Interviews

An Interview with Asja Bakić

It seems to me that people today tend to underestimate Eros in literature when it’s obvious that the best books are full of it.

Asja Bakić’s short-story collection Mars, translated by Jennifer Zoble, is slated for release by the Feminist Press in March of 2019. Though she’s a prolific poet, short-story writer, translator, and blogger in the former Yugoslavia, Mars will be her first publication in English. Bakić grew up in a turbulent Tuzla, Bosnia, lives now in Zagreb, Croatia, and laments the limitations that national borders place on literary exchange. The twists and turns in her speculative narratives leave readers suspended in a heady no-man’s-land between Earth, Mars, and the moon; life, death, and purgatory. Bakić speaks with Asymptote’s Assistant Editor Lindsay Semel about translation, Eros in literature, and the proliferation of ideas.

Lindsay Semel (LS): You often participate in literary events around the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe. Can you tell me about what you’re seeing there? What interests or bothers you? What trends are emerging? Which voices are notable? How is it different for you, interacting in virtual and physical spaces as an artist?

Asja Bakić (AB): Well, I am seeing my friends. We all know each other. Most of us were born in the same country in the eighties; the language is still the same if you ask me. It doesn’t matter if I go to Belgrade, Novi Sad, Skopje or Tuzla—it feels like home. The problem is that the crude political divide doesn’t let us read each other the way we should. I try to pay attention to what is published in Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, but I fail miserably. The borders do not let books go through, so you have a Croatian author who must publish their book in the same language three times—for the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian markets, which is ridiculous. We have four versions of Elena Ferrante. Do we really need to publish the same book repeatedly? Wouldn’t it be better if we were to translate and publish different and new voices? That is why I prefer the internet. You find your friends there, you read each other, you comment—it is livelier. The internet is more real nowadays, because it doesn’t try to deny common ground.

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The Multilingual Carpathians: Weronika Gogola in Conversation

“Only by picking up a magnifying glass and taking a close look at things can you see the truth about yourself and others.”

Weronika Gogola is a Polish writer and translator from Slovak and Ukrainian. Her first autobiographical book Po trochu (Little by Little, 2017), which depicts her childhood in the small village of Olszyny in the Carpathian mountains, is composed of “stories from real life that are usually told bit by bit, in snippets and fragments.” The book was nominated for several literary prizes and in October 2018 won the Conrad Award for a prose debut. For the past three years, Gogola has been based in Bratislava, where Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, caught up with her last November.

Julia Sherwood: First of all, congratulations on winning the Conrad Award! I loved your book and think that the prize was more than deserved. What does it mean for you?

Weronika Gogola: This award is incredibly important to me, especially since, in the case of the Conrad Award, it’s not just the judges who decide but, first and foremost, the readers. I’m incredibly grateful to them. Besides, a prize is a kind of validation, as well as a bargaining chip for the future. I know that sounds unfair but that’s how the world works—the more prizes and nominations you have the more seriously you are taken. Unfortunately. But, of course, it’s nice to be appreciated. In addition, the Conrad Award includes a grant, which has allowed me to concentrate on my writing without financial worries.

JS: Your book is very firmly located in the world of your childhood. You grew up in a small village in rural Poland, yet ended up living abroad, and are currently based in Slovakia. Were you already living abroad while working on your book, and did the geographical distance give you a new perspective on the place, or did this make the writing more challenging?

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An Interview with Alexander Dickow

I think poetry and translation have always been intertwined.

Alexander Dickow has been Asymptote’s Communications Manager since April 2017. He is also a talented translator: in 2018, he received a prestigious PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to translate Sylvie Kandé’s Neverending Quest, and was a runner-up in Asymptote’s 2013-2014 Close Approximations Translation Contest. As a scholar at Virginia Tech, Alexander Dickow specializes in French and Francophone literatures and cultures. And as if all of these activities didn’t keep him busy enough, he’s also a respected bilingual poet. He published his very first book, Caramboles, a French/English bilingual poetry collection, with publisher Argol in 2008, and a French poetry collection, Rhapsodie curieuse, with Louise Bottu in 2017. His first poetry collection in English, Trial Balloons, appeared in 2012 with Corrupt Press, and his latest work, Appetites, has just been published in 2018 by MadHat Press. As a bilingual poet herself, Asymptote’s Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production) Lou Sarabadzic wanted to know more about his views on multilingualism, poetry, and the creative process.

