Posts by Madeline Jones

What’s New in Translation: September 2017

Looking for reading recommendations? Here are three releases—a book-length essay about translation, a German novel, and an experimental anthology.

Summer is drawing to a close and our bookshelves are groaning with the weight of new releases. Asymptote team members review three very different books—a genre-bending meditation on the practice of translation, a German bestseller about African refugees in Berlin, and an anthology of monologues that were once performed on the streets of Quebec City. There is much to delve into. 

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This Little Art by Kate Briggs, Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Reviewed by Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large, Singapore.

It is in 1977, as he begins lecturing as Professor of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France, that Roland Barthes realizes he is no longer young: an “old and untimely body,” on a “new public stage.” But to speak to the students gathered—with their “new concerns, new urgencies, new desires”—he will have to “fling [himself] into the illusion that [he is] contemporary with the young bodies present before [him]”; he must, in Kate Briggs’s memorable words, forget the distances of age and time, and be “carried forward by the force of forgetting, which is the forward-tilting force of all living life.”

Briggs’s new book-length essay on translation, published this month by Fitzcarraldo (who surely must produce some of the most elegant books around) joins the ranks of treatises that ponder how we, as practitioners, should “properly register what’s going on with this—with [our]—work.” It’s an important question, she argues, not only because translation is a little understood (and hence undervalued) enterprise, but also because the process of translation itself sheds light on what it takes to make meaning, and art. Her answer, pursued over seven interlocking chapters, runs parallel to Barthes’s realization. Just as the old professor must “be born again,” translation is the work of making new: of bridging time and language to “make [literature] contemporary with [our] own present moment.” READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

A trip around the literary world, from USA to Latin America to the Czech Republic.

The weekend is upon us—here’s a detailed look at the week that was by our editors-at-large. In the United States, Madeline Jones reports directly from the trenches of the Book Expo in New York City. A gathering of publishers, booksellers, agents, librarians, and authors, the event is the largest of its kind in North America. We also have Sarah Moses filling us in with tidings from Colombia and Argentina, and updates on the Bogotá39, a group of thirty-nine Latin American writers considered to be the finest of their generation. Finally, Julia Sherwood brings us some hot off the press literary news from the Czech Republic. Settle in and get reading.

Madeline Jones, Editor-at-Large, reports from the United States:

Last week in New York City, Book Expo (formerly Book Expo America) set up shop at the famously-disliked Javits Center on western edge of Midtown Manhattan. Publishers, literary agencies, scouts, booksellers, and readers gathered for discussions about the future of publishing, meetings about foreign rights deals, publicity and media “speed-dating” sessions, and more. Authors and editors spoke about their latest books for audiences of industry insiders, and lines trailed from various publisher booths for galley signings.

Though the floor was noticeably quieter than previous years, and certainly nothing compared to the busy hub of foreign rights negotiations that the London and Frankfurt book fairs are, Asymptote readers will be pleased to hear that multiple panel discussions and presentations were dedicated to foreign publishers, the viability of selling translations in the U.S., and indie books (which more often tend to be translations than major trade publishers’ books). READ MORE…

The End of Eddy Review: Édouard Louis’s story of rejection, queerness and trauma in working-class France

He tried with such violent passion and self-betrayal, even self-degradation, to fit in with these people—his people

Édouard Louis’s debut novel The End of Eddy gives voice to a demographic often excluded from mainstream literature—the elusive “white working class” so frequently cited by politicians and publishers lately—while also telling the story of a young man who is completely rejected by that same group. In this apparent contradiction lies the work’s most remarkable achievement: to illuminate the lives of, and even empower, the narrator’s own antagonists—without forgiving them.

Bear in mind this is a work of autofiction, á la Knausgaard’s My Struggle opus or Sergio del Molino’s Lo que a nadie le importa, completed when the author was just twenty years old. Any editor would expect a manuscript so early in a writer’s life and career to lack “perspective,” to need some “distance,” especially given the drama and violence in this story in particular. Most memoirists don’t like to be too close to the time and people they’re writing about—and I did have to continually remind myself I was not reading a memoir while falling headfirst into Louis’s story. The lumps the character Eddy has taken have certainly not gone down, but that they are still swollen and purple is just what makes the read so engrossing, and makes the strange duality of the characters’ sympathetic and reproachable natures believable.

The book was first published in France in 2013 to great acclaim, making the now 24-year-old something of a literary star. Out this month in the U.S. with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and translated by Michael Lucey, the work has begun to receive a lot of attention in English, too. Louis has had his critics, however, particularly regarding the work’s believability—a plight that perhaps inevitably threatens the autofiction writer. There is something inherently uncomfortable about reading such a novel; you can’t settle in and let the story carry you to a made-up place and time, but at the same time you can’t walk away feeling you know something for sure, something you can report to a friend later. One can’t help but want to know after all, is it real or not?

