Essays

Traversing the Forbidden: A Journey Through Prohibited Literatures

Banned literature offers us the opportunity to gain valuable insight, no matter how controversial.

For literature lovers, it is no secret that a great deal of our favorite titles have been—or still are—banned from the public. In this following essay by Anna Wang, Graphic Designer at Asymptote, she takes us around the multifarious and wide-ranging cartography of vital, yet blacklisted, titles from around the globe, from a novella that metaphorically depicts the persecuted Uyghurs of China, to an infamous work of revolutionary author Boris Pasternak. In realizing the context and culture in which these pertinent titles arose, we may in turn acknowledge both the price, and the power, of the truth.

In a speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled “The American Scholar,” Emerson gave both praise and warning to the power of literature, stating: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” Emerson was right. Books have the ability to persuade, influence, and inspire—an ability which many have found threatening. Time and time again, figures of authority have attempted to reign in or block out literature that challenges their agenda. In celebration of banned literature in the history of world literature, let’s take a look at some of the most impactful banned texts throughout time, why they were banned, and what we can learn from them. 

Wild Pigeon, by Nurmuhemmet Yasin 

Wild Pigeon is a novella originally published in Uyghur between the pages of the 2004 Kashgar Literature Magazine. Written by a young freelance writer, Nurmuhemmet Yasin, it quickly gained widespread acclaim among the Uyghur people in China. The work, written in Uyghur, is a political allegory that tells the story of a young pigeon who is the son of a dead king. While he is looking for a new home, he is trapped by a group of humans. His struggle for freedom and his eventual shocking decision has been interpreted by many as a criticism of the Chinese government for its treatment of its Uyghur population. 

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How Should We Review Translations? Part III

Reviewing poetry in translation means writing about the power of art. It means writing about something the market doesn’t want us to write about.

In this third and final installment, we hear from Johannes Göransson and Katherine Hedeen, both of whom direct our attention to what we should consider when engaging with poetry in translation.  Göransson details the idea of a deformation zone that disorients our conventional understanding of the relationship between the original and the translation. Calling on us to care about poetry in translation precisely because the market does not care about it, Hedeen envisions the practice of reviewing these translations as an act of subversion and as a gesture of solidarity. Be sure to check out parts I and II if you missed them. And if you’re interested in reading even more, at the end of today’s installment, Criticism Editor Ellen Jones has offered a list of other contributions to this ongoing and important conversation on what it means to review translations. 

 

Deformationszon

Viltstängslet har upphört
fladdermusar fittar sig
kring krubbet
Vårt pösmunkfetto slaggar
I sin goda roa,
som stötdämpad
av svallningar
I knubbet

— Aase Berg 

Deformation Zone

The wilderness fence has ceased
flutterbats cunt
around the grub
Our doughnutfatso slops
in peace and quiet,
as if shockmuffled
by ripples
in the plump.

— Translated by Johannes Göransson

 

1.

Anybody who is willing to engage deeply with a foreign text in translation can write a review of such a work. And it’s important that you do. You don’t need specialist knowledge of the foreign culture, nor do you need to be able to read the original. All you need to do is to open yourself up to poetry—even poetry that may come out of traditions different from those you are used to.  READ MORE…

How Should We Review Translations? Part II

Above all, the translated poem allows us into its world—which exists somewhere between a language we don’t know and a language that we do.

In this second installment of our forum on reviewing translations, Lauren Albin and Sue Hyon Bae, two of the translators of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, reflect on their engagements with both the poet’s work and the culture in which it was produced. They highlight the dangers of adopting the role of an interrogator and emphasize the need for good faith in any encounter with a translated work. Today we also feature a contribution from Matt Reeck, who takes the opportunity to reflect on the ways that reviews might take into account contexts of reception and underscores how the idea of world literature can restrict our ability to understand local specificity as it attempts to develop a global framework. If you missed the first installment of this forum, be sure to check it out here, and stay tuned for tomorrow’s contributions from Katherine Hedeen and Johannes Göransson.

