Essays

The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.

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The Unity of Contradiction: At the Burning Abyss and its Political Poetics

In its embrace of paradox, the poetic word unites what the political word divides.

[He] gave us, the lost and confused, exactly what we needed: the stability of a direction leading out of the past…. The world fell into black and white; it was ‘all perfectly simple’ … This completely dualistic picture of the world … was precisely herein a counterpart to the worldview which had formerly dominated our thinking, but it passed itself off as a complete break with the Old, and the only possible break at that.… [H]e stood behind the lectern, both hands raised adjuringly, exclaiming to the auditorium with the solemnity of one announcing a truth of faith: “Tertium non datur! There is and can be no third way!”

(Franz Fühmann, At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem, 1982)

The year was 1946, the scene was an “antifascist school” in the USSR where denazified German POWs were schooled in socialist ideology to prepare for leadership roles in the fledgling East German state. Franz Fühmann (1922-1983) arrived in East Germany in 1949 with the fervor of the born-again and established himself as a cultural apparatchik. His short story cycle The Jew Car (1962) examines his youthful embrace of Nazi ideology and the gradual moral awakening that culminated in his socialist conversion–a “happy ending” which he revisited, sadder and wiser, in his last book, At the Burning Abyss. A firm believer in the socialist idea, Fühmann was bitterly disillusioned by its dictatorial practice: vaunted as the sole humane alternative to fascism, socialism had proved to be cut from the same cloth, “a soiled coat turned inside out.” Fühmann’s painful journey between ideological extremes resonated with unexpected force as I translated At the Burning Abyss amidst escalating political polarization in Europe and the US.

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Zainab Hefny: A Bold Saudi Writer in a Conservative Society

Saudi women writers’ texts are revolutionary because they had no choice but the pen to disclose their suffering.

Despite the dominant conservative society of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi creative scene is considered the most daring in the Arab region. Indeed, many Saudi writers are courageous enough to confront the power of a patriarchal, religious culture; however, some have paid the price for their opinions, bold visions, and enlightened thoughts. For instance, liberal journalist and novelist Dr. Turki Al Hamad was known for his hard line against the Wahhabi order of the Minister of the Interior, following a complaint filed by religious authorities in December 2012 because of his tweets that were considered offensive to the divine, Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad. One such tweet states, “A new Nazi view of the world the Arab world calls Islamism. But this time of Nazism is over, and the sun will shine again” (1). Even more recently, the Saudi writer Raif Badawi has been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and floggings as punishment for using writing to express and expose the need for societal change. On January 9, 2015, Badawi was flogged 50 times before hundreds of spectators in front of a Jeddah mosque, the first in a series of one thousand lashes to be carried out over twenty weeks (2).

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Editors in Slovak Publishing Houses: An Endangered Species?

It cannot be repeated often enough that the editor’s work on a book is as important as the work of those responsible for its physical production.

No longer plagued by censors and paper shortages since the end of communism, the publishing industry in former Czechoslovakia has faced other kinds of constraints that it shares with much of the commercially-driven world in which we live. Literary scholar and critic Ivana Taranenková shares with Asymptote’s Slovak editor-at-large Julia Sherwood the findings of a survey comparing editorial practices in Czech and Slovak publishing houses before and after 1989. The survey was carried out by the web journal Platform for Literature and Research, which Taranenková runs together with her colleagues Radoslav Passia and Vladimír Barborík.

Recent publications of new literary works by Slovak authors as well as works in translation have exposed a trend that is trivial yet irksome. While the number of published books continues to grow and their visual quality is improving, pundits have increasingly noted the declining standard of manuscript editing. This is a problem not just for literary reviewers, but also for those who judge literary awards when they assess each year’s literary output.

Editorial standards are often so dismal that these poorly edited manuscripts can no longer be seen as just isolated instances of incompetence or failure on the part of individual editors (as some reviewers have suggested), but rather as a systemic issue. Other than in some major publishing houses, the profession of editor appears to be waning, a victim of the drive for “increased efficiency” in publishing, and a growing reliance on outsourcing that requires a smaller investment of time and money per book, ultimately resulting in dilettantism. The same also applies to emerging independent publishers.

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Rape à la Polonaise, or Whose Side Are You on, Maria?

"A hundred thousand furious women wearing black, armed with symbolic umbrellas. One hundred thousand women, undeterred by pouring rain."

