Posts by Megan Bradshaw

The Belarus Free Theatre takes its highly politicized “Burning Doors” on the road

In order to transmit the trauma experienced by Pavlensky, Sentsov, and Alyokhina, playwright Nicolai Khalezin also traumatizes the audience.

This hell-bent play by what The New York Times has called “[t]he world’s most visible and lionized underground theater” keeps finding ways to pull the rug from under the feet of astonished audiences. 

“It will not be his balls, but ours, behind the door,” a buffoonish technocrat rants to his doppelgänger, as the two leisurely defecate in their ministerial toilets, in unison. Moments later, the other one expounds on the evils of modern art: “Before Picasso, art was normal.” (As it turns out, he owns two of the deviant’s paintings.) When they finish shooting the shit, and shitting, they pull up their government-issued trousers to discover a lack of toilet paper. Following the pair’s exit, masked bandits inexplicably slip onto the stage to replenish the needed supplies in a sort of winking parenthetical—or, better still, a puckish middle finger.

These gag lines satirizing the absurdities and hypocrisies of dictatorships—specifically the Putin regime—are the sort of irreverent zingers that some of us relish: comedic relief with a reactionary backhand, using both shock and shtick to slice through inaction and fear. It’s a particular specialty of Burning Doors, performed by the UK-based Belarus Free Theatre, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year despite being banned in its home country. Currently in the second staging of its UK tour at the Soho Theatre, one of London’s essential performing arts labs, the show is a wielding and warped montage of vignettes based on the testimonies of artists targeted by Putin. These include the Russian artist Petr Pavlensky, who nailed his own testicles, referenced above, to the cobblestones of Red Square; the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is currently serving a twenty-year prison sentence in the Russian Far East; and the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina.


Looking Ahead to International Translation Day in London, with Jonathan Ruppin

Brexit has brought our relationships with other nations to the forefront of public debate, so some readers might seek to broaden their horizons.

Ahead of Asymptote’s celebration of world literature in the UK on September 29th at Waterstones Piccadilly, the founder of the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club—and our event’s chairman—reflects on the last year of reading and publishing literature in translation. Get all of the event details, RSVP to attend, and invite your friends here

Megan Bradshaw (MB): The title of a recent article from The New Statesman asks, “Translated fiction is not a genre. Why do bookshops tell us it is?” Would you say that giving translated fiction its own category—and a separate Man Booker prize—is counterproductive?

Jonathan Ruppin (JR): I don’t think this is true: it’s almost never shelved separately. But it’s certainly worth pulling out in regular promotions, because this boosts visibility and sales, and there are many readers who are drawn to translated fiction for the broader horizons it offers. The new Booker Prize is doing a wonderful job highlighting the importance and relevance of the novel as a global art form, something that matters a great deal given the safe and parochial nature of what is usually promoted in reviews and in shops.

MB: Last March, the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club tackled Pushkin Press’s reissue of a short story collection by the Russian writer Teffi: Subtly Worded. Many native Russian speakers forewarn that her signature wit will get lost in translation. How did the Book Club receive her?

JR: The book was definitely one of the best-received selections in our first year or so of existence, although everyone seemed to prefer a slightly different selection of the stories. But, more than any other book, we were aware that her intricate use of wordplay had to mean that a lot was lost in translation. But she’s still an extremely rewarding writer to read in English.

MB: A survey commissioned by the Man Booker International Prize found that translated fiction is outselling its English-language counterparts. The same survey also noted that UK sales of Korean books has increased, from 88 copies in 2001, to 10,191 in 2015—many of those sales were for Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, from Portobello. Is the rise of Korean literature here to stay?

JR: That depends almost entirely on whether publishers commit to it. Independent publishers are forging ahead with titles from outside Western Europe, but the bigger companies still rarely do so. And any greater interest in Korean books will come with greater exposure for translated literature overall, or perhaps Asian literature.


Asymptote Celebrates International Translation Day in London

On September 29, join Asymptote in London for a special celebration of world literature.

Book lovers wary of what Brexit will mean for the arts and culture in the United Kingdom can take some small comfort: British readers are going international.

