Interviews

Words Containing Multitudes: Theodor Kallifatides on Writing The Siege of Troy

A basic human need is also to remember and be remembered. That is why we put one stone on top of another, we paint, we sing, we write.

In September, we were honored to present Theodor Kallifatides’ The Siege of Troy as our monthly Book Club feature. This poignant, multilayered novel intertwines a modern coming-of-age wartime story with a psychologically profound retelling of the classic Iliad. In the following interview, Assistant Managing Editor Josefina Massot speaks with the author himself on overcoming writer’s block, writing about Greece in a foreign land and tongue, and humanizing ancient heroes.

Josefina Massot (JF): You had an unexpected bout of writer’s block at age seventy-seven, back in 2015, after almost fifty years of uninterrupted literary output. The Siege of Troy was, I believe, the first novel you wrote once you overcame it. Did your writing process change at all as a result? What was it like, rediscovering your narrative voice in novel form?

Theodor Kallifatides (TK): Yes, it affected me and my writing greatly. I felt free from all expectations, from all demands from the publisher, the public, and myself, and my writing got wings it never had before. I did not care about anything except doing justice to my deepest feelings and ideas. I got back both my eyes. Before it, I always had—as most writers do, I dare say—an eye on what people would think about my work. Suddenly, I simply did not care. I was free. READ MORE…

“Guatemala has always produced great writers”: An Interview with Guatemalan Poet and Feminist Ana María Rodas

One day, poetry simply came out of me. One day, I was filled with poetry.

Wearing a thin sweater, a colorful scarf, and a dazzling smile, Ana María welcomed us to her house in Zone 15, Guatemala City. Outside it was pouring, much like when she presented her famed Poemas de la izquierda erótica (Poems from the Erotic Left), forty-six years ago. She offered us tea—“To fight back the cold,” she said, still smiling—and told us we had to do the interview in the living room, not upstairs, because, “There are books scattered everywhere; imagine, a lifetime spent collecting books.” And, yes, one can only imagine.

Ana María Rodas, born in 1937, is a veteran Guatemalan poet, journalist, and teacher. Her career spans more than sixty years. She has released close to twenty books, and her work has been translated into English, German, and Italian. In 1990, she simultaneously won the poetry and short story categories of the Juegos Florales de México, Centroamérica y el Caribe. In 2000, she won the prestigious Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature for her life’s work. She is also one of the leading figures of Guatemalan and Central American feminism. She has lived her whole life in Guatemala. And one cannot say this lightly. She grew up during the Jorge Ubico dictatorship (1931–1944), admired how the Guatemalan Revolution toppled Ubico in 1944, thrived during the so-called Ten Years of Spring, lamented the 1954 CIA-backed coup that removed the democratically elected, progressive president Jacobo Árbenz, and witnessed the atrocities of the Civil War (1960–1996). Many of her friends and colleagues were killed during that time. Alaíde Foppa, Irma Flaquer, and her dear friend, Luis de Lión, author of El tiempo principia en Xibalbá—considered one of the cornerstones of contemporary Central American literature. Even if she never picked up a rifle or joined the militarized resistance, her feminist struggle and intellectual defiance have influenced many generations.   

She’s not a cynic, though. Or bitter. She’s hopeful. “Even though we have a brute for president,” she says, “I believe in resisting.” And resisting, Ana María has done.

But as much as Ana María is grandmotherly and warm, as much as she’s a jokester and amicable, she is also analytical, astute, and disarmingly agile. She’s a force of nature, a rising tide, and an unmovable object. Her poetry is sensitive, electric, and subversive.

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Idiomatic Agony and Collective Vision: Izidora Angel on Bringing International Literature to the Forefront

I want to convince all publishers that putting the translator’s name on the cover of the book is the right thing to do . . .

