Interviews

Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Mara Faye Lethem

Alicia Kopf is what some people call a writer’s writer, which is to say a reader.

What do artistic creation and polar explorations have in common? Is translating from Catalan more daunting than translating from Spanish? If a joke isn’t funny in the original text, should it remain unfunny in the translation? In the fifth instalment of our Asymptote Book Club interview series, Mara Faye Lethem gives Georgia Nasseh her answers to those questions, and many more…

Georgia Nasseh (GN): You translate from both Catalan and Spanish. What are some of the differences you encounter when you translate from Catalan rather than Spanish, or vice versa?

Mara Faye Lethem (MFL): I could answer that in a lot of different ways. But let’s see: Spanish has a vastly wider range of regional variations, and much better Internet forums. Catalan writers feel a special closeness to their language and are very grateful when foreigners learn it well. They are very generous about answering questions, so translating Catalan novels has changed the way I work with all novels—made the process more interactive, more collaborative.

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In Conversation: Rita Stirn

My book seeks to understand how women manage to become musicians in Morocco.

Rita Stirn is a translator, author, and musician who lives in Rabat, Morocco. Her book, Les musiciennes du Maroc: Portraits choisis (Morocco’s Women in Music: Selected Portraits) was published by Marsam in late 2017. Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Hodna Nuernberg spoke with Stirn about her new publication, Moroccan music, and language politics in the region.

Hodna Nuernberg (HN): How did you decide to write a book on Morocco’s women musicians? And how did being a woman musician yourself shape your approach to researching and writing the book?

Rita Stirn (RS): I’ve always been interested in the silences of history concerning women in art and music. When I started listening to the blues as a teenager, I realized music was a man’s world. Sure, there were plenty of female singers, but very few instrumentalists; I wanted to learn about hidden talents—the women in music who weren’t getting much recognition.

I came to Morocco in 2011. I paid a lot of attention to what was going on here musically. Whenever there was a celebration out on the streets—a marriage, for example—there were inevitably women playing music. So, I’d talk to them. They’d say, “Yeah, sure, people know us,” but none of them were online anywhere. They got all their gigs by word of mouth, and little by little, I began to find out about more and more women musicians.

Around the same time, I was looking though archives for photographs of women in music. All the images were of men. There was no focus whatsoever on women’s talents or the tradition of women instrumentalists, and that’s when the book project started to take shape in my head.

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In Conversation: Len Rix on Translating Hungarian

"Translation is itself an artistic enterprise, an act of co-creation, relying on empathy, intuition and imaginative insight."

Len Rix is best known for translating Antal Szerb’s works into English: Journey by Moonlight has been a long-time favourite, reissued many times. In recent years, Len translated Magda Szabó’s The Door and Katalin Street, both poignant novels about memory, integrity and the way history intrudes into the private realm. In February this year, he was awarded the PEN America Translation Award for Katalin Street. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large Diána Vonnák asked him about his remarkable journey to the Hungarian language, his thoughts on Szerb and Szabó, and the translator’s craft.

Diána Vonnák (DV): Not that many people take it upon themselves to translate from Hungarian without family roots or some other connection. One of them is Ottilie Mulzet, who says Hungarian is “like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.” What was it about the language that made you choose it? Do you agree with Mulzet and her emphasis on elasticity?

Len Rix (LR): It was initially the sheer sound that drew me to it, so strange and beautiful, with its soft and alluring vowels and diphthongs that simply do not exist in English, and its musical spoken rhythms. Then it became the elaborate and rigorously logical grammar, with its agglutinative case endings and “reversed” word order that drew me on. And all those wonderful new words!

This “elasticity” is partly to do with the age and historic isolation of the language, which have both acted to keep the case-endings and other suffixes intact. Old English and Anglo-Saxon were similarly agglutinative until the Nordic invaders arrived. They shared the same (Germanic) root words but had evolved different endings, which were soon set aside. Cut off from its Finno-Ugric cousins, Hungarian missed out on that. The one language to which it was exposed down the centuries, Latin, would have done nothing to diminish its tendency to ramify endlessly. Cicero’s “periodic” sentences can equal the best of Krasznahorkai. There is one in his Pro Milone, as I recall, that runs to fifty-seven lines of close print without a full stop.