A year ago in 2016, thousands of Polish women went on strike from work, dressed in all black and marched on the streets waving black flags and umbrellas to protest a proposal that would make abortion completely inaccessible to them. While they succeeded, Poland still has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. On the anniversary of the Black Protests this Tuesday, on Oct 3, 2017, Polish women marched again to demand greater reproductive freedom. Feminist writer and columnist Grażyna Plebanek recaps for Asymptote the year of struggle for Polish women’s rights and the role of literature in the protests. —Julia Sherwood

A year ago we women went out into the streets together—young and old, teenagers, mothers, grandmothers. Women from all walks of life. Women from small towns and big cities, educated and uneducated. When I first canvassed women in a Polish shop in Brussels to take part in the Black March last October, I was worried that the shop assistants and shoppers might respond in the time-honoured way: “I’m not interested in politics” or “I’ll leave it to the politicians.” Or the excuse that’s really hard to argue with: “I’ve got enough on my plate already.”

As it turned out, this is an issue that concerns us all: the issue of our freedom and dignity. In October 2016, every one of us in that shop—customers and shop assistants—poured out our grief over what “they” were planning to do to us, by introducing a near-total ban on abortion, making what is already one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in Europe even stricter. The following day we marched shoulder to shoulder, united by a real threat—that of being robbed of the basic right over our own bodies. We were being dragged back to the status of women during the Napoleonic times. We would no longer be equal to men and have our lives directed by others, as if we were children.

We went out into the streets in Poland, in Brussels, Berlin, London, Stockholm, New York, and many other cities across the world. In Poland one hundred thousand women joined the protest. A hundred thousand furious women wearing black, armed with symbolic umbrellas. One hundred thousand women, undeterred by pouring rain.

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Sea of umbrellas. Warsaw, 3 October 2016. Photo © Tytus Duchnowski

The protests worked but in late August, almost a year later, Polish women once again went out into the streets of Łódź. Again, we wore black. However, this was a smaller and quieter march, an expression of grief. We were grieving for a young woman held captive for ten days by two men who had tortured and raped her. She ran away but later died in hospital. Her injuries were so severe that the doctors couldn’t save her.

What has happened in Poland between the two black marches—between the protests of 2016 and the funeral procession of 2017? READ MORE…

Milton Hatoum’s The Brothers and the Politics of Forgetting

Oppression builds insidiously, explodes in all its terror, and then slips quietly back under the surface.

I stand in my basement facing stacks of cardboard boxes, the remnants of my last cross-country move out to Boulder, CO. If you were to take a cross-section of each box, you would see the sediments of everyday objects: a top layer of clothes; the occasional sweater enveloping a ceramic mug; a layer of miscellaneous household necessities (clothes hangers, desk supplies, etc.); and finally, a thick deposit of books.

At the bottom of one of these boxes I found a thin book, barely visible between the thick spines of a heavily annotated copy of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and a fat collection of Pushkin short stories. I pulled out the paperback, which turned out to be a Brazilian novel, The Brothers, written by Milton Hatoum and translated into English by John Gledson. I couldn’t be sure if I had actually read the book before rediscovering it in the crevice of a cardboard box.

I flipped to the copyright information. The original was published in 2000, with the English translation released two years later. Milton Hatoum is a Brazilian author of Lebanese descent, born in 1952 in Manaus, a city in the Amazon. I flipped to the blurb, which promised the story of a Lebanese immigrant family, focusing on the rivalry between two twins, Yaqub and Omar, who live in Manaus in the latter half of the 20th century.

It’s an intriguing premise, one that draws on the age-old trope of brotherly rivalry, harkening back to Cain and Abel, to The Brothers Karamazov, and to Machado de Assis’s Esaú e Jacó. The novel promised to capture the author’s own experience as a man of Middle Eastern descent from a peripheral region of Brazil. I couldn’t remember how it went from my bookshelf to being snugly packed, which made me curious to investigate further. I left my final box unopened, sat down on the pillows and blankets I had piled on the floor, and began reading. The novel opens with an epigraph, a quote from a Carlos Drummond de Andrade poem:

 

   “The house was sold with all its memories

            all its furniture all its nightmares

            all the sins committed, or just about to be;

            the house was sold with the sound of its doors banging

            with its windy corridors its view of the world

                        its imponderables.”