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Today we delve into the literary goings-on in USA, UK and Singapore

New week, new happenings in the world of literature. President Trump continues to make headlines (read our Spring Issue for an exploration of literature in the Trump era). Madeline Jone, Editor-at-Large for USA reports how it has affected the publishing industry. Across the Atlantic, Cassie Lawrence, Executive Assistant at Asymptote, relays heartening news about women in publishing and the buzz of literary festivals in London this weekend. Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek reports how Singapore’s novelists are fighting back, and more.  

Editor-at-Large Madeline Jones gives us the round-up from USA:

US media narratives have been deluged with news of presidential catastrophes. No surprise, then, that this is reflecting in the publishing world, from book publishers struggling to understand how to talk about Trump to children, to books about the electoral process. With timing that seems ominous, in the light of the very popular TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the book has edged its way between a Danielle Steel and a James Patterson on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Another notable that has been on the list is Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

Speaking of which, the annual Book Expo America, popularly known as the BEA, is scheduled from May 31 to June 2, and Hillary Clinton is one of its top draws this year. A gathering of publishers, booksellers, agents, librarians, and authors in New York City, the Book Expo is the biggest event of its kind in North America.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2017

Dive into our Spring Issue, starting with an Italian short story, Assamese poetry, and Catalan drama!

Here at the Asymptote blog, we’re mining the new Spring 2017 Issue for all its treasures and have selected a few our favorite pieces to introduce here. And while we’re making introductions, I’m pleased to present two new members of the Asymptote team, Assistant Blog Editors Stefan and Sneha, who will have much more content and expertise to share in the coming months. For now, enjoy our highlights from the new issue! 

‘A Dhow Crosses the Sea’ by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson, is a story that rises and falls from dreams to the visceral reality of the author’s roots in Somalia and Italy. Between dreams of the protagonist’s grandmother, an ecological disaster, and a capsizing dhow (a type of traditional sailing vessel), the sea is at the very heart of the narrative, its significance alternating between loss and attachment, hope and tragedy. Farah’s blending of Somali oral tradition into her writing also gives an incantatory quality to the work, wrapping you up in its sounds and smells. Those few lines from Somali, “a dhow crosses the sea, carrying incense and myrrh,” have stayed with me, sweet and comforting on the one hand, but on the other filled with an inescapable sense of danger and apprehension.”

—Assistant Blog Editor Stefan Kielbasiewicz

“Of all the uniquely special pieces in the Spring Issue brought to you by the Asymptote staff, Sananta Tanty’s poems spoke the most to me, not least because the poems were originally written in Assamese, my first language.

The fact that the poems are by an Assamese poet is significant. As you might be aware, Assam is the major language spoken in the Northeast Indian state of Assam. The region is widely regarded to have a distinct social and cultural identity compared to ‘mainstream’ India. These differences have unfortunately led to its neglect by the power centres of mainstream India, and the region has been marked by ethnic strife, political conflict, and insurgencies against the Indian state since Independence from the erstwhile British Empire. Highlighting Assamese poetry probes the fault-lines of marginality, underwriting that, even as Indian literature has been a recurring focus of the journal in an attempt to break away from the Western canon, engagement with identity politics requires constant reflection and self-reflexivity.

It is also important to note that the poet was born to a family of tea plantation workers. Assam is known around the world for tea, a legacy of British colonialism. Unfortunately the tea gardens are notorious to this day for deep class divides between the upper management and the manual labourers who were drawn from Central Indian tribal communities to work in the estates by the British tea planters in conditions many argue are akin to slavery.  Tanty, a name carrying the history of his working class background, thus writes a poetry of protest against the indignities of the conditions of his community’s existence: “All twelve men were landless and without independence”. Tanty’s modernist verse is brought out in all its sparkling clarity by the translator, Dibyajoti Sarma, who is a poet and has written introspective pieces on the politics of representing literature from Northeast India in the Indian publishing industry. You can read more of Tanty’s work in the book Selected Poems Sananta Tanty, translated to English by Dibyajoti Sarma. You can also have a look at Sameer Tanti’s poems (translated by Sarma) for similar themes.”

—Assistant Blog Editor Sneha Khaund

“The excerpt from Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaret, translated by Phyllis Zatlin, made me so excited. I realize that is probably a bizarre thing to say about a rather absurd, darkly comic work of social commentary, but I couldn’t help but imagine some of my theater friends from college working on this in the basement of a dorm in preparation for an amateur production that we would have imbued with overblown significance and that uniquely naïve brand of activism that can only flourish in a walled-off university setting. It might have turned out decently and not remotely done justice to the script.

