In Conversation: Ghayath Almadhoun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In Conversation with Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sergio is arguably the most important Central American writer today.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Winter 2018: In Conversation with Translator Paula Gordon

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

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

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

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

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

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


Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Rimli Bhattacharya

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

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

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

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

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

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


Winter 2018: In Conversation with Translator Paul Cunningham

"I don’t want my translations to come across as definitive."

Much of our Winter 2018 issue, from the poetry to the microfiction, shows a strongly surrealist bent; writers like Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine and Nina Iskrenko have an almost limitless capacity to juxtapose discordant words that come off like explosive charges. Against this backdrop, Paul Cunningham’s translations of Helena Österlund appear somewhat sparser, though no less jarring. Ôsterlund’s Words and Colors features a pared-down, repetitive voice, a movement through snowy woods, and a terrifying encounter with a sharp-toothed creature. For me, Words and Colors is reminiscent of Beckett’s How It Is, another work where the contours of individual identity seem to dissolve into a blind, frantic momentum through past, present and future.

Paul Cunningham’s work has been on my radar for some time: not only his translations but also his original writing and video art. In his translations, Cunningham tends to avoid domesticating the poems into a “natural-sounding” English, instead directly transferring the Swedish language’s natural use of compound words. Imagine if we spoke of the German Schadenfreude as “damagejoy” or Poltergeist as “crashghost,” and you might have an idea of the strange effects this can produce in English.

I am always interested in the origin stories of my fellow Scandinavian translators: how they became interested in the languages and their general translation philosophy. I was thrilled to be able to ask Paul a few questions about his previous translations of Sara Tuss Efrik, his video art, and his translation of Österlund’s Words and Colors in the Winter 2018 issue.

David Smith (DS): Your former MFA teacher, Johannes Göransson, has written of your translation approach: “Cunningham is not a Swede or a scholar of Swedish culture . . . he only has rudimentary knowledge of Sweden or Swedish, but uses his artistic instincts and dictionaries . . . His work evidences that rather than demanding some kind of scholarly mastery, sometimes translation demands fascination, interest, and a willingness to be vulnerable, to get it done without having legitimized status as Master.” This is beautifully put and intriguing on multiple levels. But I thought I’d start just by asking you to fill in your story a little. What was it that brought you to learn Swedish, specifically? And what was the “fascination and interest” that led you to literary translation?


In Conversation: Daniella Gitlin on translating Rodolfo Walsh’s Operation Massacre

"Walsh is relevant for American readers now, even if they don’t necessarily understand the nitty-gritty of the political situation of his time."

One challenge of translation is finding a text that appeals to an audience separated geographically and culturally from the author. Finding a nonfiction text with that kind of currency is all the more difficult. The translator of nonfiction is faced with a text tied to local events and often steeped in a historical, social, and political context. Why should the average international reader care about nonfiction in translation? Today, Asymptote sits down with Daniella Gitlin, the translator of the famous 1957 Argentinian reported novel, Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación Masacre (Operation Massacre), previously excerpted in our Summer 2013 issue, to discuss her encounters with a masterpiece of nonfiction and outline the urgent relevance of a text six decades old. 

Lara Norgaard (LN): Tell me a bit about how you came to translate Operation Massacre.

Daniella Gitlin (DG): I spent the year after college in Buenos Aires working for a nonprofit, Poder Ciudadano, with a Princeton in Latin America Fellowship. I was back in Argentina for a visit and told my friends there that I was applying for the nonfiction writing program at Columbia. Before I left, my friend Dante gave me a copy of Operación Masacre with a dedication in it. He wrote, “Dani my dear, a little ‘Argentinian nonfiction’ will do you good. I hope you like it.” I took the book back with me. I had heard of Walsh, but I didn’t really know anything about him.


Asymptote Book Club: An Interview with Chris Andrews, Translator of The Lime Tree

Style seems to give Aira direct access to a past that hasn’t passed.

We begin a new series of monthly interviews for the Asymptote Book Club with a conversation between Asymptote Assistant Editor Lizzie Buehler and Chris Andrews, translator of César Aira’s The Lime Tree. For more about this sparkling novel, check out Emma Holland’s December review.