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In Conversation: Stephanie Smee

As her translator, I have had the opportunity to sit quietly with her as she pondered the inhumanity of the Nazi regime when she was forced to flee

The Spring 2018 issue launch is just around the corner (stay tuned…) and it is full of amazing writing from around the world. This season we approach the question of family. Texts explore exiles, adulterers, and a levitating aspirin in our Korean Fiction Feature, headlined by acclaimed filmmaker Lee Chang-dong. Amid exciting new writing and art from twenty-nine countries, gathering together such literary stars as Mario Vargas Llosa and Robert Walser, discover “tiny shards” of childhood on the verge of experience as remembered by Jon Fosse—a giant of Norwegian letters in his own right—or not remembered by Brazilian author Jacques Fux à la Joe Brainard.

Although “unhappiness is other people,” according to Dubravka Ugrešić, we’re just as likely to be imprisoned in our own family, a predicament brought to light in Dylan Suher’s review of Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions. In a generously personal essay, Ottilie Mulzet reveals how she turned to Gábor Schein’s “father-novel” to unlock the secret of her intransigent birth mother, whose refusal to speak to her had “stood in [Mulzet’s] life like a monumental cliff.” Schein’s poetry also graces this issue, and in a timely echo of Spring and past horrors, he takes up the refrain of Dayeinu of the Passover Haggadah—it would have been enough for us: “Enough, if you or I still / hoped for something. Enough, if we forgot to remember…”

For some, family remains a hall of mirrors, leaving the outlook bleak for human brother- and sisterhood: “My path doesn’t lead to you. Your path doesn’t lead to me,” writes the Libyan poet Ashur Etwebi. At times, language cuts as deep as our common mortality, that kinship beyond all social roles, as in the poignant drama, The Last Scene. Echoing the resignation of Alain Foix’s death-row prisoner, poet Esther Tellermann laments, “breathe me / sister in death.” Others, like Cairo-based artist Amira Hanafi, strive to knit together connections between strangers. Her recently concluded installation, A Dictionary of the Revolution, deployed a vocabulary box of 160 words to generate conversations with more than two hundred people across Egypt.

As a special treat for our blog readers, we bring you a special interview conducted with this new issue in mind. As she prepared her enlightening criticism, Brigette Manion sat down with translator Stephanie Smee to talk about her translation of No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel. As Brigette explains in her review, “No Place to Lay One’s Head looks back over Frenkel’s life, from her youth as a bibliophile and her establishment of a bookstore in Berlin, to her journey across France and final passage into Switzerland. Frenkel presents a story of survival and resilience dedicated in her foreword to the memory of the ‘MEN AND WOMEN OF GOOD WILL’ who, with great courage and often at considerable risk to their own lives, helped and inspired her along the journey.” Happy reading!

Brigette Manion (BM): How did you first come across Françoise Frenkel’s memoir, and do you remember your initial response to it? 

Stephanie Smee (SS): I first came across Frenkel’s memoir after reading a review in Lire magazine. I had the good fortune to be in Paris when I read it for the first time, and many of the images she described, particularly of her early years in Paris, felt incredibly poignant. Perhaps my response to her very moving story was tempered by that. I also found her descriptions of different places so detailed and lyrical that they evoked a visceral response in me. I remember, too, being terribly affected by the immediacy of her writing, a characteristic of her memoir which truly sets it apart, in my view, from many other memoirs that are often written several years after the events that are the subject of the work.

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri

"I’m old enough to look back on my life and to think and to marvel, and also be terrified by the randomness of it all."

In our fourth Asymptote Book Club interview, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri spoke with Asymptote Assistant Editor Victoria Livingstone about her translation of Domenico Starnone’s Trick.