So that’s not to say there is anything naïve or amateurish about the play in the least. It’s only to say that reading the excerpt was an experience I’m sure you’ve all had: a spark of joy, perhaps even bringing you to a giggle, that is completely incongruous with the tone of what you’re reading, but that’s a result of being surprised and tickled by how incredibly good it is. Which, though I’m sure it wasn’t the reason for the title, makes calling it a cabaret more than apt. Part corrective history, part satire, and part poignant, confessional monologue, this piece of the Diabolic Cabaret was not enough for me. Here’s hoping the entire play gets staged, and published, in English very soon.”

—Blog Editor Madeline Jones

 *****

Read More About Translation and International Literature on the Blog:

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your latest updates from the UK, Argentina, and Canada

In case you missed it, Asymptote has exciting news from the London Book Fair, plus the latest literary gossip from Argentina and Canada this week. Lots of new books to look out for, and many writers making waves in their communities. First stop: LBF! 

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, sends us her notes from the recently concluded London Book Fair, where Polish literature had a big moment:

Over the past few years, Polish has become the second most widely spoken language in the UK, so it was high time for Londoners to get exposed to a massive dose of Polish literature.  Several years of work by the British Council, the Polish Book Institute and the Polish Cultural Institute in London finally paid off as Poland was the market focus at this year’s London Book Fair, held from 13 to 16 March.

Polish writers kept popping up at readings and discussions—not just at the buzzing maze that is the Olympia conference centre, but also at venues all over London. However, the toast of the town was, without doubt,  leading feminist author Olga Tokarchuk (Tok-ARCH-ook: TOK as in tick-tock, ARCH as in arch, OOK to rhyme with book, stress on the ARCH, to quote from the handy guide to pronouncing Polish writers’ names prepared by translator extraordinaire Antonia Lloyd-Jones).  Apparently unfazed by her relentless schedule, Tokarczuk was always ready to answer probing questions with unfailing grace.  Her conversation with novelist Deborah Levy at the London Review Bookshop sold out weeks in advance, and it must have been a real bonus for the author to be presented, ahead of its scheduled publication, with copies of her own latest book Flights, in Jennifer Croft’s English translation (excerpt here).

credit Elzbieta Piekacz, courtesy of Polish Book Institute

credit Elzbieta Piekacz, courtesy of Polish Book Institute

Discussing the role of history in 21st century Polish fiction, Tokarczuk—whom moderator Rosie Goldsmith introduced as the “Margaret Atwood of Central Europe“—declared: “Objective history doesn’t really exist. What is located in the archives is just a collection of facts; history is a projection, our interpretation.” London-based Libyan author Hisham Matar concurred, suggesting that “all writing about the past is vigorously about the present.”  Science fiction writer Jacek Dukaj pointed out that films and books can shape our own memory of events, while poet, writer, and translator Jacek Dehnel explained that he doesn’t write non-fiction because in literature you often have to lie to make it more true.

READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your literary update from Romania, Cuba, and the UK

This week, we dock first in Romania, where Editor-at-Large MARGENTO updates us on the political climate and how it’s influencing literary output. Then we sail southwest to Cuba, where we’ll hear from Blog Editor Madeline Jones about the foreign diplomats barred from an awards ceremony, as well as highlights from the International Book Fair in Havana. Finally, back across the Atlantic, M. René Bradshaw, Editor-at-Large for the UK, maps out the best literary events taking place in and around the capital throughout March and April.

MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large for Romania & Moldova, catches us up on the Romanian literary scene:

The recent wave of rallies that have swept Romania, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest the government’s decrees decriminalizing certain corruption-related offences, has sparked reactions both on social media and in literary and creative circles.  The “light revolution” received huge global media coverage when tens of thousands of smartphones converged their glows outside the government building in Bucharest, sending a blinding anti-graft message while also forming the image of a huge national flag.  The true hallmark of this revolution has been internationally perceived as the deployment of digital apps and catchy, pun-filled slogans in both English and Romanian, inundating social and mass media with what hip-hop star Călin “Rimaru” Ionescu has termed the new “OUGmented reality” (OUG being the Romanian acronym for a governmental decree).  As #Rezist has gone viral across digital media channels, it is apt to share from our past archives a celebration by Asymptote contributor Ruxandra Cesereanu of what she sees as a revival of the anti-Soviet and anti-communist rezistance, a Romanian partisan movement that heroically lasted from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s.

