Essays

We Can All Be Walking Poets: Sauntering Verse and Dada

“Walking artists walk to create something. So actually, you could argue that you are the walking artist.”

Sauntering Verse, a new app for auto-generated poetry, uses Dadaist language to redefine the experience of physical space. In this essay, Lara Norgaard tests the app while reflecting on its implications for our relationship with technology, and the art that it creates. What contexts do we bring to the art we create and consume? What does it mean to be an artist when art is made possible just by taking your phone on a walk?

It is warm and cloudy on the afternoon following the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. The extreme right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro received just over 46% of the popular vote—he would come to win the run-off election just weeks later. It feels like the world I woke up to earlier that morning was not precisely my own, as if a body-snatcher stole my world instead of my skin.

The day is a blur: I walk a few meters from the living room to the kitchen in my apartment. Outside the window, the skyline of nearly identical high-rises in the Brazilian city that I call home glint in clouded sadness, weighed down by more than 186 thousand people who voted for a man whom The New Yorker has called a cross between Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte. Perhaps he will not win in the second round, but perhaps what is already bad will get worse. This eventuality feels so surreal that I focus on boiling water for a calming mug of coffee. I glance down at my phone. It wrote me a poem:

She skipped it

A rear Jesus

They of them

The sagging can retract or sagging sagging

A quirky staging

She pots him

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What I Learned: The Benefits of a Poetry Translation Workshop

Unlike in life, in translation you can generally decide what you can bear to lose, and you should know that there are multiple methods.

What should a budding translator read? What kinds of critical lenses should he or she apply to the process of translation? Assistant Editor Andreea Scridon shares some insights she gathered from the poetry translation workshop she attended this summer in Norwich, UK.

Every summer, the University of East Anglia in Norwich (home of the first Creative Writing program in the United Kingdom) holds an International Literary Translation & Creative Writing Summer School. This past July, the program was held in partnership with the British Centre for Literary Translation, and I attended the multilingual poetry translation workshopled by internationally translated poet and writer Fiona Sampsonas an emerging translator of Romanian and Spanish into English. Below I recount musings on the most significant things I learned, which I hope will be of use to those potentially looking to break into literary translation.

A sound starting point in this discussion is the question of considering what to read as a translator. It should go without saying that a literary translator must necessarily be a well-read person in order to be able to make the best possible choices in terms of context, likely more so than anybody else. Having established this as a point of consensus, we discussed, both officially in workshops and amongst ourselves, what exactly a translator should be reading today. In my opinion, the library of a(n) (aspiring) literary translator should include contemporary literature, non-contemporary literature (both classics and obscure-but-lovely older works), and, of course, translations, preferably in as many languages as possible. For instance, examples of each subsection in my current library include Lauren Groff’s Florida and Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart (which are English-language works but useful examples of the spirit of today’s literary scene), Romain Gary’s The Kites and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, and Anna Akhmatova’s various poetry collections in translation by Yevgeny Bonver, Richard McKane, and Alexander Cigale, to name only a few. I asked Ian Gwin, an emerging translator of Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian who also participated in the Summer School, for suggestions. He recommends Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, noting that Gessen is himself a bilingual and that the theme of the two cultures meeting within the novel may be useful for a translator to consider. Regarding multiple translations, he recommends Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, pinning the more linguistically faithful translation of Eithne Wilkins and Ernest Kaiser against the newer one produced by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. He also suggests the high-quality recent translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz by Michael Hoffman, citing it as a long work that shows an attempt to render a specific style in a second language.

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Don’t Look Back in Anger: Virginie Despentes and Modern France

Despentes shows that evil is all too human.

Following our recently published review of Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things, Barbara Halla takes on the Vernon Subutex Trilogy. In this essay, Despentes’ most recent work is seen to interrogate female anger, everyday life, and the power of community in new, thought-provoking ways.

In a 2017 profile of Virginie Despentes, Le Monde eschewed Despentes’ name, preferring to refer to her simply as Le Phénomène, The Phenomenon, throughout the piece. This epithet is no exaggeration: Despentes has held the French literary scene in her grip since the mid-nineties when she published her first book, Baise-moi (translated into English as Rape me, by Bruce Benderson), and then directed its 2001 movie adaptation, featuring two porn actresses in the lead. Manu and Nadine, the main characters and both victims of violence of some kind, embark upon a road trip where they lure, sexually exploit and kill off men. It wasn’t just the violent acts that made Baise-moi feel radical. It was the lustful pleasure the protagonists took in this violence that stunned audiences, leading to a temporary ban of the film in France. As Lauren Elkin points out in The Paris Review, when the movie came out, there was nothing else to compare it to, so critics fell back on Thelma & Louise, another feminist road film about two women on the run. But Despentes’ nihilistic and sadistic story has little in common with Thelma and Louise.

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Reflections from Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

As Asymptote's partnership with this year's UWRF winds down, join our Editors-at-Large as they reflect on all that happened in Ubud.

On the night of October 28, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) wrapped up after four consecutive jam-packed days. Mornings, afternoons, and evenings were filled with stimulating conversations and lively panel discussions, film screenings and book launches, poetry slams and musical performances, all set in the culturally fertile town of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia. Australia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao and Indonesia Editor-at-Large Norman Erikson Pasaribu were invited to speak in their capacities as writers. In this retrospective dispatch, each of them reflects candidly on their experiences at this year’s UWRF.

