Essays

Armenian Literature: A History, A Future in Translation

It is something of a surprise that a country with such an ancient literary tradition has not had more of its corpus translated into English.

Armenia is a small country with an enormous diaspora and a rich literary tradition—so why hasn’t more Armenian literature been translated into English? Today, Assistant Editor Andreea Scridon takes us on a tour of Armenian literary translation, introducing us to influential writers, both ancient and contemporary, who have yet to appear in English.

Many people in the English-speaking world, upon hearing of Armenia, naturally tend to think of the Armenian Genocide. While the recognition of a national tragedy beyond its borders is central to acts of both justice and healing, this notoriety can serve as a double-edged sword for a country’s culture. On the one hand, healing implies a significant act of transcendence, and so cross-border translation of Armenian literature has been important in the past for victims of the Genocide and presumably remains important for the Diaspora today. On the other hand, the works by (and about) Armenians that have received the most exposure have been those written in other languages, outside of Armenia. Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (originally published in German in 1933) is the most notable example of this kind, creating a ripple effect immediately after the dramatic effects took place and raising awareness for the Armenian plight tremendously; decades later, Varujan Vosganian’s The Book of Whispers (first published in Romania in 2009) was longlisted for last year’s PEN America Award. Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook (originally written in Russian), along with two English-language books, Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls (Doubleday, 2012), and Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul (Viking Press, 2006) have enjoyed great success and are examples of the many texts that make up a sort of canon on the subject. But although the topic of the Armenian Genocide remains relevant and important, the fact that none of the best-known books on the topic were written in the Armenian language point to a lacuna that continues to present a question mark today. What’s more, though the Genocide is a central point in Armenian history, we still don’t publish enough Armenian literature in translation. Let us take a trip through this part of the world, then, and explore its literary history. READ MORE…

A Linguistic Dystopia: Language and Metamorphosis in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary

What happens to a language when generation gaps are allowed to stretch on forever?

For Yoko Tawada, a Japanese author who writes in both German and Japanese, language’s power—and its failings—are a central concern. In today’s essay, Asymptote Editor-at-Large Jacqueline Leung explores how Tawada’s fascination with language informs her novel The Emissary, which takes place in a dystopian Japan that has forbidden the use of foreign languages. 

The very existence of language—the signified and the signifier, the sender and the recipient—denotes distance. For a writer like Yoko Tawada, who practices her craft in both Japanese and German (the latter picked up in her twenties), the space between reality and what is written or said is where poetry resides. Linguistic play is at the heart of Tawada’s creativity; in The Naked Eye, she wrote one chapter in German and another in Japanese, alternating between the two until the end. Then she decided to translate everything the other way so that she had a German manuscript and a Japanese manuscript for her publishers.

This exophonic maneuver—exophony being a term indicating the practice of writing in a language not your mother tongue (the distinction makes you wonder if there ever was a term for writing in your mother tongue)—is an impossibility in the dystopian Japan depicted in Tawada’s latest novel, The Emissary, translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani. Learning a foreign language is forbidden in the fictionalized Japan that has regressed to closing its borders after irreparable environmental disasters, possibly nuclear, contaminated the archipelago and pulled it away from the Eurasian continent, geographically and politically forcing its isolation. The aftermath is an exacerbated impression of Japan’s current dilemma with its aging population—government statistics released just this April reveal that over a third of its people are 60 and above.

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Our Shared World of Language: Reflections on “US” Poets Foreign Poets

If I am a person, I make things with language. If I am a poet, I make art with language.

Today, as a sequel to this previous post, we are continuing to feature reflections on the computationally assembled poetry anthology “US” Poets Foreign Poets (ed. MARGENTO, frACTalia 2018) from some of the most outstanding contributors to the collection.