Lou Sarabadzic: Your latest collection, Appetites, has just been published by MadHat Press. In a 2016 interview, you said that you were “fatally allergic to titles.” However, with such a strong theme connecting your poems, eloquently announced by a single word, “Appetites,” I have to ask: what came first? Was it the collection’s title? The idea? Or individual poems which happened to share this common theme?

Alexander Dickow: The poems came first—I wrote a whole slew in a short period, maybe a month, with the culinary themes. It occurred to me at some point that more or less everything I’ve done is related in some way to eating: my first book was Caramboles, which designates the starfruit, among other things, and it contains a culinary poem or two also, and Rhapsodie curieuse, in French, is based around the central emblem of the persimmon. My first publisher found the title Caramboles, but the others were my choice. So I guess what came first was the obsession—then the poems, and then the actual title. Of course, food is what I refer to elsewhere as a “paravent” topic—i.e. it’s a vehicle for talking about something else, much like love or politics as subjects of poems.

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An Interview with Jordan Stump

The words on the page told me everything I needed to know.

Our final Asymptote Book Club selection for 2018 was The Barefoot Woman, Scholastique Mukasonga’s “haunted and haunting love letter” to her mother. In this latest edition of our Book Club interview series, translator Jordan Stump tells Asymptote’s Alyea Canada why he leapt at the chance to translate both The Barefoot Woman and Scholastique Mukasonga’s earlier memoir, Cockroaches, and why “this is a really good time for translation.”

Already broken a few New Year’s resolutions? How about making one you’ll really enjoy? Like reading the world with Asymptote Book Club, now open to E.U. residents! It’s still not too late to pledge to read adventurously in 2019: Sign up for the Asymptote Book Club by Jan 16 and receive your first book in January!

Alyea Canada (AC): How did you come to translate The Barefoot Woman? What drew you to Scholastique Mukasonga’s work in general and to this book in particular?

Jordan Stump (JS): It was Jill Schoolman who introduced me to Mukasonga’s work, not long after Notre-Dame du Nil was published. I was immediately taken by it, so when the chance to translate Cockroaches and The Barefoot Woman came along, I leapt at it immediately. I translate books that say something in a way that strikes me as so perfect I want to try to say it myself—like learning to play a piece of music you particularly love instead of simply listening to it.  Reading is like listening; translating is like playing. There are always many reasons why a given book has that effect on me, but in this case I loved the sharpness of Mukasonga’s eye, the graceful construction of her chapters, the way a story wrapped up in unimaginable loss is told with a little smile, and the way in which that smile sometimes abruptly disappears.

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Meet the Publisher: Book*hug’s Hazel Millar and Jay MillAr on French Canadian Literature in Translation

"We realized that we were interested in risk."

Book*hug is an independent Canadian publisher based in Toronto. Since 2004, the press has been committed to bringing underrepresented voices into print and to pushing the boundaries of what literature can be. Book*hug’s first title was translated from the Danish and the press has gone on to publish numerous Scandinavian works in translation alongside French Canadian titles. Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, sat down with co-publishers Hazel Millar and Jay MillAr, to chat about their interest in works that take a risk, how translation fits in with what they’re doing as a press, and a few of the titles by French Canadian authors that they’re excited about.

Sarah Moses: How did Book*hug get started?