 

The narrative then begins with Yaqub’s homecoming to Manaus from Lebanon, where he had spent some years of his youth, and the reuniting of the two twins under a single roof. Hatoum unveils ever-mounting tensions amongst members of the family through their domestic alliances and conflicts, and the touching and torrid backstories that define those relationships; rich descriptions of setting provide a fascinating portrait of Manaus, albeit one that is devoid of exoticization; and the complex exploration of character in simple, quotidian situations calls upon the wide-ranging tradition of the family saga in literature.

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Marianne Katoppo: The Frog who Left the Coconut Shell Far Behind

"Katoppo’s novels tell the story of independent women restrained by conservative men."

Writer and world-renowned feminist theologian Marianne Katoppo maintained that theology was rooted in language. Asymptote Indonesia Editor-at-Large and poet Norman Erikson Pasaribu makes the case that with her writing, Katoppo also challenged and defied the systemic injustices of Indonesian society that were inherent in language, too. Enjoy Norman’s beautiful essay in English and scroll down to read it in the original Indonesian. 

From approximately the 500 classic Malay proverbs that I had to memorize as a child, one of the proverbs I loved most was: ‘Like a frog under a coconut shell.’

The illustration is clear: a frog that never surpasses the boundaries of a coconut shell will only view the world as a dark, quiet, and limited place. If anyone were to tell it that there’s another world: a colorful and bright place, with music and an open natural landscape, this frog will say it’s a lie.

—Marianne Katoppo

“After all, language is where theology begins,” Marianne Katoppo writes in her revolutionary book, Compassionate and Free: An Asian Woman’s Theology (1979).

She then presents an argument about how sexism and patriarchy in the church are rooted in language. She says that in Hebrew, the Holy Spirit Ruakh is feminine, which evolved into Pneuma, a gender-neutral form in Greek by the Septuaginta translator, and then changed into the masculine in Latin. “Therefore, the Trinity we have now is entirely male,” Katoppo concludes.

Indonesia is a nation where people’s lives are strongly driven by religion. This is clear even in the first principle of Pancasila, the Indonesian state’s foundational philosophy: “Believe in the one Supreme God.” Thus, although the Indonesian language does not have the concept of gender in its grammar, it is unsurprising that the country’s religious institutions—which have been long dominated by men—have also contributed to an unfair system of privileges. Religious institutions often become the first barrier that “the other” has to face in order to be a whole individual.

Marianne Katoppo’s life was a constant battle against such oppressive structures. Born in 1943, Katoppo was raised in a family with feminist values. Her father was the minister of education of the short-lived State of East Indonesia (1946—1950), and he upheld gender equality among all of his ten children. Katoppo pursued her theological education at the Jakarta Theological Seminary before leaving Indonesia and continuing her theological studies in Switzerland, Japan, England, Korea, and Germany while also studying languages. Later, she continued to explore the edges of the world to teach feminist theology.

Katoppo’s interest in theology was entwined with her passion for languages. She published her first short story at the age of eight. Besides her seminal work, Compassionate and Free: An Asian Woman’s Theology, Katoppo also published five novels: Dunia Tak Bermusim (A World with No Season, 1974), Raumanen (1977), Anggrek Tak Pernah Berdusta (The Orchid Never Lies, 1977), Terbangnya Punai (The Green Pigeon Flies Away, 1978), Rumah di Atas Jembatan (The House on the Bridge, 1981). She won the prestigious Jakarta Arts Council Novel Competition in 1975 for Raumanen and became the first woman to win the SEA Write Award in 1982. Fluent in twelve languages, she translated Knut Hamsun, Nawal El Saadawi, and Elie Wiesel into Indonesian—all of which were published by Obor, a Catholic publishing house in Jakarta. Given the enormity of her achievements, I—born and raised in Indonesia—seriously believe that no Indonesian man has matched Katoppo’s accomplishments. READ MORE…

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet and the destruction of the “I”

The original text must be boiled down to its constituent parts and lovingly re-moulded into new forms

The dissolution of authorship is intrinsic to the act of translation. Far from being mechanical vessels for the words of another, translators invariably leave a phantom imprint of themselves upon a piece of writing. They are the invisible co-authors of a text, the ghost writers who flit across linguistic frontiers, flirting with multiple literary identities. It seems unsurprising, then, that the most elusive of Portuguese modernist poets, the godfather of urban melancholia and man of many selves, Fernando Pessoa, should have worked as a translator for much of his life.