In a similar vein, American poet and translator Tara Skurtu—currently in Romania on a Fulbright grant—has revisited the Romanian gulag in a poem inspired by the recent protests and published in the Huffington Post. A couple of days later, the same publication ran an interview on similar issues with Radu Vancu, also an Asymptote contributor.  Still, one of the authorities on modern and post-communist history Mircea Stănescu, who has consistently and shrewdly chronicled and analyzed the protests, maintained a cautionary stance, pointing out the generation gap strongly manifest in the current movement and warning about deeper political and educational issues that might remain unaddressed and resurface later.  Yet it seems that the ongoing rallies and sense of solidarity are a breath of fresh air that has already inspired a great deal of writers. Poet, novelist, and essayist Cosmin Perța has already announced a forthcoming #Rezist literary anthology.

READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Updates from Spain, Morocco, and the United States, from the Asymptote team

This week, we visit Morocco with new Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman, who tells us about a new play based on a classic novel. Then in Spain, we have a publishing update with Editor-at-Large Carmen Morawski, and onto the United States, we strap in for today’s Presidential Inauguration and writers’ reactions to the historic event. 

Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman reports from Morocco:

A theatrical interpretation of Mohammed Khair Ed-dine’s novel Le Déterreur [نباش القبور], adapted by Cédric Gourmelon and starring Ghassan El-Hakim, is currently on tour in Morocco, with the next performance set to take place on January 21 at the House of Culture [دار الثقابة] in Tetouan.  In the novel, a man from southern Morocco shares his countercurrent perspectives on living in a marginalized community inside a wider, fractured, postcolonial space as he recounts his life story.

Winner of numerous literary awards, including Jean Cocteau’s Les infants terribles literary prize for his novel Agadir, Khair Ed-dine (or “The Blue Bird,” as he is sometimes called) mainly wrote poetry and novels in French. He is credited with establishing a new style of writing, what he coined guérilla linguistique, that resists, in both form and content, linguistic or societal domination. Considering his prolific contributions to the genre of revolutionary writing, it is unsurprising that Khair Ed-dine is commonly grouped among renowned, twentieth century North African authors writing in French, such as Assia Djebar, Yacine Kateb, Abdellatif Laabi, Driss Chraibi, and Tahar Ben Jelloun.

Some of Khair Ed-dine’s work has been translated into German and English. For more about the German translation of his posthumously published novel Once Upon a Time There Was a Happy Couple (Es war einmal ein glückliches Paar), Qantara.de published this article, which includes a summary of the book with excerpts and information about the writer.  Similarly, to read a sample of Khair-Eddine’s poetry translated into English, see this piece from Jadaliyya, that includes four poems from his collection Ce Maroc!

In other literary news, only a few more weeks until Morocco’s largest book fair will be back!  The 23rd edition of the International Book Fair in Casablanca will open on February 9.

READ MORE…

Highlights from Our Winter 2017 Issue

The blog editors share their favorite pieces from our latest issue!

Here at the blog, we’ve been mesmerized by the new Winter 2017 Issue since its launch on Monday. We hope you’ve had time to dive in, too, but if not, here are a few great places to start!

“Daland” by Lika Tcheishvili, translated from the Georgian by Ekaterine Chialashvili and Alex Scrivener, is a curious little story, told in the first person by an unnamed dock worker in Bandar Abbas, Iran. Anyone who has seen or read about Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton will find themselves in familiar territory when the narrator becomes the unlikely participant in a duel. Any sense of familiarity stops there, however. The man who challenges him is a mysterious smoker with a perpetually fresh lily—flowers foreign to Bandar Abbas—in his lapel and an appointment with a schooner no one has heard of…

I also cannot get the words of Christiane Singer out of my head. In her essay, “The Feminine, Land of Welcome,” translated from the French by Hélène Cardona, she writes to women, “stand bewitched and ready to leap: the queen, the sister, the lover, the friend, the mother—all those who have the genius for relationship, for welcoming. The genius for inventing life.” She highlights the danger of defining women only by their commonalities, as well as the horrors that could have come to pass—and could still—in a world without women. Their absence would be powerfully felt, even in comparison to situations in which they are already roundly ignored or discredited.

