Posts by Sarah Timmer Harvey

Idiomatic Agony and Collective Vision: Izidora Angel on Bringing International Literature to the Forefront

I want to convince all publishers that putting the translator’s name on the cover of the book is the right thing to do . . .

Chicago-based Izidora Angel is one amongst only a handful of translators working to bring Bulgarian literature to English-language readers. Her experiences as an emerging translator working in an under-represented language prompted Angel to seek the support and knowledge of her peers, and what began as an informal workshop with fellow translators Lucina Schell and Jason Grunebaum has evolved into an international network of literary translators who seek to share resources and mentor each other, in addition to bringing literature in translation to a wider audience. Third Coast Translators Collective co-founder Angel spoke with Asymptote about forming the collective, the importance of community, activism, and her best translation practices.

—Sarah Timmer Harvey, August 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Can you tell me about Third Coast Translators Collective and how it came to be?

Izidora Angel (IA): When I joined the group in early 2016, it wasn’t yet the Third Coast Translators Collective (TCTC), it was still more or less an informal group gathering of Chicago-land translators started by Lucina Schell, who translates from the Spanish, and Jason Grunebaum, who translates from the Hindi. But people kept wanting to join, and we all had this great chemistry, so we thought, why not make it official? Have a proper name, a mission and vision, a website, a digital presence, readings. Now there’s over thirty of us; it feels like a powerful entity.

STH: Why is being part of a collective important to you?

IA: Community is essential, regardless of what it might be that is bringing you together. Humans are social animals, and we need that connection for life. As translators, especially if we are translating from at-risk or vulnerable languages like I am, belonging to a group like this is integral for collaboration, workshopping, and knowledge sharing. Including minority languages like Bulgarian helps to shape the mission of a group like TCTC in a really important way. READ MORE…

“I Feel Free When I Write”: Linda Boström Knausgård on Her New Novel, Welcome to America

I am my dark, inner twin when I write.

Linda Boström Knausgård’s second novel, Welcome to America, is set not in the United States, but within the confines of a Swedish apartment swollen with family secrets and contrarian silence. Following the death of her father—a tragedy she is convinced she engineered through prayerBoström Knausgård’s child narrator, Ellen, stops speaking. While the trauma inciting Ellen’s selective mutism is palpable, the young protagonist synchronously radiates power, wielding her silence as the only means of maintaining control in the face of a self-absorbed mother, her increasingly volatile brother, and the specter of impending adulthood. Meticulously translated by Martin Aitkin, Welcome to America is Boström Knausgård’s defiantly pithy portrait of a family disconnected and consumed by grief. On the eve of the novel’s publication in the United States, we asked the Swedish author, poet, and radio documentary producer about writing bravely, the experience of being written into someone else’s narrative, and the unexpected power of silence.

 Sarah Timmer Harvey, August 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Welcome to America is your second novel to be translated into English. Did you collaborate with Aitken on the translation?

Linda Boström Knausgård (LBK): I didn’t work with Martin on the translation. In fact, I didn’t hear from him while he was working on it. Martin is a very good translator, and I think that he’s produced a beautiful translation. I’ve read it twice in English, and I am very happy with it. I believe that if I had started to concentrate too much during his work and asked him all my questions before he was ready, I’d be exhausted. Our languages have a lot of differencessentences do not start, or end, in the same way. I know Norwegian and Danish very well, and when it comes to translating work into these languages, it can be difficult not to intervene too much. When I finally had a book translated into Finnish, it was a relief because I didn’t understand a word. I think it’s best to let go as much you can, but you then must also be happy when you finally read it. If you have a good translator, you should stick with him or her!

STH: When you are writing, do you consider the language in which you are writing? For example, how Swedish might shape and contain the narrative? 

LBK: I write in Swedish and could not write in any other language, never! The language forms the story; it is my frame, and so I cannot abandon it. I love to write in Swedish. I like how it presents itself on the page, almost like a surprise. READ MORE…

Translating a Powerful Connection: In Conversation with Zahra Patterson

. . . the political questions, rather than the success of the translation, became what was more interesting to me.

