Posts by Florian Duijsens

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Everything There Was” by Hanna Bervoets

We started craving other things. Things that were there. Though they were becoming scarcer by the day.

Today we present a haunting extract from a newly translated novel by critically acclaimed Dutch writer, columnist, and journalist Hanna Bervoets. Stranded in a school building after a catastrophic event leaves the outside world uninhabitable, a TV crew and the subjects of their documentary struggle to survive in Bervoets’s post-apocalyptic universe. From the scattered diary pages of the crew’s researcher, we learn the troubling story of everything there was, and the little there was left.

We haven’t turned on the computers in a long time. The last time we turned them off again, there still wasn’t any internet. Until then we still opened the browsers every day. Though perhaps that was just habit, like in the old situation, tearing a page off my calendar every morning, even though I already knew full well what day of the week it was, or what date. But the more often you do something, the stranger it is not to do it. So I can’t say whether we still believed the internet would come back. Just that we kept hoping it would.

It is perhaps hard for you to imagine how important the internet once was. I also find it hard to imagine. Perhaps it really wasn’t all that important.

But I think it was.


What We’re Reading in July

Summer lit picks from the Asymptote team: Italian fiction galore, poetry for the World Cup, and a Romani and a German writer

Antony Shugaar (editor-at-large, Italy): I’m reading the shortlisted books for Italy’s top literary prize, the Strega (named after a saffron-yellow after-dinner liqueur), which were announced in early July. One of the most interesting is Il desiderio di essere come tutti, The Desire to Be Like Everyone Else (Einaudi) by Francesco Piccolo, which amounts to a psychic autobiography of the past 40 years of Italian life, and the transition from a time of communist ideals to the present. Suffice it to say that the book is broken down into two parts: 1) The Pure Life: [Italian Communist Party leader Enrico] Berlinguer and Me and 2) The Impure Life: Berlusconi and Me. And I’m pleased to say, it was the winner.


Pop Around the World: I Suoni D’estate

A Musical Journey to Italy

Celebrating summer though music is best done by letting the outside world mix your playlist. Instead of being bunkered up inside, we best give ourselves over to the choices of others, through song snippets wafting out of open windows and automobiles, that ubiquitous song of the summer blasting at regular intervals from shoe stores and gaudy discotheques, the presets or record collections of your Airbnb hosts, or foreign radio stations in your rental car. If the songs are in another language, the effect is that much more transformative, creating a wonderfully schizophrenic sense of anonymity in incomprehensibility and of endless possibility in the unknown.

Yet it also has to be admitted that there is as much crap music abroad as there is at home. And it will definitely seem to be a much higher percentage at first, because how would you even know where to start, which station to start streaming? It helps when your favorite artists sidestep into a foreign language. Erlend Oye, for instance, a Norwegian singer who makes up half of the much-beloved twee popsters Kings of Convenience (and more recently fronted the now defunct Whitest Boy Alive) last year surprised the world with a rare solo single in Italian. Though the album it was supposed to be a part of hasn’t yet materialized, this first taste is an infectiously strummy tribute to the grand Italian pop tradition of the 1960s and 70s. READ MORE…

Exposing Kafka’s Hustler

Translating a story out of the closet

It’s a truism to say that translators are an author’s closest readers. They read so closely that they find patterns hidden underneath the text in a manner akin only to psychoanalysis—perhaps more adeptly than a critic or an academic. Coupled with a need to study up on translation craft, this attractive prospect spurred me to sign up for “Kafka in Translation,” a course offered by The Reader and taught by translator Bill Martin in the back of St. George’s bookstore in Berlin.

In our first class, we looked around the folding table curiously as enthusiasts and translators at various professional stages introduced themselves. Some were lucky-ass native speakers, others relative newcomers to the German language, but all of us shared an attraction to the Kafkaesque. Going around the group to share our thoughts, it was strange to be thrown back into a student state so many years after graduating, and I annoyingly immediately found myself in wise-ass mode, ceaselessly sub-clausing and cracking gay jokes. READ MORE…

Pop Around the World: Rising Sun Blues

There is a house...