 “US” Poets Foreign Poets was launched in 2018 at the Electronic Literature Organization Conference and at Bookfest by the collective editor MARGENTO, featuring a line-up of Chris Tănăsescu, Diana Inkpen, Raluca Tănăsescu, Vaibhav Kesarwani, and Marius Surleac. The book won accolades from major theorists and practitioners in the genre such as Christopher Funkhouser, Maria Mencia, and David Jhave Johnston. It features both digital and page-based poets, represents and analyzes the resulting corpus as network graphs, and also includes an algorithm that expands the initial corpus by identifying poems that would “fit in,” that is, display certain stylistic features tracked down by computational analysis.

Regarding the previously mentioned way in which the anthology analyzes and expands its own contents, digital poet and critic Christopher Funkhouser has commented that, “I have never, in three decades of study, seen a literary anthology so determined to generate something out of itself, something beyond a 1:1 conversion, and then successfully do so. What an interesting idea, to both transcreate and more literally translate the contents of a collection of writing. Algorithmic, linguistic, and graphical expansion here grabs and holds onto my attention every time I delve into the book.”

In today’s feature, we choose to illustrate this “transcreation” Funkhouser speaks about as it goes even beyond the covers of the anthology, and continues in the digital or digitally inflected creative and/or critical work of four major names in contemporary electronic literature and digital humanities: John Cayley, Johanna Drucker, Alan Sondheim, and Brian Kim Stefans.

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The 24-Hour Language Experiment: Timothy Maxymenko’s US2

What would happen if two people who do not have a common language tried to communicate with each other for twenty-four hours?

On an evening in March this year, the door of an empty shop in Shoreditch, east London, opened for the first time in twenty-four hours. Inside, the white walls were covered with a jumble of apparently random words in different languages. This was not the work of kids practising their graffiti skills, nor a ritual summoning of dark forces by local satanists, but the culmination of a twenty-four-hour performance by two artists: Timothy Maxymenko and Iris Colomb, who had spent the time learning to communicate with each other through a simple set of rules before inviting the public to join a wider conversation about the work.

Maxymenko, who devised US2 and first staged a version of it in Kraków, is a Ukrainian artist based between London and Kiev; Colomb is a French artist, poet, curator, and translator. Between them, they speak several languages, with French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian forming parts of their word-by-word dialogue, although English predominated.

The initial idea for US2 came from Maxymenko’s experience while on an artist’s residency in Montenegro in 2016, when he was trying to talk to local people, who speak a variant of Serbo-Croatian. Having a knowledge of Slavic languages made things easier—Ukrainian is his mother tongue and he is also fluent in Russian and Polish: “Sometimes I had to choose the same word in different languages and adjust it, until the person I was talking to noticed the similarity in the root of the word. The more you know languages from one group, the easier it is to understand the others by collecting them like a puzzle.” This made him wonder what would happen if two people who do not have a common language tried to communicate with each other for twenty-four hours and how many words they would need. “Then I began to think about how to create all the necessary conditions for the experiment.” READ MORE…

Who Will Win the 2019 Man Booker International?

I tried to decipher from their inflection and word choices whether perhaps one of the books held their attention more than the others.

We know you’re just as eager as we are to learn who will win the Man Booker International Prize tomorrow, so we’ve enlisted our very own Barbara Halla to walk you through her predictions! A member of this year’s Man Booker International Shadow PanelBarbara has read every book on the short- and longlists, making her our resident expert. Read on for her top 2019 MBI picks!

Last year, someone called the Man Booker International my version of the UEFA Champions League, which is fairly true. Although I don’t place any bets, I do spend a lot of my time trying to forecast and argue about who will win the prize. And I am not alone. For a community obsessed with words and their interpretation, it is not surprising that many readers and reviewers will try to decipher the (perhaps inexistent) breadcrumbs the judges leave behind, or go through some Eurovision level of political analysis to see how non-literary concerns might favour one title over the other. Speaking from personal experience, this literary sleuthing has been successful on two out of three occasions. After a meeting with some of the judges of the 2016 MBI at Shakespeare & Company, I left with the sense that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) would take home the prize that year. In 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) seemed to be everyone’s favourite, and despite a strong shortlist, I was delighted, although not shocked, to see it win.