Chicago-based Izidora Angel is one amongst only a handful of translators working to bring Bulgarian literature to English-language readers. Her experiences as an emerging translator working in an under-represented language prompted Angel to seek the support and knowledge of her peers, and what began as an informal workshop with fellow translators Lucina Schell and Jason Grunebaum has evolved into an international network of literary translators who seek to share resources and mentor each other, in addition to bringing literature in translation to a wider audience. Third Coast Translators Collective co-founder Angel spoke with Asymptote about forming the collective, the importance of community, activism, and her best translation practices.

—Sarah Timmer Harvey, August 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Can you tell me about Third Coast Translators Collective and how it came to be?

Izidora Angel (IA): When I joined the group in early 2016, it wasn’t yet the Third Coast Translators Collective (TCTC), it was still more or less an informal group gathering of Chicago-land translators started by Lucina Schell, who translates from the Spanish, and Jason Grunebaum, who translates from the Hindi. But people kept wanting to join, and we all had this great chemistry, so we thought, why not make it official? Have a proper name, a mission and vision, a website, a digital presence, readings. Now there’s over thirty of us; it feels like a powerful entity.

STH: Why is being part of a collective important to you?

IA: Community is essential, regardless of what it might be that is bringing you together. Humans are social animals, and we need that connection for life. As translators, especially if we are translating from at-risk or vulnerable languages like I am, belonging to a group like this is integral for collaboration, workshopping, and knowledge sharing. Including minority languages like Bulgarian helps to shape the mission of a group like TCTC in a really important way. READ MORE…

Co-Translation: Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn on Translating Juan José Millás’s From the Shadows

. . . Translation is a very curious combination of simultaneously being outside a text as an onlooker and deep within the guts of the thing.

For the month of August, Asymptote Book Club’s selection was From the Shadows, the English-language debut of acclaimed Spanish language writer, Juan José Millás. In the following interview, Asymptote’s Jacqueline Leung speaks to the novel’s translators, Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, on the pressures of translating a national literary hero, the various processes of co-translation, and how the novel’s pertinent themes of isolation and alienation relate to our current times.

Jacqueline Leung (JL): Juan José Millás is routinely recognized as one of the greatest writers in Spain today, and From the Shadows marks his long overdue debut into English. How (if at all) did these factors play into your process? I’m referring to critics’s inevitably high expectations regarding a literary master’s very first work in English translation, as well as the author’s own ability to potentially chip in on or judge the outcome. Was there an added sense of pressure or due deference on your end, or were you as free as ever to “play around”?

Daniel Hahn (DH): I don’t think it was a factor, actually—it’s certainly not something Tom and I ever discussed, whether between the two of us or with our publishers. You really just have to take each text as it comes, and simply commit to doing whatever it tells you to do, without fretting about expectations or reputations. Besides, while Millás is a big deal in Spain, I’m not sure the English-speaking world has been waiting on tenterhooks for a chance to read this translation—for all intents and purposes, he’s being presented to the Anglophones as a debut. Of course, this first book could turn out to be a stupendous runaway success, which would indeed put extra pressure and expectations on book two, but if that added pressure is the price we have to pay for insane bestseller sales, I’ll take it . . . READ MORE…

“I Feel Free When I Write”: Linda Boström Knausgård on Her New Novel, Welcome to America

I am my dark, inner twin when I write.

Linda Boström Knausgård’s second novel, Welcome to America, is set not in the United States, but within the confines of a Swedish apartment swollen with family secrets and contrarian silence. Following the death of her father—a tragedy she is convinced she engineered through prayerBoström Knausgård’s child narrator, Ellen, stops speaking. While the trauma inciting Ellen’s selective mutism is palpable, the young protagonist synchronously radiates power, wielding her silence as the only means of maintaining control in the face of a self-absorbed mother, her increasingly volatile brother, and the specter of impending adulthood. Meticulously translated by Martin Aitkin, Welcome to America is Boström Knausgård’s defiantly pithy portrait of a family disconnected and consumed by grief. On the eve of the novel’s publication in the United States, we asked the Swedish author, poet, and radio documentary producer about writing bravely, the experience of being written into someone else’s narrative, and the unexpected power of silence.

