Essays

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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Our Shared World of Language: Reflections on “US” Poets Foreign Poets

If I am a person, I make things with language. If I am a poet, I make art with language.

Today, as a sequel to this previous post, we are continuing to feature reflections on the computationally assembled poetry anthology “US” Poets Foreign Poets (ed. MARGENTO, frACTalia 2018) from some of the most outstanding contributors to the collection.

 “US” Poets Foreign Poets was launched in 2018 at the Electronic Literature Organization Conference and at Bookfest by the collective editor MARGENTO, featuring a line-up of Chris Tănăsescu, Diana Inkpen, Raluca Tănăsescu, Vaibhav Kesarwani, and Marius Surleac. The book won accolades from major theorists and practitioners in the genre such as Christopher Funkhouser, Maria Mencia, and David Jhave Johnston. It features both digital and page-based poets, represents and analyzes the resulting corpus as network graphs, and also includes an algorithm that expands the initial corpus by identifying poems that would “fit in,” that is, display certain stylistic features tracked down by computational analysis.

Regarding the previously mentioned way in which the anthology analyzes and expands its own contents, digital poet and critic Christopher Funkhouser has commented that, “I have never, in three decades of study, seen a literary anthology so determined to generate something out of itself, something beyond a 1:1 conversion, and then successfully do so. What an interesting idea, to both transcreate and more literally translate the contents of a collection of writing. Algorithmic, linguistic, and graphical expansion here grabs and holds onto my attention every time I delve into the book.”

In today’s feature, we choose to illustrate this “transcreation” Funkhouser speaks about as it goes even beyond the covers of the anthology, and continues in the digital or digitally inflected creative and/or critical work of four major names in contemporary electronic literature and digital humanities: John Cayley, Johanna Drucker, Alan Sondheim, and Brian Kim Stefans.

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The 24-Hour Language Experiment: Timothy Maxymenko’s US2

What would happen if two people who do not have a common language tried to communicate with each other for twenty-four hours?

On an evening in March this year, the door of an empty shop in Shoreditch, east London, opened for the first time in twenty-four hours. Inside, the white walls were covered with a jumble of apparently random words in different languages. This was not the work of kids practising their graffiti skills, nor a ritual summoning of dark forces by local satanists, but the culmination of a twenty-four-hour performance by two artists: Timothy Maxymenko and Iris Colomb, who had spent the time learning to communicate with each other through a simple set of rules before inviting the public to join a wider conversation about the work.

Maxymenko, who devised US2 and first staged a version of it in Kraków, is a Ukrainian artist based between London and Kiev; Colomb is a French artist, poet, curator, and translator. Between them, they speak several languages, with French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian forming parts of their word-by-word dialogue, although English predominated.

The initial idea for US2 came from Maxymenko’s experience while on an artist’s residency in Montenegro in 2016, when he was trying to talk to local people, who speak a variant of Serbo-Croatian. Having a knowledge of Slavic languages made things easier—Ukrainian is his mother tongue and he is also fluent in Russian and Polish: “Sometimes I had to choose the same word in different languages and adjust it, until the person I was talking to noticed the similarity in the root of the word. The more you know languages from one group, the easier it is to understand the others by collecting them like a puzzle.” This made him wonder what would happen if two people who do not have a common language tried to communicate with each other for twenty-four hours and how many words they would need. “Then I began to think about how to create all the necessary conditions for the experiment.” READ MORE…

Who Will Win the 2019 Man Booker International?

I tried to decipher from their inflection and word choices whether perhaps one of the books held their attention more than the others.

We know you’re just as eager as we are to learn who will win the Man Booker International Prize tomorrow, so we’ve enlisted our very own Barbara Halla to walk you through her predictions! A member of this year’s Man Booker International Shadow PanelBarbara has read every book on the short- and longlists, making her our resident expert. Read on for her top 2019 MBI picks!

Last year, someone called the Man Booker International my version of the UEFA Champions League, which is fairly true. Although I don’t place any bets, I do spend a lot of my time trying to forecast and argue about who will win the prize. And I am not alone. For a community obsessed with words and their interpretation, it is not surprising that many readers and reviewers will try to decipher the (perhaps inexistent) breadcrumbs the judges leave behind, or go through some Eurovision level of political analysis to see how non-literary concerns might favour one title over the other. Speaking from personal experience, this literary sleuthing has been successful on two out of three occasions. After a meeting with some of the judges of the 2016 MBI at Shakespeare & Company, I left with the sense that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) would take home the prize that year. In 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) seemed to be everyone’s favourite, and despite a strong shortlist, I was delighted, although not shocked, to see it win.