This year, a survey commissioned by the Man Booker International Prize found that literary fiction in translation is outselling its English-language counterparts. Right now, translation seems more important than ever—suddenly, it seems, world literature has taken root in this island nation, where fiction sales are stagnating overall. How did this happen? Is the movement permanent? Mindful of this year’s celebration of Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), the release of the first Kurdish novel translated into English, and the globalization of Korean literature, how are publishers continuing to surface underrepresented voices?


What’s New in Translation? July 2016

This month's hottest titles—in translation.



The Blue Blood by Oddný Eir, tr. Philip Roughton, Amazon’s Day OneReview: K.T. Billey, Assistant Editor

The Blue Blood seems simple: a woman wants to have baby. Motherhood has always been “in her cards.” She has found a partner who is game, and they love each other. They try everything, including multiple artificial inseminations from donors selected for their blue eyes—hoping the baby will approximate the father. Disappointment and hope begin to frame the narrator’s consuming obsession: finding someone who can help with ‘their problem.’ Her search for a donor expands into the world, as heartbreak and determination test the limits of her relationship. The reader is privy to the narrator’s pseudo-diary “As if recounting a clever story gives my life purpose…”

In a series of titled vignettes, The Blue Blood does more than chronicle the toll of dreams and bodily realities on our relationships. Blue is everywhere—signs, names, auras, eyes, oceans—a mystic slice reminiscent of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, revolving around fertility and the windows to the soul. The reader experiences the writer’s symbology and suffers along with the woman struggling to read into and ignore them. We feel the weight of their accumulation, the damaging pressure. Desire and action are not enough. When is trying trying too hard? The nature of coincidence gets tangled with intimacy, confronting us with the what we cannot know, will, or hope into being. Of course the couple’s vacation to Argentina finds them in a mountain village with a Nazi past and many blue eyed specimens. Of course they cannot neuter the dog. READ MORE…

Dear Britain: Notes of an Adopted Daughter

"Poking your ribs aside, Britain, we do not need to see our various hyphenations as fracture."

“Look, I admit I came to Paris to escape American provincial, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready for French traditional.”
—Audrey Hepburn, Charade

Dear Britain,

In spite of Murakami and the rural male youths of my mongrel pubescence informing me otherwise, I still prefer to think of a “morning glory” as a cat licking its paws through choppy rays of light—just at the moment when “rosy-fingered” dawn neatly vivisects your eyes and the living room in two (if the postmodern turn has accomplished anything worthwhile, it has bestowed scalpels on Homeric metaphors), leaving little else to do than bat the sand from your lashes and gulp down that third cup of coffee.

It was during of one these scenes from my everyday homeostasis, Britain, when I began to realize, at first rather absently, that for all legitimate reasons, my cat is British. READ MORE…

Notes from the 2016 London Book Fair

"There is something unavoidably, well, icky, about book fairs: it is the necessary monetization, and inevitable corporatization, of art."

If we took Lemony Snicket creator Daniel Handler’s cautionary advice at face value—“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them”—then, at the least, we should not fear the Book Fair as a den of thieves and our attendance an exercise in tiptoeing above and around winking blades.

Quite the opposite: we are among the international literati of the first order, and we are free to ecstatically smile and sniff the books and promotional materials—like an American woman visiting a French perfume shop. On opening day, Guardian columnist and high-flying London salonnière Damian Barr dispensed more practical guidance particular to British connoisseurship. “#LBF16 have a great fair everyone! Remember to sneak out for gin/fags/sunshine,” he tweeted. READ MORE…

A*** And I: In Conversation With Emma Ramadan

" shouldn’t be that hard to write a genderless novel in English in the first person, but it’s really hard to translate one from French."

“If Garréta’s composition of Sphinx was a high-wire act, then Emma Ramadan’s task in carrying it over into a language with at least one crucially important constitutional difference is, near as I can figure it, akin to one tightrope walker mimicking the high-wire act of a second walker on a steeply diverging tightrope, while also doing a handstand.” —Daniel Levin Becker

If DJs are “the new rock stars” (Forbes, 2012), and if Emma Ramadan is correct—there did not exist, until now (2015), a genderless love story written in English—how can we trust in our vision as a supposedly contemporary, world-changing literary public after discovering that Anne Garréta’s debut novel was published thirty years ago?