Zahra Patterson’s Chronology won the 2019 Lambda Award for Best Lesbian Memoir or Biography. Deserving of the accolades, but defiant of genre conventions, Chronology was inspired by Patterson’s friendship with Lesotho writer and activist, Liepollo Rantekoa, and her attempt to translate a story from Rantekoa’s native language, Sesotho, into English. Produced in collaboration with the editorial collective at Ugly Duckling Presse, Chronology is arguably more a box than a book, a capsule of the writer’s personal and political landscape containing so many loose pieces that keeping it intact requires physical care. Personal notes, diary entries, and photos from are interspersed with essays on the politics of translation, post-colonialism, activism, history, and connection, forming a narrative that firmly deconstructs its own relationship to chronological order and time. Following the Lambda Awards, we reached out to Patterson to congratulate her and ask her to about Rantekoa’s enduring legacy, finding and losing mementos and her decision to learn Sesotho in New York’s public libraries.

Sarah Timmer Harvey, July 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Chronology opens with an email exchange between yourself and Liepollo Rantekoa. Can you tell me about meeting Liepollo?

Zahra Patterson (ZP): I met Liepollo during a bizarre exchange at a café in a trendy part of Cape Town. I was a tourist, and she worked at Chimurenga, a pan-African journal whose headquarters were nearby. I was taking a long lunch reading and writing, and I might have been the only customer in the café when she entered. She was supposed to be meeting a friend, and she was late, or the friend wasn’t there, and she needed to use a phone. Then she approached my table to ask me to watch her bags—she was going to use the waiter’s mobile to make the call so had to go and buy him minutes first. Basically, within a matter of seconds of entering the cafe, she had both me and the waiter doing her bidding, but she was also very gracious and generous in her authority. 

I had recently purchased Dambudzo Marechera’s novel Black Sunlight and had been reading it while I ate, so it was sitting on my table. She was very excited and confused to realize that I, a tourist whose purpose was to watch her bags, was reading one of Africa’s most controversial writers, who was also one of her favorites. A few days later, we were friends, and I moved into her shared apartment in Observatory, a southern suburb of Cape Town. I lived in her house for three and a half weeks, and then we kept in touch via email, gchat, and Facebook. Our close connection was based mostly on a shared ideology that we accessed through literature. 

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Summer 2019

Standout pieces from the Summer 2019 issue of Asymptote, as selected by section editors!

Another issue of Asymptote means another dazzling array of voices, languages, and genres in translation. If you’re not sure where to begin, look no further than these recommendations from the editors who compiled this spectacular issue

From Lee Yew Leong, Fiction and Poetry Editor:

This issue’s Fiction section is memorable for being the first fiction lineup in an Asymptote issue (and there are now 34 of them!) that does not include a single European author. Naguib Mahfouz and Bernardo Esquinca have already been singled out by the blog editors last week, so I’ll touch briefly on works by Bijan Najdi and Siham Benchekroun—two ambitious short stories that are remarkable in different ways. Showcasing the acclaimed narrative technique for which he was known, Najdi’s heartbreaking story “A Rainy Tuesday” (translated beautifully by Michelle Quay) unravels the thin seam between memory and reality, leading us on a nonlinear journey through grief. Benchekroun’s “Living Words,” on the other hand, is also a personal essay that exults in the very richness of language. Kudos to translator Hannah Embleton-Smith who masterfully tackled a text that leans so heavily on French phonetics to make synaptic leaps—and gave us something in English that preserves the delight of the original French. My personal favorites from the Poetry section this issue are the new translations of The Iliad by James Wilcox, which inject vigor into an ancient classic, and Tim Benjamin’s introduction of Leonardo Sanhueza, 2012 winner of the Pablo Neruda Prize for career achievement. Benjamin’s evocative translations bring into English for the first time an extraordinary poetic voice that deserves to reach a wider audience.

From Joshua Craze, Nonfiction Section Editor:

Personal Jesus” by Fausto Alzati Fernández is a visceral study of the self that drugs make. Ably translated by Will Stockton, the prose slows down time, as we wait on the side of the highway, hoping for a fix, and then, finally, time stops, in the infinite space of the hit. Fernández explores an enchanted world, in which of all the dumb sad morass of the human animal is given the possibility of transcendence, and yet—cruelties of cruelties—it is this very transcendence that produces the animals living half-lives that stumble around his dealer’s living room. “Personal Jesus” is a love letter, written to a cleansing balm that leaves us only more pitiful than before.

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Imagining Truths: In Conversation with Gabriela Ybarra

I always feel that I’m a detective of my own life.