—Madeline Jones, Blog Editor

In “Always Already Translated: Questions of Language in Singaporean Literature”, Boston-born Philip Holden, who has lived in Singapore for more than 20 years, writes lyrically about this multilingual city-state. Having worked with languages Holden mentions—Malay, Malayalam, Javanese, and many others—I loved his description of situations where “I speak in Mandarin to Chinese patients, and they reply not to me but to my Chinese co-worker, who looks back at me in incomprehension. She speaks in Malay to older Chinese and Malay patients, and they reply in Malay not to her but to the third of us, the Indian woman who wears a tudung that marks her out as Muslim and, by a process of mistaken association, Malay.” Multilingual societies are sadly often depicted as wrought with conflict. While language in Singapore is, like everywhere in the world, a political issue, too, Holden focuses on the opportunities it provides for performing and literary arts. We don’t have to search for a common language, he argues—it’s more interesting to find “holes between languages that everyday translation continually fills up”.

I have never read Albanian literature before, however. If you are like me, I can warmly recommend the three poems by Luljeta Lleshanaku, one of the country’s most important writers, as an introduction. Taken from the collection Negative Space and translated by Ani Gjika, the poems describe a simple life: apple trees, a butcher carving meat, “gardens hidden behind houses like sensual neck bites”. But behind each poem is a rotten apple, or cold floors, and getting one’s way without any real gain—poetic realism. Do also have a listen to the translator reading the original text in Albanian!

—Hanna Heiskanen, Blog Editor

Check out the gorgeous video preview of the new issue here:

*****

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Book Recommendations for the New Normal

Suggested reading for the fast-approaching U.S. Presidential Inauguration and our changing world politics

This Friday, real estate mogul Donald Trump will be sworn is in as the 45th President of the United States. Last month, Italy’s citizenry voted effectively for the resignation of its Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in a referendum applauded by France’s right-wing, nationalist party leader Marine Le Pen, while another far-right conservative, Francois Fillon, is expected to win the French presidential election in May. Last summer, the world watched the historic Brexit vote, and Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, who ran on the promise of an Austrian Brexit, lost the nation’s vote by a very close margin last month.  

The political climate all over the west is profoundly changing, and those who failed to predict the current developments are scrambling to make sense of them. Book proposals by diplomats, pundits, and economists are flooding publishers’ inboxes, all claiming to have the most accurate analysis of the causes of Trump’s win or Britain’s isolationism. But a look at the past, and some past literature, suggests that perhaps we should be surprised at our own surprise. We gathered some book recommendations to prepare you for this Friday and the vast challenges ahead because—wait for it—knowledge is power (sorry!) and there are many already-published texts, many in the history category, with a wealth of relevant knowledge to impart.

Asymptote’s Marketing Manager David Maclean suggests you check out:

Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday , translated by Anthea Bell (Pushkin Press, 2013)

“As a great many political pundits have pointed out, the resurgence of nationalist and far-right movements throughout Europe has more than a passing resemblance to the initial rise of fascist groups prior to the Second World War. Disguised as an autobiography, Zweig’s The World of Yesterday offers a coruscating portrayal of the idealism of pre-war Europe and the European cross-cultural project, as well as the fragility of the ideals of Enlightenment in the face of (dangerously) cynical realpolitik, ignorance, and the fostering of prejudice. The nation cannot be loved above all else, warned Simone Weil, since it has no soul—and indeed it is the balkanization of Europe that Zweig portrays as a logical result of nationalist movements that propagate loyalty to the nation above all else. His book is also one of resistance, of the possibility for literature and art to resist the totalitarianism of thought imposed upon us through exercising our creative imaginations—an understated but underestimated daily act of resistance.”

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula le Guin (Tor Books, 2010)

“I had thought to include Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book The Silent Spring, which arguably thrust eco-criticism and global conservation into the mainstream debate, but since the United States’ president-elect seems intent on living in a fantasy world regarding man-made climate change, I decided to be magnanimous and stick with his chosen genre. The novella details a logging colony established on the fictional planet of Athshe by Earth’s military-industrial complex, which is slowly but surely denuding the planet of its primary resources and leaving vast swathes of it barren and lifeless. The novel hinges on a conflict of ideologies between the native population, which may be well be seen as a surrogate for nature, and ourselves (the Terrans) who view nature as a disposable resource for immediate consumption and have little to no regard for the long-term consequences. In the Athshean language, the word for “forest” is also the word for “world”, showing the dependence of the Athshean culture upon the forest, much as we all depend upon a fecund, hospitable world that continues to dance on the brink of ecological ruin.”

Blog Editor Madeline Jones found pertinent wisdom in:

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to Present by John Pomfret (Henry Holt, 2016)

“We all know that the U.S. president-elect likes to make China a scape goat for basically whatever he thinks is unsatisfactory about American affairs that he can’t conceivably blame on Crooked somebody or Lyin’ somebody else. Of Trump’s targets of aggression now that he’s been elected, China perhaps comes in second only to FAKE NEWS (caps his). We’ve all heard the “Gina” jokes. His lack of understanding of diplomacy generally but particularly regarding China is near-comical, so it’s difficult to even wrap your mind around the implications of his attitudes toward the world’s largest economy, but it is vital that at least someone in his administration does. In the meantime, I decided to try to understand the nuances of the relationship better myself. This book is invaluable—and highly readable—to that end. It’s not short, but it’s a one-stop shop.”

