Interviews

Art as Universal Refuge: Ji Yoon Lee on Translating Blood Sisters

We make art so that we don’t forget what our truth is.

This month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, Kim Yideum’s novel Blood Sisters, raises profound questions about class dynamics, gender roles, and the power of language to uphold existing hierarchies. In today’s interview, translator Ji Yoon Lee talks with Asymptote’s Jacob Silkstone about the challenging process of recreating the tones and nuances of the original Korean in English. They also discuss the parallels between Korean political narratives of the 1980s and the current discourse in the USA, as well as Lee’s innovative use of Spanish to translate Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.”

Jacob Silkstone (JS): Referring to her work as a whole, Kim Yideum has said (in your translation) that “A female writer needs to fight to build her own language against the default system.” It feels to me as though there’s an echo of that statement when the protagonist of Blood Sisters says, “I speak with my own mouth, so I will address others on my own terms. . .”Could you say a little about that “default system” that Kim Yideum’s work struggles against? Are there any aspects of the struggle that feel unique to Korea?

Ji Yoon Lee (JYL): I absolutely see the echo there, too. Specifically, the protagonist, Yeoul, is resisting: in Korea, we often address people by the role that they play in our lives, such as “teacher,” “president of the company,” “older lady,” and so on. Once intimacy develops, there is a shift in the form of address, often towards familial terms, even when you are not related: “older brother,” “older sister,” and so on. That is meant to make people feel a closer connection beyond the societal roles they play for one another.

READ MORE…

Imagining Truths: In Conversation with Gabriela Ybarra

I always feel that I’m a detective of my own life.

“The story goes,” begins Gabriela Ybarra’s novel The Dinner Guest, “that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal.” This guest, Ybarra writes, occasionally “appears, casts his shadow and erases one of those present” and forms part of the complex family mythology that Ybarra seeks to unravel in her stunning documentary-style debut. The Dinner Guest is a free reconstruction of the events surrounding the kidnapping and murder of her grandfather in 1977 and the death of her mother in 2011. Ybarra deftly combines collective memory, media reports, photographs, Google search results, and instinctive imaginings to unearth her family’s traumatic past. Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, The Dinner Guest, flawlessly translated by Natasha Wimmer, has just been released in the U.S. by Transit Books. On the eve of publication, we spoke with Gabriela Ybarra about writing grief, playing detective, and finding freedom in a photograph of Robert Walser.

—Sarah Timmer Harvey, May 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): When did you start writing The Dinner Guest, and was it always intended to be the novel it became?

Gabriela Ybarra (GY): I started to work on The Dinner Guest shortly after my mother died in September 2011. Her illness went by so fast that, when she passed away, I felt the need to write down what I had lived through during the previous months just to make sense of it all. During the process, I got stuck several times. In the beginning, I thought that this was because I was a novice writer and still lacked experience, but as time went by, I realized that there were some behaviors in my family that I couldn’t explain. For example, during my mother’s illness, my father kept talking about a rosary covered in blood, which I thought was very weird, but couldn’t find an explanation for it. As I started to look back, I realized that many of these behaviors were related to the kidnapping and murder of my grandfather by the terrorist group ETA in 1977. In grieving my mother, I stumbled upon the unresolved grief related to my grandfather.

STH: The Dinner Guest is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. The framework of the story is undoubtedly factual; the kidnapping and death of your grandfather, your mother’s illness, and her subsequent passing are all real, and yet, there are also parts that are pure fiction; imagined events, conversations, and connections. Is it important for you that readers view The Dinner Guest as a novel?

GY: Genre isn’t so important to me. I consider the book a novel because I believe that memory is always fiction and, in the case of my grandfather, I had to make up big parts of his kidnapping because nobody in my family would tell me anything about it. For many years, my family lived as if these traumatic events had never happened. I could infer their pain through their silences, but lacked a story; the only information that I had came from the newspapers. In the case of my mother, I did know the events quite well, but reality is often too complicated to make believable, so I had to twist it.

STH: The Dinner Guest reminded me of Annie Ernaux’s Shame, which, in spite of being a memoir, is very similar in tone. Ernaux described Shame as an “ethnological study of myself” in which she examined the influence of a particular incident in her childhood on her relationship with shame. But while Ernaux avoided “inventing reality,” you have actively pursued it while employing voice that feels similarly precise and analytical. Did you experiment with the narrative voice, or did you start the project already sure of the tone?

