Essays

His Defiance: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Struggle for an Independent African Literature

These words cannot just exist in a vacuum; they provoke reactions that demand political change.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was born 5 January, 1938 in Limuru, Kenya and is a perennial favourite for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ngũgĩ is at the forefront of a war of resistance regarding the use of language that has spanned many decades. He advocates that African writers write in their mother tongues, because he understands how integral language is to a culture and its identity. Since African literature is mostly written in languages of the minority, the language of the colonizers, Ngũgĩ asserts that this choice stifles the imagination of Africans and their propensity to be creative.

Nearly fifty years ago, Ngũgĩ wrote his first novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), the first written in English by an Eastern African. Ngaahika Ndeenda (1977), translated as I Will Marry When I Want, was co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii. It is a play that depicts the injustices and excesses of post-colonial Kenya. It was acted by “non-intellectuals” in an open-air theater at the Kamirithu Educational and Cultural Center, Limuru. Ngũgĩ’s Gikuyu play sought to bring the theatre closer to the masses and encourage the audience to interact with the play. The play appealed to a wide audience and, because of the resultant reaction by people, the Kenyan government threw Ngũgĩ in prison for a year.

READ MORE…

Translating le multilinguisme

Translation is never a horizontal movement; there is always an uneven power dynamic between two languages.

Mektoub. Taleb. Mesquin. Cheb. Bezef. Each of these French words is also Arabic, albeit represented in French orthography. Through long proximity by colonization and immigration, Arabic influence has bled—at some moments more overtly than others—into the French language, and Azouz Begag’s 1986 autobiographical novel Le gone du Chaâba engages with this reality in each word choice and every line of dialogue.

The son of an Algerian migrant worker who settled permanently in France in 1949, not long before the brutal war for independence began, Begag employs a remarkable mixture of French, spoken Arabic, and Lyonnais slang to illustrate the linguistic realities of his community—something that poses problems for a translator who wants to retain its linguistic flavor without rendering the text totally opaque. Written in the eighties, the book and its projet linguistique is perhaps even more relevant at a time when so many Westerners think the Arabic phrase “Allahu akbar” is exclusively synonymous with terrorism.

READ MORE…

On Translating Indigenous Languages

The translator bears a particular kind of ethical responsibility towards the text, the poet, and poet’s community.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but in 2018 translating Indigenous literatures in the Américas from Indigenous languages and/or Spanish is a political act. Even prior to now, at dinner parties and other settings for droll conversation in the United States, people have often perked up when I mention that I study Mesoamerican languages and cultures. With an interest typically grounded in lost civilizations, ancient mysteries, and, occasionally, UFOs, they usually then follow up with an inquiry as to why, if I study dead languages, I didn’t opt to study Latin, ancient Greek, or Biblical Hebrew instead. When I assert that no, Maya languages such as Yucatec and Tsotsil are far from dead, many people refuse to believe it and are more than happy to contest the point.

READ MORE…

The 2018 Man Booker International Prize: And the Winner Is…

Flights won the Man Booker International because it is a beautiful book, truly “fiction at its finest.”

On May 22, Olga Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International Prize for her book Flights (which first appeared in English in our Winter 2016 issue), translated into English by Jennifer Croft for Fitzcarraldo Editions. Tokarczuk is already a household figure in her native Poland where Flights was first published in 2007. Two of her other novels have been translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, but it is only now with Flights that she is becoming a recognizable name for the English-speaking public. While the red Man Booker logo, signifying its triumph, will help it fly off the shelves in bookstores all over the United Kingdom, booksellers still face a tough challenge, for how do you summarize and sell a book like Flights?

Flights is categorized as a novel, although it eschews traditional plot and linear structure. At its most reductive, it can be described as a traveler’s diary through which an unnamed narrator contemplates and explores the roots of her nomadism. What follows is a compilation of fragments collected by the narrator throughout her journeys: short stories about home and travel, meditations on the human body, and even essays on sanitary pads, Wikipedia, and the English language. In the original Polish, the book is titled Bieguni, the name of a nomadic sect of Eastern European origin who believe the only way to escape the devil is by being in constant movement. And indeed, if the narrator of Flights has a life philosophy, it is this: “a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest.”

READ MORE…

Notes From A Camp: A Window into the Lives of Singapore’s “Boat People”

Our collective choices—however inconvenient at the time, or insignificant they may seem later—can mean the world to others in real, lasting terms.

It was during the summer of 2015, as I was doing research at the National Library in Singapore, that a small sheaf of papers fell—quite literally—into my lap. Covered in dense 1970s newsprint, I was about to place it back on the shelf when some handwritten Vietnamese at the top of a page caught my eye.