In this discussion about her work and the forging of her own artistic identity, Lahiri reveals why translating Starnone seemed like “a sort of destiny.” Lahiri draws us into Starnone’s fictional world, but also reflects on her own mutable relationship with language and writing, and on the marvelous yet precarious ways in which our lives unfold.

Victoria Livingstone (VL): I wanted to begin by asking you what brought you to translation. I just finished reading In Other Words in which you reflect on your decision to switch from writing in English to writing in Italian. Did you see translation as a natural progression after working between multiple languages and living in Italy? And what drew you to Domenico Starnone in particular? 

Jhumpa Lahiri (JL): During the initial part of my stay in Italy, I wanted to translate something, but I didn’t know what it would be. I was reading only in Italian for many years. As my reading progressed, I would think that I would like to translate this person, or that person. Once my Italian was stronger and my reading in Italian seemed to have a larger ongoing purpose and focus, translation was something that really intrigued me.

I was considering it in this vague way and then I read Lacci by Domenico [Starnone] and immediately felt that if I were to translate something, that this would be the book I wanted to translate. I felt very close to it. It spoke to me very deeply. It felt like the natural first step. That’s how it started. When he asked me to translate the book, we were already friends and I felt—I feel now—that it was a sort of destiny. Everything was properly aligned in the moment that I was drawn to the idea of translating and was ready to translate with the appropriate amount of distance. That was when Lacci, which became Ties, won a prize which enabled the translation to be funded. It was a series of fortuitous circumstances that led to the translation of that book a couple of years ago.

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In Conversation: Naivo and Allison Charette on Beyond the Rice Fields

"Each language has its own tolerance to gravity—or to weightlessness."

The Best Translated Book Awards longlist was announced yesterday, and it included Naivo’s singular novel, Beyond the Rice Fields. The first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English (from the French by Allison Charette), it comprises a narrative that unfolds like palm fronds. Set in 19th-century Madagascar, the narrative stem follows the evolving relationship between Tsito, a boy sold as a slave to a trader, Rado, and the trader’s daughter, Fara.

Naivo (the pen name of Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa), who is also a journalist, pairs a reporter’s unflinching approach to storytelling with a poetic style and distinctive orality that stems from the Malagasy literary tradition. The story moves from the Madagascan highlands through the midlands to the country’s capital, Antananarivo, the ‘City of Thousands’, and even to England. Through it all, the concept of “frontiers”—between traditions, social classes, countries, and historical moments—is posed as a question: how do we close the interstices between beliefs, and the gulfs between each other?

In Beyond the Rice Fields, Madagascar’s brutal history is revealed through individuals whose journey, relationship and thoughts are as important as the larger historical narrative, which sweeps them along, but is never in danger of sweeping over their story. In one instance, Fara’s grandmother’s tales dissolve into the outcome of the primary narrative. Here, the past is not viewed as finished, nor the present as momentary; rather, Naivo shows that the past is still with us, and that we are part of the past. This is evident even in his phrasing: the “evil red crickets” of an invading tribe; the juxtaposition of terms like “judge” and “earth husbands” within the context of a trial-by-poison. Although Naivo paints the march of time as implacably brutal, his is not a moral nor critical view of history; crimes are committed—in the name of both tradition and progress—but what is more important is what endures: love, nation, storytelling.

Asymptote spoke to Naivo and Charette about inspiration, the process of writing and translation, and the literary scene in Madagascar.

Alice Inggs: Allison, How did you come across Beyond the Rice Fields and how did you come to translate it?

Allison M. Charette: Back in 2013, I randomly found out that no novels from Madagascar had ever been translated into English. I decided to help fix that, and ended up traveling there the next year to meet authors, learn the culture, and acquire books. Beyond the Rice Fields was one of the thirty-some-odd books I brought home, but it was a particularly good one: it had been recommended to me by a couple of booksellers and several authors, who all called it one of the best literary debuts they’d ever seen. I read it and loved it, so it was one of the top 5 novels that I wanted to start shopping around to American publishers. I was fortunate enough to receive a PEN/Heim grant for it in 2015, which is how Restless got interested. And the rest, as they say . . .