 Sarah Timmer Harvey, August 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Welcome to America is your second novel to be translated into English. Did you collaborate with Aitken on the translation?

Linda Boström Knausgård (LBK): I didn’t work with Martin on the translation. In fact, I didn’t hear from him while he was working on it. Martin is a very good translator, and I think that he’s produced a beautiful translation. I’ve read it twice in English, and I am very happy with it. I believe that if I had started to concentrate too much during his work and asked him all my questions before he was ready, I’d be exhausted. Our languages have a lot of differencessentences do not start, or end, in the same way. I know Norwegian and Danish very well, and when it comes to translating work into these languages, it can be difficult not to intervene too much. When I finally had a book translated into Finnish, it was a relief because I didn’t understand a word. I think it’s best to let go as much you can, but you then must also be happy when you finally read it. If you have a good translator, you should stick with him or her!

STH: When you are writing, do you consider the language in which you are writing? For example, how Swedish might shape and contain the narrative? 

LBK: I write in Swedish and could not write in any other language, never! The language forms the story; it is my frame, and so I cannot abandon it. I love to write in Swedish. I like how it presents itself on the page, almost like a surprise. READ MORE…

Flowing Speech: On the Complexities of Audiovisual Translation

It’s really beautiful to get carried away by your emotions while translating.

Over the course of its four-season run, U.S. television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend won acclaim and awards for its groundbreaking musical format, treatment of mental illness, and reinvention of romantic comedy tropes. Plus, it’s funny—really funny. Every episode contains jokes, quick banter, songs, and a slew of puns and double-entendres. Audiovisual translator Alicia González-Camino, who translated the scripts for Spanish dubbing, knew she’d have her work cut out for her. I spoke with González-Camino via email. Her responses to my questions, compiled below, illustrate her translation process and relationship to this project. Here she is, in her own words, discussing the show’s challenges and whether audiovisual translation counts as a literary art.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and translated from Spanish.

—Allison Braden, Editor-at-Large for Argentina

As a translator, I started out doing any translation that fell into my hands, mostly technical, and it was so boring. I didn’t enjoy translating at all. Audiovisual translation, on the other hand, allows me to be more creative. I have fun translating, and I can feel proud of the result when I successfully make a scene or especially complicated speech flow well and sound natural. It’s a kind of translation where, on the same day, you can have animated drawings with rhymes and little made-up names, something with mafiosos, full of cursing, and something funny and comedic. And in my case, since I translate from five languages, you can also change from one language to another in one day. The result is that you can have really engaging days thanks to the variety.

Plus, in the case of dubbing, the translation comes to life in the voice of the actors. And if you’re lucky, a translation of yours can become part of the whole country’s vocabulary when a show or movie is really well-known and some phrase takes hold in the popular lexicon for posterity. That hasn’t happened to me yet with my translations, but leaving my footprint through language seems incredibly fun to me, in addition to being an honor.

I guess audiovisual translation is somewhat literary, because we’re all tied to a style we have to respect. We approach works that have existing souls and, in some sense, we create works with new souls that our respective audiences can understand, provoking the same emotions and reactions as the original.

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Transcribing Spoken Dialects: Sharidan Russell on Language Ideologies in Morocco

I often think back to the famous saying that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

Sharidan Russell is a Rabat-based researcher who studies language ideologies. After graduating with a BA in Arabic and Middle East Studies from Dartmouth College, she was named a Fulbright fellow to Morocco, where she conducted research on transition of Darija, the dialect of Arabic spoken in the Maghreb, into a written language. Keenly interested in the ways new writing practices evolve, Russell’s work draws on sociolinguistics and the field of linguistic anthropology as she seeks to understand changing social practices through the lens of literature.

Hodna Nuernberg (HN): Morocco, where you have been conducting your research, has a very rich linguistic landscape. Could you please describe how Morocco’s languages interact and describe the role of Darija specifically?

