Posts by Lindsay Semel

What’s New in Translation: July 2019

Four reviews of translations you won't want to miss this month!

From translations by heavyweights like Ann Goldstein and Jennifer Croft to novels by writers appearing for the first time in English, July brings a host of exciting new books in translation. Read on for coming-of-age stories set in Italy and Poland, a drama in rural Argentina, and the tale of a young man and his pet lizard in Japan. 

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A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

In A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award-winning novel, a nameless young woman retrospectively narrates the defining event of her adolescence—the year when the only family she has ever known returns her to her birth family. From the title, the reader can already sense the protagonist’s conundrum. A passive object of the act of being returned, her passivity in her own uprooting threatens to define her identity. Ann Goldstein’s searing translation from the Italian inspires the reader both to accompany the narrator as she wades through the tender memories of that time and to reflect on her or his own family relationships through a new lens.

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What’s New in Translation: June 2019

The best new reads from across the world, selected and reviewed by members of the Asymptote team.

Not sure what to read this summer? Our team has you covered with reviews of this month’s most anticipated literature in translation, including a Brazilian bestseller set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, an Egyptian writer’s take on life in the USSR, and an entertaining novel from a beloved Bengali author.

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The Sun on My Head by Geovani Martins, translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019

Reviewed by Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large for Brazil

Look out for blowtorches and the BOPE in Geovani Martins’s debut, The Sun on My Head, a collection of thirteen short stories that bring us into the heart of twenty-first century life in Rio’s favelas. Tensions run high between the police, drug slingers and traffickers, and the men, women, and children trying to live their everyday lives. Martins shows us that the language of the favelas is just as legitimate as the language of the academy, keeping “literature” true to everyday form. Julia Sanches preserves this legitimacy in English, delivering a carefully crafted translation filled with colloquialisms, slang, and Portuguese. The result is “some real trifling shit”—a wild ride that exposes us to the complexities of life in the periphery and the complexities of translating that life from one language into another.

Published in Brazil just last year, 2018, O sol na cabeça became an instant bestseller—a literary sensation that brought the voice of twenty-six-year-old Martins into the spotlight. Martins draws on his experiences of living in a favela to paint a modern-day picture of an ever-evolving Rio—particularly around the time of two major international events: the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. In “Spiral,” we see how racial and class profiling begins at a young age, and how irrational assumptions are perpetuated through inherited distrust. Those who live in the favelas are feared by the private school kids, the teenagers taking tennis lessons and the people waiting, anxiously, at the bus stop. “I remembered how that same old woman who’d trembled with fear before I’d given her reason to certainly hadn’t given any thought to how I probably also had a grandma, a mother, family, friends,” the narrator reveals, in a statement that demonstrates one of the overarching premises of the collection: to turn these stories on their head, to legitimize the experiences of those who face prejudice by representing them as whole human beings. The old lady walking on the street, clutching her bag, eyes turned sideways, isn’t the one telling the story anymore…

Martins takes us in and out of the favelas, introducing us to characters who are often in the heat of action (or one step away). In “Russian Roulette,” a young Paulo traces his dad’s gun down his body, into his pants, “savoring the hot-and-cold sensation”—a sign of both his innocence and a complicated relationship with power. In “The Case of the Butterfly,” a young boy fails to save a butterfly as it flitters into the kitchen and falls into a pool of leftover oil on the stove. The narrator in “TGIF”, fed up with collecting tennis balls for rich kids day after day, heads to Jacarezinho to get his fix, only to be robbed by a crooked cop. Each recollection is more of a vignette than a full-fledged story, where image (rather than plot) holds the metaphor. Though these images are strikingly clear, they (intentionally) leave us with minimal resolution—with an uncertainty as to how these characters endure, or overcome, the situations that they do.

The favela, the morro, the barraco: these are complex, distinctly Brazilian, places. Readers who are familiar with them will have an easier time navigating Martins’s text, while those who aren’t might find themselves a bit lost on “the hill”—particularly amidst the vernacular of stories like “Lil Spin,” “The Tale of Parakeet and Ape,” and “The Crossing,” where words are exchanged as quick as drugs. In her latest essay, Sanches points out that Martins seems to choose “to not explain; to let certain readers in and keep others out; there’s something for everyone here, but more for some than for others.” This is a book that lives on the streets, among the people of Rio’s favelas. And life there doesn’t slow down just because we might be unfamiliar with it.