Trại tỵ nạn Hawkins: kiểu mẫu của sự hòa hợp, it read, accompanied by a translation: “The Hawkins Road Refugee Camp: A model of harmony.” I was intrigued. I had heard, of course, that “boat people” had arrived in Singapore after Vietnam’s reunification and subsequent invasion of Cambodia. I had heard, too, that most were turned away by the Singapore Navy after being provided with fuel and water, in a controversial exercise that came to be known as Operation Thunderstorm.

READ MORE…

Every Choice is a Renunciation: Some Remarks on Translating Ba Jin’s Jia

How is it possible to draw clear boundaries between revisions motivated by stylistic concern, rather than by ideological repositioning?

There is an old Italian adage about translation that goes like this: traduttore traditore—“the translator’s a traitor.” The two words make for an easy pun whose catchiness baits the translation pundit to subtler allusions: because tradurre and tradire share similar etymologies that are built around the prefix trans (across) and the Latin verbs ducere (to lead) and dare (to deliver), the translator as “one who brings something across” is indeed, to some figurative extent, a traitor. The adage cautions the reader against the invisible power that the translator exerts over the text, though it does so by relying on an image—that of translation as a sort of mechanical delivery—which, as most translators know well, simply does not hold up in practice.[1] Still, the image of translation as metaphorical betrayal retains a grain of truth, in that the practice of translation relies upon an interplay of allegiances—to the text, the language, the author, and the reader—that are necessarily fluid and require ongoing negotiation.

READ MORE…

The 2018 Man Booker International Shortlist: the Subjective Nature of Literary Merit

"Fiction at its finest”, as the Man Booker tagline describes its self-imposed mission.

“A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader,” Vladimir Nabokov reminds us in his article “Good Readers and Good Writers”. There are so many books in this world, and unless your life revolves solely around books, it might be hard to be widely read and an active re-reader. Attaining this level of perfection that Nabokov describes is impossible, but the idea of re-reading as a tool to better understanding the value of a book underpins the philosophy of the Man Booker Prize International’s judging panel since its inception.

READ MORE…

On Translators in Translation: Spanish Novels About Translators Available in English Translation

The increasing need to understand the importance of translation in our globalized world manifests in works of fiction that feature a translator.

In our globalized world, translation seems to be everywhere. In subtitles, instructions, signs, menus, in meetings, and walking down the street. And recently, in fiction too. The representation of the act of translation and the task of the translator has become a recurrent topic in literature. In English, novels such as Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear and Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper, both from 2016 and with translator protagonists, were very well received by readers as well as critics; and the latest anthology Crossing Borders, edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, brings together stories on translation and translators by acclaimed writers such as Joyce Carol Oates and Lydia Davis, among others. Translation was even at the center of the Academy Award nominee film Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”) in which Golden Globe nominee Amy Adams plays a translator tasked with communicating with heptapod aliens. The increasing need to understand the importance of translation in our globalized world has manifested in a recurrence with which works of fiction feature a translator or interpreter as the main character. In Spanish, too, there have been dozens of novels with translator protagonists written in the last few decades by both mainstream and cult authors, and by both translators who write and writers who translate. With this newly found interest in translation, more and more of these novels are being translated into English. Here are five novels on translators originally written in Spanish that are available to read in English translation.

READ MORE…

The Man Booker International 2018 Longlist: At the Boundaries of Fiction

"Non-European works included in the longlist come highly recommended by readers and critics alike."

The 2018 Oscars may be over, but the awards season for the literary world has barely begun, with the Man Booker International Prize receiving the most international attention. In the world of translated fiction, the Man Booker International holds a prestige similar to the Oscars, which explains the pomp and excitement surrounding the announcement of this year’s longlist, made public March 12. The longlist includes thirteen books from ten countries in eight languages, from Argentina to Taiwan.

The MBI used to be a career-prize akin to the Nobel, awarded to a non-British author for his or her entire body of work every two years. Since its merger with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize its format has changed. Now the Prize seeks to honor the author and translator of the best book (“in the opinion of the judges”) translated into English and published in the UK for the eligible period. For 2018, all eligible submission were novels or short story collections published between May 1, 2017 and April 30, 2018. Much like its sister prize (known simply as the Man Booker Prize), the winner of the MBI tends to garner much attention and sees a boom in book sales. Its history accounts for its prestige, but just as importantly, the MBI is one of the few prizes out there that splits the monetary value of its prize between the writer and translator.

