Book Club

Announcing Our August Book Club Selection: From the Shadows by Juan José Millás

With what appears to be an absurdist plot, Millás explores the psyche of an individual made redundant by society.

According to Sylvia Plath, August is an “odd and uneven time” so it’s all the more fitting that we’ve chosen Juan José Millás’ spectacularly surreal and cerebral novel, From the Shadows, as our Book Club selection this month. Millás is an author known for bringing existential thought into dreamlike spaces, and in this exemplifying work, the narrative carves a labyrinthine path through a mind withstanding both physical and mental confinements, and the language, rife with darkness and comedy, traces the fine walls of worlds both real and imagined with Kafkaesque soliloquy. 

The Asymptote Book Club strives to bring the best translated fiction every month to readers in the US, the UK, and the EU. From as low as USD15 a book, sign up to receive next month’s book on our website; once you’re a member, you can  join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

From the Shadows by Juan José Millás, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, Bellevue Literary Press, 2019

“Every love story is a ghost story”: David Foster Wallace’s epigraph encapsulates the phantasmagoric search for love and acceptance in Juan José Millás’ From the Shadows, the author’s much-anticipated English debut. Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, From the Shadows follows the story of Damián Lobo, an unemployed maintenance worker, who, in a strange turn of events, hides himself inside an old wardrobe and gets transported to the home of a young family. Instead of escaping from his physical confinement, Damián inhabits the space behind the wardrobe and becomes the “Ghost Butler,” a spectral being who tends to chores around the house in the daytime when the family is out and slips back to his hiding place in the master’s bedroom at night.

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The Voice of Interiority: Lytton Smith on Translating Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s History. A Mess.

[The inward-looking quality] structurally and stylistically governs how the novel is written, its very form.

Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s profound and inward-looking saga, History. A Mess., was July’s Asymptote Book Club selection, translated from Icelandic to English. Callum McAllister speaks to the novel’s translator, Lytton Smith, on the process of translating this sweeping and intuitive work. In this conversation, the two discuss the intricacies of translating the evasive language of space and the even more mysterious language of the inner self, and Lytton gives as well some much-appreciated recommendations of Icelandic literature.

Callum McAllister (CM): Iceland is well-known for its impressively high literary output and vibrant creative culture, but Icelandic isn’t a widely spoken language. Are you daunted by how much Icelandic literature has yet to be translated into English, or do you think it gives you more freedom to opt for your favorite texts? Is there anything you’d love to see in English or work on next?

Lytton Smith (LS): Definitely daunted, even as I’m excited by the opportunity! There are wonderful translators from Icelandic working to bring more books into English (which can then also be a gateway to other languages), but there’s a limit to how many presses are willing to do what Open Letter does and take a chance on publishing titles—especially when translations are hard to sell to readers. I’m looking forward to Sigrún’s next novel, which is in part about the theory that Icelanders “discovered” America, and Ófeigur Sigurðsson, whose novel Öræfi / The Wastelands I translated last year (Deep Vellum), has another two novels that center on volcanoes that I’d like to translate. And I’d love to translate another book by the amazing, singular Kristín Ómarsdóttir. Next up, I’m lucky to be translating some of Andri Snær Magnason’s work.

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Announcing Our July Book Club Selection: History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir

We forget that we are reading someone else’s testimony and begin to take speculation as hard truth.

This month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir, asks us to reconsider our understanding of how history is constructed. The protagonist, an academic who “leads an almost unpunctuated domestic existence of solitude and paranoia,” makes a shocking discovery about the secret identity of a seventeenth-century writer—and then seems to disprove her own theory. As the protagonist becomes increasingly unstable, her erratic prose leads the reader to reflect on the tenuous boundary between stories and history.

Lytton Smith’s translation of History. A Mess. is the twentieth title selected by the Asymptote Book Club, which brings outstanding translated fiction to readers each month. You can sign up to receive next month’s book on our website or join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

Translator Lytton Smith told Splice that “the Icelandic language doesn’t have two distinct words for story and history. It uses the same word, saga, and so those two ways of writing are more closely connected for Icelanders than they are for us.” As such, they are more concerned with storytelling as a craft, fidelity to emotional truth above accuracy to facts. Yet Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s novel, History. A Mess., seemingly centers around historical fact: a text whose existence could make or break an academic career.

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“The Mistakes of the Healthy”: Lindy Falk van Rooyen on Translating Maria Gerhardt’s Transfer Window

I don’t see the book as a vision of the future so much as an alternative perspective of the present.

Maria Gerhardt died of breast cancer soon after writing Transfer Window, a dark and futuristic novel informed by her own experience with terminal illness. In today’s interview, Asymptotes Jacob Silkstone talks with Lindy Falk van Rooyen about the experience of translating Maria Gerhardt’s Transfer Window, chosen as this month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, from Danish into English. Read on to learn how Falk van Rooyen discovered Transfer Window and how she navigated the challenges of translating a semi-autobiographical novel that defies categorization.

Jacob Silkstone (JS): When did you first read Transfer Window, and what initially drew you to the book? How aware were you of Maria Gerhardt’s previous work?