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In Conversation: Alexander Cigale

Mandelstam's “argument” is inseparable from his music and, for me, it is that music that has always been primary.

The post-symbolist Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, as dazzling and immediate as he is daunting and complex, is best known in English for the early formal work of Stone (1913) and Tristia (1922). Mandelstam would mature into a poet of visionary modernity in the late 1920s and 1930s. Translator Alexander Cigale is working on an as yet unpublished new volume of selected works by Mandelstam and considers himself part of a Silver Age of Mandelstam translation, after the Golden Age of the 1980s and 90s. While earlier translations established Mandelstam’s reputation in English principally through Tristia and Stone, Cigale chooses to render many of the middle-period “Moscow” poems by Mandelstam, written in the late 1920s and 1930s, and heretofore less well-known in English.  

Cigale has also translated Daniil Kharms, a contemporary of Mandelstam and a poet of nonsense and absurdity akin to Lewis Carroll and Samuel Beckett, a poet who seems, at first blush, almost diametrically opposed to Mandelstam in temperament and aesthetic. Both Mandelstam and Kharms have become pillars of Russian twentieth-century poetry. Since publishing a volume of selected works by Kharms in 2017, Cigale seems poised to become an esteemed translator of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth Century—and, perhaps, of the twenty-first, since Cigale is also at work on the contemporary poet Mikhail Eremin thanks to an NEA Fellowship in Literary Translation.  

As a longtime reader of Mandelstam and Kharms, poet Alexander Dickow asks Cigale about the difficulties and rewards of scaling the highest peaks of Russian poetry, and especially that of Mandelstam’s glittering verse.

Alexander Dickow (AD): Alex, you just published in February 2017 a new translation of selected work by the OBERIU (Russian absurdist) writer Daniil Kharms, Russian Absurd: Selected Writings, from Northwestern University Press. Your latest project is a volume of selected poems by the celebrated Acmeist Osip Mandelstam. I’d like to start with a question about the historical situation of these writers who both reached their poetic maturity in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Kharms and Mandelstam were both destroyed by Stalin. How do you think this manifests differently in these poets’ work?

Alexander Cigale (AC): Stalin was cognizant of and acknowledged the genius of Mandelstam (in a phone conversation with Pasternak). I’m not sure Kharms was on anyone’s radar. He outlived most of his friends because the authorities dismissed him for a madman.

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In Conversation: Ghayath Almadhoun

My poems are full of death, but that’s because they are also full of life.

Describing Ghayath Almadhoun’s poetry in Adrenalin is anything but easy. The blurbs on the book call the collection ‘crucial political poetry’, ‘urgent and necessary’, ‘passionate and acerbic’, and ‘our wake-up call’, although we find out that Almadhoun’s own views on his poetry are slightly different. Written in the wake of the Syrian war, the refugee crisis, and a personal loss of his homeland, the poems in Adrenaline are formally experimentally and emotionally explosive. In a voice that is, in equal measure, full of wonder and irreverence for the turn the world has taken, Adrenalin dwells on war, empathy, displacement, suffering, love, and hatred unapologetically. Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham, and released by Action Books last November, this is the poet’s first selection of poems to be published in English.

The collection starts with the poem ‘Massacre’ (which can be read at our Guardian Translation Tuesday showcase), with the unforgettable lines: “Massacre is a dead metaphor that is eating my friends, eating them without salt. They were poets and have become Reporters With Borders; they were already tired and now they’re even more tired.”

Born in Damascus, the Palestinian poet Almadhoun has been living in Stockholm since 2008. The following interview was conducted over email and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sohini Basak (SB): As a point of departure, could you tell us which writers you have been reading these days? And are you working on something new?

Ghayath Almadhoun (GB): I am now re-reading Tarafah ibn al-Abd. He was so young when he died, in the sixth century (around twenty-six years old). He is a great poet and could be described as pre-postmodern as he was ahead of his times. I’m also reading Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal.

