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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Continuing our Asymptote Book Club interview series, Assistant Editor Kevin Wang talks to Nicky Harman, translator of Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. In addition to co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors), Nicky Harman is one of the foremost contemporary Chinese-to-English translators and a passionate advocate for Chinese literature in English. Her previous work includes translations of novels by Jia Pingwa and Xu Xiaobin.
Read on to find out why Yan Ge asked for the swearing to be made more “colourful” in the English version of her work, which sections of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan were almost untranslatable, and why relying on Google Images can sometimes be a dangerous approach to translating…
Kevin Wang (KW): In your acknowledgements, you mention that Yan Ge “went above and beyond the call of duty in examining and discussing the English text.” How would you describe the differences between working with an author closely involved in the process and translating a nonliving author?
Nicky Harman (NH): Well, I do like my authors to be alive! I almost always want to be able to raise a few queries with them. For instance, with Jia Pingwa, I needed to know more about a rudimentary cooker that the migrant workers used in 高兴 (Happy Dreams). He kindly did a sketch for me, and it turned out to be made from an old oil drum. That’s the kind of crucial information that you couldn’t get if the author was dead: in this case, the internet was no help.
The Asymptote Book Club will be celebrating our six-month anniversary with a first (virtual) trip to China. Back in 2014, Words Without Borders described The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (我们家 in the original) as China’s “best untranslated book.”
Four years on, Yan Ge’s “delightfully irreverent” novel is finally appearing in English, thanks to Balestier Press, and Asymptote Book Club members will be among the first to sample a “masterful translation” by Nicky Harman.
We’ll be hosting a full discussion of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan on our dedicated Book Club page; to get you started, here’s Asymptote Assistant Editor Kevin Wang’s take on the novel:
What do artistic creation and polar explorations have in common? Is translating from Catalan more daunting than translating from Spanish? If a joke isn’t funny in the original text, should it remain unfunny in the translation? In the fifth instalment of our Asymptote Book Club interview series, Mara Faye Lethem gives Georgia Nasseh her answers to those questions, and many more…
Georgia Nasseh (GN): You translate from both Catalan and Spanish. What are some of the differences you encounter when you translate from Catalan rather than Spanish, or vice versa?
Mara Faye Lethem (MFL): I could answer that in a lot of different ways. But let’s see: Spanish has a vastly wider range of regional variations, and much better Internet forums. Catalan writers feel a special closeness to their language and are very grateful when foreigners learn it well. They are very generous about answering questions, so translating Catalan novels has changed the way I work with all novels—made the process more interactive, more collaborative.
“There’s a whole universe of stories out there that we, in the English-speaking world, have yet to discover. Let the Asymptote Book Club take you there.” ~ Yann Martel
Over its first four months, the Asymptote Book Club has taken readers to a small village in northern Norway during the frozen depths of the Arctic winter, a sunlit plaza in an Argentina overshadowed by the Perón regime, the dense forests of Bihar, and a Naples apartment filled with haunting memories of the past.
With our fifth title, Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice, we’re setting off on a new journey: a genre-bending tale of Polar exploration. Translated into English by Mara Faye Lethem and published by And Other Stories, Brother in Ice has received widespread critical acclaim, winning the prestigious Premi Documenta award in Barcelona. “In another country,” writes Enrique Vila-Matas, “this book would have changed the course of its history.”
As always, head to our Book Club page for more information and the opportunity to become a subscriber. If you’re already part of the Book Club, don’t forget to join our online discussion group. As a starting point for the latest discussion, here’s Asymptote Assistant Editor Georgia Nasseh’s review of Brother in Ice: READ MORE…
In our fourth Asymptote Book Club interview, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri spoke with Asymptote Assistant Editor Victoria Livingstone about her translation of Domenico Starnone’s Trick.
In this discussion about her work and the forging of her own artistic identity, Lahiri reveals why translating Starnone seemed like “a sort of destiny.” Lahiri draws us into Starnone’s fictional world, but also reflects on her own mutable relationship with language and writing, and on the marvelous yet precarious ways in which our lives unfold.