GY: I like what Ernaux says about the ethnological study of herself. I always feel that I’m a detective of my own life. At the beginning of the writing process, I wasn’t sure about the tone, but I found it through trial and error. I felt that the text worked better when the emotions were contained and not too explicit. In earlier versions, it wasn’t like this at all.

STH: How did you approach researching The Dinner Guest? Did your research most often confirm or contradict your imaginings?

GY: I imagined as I researched. There were many things that I didn’t know, so I couldn’t have imagined them before beginning my research. When I invented things, I always tried to stay true to what I knew of the characters and situations. During the writing of the first part of the book—the part about my grandfather—I was always trying to come closer to my father. Although this is not explicit in the text, it was very shocking for me to see my father’s grieving face in the newspapers; it also impressed me to realize that my father lost his father when he was about the same age as me when I lost my mother. When I saw all the photographs and the news, I couldn’t deny that the murder of my grandfather was true. I always think of The Dinner Guest as a ritual of grief and an exercise of truth in which I use fiction to help me assimilate the deaths of my mother and grandfather.

STH: I find it wonderfully destabilizing the way the narrative frequently cross-examines itself. For example, chapter three begins with a passage which discounts a particular story about your family that is presented as fact in the previous chapter. What inspired you to do this?

GY: In memory, and in most investigations, there are contradictions. I found them constantly in the newspapers.

 STH: Can you speak about your choice to include real documents, including photographs, newspaper articles, and Google search results in the narrative?

GY: I included documents that I felt were important for the story. In the case of the picture of my father with the handcuffs, for example, I tried to describe it, but I thought that it was more powerful to attach the original document. It gives more veracity to the text, I think.

STH: You refer to Robert Walser several times in the book; quoting from The Walk, including the infamous image of Walser on his snowy death-bed and imaginings of Walser’s final walks. How are Walser’s writing and experience in conversation with The Dinner Guest?

GY: Walser’s picture was very inspiring for me. The three deaths narrated in the book seem terrible: my mother died too young at a hospital, my grandfather was kidnapped, and Walser spent his final years in a mental hospital, but I feel that the three of them had—or I like to think that they had—the possibility to die as they lived. My mother was able to die lightly, my grandfather found refuge in his faith, and Walser died walking; that is what he most enjoyed doing. It impressed me to know there is a freedom that is impossible to snatch even when you are in captivity.

STH: Was the experience of “imagining” Walser easier than writing free reconstructions of events involving your family and friends?

GY: It was easier. I think it was the part of the book I enjoyed writing the most.

STH: Are you interested in further examining any of the themes and ideas explored in The Dinner Guest in your future writing projects?

GY: Yes, writing The Dinner Guest has started some very interesting conversations with my father, and I’m thinking a lot lately about how terrorism affected my childhood in the Basque Country. I’m currently writing another book that combines fiction and non-fiction. I’m once again a detective of my own life!

STH: In The Dinner Guest, your narrator mentions writing every Sunday until either being exhausted or running out of ideas. Is this also true for you? What is your usual writing routine?

GY: Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore. I wish I could have an entire day to write. Now I have a 17-month-old baby, and I need to coordinate my working schedule with the kindergarten. The Dinner Guest was written during weekends and very early in the morning, mostly in bed, before showering and going to the office. When I was living in New York, I would often wake at 5:30am in order to get in two hours of writing before work.

STH: Were you involved in the translation of the novel? And how was the process for you?

GY: For me, it’s always painful to reread The Dinner Guest. It is hard to go through my mother’s illness and my grandfather’s death again, and every time that I read the novel, I have the desire to rewrite the whole story. However, it was a pleasure to work with my translator, Natasha Wimmer; she is very sensitive and talented. 

STH: Have English-language readers responded to the book in the same way as Spanish readers have or were there differences?

GY: When I went to London for the book launch, I was impressed to see that most of the people in the audience were women. This wasn’t the case in Spain.

Gabriela Ybarra was born in Bilbao, Spain, in 1983. She currently lives in Madrid, where she writes and works in social media analysis. The Dinner Guest is her first novel and was published to critical acclaim in Spain, where it won the Euskadi Literature Prize 2016, and in the UK, where it was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. She occasionally writes for El País.

