Interviews

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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From the Headbanger, the Metalhead, All the Way to the Failed Hip-Hopper: An Interview with Wingston González

For me, poetry is the metadata of life.

If I were to describe Wingston González as a poet, I’d say he’s an unusual poet. Scratch that. To be more precise, the fractured aesthetics, the cadence, the triplets, the vertiginous narrative found in Wingston’s poetry, can only be summoned by the unusual artistic upbringing he had. Born in Livingston, brought up on Garífuna culture, traditional Guatemalan education, classical literature, and hip-hop music, Wingston stands as an undeniably original and musical wordsmith—utterly unique within the tradition of Guatemalan literature.

He is also an entrancing performer and a fascinating poet that keeps changing and augmenting his cultural and intellectual heritage.

Early July, Wingston and I got together at Casa Cervantes in downtown Guatemala City to talk about his creative process. Of course, we effortlessly drifted towards other topics. We ended up talking about music—like we often do—and ignoring the mathematical structure on which language is based. Wingston’s poetry, I might argue, has almost an allergic reaction to the formulaic configuration of Spanish. And it is thanks to that free will and unhindered flow that his verses explode and reach out with utter casualness.  

Wingston argued that as time passes, he is less worried about fulfilling what is expected of him as a poet. The narrative fabric of his poetry is often based on everyday life and he admits he thrives on capturing that everydayness, either through the plot, though mostly through the words.

During the translation process of the Four Poems, featured in Asymptote’s Summer 2018 issue, he repeatedly confessed that while writing them he was concerned people might not understand what he was trying to say.

“I wanted to play with the language, but I was unsure if it made any sense,” he insisted, and months later, in Casa Cervantes, he repeated that line.

The result—and his poetry in general—though intellectual and highly literary, is also tinged with elements of the quotidian plus the type of slang and idiolects found in Livingston, in Guatemala. From references to Garífuna culture, musical narrative, unorthodox rhythmic pattern, ritualistic cadence, inventive spelling, stutters, theatrical delivery, and—as he calls them—a set of useless facts, these Four Poems show many of the poet’s tricks, antics, and cultural inheritance. His unrestrained flow truly showcases the vitality he wants to impregnate in his poetry.

José García Escobar (JGE): Your poems featured in Asymptote’s July issue, I think, are a perfect example of the type of aesthetics you used at the beginning of your career. In them, there is a lot of experimentation, musicality, unusual rhythm and unorthodox narration—things you rarely use now. How has your approach towards poetry changed over the years?

Wingston González (WG): I don’t know if my approach has changed, but the process definitely has. Naturally, when you start writing, you’re not entirely aware of what you’re doing. The act of writing becomes automatic. That happened to me. But right now I’m not as worried as I was in the past with the limitations of language. I’m more concerned with the limitations of human nature. I think that with my poetry I’m getting closer to how I speak every day. That is my intention now, to use everyday language. Even if these poems, the ones featured in Asymptote’s Summer 2018 issue, are pretty experimental, I remember I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to communicate what I was trying to say. I thought, “What am I doing with my ax!” I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to reach the reader. Now I’m not as concerned about this.

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In Conversation: Andrea Sirotti on Translating Postcolonial Literature

For me, translating means communicating, interacting.

Translation is a political act and the texts that are selected to be translated—from stacks and stacks of books appearing all over the world every day—ultimately shape the literary market and conversations within a particular culture. With this clearly in mind, English-to-Italian translator Andrea Sirotti has made a career of translating postcolonial writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sujata Bhatt, Lloyd Jones, Margaret Atwood, Karen Alkalay-Gut, Hisham Matar, Alexis Wright, and Arundhathi Subramaniam into Italian, often introducing them to the Italian public for the first time. His translation of Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees, translated with Giorgia Sensi, was awarded the best translation of a foreign work into Italian at the sixteenth Concorso nazionale di Poesia e Narrativa “Guido Gozzano” in 2015. In this conversation with Asymptote’s Copy Editor Anna Aresi, Sirotti talks about his passion for postcolonial literature, giving us precious insights into his translation workshop and the challenges he faces when transposing complex English texts into the Italian.