Pessoa’s writing spans countless styles and modes, but perhaps his most famous innovation lies in his use of ‘heteronyms,’ the multiple literary identities under which he wrote. Centred around the core triumvirate of Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos, Pessoa’s heteronyms continue to be discovered today, with over 130 currently known to us. Some of the heteronyms are even characterized by linguistic divisions, such as Alexander Search who wrote uniquely in English. As Pessoa scholar Darlene Sadlier points out, Pessoa’s splintering of authorship was in a sense symptomatic of the “general crisis of subjectivity in nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophy,” suggesting that the self is something to be created rather than preordained, and, therefore, that it can contain multitudes.

This summer has seen the publication of a new English edition of the work that brought Pessoa posthumous renown, the modernist masterpiece entitled The Book of Disquiet. The publication history of this work has become the stuff of legends. On his death in 1935 aged forty-seven, Pessoa left behind at least two large wooden trunks filled with thousands upon thousands of scribbled scraps of manuscript paper, a life’s work in fragmentary form. Out of these fragments, Pessoa’s project for a work called Livro do Desassossego (once translated as The Book of Disquietude, now as The Book of Disquiet) was discovered, but the “book” was found to have multiple authors, no discernible order, and was never completed. Here was the ultimate modernist text: a “deconstructed” book that could be infinitely reassembled out of thousands of scraps of paper lying in a trunk.

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The Good Bad Translator: Celina Wieniewska And Her Bruno Schulz

"Wieniewska was correct in her intuition about ‘how much Schulz' the reader was prepared to handle."

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) is one of the relatively few Polish authors of fiction who enjoy international recognition. Originally published in the 1930s, since the early 1960s the Polish-Jewish writer and visual artist’s oneiric short stories have been translated and retranslated into almost forty languages, despite their seemingly untranslatable style: an exquisitely rich poetic prose, comprised of meandering syntax and multi-tiered metaphors. In English-speaking countries, Schulz’s name was made in the late 1970s, when his Street of Crocodiles, first published in English in 1963 in both the UK and the US (the British edition was titled Cinnamon Shops, following closely the original Polish Sklepy cynamonowe), was reissued in Philip Roth’s influential Penguin series Writers from the Other Europe (1977), alongside Milan Kundera and other authors from behind the Iron Curtain whom the West had yet to discover. Schulz’s second story collection, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass (Polish: Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą), followed shortly (1978), and ever since then both volumes have been regularly republished and reprinted, as well as in series such as Picador Classics (1988), Penguin 20th Century Classics (1992), and Penguin Classics (2008).

This summer, the Northwestern University Press announced that “an authoritative new translation of the complete fiction of Bruno Schulz” by Madeline Levine, Professor Emerita of Slavic Literatures at the University of North Carolina, is forthcoming in March 2018. Commissioned by the Polish Book Institute and publicized already since 2012, this retranslation has been impatiently awaited, especially by Schulz scholars dissatisfied with the old translation by Celina Wieniewska. Indeed, it’s great that Levine’s version is finally going to see the light of day—it is certainly going to yet strengthen Schulz’s already strong position. Unfortunately, the preferred (and easiest) way of promoting retranslations is to criticize and ridicule previous translations and, more often than not, translators. Even though the retranslator herself has spoken of her predecessor with much respect, showing understanding of Wieniewska’s goals, strategies, and the historical context in which she was working, I doubt that journalists, critics, and bloggers are going to show as much consideration.

In an attempt to counter this trend, I would like to present an overview of the life and work of Celina Wieniewska, since I believe that rather than being representative of a certain kind of invisibility as a translator (her name brought up only in connection with her ‘faults’), she deserves attention as the co-author of Schulz’s international success. Much like Edwin and Willa Muir, whose translations of Kafka have been criticised as dated and error-ridden, but proved successful in their day, Wieniewska’s version was instrumental in introducing Schulz’s writing to English-speaking readers around the world. Before Levine’s retranslation takes over, let’s take a moment to celebrate her predecessor, who was a truly extraordinary figure and has been undeservedly forgotten.

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Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Vocabulary and pronunciation, and even spelling, mark larger histories of settlement and local adjustment

We return with another installment of Translator’s Diary where Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize, takes us through the nuances of translation. Today he discusses the intricacies of vocabulary and pronunciation and how history and geography combine to fashion complex, unique identities. 