“The story goes,” begins Gabriela Ybarra’s novel The Dinner Guest, “that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal.” This guest, Ybarra writes, occasionally “appears, casts his shadow and erases one of those present” and forms part of the complex family mythology that Ybarra seeks to unravel in her stunning documentary-style debut. The Dinner Guest is a free reconstruction of the events surrounding the kidnapping and murder of her grandfather in 1977 and the death of her mother in 2011. Ybarra deftly combines collective memory, media reports, photographs, Google search results, and instinctive imaginings to unearth her family’s traumatic past. Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, The Dinner Guest, flawlessly translated by Natasha Wimmer, has just been released in the U.S. by Transit Books. On the eve of publication, we spoke with Gabriela Ybarra about writing grief, playing detective, and finding freedom in a photograph of Robert Walser.

—Sarah Timmer Harvey

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): When did you start writing The Dinner Guest, and was it always intended to be the novel it became?

Gabriela Ybarra (GY): I started to work on The Dinner Guest shortly after my mother died in September 2011. Her illness went by so fast that, when she passed away, I felt the need to write down what I had lived through during the previous months just to make sense of it all. During the process, I got stuck several times. In the beginning, I thought that this was because I was a novice writer and still lacked experience, but as time went by, I realized that there were some behaviors in my family that I couldn’t explain. For example, during my mother’s illness, my father kept talking about a rosary covered in blood, which I thought was very weird, but couldn’t find an explanation for it. As I started to look back, I realized that many of these behaviors were related to the kidnapping and murder of my grandfather by the terrorist group ETA in 1977. In grieving my mother, I stumbled upon the unresolved grief related to my grandfather.

STH: The Dinner Guest is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. The framework of the story is undoubtedly factual; the kidnapping and death of your grandfather, your mother’s illness, and her subsequent passing are all real, and yet, there are also parts that are pure fiction; imagined events, conversations, and connections. Is it important for you that readers view The Dinner Guest as a novel?

GY: Genre isn’t so important to me. I consider the book a novel because I believe that memory is always fiction and, in the case of my grandfather, I had to make up big parts of his kidnapping because nobody in my family would tell me anything about it. For many years, my family lived as if these traumatic events had never happened. I could infer their pain through their silences, but lacked a story; the only information that I had came from the newspapers. In the case of my mother, I did know the events quite well, but reality is often too complicated to make believable, so I had to twist it.

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All of What It Could Be: In Conversation with Tiffany Tsao

To ignore his work’s vision, not to mention its cultural context, seems violent to me—a form of suppression.

When reading a new book in translation, I usually begin by reading the translator’s note. Although it is customary to print the translator’s note at the end of any translated work, I find it enriches my reading to know in advance how the translator approached and connected with the text, to understand their particular choices and challenges. But while translator’s notes often reveal a profound intimacy with the original text, I have rarely read a translator’s note as unapologetically impassioned and moving as the paean Tiffany Tsao wrote for Norman Pasaribu’s award-winning collection of poems, Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Tsao’s translator’s note calls Pasaribu and the collection a “miracle” and describes how working on the translation of Sergius Seeks Bacchus was transformative for both translator and author. “Norman’s poems,” Tsao writes, “have become a part of and spring from me as well,” adding, “I don’t think that I can ever go back to be being the person that I was before.” 

Through the translation of Sergius Seeks Bacchus from the Indonesian, Tsao and Pasaribu have forged a partnership that is intellectually energizing and dripping with creative charisma.  After reading Pasaribu’s vibrant poems, Tsao’s exceptional translator’s note, and following the two on social media as they successfully toured the UK, I was raring to speak with former Asymptote Editor-at-large, Tiffany Tsao. Amongst other things, Tsao was generous enough to share more about the “mutually nurturing” relationship she has developed with Pasaribu, and how Sergius Seeks Bacchus, published in the UK by Tilted Axis Press and forthcoming in Australia from Giramondo, has come to belong to both of them.

-Sarah Timmer Harvey, April 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Congratulations on the publication of Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Can you tell me about the collection and how it was received in Indonesia?