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in New York. She holds an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia University and most recently, her work has appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Gulf Coast Journal, and Cagibi Literary Journal.

*****

Read more interviews on the Asymptote blog:

All of What It Could Be: In Conversation with Tiffany Tsao

To ignore his work’s vision, not to mention its cultural context, seems violent to me—a form of suppression.

When reading a new book in translation, I usually begin by reading the translator’s note. Although it is customary to print the translator’s note at the end of any translated work, I find it enriches my reading to know in advance how the translator approached and connected with the text, to understand their particular choices and challenges. But while translator’s notes often reveal a profound intimacy with the original text, I have rarely read a translator’s note as unapologetically impassioned and moving as the paean Tiffany Tsao wrote for Norman Pasaribu’s award-winning collection of poems, Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Tsao’s translator’s note calls Pasaribu and the collection a “miracle” and describes how working on the translation of Sergius Seeks Bacchus was transformative for both translator and author. “Norman’s poems,” Tsao writes, “have become a part of and spring from me as well,” adding, “I don’t think that I can ever go back to be being the person that I was before.” 

Through the translation of Sergius Seeks Bacchus from the Indonesian, Tsao and Pasaribu have forged a partnership that is intellectually energizing and dripping with creative charisma.  After reading Pasaribu’s vibrant poems, Tsao’s exceptional translator’s note, and following the two on social media as they successfully toured the UK, I was raring to speak with former Asymptote Editor-at-large, Tiffany Tsao. Amongst other things, Tsao was generous enough to share more about the “mutually nurturing” relationship she has developed with Pasaribu, and how Sergius Seeks Bacchus, published in the UK by Tilted Axis Press and forthcoming in Australia from Giramondo, has come to belong to both of them.

-Sarah Timmer Harvey, April 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Congratulations on the publication of Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Can you tell me about the collection and how it was received in Indonesia?

Tiffany Tsao (TT): After spending three years working with Norman on the translation, I almost feel I’m too close to speak coherently about it! It’s like being asked to describe someone you know intimately: you’re aware of all their facets, of them in different situations and at various points in time. Still, I’ll try my best. Sergius Seeks Bacchus is about contemporary queer life in Indonesia—as he and others have experienced it, but also and importantly, as all of what it could be. Hence the Christian, Batak, and speculative dimensions of many of the poems. Some of them depict realities for queer individuals that Indonesia’s present-day circumstances deny: strolling the streets of Heaven hand-in-hand; strolling the streets of post-alien-invasion Earth hand-in-hand; being celebrated by one’s family via the traditions of one’s culture; getting married (and divorced); having children; being happy; growing old. The poems range in tone too, from melancholy, darkly humorous, wistful, playful, tragic, to tragicomic. Perhaps this variegation is also what makes Norman’s collection so difficult to sum up.

The collection’s reception in Indonesia was bifurcated in the extreme. On the one hand, it won a major national literary award, placing first in the 2015 Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Manuscript competition. On the other hand, because the poems of Sergius Mencari Bacchus were overtly queer, Norman experienced a tremendous amount of online bullying afterward, which plunged him into severe depression.

READ MORE…

Meet the Publisher: Chris Fischbach of Coffee House Press

It’s a well-known fact that I am often drawn to books that tear your heart out and stomp on it.

Coffee House Press is an independent publisher of fiction, poetry, and essays. Since 2014, with the publication of Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney), the press has sought out authors from Latin America and farther abroad. Coffee House Press is also a nonprofit organization that collaborates with artists on Books in Action projects that expand the relationship between reader and writer. Over email, Chris Fischbach, CHP’s publisher, and Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, discussed the press’s interdisciplinary collaborations, how they discover books by Latin American authors, and some of the titles in translation readers can check out.

Sarah Moses (SM): How did Coffee House Press come to be?

Chris Fischbach (CF): We were founded by Allan Kornblum in the early 1970s in Iowa, and we were purely a letterpress venture back then, publishing poets from both Iowa and from the New York School, where Allan had moved from. In the early 1980s, Allan moved the press to Minneapolis, where it became the first press-in-residence at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. A couple years later, we incorporated as a nonprofit, became Coffee House Press, moved down the street, and started publishing trade editions (fiction and poetry) as well as continuing our letterpress work. I joined the press as a letterpress intern in December of 1994 and was hired as an editorial assistant in August of 1995. I became publisher in 2011.