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Ice by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated from the Arabic by Margaret Litvin, Seagull Books, 2019

Review by Sam Carter, Senior Editor

Between 1971 and 1973, the Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim studied at the All-Soviet Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. Yet there he spent less time learning the craft of filmmaking than engaging with cinema as spectator, and, by the time he returned to Egypt in 1974, he had confirmed that his preferred medium was the written word rather than the silver screen. That meant a return to a form in which he was already famous. 1966’s That Smell, which had been banned even before its printed copies could be distributed, was a loosely autobiographical account of a political prisoner after his release yet still under house arrest in Cairo. It is now widely regarded as one of the most significant texts written in Arabic in the second half of the twentieth century.

Margaret Litvin’s deft translation of Ice, which originally appeared in 2011 after being written the year before, sharply observes the Soviet situation in roughly the same period as Ibrahim’s stay there. But rather than a writer interested in potentially becoming a filmmaker, the novel features a scholar pursuing further study in history. Ibrahim’s style, though, resembles nothing so much as that of slow cinema as it stitches together an array of episodes that never yield to the exigencies of a plot and instead offer us the subtle intricacies of life in the USSR.

The result is a compelling depiction of the listlessness that often besets student life. Shukri, the historian, spends some of his time sitting down at a typewriter without producing many pages or sifting through an extensive set of Egyptian newspapers given to him by a journalist and creating a collection of cuttings whose ultimate purpose is unclear even to him. Yet most of this novel suffused with vodka and frequently frustrated sexual desires revolves around the social space of the obshchezhitie or dormitory, where he lives with a rotating cast of roommates that includes Hans, a German student who often attracts the interest of the women Shukri lusts after. These young people have come to Moscow from many parts of the world unsure of what exactly awaited them, and many of them seem to leave with an even less clear idea of what the future will hold after their Soviet sojourns.

Although it is a novel about indecision—about the inability to figure out both what one is doing right now and will then do next—Ice decisively deploys what Litvin calls a “flat style” and does so to great effect. There is something intensely absorbing about the abrupt prose that traces the numbing experience Shukri has as he finds only convolution and irresolution in what had promised to be a place of revolution.

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Harbart by Nabarun Bhattacharya, translated from the Bengali by Sunandini Banerjee, New Directions Press, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

By the time he died in 2014, Nabarun Bhattacharya, the author of Harbart, had a Bengali cult following. Through translator Sunandini Banerjee’s mediation, his pool of post-mortem admirers is sure to expand throughout the anglophone world.

Harbart, born into a wealthy family, but orphaned as a young boy and abandoned to the care of his father’s unloving relatives, grew up reading books about the occult. One day, he has a dream in which his Naxalite revolutionary cousin Binu, who’d been shot by the police, reveals the location of a diary hidden behind a picture of Kali in his aunt’s prayer room. He directly sets up a lucrative business; “Conversations with the Dead. Prop: Harbart Sarkar,” says the sign over his door. “Harbart could sense it. He would have to charge-barrage now. Binu had had his time. It was Harbart’s time now. He would have to produce pandemonium—rip apart everything, turn everything upside down until the entire universe reeled in the dance of devastation.” He’s a fake, but also not. True, he lies to his customers. But another truth it that the dead stand on the sidelines of the novel, coexistent with the living, squabbling and commentating. Harbart is a haunted man, and the telling of his own death bookends the rest of the narrative. The reader has the impression that he’s not as much a fraud as a victim-participant in the forward march of capitalism and of the impetus to assign significance to the pointlessness and chaos of material existence.

We meet Harbart, already dead, through the eyes of a lizard. He’s “so still that the lizard crawled across his chest and then down his arm to his left hand, only to find it immersed in a bucket of blood-smelling cold water.” We proceed to learn about him by having a look around his room with him dead in the middle of it. This opening scene is characteristic of the rest of the novel. The perspective is askance, never straight on, and driven by happenstance—a narrative style that playfully destabilizes the gravitational pull of the central plot, protagonist, and message in a traditional novel.

