Posts by Alexander Dickow

Winter 2014: A Rookie Among Giants

Living now under the shadow of Trump, the contents of the issue seem even more desperately near to us.

It takes a while for the blog to hit its stride. Editing to a quarterly schedule is different than editing to a daily one, we quickly discover. It does not help that both ‘founding’ blog editors jump ship within three months (Nick’s elegiac last post goes up on 30 October; Zack’s 31 December). Fortunately, the rest rally and get us through. (One bright spot from that time is Patty Nash’s breezy roundupsa breath of fresh air.) Five weeks after it inaugurates, Aditi Machado’s post on the blog gets picked up by Poetry’s Harriet Blog, joining mentions in BBC Culture and The Guardian. The Guardian article gives a nod to Asymptote’s first-ever London event in January 2014, also the first of many multi-continental events in honor of our 3rd anniversary. These go on to include panels and readings in New York, Zagreb, Boston, Philadelphia, Shanghai, Berlin, and Sydney over the next three months. A point of pride: determined to organize an event in Asia, I somehow manage to pull off a reading without a single team member on the ground, thanks to NYU Shanghai, contributors Eleanor Goodman and Eun Joo Kim, and a friend who happens to pass through. In New York, under real threat of snowpocalypse, Asymptote supporters Eliot Weinberger, Robyn Creswell, Idra Novey, Jeffrey Yang, and Daniella Gitlin all show up to our anniversary event at Housing Works emceed by then Assistant Managing Editor, Eric M. B. Becker, to read alongside Cory Tamler, first prize-winner of our inaugural Close Approximations translation contest (as written up in WWB Daily’s dispatch here). Here to get you excited for the Winter 2014 issue (featuring, among others, a translator’s note that I got J. M. Coetzee to write) is Alexander Dickow, runner-up to that very contest and Asymptote Communications Manager since April 2017. But, first, check out Winter 2014’s issue trailer—probably our best ever—by then Video Producer Sarah Chan.

I knew of Asymptote since its inception in 2011, but it was only in January 2014 that I was named runner-up in the first edition of Asymptote’s Close Approximations translation contest. That contest has had a lasting impact on my work: I later won a Pen/Heim Translation Fund Grant to finish translating Sylvie Kandé’s Neverending Quest for the Other Shore, which was first showcased in Asymptote and is now under consideration by a major publisher. Evoking the Winter 2014 issue of Asymptote, then, cannot not be a little about my own relationship to Asymptote, even though I was an eager young rookie among the issue’s giants— J. M. Coetzee, Jana Beňová, and Michael Hofmann, to name a few. READ MORE…

In Conversation: Alexander Cigale

Mandelstam's “argument” is inseparable from his music and, for me, it is that music that has always been primary.

The post-symbolist Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, as dazzling and immediate as he is daunting and complex, is best known in English for the early formal work of Stone (1913) and Tristia (1922). Mandelstam would mature into a poet of visionary modernity in the late 1920s and 1930s. Translator Alexander Cigale is working on an as yet unpublished new volume of selected works by Mandelstam and considers himself part of a Silver Age of Mandelstam translation, after the Golden Age of the 1980s and 90s. While earlier translations established Mandelstam’s reputation in English principally through Tristia and Stone, Cigale chooses to render many of the middle-period “Moscow” poems by Mandelstam, written in the late 1920s and 1930s, and heretofore less well-known in English.  

Cigale has also translated Daniil Kharms, a contemporary of Mandelstam and a poet of nonsense and absurdity akin to Lewis Carroll and Samuel Beckett, a poet who seems, at first blush, almost diametrically opposed to Mandelstam in temperament and aesthetic. Both Mandelstam and Kharms have become pillars of Russian twentieth-century poetry. Since publishing a volume of selected works by Kharms in 2017, Cigale seems poised to become an esteemed translator of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth Century—and, perhaps, of the twenty-first, since Cigale is also at work on the contemporary poet Mikhail Eremin thanks to an NEA Fellowship in Literary Translation.  

As a longtime reader of Mandelstam and Kharms, poet Alexander Dickow asks Cigale about the difficulties and rewards of scaling the highest peaks of Russian poetry, and especially that of Mandelstam’s glittering verse.