READ MORE…

“No one truly owns a language”: An Interview with the Creators of harana poetry

I’m a poet even if I’m writing in my second language, I’m a poet even without any formal training in writing.

In the UK, Kostya Tsolákis, Romalyn Ante, and Alice Hiller recently launched harana poetry, a new online magazine for poets writing in English as a second or parallel language. The magazine, whose first issue appeared in February 2019, features poems, interviews, and reviews. In their welcome section, the three editors call for a celebration of solidarity and interaction: “The mission of harana poetry is to resist singleness of tongue and thought, initiate creative conversations and enlarge possibilities.” Here at Asymptote, we knew just how much this would resonate with our readers. Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production) Lou Sarabadzic conducted the following interview with the editors to learn more about harana poetry and contemporary multilingual poets.

Lou Sarabadzic (LS): harana poetry has three creators. How did you meet? What prompted you to launch a journal together?

Kostya Tsolákis (KT): The idea of a magazine for poets writing in English as a second language was brewing in my mind for several years. When I first started submitting poems to magazines, I felt a little insecure because I was writing in a language that isn’t my mother tongue. I’d mention my idea to friends, and they were very supportive, but I felt I needed someone to help me bring it to life. I thought it was important to have another poet’s perspective when it came to choosing the poems and, really, I didn’t want a project of this kind to be a one-man band.

Roma and I were both shortlisted for the Primers 3 mentoring scheme in 2017. That’s how we first came into each other’s radar. We then met at an event in London, in March last year, and I immediately felt we had a connection. I can be a bit shy and awkward when I meet people for the first time, but I felt comfortable in her company right away. I felt we could work well together. Without a second thought I asked her that evening if she was interested in creating the magazine with me. READ MORE…

Co-Translation Across Borders: An Interview with Rachel McNicholl and Sinéad Crowe

As in all good tales and legends, Jarawan’s own narrative style is full of recurring motifs, imagery, and phrases.

How did the co-translators of Pierre Jarawan’s The Storyteller work together to craft a polished final draft—while living in two different countries? In this interview, Rachel McNicholl and Sinéad Crowe, the translators of this month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, tell us about the ups and downs of their long-distance collaboration.

They also discuss how The Storyteller, a novel about a young man born in Germany to Lebanese parents, blends twenty-first century issues of migration and displacement with the ancient Arabic tradition of oral storytelling. Read on for more about the novel’s “central themes of rootlessness, the search for a sense of home and identity, family secrets, and the relationship between fathers and sons.”

Lindsay Semel (LS): Tell me about the experience of collaborating on the translation of a novel. You’ve said in a previous interview that you translated The Storyteller in alternating sections and then underwent an intensive revision process to come to a seamless final draft. Were there any passages that you interpreted differently?

Rachel McNicholl (RMcN): As with most translations, there were some details and nuances that we needed to check with the author. Occasionally, when reviewing each other’s chapters, Sinéad and I realised that we were visualising something slightly differently, even though we’d read the same German text. For example, how exactly the river Berdawni carves up the city of Zahle (in Part II, ch. 5). We consulted online maps and satellite images, of course, but being able to check with the author is even better!

READ MORE…

In Conversation: Duanwad Pimwana, author of Bright and Arid Dreams

My intention for every creation is to find a balance in which all elements fit in their own suitable places.

Duanwad Pimwana is one of the preeminent voices in contemporary Thai literature. As enigmatic as she is celebrated, Pimwana is known for her incisive social observation. Having built her career initially as a journalist and short-story writer, she’s now published nine books in Thai, spanning a variety of genres. Two of these, the novel Bright and the short-story collection Arid Dreams, will be published by Two Lines Press and the Feminist Press respectively this April. Both texts were translated by Mui Poopoksakul.

Pimwana’s narratorial perspective is that of a fly on the wall, but one with a loud, pumping, mammalian heartbeat. She is a master of conveying the melancholy contradictions that characterize human existence. Her characters often frustrate the readers’ sympathy, blurring the boundaries between such facilities as “protagonist,” “antagonist,” and “supporting character.” We take on their coexistent hope and despair, accompanying them as they’re tossed to the mercy of chance and fortune.