This decentralization, the focus on society’s castaways and their surroundings and vernacular, is typical of Bhattacharya’s body of work. Banerjee’s acrobatic translation is both enormously fun and true to the radical content. The writing disrupts the hegemony of the English language from the inside by celebrating the multilingualism possible within it. Harbart’s English is characterized by staccato dialogue, aurality, sensory experience, and inventive swearing: “Illi! Fucking willy! So many big people—lawyers—doctors—everyone—believed but now all of a sudden blam, it’s a sham! Some strand of pubic hair from somewhere—and I have to go to him and confess. Why? I am a monkey and you’re my uncle? Carbuncle!”

Additionally, the Bengali original is full of English phrases, which can act as status symbols or simple residue of globalization. The translation maintains these phrases in italics. Their clumsy affectation often makes a buffoon of the speaker: “Then he turned to the cameraclicking girl and said, ‘See, as soon as you expose them, they begin to scream and shout. They think that all this melodrama will help them get away with it.’ ‘But he seems to be a dud,’ . . . ‘Oh, he’s a sweet, cute, small-time crook.’ . . . Harbart got angrier. ‘Don’t think your English talking scares me! Fucking English!’”

Without giving away the ending, I will say that it summarizes what’s been already demonstrated throughout the novel: the most explosive volatility is found in what is most thoroughly overlooked.

*****

Read more reviews on the Asymptote blog:

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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In Conversation: Duanwad Pimwana, author of Bright and Arid Dreams

My intention for every creation is to find a balance in which all elements fit in their own suitable places.

Duanwad Pimwana is one of the preeminent voices in contemporary Thai literature. As enigmatic as she is celebrated, Pimwana is known for her incisive social observation. Having built her career initially as a journalist and short-story writer, she’s now published nine books in Thai, spanning a variety of genres. Two of these, the novel Bright and the short-story collection Arid Dreams, will be published by Two Lines Press and the Feminist Press respectively this April. Both texts were translated by Mui Poopoksakul.

Pimwana’s narratorial perspective is that of a fly on the wall, but one with a loud, pumping, mammalian heartbeat. She is a master of conveying the melancholy contradictions that characterize human existence. Her characters often frustrate the readers’ sympathy, blurring the boundaries between such facilities as “protagonist,” “antagonist,” and “supporting character.” We take on their coexistent hope and despair, accompanying them as they’re tossed to the mercy of chance and fortune.

In Bright, six-year-old Kampol Changsamran gets left behind by both of his parents when an episode of violence and infidelity drives them both to flee their village and reestablish their lives elsewhere with other partners. It’s sometimes easy to forget just how young little Kampol is; he steps into his newfound freedom with a sense of responsibility, resourcefulness, and wisdom that transcends his age. But in other moments, it’s all too clear that his maturity is a function of necessity. His dearest wish is to be once again embraced by the love and security of family. His neighbors, meanwhile, most of them hardly able to fill their own bellies, show a full spectrum of responses to their new collective charge.

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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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What’s New in Translation: February 2019

Find the latest in world literature here, presented by members of the Asymptote team.

Curious about new titles in translation from around the world? We’ve got you covered here, in this edition of What’s New in Translation.

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Woman of the Ashes by Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, World Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, is the first book of a trilogy called As Areias do Imperador (The Sands of the Emperor). It tells of the fall of the Gaza Empire in Mozambique at the hands of the Portuguese. Brookshaw’s translation successfully elaborates on the original’s rich images and themes while maintaining the ambiguity and contradiction that characterize the disordered world of war between cultures. Through its two narrators, the novel weaves together the threads of two archetypal narratives. The warp is a story of empire and war. The weft is a story of storytelling itself.

The year is 1894–5, the confused and bloody moment in which the Portuguese Empire replaces the Nguni as the leading force in a region full of once independent peoples. Alternating chapters consist of a series of letters from the Portuguese Sergeant Germano de Melo, ostensibly to his supervisor. The voice of the interceding chapters belongs to Imani, a girl from a tribe that’s tentatively aligned itself with the Portuguese in the hopes of resisting the Nguni invaders. Having learned fluent Portuguese, she is appointed by her father to attend Sergeant Germano, himself a convict exiled for the crime of political action against the monarchy. These complementary characters find themselves dislocated from their people and sense of identity, stuck serving the very forces that sentence them to their own demise.

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An Interview with Asja Bakić

It seems to me that people today tend to underestimate Eros in literature when it’s obvious that the best books are full of it.

