Essays

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…

Blocages and Barricades: Les Misérables and French Dissatisfaction

Revolution by revolution, France inches forward in search of its ideal of a just society, and every revolution thinks it will be the last.

France’s revolutionary past and future come together in Claire Jacobson’s reflections on the gilets jaunes movement and its connections to Victor Hugo’s famous revolutionaries in Les Misérables. Read on for Kylian Mbappé, Édouard Louis, and Emmanuel Macron. Vive la Révolution!

Marius and Enjolras didn’t wear yellow vests to the barricade on rue de la Chanvrerie, at least not as Victor Hugo tells it. But after watching a group of gilets jaunes attack three police officers on the Champs-Élysées on BFMTV the weekend before Christmas, the comparison suddenly didn’t seem so far-fetched.

I was in Paris with friends to see the PSG-Nantes game that evening, enjoying Turkish kebab in Boulogne-Billancourt and then cheerfully singing “joyeux anniversaire” to World Cup hero Kylian Mbappé with a stadium full of his adoring fans, and we didn’t hear the news from the Champs-Élysées until the next morning. It seemed inconceivable that such a thing could be happening scarcely five kilometers away while we chanted “ici c’est Paris!” and picked apart Paris Saint-Germain’s defensive strategy from the nosebleeds. Inconceivable, and yet it made a strange kind of sense; what the gilets jaunes lost in numbers each week, they seemed to make up in desperation and increasing anger worthy of the most vehement nineteenth-century revolutionaries.

I was thirteen when I first heard Les Misérables all the way through, listening to my parents’ Original Broadway Cast Album cassette tape in the car over and over as we moved from Seattle to Iowa City. We saw the touring cast perform in Madison a few years later, and went to see the movie as a family when it came out on Christmas. So when I picked up the book at the end of November, I read with the gilets jaunes watching over my shoulder and the musical whispering in my ear.

Knowing the musical backwards and forwards has actually helped me while reading, keeping the greater narrative arc in view despite frequent digressions analyzing corrupt church leadership, all of the potential reasons Napoleon lost at Waterloo, or the value of monasticism to society. The unabridged French edition is 1,254 pages, which I read alongside the Fahnestock and MacAfee translation, an update of Charles Wilbour’s 1862 original. READ MORE…

“US” Poets Foreign Poets: A Computationally Assembled Anthology

Identities are analysed. Close neighbours may not be connected. Distant poems may be connected by one edge or less.

Computational poetry is possibly one of the most exciting literary developments of our technology-reliant age. Using algorithms and machines, digital poetry is a product of our modern world, its history stretching only as far back as the mid-20th century. In this essay, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO, tells us about an even more radical anthology. “US” Poets Foreign Poets brings together the world of digital poetry with more traditional, page-based poetry, finding connections between wildly different poems, expressed in graphs as well as two languages (English and Romanian). Joining MARGENTO are three contributors to the anthology, as well as the anthology’s publisher, who reflect on the publication and the implications it has for translating, and for making digital and page-based poetry comprehensible and connectable to each other.

What is digital poetry? Simply put, it is poetry that fundamentally relies on digital media for its ‘composition’ and ‘publication.’ What do we mean by ‘fundamentally’? This refers to the fact that the (sub)genre would not be possible, would not exist if it were not for the digital. ‘Traditional’ poetry, also known as ‘page [or page-based] poetry’ could still be written (even if virtually nobody does that anymore) by ‘putting pen to paper,’ whereas digital poetry would simply not be around without digital technology.

But things—and distinctions—are not really as simple as they may seem, and (as is often the case with definitions), when looking closely these definitions actually branch out into both elemental and complex ‘undefineds’ or undefinables. The many questions above are only a crude testimony to all that (and it can only get worse, as you’ll see in a second). What does, for instance, ‘composition’ in our tentative definition above stand for? In digital technology, it has more to do with algorithms and machinic procedures than the imaginative and ‘original,’ or deeply ‘personal,’ human use of language. It is about manipulating a (mathematical and operational) language behind the ‘natural’ language that is thus artificially (re)generated.

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Behind the Scenes with Barbara Halla

There is happiness in sharing the struggles and successes of translation with a community of readers.

