Posts by Garrett Phelps

What’s New in Translation: October 2019

October's new translations, selected by the Asymptote staff to shed light on the best recent offerings of world literature.

A new month brings an abundance of fresh translations, and our writers have chosen three of the most engaging, important works: a Japanese novella recounting the monotony of modern working life as the three narrators begin employment in a factory, the memoir of a Russian political prisoner and filmmaker, as well as the first comprehensive English translation of Giorgio de Chirico’s Italian poems. Read on to find out more!

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The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada, translated from the Japanese by David Boyd, New Directions, 2019

Review by Andreea Scridon, Assistant Editor

Drawn from the author’s own experience as a temporary worker in Japan, The Factory strikes one as being a laconic metaphor for the psychologically brutalizing nature of the modern workplace. There is more than meets the eye in this seemingly mundane narrative of three characters who find work at a huge factory (reticent Yoshiko as a shredder, dissatisfied Ushiyama as a proofreader, and disoriented Furufue as a researcher), as they become increasingly absorbed and eventually almost consumed by its all-encompassing and panoptic nature. Coincidentally wandering into a job for the city’s biggest industry, or finding themselves driven there—against their instincts—by necessity, the three alternating narrators chronicle the various aspects of their working experience and the deeply bizarre undertones that lie beneath the banal surface. READ MORE…

Grab the Nearest Buoy: On Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni

It’s a Euclidean landscape, stripped down and elementary, where desire is literally having to feel around in the dark.

How did a book of Greek poetry become one of the most-discussed and most-lauded pieces of contemporary European literature? Garrett Phelps, Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote, explains what makes Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy is so unusual—and so difficult to describe.

Late last year, Shoestring Press published a complete edition of Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy, translated into English from a newly revised text. Not long after the first volume appeared in 2009, the work became the subject of near-unanimous praise. Fastforward about a decade and it’s widely acknowledged as a crucial addition to the literary canon, the strongest signs being its frequent inclusion in university curricula and its reputation in high circles as a masterwork, a post-modern epic, and a dystopian allegory for the cultural collapse of the West, whose legacy is only despair and rubble and war. Translations into French, English, and German have made it one of the most reviewed works of contemporary European literature, which is rare for any book of poetry and especially one written in Greek. That it’s a masterwork, or at least really near being one, is true. I gathered as much after my first encounter with it a few years ago, when Asymptote featured an extract from Shorsha Sullivan’s translation of Z213: Exit. It floored me back then and still does now.

I’m thankful that I read it before looking at anyone else’s thoughts, because the label “post-modern epic” is misleading, useful only for jacket copy. It reminds me of somebody like Umberto Eco, whose novels are long and fussy, and more about literature itself than that other rich wellspring known as real life. Dimitris Lyacos’ trilogy is definitely not that: whatever runs through its heart is too raw. Other postmodernists with actual talent, like Kathy Acker, are also a very different cut of writer. They tend to deal with ubiquitous cultural products—e.g., movies, music, targeted ad copy, the novel—whose influence pervades, or even dictates, modernity. Their work is heavy on pastiche and ready to relate, sometimes in a single breath, subjects as disparate as Nascar and archaic Greek poetry. Lyacos shares their skepticism of reigning cultural myths, although for him they’re free from the baggage of ideology, manifest destiny, and sense of self. Instead, myths revert to their most embryonic forms, such as the Homeric journey, leading some critics to argue that Poena Damni is in fact more modernist than post-modern. They’re right, too, but the claim sounds so dry when read aloud that I’ve already lost interest. Anxiety about missing the point usually means literature is doing its job. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly guide to biggest news in world literature.

We’re starting this month with news of literary awards, festivals, and translation parties to distract you from the last few weeks of winter! From the Bergen International Literary Festival and a Mother Tongues translation party to the European Union Prize for Literature and the PEN America Literary Awards, we have you covered with all of this week’s most important literary news.

Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from the Bergen International Literary Festival, Norway

A literary event in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city and Europe’s wettest, doesn’t quite feel complete without a few minutes spent outside the venue—some people smoking, some talking with the writers, some watching the rain drip slowly into their beer. At Bergen’s first International Literary Festival, all participants were presented with free umbrellas, but the weekend (an extended weekend, beginning on Valentine’s Day and ending on February 17th) was miraculously close to remaining rain-free.