Asja Bakić’s short-story collection Mars, translated by Jennifer Zoble, is slated for release by the Feminist Press in March of 2019. Though she’s a prolific poet, short-story writer, translator, and blogger in the former Yugoslavia, Mars will be her first publication in English. Bakić grew up in a turbulent Tuzla, Bosnia, lives now in Zagreb, Croatia, and laments the limitations that national borders place on literary exchange. The twists and turns in her speculative narratives leave readers suspended in a heady no-man’s-land between Earth, Mars, and the moon; life, death, and purgatory. Bakić speaks with Asymptote’s Assistant Editor Lindsay Semel about translation, Eros in literature, and the proliferation of ideas.

Lindsay Semel (LS): You often participate in literary events around the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe. Can you tell me about what you’re seeing there? What interests or bothers you? What trends are emerging? Which voices are notable? How is it different for you, interacting in virtual and physical spaces as an artist?

Asja Bakić (AB): Well, I am seeing my friends. We all know each other. Most of us were born in the same country in the eighties; the language is still the same if you ask me. It doesn’t matter if I go to Belgrade, Novi Sad, Skopje or Tuzla—it feels like home. The problem is that the crude political divide doesn’t let us read each other the way we should. I try to pay attention to what is published in Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, but I fail miserably. The borders do not let books go through, so you have a Croatian author who must publish their book in the same language three times—for the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian markets, which is ridiculous. We have four versions of Elena Ferrante. Do we really need to publish the same book repeatedly? Wouldn’t it be better if we were to translate and publish different and new voices? That is why I prefer the internet. You find your friends there, you read each other, you comment—it is livelier. The internet is more real nowadays, because it doesn’t try to deny common ground.

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Sex, Drugs, and Identity :Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things in Review

This is a novel of the street, the bedroom, the metro, the sex-club, and the recording studio. Of weed, whisky, and cocaine.

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, The Feminist Press, 2018. 

Anglophone fans of Virginie Despentes are celebrating the release of Pretty Things, the fourth of her novels to be published by The Feminist Press, but the first translated from the French by Emma Ramadan. Ramadan, a long-time fan of Despentes, says in an interview we conducted with her this summer, that she accessed her raw vernacular parlance by speaking sentences out loud, watching French soap operas, and simply being a young, ambitious 20-something-year-old woman (much like many Despentes protagonists). It worked. This is a novel of the street, the bedroom, the metro, the sex-club, and the recording studio. Of weed, whisky, and cocaine. Where public and private, self and sister, butt heads. It’s a novel of desire and fear, love and insecurity, a woman trying not to allow other people’s expectations to mire her in the muck of society’s ugliest pathologies.

Pauline and Claudine are twins. They’re identical, but there’s no way to mistake one for the other. They have the type of beauty that’s fashionable at the moment, and Claudine learned as soon as she hit puberty to harness her beauty’s enormous power through her own objectification. Pauline finds it disgusting, this shallow game of power and submission, and makes a surly public display of her dissent. They don’t get along. Claudine, having recently moved to Paris to try to make it big, ropes Pauline into making a record with her. Pauline’s voice and Claudine’s personality are meant to equal one perfect pop star. The night of their first concert, while Pauline is on stage, Claudine jumps out her apartment window. Pauline, arriving at the scene after an evening of impersonating her sister, simply continues to do so, thus committing her own sort of suicide. Both sort of dead and in one living body, they start to suture the split that occurred between them in the womb.

While Pauline started with a plan to be half a woman, she spends the rest of the novel integrating two halves into a stronger whole. “Equilibrium needs to be restored. It was constructed opposite her sister, a force exerted on another. She has a clear image in her mind: two little women in a bubble, each pushing with her forehead against the other’s. If one of the two little women is removed, the other immediately topples over, falls into the other’s domain.” She learns to convincingly pass as Claudine. For two weeks, with the help of their friend and manager Nicolas, she locks herself in the apartment and learns to apply makeup, shave her legs, and walk in heels. When she finally emerges, she’s shocked to realize not only how people treated her sister, but also what it feels like to be treated that way. Simply presenting herself differently makes her vulnerable to scrutiny, jealousy, greed, and desire. She can empathize with Claudine for the first time—the whiff of sexual power also tempts her to sacrifice things like genuine human connection and self-respect, even as loneliness and self-disgust take their place. She doesn’t exactly miss her sister, but perhaps instead mourns a life spent too isolated to truly know except by inhabiting it.

