Posts by Claire Jacobson

Section Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2017

Our editors choose their favourites from this issue.

Asymptote’s new Fall issue is replete with spectacular writing. See what our section editors have to say about the pieces closest to their hearts: 

As writer-readers, we’ve all been there before. Who of us hasn’t been faced with that writer whose words have made us stay up late into the night; or start the book over as soon as we’re done; or after finally savoring that last word, weep—for all the words already written and that would never to be yours. The feeling is unmistakeable, physical. In her essay, “Animal in Outline,” Mireia Vidal-Conte describes this gut feeling after finishing El porxo de les mirades (The Porch of the Gazes) by Miquel de Palol: “What are we doing? I thought. What are we writing? What have we read, what have we failed to read, before sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper? What does and doesn’t deserve readers?” There are the books that make you never want to stop writing, and the books that never make you want to write another word (in the best way possible, of course). Vidal-Conte reminds writers again that none of us is without context—for better or for worse. Her essay is smart, playful, honest, and a must-read from this issue.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

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Close Approximations: In Conversation with Poetry Winner Anca Roncea

On translation as an impossible object, and the possibility of a direction.

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its third edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our interviews with poetry runners-up Keith Payne and Sarah Timmer Harvey, we are thrilled to bring you poetry winner Anca Roncea in a short but illuminating conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Anca Roncea is a poet and translator. She is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently attending the University of Iowa’s M.F.A. program in literary translation. In 2012–2013 she was a Fulbright visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She was born and raised in Romania and now lives in Iowa City where she writes and translates poems. She is working on translations of Romanian poetry, an experimental translation of Tristan Tzara, as well as her first book of poetry. She explores the space where language can create pivots in the midst of displacement while incorporating the aesthetics of Constantin Brancusi. She is the 2017 winner of the Omnidawn Single Poem Broadside Contest. Her work can be found in Omniverse, Berkeley Poetry Review, Beecher’s Magazine, and The Des Moines Register.

Close Approximations poetry judge Sawako Nakayasu writes, “I’m thrilled to have selected this year’s winner for poetry: “wrong connections” by Andra Rotaru, in Anca Roncea’s excellent translation from the Romanian. I love how this work reads like a film that can only take place in the mind of the reader. The scenes (I read them like scenes) carry you through a changing landscape that can be menacing, historical, scientific, or downright violent—all in torqued connection with each other like the “incorrect connections” of the tribar.

“Ms. Roncea brings to our attention a new voice in contemporary Romanian poetry: Ms. Rotaru’s work has already been translated into numerous European languages, but very little has been translated into English so far—though this is soon to be remedied, I believe.”

Claire Jacobson (CJ): In your translator’s note you refer to the tribar, or “the geometrical concept of an impossible triangle whose three sides do not connect but still exist in the form of a triangle, creating a direction for movement.” What are some ways you see Andra Rotaru’s work embodying the “wrong connections” of this impossible shape, and how have you recreated those moments in English?

Anca Roncea (AR): I think that in some ways Andra’s “wrong connections” in her tribar here are speaking to the interesting ways that poetry works to create human experience. It made me think of one of Lyn Hejinian’s lines in her book My Life that says: “You put two things next to each other they start resembling each other.” In Andra’s poems there are strong tactile images next to visual memory next to literary quotes and even descriptions of chemical elements and they all connect and speak to each other even though they technically shouldn’t, but together form an experience. In the translation process, I tried to make the images as visceral as possible because I knew the connections would come through the more the reader could experience these different elements.

CJ: Can you talk about the shifting format of these poems? Moving from citation to almost-prose to definition and back to free verse, how did you maintain the threads of connection between these disparate elements?

AR: That was one of my favorite things about this poem in the Romanian—the fact that the text felt free enough to move through all of these different formal gestures to express what it needed to. One of the biggest challenges was that in Romanian there were quotes in English, and the question was whether to show that and how to do it. In Romanian, the quotations sounded to me like an external voice that comes in the text and is somehow able to be inhabited by the speaker and become part of the tribar, and in English the graphic gesture of leaving them in quotes and citing the author in addition to the change in tone in those moments came through in a very similar way.

CJ: Do these citations—among them Bruno Ernst, Aldous Huxley, and Anne-Marie Blanchard—have significance to a Romanian readership? How does this linguistic and cultural cross-pollination affect the way these poems are perceived?

AR: I couldn’t speak for every Romanian reader but I think it’s different for every one of them. Aldous Huxley might be more recognizable than Susan Howe in Romania, but what I found interesting about these citations is the fact that it shows a poet who is influenced by and in conversation with a range of genres and discourses across time and space from 20th century fiction to 21st century poetry to psychology. You really get to see how the poem is in conversation with what the poet is reading and thinking about.