The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2016)

“Pointedly drawing inspiration from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ward has gathered responses from her generation’s most eminent voices on race in the form of critical essays, personal reflections, and poetry. From Jericho Brown to Daniel Jose Older, Claudia Rankine to Clint Smith, the contributors make this a worthwhile read for its own, aesthetic sake, but it’s also an emotional and timely reminder of the ways in which society has not changed since Baldwin was writing, the areas in which there is still vital need for improvement. While newspapers and magazines have been praising J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy since Trump won the Republican nomination as the book to understand America today, I found Ward’s book to be an important counterargument to that narrative, especially given Jeff Sessions’s imminent confirmation by the Senate. Vance’s book has merit, certainly, but the current focus on “understanding the white working class” cannot be emphasized at the expense of a focus on race relations and the continued economic and privilege gap between white Americans and black and Hispanic Americans. Reading Hillbilly Elegy is a worthwhile exercise in empathy, but it’s no more important than reading Ward’s collection. Baldwin wrote, ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.’ There is plenty of pain and heartbreak in The Fire This Time, too.”

Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen recommends:

The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It by Owen Jones (Penguin, 2014)

“British journalist and writer Owen Jones (b. 1984) hasn’t made a secret of his political inclinations (very left-wing, in case you haven’t heard), and he was a staunch critic of Donald Trump throughout his election campaign. His 2014 book, The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, which was met both with great praise and criticism, zooms in on the power structures of British society and is now more relevant than ever. Owen claims that while the people continue voting in elections, behind the scenes, a network of the unelected, unaccountable, and immensely powerful advisors and diplomats control our lives and steer decision-making. Though Jones’s book focused on the UK and some of its seemingly unique features, such as the grooming of the new ruling class at top universities, or the privatisation of public services, its fundamental premise applies to almost any country you could point to on the map. Whether you grew up in a Nordic welfare society or listening to stories about the American Dream, this makes for a relevant, albeit depressing, read.”

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848, 2015 Penguin)

“It might be old, and many would say old-fashioned, but the grand ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, capitalism and communism, continue to have an undeniable impact on our societies and politics. Many have explained the rise of the far-right and nationalist sentiments around the world with the collapse of traditional industries that would have supported generations of working families who now feel unnecessary or displaced. Now, with the rise of China as a world power, as well as a future in which robots will take over an increasing number of tasks from humans, Marx’s writings suddenly don’t seem as outdated anymore.”

And literary critic Harold Bloom offered:

“The only thing I can think of right now is Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’.”

*****

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your arts and culture update from Mexico, Ecuador, and Romania

It’s been a big week in literature around the world, with major awards, book fairs, and new publications vying for media attention in a particularly crowded news cycle. But the book world keeps turning even when it seems like everything else has come to a standstill. Blog Editor Madeline Jones reports from south of the border in Mexico, Editor-at Large MARGENTO gives us the update on Romania, and Contributor George Kirkum checks in from Ecuador.

Madeline Jones, Blog Editor, brings the literary update from Mexico:

Hundreds of Mexican artists have been mocking the President Elect of the United States, Donald Trump, by way of political cartoons. Now that he’s clinched the elections, the value of the peso has plummeted and Mexicans on both sides of the border are speaking out about their disapproval of Trump’s platform as well as their own fears for the future. Poet, novelist, and activist Javier Sicilia told El Universal, “This man unified fragments of fascism that were scattered throughout North America. And he’s creating proposals for destruction…it doesn’t matter if Trump wins, the theme is systemic.”* Well-known Mexican author and historian Enrique Krauze’s op-ed in The New York Times also captures the sentiments of many, in Hank Heifetz’s translation from the Spanish.

Eduardo Lizalde, who is recognized as one of the most important living poets in the Spanish-speaking world, was awarded the Premio Internacional Carlos Fuentes a la Creación Literaria en el Idioma Español this week. The judges said that his collection El tigre en la casa [The Tiger in the House] is “one of the most influential and poignant books in several generations.”*

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the reopening of diplomatic relations between Mexico and Spain after the Franco regime ended. Last week, the organization la Cátedra México-España, which was founded with the purpose of studying and fomenting the historical, cultural, and linguistic links between the two nations, celebrated its tenth year. Attendants at the anniversary conference noted that the international relationship is still in its “honey moon” phase and the first ten years of the organization’s work have seen significant academic collaboration across the Atlantic.