The text yields dramatically different readings if one considers Pauline and Claudine to be more one or more two; autonomous individuals influenced by their relationship to each other, or solely a set of relations to each other—neither character whole unto herself. And yet both readings are not just valid, the ambiguity is crucial. On one hand, if both sisters are fully realized individuals, Pauline’s nonconformity is the stronger, more successful choice. It indicates her inherent intelligence and builds in her the strength to withstand the same conditions that wore away at Claudine until she jumped out her window. Claudine ends up dead and Pauline ends up… well, I won’t spoil the ending. But just as the music industry feels entitled to her body, she feels entitled to their money. On the other hand, Pauline and Claudine are the thesis and antithesis of a dialectical concerning femininity in society. Two sides of one coin. In this scenario, Pauline killed a part of herself the same night that Claudine did—and kept a part of both of them alive. By the end of the novel she represents the resolution of the two not into some transcendent, separate, enlightened woman, but a sort of balance of the two pre-existing options. There is no right way for a woman to behave in the face of social expectations, but each mini personal revolution yields a bit of progress. The reader is left with simultaneous, contradictory truths.

Even the text’s imagery is ambiguous on the extent to which they are one or two. For example, the novel describes the gender dynamic between the girls’ parents. Their father is aggressive and self-centered. Their mother exists only as an auxiliary appendage. Until their mother gets a job that she’s good at and begins to gain confidence and independence. The twins were conceived in response to his fury: “From that day on, he started fucking her like he was nailing something into the ground, all the way inside so she would get a fat stomach and stay put.” Two twins from one “nail.” But then, while their mother is pregnant, the parents argue about names. They decide to each choose one. “And so it was done, her stomach ripped in two.” Separate. We don’t learn much more on the topic until Pauline begins to take over Claudine’s life. In some ways she seems truly alien, trying to comprehend a way of being entirely foreign. For example, during a phone conversation with one Claudine’s lover/colleagues:

“She [Pauline] listens to him a little distantly, makes little agreeable sounds, trying to get it through her skull that he’s talking to a girl [Claudine] that he watches on all fours, and filmed from behind doing things like pretending to be a cat, whenever he wants.”

But when her guard is down, she’s simply existing, their mutual friend observes, “Familiar silhouette, he likes to watch it move. Intact shreds of a lost being, obsolete traces that he finds bewitching.”

Two of the novel’s male figures in particular further nuance the portrait of gender dynamics at the heart of this novel. The twins’ father pits them against each other from childhood, ensuring their dependence on his affection by bestowing it upon only one of them at a time—and subjecting the other to repulsive cruelty. During a flashback, Pauline watches their father beat Claudine. Afterward, she reaches out:

“When he hits you I swear I feel it too.” Claudine stood up, turned to face her, grabbed her by the hair. Pauline didn’t scream so that her parents wouldn’t come. Claudine dragged her down onto the bed. “You’re sure you feel it?”  . . .  To really hurt her, she had taken the pillow and held it down against her sister’s face with both hands. To be absolutely sure she heard, she started to scream, “That’s weird because, when he kisses you, I feel nothing.”

The violence of a man ensures enmity between two women who (as young Pauline demonstrates) could instead have loved and supported each other. The second is Pauline’s boyfriend Sébastien, the only man to ever choose her over Claudine. They’ve built a loving, trusting relationship exactly on her refusal to look and act “feminine.” But a series of events calls into question the extent to which opposing the status quo really separates them from it. Having witnessed her transformation, he leaves her with these words:

“You never treated me disrespectfully, you never demeaned yourself. I was proud of you, as soon as I saw some bitch on the street I thought of you, I was so fucking proud. But now, look at yourself, look at how you’re dressed, look at how you walk… And who’s boning you, over there? Is it a bunch of guys? . . . Is it good, do they screw you how you like? I respect you too much, you don’t respect yourself at all anymore.”

We discover that his love and respect for her was never unconditional, but was just as possessive and ugly as her father’s and just as informed by social expectation as any other man’s.

The characters in the novel are both vivid and allegorical (as perhaps are people). In this way, the post-mortem reconciliation of the sisters demonstrates, however imperfectly, a way out of the dialectical thesis/antithesis model of femininity. The status quo and what’s against the status quo validate and perpetuate each other. Just as a woman degrading herself for a man gives her power over him. But discovering empathy for her sister at least gives Pauline enough distance to learn to use the system for her own benefit, rather than letting it destroy her. It’s far from a utopic path, but I suppose this is the same world in which little girls defend themselves from abusive fathers by crossing their frail little arms over their heads. It was never going to be perfect.