CJ: You write in your translator’s note, “The poems shift from the movement and breath of a child’s body—the powers and limits of her movement—to those of a dead, ghostly body—its visibility and invisibility.” How do these images interact and overlap throughout the work?

AR: These antithetical images I think connect through how visceral they are. You really see and hear what the child is going through even if you don’t get a narrative of these scenes they play out in the senses—it’s almost an inner perspective which then shifts to an outer perspective when death comes in the poem, but the speaker is still using senses to connect by hearing and feeling their way through. I think it gives the whole work presence in a different way than what I have seen before in Romanian poetry, and it ultimately felt much more haunting to me.

*****

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Read more interviews with Close Approximations winners:

Close Approximations: In Conversation with Poetry Runner-Up Keith Payne

Language is local; for all our travel and world-webbed wideness, we are beasts of habit and most often stay within the same 10 square miles

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its third edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 editionAfter interviews with fiction winner Suchitra Ramachandran, fiction runners-up Brian Bergstrom and Clarissa Botsford, and poetry runner-up Sarah Timmer Harvey, today we have poetry runner-up Keith Payne in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Keith Payne is the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award winner 2015–2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications, Belfast, 2015) was followed by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications, 2016). Forthcoming from Francis Boutle Publishers is Diary of Crosses Green, from the Galician of Martín Veiga. Keith is director of the La Malinche Readings between Ireland and Galicia and the PoemaRia International Poetry Festival, Vigo. His translation of Welcome to Sing Sing, by Galician poet Elvira Ribeiro Tobío, was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest. A poet in addition to being a translator, he shares his time between Dublin and Vigo with the musician Su Garrido Pombo.

CJ: The motif of imprisonment strongly undergirds these poems, from Bob Dylan to Ethel Rosenberg and everything in between, with Rosenberg’s Sing Sing prison providing the title and backdrop for these reflections. Where does this theme come from, and what was the significance of writing (and now translating) these famous imprisoned women in verse? 

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Close Approximations: In Conversation With Poetry Runner-up Sarah Timmer Harvey

"I spent less time in my head or researching, and more time translating purely from instinct, from the body."

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its 3rd edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 editionAfter interviews with fiction winner Suchitra Ramachandran and fiction runners-up Brian Bergstrom and Clarissa Botsford, today we have poetry runner-up Sarah Timmer Harvey in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in New York, where she is completing her MFA in Writing and Translation at Columbia University. Her excerpted translation of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s poetry collection Kalfsvlies (Calf’s Caul) was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest. Poetry judge Sawako Nakayasu wrote, “The tumbling syntax of this poetry could not have been easy to translate, but it works so very well here—carrying the reader along the dark swerves of this youthful, yet not-so-innocent series of mini-narratives with a touch of the surreal.”

Claire Jacobson (CJ): I loved reading your translation of several of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s poems from her collection Kalfsvlies (Calf’s Caul). What was it that drew you to this text and motivated you to translate it?

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): I first became aware of Rijneveld’s work through Dutch literary magazines and blogs in 2015, when Kalfsvlies was first published in the Netherlands by Atlas Contact, who have a great reputation for attracting and fostering exceptional writers. Both readers and critics seemed completely bowled over by Kalfsvlies, something rather unusual in the Netherlands, given the genre and Rijneveld’s youth, but once I read the collection, I understood why everyone was raving. The first line of the first poem in Kalfsvlies (Calf’s Caul) reads “How do you go to bed when you have just run over a sheep?” Now, that is an opening! I found it so incredibly brutal and compelling. I read the entire collection in one sitting and then, the next day, I began translating, purely for the pleasure of it. A little while later, I contacted Marieke Lucas to discuss doing something with my translations.

To me, Rijneveld’s work feels quite rebellious—the narrative voice in Kalfsvlies is unfiltered and entirely unconcerned with establishing its authority. Rather, it is blatantly vulnerable and at times incredibly naïve considering the deeper themes at play: the death of a sibling, alcoholism, struggles with gender and sexuality, the confines of a rural upbringing. But Rijneveld’s youthful eye is also her strength, it draws the reader into a world that feels spontaneous, wildly intimate and full of unexpected wisdom. I can’t wait to read her debut novel, which will be published in the Netherlands (also by Atlas Contact) in October.

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Close Approximations: In Conversation With Fiction Runner-up, Clarissa Botsford

Claire Jacobson speaks to Clarissa Botsford about translating excerpts from an Elvira Dones novel from Italian to English.

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its third edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our interviews with Suchitra Ramachandran and Brian Bergstrom, we are thrilled to bring you fiction runner-up Clarissa Botsford in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Clarissa Botsford has worked in the fields of teaching, intercultural education, editing, translating, publishing and is also a singer, violinist, and independent celebrant. She currently teaches English and Translation Studies at Roma Tre University. Her translations include Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (And Other Stories, 2014), Valerio Magrelli’s Condominium of the Flesh (Free Verse Editions, 2015), and excerpts of Magrelli’s Geology of a Father (Comparative Critical Studies, 2017), which received a commendation at the John Dryden Translation Competition.