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Rebel Poetry: Rodrigo Lira’s Testimony of Circumstances in Review

Lira’s neologisms, wordplay, intertextuality, and assonance-based rhythms would cost even the best translator a pint of blood.

Testimony of Circumstances by Rodrigo Lira, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría, Cardboard House Press

Latin America gave the second half of the twentieth century some of its most destructive and incendiary poetry. In Bogotá, in the 1960s, the Nadaistas threw copies of Cervantes into a bonfire and shouted from rooftops of an imminent socio-poetic revolution, and anyone who knows the name Bolaño has likely heard how Mexico’s Infrarealistas heckled the hell out of Octavio Paz. This was the period of poesía rebelde, rebel poetry, in which agitation played a big role on the street and the page. One particularly volatile poet from this milieu was Rodrigo Lira, who stuck out even at a time when this sort of counter-cultural militancy wasn’t unheard of. Testimony of Circumstances, translated into English by Rodrigo Olavarría and Thomas Rothe, secures his position as a true outsider in a world full of pretenders.

Born in 1949 into an upper middle-class family, Rodrigo Lira received a good education and spent his first fifteen years in close proximity to Chile’s elite, but as a teenager he began to veer far from bourgeois respectability. He ingested substantial amounts of weed. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had electroshock therapy at his family’s insistence. He rallied behind Salvador Allende’s socialist government until Augusto Pinochet’s U.S.-backed coup turned Chile into a nationalist, ultra-capitalist nightmare. Anyone with left-wing sympathies risked persecution, and the new regime kidnapped and executed thousands of its own citizens on that very charge. Although Lira grew quiet on political matters, he was hardly mute.

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Translating the Ottoman Quartet: An Interview with Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi

In practical terms, communication with the author is difficult: we can only communicate through his lawyers.

Ahmet Altan’s writing is sprawling, ambitious, radical—so radical that the author is currently serving a life sentence on charges of inciting the plotters behind Turkey’s 2016 failed coup. In the latest instalment of the Asymptote Book Club interview series, Altan’s co-translators, Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi, reveal that their only contact with the author is through his lawyers. No written materials can be carried into or out of the prison where Altan is serving his sentence, but work continues on the final volume of the monumental Ottoman Quartet.

In conversation with Asymptote’s Garrett Phelps, Freely and Türedi give us an insight into how they came to translate Altan’s work, and why a novel sequence of novels dealing with the events of the early twentieth century has never felt fresher or more contemporary.

Garrett Phelps (GP): Like a Sword Wound is set during a momentous period in Turkish history and details the cycle of chaos which ultimately results in the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. As translators, did you feel the setting added to your burden of responsibilities?

Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi (BF/YT): Both of us are quite familiar with this period, so the setting as such did not present any particular problem. However, we were aware of the echoes of the current political situation in Turkey, and of how little the main political currents seem to have changed in over a hundred years. In practical terms, although Like a Sword Wound was written in modern Turkish rather than Ottoman Turkish, Ahmet Altan made an effort to reflect the language of the period, often choosing outdated words and phrases. In our initial meeting to discuss the translation, he was concerned about how we would approach this. We agreed to take the same approach he did—that is, to prefer older words and phrasing to evoke the mindset of the period while still keeping the language current enough to avoid alienating contemporary readers.

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What’s New in Translation: November 2018

Need recommendations for what to read next? Let our staff help with their reviews of four new titles.

Join us on this edition of What’s New in Translation to find out more about four new novels, from Amsterdam, Colombia, Russia, and Azerbaijan.

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Childhood by Gerard Reve, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Pushkin Press, 2018

Reviewed by Garrett Phelps, Assistant Editor

The narrators in Gerard Reve’s Childhood are at that credulous stage of youth where hazy moral lines are easily trespassed, where curiosity and cruelty often intersect. All of Reve’s usual themes are here: taboo sexualities, the illusion of moral categories, the delicate balancing acts that prevent erotic love from teetering into violence. But the two novellas in Childhood transgress in unexpected ways, insofar as children’s very inexperience puts them outside the sphere of sin.