I want to point out this sentence in Matt Reeck’s review of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, which becomes the foregrounding reason for his question of whether Korean poetry should be made more Korean in translation: “Kim’s poems are not confessional (which might make them indicative of the writer’s life and culture), nor are they written in a style that’s reflective of a social reality.” The reviewer’s desire for the poet’s confession quickly brings to mind one of the seminal poems of Kim’s collection—“Cultural Revolution in My Dream”—where Ms. Photon, a symbol of the bright light used by an interrogator to extract confessions, uploads a confessional software to the poet’s body. What I mean to say in drawing this comparison is that, Reeck got it wrong. Kim’s poems are confessional, but perhaps, they are not the confession that the reviewer wishes to hear—a situation that recalls Ms. Photon, who keeps on interrogating the poet even after there are no real crimes left but only a continuously generated confession. Therefore, the reviewer rejects Kim’s poems and along with them he rejects Kim’s social reality and Kim’s Korea, asking for translations that are more Korean than the originals and pressing for a false confession. 

Moving away from Reeck’s review, when the reviewer of translated work plays at interrogator, the perspective of the translated poet is immediately endangered. The interrogator is a figure employed by repressive regimes to reconstruct narratives, to revise the truth, to rewrite what actually happened, and to reconstruct history. Interrogators often already know what story they wish to tell and work to illuminate only that reality. An interrogator is also someone who has inherent power over another. While Ms. Photon extracts false confessions, the sun, in Kim’s “Lady Yuhwa,” “streaming like a searchlight / pursues and violates the woman” of the poem. A reviewer who steps into the role of interrogator assumes power over the poem and violates it intentionally or unintentionally by forcing it to conform to their own ideas about what it should be; silencing the poem, instead of allowing the work to speak in its own language of idea, even when that language seems to push at the boundaries of our minds.  READ MORE…

How Should We Review Translations? Part I

A review is seriously lacking if it ignores a book’s translated nature.

Today marks the start of our forum on the question of how we should review translations. Along with a general introduction by Criticism Editor Ellen Jones, this first installment contains contributions from Bilal Hashmi and Sophie Lewis. Drawing our attention to what something as simple as a question mark might signal, Hashmi alerts us to the importance of openness when engaging with translated texts, and Lewis helps us envision what the potential participants and platforms in a healthy reviewing ecology would look like. You’ll find more reflections, recommendations, and reconsiderations here on Wednesday and Thursday.

In July of this year Asymptote published a review of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, translated from the Korean by Jiwon Shin, Lauren Albin, and Sue Hyon Bae, with contributions from Rebecca Teague, Dakota Hale, Kevin Salter, Sierra Hamel, and Nicole Lindell (Action Books, 2019). The review, written by translator Matt Reeck, sparked some heated discussion on Twitter on account of the questions it asked about the poems’ “Koreanness” and the visibility of that “Koreanness” in translation. A conversation began about the need for more reviewers of colour, and about the usefulness of concepts like “world literature” and “national literatures” in reviews of this kind. A factual mistake was pointed out and subsequently corrected, but it remained clear that some disapproved of the review’s tone and perspective. In writing about Kim’s poetry, Reeck attempts to interrogate his own position as a US-based reader and all the assumptions he therefore brings to a work translated from Korean; nevertheless, the review was seen to perpetuate and privilege those narrow assumptions.

A couple of months down the line, we want to make sure that those who criticised Reeck’s review know that they have been heard, and that as a result of those conversations, Asymptote has a renewed commitment to considering the political and ethical implications of the articles it publishes. As part of that commitment, we want to provide a more formal space to continue discussing the important questions raised in responses to the review. We have therefore invited a series of writers to contribute to a forum on reviewing translations, including Reeck himself, two of Kim Hyesoon’s translators (Sue Hyon Bae and Lauren Albin), two editors at Action Books (Katherine Hedeen and Johannes Göransson), and others who have elsewhere written incisively on this very topic (Sophie Lewis and Bilal Hashmi). These contributions will be featured here on the blog over the coming days as part of the journal’s ongoing dedication not just to the exchange of literature through translation but also to the circulation of ideas about translation.

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Giorgio de Chirico, The Poet

With a word, de Chirico made languages collide . . . In translation, I have tried to honor these textures, to stay hovering just a bit between.