Sharidan Russell (SR): Morocco has both official languages and what I refer to as “de facto official languages”. After its independence in 1956, Morocco began the process of Arabization by re-introducing Arabic as the language of government and education. By Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)—or Fusha—was meant. Today, MSA is the kingdom’s official language, but French, which is not in the constitution, functions as a de facto official language. There are very high standards for “fluency” in France and there are many ideologies around the continued use of French. In 2011, Tamazight—the name of a family of languages spoken by the Amazigh, or indigenous peoples of the Maghreb—became an official language in the constitution. Morocco is also home to a range of dialects, which are—or have been—largely unwritten. Darija is the most widely spoken of these dialects and it varies from region to region. Darija is also a de facto official language, in a sense, because it is so widely used for communication at a variety of levels, though it has no official status. Hassaniya, which is spoken in the south, is another dialect that is so different from Darija as to be mutually unintelligible. Hassaniya is recognized in the constitution—not as an official language, but as an important aspect of Morocco’s culture and diversity. Darija is the only of these that is not mentioned.

My research looks at the concept of language ideology against the backdrop of Morocco’s linguistic context. A language ideology refers to the thoughts and feelings we all carry about the languages we speak (or do not speak). For example, we sometimes see a stereotype in the U.S. about people who speak with a southern accent as being less educated. While stereotypes like this aren’t necessarily true, for research like mine it is important to understand where these ideologies come from and how they reflect other parts of the culture.

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“Unintentional Unity”: Deborah Woodard and Roberta Antognini on translating Amelia Rosselli’s Obtuse Diary

Translating Rosselli’s prose is not different from translating her poetry. Her language is equally challenging, her syntax equally subversive.

Amelia Rosselli’s work is deeply marked by her family and personal history. Born in 1930 to a British activist and a martyred Italian-Jewish antifascist, she lived as an eternal outsider in France, the US, the UK, and Italy. A polyglot with persistent depression, her poetry challenges. It challenges the confines of genre and conventional syntax, it challenges the society with which she was ever at odds, and it challenges the reader to accompany her through her brave literary wanderings. Rosselli ended her own life by jumping out the window of her fifth-floor apartment in Rome in 1996.

Obtuse Diary, published by Entre Rios Books in late 2018, is the first and only collection of Rosselli’s prose. The writing spans a number of years and is organized into three sections and two illuminating afterwords, one by the author and one by one of the translators. Asymptote’s Lindsay Semel spoke with Deborah Woodard and Roberta Antognini, two of the collection’s three translators, about the joys and challenges of rendering Rosselli’s stunning and difficult Italian into English.

Lindsay Semel (LS): Tell me about the origin of this project. How did you come to translate this text together? What was the collaboration process like?

Deborah Woodard (DW): Translating Amelia Rosselli’s Diario Ottuso into Obtuse Diary was quite the saga. It’s a little book, but it took forever to translate. Giuseppe Leporace, my first co-translator, and I brought out some sections of the Diary in The Dragonfly, a selection of Rosselli’s poetry, back in 2009. After we finished The Dragonfly and brought it out through Chelsea Editions, I decided to rework Obtuse Diary and publish it in its entirety.  When Giuseppe became too busy to review it with me, he graciously stepped down from the project. On Giuseppe’s suggestion, I worked on the Diary with Vanja Skoric Paquin, a talented young linguist with a particular gift for unraveling snarled syntax. When Vanja gave birth to her daughter she, in turn, stepped down. A year or so passed, and then I recommenced with Dario De Pasquale. Dario and I tore the earlier translation apart, sentence by sentence. When Dario became too busy to continue to translate with me (do we see a pattern here?), I was extremely fortunate to join forces with Roberta, my current—and from here on out, sole—co-translator on the final version. READ MORE…

All That Makes a Life: Jennifer Croft on Writing Her Memoir

Translation requires striking a balance between two people’s voices that can be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

From being the co-winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize alongside the writer Olga Tokarczuk, Jennifer Croft has just been announced as a judge of the 2020 International Booker Prize. Croft works across Polish, Ukrainian, and Argentine Spanish, and is currently translating The Book of Jacob, a nine-hundred-page epic by Olga Tokarczuk. She is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize.