Josh Honn, reviewing an earlier Aira novel, suggested that Aira moves forward in straight lines only in “an attempt to make the line come back upon itself.” In the interview that follows, Chris Andrews discusses Aira’s “sinuous” writing technique, The Lime Tree’s links with Proust, and the way the novel depicts everyday racism in Perón-era Argentina.

Lizzie Buehler (LB): Tell us a little bit about how you came to translate The Lime Tree. How did the novel’s intensely self-reflective nature affect your process of translation?

Chris Andrews (CA): I read The Lime Tree (or The Linden Tree as it will be in the US edition) when it first came out in Spanish in 2003, and it has been one of my favourite Aira books since then. So I was very pleased to get the chance to translate it.


A Counter-Interview with Heriberto Yépez

A (counter)interview is closer to an audacious conversation in which words are thrown like knives at a spinning reader.

I am not experimental

By Will.

English is not my mother

I cannot be but experimental

Inside Empire.

— “2001”

If an interview is a polite conversation wherein the interviewer thoughtfully poses questions and the interviewee eagerly answers, not unlike a racquet sports match, a (counter)interview is closer to an audacious conversation in which words are thrown like knives at a spinning reader.

A regular interview won’t do, especially if the knife-thrower is none other than Heriberto Yépez. Yes, his name is struck out, indicating recently deleted information, in this case, traditional authorship.

pez was born in Tijuana, the world’s busiest land border crossing, in 1974. During his teens, he worked in a maquiladora and later studied under German philosopher Horst Matthai Quelle. Since the early 90s, pez has been on the frontline of experimental writing and radical politics on both sides of the border.

His ruthless criticism has brought him admirers and detractors in English and Spanish. Controversies include the Olson Affair, in which Il Gruppo (Benjamin Hollander, Amiel Alcalay, et. al.) accused him of deliberately misreading Charles Olson in The Empire of Neomemory (ChainLinks, 2013), and regular Twitter-based confrontation with members of the American and Mexican cultural establishments.

When his weekly column of cultural journalism, Archivo Hache, was shut down, he finished off by saying: “I was critical in all directions. If I did not critique someone, I apologize for the oversight.” Ever since, Heriberto has favored blogs, social media, and other alternative options to traditional publishing. Last year, he worked on Mexiconceptual, a month-long project that involved him posting a different poem reflecting on the museum as an institution every day on a website. The texts would disappear 24 hours after being displayed and could only be read afterward through links shared on social media. It is now available in book form.


Meet the Publisher: Charco Press Director Carolina Orloff on Contemporary Latin American Literature

Being small and independent means that we have total freedom when it comes to making our decisions.

Charco Press is an Edinburgh-based publisher dedicated to bringing the best in contemporary Latin American fiction to English-speaking readers. The press seeks out innovative, thought-provoking literature—and compelling stories—and their first titles, released in the summer of 2017, reflect the diversity of voices they are committed to publishing. Over email, Charco’s director, Carolina Orloff, and Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, discussed the press’s origins, the wealth of contemporary literature being written in Latin America, and what Charco has in store for 2018.

Sarah Moses (SM): How was Charco Press born?

Carolina Orloff (CO): Charco Press was born from observing a real stagnation when it comes to Latin American literature in the English-speaking world. When you ask an avid reader, what’s the last book they read by a Latin American author, the same names recur: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Borges, maybe Bolaño, maybe Isabel Allende. Having experienced first-hand the extraordinary wealth and variety of literature being produced on the other side of the pond, we felt it was time to update the scene and bring some of that talent across for the English-speaking reader to discover and enjoy.


In Conversation: Boey Kim Cheng on his new novel, Gull Between Heaven and Earth

You could say the entire novel is a work of translation...mediating between languages and cultures, memory and imagination...past and present."

Boey Kim Cheng’s reputation as a critically acclaimed writer rests on his work as a poet and essayist. He has authored five poetry collections—Somewhere-Bound (1989); Another Place (1992); Days of No Name (1996); After the Fire (2006); and Clear Brightness (2012)the first two of which won Singapore National Book Development Council awards, and the last of which was selected by The Straits Times as one of the best books of 2012. His collection of essays Between Stations (2009) was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Prize in nonfiction.