Jay MillAr: The first book that we ever published was a translation. The Toronto International Festival of Authors always has a country of focus and in 2004 it was Denmark. A focus of the festival that year was on Denmark and there were all these writers coming to Toronto that didn’t yet have books translated in English so the assistant to the director was calling publishers and asking them if they would consider applying for money from the Danish Arts Council and then producing a book in English by one of the authors coming to the festival. I was working at Coach House Books at the time but they didn’t want to do it so I asked if it would be okay if I did it with my imprint, BookThug, which was at that time more or less a chapbook press. They said sure, go ahead, so I applied for the money and received a grant to cover the translation of a book called Pencil of Rays and Spiked Mace, selected poems by Niels Lyngsø, which was translated by Gregory Pardlo, an American poet who had been living in Denmark for some time and was interested in translation.

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In Conversation: Ivana Bodrožić

When you tell and retell something, sometimes you reach a point when you can no longer remember the event itself, but only the story.

To mark the anniversary of the Asymptote Book Club, we’re delighted to be publishing our first author-translator interview. Ivana Bodrožić, author of The Hotel Tito, speaks to her English translator, Ellen Elias-Bursać, about the events that led to her debut novel, the book’s initial reception in Croatia and Serbia, and how she went from being “everybody’s sweetheart” to being attacked by nationalist critics.

In a conversation that gets to the heart of the novel, Ivana Bodrožić reveals which scene was most difficult to convey on the page, and explains why she needed a police guard for her book-signing in Belgrade.

Ellen Elias-Bursać (EEB): What started you writing The Hotel Tito?

Ivana Bodrožić (IB): Ever since I first learned how to write I have been writing down anything that seemed important, the things that formed me and my world; in my pre-teen years it was wise sayings, when the war was raging around us I copied out the lyrics of Nirvana and R.E.M songs, I kept a diary. Then I tried my hand at writing my own poetry: when I was sixteen I’d shut myself in my room and by the light of a candle, with a little bottle of vodka, I’d imagine I was Yesenin—until my mother knocked at the door. Writing was always something important for me and a little exalted; I see this now as an attempt at interrogating the world around me. When I came to understand, as an adult, that my childhood had been out of the ordinary, I began to think that in time I’d forget, as people do, all that had made my life what it was, what made my world and me as I am today. That is when I began jotting down fragments of memories and after I’d written out some forty pages I realized I was writing prose that said something, to me. That was the point when I realized I needed a protagonist through whose eyes and heart I’d narrate this piece of my life and the life of my whole generation who grew up during the war. My love of reading and writing and my specific life experience quickly gave The Hotel Tito its shape.

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The Anxiety of Translation: A Conversation between Ilan Stavans and Robert Croll

From a translator’s viewpoint (at least, from this translator), the best author is a dead author. That absence is a form of freedom.

Translation, by definition, is about dislocation. By traveling from one culture to another, our rootedness is turned on its head. In this dialogue on translation and anxiety, Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of NPR’s podcast “In Contrast,” and Robert Croll, translator of Ricardo Piglia’s three-volume The Diaries of Emilio Renzi (Restless Books, 2017–20), ponder the responsibility the translator has toward the original text, the discoveries of how unstable the target language is, and the realization that translation is an essentially destabilizing experience.

Robert Croll: For me, the act of translation always involves an underlying anxiety: my feeling of responsibility toward the original text, which is bound to the knowledge that my words will be taken to represent the author’s intentions, leads to a constant fear of being discovered as an impostor. But can experience in translation destabilize the way we read texts in their original languages?

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Meet the Publisher: Feminist Press’ Lauren Rosemary Hook on Feminist Writing in Translation

Now that Trump is president, people are like, “of course we need a feminist press.” But five years ago people were really questioning why.

Since 1970, Feminist Press has made it its mission to publish marginalized voices and authors writing about issues of equality and gender identity. From the start, founder Florence Howe focused on publishing works in translation from around the world alongside feminist classics by local writers. Almost fifty years later, the press’s catalogue continues to reflect these priorities. Senior editor Lauren Rosemary Hook spoke to Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, about the press’s approach to publishing in the current political climate, acquiring works from different countries, and titles in translation that readers can be on the lookout for.