Anna Aresi (AA): How did your interest in postcolonial literature begin? Was there a particular author that first caught your attention? If so, who and why?

Andrea Sirotti (AS): My interest in postcolonial literature, especially poetry, began by chance. In the mid-1990s I started to collaborate, as a critic and translator from the English, with the Italian journal of comparative literature Semicerchio. Its director, Francesco Stella, asked me to review Sixty Women Poets, an anthology of women poets edited by Linda France and published by the UK-based Bloodaxe. Reading that book was illuminating; from the repertoire of rich and diverse female voices France anthologized, I was struck in particular by authors coming from the ex-Commonwealth, as people called it back then (and this brings another brilliant title to mindUncommon Wealth: An Anthology of Poetry in English, an even more specific anthology published by OUP in 1998). The uncommon wealth of these verses, their unprecedented freshness, lead me to deepen [my understanding of] the topic and, thanks to the internet, I read other anthologies and collections, by men and women, migrant or settled, “pioneers” of the English language as well as second- or third-generation speakers in anglophone contexts. I found myself in front of a fantastic poetry world to explore! If I had to name one poet from the group of excellent poets collected by France (among whom were poets of great worth and originality such as Moniza Alvi, Grace Nichols, Jean “Binta” Breeze, Mimi Khalvati, etc.), I would mention Sujata Bhatt. It was with her poetry that I began my career as a literary translator, publishing some of her poems in Italian translation in the journal Testo a fronte in May 1996. It is around her terse and passionate poetry, her ancient and ultramodern English, that I built my anthology of contemporary female Indian poetry, published by Le Lettere in 2000 (with a second edition in 2006). READ MORE…

In Conversation: Hamid Ismailov

I wish that different literatures were mutually translated, bypassing English or other dominant global languages.

Very rarely does contemporary Uzbek prose get translated directly into English. Yet English readers have just been given a rare chance to discover the novel The Devils’ Dance (Tilted Axis Press, trans. by Donald Rayfield), by the prominent Uzbek writer and journalist Hamid Ismailov. In it, Ismailov introduces the curious reader to perhaps the most famous modern Uzbek writer, Abdulla Qodiriy. The novel tells the story of Qodiriy, who, like many intellectuals in the Soviet Union in the late 30s, was imprisoned and eventually shot dead. While in jail, Qodiriy attempts to recreate the unfinished novel the KGB has just confiscated, which portrays Oyhon, a poet-queen who lived in the last, grand days of nineteenth-century Turkestan when London and Saint Petersburg were fighting over Central Asia in the Great Game. I interviewed Ismailov about his diverse identities and the place of Uzbek literature in today’s global writing. 

Filip Noubel (FN): You are a global writer: you were born in what is today Kyrgyzstan, studied and worked in Uzbekistan, and now live in London. You write in both Uzbek and Russian, and appear in translation in a number of languages ranging from English to Chinese. In your books and interviews, you often refer to the plurality of cultures but also to their clashes. How is this multiple identity shaping your writing?

Hamid Ismailov (HI): Recently I did a DNA test, and aside from the obvious, I discovered that 4% of my genes are of South Asian origin and 2% are Irish, not to mention 1% Native American. So if my genes are telling me that I’m related to people like Rabindranath Tagore and James Joyce even on a genetic level, so be it! But, generally, the people of Central Asia, which is an area historically placed in the middle of the Silk Road, should be blessed to be born into multiculturalism, multi-lingualism and multi-identity. If you read my book The Railway you can see how many nationalities, traditions, and ways of life I have been exposed to in my childhood, so no wonder that I love to write in different languages, and to put myself into different shoes. In fact, exploring “otherness” both as a subject and an object is the most interesting part of literature.

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Isabel Fargo Cole

What drew me to Berlin was curiosity about the people and their lives in the East.

Wolfgang Hilbig was once “one of German literature’s best kept secrets”, but that needn’t be the case any longer. Thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole’s translations, every bit as “enchantingly brilliant” as the original texts, Hilbig’s work is now available to English readers—including Asymptote Book Club subscribers.

In our monthly Book Club interview, Isabel Fargo Cole talks to Asymptote’s Josefina Massot about the challenges of preserving Hilbig’s “music” in English, and discusses her own journey across borders and languages.