Sphinx (1986) is a love story that is simultaneously hijacked and elevated by its own language. Originally guided by a Jesuit priest cloaked as Dante’s Virgil, the novel’s nameless and genderless narrator descends from the aristocratic literati into Paris’s crepuscular underworld, arriving at the gates of the discothèque Apocryphe to become DJ royale and a devotee of the beautiful, also genderless, A*** (in whose tragic character we may find our Beatrice). The Apocryphe is the abyssal incubator of their folie à deux. To say that Sphinx is “ahead of its time” sounds stale, but stale-sounding things are often true. (In 2002, Garréta won France’s prestigious Prix Médicis, which is awarded each year to an author whose “fame does not yet match their talent.”)

Garréta’s method and style allow her to pillage the French language generously, often playfully, and she makes it clear that society, self-prescriptive by nature, is begging to see itself outside of binary gender distinctions. Ramadan’s translation has also given us the first full-length work by a female member of the Oulipo. The experimental French literary group is renowned for its exclusions—whole novels don’t include the letter “e,” extended texts employ only one vowel, poetry is written to be sliced up and reshuffled. It must be remembered, however, that Sphinx’s publication preceded Garréta’s invitation to join the Oulipo by more than a decade. Now, what does it mean to read the first English translation of such a novel, which teases out all our assumptions about identity, love, desire, relationships, with almost sacramental intensity?

We can, at least, trust in the simple counsel of the novel’s translator, who (after Garréta) made our reading possible in the first place: “If our pre-conceived notions about all of these things are defied by this text, what does that say about our pre-conceived notions? Reading Sphinx is one way to think about these questions, to question our ways of thinking.” Whether in spite of or due to its preciousness, Sphinx serves to remind us that it is us who are still woefully behind the times.


MB: First, I want to enquire about the context that instigated an English translation of Garréta’s novel now. Sphinx was published in 1986—when Garréta was only 23 years old. What made the impetus for this translation—nearly thirty years later—so urgent?

ER: Well, when I first found out about Sphinx, I heard about it in the context of Daniel Levin Becker. He wrote a book about Oulipians, and he briefly mentions Sphinx, and I assumed that it had already been translated. And then I went looking for the translation and I couldn’t find it, and when I realised it hadn’t been translated yet it just sort of seemed wild to me, you know, that no one had tried to translate this book. It was pretty wild to me that, despite the past, however many years going by since this book was published, it still feels very relevant, maybe more so now than then, because people are more interested in talking about gender and the way gender influences our lives, and influences our identities, the ways it kind of constricts us, and I feel now more so than in 1984—at least in the States.


In Conversation with Isabel Allende

“In all my books there is a strong sense of place and my stories often have an epic breadth.”

The “eternal foreigner” sat down during the tail end of her U.S. book tour to discuss her new novel, The Japanese Lover, and writing across boundaries.

While working as a young reporter in Chile, Isabel Allende went to interview the great Don of twentieth-century poetry, Pablo Neruda. At least, she assumed as much when she accepted his invitation for a visit to his house on the coast.

In preparation for the event, Allende washed her car and bought a new tape recorder. She drove to Isla Negra. After she and Neruda shared a lunch of Chilean corvina and white wine, Allende proposed that they begin their interview. Neruda was surprised, and rebuffed her, saying, “My dear child, you must be the worst journalist in the country. You are incapable of being objective, you place yourself at the centre of everything you do, I suspect you’re not beyond fibbing, and when you don’t have news, you invent it.” He suggested that she switch to literature. Perhaps Allende never would have done so if she had foreseen how eager editors would be for her to repeat this fanciful anecdote over the years. Still, in radio interviews, her voice seems to soften into fondness during each retelling. 

The publication of her debut novel, The House of the Spirits, in 1982, allowed Allende to make a full-time career change. Her journo’s vice of placing herself “at the centre of everything” is transformed into a defining virtue through her fiction: she is an exemplar of using the third-person omniscient point of view. Allende’s works have been translated into 35 languages, and the Spanish-language edition of her latest book, El amante japonés, was released in September by Vintage Español. The English translation, The Japanese Lover, was released on November 3, from Atria.


Megan Bradshaw: Prior to moving to California, what was your familiarity with the history of Japanese internment camps in the United States? How did your initial historical research for The Japanese Lover influence your assumptions and the direction of the novel?