In Bright, six-year-old Kampol Changsamran gets left behind by both of his parents when an episode of violence and infidelity drives them both to flee their village and reestablish their lives elsewhere with other partners. It’s sometimes easy to forget just how young little Kampol is; he steps into his newfound freedom with a sense of responsibility, resourcefulness, and wisdom that transcends his age. But in other moments, it’s all too clear that his maturity is a function of necessity. His dearest wish is to be once again embraced by the love and security of family. His neighbors, meanwhile, most of them hardly able to fill their own bellies, show a full spectrum of responses to their new collective charge.

READ MORE…

Universal Things: An Interview with Esther Gerritsen

In the Netherlands, we often make the mistake of thinking that the emancipation of women has been completely achieved.

Boekenweek is a week-long festival of Dutch-language literature held annually in the Netherlands since 1932. Aside from the now legendary Boekenweek ball in Amsterdam, readings, panels, and other literary events are organized throughout the Netherlands and Flanders, and a prominent writer is commissioned to write a novella which is then gifted to the public during the ten-day festival. In 2016, Dutch writer Esther Gerritsen was given the honor of writing the Boekenweek novella, one of only two women to do so in the past eighteen years. This year, Gerritsen’s novel Craving was one of several recently published Dutch-language novels in translation featured at the World Editions Boekenweek celebration at Flanders House in New York City. One of the most celebrated novelists in the Netherlands, Gerritsen also works as a screenwriter and columnist and is the recipient of numerous awards including the 2014 Frans Kellendonk prize for her entire oeuvre. Craving, artfully translated by Michele Hutchison, is Gerritsen’s meticulous excavation of a complex mother-daughter relationship which is further complicated when the daughter moves back into her childhood home to take care of her dying mother. In honor of Boekenweek, Asymptote asked Esther Gerritsen to share her thoughts on Craving, radical thinkers, and gender equity in the Dutch-language literary world.

-Sarah Timmer Harvey, New York, April 2019

STH: Craving opens with a powerful scene in which the mother, Elisabeth, spots her daughter biking on a busy street in Amsterdam and decides it is the right moment to tell her that she is dying. Immediately, the reader is made aware that the mother isn’t neurotypical and that the relationship between mother and daughter is quite strained. What drew you to these characters and inspired their story?

EG: I started writing about the mother, Elisabeth, first. I wanted to write about ‘stuff.’ Objects, materials, the love human beings have for things. I originally had Elisabeth talking posthumously about all the things in her life, from the first blanket she’d slept under and her childhood toys to the furniture she owned when she was older, even the bed on which she died. In her version of heaven, everything she ever possessed was there, new and complete; shoes without scratches, puzzles with no missing pieces—an ideal, silent world filled with beautiful stuff. Of course, then the story became very . . . silent. And I thought: for a person who likes quietness, order, and perfection, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I knew then that she should have a child—and that’s where the daughter comes in. Coco is her mother’s opposite, chaotic and messy. They live in different worlds, but both have the best intentions and would love to be closer, but are just too dissimilar. When the mother is dying, and the daughter is already an adult, they try to form a closer relationship before it’s too late and end up tormenting each other with their good intentions. Coco and Elisabeth really can’t stand one another, but because they are family, they are inextricably linked. READ MORE…

On Criticizing Translation: An Interview with Tim Parks

Rather than developing some special antenna for translation, we might all do well simply to read more attentively in general.

Late last year, Benjamin Moser’s critical NYT review of Kate Briggs’s This Little Art occasioned a rousing debate in the literary translation community about the nature of translation quality and criticism. The review prompted a scathing letter to the editor from a group of translation heavyweights, including Susan Bernofsky and Lawrence Venuti. Tim Parks weighed in with an NYR Daily piece, “Why Translation Deserves Scrutiny,” which outlined some challenges of criticizing translation and defended the effort.

In this conversation, Parks elaborates on the role of the translation critic, clarifies his notion of mistakes, and explains how translation theory affects his criticism. Raucous debates about quality and criticism have characterized conversations about translation for centuries. The conversation continues here.