In Homesick, Croft’s memoir, words and their meanings shift and shine through in unusual, tender, and life-transforming ways as the subject moves from a family home, to being the youngest person to be enrolled in her undergraduate class, to going through tragic heartbreaks. A most engaging read, the memoir itself has shape-shifted in interesting ways, having started as a Spanish novel and as a blog. The English-language version (Unnamed Press, September 2019) too is accompanied by photographs, which operate as their own language system, bringing, by turns, softness and sharpness to the storytelling. On the occasion of the release of Homesick, poet and previous Social Media Manager of Asymptote, Sohini Basak, spoke to Jennifer Croft over email.

Sohini Basak (SB): I want to start with the photographs. Could you tell us a bit more about the role of photography in childhood and consequently in your memoir?

Jennifer Croft (JLC): Although photography played an enormous role in my childhood and adolescence, I didn’t really remember that until I started writing Homesick. Because I was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina when I wrote the book, I wrote it in my strange Spanish, which is both foreign (since I started learning Spanish only in my late twenties) and very local (since I’ve only ever studied and spoken porteño Spanish in Buenos Aires). In that first Spanish-language version (called Serpientes y escaleras, coming out next year with Entropía), that language provided a sense of suspense about where this character from Tulsa, Oklahoma was going to go next, and how she was going to end up speaking the way she did. READ MORE…

What is Gained in Translation: Sarah Michaels and Jie Park on Teaching with Poetry Inside Out

Kids could really learn by doing both poetic, creative work and translation-based language work.

Poetry Inside Out is a cross-cultural literacy program designed to engage students from elementary to high school with collaborative literary translation. It was developed by the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco, California, and is now used in schools across the United States. The process begins when students receive a “poetry package” containing a poem in a foreign language, a picture and biography of the poet (written in English), and a “translator’s glossary” that provides meanings for the words in the poem. Students then split up in pairs to translate the poem “phrase by phrase.” Once they agree on a translation, they meet up with another pair of students to compare translations and to work on it further to “make it flow.” Lastly, all groups share their translations and discuss the similarities and differences across each group’s translation as well as the poem’s possible meaning. I first encountered Poetry Inside Out in a teacher workshop and was struck by the intensity of the process and by the sophisticated thought processes seen in videos of sixth grade students engaging in Poetry Inside Out.

Sarah Michaels and Jie Park, both professors at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, recently received an “Engaging New Audiences” grant to develop a curriculum and a seminar for ESL teachers to learn and use Poetry Inside Out in their classrooms. Both have been observing and documenting the implementation of Poetry Inside Out at Worcester public schools for more than six years.

Barbara Thimm (BT): Poetry and translation are unlikely subjects and skills to be taught in elementary and middle school. When and why did you get interested in Poetry Inside Out?

Sarah Michaels (SM): I first heard about Poetry Inside Out from Marty Rutherford, who was working at the Center for the Art of Translation and really revamped and energized it. We got Marty to come out here and give a workshop to a bunch of us teachers and do a Poetry Inside Out lesson in one of the schools that we collaborate with. I picked it up as part of a first-year intensive seminar with undergraduates: we did Poetry Inside Out in an after-school program at the same school where Marty had done her first lesson. That got undergraduates working with sixth graders.

Then Jie arrived, and she brought it to some teachers she was collaborating with in another school—teacher researchers who taught ESL. Probably the majority of kids at that school who speak English speak a language other than English at home, so there were lots of English learners and lots of bilingual kids in these regular classrooms.