Ms. Botsford’s translation of excerpts from Elvira Dones’ novel Burnt Sun was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest, featured in the most recent issue. Fiction judge David Bellos wrote, “In a different class and genre, Burnt Sun by the distinguished Albanian émigrée writer and film-maker Elvira Dones delves into the inner worlds of her compatriots forced into prostitution and exile. Translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford, Dones’s second language, Burnt Sun is both documentary and fiction, a crafted story and a powerful exposé.”

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Close Approximations: In Conversation With Fiction Runner-up, Brian Bergstrom

The translator on the complex interplay of Japanese and "hegemonic" English, and how the relationship informs his translation.

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its 3rd edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our podcast interview with Suchitra Ramachandranwe are thrilled to bring you fiction runner-up Brian Bergstrom in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Brian Bergstrom is a lecturer in the East Asian Studies Department at McGill University in Montréal. His articles and translations have appeared in publications including Granta, Aperture, Mechademia, positions: asia critique, and Japan Forum. He is the editor and principal translator of We, the Children of Cats by Tomoyuki Hoshino (PM Press), which was longlisted for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award.

His translation of “See” by Erika Kobayashi from the Japanese was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest. This is what fiction judge David Bellos had to say about it: “Erika Kobayashi’s ‘See’ earns its place as a runner up by imagining a world just like ours save for a craze for a pill called ‘See’ that induces temporary blindness. People take it so as to go out on blind dates and drives to the sea. Read on! The English of the translation by Brian Bergstrom seems to me flawless.”

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An interview with Edil Hassan: Writing poetry rooted in migration, otherness and Somali heritage

When I write of those days now, there is something fuller and heavier

Edil Hassan is a poet of Somali background based in New England. Two of her poems appeared in Asymptote’s most recent issue in the feature on banned countries. Ms. Hassan graciously answered a few questions about her work and inspiration.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): Your poems are so grounded in deep family relationships and stories from the past. Can you talk about the inspiration for these poems? What drove you to write them?

Edil Hassan (EH): The Drought for a long time was only the last stanza. I had seen a picture of a capsized migrant boat in the Mediterranean on some news site—a new picture every week or month, never the same boat. It’s like those videos of Black girls and boys who are killed; I’m waiting to know the person behind the camera. I knew though that this poem was incomplete, and like all stories is layered. Migration comes with a loss of place, and mediating on family helps me track that disappearance.

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In Conversation with Iranian-American poet and translator Kaveh Akbar

"How do you change everything about a poem and still preserve the essence of the thing?"

Kaveh Akbar is a recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. He was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida. His newest collection, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, is forthcoming from Alice James Books this fall. Earlier this year, Mr. Akbar was featured on PBS after tweeting poems from banned countries in response to President Trump’s infamous travel ban, and translated Negar Emrani’s poetry for Asymptote’s feature on banned countries in the Spring Issue. Claire Jacobson spoke to Mr. Akbar about the experience. 

Claire Jacobson (CJ): What are some of the limitations you found in translating between Farsi and English, in general or specific to poetry?

Kaveh Akbar (KA): I can speak to my own limitations as a translator—I don’t actually speak Farsi, not really, and so I rely on Negar’s patient explication of her own poems. She provides me with the trot, and then allows me to ask question after question after question about connotations and specific meanings and idioms. It’s a time-consuming process, but it’s necessary to ensure a kind of fidelity.

CJ: How does working with the author change the way you approach the process (as opposed to, say, translating someone who is no longer living)?

KA: Being able to work directly with Negar, who speaks English well enough to talk me through her poems and answer my questions, has been such a treasure. She signs off on the final drafts (and often rejects many earlier ones), which affords me a kind of confidence in the fidelity of the final translations. Besides that, she’s an absolutely original poetic mind, and being able to spend time talking with her and exploring the cosmology of her verse has taught me so much about poems in general.

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Between two worlds: An exclusive interview with Ubah Cristina Ali Farah

"The language we choose to write has a powerful political meaning."

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is a poet, novelist, playwright, and oral performer of Italian and Somali heritage, best known for her novels Madre piccola (2007) and Il comandante del fiume (2014). Her piece, “A Dhow Crosses the Sea” recently appeared in the April issue of Asymptote, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson of the University of Iowa.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): What can you tell me about the oral storytelling quality of your work?