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The Words Without Borders Gala was Honestly Heartwarming

I can’t quite remember what American writing was like before Words Without Borders—it was a dark and domestic place.

This Tuesday evening marked one of the most important nights for international literature in New York (which are few and far between), and what a star-studded, city-lit affair it was. The annual Words Without Borders Gala at the spacious TriBeCa Three Sixty kicked off with a cocktail hour featuring surround views of the Manhattan skyline, reunions of old friends and co-translators, and plenty of champagne-fueled gossip. I was feeling a bit out of place (unpublished, fluent enough in just one foreign language) and wary of the champagne (knowing I might need to form complete sentences in front of Edith Grossman later).

But the atmosphere overall was decidedly celebratory. When I chatted with Words Without Borders’s founding chairperson, the retired newspaper man Jim Ottaway, we noted that perhaps this air of goodwill reflects how literature in translation is motivated more by passion than profit—there was no business to be done, no egos in the room. Translators and the community that supports them are all rooting for a common cause. “I suppose it is a nonprofit,” I said of the organization. “Very nonprofit-y,” Mr. Ottaway agreed, surveying the room.

The gala is known for being a who’s who of writers, translators, and publishing bigwigs. Everyone mingled in the rare, low-pressure environment to celebrate the online magazine that put literature from elsewhere on the United States’ map for the first time, at least in a consistent and visible way. As acclaimed translator Susan Bernofsky put it to me, “Words Without Borders has been the pioneer of this kind of publishing—it sort of gave rise to all these other great journals and now there’s a whole fantastic landscape, which I’m really happy about.”

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WWB translators reading poetry both in the original language and in English for the guests

Throughout the cocktail portion, groups of guests taking advantage of the unusually formal occasion, by publishing standards, to dress in understated black ensembles and sensible heels posed for photos in front of a red-carpet-style, Words Without Borders backdrop. Calls of “how have you been?” bounced off the floor-to-ceiling windows as familiar faces caught sight of more familiar faces, reinforcing the completely true notion that everyone in publishing—especially of translated literature—knows each other. Refined cheek pecks were quickly followed by earnest probes of “what are you working on now?” in keeping with the crowd. We all wanted to know what we had to look forward to next season or next year. María José Jiménez told WWB Communications Coordinator Savannah Whiting about translating a novel by Uruguayan writer Rafael Courtoisie with Anna Rosenwong. Ms. Bernofsky had just turned in a new Jenny Erpenbeck translation the day before. Natasha Wimmer and agent Cristóbal Pera chattered in Spanish about the Wimmer’s current project—translating El Comensal by Grabriela Ybarra, which is also in development for a film, according to Pera. I felt very excited and also as if I were just assigned a lot of homework—a feeling familiar to any avid reader.

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Highlights from Our Fall 2016 Issue

The blog editors share their favorite pieces from our latest issue!

This Monday, we launched our Fall 2016 issue featuring many exciting names. If you haven’t had the time to get into Verisimilitude just yet, we suggest a few great places to begin. Enjoy!

Blog Editor Nina Sparling says Stefan Zweig’s To Friends in a Foreign Land, translated by David Kretz, transports her to another time:

Perhaps more than previous issues, the contents of the October 2016 issue of Asymptote, ‘Verisimilitude,’ center on the matter of language itself. This comes as no surprise to me. Nevertheless it is a great pleasure to read so many voices grappling with questions about language, place, and politics—all topics I hold dear. The humor and familiarity of miscomprehension in the opening lines of Maïssa Bey’s Cafés Morts are of particular warmth.

But I keep returning to Stefan Zweig’s To Friends in a Foreign Land. The texture of the language transports me to another time with its tangled words and high political drama.  I can imagine it printed on flimsy yellowed pages, typeset on an analog machine. And I find Zweig’s rendering of how, in times of foundational conflict, the national community overwhelms the intellectual or amicable communities to be tender and tragic. In lament of paused friendships, he writes, “Through this trust our hours became beautiful and the notion of homeland was detached from the borders of empires: our fraternity was strong across languages and pure beyond all reproach. That is over now, dear ones…My love and my hatred belong to me no longer.”

I read this letter and wonder about its publication. I think about Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and his arguments about how the nation is a mere constructed entity, created of fictions and mythologies woven together at a complex loom. I contemplate the meaning of the word nation with much greater reservation and doubt than Zweig does (or more like Vazha Pshavela does in Cosmopolitanism and Patriotism)—but his letter sticks with me.