Isabel Allende: I had not heard about the internment camps before moving to California but in recent years there have a been a couple of novels that mention them. My research gave me a much deeper understanding of what this meant for the people who were in the camps, how they suffered, how they lost everything and how they felt dishonored and shamed. Of course, their situation can’t be compared to the victims of Nazi concentration camps because there was no forced labor, nobody starved and certainly there was no intention of exterminating them. I had not intended to dedicate full chapters to the camps in my novel but the material was fascinating. READ MORE…

Channeling The Language (And Spirit) Of Clarice Lispector: An Interview with Katrina Dodson

"I don’t think she wants to be completely understood, and she wouldn’t have understood herself."

“Clarice inspires big feelings. As with the ‘rare thing herself’ from ‘The Smallest Woman in the World,’ those who love her want her for their very own. But no one can claim the key to her entirely, not even in Portuguese. She haunts us each in different ways. I have presented you the Clarice that I hear best.”

By spending the last two years translating nearly four decades of Clarice Lispector’s work in what she calls “a one-woman vaudeville act,” Katrina Dodson has joined a club of translators (trumpeted by Lispector’s biographer and de facto proselytizer, Benjamin Moser), whose interpretations of the Brazilian writer have now generated a skyscraping tidal wave. Though recognized by Brazilians as their greatest modern writer, Lispector was little-known among English-speaking readers until the beginning of this decade. Today, she is the first Brazilian writer to appear on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review (July 2015). For the first time in English, Complete Stories brings together all the short stories that established her legacy in Portuguese.

Lispector gives the impression of a woman looking from the outside in, always taking notes. Like Borges, she expects you to follow her fantastic trains of thought, but she is unconcerned as to whether you enjoy the ride or not. In Complete Stories, eggs become infinite metaphoric permutations (interestingly, Lispector would die of ovarian cancer, on the eve of her 57th birthday), a lonely, red-headed girl and a red-headed basset hound discover they are soulmates, but destined never to be together, and a woman has a face.

Because in Lispector’s world—and Dodson’s translation—it must be asserted that a woman has a face, as if such a characteristic is not naturally of this world. These familiar details, made new —especially during fevered sequences when geography reflects a character’s unraveling—are what end up grinding our faces into the pavement as Lispector gazes on, coolly, but not unkindly, with great curiosity from above.


MB: When did you first encounter Clarice Lispector, and did you have a form of epiphany moment when you discovered her?

KD: I first started reading her in 2003. I was living in Rio de Janeiro and teaching English at a private English school called Britannia, and I had moved to Brazil that year speaking some Portuguese but, but it was—I spoke French, and then I was listening to these cassette tapes. That’s how long ago it was [laughs]. I would listen to cassette tapes that they would use to teach the Foreign Service how to learn a foreign language. I would listen to these Portuguese tapes before going.  READ MORE…

Best European Fiction 2016: A Conversation With Editor Nathaniel Davis

"There’s nothing great about a translation if the original’s no good."

The first volume of Best European Fiction, from the year 2010, brought together stories from 30 countries—introducing fiction by well-established writers such as Alasdair Gray and Jon Fosse in addition to stories by emerging European writers who had not yet been translated into English. Over the last six years, the series has published more than 200 stories from countries across Europe, from Iceland to Russia.

At a time when publishers are publishing dramatically less writing in translation, Dalkey Archive Press will release Best European Fiction 2016 on November 13. In an email interview, the volume’s editor, Nathaniel Davis, described the process of continuing to provide English-language readers with new artistic and intellectual windows that open out on to Europe.


MB: The call for submissions for Best European Fiction 2016 received more than 150 stories. Describe the process of whittling that number down to 29. What were your toughest editorial decisions? For example, were you conflicted in choosing between two authors from the same country?

ND: The way the selection process works, we choose one story from each country, and multiple stories for countries with more than one national language. So we might have both French and German stories from Switzerland, or French and Flemish stories from Belgium. Part of the project of Best European Fiction is to highlight writers from neglected linguistic traditions. So BEF2016 has Spanish stories written in Basque and Catalan, but not Castilian (although we often also include Castilian authors). After the primary selection of the best submissions, we have to whittle it down to about thirty, taking space and funding into consideration. We ask the participating countries to contribute some financial support to the anthology, as it’s a very expensive undertaking that doesn’t pay for itself (despite usually selling pretty well). READ MORE…