The winner of this year’s Man Booker prize is proving more elusive. The shortlist is strong, but no one title has become a personal, or fan-, favourite. And I find the uncertainty at this stage in the competition very interesting. It is almost in direct contrast to how the discussion around the prize unfolded between the unveiling of the longlist and the shortlist. When the longlist was announced on 12 March, it was immediately followed by a flurry of online reactions that are all part of a familiar script: despite predictions by “expert” readers, few big names and titles made it onto the longlist. With good reason, some literary critics addressed the list’s shortcomings with regards to its linguistic and national diversity. Independent presses were congratulated for again dominating the longlist, a reward for their commitment to translated fiction. But as dedicated readers tackled the longlist head-on, there was a general feeling of disappointment with a good portion of the titles, which allowed the best to rise to the top quickly.

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Thirteen Keys to a Doorless House in Toledo: On Tela de sevoya by Myriam Moscona

The Ladino language has etched on her tongue the addresses of countless houses in the Jewish Quarters of Toledo and Burgos.

Myriam Moscona’s Tela de sevoya (Onioncloth) was published in English in 2017, translated from the Ladino by Antena (Jen Hofer with John Pluecker). In today’s essay, Asymptote’s Sergio Sarano, himself a Ladino speaker, uses Moscona’s book as a starting point to explore the language and its history, shaped by the complex migrations of the Jewish diaspora. Sergio also discusses Ladino’s current status as an endangered language and highlights the important role that Moscona, as one of just a few writers who continue to publish in Ladino, has to play in keeping the language alive.

“I come upon a city
I remember
that there lived
my two mothers
and I wet my feet
in the rivers
that from these and other waters
arrive to this place”

—Myriam Moscona

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The Miracle Born of Everyday Reality, Or What We’ve Learnt About Ourselves

Yet, against all the odds, Čaputová prevailed. What does this mean for the future?

Image credit: Mikuláš Galanda

In an exclusive for Asymptote, Slovak writer Jana Juráňová reports on last month’s groundbreaking presidential election in her country.

It took just two weeks since Zuzana Čaputová was elected Slovakia’s first woman president for the press to stop talking about this astonishing event and pivot to other domestic issues. As our media are preoccupied with things like the malfunctioning ruling coalition, which insists on clinging to power come what may, the population has slowly reconciled itself to the fact that this gang will continue lining their own pockets and haemorrhaging Slovakia’s economy, even if it bankrupts the country. Robert Fico, the former Prime Minister and chairman of SMER-Social Democracy—the senior partner in the coalition government whose links with real social democracy are actually rather tenuous—keeps promising new “social packages,” like some freshly crowned fairy tale king tossing gold coins from a carriage, making economists shudder at the thought of how much all these “free” handouts will cost. A lot of coverage has also focused on the creation of a new party, announced by outgoing President Andrej Kiska after extensively agonising over whether to stay in politics or not. While he kept the public guessing with vague statements, two smaller parties emerged, including Progressive Slovakia, which nominated its deputy chairperson Zuzana Čaputová as its candidate in the presidential election (she resigned from her previous position after accepting the nomination). At that point, the party’s ratings were quite low and she was a relatively unknown environmental activist and lawyer. Despite losing ground, SMER-SD remains the strongest party in parliament, polling 20% support, a figure all the more remarkable in the wake of the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée a little over a year ago, and given the endless supply of scandals involving the party’s top officials. In this set-up, Kiska’s new party is likely to attract the mainstream electorate, currently composed of reluctant voters and non-voters. No wonder that passions are running high within the panicking coalition following the news of the President’s new party, as well as among opposition parties worried that the newcomer will take away their votes. Amidst this turmoil, the fact that the first woman president in Slovak history will take office almost 100 years since the day women’s suffrage was won in postwar Czechoslovakia in 1920 seems to have slipped people’s minds.