The winner of this year’s Man Booker prize is proving more elusive. The shortlist is strong, but no one title has become a personal, or fan-, favourite. And I find the uncertainty at this stage in the competition very interesting. It is almost in direct contrast to how the discussion around the prize unfolded between the unveiling of the longlist and the shortlist. When the longlist was announced on 12 March, it was immediately followed by a flurry of online reactions that are all part of a familiar script: despite predictions by “expert” readers, few big names and titles made it onto the longlist. With good reason, some literary critics addressed the list’s shortcomings with regards to its linguistic and national diversity. Independent presses were congratulated for again dominating the longlist, a reward for their commitment to translated fiction. But as dedicated readers tackled the longlist head-on, there was a general feeling of disappointment with a good portion of the titles, which allowed the best to rise to the top quickly.

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Thirteen Keys to a Doorless House in Toledo: On Tela de sevoya by Myriam Moscona

The Ladino language has etched on her tongue the addresses of countless houses in the Jewish Quarters of Toledo and Burgos.

Myriam Moscona’s Tela de sevoya (Onioncloth) was published in English in 2017, translated from the Ladino by Antena (Jen Hofer with John Pluecker). In today’s essay, Asymptote’s Sergio Sarano, himself a Ladino speaker, uses Moscona’s book as a starting point to explore the language and its history, shaped by the complex migrations of the Jewish diaspora. Sergio also discusses Ladino’s current status as an endangered language and highlights the important role that Moscona, as one of just a few writers who continue to publish in Ladino, has to play in keeping the language alive.

“I come upon a city
I remember
that there lived
my two mothers
and I wet my feet
in the rivers
that from these and other waters
arrive to this place”

—Myriam Moscona

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The Miracle Born of Everyday Reality, Or What We’ve Learnt About Ourselves

Yet, against all the odds, Čaputová prevailed. What does this mean for the future?

Image credit: Mikuláš Galanda

In an exclusive for Asymptote, Slovak writer Jana Juráňová reports on last month’s groundbreaking presidential election in her country.

It took just two weeks since Zuzana Čaputová was elected Slovakia’s first woman president for the press to stop talking about this astonishing event and pivot to other domestic issues. As our media are preoccupied with things like the malfunctioning ruling coalition, which insists on clinging to power come what may, the population has slowly reconciled itself to the fact that this gang will continue lining their own pockets and haemorrhaging Slovakia’s economy, even if it bankrupts the country. Robert Fico, the former Prime Minister and chairman of SMER-Social Democracy—the senior partner in the coalition government whose links with real social democracy are actually rather tenuous—keeps promising new “social packages,” like some freshly crowned fairy tale king tossing gold coins from a carriage, making economists shudder at the thought of how much all these “free” handouts will cost. A lot of coverage has also focused on the creation of a new party, announced by outgoing President Andrej Kiska after extensively agonising over whether to stay in politics or not. While he kept the public guessing with vague statements, two smaller parties emerged, including Progressive Slovakia, which nominated its deputy chairperson Zuzana Čaputová as its candidate in the presidential election (she resigned from her previous position after accepting the nomination). At that point, the party’s ratings were quite low and she was a relatively unknown environmental activist and lawyer. Despite losing ground, SMER-SD remains the strongest party in parliament, polling 20% support, a figure all the more remarkable in the wake of the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée a little over a year ago, and given the endless supply of scandals involving the party’s top officials. In this set-up, Kiska’s new party is likely to attract the mainstream electorate, currently composed of reluctant voters and non-voters. No wonder that passions are running high within the panicking coalition following the news of the President’s new party, as well as among opposition parties worried that the newcomer will take away their votes. Amidst this turmoil, the fact that the first woman president in Slovak history will take office almost 100 years since the day women’s suffrage was won in postwar Czechoslovakia in 1920 seems to have slipped people’s minds.