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (UCAF): While I was studying at the Sapienza University of Rome, my favorite authors were Amos Tutuola, Amadou Hampâté Bâ and the great Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa. I learned to love the oral, anonymous poetry of the medieval bards, the romancero evoked by García Lorca, Italo Calvino’s rewriting of traditional Italian tales, and Pierpaolo Pasolini’s striking collection of popular songs and poems. However, my first loves, the texts that influenced me most, were the Somali oral poems and tales, under the wings of which I grew up. I was looking for the oneiric feeling that resonated in the oral poetry, a text disconnected but at the same time coherent, a voice encompassing both colloquial and erudite styles and registers of language. A storytelling that could embody the throbbing power of the voice.

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Spotlight on Banned Countries Feature

A Q&A with ALTA director Aron Aji and co-translator Bakhit Bakhit

After our Blog Editors’ and Section Editors’ Highlights, we turn our attention to our Banned Countries Special Feature, put together by founding editor Lee Yew Leong. These Q&As by new Assistant Interviews Editor Claire Jacobson shed further light on the creative process of translation. First up, we are thrilled to be joined today by Dr. Aron Aji and Bakhit Bakhit, who collaborated on a translation of Mohamed Abd-Alhai’s poem “Al-Salmandel at the Edge of Absence”. Bakhit, originally hailing from Sudan, is an MFA candidate in literary translation at the University of Iowa, where Dr. Aji is his advisor. 

Beyond the obvious differences between the Arabic and English grammar, Abd-Alhai’s syntax presents particular challenges to the translator. Often adverbs and adjectives are placed to accentuate sound and rhythm, more than sense. To ‘correct’ their placement in order to conform to the English usage would hurt the sound structures in the poem. Likewise, each stanza presents a single thought unit through the network of linked images and ideas developed across the four or more more lines. It is not unusual for particles or pronouns to simultaneously refer both to a preceding verb, noun, or image and to one that might follow. The translation, therefore, has to reflect these simultaneous links, working against a conventional linear reading. The actual process involves breaking down the original stanzas into phrasal units and to reconstruct them with these links in mind. A good example are the lines:

She on her loom waiting
driving time, onward once, then back

that should capture the movement of the loom back and forth and the workings of her mind between memory of loss and the longing for return.

Bakhit Bakhit’s collaboration with Aron Aji, too, involves the weaving together of two discrete translation processes that yield or resist to each other—now interrogating now complementing—hopefully moving toward an English version remains sensitive to the Arabic cadences—in sound, sense, or imagery.

—Bakhit Bakhit and Aron Aji

In your translators’ note above, you mention your “two discrete translation processes” that work together to produce a single translation. Can you describe the different approaches you take to the text, and how you were able work together to produce this translation?

Bakhit is the one who knows the poet, the poem, its aesthetic and socio-cultural context. Our collaboration begins after Bakhit completes a relatively advanced draft; then Aron enters into the process, silently reading the poem while listening to Bakhit read the original in Arabic; Aron marks the translation according to the rhythms and sounds he hears in Bakhit’s reading, in places where the Arabic feels more resonant, more charged. What follows is a rich conversation about individual words, lines, etc., in order to tease out this “charge.” Some inevitable semantic revisions notwithstanding, our conversation is about carrying into English the subtler, less intellectual, more intuitive aspects of the original, what belongs not so much to the body of the poem, but maybe to its soul.

Can you talk about your decision to leave the words al-samandel and hijra wal awda in Arabic?

We preferred keeping the Arabic phrase hijra wal awda to counteract the negative reception of the words, immigration and immigrant, nowadays. In Abd Alhai’s poem, immigration as hijra is always attached with return as al-awda. It is a journey where the immigrant always comes back after attaining self-knowledge and knowledge of his/her roots. Coming back may not always mean physical return to the homeland. But it always means growth, recognition, wisdom that has to do with a reconciliation with, a consummation of the past.  He may be welcome with songs and celebrations or he may die with honor, “if lost in his inclination to the sea ….”

As for al-samandel, the English translation is “salamander” but does not necessarily carry the mythic resonance that Al-Samandel does.

In these instances, we were not deliberately trying to be foreignizing or to provide a cultural flavoring. Rather, both hijra wal awada and al-samandel are meant to function like windows through which the sincerely curious reader will look and find out much that would have otherwise seemed lost.

What do you see as Abd-Alhai’s contribution to the conversation on banned countries, given that he wrote in a different time and context? 

The “Inclination to the sea” is about the nomad condition—whether of the hero, the immigrant, or the refuge—which lies at the heart of Homer’s The Odyssey as it does of Abdl-Alhai’s poem, which, in fact, directly engages the classical epic. The woman at the loom may be Penelope or Fatima, but also represent homeland, a place of real or imaginary return.

Find Mohamed Abd Alhai’s poem “Al-Salmandel at the Edge of Absence” in Bakhit Bakhit and Aron Aji’s translation here, where you can also listen to Bakhit Bakhit’s reading of the poem in the original Arabic.

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