Tiffany Tsao (TT): After spending three years working with Norman on the translation, I almost feel I’m too close to speak coherently about it! It’s like being asked to describe someone you know intimately: you’re aware of all their facets, of them in different situations and at various points in time. Still, I’ll try my best. Sergius Seeks Bacchus is about contemporary queer life in Indonesia—as he and others have experienced it, but also and importantly, as all of what it could be. Hence the Christian, Batak, and speculative dimensions of many of the poems. Some of them depict realities for queer individuals that Indonesia’s present-day circumstances deny: strolling the streets of Heaven hand-in-hand; strolling the streets of post-alien-invasion Earth hand-in-hand; being celebrated by one’s family via the traditions of one’s culture; getting married (and divorced); having children; being happy; growing old. The poems range in tone too, from melancholy, darkly humorous, wistful, playful, tragic, to tragicomic. Perhaps this variegation is also what makes Norman’s collection so difficult to sum up.

The collection’s reception in Indonesia was bifurcated in the extreme. On the one hand, it won a major national literary award, placing first in the 2015 Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Manuscript competition. On the other hand, because the poems of Sergius Mencari Bacchus were overtly queer, Norman experienced a tremendous amount of online bullying afterward, which plunged him into severe depression.

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Universal Things: An Interview with Esther Gerritsen

In the Netherlands, we often make the mistake of thinking that the emancipation of women has been completely achieved.

Boekenweek is a week-long festival of Dutch-language literature held annually in the Netherlands since 1932. Aside from the now legendary Boekenweek ball in Amsterdam, readings, panels, and other literary events are organized throughout the Netherlands and Flanders, and a prominent writer is commissioned to write a novella which is then gifted to the public during the ten-day festival. In 2016, Dutch writer Esther Gerritsen was given the honor of writing the Boekenweek novella, one of only two women to do so in the past eighteen years. This year, Gerritsen’s novel Craving was one of several recently published Dutch-language novels in translation featured at the World Editions Boekenweek celebration at Flanders House in New York City. One of the most celebrated novelists in the Netherlands, Gerritsen also works as a screenwriter and columnist and is the recipient of numerous awards including the 2014 Frans Kellendonk prize for her entire oeuvre. Craving, artfully translated by Michele Hutchison, is Gerritsen’s meticulous excavation of a complex mother-daughter relationship which is further complicated when the daughter moves back into her childhood home to take care of her dying mother. In honor of Boekenweek, Asymptote asked Esther Gerritsen to share her thoughts on Craving, radical thinkers, and gender equity in the Dutch-language literary world.

-Sarah Timmer Harvey, New York, April 2019

STH: Craving opens with a powerful scene in which the mother, Elisabeth, spots her daughter biking on a busy street in Amsterdam and decides it is the right moment to tell her that she is dying. Immediately, the reader is made aware that the mother isn’t neurotypical and that the relationship between mother and daughter is quite strained. What drew you to these characters and inspired their story?

EG: I started writing about the mother, Elisabeth, first. I wanted to write about ‘stuff.’ Objects, materials, the love human beings have for things. I originally had Elisabeth talking posthumously about all the things in her life, from the first blanket she’d slept under and her childhood toys to the furniture she owned when she was older, even the bed on which she died. In her version of heaven, everything she ever possessed was there, new and complete; shoes without scratches, puzzles with no missing pieces—an ideal, silent world filled with beautiful stuff. Of course, then the story became very . . . silent. And I thought: for a person who likes quietness, order, and perfection, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I knew then that she should have a child—and that’s where the daughter comes in. Coco is her mother’s opposite, chaotic and messy. They live in different worlds, but both have the best intentions and would love to be closer, but are just too dissimilar. When the mother is dying, and the daughter is already an adult, they try to form a closer relationship before it’s too late and end up tormenting each other with their good intentions. Coco and Elisabeth really can’t stand one another, but because they are family, they are inextricably linked. READ MORE…

Taking Up the Translator’s Baton: An Interview with David Colmer

The crucial part is what is revealed, not the particular set of circumstances that make the revelation possible.

“Do maintain the colloquial tone,” David Colmer reminded me during a recent exchange about editing. And it was far from the first time I’d heard the Amsterdam-based Australian translator emphasize the importance of respecting and preserving the vernacular. Certainly, David’s almost chameleon-like ability to absorb and translate divergent Dutch and Flemish voices in fiction and poetry has led to his name becoming synonymous with Dutch-language literature in translation.

