Interviews

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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In Conversation: Emma Ramadan

I had to insert myself literally as a character, and be creative as a translator.

Our latest Asymptote Book Club selection, Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator, depicts a terrifying scenario for many authors. According to its translator, the main character is “an author’s worst nightmare”: a translator with their own ulterior motives.

In the latest installment of the Book Club interview series, Emma Ramadan (herself one of numerous characters in the multi-layered English translation of Matthieussent’s novel) speaks to Mallory Truckenmiller. Read on to find out more Ramadan’s unique experience translating Revenge of the Translator — a text that offers us a glimpse into “some of our darkest fantasies as translators.”

Follow up this conversation’s insights into the art of translation with our #30issues30days program, celebrating 7 years of Asymptote.

Mallory Truckenmiller (MT): One defining quality of Revenge of the Translator is its translation within a translation structure, with the translator actually entering the plot of the novel. As the English translator, your role adds yet another layer to the work. How did you approach this position? Did you find ways to insert yourself as a new voice or character within your translation?

Emma Ramadan (ER): Because the French novel Vengeance du traducteur is framed as a French translation of a (non-existent) English original titled Translator’s Revenge, creating my own English translation got a bit complicated. I couldn’t use Translator’s Revenge as the title of my translation, and at the end, when the narrator mentions a supposed “American translator” of Vengeance du traducteur currently undertaking the translation of the book into English in their city, that translator had to be me, that city had to be Providence. It had to come full circle and the reader of the English translation had to understand that this was an explicit reference to the book they were currently holding in their hands, a reference to my work, otherwise, the whole conceit falls apart. Which, in turn, adds extra layers: how faithful is this translation I’ve been reading? How much has this book I’m currently holding in my hands about a rogue translator been messed with in turn by its own translator? I had to insert myself literally as a character, and be creative as a translator, to do justice to Matthieussent’s multi-layered work and keep it from veering into total insanity.

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The youth carry the fire and the rejection against tyrants in their blood: An Interview with Gioconda Belli

This new rebellion has been a spontaneous movement, organized by the social memory we, as Nicaraguans, have after fighting another dictatorship.

Since the late 1950’s people in Nicaragua began actively fighting and opposing the Somoza dictatorship—Anastasio Somoza took power for the first time in 1937. In the mid-1970’s the opposition grew stronger, and in 1979, the Sandinistas came together, and launched the People’s Revolution. Guerrillas, artists, rebels, and civilians united against the somocistas. And on July 19th, 1979, victory was announced. The Sandinista Revolution brought together people like the Cervantes Prize-Winning Author, Sergio Ramírez, the former Catholic priest and poet, Ernesto Cardenal, the poet and novelist Gioconda Belli, and the current Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega Saavedra.  

Ortega later came to power in 1979 for a four-year period and then again in 2007. He has since become a mirror image of Somoza; he has been in office for more than ten years and has recently silenced, threatened, and killed members of the opposition.

In mid-April of this year, thousands gathered on the streets of Nicaragua to show their discontent against the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, in particular for issues relating to environmental rights, corruption, public health, and lack of transparency. Four months later, the protests have not slowed down and neither has the repression coming from the Policía Nacional de Nicaragua and other orteguistas. Every day, images of bravery and brutality come from Nicaragua. El presidente, who was once part of the Sandinista revolution that ousted the Somoza dictatorship that shackled the country for more than thirty years, has now become a tyrant himself and has betrayed the ideals that he, alongside writers and activists like Claribel Alegría and Sergio Ramírez, fought so diligently for in the seventies and eighties. 

Gioconda Belli, one of Central America’s most beloved and important writers, has openly criticized Daniel Ortega and his government. In early August, the poet and novelist won the Hermann Kesten Prize for her outstanding efforts in support of persecuted writers, and she joined the ranks of other prominent writers and Human Rights advocates, such as Harold Pinter and Iryna Khalip.

Belli, who was one of the artists that walked alongside the Sandinista revolution, next to people like Ernesto Cardenal and Carlos Mejía Godoy, says she’s hopeful. “There is always hope,” she says. She also admits she trusts in the Nicaraguan youth that has bravely fought for a fairer society. The revolution, she argues, in the hands of the young men and women marching in Managua, in León, in Masaya, is alive and well. “Whenever you think of tyrants, such as Daniel Ortega, you must remember that their time will eventually come,” she adds. Finally, art, music, and literature, according to Belli, are the tool Nicaragua has to plan for a better future.

More than three hundred people have been killed by the hands of the orteguismo since the protests began, on April 18th. Daniel Ortega has been in power since 2007.

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Translating Iranian Fiction: An Interview with Sara Khalili

For me, the most valuable gift of my long-term working relationship with Shahriar is the trust that has developed between us.