It’s hard to say just how your favorite songs become your favorite songs, but it shouldn’t be hard to understand that sometimes our favorites are also immensely popular. We are not unique snowflakes, at least not when it comes to pop music, and sometimes (as previous iterations of this column have tried to show) we aren’t even that different from people across borders, seas, and continents.

A good song travels at the speed of radio waves, taking up residence in ears wherever, whenever.  Folk songs have traveled best of all, passing from porch to porch or from prayer-bench to prayer-bench, until the likes of Alan Lomax and the Greenwich Village folkies recorded and spread these tales like acoustic wildfire. READ MORE…

Sports and Literature: an interview with Philipp Schönthaler

Plumbing the depths of human endeavor

Last night, at an intimate jazz bar hidden away on one of Berlin’s many courtyards, Readux books presented its gorgeous second set of books. Hardly larger than the next generation of cell phones, these little books are designed for brief escapes, mini-breathers away from your screen (although they’re of course also available as ebooks, who are we kidding?).

There were readings, short discussions, and delicious and plentiful vodka tonics, spring was very much in the air—it’s no coincidence that these books do well on lunch-break benches underneath Berlin’s tender first blossomings. READ MORE…

Pop Around the World: the Russian Invasion of 1962

Songs of revolution and regret

Though those Russian missiles never made it over from Cuba to the US in 1962, several Russian songs did hit their targets, flourishing in foreign ears even in the permafrostiest months of the Cold War.

Perhaps the best-known Russian tune out west is “Those Were The Days,” a song based on “Дорогой длинною,” pioneered by Ukrainian-born cabaret singer Alexander Vertinsky (who recorded the version embedded above) and written by Russian composer Boris Fomin to lyrics by Konstantin Podrevskii. Read in translation, the song sings of grief and of regret for past joys gone too soon:


Pop Around the World: Tombe la neige

An infinity of songs about snow

Most songs about snow are also about Jesus, or about Santa, or cozying up in a toasty cabin. They’re not all like that though, there’s Belle & Sebastian’s “Fox in the Snow” (here in a choral version from Vancouver and here in a delightfully dark version by the great Kiki & Herb), and let’s never forget Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes”, which seems ripe for a cover by well-known syzzurp aficionado Justin Bieber. There’s Kate Bush, who recorded an entire album about the ethereal white crystals. Inspired by the widespread idea that ‘Eskimos’ have hundreds of words for snow, Bush created her own list of 50 snow-white synonyms, coming up with delightful terms such as “Zhivagodamarbletash”, “sorbetdeluge”, or “swans-a-melting”, and recorded them with the help of Stephen Fry (rather obsessed with the vagaries and varieties of language). As for ascertaining just how many Eskimoan terms there really are for snow? READ MORE…

Pop Around The World: Bei Mir Bistu Shein

A Yiddish song goes to war

You’ve read about it, Monday was supposedly the saddest day in the year, or so ‘scientists’ claim. Blue Monday. Of course that’s bullshit, as this Guardian blogpost heartily shows. Still, is it a coincidence that Monday also saw the arrival of the Berlin season of snow and ice? As someone with a decidedly ungenetic equatorial disposition, I’m having a hard time, needless to say, so I’m resorting to musical therapy to keep my morale up.

But what to play? New Order’d be good, if awfully literal, perhaps the steamrolling original, or this delightfully goth Gregorian version, or maybe the below French-language version by The Times, an English band signed to Creation Records that also recorded Japanese, Spanish, German, Brazilian Portuguese versions (all of which now very happily in my possession). READ MORE…

Pop Around The World: الأرنب الأبيض

Cover songs in American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street

There’s a great deal of music in American Hustle (originally and more appropriately called American Bullshit), no surprise for a period picture that takes great care with the costumes and especially the curls of its con-men characters. What is surprising is that a great deal of the admittedly great music chosen is a little rote, either in terms of sonic 70s shorthand (Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” stands for disco and drugs) or through blunt lyrical parallels (Santana’s “Evil Ways” or Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work”). It’s not all that obvious, though, as on-set improvisation led director David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence to take Wings’ “Live and Let Die” and turn McCartney’s Bond tune into a villainous call to arms for Lawrence’s dangerously unbalanced character.