One Brain, Multiple Selves (Tiffany Tsao)

There was so much about participating in UWRF that was wonderful and exhilarating, but as I (Tiffany) write this, I’m realizing how exhausted I am! It’s mostly a good exhaustion—the kind that one experiences after being exposed to so many interesting ideas, books, and people. My head and heart are still abuzz, and the festival concluded several days ago!

There’s certainly some physical exhaustion thrown into the mix as well: I brought along my 10-month-old son, Azure. The festival was immensely supportive and bought him an infant plane ticket and made sure there was a crib in the room. Plus, my heroic father flew from Jakarta to babysit while I was busy participating in events and meeting people. Unfortunately, Azure slept fitfully during the nights before deciding at around 5:00 am each morning that it was time to rise and shine, which meant that I gained a new appreciation and appetite for coffee. Glorious, glorious coffee.

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Where is Hausa Queer Writing?

Find out how censorship, religion and conservatism affect the representation of queer lives and relationships in Hausa writing.

Queer culture around the world is inflected and influenced by local conditions and cultural nuances. In this essay, Sada Malumfashi takes us on a journey to investigate representations of queerness in Hausa literature.

Literature strives to depict a true picture—it is the mirror of society. While novel writing in Northern Nigeria is a fairly new innovation that began in the 20th century; queer relationships, however, have been a part and parcel of society for a much longer period. Same-sex practices have been an inherent part of African history, developing in a whole different way than in the Western context.

A queer section of the Hausa society that actually has had dominance in the literary field, without any cause for rancour, are the Yan Daudu—Feminine Men. These men comprise a bulk of the Hausa queer community and a direct translation of them as homosexuals in the western context tends not to give a complete picture. Yan Daudus have always been visible in the social strata, in close proximity to prostitutes, permitting them access to seek men for sex. The existence of Yan Daudu is well acknowledged and this translated to their reflection in almost every work of Hausa literature which cover aspects of prostitution and Bori – the Hausa cult of spirit possession. However, in a conservative culture where who you share your bed with is a private matter, it is no great surprise, then, that queer literature, or queer characters in Hausa literature apart from Yan Daudu, are relatively new.

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Documenting Translators: The Political Backstage of Translation

These films make protagonists out of the ultimate supporting actors in history, the translators.

Translators are often represented as mediators, actors in the communication of a text who are subordinate to the author. However, translators have often played crucial roles in politically pivotal moments. Denise Kripper tells us more about these translators, and the films in which their stories feature.

Coming soon this year is Les Traducteurs, directed by Regis Roinsard, a high-profile French thriller inspired by the true story behind the translation of Dan Brown’s novel Inferno. During this process, several international translators were shut away in a bunker in an effort to avoid piracy and illegal editions while aiming to launch the book simultaneously in different languages, all over the world. In real life, the book ended up generating $250 million, but in the action-packed film, “when the first ten pages of the top-secret manuscript appear online, the dream job becomes a nightmare – the thief is one of them and the publisher is ready to do whatever it takes to unmask him – or her” (IMDb).

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Teaching and Learning Narrative Identity

"Though there is no substitute for language immersion in pursuit of fluency, you don’t need to leave home...all you need is a book"

What does it take to truly communicate? In this essay, Claire Jacobson takes us on a journey from language classrooms to the souqs of Morocco, exploring the narrative frameworks that create culture. Read on to discover the differences between learning a language, and the narrative identities that language use is built on.

Humans are inveterate storytellers. We narrativize our memories, use allegory and metaphor to communicate complex ideas, and search for meaning in suffering by placing it in the narrative arc of our lives. “When someone asks you who you are,” writes Richard Kearney, “you tell your story. That is, you recount your present condition in the light of past memories and future anticipations. You interpret where you are now in terms of where you have come from and where you are going to.” Or, as Paul Ricoeur says, “Selfhood is a cloth woven of stories told.”

But it’s not only individuals, Kearney writes. “Communities come to know themselves in the stories they tell about themselves.” When families gather, we always tell stories, sometimes new ones but mostly the old ones over and over—these stories are part of what makes us family. No Christmas celebration in my home is complete without reading about shepherds and wise men and the sociopolitical implications of the term “messiah” in first-century Palestine. These stories are part of what marks us as people of faith and also total nerds. A few weeks ago, my boss told me about the day we went from one bookmobile in town to two, traveling around to neighborhoods without access to the public library—this is one of the many stories that place me firmly in Iowa City, the only city I’ve ever known where you can find inter-bookmobile competition drama.

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Of Conscience and Blood: Independence Days in Southeast Asia

"I ask those who think about society, who love life...to become a bit more zealous"

This August and September, we celebrate the independence days of several countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore (9 August), Indonesia (17 August) and Vietnam (2 September). In today’s blog post, Asymptote travels to Southeast Asia to reflect on writing from the past. Having gained independence from Great Britain, Holland and France, the literatures of these countries often address complex post-colonial histories and the multilingual environs of post-independence life. We asked Asymptote Editors-At-Large Theo, Norman, and Khai, to tell us more about a local writer worth knowing more about, in celebration of national freedom and identity.

Few remember the scene, but for two weeks in November 1960, passers-by on Singapore’s busy Stamford Road stopped to cheer on forty librarians as they formed a human chain to transfer 150,000 books – then the entire national collection – from the dusty shelves of the old colonial museum to a new, purpose-built National Library. Singapore had just achieved self-government, and amid rapid political change, the city was in the mood for new beginnings. Behind this audacious plan was Hedwig Anuar: writer, activist, war survivor, and the first Singaporean Director of the National Library.

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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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