Allison Braden (AB): At a translation conference, I heard a panelist argue that mistakes in translation, as long as they don’t significantly impede the author’s message, are irrelevant. He then went on to say that he tries to avoid making mistakes as much as possible. Later, an audience member argued that as her career as a translator has progressed, she’s found herself making more “mistakes,” because of the increased latitude that experience affords. For a group that would seem to value semantic precision, there appears to be an alarming blurriness around the notion of mistakes versus agency. How do you conceive of the relationship between the two?

Tim Parks (TP): A literary text comes alive when a reader can bring to it the kind of competence and cultural reference that gives sense to the words. Since a translator is someone who reads a foreign text for those of us who can’t read it directly ourselves, we hope that he or she is such a reader and has that competence and knowledge. Of course becoming a deep and accurate reader in a language that is not your mother tongue is not an easy proposition. Almost all of us have our lacunae. So there are going to be times when the translator misses something, doesn’t recognize that a certain phrase is an idiom, doesn’t realize that in a certain context this or that word can have an unusual connotation; then when they write down their version we have a mistake. The importance of the mistake will depend on its place in the text and the kind of text it is. It may indeed be irrelevant or minor. But equally it may be crucial. Or frequent small mistakes may eventually amount to an overall difference in tone or feeling. Whatever the case, mistakes—and I can’t see one can call them anything but that—are hardly desirable.

Returning though to the “blurriness” you observe in regard to what is hardly a difficult question, one can’t help feeling it arises from a sense of vulnerability about the translator’s competence in the source language. There is a tendency these days to suggest that you only need have a basic grip on a foreign language and a neat turn of phrase in your English and you can translate successfully, even win prizes. Or that it’s enough to do an MA in Translation Studies. But language is a rich feast and literature exploits and intensifies that richness. We love a fine piece of writing for the abundance of allusion and wit and suggestion it conjures up, and the feeling that when we read it again we will find more. It’s not easy to arrive at the kind of second-language competence where one genuinely gets all this, or even most of it. So some translators are understandably defensive or vague. READ MORE…

Taking Up the Translator’s Baton: An Interview with David Colmer

The crucial part is what is revealed, not the particular set of circumstances that make the revelation possible.

“Do maintain the colloquial tone,” David Colmer reminded me during a recent exchange about editing. And it was far from the first time I’d heard the Amsterdam-based Australian translator emphasize the importance of respecting and preserving the vernacular. Certainly, David’s almost chameleon-like ability to absorb and translate divergent Dutch and Flemish voices in fiction and poetry has led to his name becoming synonymous with Dutch-language literature in translation.

Over the past two decades, David Colmer has translated the work of celebrated novelists including Gerbrand Bakker, Dimitri Verhulst, and Peter Terrin; the poetry of Anna Enquist, Hugo Claus, Martinus Nijhoff; former Poet Laureates Ramsey Nasr and Ester Naomi Perquin; and the work of iconic Dutch children’s author, Annie M.G. Schmidt. Colmer has received numerous prizes, including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his translation of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour, The Vondel Prize for his translation of Dimitri Verhulst’s The Misfortunates, and the NSW Premier’s Prize and PEN trophy for his entire oeuvre.

In spite of his numerous achievements, David is most comfortable discussing his current projects and the challenges faced by translators at all stages of their career. For David, keeping it “colloquial” also seems to be code for not getting carried away, a timely reminder that the original voice and tone of any text should remain the translator’s constant anchor. With this in mind, I invoked the Dutch-peppered Australian we both speak, and asked David about his recently published translation of W.F. Hermans’s classic postwar novella, An Untouched House, the art of switching Englishes and his advice for up-and-coming translators.

March 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): The last time we saw each other was at the end of 2018 when you were in New York for the publication of your translation of An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans. An Untouched House is a dark, confronting, and occasionally absurd novella about the final months of the Second World War first published in the Netherlands is 1951. How did you come to translate it?

