Essays

Summer Ennui: Sun-Soaked Writing from Around the World

Our antidote to the summer beach read listicles.

In May, we welcome summer with long reading lists, ambitious writing projects, and travel plans. But as the temperatures rise, books get abandoned, and drafts get lost. Slowly we leave ourselves to mid-day slumbers, timeless symphonies of cicadas, and a yearning for the early evening breeze. Summer ennui establishes itself around this time, and makes us wonder, when is this heat and everything about it going to end? Our blog editors Sarah Booker, Chloe Lim, and Ilker Hepkaner are joined by our guest contributor William Booker as they introduce their favorite writing about summer’s idleness and slowness.

Manuel Puig (1932-1990) was an Argentine writer best known for his novel Beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Colchie) in which he showcases his ability to develop a complex narrative through conversation and his passion for film. Dwindling tropical evenings—sticky, never-ending, and buzzing with life and memories—are the setting in Puig’s final novel, Cae la noche tropica (Tropical Night Falling, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine), for the conversations held between two sisters in the twilight of their lives. Indeed, the novel begins with a recognition of the melancholic nature of this particular moment: “There’s such a sad feeling at this time of day, I wonder why?”

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In Ismail Kadare’s Shadow: Searching for More in Albanian Literature

There is beauty in this multilingual cohort of writers and the way they break linguistic boundaries to tell their stories and talk about identity.

In the past seven months I have written five dispatches covering Albanian literary news for Asymptote. Only one of these dispatches does not mention Ismail Kadare. It feels impossible to avoid him. Kadare is the only Albanian author speculated as a potential winner for the Nobel in Literature (when the Nobel still meant honour and prestige). He has been recognised with a medal by the French Legion of Honour and won Spain’s Princess of Asturias Award for Literature. Kadare is also one of the few Albanian authors to be published in Asymptote. While other Albanian writers struggle to find translators, two different titles by Kadare were published in English this year alone: A Girl in Exile (translated by John Hodgson) and Essays in World Literature (translated by Ani Kokobobo).

It would perhaps be improper to complain of Kadare’s success and his place in world literature.  He has contributed immensely to the field, writing novels that portray Albanian history from Medieval times to the present, while also producing essays and studies in the field of Albanology. Not to mention the recognition he has brought to Albania abroad, where for many to speak of Albania is inherently to speak of Kadare. But Kadare’s success is unique in Albanian literary history. And with its singularity come certain dangers and drawbacks, common to all national cultures that are represented through the often-homogenous lens of a single figure.

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Ricardo Lísias, the Brazilian Novelist on Trial for Unconventional Form

If an author designs his text to inspire a reader response in a specific social context, is translation even possible?

Featured in our Summer 2018 issue, Brazilian writer Ricardo Lísias’s “Anna O.” examines Latin American politics and memories of dictatorships in the region. In her translator’s note, Lara Norgaard discusses the way Lísias blends truth and fiction to create a unique reading experience: “Lísias’s many references are a key component of the unique relationship he builds between text and reader. The author’s goal is to cause confusion in his audience, to break the boundaries of the book as a discrete object, separate from the world. Nonfiction pours into his fiction and, conversely, the reader reacts to his stories in the real world. In ‘Anna O.,’ Lísias plays with the expectations and knowledge of his audience.” In the following essay, Norgaard further explores this exciting young author’s work.

Ricardo Lísias should be on everyone’s radar.

In Brazil, he already is, and in unconventional ways: two of the writer’s novels over the past four years have landed the writer in court trials. The first, a detective fiction eBook series; the other, a novel signed “pseudonym: Eduardo Cunha,” the name of a prominent right-wing senator currently in prison for corruption charges.

Lísias has the uncanny ability of ruffling feathers in a country where literature too often falls by the wayside. These trials—the former, a charge for the falsification of state documents; the latter, for the defamation of character—might indicate a lack of understanding or urge to control experimental art, both within the justice system and in the general public. But they might also imply that this specific author has managed to escape the bubble of traditional literary readership. His work is controversial, in a broad sense. And yet, despite his dramatic reputation in Brazil, and despite having been named one of Granta’s best young Brazilian novelists, only two of Lísias’ texts have appeared in English translation: the short stories “Evo Morales,” published in Granta and “Anna O.”, just released in Asymptote’s Summer 2018 issue.

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The Trouble with Prizes and Translation

Prizes may be good for publishing, but are they good for all authors and translators?

If you love reading fiction by writers from around the globe, you are used to hearing about the big prizes that put international literature in the spotlight: the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Man Booker International, the Caine Prize, the Prix Goncourt, the German Book Prize, the Cervantes Prize, the Tanazaki Prize, and many others.

In fact, you might even have trouble keeping up with the variety of United States–based awards just for literature in translation, from the Best Translated Book Award (now eleven years old) to the National Book Award’s new Translated Literature category. It’s getting to be like following the Olympics, without all the fuss over new stadium construction. For one thing, winning books, like medal-bedecked Olympians, don’t get to the podium all by themselves. Winners need a team (and a coach and money) behind them. For another, we know that lots of great contenders don’t make it to the final round.

So what should we know about book prizes as we are reading the shortlisted candidates or hoping for a win for one of our favorite writers?

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Transcending Language Through Sports: Football Writers

Asymptote team members and readers share their favorite pieces of writing about the game.

We are well into the World Cup, which means endless amounts of football (or soccer, depending on your location) for the serious fans and a chance to dabble in that world for those less-serious fans of the sport. The group stage is coming to a close and there have been more than a few surprises, including Iceland’s humbling of Messi and Argentina, Poland going down against the tenacious Senegalese team—and Germany? Really?

The World Cup, an event that very much goes beyond the ninety minutes of twenty-two players and a ball, generates an endless amount of controversy, discussion, national pride, rivalry, and politics from all sorts of people, including our favorite writers. With that in mind, today we bring you a special treat as Asymptote team members and readers share their favorite pieces of writing about the game.

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From Austria: Elfriede Jelinek

Already, the 2018 World Cup has delivered its quota of surreal moments. Some have been joyfully surreal—the director of Iceland’s 2012 Eurovision video leaping to keep out a penalty from one of the greatest players of all-time; Iran’s failed attempt at a somersault throw-in during the final seconds of a crucial game against Spain—but others have had a more sinister edge. Among the defining images from the opening match was the handshake between Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman, two star players for the Axis of too-wealthy-to-be-evil.

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So you want to be a literary translator . . .

. . . but don't know where to start? Here's what you need to know.

Literary translators come from a multitude of backgrounds. Many are authors first of all, for whom translation is a natural extension of their work. Others are literary critics or academics, who translate to give a wider audience access to the works they study. With the growing popularity and visibility of global literature in the English-speaking world, on the other hand, has come increased visibility of literary translation as an art of its own.

As an American high schooler, I knew I wanted to translate books. But unlike my friends who wanted to be writers or performers, editors or scientists, I had no idea how to make that happen. I fumbled my way through, doing plenty of research and seeking out guidance from people in the translation industry wherever possible. I now work as a full-time translator on a combination of literary and non-literary projects, something I wouldn’t have believed possible at the age of 17 or 18.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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