Victoria Livingstone (VL): I wanted to begin by asking you what brought you to translation. I just finished reading In Other Words in which you reflect on your decision to switch from writing in English to writing in Italian. Did you see translation as a natural progression after working between multiple languages and living in Italy? And what drew you to Domenico Starnone in particular?
Jhumpa Lahiri (JL): During the initial part of my stay in Italy, I wanted to translate something, but I didn’t know what it would be. I was reading only in Italian for many years. As my reading progressed, I would think that I would like to translate this person, or that person. Once my Italian was stronger and my reading in Italian seemed to have a larger ongoing purpose and focus, translation was something that really intrigued me.
I was considering it in this vague way and then I read Lacci by Domenico [Starnone] and immediately felt that if I were to translate something, that this would be the book I wanted to translate. I felt very close to it. It spoke to me very deeply. It felt like the natural first step. That’s how it started. When he asked me to translate the book, we were already friends and I felt—I feel now—that it was a sort of destiny. Everything was properly aligned in the moment that I was drawn to the idea of translating and was ready to translate with the appropriate amount of distance. That was when Lacci, which became Ties, won a prize which enabled the translation to be funded. It was a series of fortuitous circumstances that led to the translation of that book a couple of years ago.
“A new book from Starnone is an event to celebrate,” according to Kirkus Reviews, and Trick—the second Starnone novel to be translated into English by Jhumpa Lahiri—is “his best yet.”
Lahiri introduces Trick as an intriguing blend of Kafka and Henry James, a mixture of James’s trademark meticulous elegance and Kafka’s “obsession with the body: with physical discomfort, with weakness, with disease.”
If you’d like to read our next monthly selection, head to our Book Club page for more information. If you’re already a subscriber, why not join the conversation on our online discussion group? To get you started, here’s Asymptote Assistant Editor Victoria Livingstone’s take on the novel…
Continuing our monthly series of Asymptote Book Club interviews, Martin Aitken discusses his translation of Hanne Ørstavik’s Love.
Aitken, currently translating the sixth volume of Knausgård’s My Struggle alongside Don Bartlett, tells Asymptote’s Jacob Silkstone how readers are now more open to the idea that “English isn’t all there is,” and why it’s sometimes better to “switch yourself off as a translator and just read.” And, given the novel’s title, there’s also time for a brief meditation on love’s potential to be “a terrible thing, as terrible as its absence.”
Jacob Silkstone (JS): Love strikes me as a book that changes tone dramatically when read for a second time. Apparently innocuous lines (“He thinks he’ll look out for her on the bus tomorrow,” for example) suddenly take on a tremendous amount of weight. Do you generally read a novel cover to cover before beginning a new translation, to get a sense of where the plot is heading, or do you start translating immediately?
Martin Aitken (MA): This is a very short book, a novella, and every sentence in the Norwegian has been faceted very carefully indeed. The translator’s challenge is to poise the target-language sentences in the same way. I couldn’t envisage embarking on a novel like this without having read it first. I used to jump in at the deep end a lot, with crime fiction especially. There’s always a risk of being caught out by twists of plot when you do that, though of course rectifying mistakes is a lot easier these days than I imagine it used to be. However, with literary fiction I now prefer to spend time with the original before getting started on anything. With a novel like Love, so much of the work is about immersing yourself in the atmosphere of the piece, and I think the best way into that is to switch yourself off as a translator and just read. Getting the sense of the thing as a reader first, listening to its music as you move through the story, is a different thing entirely from the focus applied in crafting the translation.
This Valentine’s Day, we’re sharing Love with our Asymptote Book Club subscribers, in the form of a contemporary Norwegian classic newly published by Archipelago Books.
Love launched the career of Hanne Ørstavik, one of Scandinavia’s leading female novelists. In 2006, newspaper Dagbladet placed it sixth in a list of the best Norwegian novels of the past quarter-century.
We’re also spreading the love by giving a 10% discount on three-month Asymptote Book Club subscriptions, up until 2359hrs EST today, Feb 14. If you’ve been wanting to give our Book Club a try, or if you’d like to surprise your loved ones with an awesome reading adventure, this is the perfect opportunity! Visit our Book Club page right now to sign up to give or receive Love, our February title translated by Martin Aitken, and two more handpicked novels in March and April drawn from the latest offerings in world literature.