David Colmer (DC): I was the next cab off the rank, I suppose. I read the original in the early nineties soon after starting to learn Dutch, and it made quite an impression. I remember being shocked by the disturbing clarity of the author’s amoral vision and the climactic eruption of violence. The way he managed to combine a coolly thoughtful, almost philosophical perspective with both gripping action and humor was inspiring. I made a mental note of it as a book I’d love to translate, as I sometimes did after I began reading in foreign languages in the late eighties. Hans Fallada’s The Drinker was another one that made a similar impression on me, but I never really counted on the opportunity coming along. Over the following fifteen years, though, two things happened that changed that. I began to establish my credentials as a translator of Dutch literature, and Hermans had a late, second wave of publication in English, with two of his best novels, The Darkroom of Damocles and Beyond Sleep, published in translations by Ina Rilke and being very well received. Then, three or four years ago, when a Hermans story was slated for inclusion in The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, Ina wasn’t available to translate it, so I was able to take up the baton.

READ MORE…

“A Rebirth Moment”: Evelyn Flores and Emelihter Kihleng on Editing Indigenous Literatures From Micronesia

Our writing is often not for a Western audience, and many of us are writing for ourselves, to express who we are as Indigenous peoples.

Next week, University of Hawaii Press will publish a ground-breaking anthology, Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia, which, for the first time ever, will bring together works—short stories, poems, essays, chants, and play excerpts—by Indigenous Micronesian authors. Some of the basic facts about this project are truly astonishing: the anthology includes one hundred pieces by over seventy authors, nine out of the thirteen basic Micronesian language groups are represented (Palauan, Chamorro, Chuukese, I-Kiribati, Kosraean, Marshallese, Nauruan, Pohnpeian, and Yapese), and it covers the entire Micronesian region—over two thousand islands spread across almost three million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. Micronesian literature has been excluded by academia, and, despite its long history, remains unknown outside of the region. As 2019 is the official UNESCO Year of Indigenous Languages, this anthology is an especially timely and necessary addition to the landscape of world literature. Asymptote contributor Marek Maj spoke with the editors, Dr. Evelyn Flores and Dr. Emelihter Kihleng—who began working on the anthology over ten years ago—about the process of putting together such an unprecedented collection and about the history, present, and future of Indigenous Micronesian literatures.

The anthology is the first of the “New Oceania Literary Series,” which, under the general editorship of Dr. Craig Santos Perez, aims to create anthologies of Pacific literature that address important themes and feature a diverse, multilingual, and intergenerational selection of Pacific authors. Dr. Santos Perez has said he hopes these anthologies will be inspiring and empowering for Pacific Islanders, as well as educational for non-Pacific audiences, and that he hopes these books will circulate both in classrooms and in the community. The next anthology will focus on Pacific Literature and the environment, eco-Justice, and climate change. Future anthologies will spotlight food, LGBTQ identity and experiences, science fiction and futurism, and more.

Marek Maj (MM): First of all, congratulations on the publication of Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia. How it does it feel that it will now finally be out in the world?

Evelyn Flores (EF): My immediate response?—Huge relief!—it’s done!
Then the deep joy rolls in—joy that we’re making a difference, trying to carve out a niche for voices from our region, doing our part to challenge a gross miscalculation of our abilities and our productive force.

There’s deep satisfaction that we’ve taken yet another step to clear the way for our children so they can see themselves walking upright in yet another book. All of us who’ve been invisible in published creative work know the deep awe we’ve experienced when we stumble upon ourselves in books, film, dance—it’s a rebirthing moment for us—realizing all the time we were there but excluded. Readers will see this moment of realization and protest enacted in several of the pieces, in Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s “History Project,” for instance, and in Anne Perez Hattori’s “Forefathers,” and Isebong M. Asang’s “Language with An Attitude.” READ MORE…

Literature on the Margins: Tess Lewis on Translating Monique Schwitter

To me, much of the most exciting and innovative writing in any language takes place on the margins.

Award-winning translator Tess Lewis was first drawn to the Swiss author Monique Schwitter by two “quirky and rather dark” short story collections. Schwitter’s first full novel, One Another, is now an Asymptote Book Club selection, and Tess Lewis tells Asymptote Assistant Editor Chris Power why she couldn’t wait for a chance to translate it to English.

In the latest edition of our monthly Book Club interview series, we also discover the roles Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill played (indirectly!) in translating One Another and learn why a particular type of coffee nearly led to the English edition of the book being published with extensive endnotes.

Chris Power (CP): How did you end up translating One Another?