The first novella, Werther Nieland, is told by a boy named Elmer, who bounces between friends’ houses and other neighborhood locales, and whose longing to form a secret club is less a wish than an absolute necessity. After feeling an affinity for local boy Werther Nieland, he decides: “There will be a club. Important messages have been sent already. If anybody wants to ruin it, he will be punished. On Sunday, Werther Nieland is going to join.” Why exactly Elmer is attracted to Werther never really gets explained. More confusing is the fact that as early as their first meeting Elmer feels the urge to abuse him.

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Announcing our October Book Club selection: Like A Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan

The novel is a breathless portrait of late-19th century Istanbul — the corrupt, violent and authoritarian core of a failing empire...

Our October Asymptote Book Club selection is the first novel in a quartet that aims to reveal “the dark and bloody face of history.” Earlier this month, a Turkish court upheld a life sentence for the quartet’s author, Ahmet Altan, on charges of aiding the plotters behind the failed military coup in 2016. He continues to work on the final volume of the quartet from inside his cell. Like a Sword Wound can be read as an autopsy on “the sick man of Europe”, the ailing Ottoman Empire at the turn of the last century, but also as a powerful indictment of despotic regimes across history.

We’re proud to be bringing our subscribers a novel of incredible courage, inspired by a belief that literature is close as we can come to finding “an antidote to the poison of power.

If you’re already an Asymptote Book Club subscriber, head to our official Facebook group to continue the discussion; if you haven’t joined us yet, Garrett Phelps’ review should give you a brief taste of the novel, and all the information you need in order to subscribe is available on our Book Club site.

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Fall 2016: A Fresh Opportunity to Talk

Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision.

Halldór Laxness, Stefan Zweig, László Krasznahorkai—just when you think you are announcing just these three international literary superstars in the Fall 2016 lineup, it turns out you have four. On October 3, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti controversially unmasks Elena Ferrante as Anita Raja. But, even before Gatti’s unwelcome revelation, I had already picked out Anita Raja’s contribution as a highlight and intended to include her name in all our issue-related promotional materials. Fearing that we would be accused of riding the controversy, I drop a note to Criticism Editor Ellen Jones: “What do you make of all this Anita Raja = Elena Ferrante business? Is it opportunistic of us to feature her name in our publicity materials (which we already sent for printing) and on the cover (which can still be changed)?” The issue’s been on her mind as well. “We want to avoid the same kinds of accusations NYRB are getting in this morning’s papers,” Ellen says, “but I don’t think it would do too much harm to have her as one among many names in our promotion materials… I don’t think we need to bury a good essay on purpose, in short.” But what about in the promotional materials themselves? How much do we say about Anita Raja? Communications Manager Matthew Phipps decides in the end to take a risk and state matter-of-factly that Elena Ferrante has been unmasked as Anita Raja (which anyone who has been following literary news already knows). Too frazzled to make a call on the copy after staying up for 36 hours to put together the video trailer (it’s been a while since I made these for Asymptote, and I am rusty), I sign off on the newsletter. That’s how, in spite of a massive publicity blitz that involved printing and distributing 4,000 postcards; print and digital ads in the Times Literary Supplement that set us back by 900 GBP; 97 personalized emails to media outlets, 90 tweets, 20 Facebook posts, and seven blog posts about the Fall 2016 issue (all documented in then Marketing Manager Ryan Celley’s publicity report here), dear reader, we still came to be booed. Here to introduce our Fall 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Garrett Phelps. 

What a work of literature ‘means’ is always tough to get a feel for, let alone talk about. Of course a famous theorist or two have claimed this is an insurmountable difficulty. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. Not being too slick with the theoretical stuff, I’ll just say that literature is meaningful to the extent it’s ambiguous and open-ended. And if any idea unifies Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue, it’s the way interpretive problems result from this state-of-affairs.

For Anita Raja, ignorance is the reader’s point of departure and return. In “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance” she argues that “the translator must be above all a good reader, capable of diving into the intricacies of the text, taking it apart, discerning all its nuance. The translator is, in short, a reader required to puzzle over the complexity of the original text, line after line, and to piece it together in the new language—a fundamentally impossible task.” Good translators are, essentially, readers par excellence. Anyone who’s dabbled in the field probably won’t find this idea controversial. Sooner or later, though, even a top-notch translator hits the same wall as the average reader, who’s more okay letting intricacies, nuances and puzzle-pieces remain gut-feelings. Demanding much more is futile even if doing so is worthwhile. This is especially true of translation, where success is often the sum of accumulated failures. READ MORE…