Enjoying our latest issue? You can be a part of the next one if you apply to our recruitment drive. (Just bear in mind that the application deadline is just two days away!) Some of you may wonder what drives us to do what we do, so today, in a special post, we are sharing a testimonial by Editor-at-large Barbara Halla, who tells us why she decided to take the leap and send us her application in September 2017.

121A few months ago, I was discussing a pitch for an essay with one of the blog editors at Asymptote. The idea was to explore the way Albania—almost thirty years after the fall of Communism—is trying to preserve the memory of life under the dictatorial regime through interactive museums and privately-owned hipster cafés. The issue at hand is this: to understand how we might be able to translate memory into a physical space, and in doing so preserve the past. I had began listing all the resources I was going to use—historical books on the nature of memory, space, and the ever-present danger of glorifying dictatorships.

In fact, I had barely hit “Send” for my latest email on the topic when I received in my inbox our Fortnightly Airmail. Included in the “In Transit” section for this issue was a recommendation for Karl Schögel’s In Space We Read Time translated by Gerrit Jackson, a book on the materiality of space. I keep thinking now that even if I had done extensive research for weeks I might have never stumbled on this book that may as well have been tailor-made to help solve the issue I was wrestling with.

This is not the first time that working for Asymptote has serendipitously led me to sources and people who could help me better understand and serve in my role as an editor. Often, I will write about something for the blog and be contacted by another editor who is working on a similar topic, or knows about a book or article I might be interested in. Our community of editors and translators feels at times like a physical extension of my own mind.

All these advantages are the lucky by-product of my joining Asymptote back in October. What led me here was another experience all-together. The final impetus for my decision to apply was a visit in June 2017 to Daunt Books, a landmark bookstore in London known for its collection of titles from all over the world. At Daunt, despite said extensive collection, I could find no books about Albania or by Albanian writers. There is a good reason for that: beyond Kadare and some sporadic voices here and there, few Albanian writers are actually translated into English.

Working as an Editor-at-Large for Albania, I am slowly making my way through a list of voices I hope to feature in future issues, to bridge this gap. This has led me to venture into the world of literary translation myself. Through translation, I am re-discovering, after years of living through and studying in other languages, the beauty and singularity of my own native tongue. It is frightening to realize the struggles and limitations that underpin the work of a translator. I often find it very frustrating, how incredibly difficult it is to properly transmit into English the history that lends colour to our words and phrases. But there is happiness there, too, in sharing the struggles and successes of translation with a community of readers. It is their interest, their support, that ultimately makes the work worthwhile.

If you’re inspired to join our team after reading Barbara’s essay, check out some newly available openings (including Editor-at-Large) at our Recruitment page here. We look forward to receiving your application!

Behind the Scenes with Emma Page

At Asymptote, you don’t need to live in New York or London to work at a world-class literary publication.

Did you hear? We recently released our first recruitment drive of the year, advertising many newly available openings (from poetry editor to social media manager), offering readers a chance to get involved behind the scenes as Asymptote enters its ninth year of curating the best in world literature. Some of you who might be curious about this opportunity (bear in mind that the application deadline is less than 10 days away!) may wonder what it’s like to work for a dynamic literary journal such as ours, so today, in a weekend special, we are sharing a testimonial by Communications Manager Emma Page, who tells us why she chose to become a part of our global movement.

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After completing my MA in Translation at Lancaster University in the UK this past October, I spent quite a bit of time figuring out what to do with myself. I considered looking for a position in publishing, but opportunities appeared few and far between. I eventually landed on freelance business translation, which I love, but the work didn’t quench my thirst for the arts. At a loss and living on the isolated Isle of Man, I started looking for remote opportunities at literary journals and websites.

I had been reading Asymptote since it was a brand-new venture and I was a high schooler just discovering the world of literary translation, but I had never considered working for them. As freelancers and artists in the social-media era, we are often told by our elders to be suspicious of “opportunities” to trade our work for “experience” or “exposure.” It’s a catch-22: If you can’t afford to work for free, you can’t gain the experience to qualify for the rare, extremely competitive paid gigs. I believe this is a real problem in the arts world, and that it directly contributes to the marginalization of non-wealthy voices. READ MORE…

Under the Microscope: Theatre in Translation

Translated theatre can be transformative, while putting both source and target cultures under the microscope.