Over the past two decades, David Colmer has translated the work of celebrated novelists including Gerbrand Bakker, Dimitri Verhulst, and Peter Terrin; the poetry of Anna Enquist, Hugo Claus, Martinus Nijhoff; former Poet Laureates Ramsey Nasr and Ester Naomi Perquin; and the work of iconic Dutch children’s author, Annie M.G. Schmidt. Colmer has received numerous prizes, including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his translation of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour, The Vondel Prize for his translation of Dimitri Verhulst’s The Misfortunates, and the NSW Premier’s Prize and PEN trophy for his entire oeuvre.

In spite of his numerous achievements, David is most comfortable discussing his current projects and the challenges faced by translators at all stages of their career. For David, keeping it “colloquial” also seems to be code for not getting carried away, a timely reminder that the original voice and tone of any text should remain the translator’s constant anchor. With this in mind, I invoked the Dutch-peppered Australian we both speak, and asked David about his recently published translation of W.F. Hermans’s classic postwar novella, An Untouched House, the art of switching Englishes and his advice for up-and-coming translators.

March 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): The last time we saw each other was at the end of 2018 when you were in New York for the publication of your translation of An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans. An Untouched House is a dark, confronting, and occasionally absurd novella about the final months of the Second World War first published in the Netherlands is 1951. How did you come to translate it?

David Colmer (DC): I was the next cab off the rank, I suppose. I read the original in the early nineties soon after starting to learn Dutch, and it made quite an impression. I remember being shocked by the disturbing clarity of the author’s amoral vision and the climactic eruption of violence. The way he managed to combine a coolly thoughtful, almost philosophical perspective with both gripping action and humor was inspiring. I made a mental note of it as a book I’d love to translate, as I sometimes did after I began reading in foreign languages in the late eighties. Hans Fallada’s The Drinker was another one that made a similar impression on me, but I never really counted on the opportunity coming along. Over the following fifteen years, though, two things happened that changed that. I began to establish my credentials as a translator of Dutch literature, and Hermans had a late, second wave of publication in English, with two of his best novels, The Darkroom of Damocles and Beyond Sleep, published in translations by Ina Rilke and being very well received. Then, three or four years ago, when a Hermans story was slated for inclusion in The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, Ina wasn’t available to translate it, so I was able to take up the baton.

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Close Approximations: In Conversation with Poetry Winner Daniel Owen

It's like an exorcism and a prayer for long life in one breath.

This year’s winner of the Poetry category in Asymptote’s fourth annual Close Approximations Translation Contest was Daniel Owen. Poetry judge Eugene Ostashevsky called Alfizal Malna’s text “intellectual poetry of the highest caliber,” praising Owen for his “elegant, reserved English,” and for offering readers “a beautiful thing of clear obscurity” in his translations of Malna’s Document Shredding Museum.

We recently caught up with Yogyakarta-based Daniel to learn more about his work with the legendary Afrizal Malna, the process of “unsomeoneification,” and what he has been up to since winning the Close Approximations contest in January.

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): I found your translations of Document Shredding Museum to be incredibly beautiful and inviting; no easy feat given the complexity of Malna’s writing. How did you first come to Afrizal Malna and his work?

Daniel Owen (DO): I met Afrizal at Kampung Buku Jogja, an annual literary event in Yogyakarta with a book fair, readings, and discussions. I had just come to stay awhile in Jogja to intensively study Indonesian language and to read and subsequently translate Indonesian literature. While my Indonesian was okay when we first met, I hadn’t yet read much and was quite ignorant of the literary landscape. We were introduced by my friends, the writers and small press publishers Lelaki Budiman and Tiaswening Maharsi, after Afrizal’s discussion on theater and poetry with Gunawan Maryanto. I bought a copy of his new book of short stories, Pagi Yang Miring Ke Kanan (Nyala, 2017) and we chatted a bit. Following our initial meeting, I started reading Afrizal’s work pretty intensely, the short stories along with poems I found on the internet, and then his book of essays Sesuatu Indonesia. I found myself entranced by the poems; it was like encountering something extremely familiar yet at the same time novel. That kind of tickling of the sensibilities that’s both troubling and pleasurable, takes you, as a reader, outside yourself while making you feel more yourself. I started translating these poems which I’d found online, primarily to see what would happen and to share them with non-Indonesian-speaking friends who asked about what I was reading, thinking about, engaging with. And then I borrowed Museum Penghancur Dokumen from Budiman, read the whole thing and started translating it.

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