Part of the MBI’s unofficial mission is to raise the profile of translated fiction and translators in the English-speaking world and provide a fair snapshot of world literature. What does this year’s longlist tell us about the MBI’s ability to achieve that goal? Progress has been made from past years, especially with regard to gender equality: six of the thirteen nominated authors and seven of the fifteen translators are women. Unfortunately, issues arise when taking into account the linguistic and regional diversity of the prize not only this year, but with previous lists as well. For 2018, only four of the thirteen books come from non-European authors, with no titles from North and Central America or Africa. This is an issue that plagued the IFFP before it merged with the MBI and marks even the Nobel Prize for literature, as detailed by Sam Carter in his essay “The Nobel’s Faulty Compass.”

READ MORE…

On Surtitles and Simultaneities: Reflections on the German Theatre Scene

No longer before, behind, or above the original, with surtitles, the translation is now parallel or simultaneous to it.

Lars Eidinger, playing Richard III, huskily whispers some German lines of Shakespeare into an amplifier, furtively glances up to the English surtitles, and spins round to berate a coughing audience member in French. This is theatre in a truly globalised arts scene. But the multilingual nature of many recent productions not only reflects the realities of our contemporary social conditions. It raises fundamental questions about the nature and role of the linguistic mediation of culture today.

READ MORE…

Coals to Newcastle: A (biased?) Slovak overview of a century in American literature

The ambition of the “American” issue of RSL was to resist preconceptions and cross boundaries.

Small cultures import disproportionately more texts—both translated and original—than they export. However, literatures using a language with a limited number of speakers are not just markets for globalised goods. Translations quite naturally also help them develop and sometimes even exist, as cases of small languages that ceased to be the target languages for translations show. Revue svetovej literatúry (Review of world literature) is a Slovak magazine founded in the “golden” 1960s that brought an abundance of new impulses to Slovak literature from all over the world for the past fifty years. Late last year, writer and translator (and Asymptote past contributor) Peter Macsovszky and literature and translation scholar Ivana Hostová edited and co-translated (with the help of a team of translators) an issue of the magazine with a focus on contemporary and twentieth-century Anglophone literature from the US.

In her Buying into English (2008), Catherine Prendergast analyses the semantics and economics linked to the ability of speakers of a minor language—in this case Slovak—to use the language of global communication. She compares the perceived value of English in Slovakia immediately after the fall of state socialism and then in almost two decades in the post-communist Slovakia. The strict restriction of the flow of information between socialist Czechoslovakia and the Western world gave rise to an idealised notion of the Anglophone (and, more specifically, American and capitalist) world. It came to signify freedom and prosperity and was—in the minds of many Slovaks—expected to embrace and accept with curiosity and eagerness the cultures and peoples freed from the socialist regime. Prendergast suggests that the notion was only abandoned after it slowly became clear that “the lingua franca is language-as-battlefield; it is the terrain upon which players in the global information economy grapple for property, respectability, and political voice.” Now it has become obvious that it takes more than pureness of heart and an admiration for the American culture and way of life to extract any interest from what Michael Cronin in his Eco-Translation (2017) has called the crowded Anglophone attentionscape.

The proportion of imported versus exported goods including cultural products can be very well illustrated by the amount of translations produced in the Anglophone countries as opposed to cultural spaces[i] like Slovakia. Therefore, wanting to import even more texts from the dominant to small culture might seem like carrying coals to Newcastle. However, if we try to differentiate between a piece of writing as a commodity that primarily generates economic profit and institutional legitimation and look at the autonomous sections of the literary field—at those works that were not created to make the author famous or rich, but which came into being in order to exist for themselves and in their own right—it may come as a surprise that not much American writing can really be found in Slovak translation. In this context, an issue of a Slovak literary magazine bringing translations of Anglophone writing from the United States seems redundant only at first glance. Most of the literature written in the US that gets translated into Slovak nowadays can best be described as a commodity—currently, the best-selling book in the biggest Slovak bookshops is the translation of Dan Brown’s Origin (2017)—it is the kind of writing that, although undeniably culturally domineering and shaping the receiving context, does not inspire in the sense of creating resistance to the existing (cultural) preconceptions or fluent strategies of reading.

READ MORE…

(M)other Tongue: Sign Language in Translation

"I can only access conversation that is intended for me to access—and so all spoken conversation that I pick up is meaningful."

When I began to progressively lose my hearing at three years old, my mother fought for me to have access to both British Sign Language classes and speech therapy sessions, offering me a dual-language gateway. Through travel and education opportunities, I know phrases, sentences and expressions in other languages—both signed and spoken. But it is in English and BSL that I primarily express myself, code-switching when appropriate and, at times, combining the two together to speak SSE (Sign-supported English). This is sign language that follows English grammatical structure, as opposed to BSL structure. For those new to BSL, it can come as a surprise to discover that it is its own language, complete with its own rules, format and words—or rather signs—that have no direct equivalent in English.

