): Discussing the role of the translator in your statement for the National Endowment for the Arts, you say that “In a globalized world, while we know more about many parts of the world that we didn’t have access to previously, often what we know seems to get cemented quickly into easy stereotypes. Then, in a way, we don’t know much more at all; we just know what we think we know.” Dealing with the potential of certain texts to expand our knowledge of the world, you also say, in a piece in The Los Angeles Review: “While university presses help by publishing some of these [truly exotic] works, they don’t take on others: the manuscript must match a list, and this list consolidates established emphases of teaching and research.” Your work includes research and teaching in the Comparative Literature Department at UCLA, I believe, as well as translation. How is your teaching related to your research and your translating, and has that relationship changed in any way over time?

Matt Reeck (MR): I’m interested in many things, and they don’t all necessarily fit anyone’s idea of a single pursuit, a single trajectory, a single work. But they do for me. They are unified by being the things I’m interested in! It would be nice to be able to teach things that match my translating interests and my research interests, but to date I’ve been able to do that only here and there. Fingers crossed this will change soon.

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Announcing our February Book Club Selection: “Muslim”: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani

She speaks out even though her efforts to liberate herself have only shrunk the bounds of her freedom.

Zahia Rahmani’s “Muslim”: A Novel (translated into English by Matt Reeck and published by Deep Vellum) is a combination of fiction and essay, written with a “stark and uncompromising beauty.” When the novel was first excerpted in Asymptote back in 2015, Matt Reeck highlighted the way in which “The novel’s experimental form stages the gaps between places, and between accepted norms, where a person cast adrift must live.”

Now, Asymptote Book Club subscribers will have a chance to discover this “contemporary classic” in full. You can join our discussion on the Asymptote Book Club Facebook group, or sign up to receive next month’s title via our website.

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“Muslim”: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani, translated from the French by Matt Reeck, Deep Vellum, 2019

Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor

The protagonist of Zahia Rahmani’s “Muslim”: A Novel has lived a life contained within the constraints of a pair of quotation marks. The exercise of her voice in the printed word—French in the original, English in a new translation by Matt Reeck—represents an effort to outtalk the multitude that would mischaracterize her and confine her to a type. She speaks out even though her efforts to liberate herself have only shrunk the bounds of her freedom.

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Questions from Night School: An Interview with Jim Tucker

Look before . . . you enter the lion’s den. Which is the home address for translation, a job that can only be done wrong.

Zsófia Bán’s Night School, “a textbook like no other,” is among the most playful of our fourteen Asymptote Book Club selections so far. In keeping with the book’s “defiant irreverence,” its English translator, Jim Tucker, agreed to ditch our regular interview format and temporarily become one of Night School’s pupils.

Each chapter of Zsófia Ban’s textbook ends in a series of questions or assignments, each with a winning mixture of pure zaniness and profound resonance. Here, Jim Tucker answers a set of questions from his own English translation of Night School. 

Complete the following sentence: Look before . . . 

Jim Tucker (JT): Look before . . . you enter the lion’s den. Which is the home address for translation, a job that can only be done wrong. It’s a miracle that you can make a living at it. Similar to prostitution (“Oh yes, mister, whatever you say”) except it pays a lot less, and you don’t get out as much.

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Announcing our January Book Club Selection: Night School by Zsófia Bán

Night School is a textbook like no other.

With our February selection, the Asymptote Book Club is taking subscribers back to school. Fortunately, Zsófia Bán’s Night School is a school unlike any other—populated by a cast of literary and cultural figures ranging from Frida Kahlo (and her double) to Laika the space dog. Each chapter of Bán’s textbook primer is filled with ‘defiant irreverence’ and the perfect combination of wit and profundity.

We’re delighted to be sending our subscribers one of the year’s most coruscatingly original short story collections, in Jim Tucker’s superb English translation. If you’d like to join us in time for next month’s Book Club pick, you’ll find all the information you need on our web page. Once you’ve joined, head to our Facebook group to meet other Book Club members and contribute to the discussion. We look forward to seeing you there!

Zsofia Ban Night School

Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Jim Tucker, Open Letter, 2019

Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor

Let’s begin with a simple biographical detail: Zsófia Bán has spent much of her life in academia, and her first novel (originally published in Hungarian in 2007) is a textbook. It seems barely necessary to add that Night School is a textbook like no other.

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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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