Ut pictura poesis. The language of painters has long been a source of inspiration for poets, and a sense of poetics has equally been an irreplaceable element in painting. In this evocative, sensual essay on the iconic painter and poet Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), Stefania Heim illustrates the various intersections between literature and visuality, between translation into text and translation into images, and between life and the page. This piece has been adapted from the original introduction of Geometry of Shadows, the first comprehensive and bilingual collection of de Chirico’s Italian poetry and translated into English by Heim, which will be published by A Public Space Books in October 2019.

Sun-scorched piazza, marble torso, rubber glove, arched arcade tossing shadows, smoke puffing from a background train: the landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico’s imagination have become iconic. It is a kind of magic to imprint the scenes created by your yearning onto the malleable backdrop of so many minds.

The uncanny emotive power of de Chirico’s visual compositions has gotten him called a poet, even a great poet. “He could condense voluminous feeling through metaphor and association,” writes art critic Robert Hughes about the painter’s canvases, marveling that, “[o]ne can try to dissect these magical nodes of experience, yet not find what makes them cohere.” Metaphor, juxtaposition, unsettling connections, meaning evoked in the missing connective tissue between somehow familiar objects—these are a poet’s tools. De Chirico cultivated this association. He addresses the two “goddesses:” “true Poetry” and “true Painting.” With allusion, symbols, and mythmaking, he connects his work to the great striving of the ages. READ MORE…

Celestial Troubles: Love and Transition in Oman

In Celestial Bodies, Alharthi takes us on a bewildering journey that is both specific to Oman and relatable in its experiences.

Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies was awarded the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year, making her the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prize. She was also the first Omani author ever to have her novel translated from Arabic into English. In the following essay, writer and anthropologist MK Harb examines how Oman’s overlooked history as an imperial dynasty, and its rapidly changing society are integral to the force of Alharthi’s novel.

The internal monologue of Abdallah is unnerving, and often unsettling. Lost between trauma and nostalgia, he repeatedly reflects on his fractured relationship with his father, a notorious merchant and slave owner. Situated in the balmy village of al-Awafi, Abdallah is one of the many members of an Omani family encountering the upheavals and changes of modernity brought on by the state. To some, Oman is an obscure country with an eccentric Sultan, whilst to others, its green pastures and monsoons represent a luscious geographic rarity in the Arabian Peninsula. Unknown to many is Oman’s long and complex history as an imperial dynasty. Oman’s history is as much African as it is Arab; with Zanzibar as its capital, the Sultanate ruled in East Africa from 1698 until the bloody revolution of 1963. Oman’s rule in East Africa represents a history of vernacular and mercantile economic systems that existed prior to the arrival of modern capitalism, but it also represents a racial history of manumission and slavery. Jokha Alharthi’s award-winning novel, Celestial Bodies, tells this history, unravelling the ghosts of an empire, and the precariousness of modernity in Omani society. READ MORE…

Poetic Solidarity Across the Himalayan Divide in Burning the Sun’s Braids

The Chinese state . . . is unable to extinguish the fire of protest among Tibetans in exile and Tibet.

For the poets who bear witness, language has been both weapon and shield, but perhaps most importantly, it has always a chance to reach both inward and outward, so that the defiant strength against cruelty may arrive from any direction. The Tibetan poems collected by Bhuchung Dumra Sonam in Burning the Sun’s Braids is a testament to this endless realm of perseverance. In the following essay, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Tibet, Shelly Bhoil, writes about the urgent and moving works in this formidable collection of resistance and courage.

Bhuchung, which means “a little boy” in Tibetan, was ten or eleven years old when he was smuggled out of Tibet for a better life as a refugee in India. During his escape with a group of familiar strangers in the winter of 1983, this little boy, for no particular reason, held on to the visions of black boots from his fantasies, but had no idea that he would never get to see his parents again. Years later, in a moment of existential rage, he tore apart a notebook of poems he had penned during his college years. Lines from one of the earliest poems he recalls having written are telling:

Like a stray dog I cling
to the dry worldly bone . . .
In a blossoming garden of hatred
this little boy
drowns in tears of sorrow . . .