This past October saw the publication of his first foray into novel writing. Set during a turbulent period in Tang-Dynasty-era China, Gull Between Heaven and Earth (Epigram Books, 2017) is a fictionalized biographical account of Du Fu, one of China’s most esteemed classical Chinese poets. The end-result of a ten-year-long, meticulously researched labor of love (the early fruits of which appeared in Asymptote’s inaugural issue), Gull represents the first extensive literary treatment of Du Fu’s life, fictional or otherwise, in any language.

In addition to venturing into the territory of prose fiction to complete the project, the Singaporean-born poet also undertook new translations of Du Fu’s poetry, which appear scattered throughout the novel, gem-like and epiphanic. In this interview with Asymptote Australia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao, Boey recounts what compelled him to see this book to completion, as well as the challenges and joys of translating not only Du Fu’s poems, but his character and life.

Tiffany Tsao: On the one hand, your novel Gull Between Heaven and Earth represents a shift for you. Until now, you’ve been a poet and essayist. On the other hand, there’s considerable continuity between your previous works and this one: Gull is about a poet and his poetic calling; it contains poetry as well as themes of travel and nostalgia, which feature prominently in your past work. What prompted you to switch forms for this project? How have you found the experience of writing fiction in prose compared to writing poetry and nonfiction in prose?


In Conversation: Ursula Andkjær Olsen and Katrine Øgaard Jensen on Third-Millennium Heart

International literature famously offers a window on the world—a much-needed window, these years.

‘I want to buy my way to everything’: halfway through Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart (excerpted in the Asymptote Fall 2015 issue), the shape-shifting, double-tongued voice declares yet another sweeping and futile desire. Translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, this collection is a text much like the many-chambered place that is third-millennium heart, with intersecting meditations on the human body and its connection to the natural world, which evolve into a solid critique of late capitalism, especially in relation to reproduction. Throughout, there is a disconnect between necessity and excess, the architecture of human consumption, a tussle between the body’s need and desire for more. During this email interview, Olsen makes me a list of Danish words for the parts of the body, and the etymology is fascinating. Moderkage, Danish for ‘placenta’, would literally translate into ‘mother cake’; livmoder, the word for ‘uterus’, into ‘life mother’. Following is the interview between Ursula Andkjær Olsen and her English translator, Katrine Øgaard Jensen.

Sohini Basak: I want to begin with names and naming and the body, because that’s where the book (and our language, for that matter) begins. When you were young, Ursula, what language did you learn about the body? Science, especially medical science, uses the English language (and Latin, for nomenclature), so I’m curious to know . . . what were the first names you learnt for the heart, its ventricles, chromosomes, all of which form the structure of this collection?

Ursula Andkjær Olsen: My mom was a doctor, so I think the naming of the body for me was a mix of Danish and Latin. I was always very fascinated with the scientific approach to the body (in fact I studied medicine for almost two years before changing to musicology and philosophy), and I remember, as a little girl, poring over a book of photographs of the body’s insides, beautiful pictures by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. And doing it again and again. All these cavities, canals, soft corners, bridges, chambers! It was a kind of architecture, in fact.


A Conversation with Norwegian-to-Azerbaijani Translator Anar Rahimov

There was not a single moment when I said to myself, “Stop”—even when I spent 10 to 15 minutes on one sentence!

As a translator of Norwegian, I travelled to the Gothenburg Book Fair in September to meet with Scandinavian authors, publishers, and fellow translators. One of the translators I met there was Anar Rahimov, a translator of contemporary Norwegian prose into Azerbaijani.

I was intrigued by Anar’s story as one of only two translators of Norwegian in Azerbaijan. I translate into English, probably the world’s most dominant language, and I was curious about the exchange between two relatively small languages, Norwegian and Azerbaijani. I wanted to ask Anar a little more about his work as a translator and how it fits into the literary culture of Azerbaijan. 

David Smith (DS): How did you come to learn Norwegian and what inspired you to translate literature?

Anar Rahimov (AR): Well . . . it was quite accidental, I have to admit. I was working at the University of Languages in Baku as an English language teacher. Then an event took place that changed my whole career, priorities, and future standing in life. In 2010, I heard about an interview that included financing two and half years’ study in Oslo. Ever since childhood, Norway has appealed to me as a northern, far away, and very cold land. Besides, studying in the prestigious universities of Europe was tempting in itself. After a little hesitation, I applied and was selected.