Alexander Dickow (AD): Alex, you just published in February 2017 a new translation of selected work by the OBERIU (Russian absurdist) writer Daniil Kharms, Russian Absurd: Selected Writings, from Northwestern University Press. Your latest project is a volume of selected poems by the celebrated Acmeist Osip Mandelstam. I’d like to start with a question about the historical situation of these writers who both reached their poetic maturity in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Kharms and Mandelstam were both destroyed by Stalin. How do you think this manifests differently in these poets’ work?

Alexander Cigale (AC): Stalin was cognizant of and acknowledged the genius of Mandelstam (in a phone conversation with Pasternak). I’m not sure Kharms was on anyone’s radar. He outlived most of his friends because the authorities dismissed him for a madman.

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Self-Translation and the Multilingual Writer

The act of self-translation is for many, including Beckett himself, an experiment in agony.

Samuel Beckett self-translated a great many of his texts from French to English and vice-versa, and does not seem to have unequivocally favored one language over the other. For Beckett, choosing to write in French came from “un désir de m’appauvrir encore plus” (a desire to impoverish myself even further). Evidently, he viewed French as a more minimal language.[1] Beckett sparsely commented on his decision―or compulsion―to write in both languages, but in all events, such choices appear to be largely affective and difficult to justify rationally. All the more so when the act of self-translation is for many, including Beckett himself, an experiment in agony. For a minority, self-translation instead liberates the writer, at once from the risk of servility to an original, and from the effort of wrenching a brand new work from one’s mental background noise. One need neither give birth to a new text, nor obey an existing one.

The late novelist Raymond Federman, an émigré from France and a bilingual speaker, offers an example of one writer for whom self-translation was in some sense liberating. Federman wrote for several decades almost entirely in English, and only began to self-translate well into the middle of his career. In fact, English remained his dominant language of initial composition, and he once expressed to me a certain resistance to writing directly in French. Nonetheless, he self-translated extensively from the mid-nineties until his death in 2009. Federman introduces extensive and significant variations between translations and originals, so that his texts exhibit what Sara Kippur calls mouvance (variance), a term borrowed from medievalist Paul Zumthor.[2] Beckett’s own texts exhibit some variation, but in Federman’s case, narrative accounts of a single autobiographical event differ between accounts, whether they occur in different books or in the “same” book’s French and English version. Hence, Federman ties the act of translation directly to issues of autobiographical authenticity, demonstrating that such authenticity is largely illusory―memory is a kind of fiction.

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Portrait of the Translator as Neologist

Translating neologism resembles a tiny model of the whole process of translation

The Horde of Counterwind, written by the French writer Alain Damasio, takes place in a world of violent winds where a band of hardened, élite travelers make their arduous way toward the Upper Reaches, from where the winds are said to originate. Translating the thickly packed, virtuosic prose of this singular Science Fiction/Fantasy epic is a bit like having to join the Horde to battle against the winds. Skeptical readers have declared the Horde untranslatable, filled to the brim as it is with wordplay and even a long jeu-parti, or poetic duel, between the improvising troubadour Caracole and his ultraformalist counterpart, Seleme the Stylite. The poetic duel involves palindromes, among other enormous challenges to the translator. Translation, through the Horde of Counterwind, becomes a test of vigor and endurance for both writer and translator, who must faire bloc—become a single vital force—before the shattering gale of language.

Yet the Horde’s translator ultimately spends a great deal more time working on single words than on entire passages. The most difficult task facing the translator of the Horde, and indeed of many works of so-called speculative fiction, lies in the proper rendering of the novel’s innumerable neologisms. Within the first page, the Horde’s translator is called upon to translate the word furvent, a term denoting one of the most violent forms of the wind. After several hours of live discussion by Skype, and after brainstorming literally dozens of possible alternatives, Damasio and I settled on the term threshgale. Furvent derives in large part from the word furieux (furious), and the French word for wind (vent), whereas the neologism retains neither component, preferring winnowing and thrashing to fury, and the storm or gale in place of the mere wind.

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