From the torn pages of this notebook were to emerge Bhuchung Dumra Sonam as a prolific poet, essayist, publisher, and translator.

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Long Forgotten Stories of Translation: Part Two

Those long-dead translators and scholars deserve to be celebrated for what they were, giants on whose shoulders we sometimes still need to climb...

In the second part of this previous post, Brother Anthony of Taizé continues to celebrate the forgotten thinkers of the early Arab world. Although Renaissance Europe turned its back on Arabic writing, two of Spain’s greatest thinkers, Averroes and Maimonides, had produced invaluable commentaries and philosophies based on the works of Aristotle, whilst Toledo became a literary epicenter for re-translations from Arabic into Latin and Spanish. Read on to find out more.

The golden age of Córdoba did not last long. In 997, the military leader Almanzor captured Santiago and soon became the effective ruler of southern Spain. He ordered the destruction of books related to philosophy and astronomy, which he considered contrary to Islam, leaving only those about medicine and mathematics. After his death in 1002, bands of marauding North African Berbers sacked Córdoba, sparking an exodus of Jews, in particular, to other cities. Later in the century, in 1085, the Christian kingdom of Castile captured the great city of Toledo. The Muslim leaders were forced to turn to the Almoravid dynasty in North Africa for help, likewise composed of fierce Berber warriors. In 1089, the Almoravids took complete control of Islamic Spain. Less than a century later, they were replaced by an even fiercer and more fanatical North African dynasty, the Almohads, who were especially intolerant of Jews and Christians. READ MORE…

Long Forgotten Stories of Translation: Part One

Anti-Islamic attitudes are not a modern phenomenon and the campaign to erase the Islamic contribution to modern thought began long ago.

Today, early Arabic thinkers are largely overlooked in discussions of the origins of Western philosophy. In this essay (the second part of which will be published tomorrow), Brother Anthony of Taizé brings the focus back to this period of prolific scholarship and translation, and remembers the most influential philosophers and Greek-Arabic translators of the Medieval Islamic world.

In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “La busca de Averroes” (1947), we find Averroes (ibn Rushd, 1126-1198), the great Spanish Arabic commentator of Aristotle, at a loss to understand the words “comedy” and “tragedy” he has found in Aristotle’s Poetics, because his own culture has no tradition of theatrical drama. He is given hints by the sight of children playing at being the muezzin in a mosque, as well as by an account of a theatrical performance in China given by a returning traveler, but he can make nothing of them. Borges then intervenes to make this a parable illustrating the impossibility of ever understanding anyone who lives in a radically different time and culture. In reading this story, we are confronted with our own (and Borges’s) inability to write and read the actual words for “tragedy” and “comedy” which Averroes was struggling with. Today’s widespread Western inability to read Arabic, Greek, or even Latin, should be a source of shame, although it doesn’t seem to be. Many of Borges’s readers might already be at a loss to imagine an Arab struggling to understand Aristotle, so unfamiliar the intellectual history of the Muslim world has become. READ MORE…

Postcolonial Philosophy in Idlir Azizi’s Novel Terxhuman

Building Terxhuman on postcolonial thinking, hitherto absent in Albanian literature, Idlir Azizi has created a new literary genre.

By rebelling against his country’s dominant Euro-centric discourse and disobeying the fundamental rules of Albanian grammar, writer Idlir Azizi has created a new kind of Albanian literature. In today’s essay, researcher Adem Ferizaj analyzes Azizi’s Terxhuman and helps us understand the implications it might have for Albanian-language literature and Albania as a whole.

The pyramid crisis in Albania and the Kosovo Liberation War are the only two Albanian incidents that simultaneously made headlines in The New York Times, Le Monde, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in the 1990s. Since Western journalists’ interest in the Albanian lands depends on political turmoil in the Balkans that could ruin European “geopolitical stability,” this comes as no surprise. When Western editorial offices are urgently in need of articles about this region, the local who organizes meetings, provides information on the addressed issue, and translates interviews becomes indispensable for them.