Josefina Massot (JM): Wolfgang Hilbig’s prose has been described as lyrical, and your translation of The Tidings of the Trees certainly is. Part of what makes it so is its cadence—I often stopped to re-read passages out loud. How did you go about translating these? Did you allow yourself to play with sentence structure, for example, in order to preserve the “music” of the original? How do you feel about occasionally straying from the letter of a text in order to preserve its spirit?

Isabel Fargo Cole (IFC): There’s an element of cold analysis—is he using short or long words, terse or convoluted syntax, alliteration, assonance, similarities or contrasts in sound and structure? But often it comes down to an intuitive sense of where the key emphasis in a sentence or passage lies, and how to produce an equivalent in English. I try to preserve Hilbig’s sentence structure as far as possible in English, because that’s what creates much of the music and rhythm. His sentences can be fragmented or elliptical, or unfold into a whole cascade of clauses; the shifting syntax produces shifting rhythms, but also crucially reflects the narrator’s mental state. So the “music” isn’t a distinct element that can be separated out. In general, I’m not sure there’s a hard and fast distinction between the letter and the spirit of a text. It’s a matter of making judgement calls in each particular instance and deciding where the emphasis lies or what motivates the use of a certain word. If I sense that he’s using a word mainly for its sound value and less for its literal meaning, I might feel free to change it. But sometimes the sound value resonates with the meaning, so ideally the English word has to convey the same synthesis.

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In Conversation: Emma Ramadan

These writers' views of the world, it's like they see something none of us do, but as soon as they tell us, we understand it.

­­­Emma Ramadan has earned acclaim for her translations from the French of such diverse works as Morrocan Fouad Laroui’s The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, Oulipian Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, and more. Her second Anne Garréta translation, Not One Day, recently won the 2018 Albertine Prize. Her forthcoming novel, Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things, is due for publication by the Feminist Press on August 15th. Together with her partner, Tom Roberge, Ramadan opened the bookshop-bar Riffraff in December, where she promotes her favorite texts and discovers what a sustainable life for a young female translator might look like. Here, Ramadan speaks with Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Portugal, Lindsay Semel, about French slang, gender in life and art, and what makes her love a text enough to translate it.

Lindsay Semel (LS): I’d like to start by talking about Riffraff. What inspired you to open the place?

Emma Ramadan (ER): Well, I always had this idea in my head that I wanted to do a bookstore-bar. There’s a couple of bookstore bars spread around the country and it just seemed like a really vibrant gathering spot and something that was working both financially and for customers. It felt like this distant, far-off project until I met my co-owner and partner Tom, who was also involved in the translation world. Providence came up almost immediately. There is a welcoming literary community because of the universities, but there is also a really great local business community. The west side of Providence, which is where we are, is basically all independent businesses. There aren’t any chains, there aren’t any giant stores, it’s kind of just this really lovely haven of local people fulfilling their passions and trying to make it work and it seemed like we would fit right in here.

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In Conversation: Kalyan Raman

I have always been troubled by the hegemonic position of English.

N Kalyan Raman, a bilingual translator, is best known for his English translations of the works of eminent Tamil modernist writer Ashokamitran. Suchitra Ramachandran, a young translator who won the Asymptote Close Approximations translation fiction prize in 2017 for her translation of the Tamil short story “Periyamma’s Words” by B. Jeyamohan, works in the same languages. 

The two translators met in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu and home of the Tamil language, to discuss the practice and politics of translation, posing questions as wide ranging as: What is the role of translation in an astoundingly multi-lingual country? Does English as a language, a post-colonial residue, oppress or enable? What is the literary legacy of translation and how can it shape the understanding of a diverse society? What follows is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

For other emerging translators, enter the fourth edition of our translation contest and stand to win up to $3,000 in prizes. This year’s competition is judged by Edward Gauvin and Eugene Ostashevsky. Details here.

Suchitra Ramachandran (SR): Translation—a weighty literary activity, a difficult craft—seems to have no prestige associated with it in India. And that’s a reason, I think, why a lot of people don’t pursue it seriously.