Hoagie? Hero? Sub? Some weeks ago I was staying in the Rhineland, near the Dutch border, where I developed a pesky summer cold. When I told a close friend who lives in the area that I was “verkühlt,” he grinned and said my Austrian side was showing, since a German would say “erkältet.” This reply reminded me of those popular posts on social media that ask if you drink “soda” or “pop,” if your sandwich is a “hoagie” or a “sub” or a “hero,” if you call those luminous insects “lightning bugs” or “fireflies,” if you drive around a “rotary,” a “roundabout,” or a “traffic circle.” Then there are the arguments about pronunciation; do you wade in the “crick” (like brick) or the “creek” (like meek)? Vocabulary and pronunciation, and even spelling, mark larger histories of settlement and local adjustment, which might explain why amature language lovers also enjoy reading about Samuel Johnson’s vs. Noah Webster’s lexicography, or about the perceived level of crudity or finesse in this or that regional expression (quick disdain for Southern “y’all” or “might could”).

Translators from German likewise need to be aware of geographical and cultural forces; I confine myself here to differences between standard German in Germany (Bundesdeutsch) and Austrian German. (Swiss German is fascinating but outside our framework.) I know from experience through making my own mistakes (some of them in print!) what bloopers can arise from ignorance or inattentiveness. Of course, one approach to this topic would be to list variances in grammar and syntax, vocabulary (especially food), idioms, and the like; I’d rather recommend Robert Sedlaczek’s fine book Das österreichische Deutsch to readers of German and move on to a more comprehensive insight, one that traces a truly characterizing difference.

L’Académie allemande. German novelist Martin Mosebach reviews pertinent history about the German language in an essay about Doderer warning readers not to overlook vital cultural differences. Regrets are occasionally expressed, he remarks, that there was never an institution in the German-speaking world comparable to the norm-setting, regulating Académie française. But in fact there was, he claims: Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible regularized and unified German. Aside from its religious import, the Luther Bible is one of the essential documents in the history of the language, reconciling divergent regional usages, harmonizing dialects, fixing idioms, introducing needed abstract neologisms, and creating a normative language balanced between literary derivation and colloquialism and accessible to all German speakers. What we know as modern “High German” derives very largely from this one book; as Mosebach says, “German [meaning “High German”] is a Protestant dialect,” and “The Reformation was the German Academy.”

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Self-Translation and the Multilingual Writer

The act of self-translation is for many, including Beckett himself, an experiment in agony.

Samuel Beckett self-translated a great many of his texts from French to English and vice-versa, and does not seem to have unequivocally favored one language over the other. For Beckett, choosing to write in French came from “un désir de m’appauvrir encore plus” (a desire to impoverish myself even further). Evidently, he viewed French as a more minimal language.[1] Beckett sparsely commented on his decision―or compulsion―to write in both languages, but in all events, such choices appear to be largely affective and difficult to justify rationally. All the more so when the act of self-translation is for many, including Beckett himself, an experiment in agony. For a minority, self-translation instead liberates the writer, at once from the risk of servility to an original, and from the effort of wrenching a brand new work from one’s mental background noise. One need neither give birth to a new text, nor obey an existing one.

The late novelist Raymond Federman, an émigré from France and a bilingual speaker, offers an example of one writer for whom self-translation was in some sense liberating. Federman wrote for several decades almost entirely in English, and only began to self-translate well into the middle of his career. In fact, English remained his dominant language of initial composition, and he once expressed to me a certain resistance to writing directly in French. Nonetheless, he self-translated extensively from the mid-nineties until his death in 2009. Federman introduces extensive and significant variations between translations and originals, so that his texts exhibit what Sara Kippur calls mouvance (variance), a term borrowed from medievalist Paul Zumthor.[2] Beckett’s own texts exhibit some variation, but in Federman’s case, narrative accounts of a single autobiographical event differ between accounts, whether they occur in different books or in the “same” book’s French and English version. Hence, Federman ties the act of translation directly to issues of autobiographical authenticity, demonstrating that such authenticity is largely illusory―memory is a kind of fiction.

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When There’s No Wind, the Sounds of the Past are Audible Over the Danube

On opposite banks of the Danube in Hungary and Slovakia, separated peoples find a way to talk in many languages across the ancient river.