In Albania, this local is often referred to as a “fixer,” although the word terxhuman (which shares a root with the English “dragoman”) is used as well. The latter is also the title of Idlir Azizi’s 2010 novel, which takes this profession as a starting point to address Western arrogance towards Albanians and to provide an unprecedented analysis of Albanian society. In a very original way, Azizi deconstructs the mainstream Albanian discourses that are based on Eurocentric concepts, or, to put it differently, on Western arrogance towards Albanians. In this way, Terxhuman (which has yet to be translated into English) interprets Albanian reality in an alternative and postcolonial way. Such an analysis did not previously exist in contemporary Albanian literature.

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The Opening Is Where the Light Comes In

Within [this publication], we celebrate the immense, wondrous heights of the Chinese language.

Spittoon is a literary and arts collective born in Beijing, China, with the aim of bringing together Chinese and foreign writers, artists, and creators. Consisting of monthly events, poetry-music intersections, and literary and artistic publications, Spittoon has set down roots in Beijing, Chengdu, and Gothenburg, Sweden. In June 2019, Spittoon Literary Magazine Issue 5, a bilingual publication that translates and publishes China’s best contemporary voices, was published. Xiao Yue Shan, Managing Editor of the magazine and Assistant Blog Editor at Asymptote, writes from Beijing about the days leading up to the launch. 

Drivers here love talking politics, my aunt says to me after my hour-long ride into Xiaotangshan, the oddly idyllic suburban town in northwest Beijing. Really? I reply. They’ve been telling me the stories of their lives

Beijing is brimming to burst with stories, occasionally startling, occasionally brilliant, told in voices bred by an immense variousness, from the sandy waters of the Yellow River to the steaming skies of Hunan, the stillness of Heilongjiang winters to glittering Kunming greens. It is a city that collects and bounds the language of its citizens, between circling highways and sky-bound apartments. So it is that one is never beyond the reach of a story, told as regularly as the hour tells the clock.

The literature of contemporary China is represented in the contours of Beijing—a place you must visit a great number of times, an ongoing landscape impossible to traverse by foot alone, wayward beginnings which speak nothing of ending. Any attempt to define it would be a disservice, as it openly resists definition; one is only able to catch at its hems, glancing, in search of openings that allow light to come in, any small light that would lend sense to the vastness. So it is with this knowledge that we, at Spittoon Literary Magazine, set out to compile a selection of China’s most engaging and original literatures, carving a door by which one can visit again and again. This publication is an entryway toward something lasting, a portrait of a national body that refuses to stay still. Within it, we celebrate the immense, wondrous heights of the Chinese language.

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Narcyza, Our Contemporary

The first Polish woman writer to focus on women’s experiences and issues that particularly affected women’s lives.

On the bicentenary of her birth, Polish writer Narcyza Żmichowska is more relevant than ever. Though only one of her novels has been translated into English, her poetry, letters, and prose influenced feminist thinkers for generations after her death. Read on to learn about Żmichowska’s portrayals of same-sex relationships and her forward-thinking views on womanhood and religion. 

Narcyza Żmichowska (1819-1876), author of novels, other prose including educational tracts, poetry, and a vast lifelong correspondence, is regarded by feminists and literary historians as the first Polish woman writer to focus on women’s experiences and issues that particularly affected women’s lives. Often referred to as a “proto-feminist,” she was in fact a feminist by any standard, that is, someone who analysed discrimination against women on grounds of their gender and fought against it, in her case with the pen. She was not a “suffragette” fighting for political rights. The political context of the nineteenth-century Polish lands, divided since 1795 between three partitioning empires, where Polish men also had no political rights, is crucial to understanding the emphasis of her struggle; free-thinking women of her generation were confronted not only by a conservative, predominantly Catholic society with its ideologically entrenched ideals of womanhood, but also by political censorship that suppressed any mention of Polish political independence. That said, many of the issues Narcyza Żmichowska addressed were, in broad terms, similar to those addressed by women across Europe. Well-read in French but also other literatures in French translation and abreast of major developments in European science, including Darwinism, Żmichowska was a European writer par excellence, a fact generally unappreciated thanks to the relative obscurity of nineteenth-century women writing in Polish and other “periphery” languages, caused by their marginalisation by traditional mainstream literary criticism in their own countries and by the lack of translations.

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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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