N Kalyan Raman (KN): The translator is marginalized as a matter of course and for no good reason. A senior editor in Delhi told me that there is simply no space available in the media to talk about translators. What we must do first is accept the translator as part of the literary community, as producers of literary texts. Editors and other institutional intermediaries are given far more space in the translation discourse than translators themselves.

Also, I don’t think of translation as one separate trick. It’s as much a part of the literary culture as anything else. And translators do other things (in the literary ecosystem) as well, which hardly receive any notice—reflecting, engaging, reviewing, it is all a part of the culture. And understanding it, developing a reflective awareness of the trajectory of the literary culture of your community. Languages imply community above all else. What good is language if there is no community around it? In India, the English language seems to facilitate, in any field, only interest groups. It’s not amenable to a truly open space.

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In Conversation: Naoki Sakai

We have to learn to address ourselves to multiple audiences, to speak as foreigners to other foreigners.

Naoki Sakai, professor of comparative literature and Asian studies at Cornell University, does the brilliant work of bringing translation theory into dialogue with other disciplines. In his writings on Japanese studies, cultural studies, comparative literature and philosophy, the gritty questions of translation, national language, nationhood, and subjectivity emerge at the heart. His book Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism undermines the mainstream understanding that writers and readers are defined—or confined—by national language and culture.

In this interview, there is much talk of a specific “representation of translation.” Translation is most commonly represented in today’s world as a practice that happens between two wholly different national languages. Tell anyone you’re a translator and they will ask: “between what languages?” However, this is actually only one version of events. While translation can be explored in much broader terms, Sakai suggests that this particular story about translation serves to reinforce the often-menacing architecture of the nation state.

In TRACES, a one-of-a-kind multilingual, cross-disciplinary journal led by Sakai, a new sort of community is created beyond the nation’s walls in which contributors speak with a “forked tongue.” As Sakai’s words suggest and as we know full well at Asymptote, this is the exciting potential of translation; it opens up new shared spaces and spaces for sharing.

Mattea Cussel, Asymptote Assistant Managing Editor, spoke with Sakai about some of the questions raised in his work to invite our readers to ponder the constructedness of national language and culture, as well as to add new working definitions to our entry on that slippery word “translation.”

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In Conversation: Eduardo Halfon

All of my books are intimately related, like brothers who live far away.

The last time Eduardo and I talked, in July of 2015, days before he presented his latest book, Signor Hoffman, we were both weeks away from coming to New York City, though each for different reasons. “You got a Fulbright to do your MFA? That’s impressive,” he said, smiling. “You’ll be the writer-in-residence at Baruch College?” I said. “I’m not sure what that means, but it also sounds impressive.”

Eduardo and I had met in Guatemala, near his house, at a brand new mall that, according to him, was now between local residents and a lush view of tall trees, misty mountains, and coppery sunrises. Or sunsets? Within five minutes he dismantled most of the questions I had prepared for the interview.

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Nicky Harman

The novel is savagely realistic in its description of relationships between squabbling siblings and its forensic teasing-out of a family’s secrets.

Continuing our Asymptote Book Club interview series, Assistant Editor Kevin Wang talks to Nicky Harman, translator of Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. In addition to co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors), Nicky Harman is one of the foremost contemporary Chinese-to-English translators and a passionate advocate for Chinese literature in English. Her previous work includes translations of novels by Jia Pingwa and Xu Xiaobin.

Read on to find out why Yan Ge asked for the swearing to be made more “colourful” in the English version of her work, which sections of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan were almost untranslatable, and why relying on Google Images can sometimes be a dangerous approach to translating…

Kevin Wang (KW): In your acknowledgements, you mention that Yan Ge “went above and beyond the call of duty in examining and discussing the English text.” How would you describe the differences between working with an author closely involved in the process and translating a nonliving author? 

Nicky Harman (NH): Well, I do like my authors to be alive! I almost always want to be able to raise a few queries with them. For instance, with Jia Pingwa, I needed to know more about a rudimentary cooker that the migrant workers used in 高兴 (Happy Dreams). He kindly did a sketch for me, and it turned out to be made from an old oil drum. That’s the kind of crucial information that you couldn’t get if the author was dead: in this case, the internet was no help.

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