We have been plagued with so many problems that we regularly forget the most pressing of them. That the greatest scandal of recent years—the murder of Ján Kuciak—has not been forgotten is only thanks to the huge effort on the part of journalists who have managed to publish a steady trickle of news on the criminal investigation, as well as the young activists behind a new movement, For a Decent Slovakia. Other burning issues have been rapidly cooling off, as Slovakia returns to the state of the proverbial frog that didn’t manage to leap out of the boiling kettle in time and is slowly getting used to living at boiling point without even realising it’s been cooked.   READ MORE…

Grab the Nearest Buoy: On Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni

It’s a Euclidean landscape, stripped down and elementary, where desire is literally having to feel around in the dark.

How did a book of Greek poetry become one of the most-discussed and most-lauded pieces of contemporary European literature? Garrett Phelps, Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote, explains what makes Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy is so unusual—and so difficult to describe.

Late last year, Shoestring Press published a complete edition of Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy, translated into English from a newly revised text. Not long after the first volume appeared in 2009, the work became the subject of near-unanimous praise. Fastforward about a decade and it’s widely acknowledged as a crucial addition to the literary canon, the strongest signs being its frequent inclusion in university curricula and its reputation in high circles as a masterwork, a post-modern epic, and a dystopian allegory for the cultural collapse of the West, whose legacy is only despair and rubble and war. Translations into French, English, and German have made it one of the most reviewed works of contemporary European literature, which is rare for any book of poetry and especially one written in Greek. That it’s a masterwork, or at least really near being one, is true. I gathered as much after my first encounter with it a few years ago, when Asymptote featured an extract from Shorsha Sullivan’s translation of Z213: Exit. It floored me back then and still does now.

I’m thankful that I read it before looking at anyone else’s thoughts, because the label “post-modern epic” is misleading, useful only for jacket copy. It reminds me of somebody like Umberto Eco, whose novels are long and fussy, and more about literature itself than that other rich wellspring known as real life. Dimitris Lyacos’ trilogy is definitely not that: whatever runs through its heart is too raw. Other postmodernists with actual talent, like Kathy Acker, are also a very different cut of writer. They tend to deal with ubiquitous cultural products—e.g., movies, music, targeted ad copy, the novel—whose influence pervades, or even dictates, modernity. Their work is heavy on pastiche and ready to relate, sometimes in a single breath, subjects as disparate as Nascar and archaic Greek poetry. Lyacos shares their skepticism of reigning cultural myths, although for him they’re free from the baggage of ideology, manifest destiny, and sense of self. Instead, myths revert to their most embryonic forms, such as the Homeric journey, leading some critics to argue that Poena Damni is in fact more modernist than post-modern. They’re right, too, but the claim sounds so dry when read aloud that I’ve already lost interest. Anxiety about missing the point usually means literature is doing its job. READ MORE…

On Yu Yoyo, Language, and the Unsayable

from solitude I try to excavate / the human / but what I pull off are hairs from the haunches / of an animal

Poetry is a never-ending lesson in precision. The distillation of thirst, the evocation of experience, the cauterization of an open wound. Between the poets of the world and their various works there is a common acknowledgement of restraint—there is only so much we can do with words, and only so much words can mean. Claude Lévi-Strauss originated the term “floating signifier” to describe language that has only vague or contextual denotation, and in our contact with literature we gradually come to understand that such abstraction is the enemy of poetry. So we step gingerly around the words we know contain too much to unpack. Words like “hurt,” or “death,” or “love.”

Floating signifiers are especially insecure in translation, in which one often has to choose between music and intention, double meanings or single ones, visual effect or faithful retellings. They present a particular dilemma because a floating signifier in one language may not be one in the other. The Chinese language, painting with a full palette of the pictorial, the symbolic, the historical, and the literal, has a tangibility that does not lapse into the vague as easily as English does. Ernest Fenollosa, in his (flawed but admirable) studies, characterized Chinese characters as a medium for poetry. It is not that Chinese is inherently more possessive of the elusive idea of poetics, but rather that the facets of Chinese language that enchanted Fenollosa with their invocation of poetry are also what result in headaches for translators. We do not count our losses in translation. Instead, we admire the growth a poem may undergo as it leaves its writer’s hand and wanders onto the page, how it may cross oceans and national borders, how it lives, how it is alive, the way we know language to be.