Jie Park (JP): I was introduced to Poetry Inside Out six years ago when I got to Clark, and it really resonated with me as someone who looks at language and literacy with immigrant multilingual youth. But to answer your question: The teachers I work with would all say that translation makes so much intuitive sense when you’re working with multilingual youth because it is something these kids already do at home, for family members, for friends, at school, for classmates, for their teachers. That is, we are building on a tool or practice that they’re already confident and quite familiar with, and they have lots of ideas about the powers of translation but also the responsibilities, the dangers, or the stress. This feeds into what we’re trying to do, which is to build on the assets that kids come into the classroom with, not seeing them as lacking in something but to ask what they already have that we can leverage to help them. That’s why I think translation makes so much sense.

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The Multiple Worlds of the Writer: In Conversation with Margo Rejmer

I feel that I live longer than I do in reality, because I have three parallel lives . . .

Margo Rejmer’s spare, exacting prose and illustrious methods have earned her widespread praise for both her meticulous reportage and her discerningly detailed narratives. From recollections garnered from the survivors of Communist Albania, to the stories collected from the varied and elaborate landscape of Bucharest, to the grappling of relationships in certain toxic fictional characters in Warsaw, the worlds depicted are all at once worn with secrecy, curious with hope, and bold with the human instinct for survival. In this following interview, Asymptote’s Filip Noubel speaks to Rejmer on subjects of writerly process, choice under totalitarianism, and individual freedoms.

Filip Noubel (FN): You have written two books on the experience and the consequences of dictatorial Communism in Ceauşescu’s Romania and Hoxha’s Albania. What drew you to those countries that, even within the context of then Communist Central Europe, have been generally perceived as economically underdeveloped, politically very conservative, and unattractive as destinations?

Margo Rejmer (MR): Both of the books, Bukareszt. Kurz i krew (Bucharest. Dust and Blood, 2013) and Błoto Słodsze Niż Miód. Głosy Komunistycznej Albanii (Mud Sweeter than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania, 2018) deal with problems of power, strategies of survival in the authoritarian system, and searching for spaces of freedom. Although, when I started working on them, I didn’t know where they would lead me, as it turns out, everyone has their own inner path that leads to the same point. My book about Albania was supposed to simply be a guide to the Albanian mentality for the Polish reader. In the end though, it turned out to be a story about an isolated Orwellian-Kafkaesque space where people are controlled and punished, yet try to look for happiness and for a substitute for freedom, at least internally.

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Translating a Powerful Connection: In Conversation with Zahra Patterson

. . . the political questions, rather than the success of the translation, became what was more interesting to me.

Zahra Patterson’s Chronology won the 2019 Lambda Award for Best Lesbian Memoir or Biography. Deserving of the accolades, but defiant of genre conventions, Chronology was inspired by Patterson’s friendship with Lesotho writer and activist, Liepollo Rantekoa, and her attempt to translate a story from Rantekoa’s native language, Sesotho, into English. Produced in collaboration with the editorial collective at Ugly Duckling Presse, Chronology is arguably more a box than a book, a capsule of the writer’s personal and political landscape containing so many loose pieces that keeping it intact requires physical care. Personal notes, diary entries, and photos from are interspersed with essays on the politics of translation, post-colonialism, activism, history, and connection, forming a narrative that firmly deconstructs its own relationship to chronological order and time. Following the Lambda Awards, we reached out to Patterson to congratulate her and ask her to about Rantekoa’s enduring legacy, finding and losing mementos and her decision to learn Sesotho in New York’s public libraries.

Sarah Timmer Harvey, July 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Chronology opens with an email exchange between yourself and Liepollo Rantekoa. Can you tell me about meeting Liepollo?

Zahra Patterson (ZP): I met Liepollo during a bizarre exchange at a café in a trendy part of Cape Town. I was a tourist, and she worked at Chimurenga, a pan-African journal whose headquarters were nearby. I was taking a long lunch reading and writing, and I might have been the only customer in the café when she entered. She was supposed to be meeting a friend, and she was late, or the friend wasn’t there, and she needed to use a phone. Then she approached my table to ask me to watch her bags—she was going to use the waiter’s mobile to make the call so had to go and buy him minutes first. Basically, within a matter of seconds of entering the cafe, she had both me and the waiter doing her bidding, but she was also very gracious and generous in her authority. 