Sara Khalili is one of a handful of translators bringing contemporary Persian literature to English readers today. Her translations include works by Shahriar Mandanipour and Goli Taraghi, among others. After several years of reading her translations and communicating with her via email, I finally met her a few months ago at a PEN World Voices event in which she was interpreting for Hossein Abkenar, another Iranian author she translates. Meeting Sara was, for me, like meeting a kindred spirit; she has a calming presence and, as with many literary translators, one can feel how this is a labor of love for her. Following the publication of Moon Brow, a novel by Mandanipour that came out with Restless Books in April 2018, we conducted this interview. She speaks to us about the peculiarities of working with Mandanipour and the larger context of her work as a translator from Persian.

Poupeh Missaghi (PM): Will you share with our readers the story of how you became a translator? And what has been the biggest reward for you as a translator?

Sara Khalili (SK): Most literary translators will tell you that their work is a labor of love. It is the same for me. I get great satisfaction from working on literature. And being deeply proud of my heritage and culture, I find it gratifying and rewarding that in my own small way I am helping introduce the literary art of Iran to an English reading audience.

By trade and training I am a financial journalist and worked in my field for many years. I only thought about translation on occasions when the late Karim Emami would tell me that I was wasting my time, that I should just quit my job and translate literature, that I had a flair for it. Karim, a dear friend and a close relative, was one of the most eminent Persian literary translators, as well as a renowned editor and literary critic. Our back and forth banter went on for several years until in 2004 he called to tell me that PEN was publishing an anthology of contemporary Iranian literature and that I should work with him on the short story he had been asked to translate. As we worked on that story, Karim guided me and educated me on the art of literary translation. I was hooked.

Several weeks later, the editor of the anthology, Nahid Mozaffari, asked if I would translate a few more stories on my own. Of course, I would!

By the way, among them was “Shatter the Stone Tooth” by Shahriar Mandanipour. It was the first time his work was published in English.

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One Author, Many Selves: Murathan Mungan in conversation with Filip Noubel

On how many pages have I appeared and disappeared?

Murathan Mungan likes to describe himself as a polygamous writer: not only does he write plays performed across Turkey and Europe, including his widely acclaimed trilogy, The Mesopotamian Trilogy; he also writes essays, song lyrics, poetry, and novels that have brought him national recognition as one of the most inventive Turkish authors for the use he makes of the Turkish language. Being himself of mixed origins (Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish and Bosnian), he is very sensitive to the life of underrepresented groups such as women, Kurds, the LGBTQI+ community, and explores taboo themes in his creative writing. I interviewed Mungan in the Czech Republic in the Month of Authors’ Reading Festival where the guest country was Turkey. His latest works include a novel called The Poet’s Novel and a play, The Kitchen. He is currently working on a novel describing the urban aloofness of Berlin.

Filip Noubel (FN): Murathan, you embody a plurality of personal origins, and seem to favor characters from various minorities. Why is diversity essential in your life and in your work? And how is it perceived in Turkey? 

Murathan Mungan (MM): Many people live inside of me. I come from the city of Mardin, in the southeast of Turkey, a city close to Syria and not too far from Iraq. Mardin mirrored the diversity of my own family: my father’s ancestors came to Turkey in the 17th century from Syria, my paternal grandmother’s mother came from the Kurdish regions; my mother’s side is from Sarajevo, which is in Bosnia today. Though I was born in Istanbul, I grew up in Mardin and within a mix of cultures and religions, mingling with people who are Turks and Kurds, but also Assyrians, Alawites, Yezidis, and Armenians.

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In Conversation: Adam Morris

History is not entirely objective; it is what posterity makes of conflicting memories.

“Talk… speak… voice”: each word appears dozens of times in I Didn’t Talk, our July Asymptote Book Club selection. Beatriz Bracher’s novel blends together a chorus of voices, orchestrated by retiring professor Gustavo, to explore one of the darkest periods of Brazil’s history.

In conversation with Asymptote’s Jacob Silkstone, translator Adam Morris outlines how the novel came to be translated into English, why it resonates with a contemporary audience, and why the central question of whether or not Gustavo talked is perhaps best left unanswered.

Jacob Silkstone (JS): What led to you translating I Didn’t Talk? It’s the first of Beatriz Bracher’s four full-length novels to appear in English: do you have a sense of how it compares to Bracher’s other work?

Adam Morris (AM): I proposed I Didn’t Talk for Bracher’s English debut because its thematic concerns, although universal, seemed to possess fresh urgency in the context of ongoing political upheaval in Brazil. Censorship and various forms of state repression have re-emerged, and so has openly expressed nostalgia for a law-and-order society like the one the dictatorships professed to uphold. The crisis of democracy in Brazil is so severe that occasional murmurs of a return to military rule must be taken as a serious threat.

Of course, in the time since I first proposed the translation in 2016, authoritarianism has been on the march all across the world. I did not foresee that happening, but it makes the novel that much more timely—some fourteen years after its publication and nearly half a century since 1970, a pivotal year in Gustavo’s story.

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