About my work, I have begun a new project—my fifth poetry book. I find myself in front of the question that I faced when I started writing more than twenty years ago: will I survive this time? Will I be able to write something new? And, like always, I punch the world in the face and continue writing.

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In Conversation with Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez

We mustn’t be allowed to be jailed by our own countries.

Last October, the Spanish publishing house Alfaguara put out Ya nadie llora por mí, the most recent novel from the acclaimed Nicaraguan writer, Sergio Ramírez and sequel to his 2009 novel, El cielo llora por mí (The Sky Cries for Me). A couple of weeks later, the Spanish Ministry of Culture announced that Sergio was the winner of the 2017 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, the most important literary award for Spanish-language writers. Other laureates include Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Sergio is the first Central American writer to receive this distinction. He has published around thirty books, two of which have been translated into English: Divine Punishment (McPherson & Company) and the 1998 Alfaguara Prize winning novel Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea (Curbstone Books).

Three months later, Sergio and I—his umpteenth interviewer since November—got together at a fancy hotel on the misty mountains of Guatemala City, hours before he presented Ya nadie llora por mí in SOPHOS bookstore. I imagined all the questions Sergio had answered during the past few months. What does it feel like to have won it? Where were you when you got the news? Can you give us a preview of your acceptance speech? I should ask him about his favorite Guatemalan dish, I thought, to shake things up.

Sergio is kind but equally incisive, serene, and voracious. He speaks with care and potency about Central American literature, being a writer, and Centro América Cuenta. Hosted in Nicaragua, this is the biggest literary festival of the region that seeks to strengthen Central American writers and bring them closer to the rest of Ibero-America. Sergio, with a cup of coffee in his hand, is also critical of the contaminated reality of his country. A reality from which his work often comes to life.

In Ya nadie llora por mí (Nobody cries for me anymore) inspector Dolores Morales has been discharged from the National Police, and he now works as a private investigator. He mostly handles cases about adultery for clients with no money. Then the disappearance of a millionaire’s daughter takes him out of his routine. In Sergio’s latest novel we also get to see how corruption and abuse of power underlie the revolutionary discourse of contemporary Nicaragua.

“As a citizen, I desire a different reality,” he says. “As a writer, I take advantage of it.”

Sergio is arguably the most important Central American writer today.

José García Escobar (JGE): What was it like to revisit detective Dolores Morales for your latest book? Did you have the story for Ya nadie llora por mí first, and then realized you needed Dolores to tell it? Or was it the other way around?

Sergio Ramírez (SR): I came up with the story first. I wanted to write about Nicaragua today, and for this, I needed a character like Dolores: a detective and former guerrilla. Noir fiction, or novela negra, as we call it, gives me the opportunity to look at the events I’m writing about from afar. With this distance I can add humor, irony. Also, given his background, this character helped work around that distance. Dolores is often bound by his ethic, a type of ethic he picked up from his years as a guerrillero; he uses that critical thought and critical distance for his work, but at the same time he’s always at risk of getting contaminated by that environment. He observes the situations as he would have in the past and is that moral nostalgia and critical distance that allows my character to lead the book.

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Martin Aitken

Love can be a terrible thing, as terrible as its absence.

Continuing our monthly series of Asymptote Book Club interviews, Martin Aitken discusses his translation of Hanne Ørstavik’s Love.

Aitken, currently translating the sixth volume of Knausgård’s My Struggle alongside Don Bartlett, tells Asymptote’s Jacob Silkstone how readers are now more open to the idea that “English isn’t all there is,” and why it’s sometimes better to “switch yourself off as a translator and just read.” And, given the novel’s title, there’s also time for a brief meditation on love’s potential to be “a terrible thing, as terrible as its absence.”