I had recently purchased Dambudzo Marechera’s novel Black Sunlight and had been reading it while I ate, so it was sitting on my table. She was very excited and confused to realize that I, a tourist whose purpose was to watch her bags, was reading one of Africa’s most controversial writers, who was also one of her favorites. A few days later, we were friends, and I moved into her shared apartment in Observatory, a southern suburb of Cape Town. I lived in her house for three and a half weeks, and then we kept in touch via email, gchat, and Facebook. Our close connection was based mostly on a shared ideology that we accessed through literature. 

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The Voice of Interiority: Lytton Smith on Translating Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s History. A Mess.

[The inward-looking quality] structurally and stylistically governs how the novel is written, its very form.

Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s profound and inward-looking saga, History. A Mess., was July’s Asymptote Book Club selection, translated from Icelandic to English. Callum McAllister speaks to the novel’s translator, Lytton Smith, on the process of translating this sweeping and intuitive work. In this conversation, the two discuss the intricacies of translating the evasive language of space and the even more mysterious language of the inner self, and Lytton gives as well some much-appreciated recommendations of Icelandic literature.

Callum McAllister (CM): Iceland is well-known for its impressively high literary output and vibrant creative culture, but Icelandic isn’t a widely spoken language. Are you daunted by how much Icelandic literature has yet to be translated into English, or do you think it gives you more freedom to opt for your favorite texts? Is there anything you’d love to see in English or work on next?

Lytton Smith (LS): Definitely daunted, even as I’m excited by the opportunity! There are wonderful translators from Icelandic working to bring more books into English (which can then also be a gateway to other languages), but there’s a limit to how many presses are willing to do what Open Letter does and take a chance on publishing titles—especially when translations are hard to sell to readers. I’m looking forward to Sigrún’s next novel, which is in part about the theory that Icelanders “discovered” America, and Ófeigur Sigurðsson, whose novel Öræfi / The Wastelands I translated last year (Deep Vellum), has another two novels that center on volcanoes that I’d like to translate. And I’d love to translate another book by the amazing, singular Kristín Ómarsdóttir. Next up, I’m lucky to be translating some of Andri Snær Magnason’s work.

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“From a madhouse to a monastery”: Twenty-Five Years of Guatemala’s Magna Terra Editores

We turned into a McDonald’s of books . . . It was madness!

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Guatemala’s longest-lasting publishing house, Magna Terra Editores. Founded in November 1994 by poet and novelist Gerardo Guinea—and now run by him and his son Paolo—Magna Terra has published more than two thousand books and has propelled the careers of writers across three generations. As the press nears its bodas de plata, early this month I sat down with the two editors to talk about Magna Terra’s beginnings, the press’s many houses, and transitioning from a hectic McPress to a much more Zen indie house that boasts some of the best books produced in the country. Its author list is undoubtedly proof of this.

—José García Escobar

In the early 1990s, when Magna Terra was nothing more than a dream, its founder, Gerardo Guinea, and his family were exiled to Mexico City by the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996). He was one of many. Other famed Guatemalan writers, such as Luis Cardoza y Aragón and Raúl Leiva, also chose to live abroad given the local political climate. After all, the government often persecuted writers. Otto René Castillo, Luis de Lión, and Alaíde Foppa are just a few of the many intellectuals the government and army killed during the war. While in Mexico, Gerardo had the chance to visit and become familiar with local publishing houses. He met with Joaquín Diez-Canedo of Joaquín Mortiz Editorial, now part of Grupo Planeta, and Carlos López of Editorial Praxis. As he watched the editors working, the books piling up on the shelves enthralled him. He wondered, as the talks of peace in Guatemala became more frequent, if he could create something similar at home. READ MORE…