Pop Around the World: The Rhythm of the EU

Reviving 90s Eurodance

In pop music, much as in fashion, revivals are marked by a unique mixture of ignorance and nostalgia. The sounds and songs of yesterday are only successfully revived when audiences are divided about 50/50 between people who lived through the original era and kids to whom it all sounds fresh and new (if comfortingly familiar somehow). This means that musical genres can be dusted off every 25 years or so—say, when anniversary editions or write-ups appear, or when new artists emerge who’ve immersed themselves in records that are at that point ‘forgotten’ or even derided. 2013, for instance, has seen a newfound interest in two genres that have been mostly dormant since their critical and popular 90s heyday: trip hop, a Bristol-born musical genre clubbed to death by overexposure in coffee shops and boutiques, and (for lack of a better term) ‘indie rock’, and by that I mean the mildly dissonant, charmingly ramshackle, and highly dynamic guitar-based variety as made popular by bands like Pavement and the Breeders, not the more produced and community-oriented music of Death Cab or Arcade Fire. READ MORE…

Pop Around the World: Paint It Black

A racist tradition is cherished in the Netherlands

When you think of the Dutch contributions to pop music, you might find yourself drawing a blank, albeit perhaps one decorated with some tulips, marijuana leaves, and gay marriage. There’s no reason to, really, you only have to listen to the Van Halen boys (who share my hometown, as I recently found out), the fantastic “Radar Love” by Golden Earring, or Morrissey favorites Shocking Blue, a 1960s combo whose songs were made famous by bands as diverse as Bananarama (“Venus”) and Nirvana (“Love Buzz”). READ MORE…

Pop Around the World: Alle Morgens Helden

Lou Reed's deathless cool

In the movie version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the gorgeous, tortured teenagers who’ve been guiding the film’s young protagonist  another gorgeous, tortured teenager  in matters of love, identity, and music, decide to take the boy on a special trip through a Pittsburgh tunnel. A song comes on the radio, and the girl climbs out through the back window to emerge standing on the back of the flatbed truck in Leo’s “king of the world” pose at the end of the tunnel. Whereas the book can leave the actual song unnamed and universal, the film has to be specific and actually play the song. In a rare false note for the otherwise entirely truthy film, finding the mysterious song that prompted this liberating escapade becomes a matter of serious concern for our serious young protagonist, even though everybody born before 1990 will have immediately guessed it: David Bowie’s deathlessly cool “Heroes”. READ MORE…

Pop around the world: Auva Auva Koi Yahan Nache

Pop songs by their very nature worm their way into your head Suzanne Vega-style, their hooks made to be memorable, their melodies fine-tuned for instant recall. No wonder then that they travel so well; Miley’s latest hitting just as hard in Madrid as in Atlanta or Cardiff. What’s more, a great pop song doesn’t just transfer well in its original incarnation, American or British pop songs are easily translated, re-arranged, and sold in other countries (sometimes even by the artists themselves; the Beatles in German! Stevie Wonder in Italian!).

Even more astonishingly (especially from a literary standpoint) songs in Hebrew or Korean have sometimes been hits outside of Israel or South Korea without undergoing any changes or translations. And that’s not even mentioning the songs originally written in Hungarian or Portuguese that conquered the world in English translation. This biweekly series will be your guide in this pan-global pop conspiracy, reintroducing you to songs you thought you knew and opening your ears to the wonderfully deep reserves of fantastic covers places like Thailand, Germany, or Ethiopia have to offer.