Jacob Silkstone (JS): Love strikes me as a book that changes tone dramatically when read for a second time. Apparently innocuous lines (“He thinks he’ll look out for her on the bus tomorrow,” for example) suddenly take on a tremendous amount of weight. Do you generally read a novel cover to cover before beginning a new translation, to get a sense of where the plot is heading, or do you start translating immediately?

Martin Aitken (MA): This is a very short book, a novella, and every sentence in the Norwegian has been faceted very carefully indeed. The translator’s challenge is to poise the target-language sentences in the same way. I couldn’t envisage embarking on a novel like this without having read it first. I used to jump in at the deep end a lot, with crime fiction especially. There’s always a risk of being caught out by twists of plot when you do that, though of course rectifying mistakes is a lot easier these days than I imagine it used to be. However, with literary fiction I now prefer to spend time with the original before getting started on anything. With a novel like Love, so much of the work is about immersing yourself in the atmosphere of the piece, and I think the best way into that is to switch yourself off as a translator and just read. Getting the sense of the thing as a reader first, listening to its music as you move through the story, is a different thing entirely from the focus applied in crafting the translation.

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Meet the Publisher: Groundwood Books’ Patricia Aldana on Children’s Literature in Translation

"The key—to have children be so entranced by the books they read that they will be a reader for life."

Groundwood Books is a Toronto-based publisher of children’s and young adult literature. The press was founded by Patricia Aldana in 1978 and almost from the start has been publishing Canadian literature alongside titles from around the world in translation. Groundwood’s catalogue includes books from Egypt, Mexico, and Mongolia, to name a few, and the press is particularly interested in publishing marginalized and underrepresented voices. Though Aldana sold Groundwood to House of Anansi Press in 2012, she remains active in the area of children’s literature. She is currently president of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) foundation and collaborates with the China Children’s Press and Publications Group, where she is responsible for bringing international literature to Chinese children. In an interview that took place in Buenos Aires during the TYPA Foundation’s workshop on translating literature for children and young adults, Aldana spoke with Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, about the qualities she looks for in books for children and the challenges of translating for young readers.

Sarah Moses (SM): When did Groundwood Books begin publishing children’s and young adult literature in translation?

Patricia Aldana (PA): Quite early, by 1981, I started doing translations of books in French from Québec. There were subsidies for translation from the Canada Council, which made it easier—especially novels. I was also going to Bologna and selling rights, and there I started finding books from other languages that were interesting to translate.

The Canadian market was quite healthy at that time and you could bring in books from other countries. But in 1992 provincial governments started to close down school libraries which affected the entire ecosystem of the Canadian market  and we had to go into the U.S. market directly and publish books there ourselves. A lot of our authors were known in the States because we had sold rights to them, to compete with the U.S. giants and to differentiate ourselves from them as by that point they had virtually stopped translating anything—we seized the opportunity to publish translations for a much bigger market. The Canadian market had deteriorated to such a point by then that it couldn’t really justify publishing a translation—other than of a Canadian author from Québec.

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In Conversation: Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky on Words for War

There’s a way in which great poetry goes beyond the specifics of language, time, and place, illuminating patterns.

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky are award-winning poets from opposite ends of Ukraine, writing in Ukrainian and Russian, respectively. They work together as translators from Russian and Ukrainian to English, having lived in the US for over a decade. When Crimea, where Max is from, was annexed by Russia, and the war started in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the geographic and linguistic differences they embody became markers of a conflict they were detached from, yet that was intimately close. The war gave Ukrainian poetry an impetus they could not ignore as translators, prompting them to assemble a collection that documents the war in its multiplicity, from various positions, modes of involvement, across languages. Words for War (Academic Studies Press, 2017), the resulting anthology, replants poetic testimonies of the war away from the local ground—there, the war loses some of its singularity—at once a document of this particular conflict and poems that speak of loss, pain and anger across borders. Today, Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Hungary, Diána Vonnák, discusses this groundbreaking project with Oksana and Max.