Sarah Moses: How did Feminist Press get started?

Lauren Rosemary Hook: We were founded in 1970 by an English professor named Florence Howe. It was very much a reaction to the few women’s studies courses that were popping up at the time. I feel like that’s something we take for granted—women’s and gender studies—now that programs are available at every university. But I can count on only one hand how many there were across the country then, so it was a very tight-knit group. There was a lot of talk about how there weren’t many texts available by women—besides Emily Dickinson—especially in literature, and Florence was a part of this dialogue. A lot of feminist professors and activists at the time met up and Florence went away on vacation and came back and she had all these checks in her mailbox made out to the Feminist Press, and she was like, “I’m doing this?” It’s a really fascinating story.

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Translating the Ottoman Quartet: An Interview with Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi

In practical terms, communication with the author is difficult: we can only communicate through his lawyers.

Ahmet Altan’s writing is sprawling, ambitious, radical—so radical that the author is currently serving a life sentence on charges of inciting the plotters behind Turkey’s 2016 failed coup. In the latest instalment of the Asymptote Book Club interview series, Altan’s co-translators, Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi, reveal that their only contact with the author is through his lawyers. No written materials can be carried into or out of the prison where Altan is serving his sentence, but work continues on the final volume of the monumental Ottoman Quartet.

In conversation with Asymptote’s Garrett Phelps, Freely and Türedi give us an insight into how they came to translate Altan’s work, and why a novel sequence of novels dealing with the events of the early twentieth century has never felt fresher or more contemporary.

Garrett Phelps (GP): Like a Sword Wound is set during a momentous period in Turkish history and details the cycle of chaos which ultimately results in the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. As translators, did you feel the setting added to your burden of responsibilities?

Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi (BF/YT): Both of us are quite familiar with this period, so the setting as such did not present any particular problem. However, we were aware of the echoes of the current political situation in Turkey, and of how little the main political currents seem to have changed in over a hundred years. In practical terms, although Like a Sword Wound was written in modern Turkish rather than Ottoman Turkish, Ahmet Altan made an effort to reflect the language of the period, often choosing outdated words and phrases. In our initial meeting to discuss the translation, he was concerned about how we would approach this. We agreed to take the same approach he did—that is, to prefer older words and phrasing to evoke the mindset of the period while still keeping the language current enough to avoid alienating contemporary readers.

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In Conversation: Susanna Nied

Acclaimed translator Susanna Nied on polymath author Inger Christensen and their parallel lives

A giant in world poetry and experimental text, much of Inger Christensen’s influence can be seen cascading to many generations of writers, in several languages. Her book-length poem, Det (1969) shook the foundations of Danish poetry, and in its translations, continues to startle and affect readers profoundly. Her essays have been translated into English and collected into a volume for the first time. To mark this literary event, poet and former Asymptote team member Sohini Basak spoke via email to Susanna Nied, who has translated into English Christensen’s poetic oeuvre as well as the forthcoming book of essays The Condition of Secrecy (New Directions).

SOHINI BASAK: For those of us bound by the English-language, it is because of you that we’ve come to know of Inger Christensen’s poetry. And as you’re the translator of her complete poetic oeuvre, it’s very interesting that you started with her first book (Light), and then the sequence almost coincides with the order in which the original collections were published … although not entirely. How did you decide your working order?

SUSANNA NIED: I actually didn’t do anything like choosing a working order. When I started on Light, in the 1970s, I didn’t know Inger had written anything besides Light and Grass. I didn’t even know who Inger was, and I certainly didn’t know that I was going to become a translator, much less her translator. I was just a university student browsing the library stacks for something Danish to read for pleasure, and I happened upon this little bibliography of contemporary Danish poets. When I got to “C” I found “Christensen, Inger”.

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In Conversation: Canan Marasligil

What I find important is to talk from a personal place: sharing what you know, writing from what you know, expressing yourself with sincerity.