And so, on a day-to-day basis, I communicate using my hands (signing), voice (speaking), and eyes (lip-reading), as a giver and a receiver. I enjoy the literal sound certain words make as they hold space in the air. Simultaneously, and without contradiction, I love the shape of language created by fingers, expressions and the body. People also underestimate the use of the whole body in sign language – though it is primarily through the hands that words are expressed; meaning, content and colour is amplified through other parts of the body, in particular, the face.

READ MORE…

An Inconvenient Newspaper: Robert Cox and the Buenos Aires Herald

"I know what a country without journalism means, and it’s the most terrible thing you can think of.”

“An Inconvenient Newspaper” is an essay about the recent closure of the Buenos Aires Herald, a paper that wrote against the Argentine military dictatorship, in English, in the 1970s and 1980s. The Buenos Aires Herald closed in July, just as an Argentine indigenous rights activist disappeared. The full profile of Robert Cox, the director of the Herald, was published in a Portuguese translation in issue no. 133 of the Brazilian magazine Piauí, released in October 2017. This English translation is an abridged version of the original Spanish article by Josefina Licitra.

“Any news?” That’s how Robert Cox greets me. He says “hello” and “nice to meet you” with an affectionate kiss on the cheek. But in the following sentence he always probes for the unexpected, for the possibility of news. It’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday and Cox looks like he just woke up. His eyes are still sleepy and his white hair finger-combed.

“Not that I know of,” I reply.

Cox makes coffee in the kitchen and brings it to the living room: a pleasant space scattered with paintings, family photos, and other decorations. He lives with his wife, Maud Daverio, in Charleston—in the United States—but also keeps this old, elegant Buenos Aires apartment, which he visits every year. This is where he lived after getting married, in 1961. This is where his five children were born. This is where he lived when the Buenos Aires Herald, the English-language newspaper that he directed from 1968 to 1979—one of a kind in Latin America—became the Argentinian publication that spoke out about human rights violations during the last military dictatorship, at a time when no other media institution would. And this is the place that he had to leave when a series of threats—also directed against his wife and one of his children—forced his family into exile.

Cox looks through the voile curtains. Outside the window is a narrow street lined with the pompous buildings of the Recoleta neighborhood, one of the most European areas of Buenos Aires. “I don’t know what happened with Santiago Maldonado…” he says, and clicks his tongue with an audible tsk. “Still no news? Weird.”

Santiago Maldonado is—was?—an artisan who supported the struggle of radical indigenous groups that reclaim land in Patagonia. This past August 1st, after a protest that stopped traffic, he disappeared in the middle of a confrontation with the Gendarmería—border officers. Some say that the police arrested him and accidentally killed him through the use of excessive force. Others say that there is no evidence to show that the government was at fault—and to this day there still isn’t—but they also can’t come up with a different explanation for his disappearance. Since then, demands to find Maldonado alive—or to find him at all—have deepened the divisions between Argentina’s governing party and its opposition. While the government refers to Maldonado as an “artisan,” kirchneristas and left-wing parties call him a desaparecido—one of the “disappeared.”

That term, in Argentina, dredges up the history in which Robert Cox was involved.

READ MORE…

Courage and Turmoil: the Story behind Nuevo Signo

This essay traces the history of one of the first and most important literary groups in Guatemala.

2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of Nuevo Signo, arguably the most influential literary group in Guatemala. Formed during a time when the country was ridden by war, writers didn’t have access to publishing houses and artists and political dissidents were targeted continuously to the point that many sought refuge in neighboring countries. The work done by the members of Nuevo Signo was nothing short of monumental.

In three years the group funded, edited, and published over ten books of poetry, including a “greatest hits” entitled Las Plumas de la Serpiente (The Serpent’s Feathers) that stirred the local art scene. The group disbanded in 1970, after the disappearance of one of its members, poet Roberto Obregón. Roberto is just one of the many writers disappeared during the internal war (1960—1996). Except for Obregón, Antonio Brañas—who died in 1988—and José Villatoro, all of the other members went on to receive the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature for their life’s work.

Last year, Luis Méndez Salinas and Carmen Lucía Alvarado from Catafixia Editorial rereleased Las Plumas de la Serpiente. With a cover designed by Odiseo del Silencio, this new edition of Las Plumas captures the intensity, sensitivity, poetic beauty, commitment, and ferocity of its authors. For this piece, the author spoke with former Nuevo Signo’s editor, Francisco Morales Santos and Luis and Carmen from Catafixia Editorial.

READ MORE…