Diána Vonnák (DV): When I read the title of your collection, Wilfred Owen came to my mind as one of those poets who became iconic for English war poetry. He wrote this in 1918, just before he died: “This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War.” These claims are strong and for me they resonated with what you wrote in the preface: “Like broken furniture and mutilated bodies, these poems are traces of what had happened, as well as evidence that it did really happen.” What do you think about the relationship between poetry and war, the aesthetic and the political?

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky (OM/MR): Words for War is a provocative title. It’s also a difficult title to pull off, in that it can appear glib, easily interpreted in a hortative aspect: “Let’s get ready for war, sing some war songs, and say some war words!” For better or for worse, it’s not that kind of book. Our starting point was a series of observations: there’s a war in Ukraine, and people there think about it and talk about it. Politicians and administrators make speeches about it. Journalists and reporters cover it. It fills news channels and newspapers. Youtube users upload amateur videos from cities affected by war, and your own Facebook friends take different sides. In the streets, you see people in military uniforms; and you see civilians reacting to them, expressing a range of responses from gratitude to overt hostility. You see young men with missing limbs, with deformed faces. And then there are the endless witness reports. Because many people have been to war, and still more have been to the war zone, and they have stories to tell, and stories they prefer to be silent about. In short, war is ever-present, and it uses up a lot of words.

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Winter 2018: In Conversation with Translator Paula Gordon

What I love about translating the languages of this region is the richness of expression and playful use of language by native speakers.

Paula Gordon is a freelance editor and translator of Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin based in Delaware. She has lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, working in the nonprofit sector as a translator, and on the staff of the Sarajevo Film Festival. Her translation of Ilija Đurović’s “Pod čistom podu” (“Across the Clean Floor”), in our Winter 2018 issue, is the very first translation from the Montenegrin to appear in Asymptote. 

In her translator’s introduction, Gordon writes: “Many stories [by Đurović], but particularly this one, stand out for what remains unsaid as much as for what is spoken or described. “Across the Clean Floor” is told in the first person, but the narrator speaks tersely and dispassionately, leaving it to readers (should we be so inclined) to provide the backstory. It is as if we are observing a night in the life of this couple through a telephoto lens, or perhaps through a keyhole.”

Our interviews editor, Claire Jacobson, conducted this interview with Gordon.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): In your translator’s note, you talk about realizing that you were “filling in the gaps” in the narrative in English, and making changes (such as the tense) to your draft as a result. Where did you find yourself over-interpreting by translating, and how did you bring the piece back to its natural ambiguity?

Paula Gordon (PG): Interestingly, when I look back over my various drafts, I don’t find much proof in the text of what I said in my translator’s note. The biggest revision was in changing past tense to present fairly early on (and I tracked those changes, so I guess I wasn’t certain whether that would work or not).

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Rimli Bhattacharya

Doesn’t the strength of a work of fiction lie in its lack of closure?

Our second Asymptote Book Club interview is an in-depth discussion of Aranyak, a seminal work of Bengali literature translated into English by Rimli Bhattacharya.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Asymptote Assistant Editor Chris Power, Rimli Bhattacharya reflects on Aranyak’s enduring importance, how a bout of “language sickness” led to its translation into English, and why author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s “extraordinarily sensitive” portrayal of women was ahead of its time.

Chris Power’s review of the novel is available to read here.

Chris Power (CP): I’d first like to ask about the history of Aranyak’s reception. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay wrote this classic Bengali novel, based on his years spent in northern Bihar, between 1937 and 1939. What new significance does it take on in the twenty-first century? What inspired you to translate it? When did you first read it, and how has your reading of it evolved?

Rimli Bhattacharya (RB): Aranyak was serialized in the late 1930s—the same decade in which a clutch of other remarkable novels, such as Aparajito and Drihstipradip, were published. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was already celebrated as the writer of Pather Panchali. The interesting thing about Aranyak is that many forests meld in the novel, not only Bibhutibhushan’s years in Bhagalpur in the 1920s, but also his travels in Singbhum and Mayurbhanj in Orissa in the mid-1930s, as his biographer Rusati Sen points out.

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