Canan Maraşlıgil’s world has always been a multilingual one. Currently based in Amsterdam, she was born in Turkey, spent her childhood in Belgium, and, as a student, lived for a short time in Canada. Today, as a freelance writer and literary translator, she often travels internationally to deliver workshops and presentations, and works in no less than five languages: English, French, Turkish, Dutch, and Spanish. Always involved in several inspiring projects at once, Canan explores literature through writing and translation, but also photography, video, podcast, and digital media. You can therefore easily imagine our joy when, in addition to all of her brilliant projects, she kindly agreed to schedule an interview with Asymptote’s team member Lou Sarabadzic.

Lou Sarabadzic (LS): You work mostly in French, English, and Turkish, and are regularly involved in projects dealing with multilingualism. What does multilingualism mean for you, and why is it so central to your work?

Canan Maraşlıgil (CM): Multilingualism is my reality. I grew up in a family who came from Turkey to Belgium. We spoke Turkish at home, I went to school in French, then I learned Dutch at school (Belgium is a trilingual country if you count German, but the second language we learned at school was Dutch). I was also hearing a lot of German in our living-room through TV and our cousins living in Zurich and Hamburg—I also have family who migrated to Germany. I started to learn English through friends of my dad who was working in a hotel as a night receptionist, and through popular culture—films and music. However, English only became part of my formal education much later. Now, I start my sentences in one language and end them in another. In my mind, everything is multilingual. Certain feelings come to me in one language, and others in another language. I also work in Dutch a lot, but I don’t really feel in Dutch, nor in Spanish, which is also a language I know, but use much less.

Multilingualism means seeing the world through many different lenses. You can try and understand issues and current affairs through different media in different languages. I think that’s a huge advantage in today’s world.

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In Conversation: Mui Poopoksakul

Thailand has become politically divided...so many young Thai writers are now turning back toward the themes of politics and history.

September’s Asymptote Book Club selection, Moving Parts, is a dazzlingly original collection of short stories by Prabda Yoon, “the writer who popularized postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature.”

Translating from Thai to English can be daunting, to the extent that it sometimes feels as though “you can never do the right thing.” Continuing our monthly series of Book Club interviews, Mui Poopoksakul tells Lindsay Semel about the challenges of translating a language with “a multitude of pronouns that are extremely nuanced,” as well as an affinity for elaborate rhyme and alliteration.

Lindsay Semel (LS): I was immediately struck by the aurality of Moving Parts. It’s full of rhyming prose and onomatopoeia. When you interviewed Prabda Yoon for The Quarterly Conversation, you said, “I feel like the alliteration can be recreated sometimes, but rhyming is more of a problem because the Thai ear is far more used to it. Translating Thai, you face the problem of translating poetry. You can never do the right thing. Someone will always say you did the wrong thing because you kept the sound or you kept it straight. It’s a real problem.” His answer didn’t offer much of a solution. Can you talk about some of the more challenging or intriguing examples in Moving Parts of translating what in English might be considered poetic language in prose?  

Mui Poopoksakul (MP): In Thai, people like to say two or three or four synonyms in a row if they rhyme or if they’re alliterative. The sound play isn’t intended to create extra meaning. The Thai ear is used to that sing-song quality, so it doesn’t feel like someone is suddenly breaking into a nursery rhyme. Rhyme was more of an issue in this collection, whereas in The Sad Part Was, the first Prabda Yoon collection I translated, alliteration was more present. In Moving Parts, there were a couple of big moments where Prabda really played up the rhyming—in “Evil Tongue” and in “Eye Spy”—I think as a nod to that element of the Thai language, so I felt that I needed to carry those mini poems over to represent the sound. So there are sentences in those stories where every clause rhymes. With him, these moments aren’t always intended to be particularly lyrical—some are just playful. “Eye Spy” includes a rhyme about theater seats. There are also smaller instances of rhyming: in “Mock Tail,” for example, there’s “flip or slip.” I try to pepper them in, but I also have to watch out that there is not too much of a sing-song quality in the translation.

