We begin a new series of monthly interviews for the Asymptote Book Club with a conversation between Asymptote Assistant Editor Lizzie Buehler and Chris Andrews, translator of César Aira’s The Lime Tree. For more about this sparkling novel, check out Emma Holland’s December review.
Josh Honn, reviewing an earlier Aira novel, suggested that Aira moves forward in straight lines only in “an attempt to make the line come back upon itself.” In the interview that follows, Chris Andrews discusses Aira’s “sinuous” writing technique, The Lime Tree’s links with Proust, and the way the novel depicts everyday racism in Perón-era Argentina.
Lizzie Buehler (LB): Tell us a little bit about how you came to translate The Lime Tree. How did the novel’s intensely self-reflective nature affect your process of translation?
Chris Andrews (CA): I read The Lime Tree (or The Linden Tree as it will be in the US edition) when it first came out in Spanish in 2003, and it has been one of my favourite Aira books since then. So I was very pleased to get the chance to translate it.
Korean literature in translation has enjoyed newfound popularity in the English-speaking world over the past few years, but most recent publications have been—unsurprisingly—of contemporary literature. With a trend towards temporal and geographic diversity amongst Korean literature available in English (North Korean writer Bandi’s The Accusation being the most well-known divergence from South Korean voices), it is worth taking a look at British publisher Honford Star’s recent collection of the short stories of twentieth-century writer Kim Tong-in. In this anthology, Sweet Potato, translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure in the retranslation of a historical text.
Sweet Potato takes its name from its most well-known story, also titled “Sweet Potato,” or “Kamja” in Korean. First published in 1925 by the Japanese colonial-era journal Joseon Mundan, the story is one of the seminal texts of twentieth-century Korean literature. In fewer than ten pages, it recounts the life of Pong-nyŏ, a young Pyongyang woman of low social status who is sold to a much older and similarly impoverished widower. When Pong-nyŏ’s husband fails to support the couple financially, Pong-nyŏ turns to prostitution in the slums of Pyongyang in order to earn a living. She is overcome with anger upon learning that the Chinese Mr. Wang, her most frequent customer, plans to marry, but her attempts to kill Wang backfire, ending instead in her own death. The work is emblematic of Kim’s literary realism and has been interpreted to demonstrate that moral “choices” are situational, resulting from external circumstance rather than character flaws. Three quarters of a century after its initial publication, “Sweet Potato” remains popular, with new editions of the story released in 2000 and 2005 by publishers Ch’ŏngmoksa and Ch’angbi, respectively.