As a theatre translator and researcher working in London, the work that I create is motivated by a desire to enable British audiences to engage with a particular voice, author, theme, perspective, or situation from another country and culture. I seek to facilitate this in multiple ways through academic scholarship, through study in the classroom, and through rehearsal and performance. My translation decisions are informed by a process of in-depth analysis in which I ask the following questions: how might a text resonate in a local context, for example, in Britain today? What are the links between source and target culture that enable a play to become mobile? How can dialogue begin on stage and then extend into the audience, sparking new conversations, in a new context?

In 2017 I completed the translation of two plays; Ready or Not (Punto y Coma) by Uruguayan dramatist, Estela Golovchenko, and Summer in December (Verano en diciembre) by Spanish dramatist, Carolina Africa Martín. In Ready or Not, a young girl is separated from both of her parents during the period of intense military repression (1973-1985) in Uruguay and then later reunited with her father, who is a political activist turned Senator. They clash over their political views, their ways of remembering the past, and their roles in the present. In Summer in December, a family of six women is faced with seemingly small everyday dilemmas of worrying about what their neighbours might think about them, whether the food in the fridge has passed its sell-by date, and the latest diet fad. However, the play goes on to address much more significant concerns about new and old relationships, unplanned pregnancies, and what should happen to an ageing relative with dementia.

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Narrating (The Other 9/)11: The Poetics of Carlos Soto Román

11 tells the story of Chile's Pinochet dictatorship through radical experimentation and calculated erasure.

September 11, for many around the world today, is a date that is filled with images of the horrifying attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. However, in the shadow of that attack is another September 11, one that took place nearly thirty years before the tragedy in America. The murder of Chilean President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, marks the establishment of a brutal dictatorship in Chile. It is this date, as well as the latter September 11, that Carlos Soto Román contends with in his book 11. Erasure, algorithmic manipulation, and blank spaces take center stage in this evocative text, as Asymptote‘s Scott Weintraub discovers.

In his book-object 11—the winner of the 2018 Santiago Municipal Poetry Prize—Soto Román develops a material(ist) poetics steeped in absence, nothingness, the palimpsest, censorship, and the erased or altered quotation. He elaborates a profound politics of conceptualism in which no word or line is, strictly speaking, “by” the author himself. Soto Román’s writing, therefore, draws him near to certain North American poets associated with conceptualism in one way or another, such as Kenneth Goldsmith or Vanessa Place; his deep engagement with the ludic and the via negativa, however, allows one to associate him with the visual experiments of Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948), the carefully cultivated disappearance of the author practiced by Juan Luis Martínez (1942-1993), and the deconstruction of institutionalized discourses employed by Rodrigo Lira (1949-1981).

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#ReadWomen: A Focus for 2019—And Beyond

What was activism and new awareness has become habit and daily practice.

It’s been five years since I wrote for the Asymptote blog about my resolution to read only books by women for a year, and nearly five years since British author Joanna Walsh created the #readwomen2014 hashtag on Twitter. Around the same time, Walsh also started the @read_women Twitter account, which gained more than 25,000 followers. The account, which Walsh maintained with the help of several other people, was retired on June 16, 2018, after four and a half years online.

Walsh’s efforts sparked a worldwide movement among readers, activists, bookstores, and publishers that gained worldwide press coverage. The tag evolved to #readwomen as people continued to share the names of underappreciated writers and discuss ways to balance the literary scales that have been tipped for centuries against women. As novelist Alexander Chee wrote in an October 2014 essay for The New York Times Book Review, “Walsh’s hashtag became a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers,” and the movement’s aim of calling out gender bias in publishing and the general public’s reading habits was, as he saw it, “for everyone.”

Near the five-year anniversary of the #readwomen movement, I wanted to look for signs of potential progress for literary fiction by women. What’s changed since 2013? Have conditions improved for literature created by women and those who identify as women or non-binary? What follows is a very brief, scattershot survey of notable points around these questions, a sketch of a small corner of the global picture from my limited perspective. READ MORE…