Lindsay Semel is an Assistant Editor for Asymptote. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature and works as a freelance editor from her home on a farm in Northern Portugal.

*****

Read more reviews on Asymptote blog:

 

In Conversation: Mui Poopoksakul

Thailand has become politically divided...so many young Thai writers are now turning back toward the themes of politics and history.

September’s Asymptote Book Club selection, Moving Parts, is a dazzlingly original collection of short stories by Prabda Yoon, “the writer who popularized postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature.”

Translating from Thai to English can be daunting, to the extent that it sometimes feels as though “you can never do the right thing.” Continuing our monthly series of Book Club interviews, Mui Poopoksakul tells Lindsay Semel about the challenges of translating a language with “a multitude of pronouns that are extremely nuanced,” as well as an affinity for elaborate rhyme and alliteration.

Lindsay Semel (LS): I was immediately struck by the aurality of Moving Parts. It’s full of rhyming prose and onomatopoeia. When you interviewed Prabda Yoon for The Quarterly Conversation, you said, “I feel like the alliteration can be recreated sometimes, but rhyming is more of a problem because the Thai ear is far more used to it. Translating Thai, you face the problem of translating poetry. You can never do the right thing. Someone will always say you did the wrong thing because you kept the sound or you kept it straight. It’s a real problem.” His answer didn’t offer much of a solution. Can you talk about some of the more challenging or intriguing examples in Moving Parts of translating what in English might be considered poetic language in prose?  

Mui Poopoksakul (MP): In Thai, people like to say two or three or four synonyms in a row if they rhyme or if they’re alliterative. The sound play isn’t intended to create extra meaning. The Thai ear is used to that sing-song quality, so it doesn’t feel like someone is suddenly breaking into a nursery rhyme. Rhyme was more of an issue in this collection, whereas in The Sad Part Was, the first Prabda Yoon collection I translated, alliteration was more present. In Moving Parts, there were a couple of big moments where Prabda really played up the rhyming—in “Evil Tongue” and in “Eye Spy”—I think as a nod to that element of the Thai language, so I felt that I needed to carry those mini poems over to represent the sound. So there are sentences in those stories where every clause rhymes. With him, these moments aren’t always intended to be particularly lyrical—some are just playful. “Eye Spy” includes a rhyme about theater seats. There are also smaller instances of rhyming: in “Mock Tail,” for example, there’s “flip or slip.” I try to pepper them in, but I also have to watch out that there is not too much of a sing-song quality in the translation.

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Announcing our September Book Club Selection: Moving Parts by Prabda Yoon

Is it a sadder thing to throw oneself unnoticed from the top of a building or to live out one’s days without a functioning butt plug?

Moving Parts, our September Asymptote Book Club selection, is the second book-length English translation of Prabda Yoon’s work, but perhaps the first book (in any genre) ever to culminate in what our reviewer describes as one of life’s “most seductive question[s]: is it a sadder thing to throw oneself unnoticed from the top of a building or to live out one’s days without a functioning butt plug?”

In addition to translating A Clockwork Orange and Lolita into Thai, Prabda Yoon has, according to Words Without Borders, “popularized postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature.”  Bringing Prabda Yoon’s work into English (together with Tilted Axis), Mui Poopoksakul demonstrates a “facility for translating puns” and delivers one of this year’s must-read short story collections. We’re excited to be sharing it with our subscribers in the USA, Canada, and the UK.

If you’d like to receive next month’s Asymptote Book Club pick, all the necessary information is available on our official Book Club page. Current subscribers can join the discussion on Moving Parts, and each of our nine previous titles, through our facebook group.

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Winter 2016: Gifts

Set against the highest quality control standards, Asymptote weighs equally the stumbling, daring hunches of experimentation.