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Waldeen’s Neruda: Translating the Dance

She understood the essential relationship between poetry and music and their common root in dance. This was her secret.

Yesterday’s Translation Tuesday featured Pablo Neruda’s “Coming of the Rivers” sequence in an astonishing and previously unpublished translation by Waldeen. How did Waldeen capture the voice and tone of Neruda’s poetry so accurately, and why have such elegant translations remained in obscurity for almost seventy years? Poet and translator Jonathan Cohen, a close friend of Waldeen, explains the history—and the secrets—behind her Neruda translations.

Waldeen von Falkenstein (1913–1993)—known as a dancer and writer by her first name alone—has yet to receive the full recognition she deserves for her work as a translator of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. The poetic achievement of her translations and their influence on American poetry merit more attention. Waldeen’s elegant renderings of poems that would form Neruda’s epic masterpiece, Canto General (1950), translations that she published in the late 1940s and early 1950s, introduced Neruda and his image-driven poetics to many readers. Among them were poets like the Beats looking for alternatives to the prevailing formalist mode of verse, who found in him, through her, a model poet.

Waldeen achieved fame in Mexico as the founder of modern dance there. In 1956, Diego Rivera, one of the principal gods of Mexican art, lavished praise on Waldeen for her contribution to Mexican culture (“In each of her dance movements, she offered our country a jewel”). His tribute to her appeared in a major newspaper of Mexico, where he went beyond his accolades of her dance work to also celebrate her as a poet-translator: “I can bear witness to this not only by the intensity of emotion I felt in the verses of this beautiful and admirable woman, but through the testimony, as well, of our Walt Whitman of Indo-America, Pablo Neruda, who wrote to her, deeply moved, after she translated poetry of his into English: ‘Waldeen, thank you, for your poems of my poems, which are better than mine.’ ”

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Barbeque for Underground Poetry: Death and Life in the Subaltern Circles of the Buenos Aires Literary Scene

It was a space where anyone could perform anything, where anyone could consume anything, where the bathroom was not for the faint of heart.

Image credit: Andrés Toledo Margalef

It was hard to say goodbye to El Pacha. Tomorrow is the day, they would say, and then they’d say the same thing the next day, until half a month had passed. Finally, one day, they went into the patio and looked up at the unusual tree, its old roots amassed in concrete, and tore it to the ground. Anyone who wanted to could take a limb. Later, they returned to take chunks out from the wall in the library. On the final day—at least, what is remembered as the final day—they started throwing all of El Pacha’s innards out onto the street: decrepit couches, decorative broken TVs, pieces of wood, empty cases of beer, everything, out into the tiny alley that lies on the border between the neighborhoods of Villa Crespo and Almagro. They sat on the couches and, as in a cremation or medieval execution, lit the pile of debris on fire. They took out sausages and large cuts of meat from their bags and began to roast them over the licking flames. With the exception of that unusual feast, they spent the rest of the funereal night doing what they always had done: they drank, played guitar, and took turns reading their poetry aloud.

El Pacha was an important space in the Argentinian underground poetry scene until it closed roughly one year ago, in March 2018. It had operated illegally out of the second floor of a spindly residential apartment building; participants would be informed of weekend events through an email listserv, Facebook pages, or word of mouth. Though the space passed away, El Pacha still serves as an example of how writing is a community process and provides a window into how politics and economics mold the unique structure of Buenos Aires’ literary scene.

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Barren Landscape: Who is Afraid of Albanian Women?

For many Albanian women, the domestic is a space of terror and violence; what could be more heroic than surviving and writing in spite of that?