Today we profile a unique literary gathering, AquaPhone Festival, that takes place on both banks of the Danube. It not only features literature from Hungary and Slovakia but also acts as a cultural bridge between the nations that have been isolated from each other’s shared histories by totalitarian rule. It serves as a powerful symbol against the rising tide of xenophobia, as a conversation with Karol Frühauf reveals. 

it could be done by us just shouting
just talking to each other over the water
and not by me going over to you by boat
you going angling? I’d shout into the wind
and your voice would echo across the water
no! I’m going angling! oh, right! I’d shout
all right I thought you’re going angling

— From ‘Modalities of Crossing’ by Dániel Varró, translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood

From the southwestern part of the Danubian Hills, poetry drifts above the waves of the Danube. Lines of verse bounce from one side of the river to the other, hard on each other’s tails yet in accord, dissolving in the air.

lehetne az is hogy csak kiabálunk
hogy csak beszélgetünk a víz fölött
és nem megyek át hozzád ladikon
horgászni mész? kiáltanám a szélbe
és hangod visszaringna a vizen
nem! horgászni megyek! ja! kiabálnám
ja jól van azt hittem horgászni mész!

— From ‘az átkelés módozatai’ by Dániel Varró

Someone is reciting poetry. It takes a while for the words, carried by sound waves, to cross the river. This is how poetry behaves when a poem is recited aloud above a river. The author of this year’s poem, “Modalities of Crossing,” is the wonderful Hungarian poet and children’s writer, Dániel Varró.

dá sa aj tak že si len zakričíme
len si nad vodou pohovoríme
a neprejdem za tebou cez lávku
ideš na rybačku? volal by som do vetra
a tvoj hlas by sa na vode prihojdal
nie! idem na rybačku! aha! volal by som
aha dobre myslel som že na rybačku!

— From ‘možnosti prepravy’ by Dániel Varró, translated from the Hungarian into Slovak by Eva Andrejčáková

Varró’s poem is read out in several languages: first in Hungarian (the poet’s native tongue), then in Slovak, and finally in German. You have to wait patiently for the lines to reach you from the far shore before you can send your version back by the same route. The extraordinary dialogue is accompanied by live cello, saxophone, and clarinet. There is no wind, the June sunshine is reflected in the water, bathing the majestic domes of the basilica in the distance in its soft light. This is what the AquaPhone festival is like.

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#3arabizi: Arabic in the Internet Era

While the classical/dialectal debate rages, crowdsourced Arabic transliteration rises from the Internet, spreading among the multinational youth.

A language is alive—it’s a breathing, blooming entity that metamorphoses as worlds turn. Often, we turn to the literary when charting these changes, but language goes where the people are. Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Morocco, Hodna Nuernberg,  writes about the changes that the Internet—blogs, texting, social media—is catalyzing in transliterated versions of spoken Arabic around the world. 

According to the United Nation’s 2016 Measuring the Information Society Report, approximately 47 percent of the world’s population are internet users, and nearly 3.6 billion people are expected to rely on messaging apps as a primary means of communication by 2018. Thanks in no small part to the pervasiveness of computer-mediated communication, we are reading and writing more than ever—in fact, Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University and principal investigator for the Stanford Study of Writing, speaks of a literacy revolution in which “life writing” (in the form of texts, tweets, emails, status updates, or blogs) accounts for a massive 38 percent of the average Stanford student’s written production.

For many of us, the distance between our spoken language and its written form is small enough as to seem nonexistent, so converting our speech into print is a fairly straightforward process. But this isn’t always the case.

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In Review: Conversations (Volume 3) by Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari

“Ferrari and I tried to let our words flow through us, perhaps despite ourselves" - Jorge Luis Borges

“What else remains for an 85-year-old to do but repeat himself?” asks Jorge Luis Borges in the first volume of these conversations between the author of Ficciones and the poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari. Still playful a mere year before his death in 1986, Borges then offers a sly nod to the listener of these radio dialogues that can now reach English readers: “Or try variations, which comes to the same thing.” Such a remark recalls a classic Borges piece like “The Library of Babel,” with its intricately intertwined ideas of repetition and variation, and in his preface Ferrari even alludes to Borges’ “zenithal perception of everything,” suggesting that the author of  “The Aleph” or “The Zahir” might resemble his own creations. Detecting such subtle intersections between page and personality can certainly serve as one entertaining way into this newly released—and both occasionally and charmingly repetitive—third volume of radio conversations published by Seagull Books. But these pages become truly fascinating as we encounter not one Borges but many: the poet, the critic, the writer of fictions that tend toward the philosophical, and, perhaps most importantly, the attentive reader capable of discovering some delight or insight on every page.

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