We have been plagued with so many problems that we regularly forget the most pressing of them. That the greatest scandal of recent years—the murder of Ján Kuciak—has not been forgotten is only thanks to the huge effort on the part of journalists who have managed to publish a steady trickle of news on the criminal investigation, as well as the young activists behind a new movement, For a Decent Slovakia. Other burning issues have been rapidly cooling off, as Slovakia returns to the state of the proverbial frog that didn’t manage to leap out of the boiling kettle in time and is slowly getting used to living at boiling point without even realising it’s been cooked.   READ MORE…

Grab the Nearest Buoy: On Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni

It’s a Euclidean landscape, stripped down and elementary, where desire is literally having to feel around in the dark.

How did a book of Greek poetry become one of the most-discussed and most-lauded pieces of contemporary European literature? Garrett Phelps, Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote, explains what makes Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy is so unusual—and so difficult to describe.

Late last year, Shoestring Press published a complete edition of Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy, translated into English from a newly revised text. Not long after the first volume appeared in 2009, the work became the subject of near-unanimous praise. Fastforward about a decade and it’s widely acknowledged as a crucial addition to the literary canon, the strongest signs being its frequent inclusion in university curricula and its reputation in high circles as a masterwork, a post-modern epic, and a dystopian allegory for the cultural collapse of the West, whose legacy is only despair and rubble and war. Translations into French, English, and German have made it one of the most reviewed works of contemporary European literature, which is rare for any book of poetry and especially one written in Greek. That it’s a masterwork, or at least really near being one, is true. I gathered as much after my first encounter with it a few years ago, when Asymptote featured an extract from Shorsha Sullivan’s translation of Z213: Exit. It floored me back then and still does now.

I’m thankful that I read it before looking at anyone else’s thoughts, because the label “post-modern epic” is misleading, useful only for jacket copy. It reminds me of somebody like Umberto Eco, whose novels are long and fussy, and more about literature itself than that other rich wellspring known as real life. Dimitris Lyacos’ trilogy is definitely not that: whatever runs through its heart is too raw. Other postmodernists with actual talent, like Kathy Acker, are also a very different cut of writer. They tend to deal with ubiquitous cultural products—e.g., movies, music, targeted ad copy, the novel—whose influence pervades, or even dictates, modernity. Their work is heavy on pastiche and ready to relate, sometimes in a single breath, subjects as disparate as Nascar and archaic Greek poetry. Lyacos shares their skepticism of reigning cultural myths, although for him they’re free from the baggage of ideology, manifest destiny, and sense of self. Instead, myths revert to their most embryonic forms, such as the Homeric journey, leading some critics to argue that Poena Damni is in fact more modernist than post-modern. They’re right, too, but the claim sounds so dry when read aloud that I’ve already lost interest. Anxiety about missing the point usually means literature is doing its job. READ MORE…

On Yu Yoyo, Language, and the Unsayable

from solitude I try to excavate / the human / but what I pull off are hairs from the haunches / of an animal

Poetry is a never-ending lesson in precision. The distillation of thirst, the evocation of experience, the cauterization of an open wound. Between the poets of the world and their various works there is a common acknowledgement of restraint—there is only so much we can do with words, and only so much words can mean. Claude Lévi-Strauss originated the term “floating signifier” to describe language that has only vague or contextual denotation, and in our contact with literature we gradually come to understand that such abstraction is the enemy of poetry. So we step gingerly around the words we know contain too much to unpack. Words like “hurt,” or “death,” or “love.”

Floating signifiers are especially insecure in translation, in which one often has to choose between music and intention, double meanings or single ones, visual effect or faithful retellings. They present a particular dilemma because a floating signifier in one language may not be one in the other. The Chinese language, painting with a full palette of the pictorial, the symbolic, the historical, and the literal, has a tangibility that does not lapse into the vague as easily as English does. Ernest Fenollosa, in his (flawed but admirable) studies, characterized Chinese characters as a medium for poetry. It is not that Chinese is inherently more possessive of the elusive idea of poetics, but rather that the facets of Chinese language that enchanted Fenollosa with their invocation of poetry are also what result in headaches for translators. We do not count our losses in translation. Instead, we admire the growth a poem may undergo as it leaves its writer’s hand and wanders onto the page, how it may cross oceans and national borders, how it lives, how it is alive, the way we know language to be.

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