Blog Editor Madeline Jones was utterly charmed by Lídia Jorge’s The Bird Hypothesis, translated by Sinead Crehan, Christine Fernandes, Margaret Jull Costa, and Hazel Robins:

While it’s impossible for me to choose one favorite piece from the fall issue, I want to highlight Lidia Jorge’s The Bird Hypothesis not least because it’s an incredibly compact and affecting work. The 1997 short story was translated from the Portuguese for Asymptote by a group of four talented women working together—a collaboration that began at City University of London’s Translate in the City 2016 summer course. Acclaimed translator of José Saramago, Javier Marías, and others, Margaret Jull Costa initiated the project with three of the course attendees, all at various stages of their translation educations and careers. This type of collaboration and mentorship is invaluable to young translators trying to get published while not having any publications on their CVs, and to the growing (though still small) market for international literature.

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What’s New in Translation? October 2016

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books translated from the Arabic, Korean, and Spanish.

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The Ninety-Ninth Floor, by Fawaz Elhassan, tr. Michelle Hartman. Interlink Publishing.

Review: Saba Ahmed, Social Media Manager, UK

Shortlisted last year for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, The Ninety-Ninth Floor is Jana Fawaz Elhassan’s third book: an ambitious, multi-voiced novel, spanning the topographies of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1980s Beirut, and New York in the New Millennium. It is also the first of Elhassan’s works to be translated, by Michelle Hartman, from the Arabic into English.

The plot centers around Maj’d, a successful video-game designer whose life among the dizzying skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the subterranean depths of its subway system, bears a haunting resemblance to the cramped, vertical heights of the refugee camps he has fled where “garbage piled up in alleyways”. Palestine, reflects Maj’d, is “a land that inhabits me that I have never stepped foot on”. It occupies his deepest memories, the walls of the camp where the displaced mark the distance from imagined homelands, and is framed—in the present-day narrative—as a map in Maj’d’s apartment in New York. It is an imagined space where Maj’d’s father obstinately believes his dead wife and Maj’d’s mother is waiting for them with their unborn child.

The spatial dimensions of the novel mirror this hyper-reality. The text is littered with a cast of characters who are attempting to navigate life in the wake of war and political trauma. Consequently, the plot is distended by a lack of closure, permeated with repetitive strains of absence and loss. Maj’d’s relationship with Hilda, a dancer who is also trying to build her life anew, away from her Orthodox Christian family in Lebanon, becomes a battle-space for negotiating distances and originary points from which to examine notions of identity, belonging, and worth. Is the love they share true and authentic, or is there a more complex conflation of the female body and nationhood at play here?

There are certainly echoes of recent political fiction from the Middle East in The Ninety-Ninth Floor, such as of the spare, Kafkaesque political allegory The Silence and the Roar by Syrian writer Nihad Sirees. Yet, Elhassan is less interested in form, and more invested in dissecting the emotional vicissitudes of love. There is a certain sagginess to the novel which gestures to the so-called ninety-nine floors or levels of the book. When Hilda returns to Lebanon, to the home she has left behind, she thinks back to the home she has created with Maj’d. “Perhaps,” she considers, “I also came back to occupy this memory, to tell it that we can arrive at some kind of settlement: to expand into all places and be done with our enmity toward our roots”. It is hard not to read these words without a degree of skepticism, to wonder whether this resolution papers over the allegorical implications of difference and attachment. But perhaps it is more fitting to hear these closing lines echo like the one-note sonic beeps of an Atari or PlayStation video game, like the kind designed by Maj’d. In this simulated fantasy, Elhassan suggests, love is creative and imaginative work in a world where our collective national consciousness consigns us to love and live in very specific ways.

 

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A Greater Music, by Bae Suah, tr. Deborah Smith. Open Letter Books.

Review: Theophilus Kwek, Chief Executive Assistant, UK/Singapore

It is perhaps inevitable that Deborah Smith’s new translation of Bae Suah’s novel A Greater Music—forthcoming this October from Open Letter Books—will be compared to her recent prizewinning translations of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts, both of which are suffused with Han’s unique voice and vision. But Bae is a compelling, inventive, and significant author in her own right, and Smith’s ability to match these qualities with a stylish and highly readable translation leaves no doubt about her contribution to the growing canon of Korean literature available in English.

A Greater Music, which records the experiences of a young Korean narrator’s relocation to Berlin through her relationships with Joachim, her boyfriend, and M, her first German language teacher, draws at least in part from its author’s own journey. Bae Suah, a former civil servant with a degree in Chemistry who made her literary debut in 1988, lived in Germany for 11 months in 2001, learning the language there. Though she has since moved back to Seoul, she has also previously translated various works by Sebald and Kafka into Korean.

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