Lindy Falk van Rooyen (LFvR): I wasn’t aware of Maria Gerhardt or her previous work until Transfervindue was published in March 2017. I remember quite vividly that I was sitting on the top level of a red London bus on my way to a translator’s dinner during the London Book Fair when a colleague working for The Danish Arts Council told me how much the book had moved him, and shortly after my return from London, I requested a copy of the original from the Danish publisher. I think what drew me in during the first reading was Maria Gerhardt’s unadulterated honesty.

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Announcing Our June Book Club Selection: Transfer Window by Maria Gerhardt

Transfer Window is a dispatch sent from a kind of hell, but Gerhardt reports with something approaching panache.

Transfer Window was Maria Gerhardt’s last novel: she died within a week of its publication, having battled breast cancer for half a decade. Transfer Window is a dispatch from the front line of that battle, offering a series of wry and witty observations on the “mistakes of the healthy” and a vision of a futuristic Danish society that occupies the liminal space between utopia and dystopia. In Lindy Falk van Rooyen’s English translation, it “fully deserves the international recognition its author never quite received in her own lifetime.”

In nineteen months, the Asymptote Book Club has brought subscribers selections of the best newly translated fiction from nineteen different countries. You can sign up in time to receive the next title via our website, or join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

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Art as Universal Refuge: Ji Yoon Lee on Translating Blood Sisters

We make art so that we don’t forget what our truth is.

This month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, Kim Yideum’s novel Blood Sisters, raises profound questions about class dynamics, gender roles, and the power of language to uphold existing hierarchies. In today’s interview, translator Ji Yoon Lee talks with Asymptote’s Jacob Silkstone about the challenging process of recreating the tones and nuances of the original Korean in English. They also discuss the parallels between Korean political narratives of the 1980s and the current discourse in the USA, as well as Lee’s innovative use of Spanish to translate Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.”

Jacob Silkstone (JS): Referring to her work as a whole, Kim Yideum has said (in your translation) that “A female writer needs to fight to build her own language against the default system.” It feels to me as though there’s an echo of that statement when the protagonist of Blood Sisters says, “I speak with my own mouth, so I will address others on my own terms. . .”Could you say a little about that “default system” that Kim Yideum’s work struggles against? Are there any aspects of the struggle that feel unique to Korea?

Ji Yoon Lee (JYL): I absolutely see the echo there, too. Specifically, the protagonist, Yeoul, is resisting: in Korea, we often address people by the role that they play in our lives, such as “teacher,” “president of the company,” “older lady,” and so on. Once intimacy develops, there is a shift in the form of address, often towards familial terms, even when you are not related: “older brother,” “older sister,” and so on. That is meant to make people feel a closer connection beyond the societal roles they play for one another.

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Announcing Our May Book Club Selection: Blood Sisters by Kim Yideum

“My flesh crumbles into tiny flakes. I love that I can’t see myself—there is no anger, no grudge, just darkness here.”

“A female writer needs to fight to build her own language against the default system,” says Kim Yi-deum. “[She] writes with the language of her body—her womb, tits, tears, blood.”

Those lines give a taste of the combative nature of Blood Sisters, Kim Yi-deum’s debut novel (she is perhaps best known as the author of five poetry collections, selections from which have previously appeared in Asymptote, translated by Ji Yoon Lee). The novel’s protagonist, Jeong Yeoul, is forced to struggle in a country rocked by the fallout from the Gwangju Massacre in May 1980. “Trauma,” writes our reviewer, “permeates the pages of Blood Sisters.”

In Ji Yoon Lee’s English translation, Blood Sisters becomes the first Korean title to be selected by the Asymptote Book Club. You can view all our previous titles and sign up for forthcoming selections via our website, or join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

 

Blood Sisters by Kim Yideum, translated from the Korean by Ji Yoon Lee, Deep Vellum (2019)

Reviewed by Alyea Canada, Assistant Editor

In a recent interview with The Margins, Kim Yideum said, “Humans talk as if there is something grand in all things. But I don’t believe that. I don’t like things that are so ideological.” It is perhaps best to approach Yideum’s Blood Sisters with this sentiment in mind because it is a book which resists simple summation and emotional reveals. Its protagonist, Jeong Yeoul, is a young college student trying to make her way in a Korea rocked by the violent suppression of student demonstrations in the 1980s.

Yideum is primarily a poet and this is evident in the texture and sensuality of her prose, skillfully translated by Ji Yoon Lee. “My flesh crumbles into tiny flakes. I love that I can’t see myself—there is no anger, no grudge, just darkness here.” Such sentences are comfortably juxtaposed to the coarse way Yeoul speaks and describes the world around her. Yideum expertly depicts a world in which female pain is casually cast aside—a world that will be all too familiar to many female readers. The men in this novel do not fare well. They are almost exclusively violent, manipulative, or childlike. In such an environment, where men will inevitably be violent and women are expected to forgive and forget, it is no surprise that female friendships anchor Yeoul. READ MORE…

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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