Daniel Hahn’s Ask a Translator column, in which he fields questions about his craft posed by Asymptote readers, kicks off at the blog. What should have been a happy occasion (our fifth anniversary, celebrated in New York, London, Hong Kong, Ottawa, Chicago, and Belgrade) is marred somewhat by a quarrel with one of our partner institutions. I should first note that the success of the past year (2015) has been a true double-edged sword: although it has bestowed greater visibility (which has in turn brought us partnerships with hitherto-undreamt-of international reach—all the better, I suppose, to catalyse the transmission of literature), our own team members are more coveted by other organizations as a result. Since these are paying organizations (either non-profits with institutional backing or for-profit companies with commercial viability), Asymptote can’t compete. With success also comes assumption that our coffers are being filled to the brim by sponsors and we should be spreading the wealth around. Yet, we are essentially still going it alone; I’m still working full-time without pay and channelling funds raised into web development costs, translation contests, and marketing the work that we’ve been entrusted with. Someone from a partner organization turns down an invitation to moderate our New York event for fear of being interpreted as endorsing our policy of not paying contributors; he demands that we start doing so. Should implies can, but the reality isn’t so. Still, it’s wonderful that translators have such a fierce advocate in this person; I wish editors at publications like ours also had organizations and movements behind them too. Here to introduce the Winter 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Lindsay Semel.

I was recruited as one of Asymptote’s Educational Arm Assistants in January of 2016, just around the time this issue launched. What I want to share now is a story about my first weeks with the journal and my reckoning with the Winter 2016 issue that is ultimately a defense of inefficiency and the impostor syndrome.

Even two-and-a-half years later, I still know this issue more intimately than any other, because when I came aboard as a recent undergrad (it’s not atypical for Asymptote team members to be a bit green) I felt I’d been given two unique gifts. The first, bafflingly, was the complete confidence of our editor-in-chief, Lee Yew Leong. As far as the Educational Arm was concerned, I was free to take on whatever naïve dreams I could imagine—as long as the final product met the standards of the journal. My first spicy taste of impostor syndrome—now a familiar one when negotiating Asymptote assignments—came from the simple fact that I wasn’t a teacher. I could identify with Yann Martel when he said in his interview: READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Print houses and jury panels are busy, autumn is coming.

Fall’s footsteps can already be heard in literary circles. As summer hosts its last open-air festivals, prize organizers and publishers are gearing up for a new season of surprises. In today’s dispatch, our Editors-At-Large from Europe tell us more about what is going on in the Czech Republic, Portugal, and France in this transitionary period. Come back next week for this summer’s last dispatch. 

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from the Czech Republic:

Held from 1 July to 4 August at venues in five cities – Brno, Ostrava, Wrocław, Košice and Lviv – across four countries, Authors‘ Reading Month (ARM) may well be Europe’s biggest literary festival. It is certainly a major logistical feat: now in its 19th year, the festival featured 100 authors from six countries. Turkey alone, this year’s guest country, was represented by more than thirty authors, including Nedim Gürsel,  Murathan Mungan, Ayfer Tunç and Çiler İlhan. A strong Czech contingent featured prize-winning novelists Bianca Bellová and Josef Pánek, bestselling writers Michal Viewegh and Alena Mornštajnová, as well as a plethora of poets.

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In Conversation: Emma Ramadan

These writers' views of the world, it's like they see something none of us do, but as soon as they tell us, we understand it.

­­­Emma Ramadan has earned acclaim for her translations from the French of such diverse works as Morrocan Fouad Laroui’s The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, Oulipian Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, and more. Her second Anne Garréta translation, Not One Day, recently won the 2018 Albertine Prize. Her forthcoming novel, Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things, is due for publication by the Feminist Press on August 15th. Together with her partner, Tom Roberge, Ramadan opened the bookshop-bar Riffraff in December, where she promotes her favorite texts and discovers what a sustainable life for a young female translator might look like. Here, Ramadan speaks with Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Portugal, Lindsay Semel, about French slang, gender in life and art, and what makes her love a text enough to translate it.

Lindsay Semel (LS): I’d like to start by talking about Riffraff. What inspired you to open the place?

Emma Ramadan (ER): Well, I always had this idea in my head that I wanted to do a bookstore-bar. There’s a couple of bookstore bars spread around the country and it just seemed like a really vibrant gathering spot and something that was working both financially and for customers. It felt like this distant, far-off project until I met my co-owner and partner Tom, who was also involved in the translation world. Providence came up almost immediately. There is a welcoming literary community because of the universities, but there is also a really great local business community. The west side of Providence, which is where we are, is basically all independent businesses. There aren’t any chains, there aren’t any giant stores, it’s kind of just this really lovely haven of local people fulfilling their passions and trying to make it work and it seemed like we would fit right in here.

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