How is it that a formal literary curriculum can almost completely erase the works of a group of proficient, formidable writers? In this essay, Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, asks this question of her country’s educational system, while also discussing and revealing the extensive work of Albania’s female writers. 

I could make a long list of my grievances about the Albanian educational system, but I have generally appreciated the breadth of my literary education. In four years of high school, I was assigned some eighty books to read, spanning Western literature from Antiquity (starting with The Epic of Gilgamesh) to Shakespeare, Hugo, Hemingway, and Márquez.

I no longer retain the official list of my required reading, but it is not hard to find a contemporary equivalent. I graduated from high school in 2011, and in eight years, the list selected by the Ministry of Education does not seem to have changed much, which I find questionable. While I am grateful for my literary education, with the years I have become acutely aware of its flaws, the most egregious of which is the complete dismissal of women writers, especially Albanian women. Dozens of books, an entire year dedicated to Albanian literature during my senior year, and yet I graduated without having heard the name of a single Albanian woman writer. It was almost as if they didn’t exist.

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Finding Medical Precision in the Art of Translation: C.D. Zeletin

Translation is nothing less than a discovery, the study of a microbe through a microscope's lens.

In today’s world, where the study of science and the humanities are considered as oppositional, the art of translation lies arguably somewhere in the middle. In this essay, Asymptote’s Andreea Scridon profiles Romanian writer and doctor C.D. Zeletin, who challenged this false dichotomy, and through his work in both medicine and literature, showed the possibilities of inter-disciplinary cross-pollination.

I first heard of C.D. Zeletin in my Translation Studies course in Bucharest. I was spending a month in the city, just catching the brutal beginning of winter among the greys and blues of its urban landscape, and, sheltered in the seminar room from the iciness of the rough wind that is known to blow over the region’s plains, this was one of the lessons that I was enjoying most.

C.D. Zeletin, my professor told me, was a doctor. As he rode the trolleybus to the Pediatric Hospital every day, he would translate Michelangelo’s sonnets mentally, from Italian to Romanian, presumably wearing his white coat and gazing out the window. Eventually, the written product of this passion would see the light of day, published several years after its conception as Poezii [Poems]. These translations are considered, in fact, elegant and successful. The collection won the 1965 Edinburgh Book Award and Gold Medal. It would have a reverberative effect for generations of readers and poets to come; rather than adhering to Renaissance models strictly, the translation resembles a more personal search, thus producing an inventive and original approach that speaks to twentieth and twenty-first-century readers.

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An Alternative Valentine’s Day Reading List

St Valentine is the patron saint not only of lovers, but also of beekeepers, greetings, epilepsy, travelers, and the plague.

If Valentine’s Day doesn’t get your heart racing, Asymptote has something different to offer this February 14. Read on for sinister mansions, absent wives, and the ambivalent origins of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love!

This Valentine’s Day, consider instead the often terrible odds that romantic endeavours will succeed, the relationships that end mysteriously, and the partners that vanish without a trace. This is exactly what happens in Taiwanese author Wang Ting-Kuo’s English debut, My Enemy’s Cherry Tree (Granta Books, April 2019), translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun. First published in 2015, the novel has already won all major Taiwanese literary awards and is set to make a spectacular entrance into the English literary scene.

The novel is a first-person retrospective narrative by an unnamed protagonist who has set up a small cafe by the sea, waiting for his missing wife, Qiuzi, to return to this spot, her favourite along the coast. The initial premise is simple: Qiuzi, dissatisfied with the narrator’s absence, his financial lack, and his unintentional neglect of her, disappears one morning into the arms of Luo Yiming, a philanthropist and Qiuzi’s photography tutor. The unnamed protagonist’s narration is then triggered by Luo’s chancing upon the cafe, setting in motion an encounter that drives Luo mad. As the story unfolds, however, the truth of the matter becomes increasingly less certain, complicated also by the appearance of Miss Baixiu, Luo’s daughter, who haunts the cafe daily in an attempt to ‘heal’ the protagonist’s soul. READ MORE…