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In Conversation: Clarissa Goenawan (Ubud Writers and Readers Festival Feature)

Meet Clarissa Goenawan in person at UWRF! Asymptote readers enjoy 20% off on a 4-day pass, just enter 'MPAS' at the online checkout.

Continuing our collaboration with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Asymptote is pleased to present this interview with Bath-Novel-Award-winning writer Clarissa Goenawan. Her novel, Rainbirds, released earlier this year with Soho Press, has garnered much praise from readers and critics alike. It has already been translated into several languages, including Indonesian, French, and Hebrew. Set in Akakawa, a fictional town near Tokyo, Rainbirds follows Ren Ishida as he retraces the life of his recently deceased sister. Navigating between sudden drizzles, cram school, and a strange arrangement between his late sister and a local politician, he attempts to make sense of her life and death.

Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, had the opportunity to converse with Clarissa Goenawan before her appearance at this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. In the following interview, we discuss how Clarissa has moved between languages and places, her Indonesian-Singaporean background, and her choice to set the novel in Japan.

Norman Erikson Pasaribu (NEP): Rainbirds is about the relationship of two Japanese siblings and how one discovers the other post-mortem. What inspired you to write about it?

Clarissa Goenawan (CG): The idea for Rainbirds started from a simple thought: “What if someone I cared about unexpectedly passed away, and I realized too late I never got to know them well?” The question left a deep impression, and I knew I had to tell this story.

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In Conversation: Kim Scott (Ubud Writers and Readers Festival Feature)

Asymptote readers interested in seeing Kim Scott in person at UWRF can save 20% on a 4-day pass by entering 'MPAS' at the online checkout!

In collaboration with this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which will be held from 24-28 October, Asymptote is pleased to present this interview with Kim Scott. An Indigenous Australian writer of Wirlomin Noongar descent, Scott has written five novels, two of which—Benang: From the Heart (1999) and That Deadman Dance (2010)—won the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award. His latest novel, Taboo (2017), was longlisted for the same prize. In addition to writing novels, he worked together with Noongar elder Hazel Brown to create the account Kayang & Me (2013), transcribing their conversations and interspersing her memories and his, her knowledge and his research, to create a family history of the Wirlomin Noongar people.

Scott is also involved in the Wirlomin Noongar Language & Stories Project—an initiative to reclaim Wirlomin stories and dialect for the purposes of fostering and promoting Wirlomin Noongar arts and culture, the wider Noongar community, and the Aboriginal community at large. Asymptote Editor-At-Large for Australia, Tiffany Tsao, had the privilege of interviewing him over the phone in late August 2018. What follows below is an edited transcript of their conversation. We hope you enjoy the first ever Asymptote blog post discussing the Noongar language!

Tiffany Tsao (TT): The power of language comes up often in your work: language’s ability to create and cohere a shared culture and community that will restore to the Indigenous characters of your novels a strong sense of who they are and where they belong. What was the process by which you came to this conviction about the necessity of language in Indigenous Australian identity building?

Kim Scott (KS): Particularly in Taboo it’s informed by the work I do with the Wirlomin Noongar Language & Stories Project. Earlier on, particularly in Benang, I was still working it out. Benang is in some sense an interrogation of the [Australian historical] archives, I suppose—a sort of deconstruction. And there was an awareness of if that’s all that you’re doing, then it’s a very reactive process. So the alternative, to find something deeper, more nurturing, is Indigenous language itself. And in that book, the sounds the narrator makes, which are so distinctly of place—that’s a metaphor in my mind for Indigenous language. That’s what grounds him so to speak, that’s what nourishes him. It’s almost inexplicable in the language of the archives.

There’s also very good research, particularly in Canada I think, that indicates a whole range of indigenous communities’ health and social indicators are much better based on the extent to which they are connected to their ancestral traditions, countries, and language.

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