Tess Lewis (TL): Monique’s quirky and rather dark short stories in Goldfish Memory and If it Snows at the Crocodile Pen won me over when I read them years ago. So when I had the opportunity in 2014 and ’15 to curate Festival Neue Literatur, the New York City literary festival that showcases fiction from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, she was at the top of my list of writers. In 2015, the Festival’s theme was “Love and Money,” and because so many of her stories are about the different forms intimacy can take, about connections made and abysses that open up between friends, lovers, family members, and even strangers, she was a perfect fit for the “love” side. In fact, her participation in the festival was a great preview of how deftly she plays with readers’ expectations on a topic as well-trodden as love, sometimes meeting these expectations, sometimes subverting them, and sometimes going off on a tangent.

I couldn’t wait for her to finish her first novel—which turned out to be One Another—and am delighted that I was able to translate it.

READ MORE…

Close Approximations: In Conversation with Poetry Winner Daniel Owen

It's like an exorcism and a prayer for long life in one breath.

This year’s winner of the Poetry category in Asymptote’s fourth annual Close Approximations Translation Contest was Daniel Owen. Poetry judge Eugene Ostashevsky called Alfizal Malna’s text “intellectual poetry of the highest caliber,” praising Owen for his “elegant, reserved English,” and for offering readers “a beautiful thing of clear obscurity” in his translations of Malna’s Document Shredding Museum.

We recently caught up with Yogyakarta-based Daniel to learn more about his work with the legendary Afrizal Malna, the process of “unsomeoneification,” and what he has been up to since winning the Close Approximations contest in January.

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): I found your translations of Document Shredding Museum to be incredibly beautiful and inviting; no easy feat given the complexity of Malna’s writing. How did you first come to Afrizal Malna and his work?

Daniel Owen (DO): I met Afrizal at Kampung Buku Jogja, an annual literary event in Yogyakarta with a book fair, readings, and discussions. I had just come to stay awhile in Jogja to intensively study Indonesian language and to read and subsequently translate Indonesian literature. While my Indonesian was okay when we first met, I hadn’t yet read much and was quite ignorant of the literary landscape. We were introduced by my friends, the writers and small press publishers Lelaki Budiman and Tiaswening Maharsi, after Afrizal’s discussion on theater and poetry with Gunawan Maryanto. I bought a copy of his new book of short stories, Pagi Yang Miring Ke Kanan (Nyala, 2017) and we chatted a bit. Following our initial meeting, I started reading Afrizal’s work pretty intensely, the short stories along with poems I found on the internet, and then his book of essays Sesuatu Indonesia. I found myself entranced by the poems; it was like encountering something extremely familiar yet at the same time novel. That kind of tickling of the sensibilities that’s both troubling and pleasurable, takes you, as a reader, outside yourself while making you feel more yourself. I started translating these poems which I’d found online, primarily to see what would happen and to share them with non-Indonesian-speaking friends who asked about what I was reading, thinking about, engaging with. And then I borrowed Museum Penghancur Dokumen from Budiman, read the whole thing and started translating it.

READ MORE…

Small Streams That Grow into the Main Flow of the Novel: An Interview with Radka Denemarková

I just want to speak the truth because I cannot stay silent about the pain affecting others.

Radka Denemarková is a unique phenomenon on the Czech literary scene. A true polymath, she has written plays, scenarios, short and long novels, a double novel that can be read from both ends, translations, and essays. On April 7, she was awarded the Book of the Year award at the Magnesia Litera ceremony, making her the only four-time winner of the most prestigious literary award in the Czech Republic. Her most noticeable works include Money from Hitler (2006), which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who returns to her home village in Czechoslovakia only to be denied existence; Sleeping Disorders, a humorous play featuring Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ivana Trump; and A Contribution to the History of Joy (2014)—of which Asymptote published a partial translation—a reflection on violence disguised as part essay, part crime novel. Finally, her most recent novel is Lead Hours, a major work expanding over 700 pages, spanning China and Europe, and exploring the fate of a series of characters witnessing the crumbling of their value system as they face life crises. Denemarková was also featured in Asymptote as a translator, and is now translated into over fifteen languages, including Chinese. She is currently working on her next novel.

Filip Noubel (FN): Your latest novel, Hodiny z olova, which can be translated as Lead Hours, just came out in January. What does the title refer to, and why is China such a prominent theme in this 700 page-long major work? 

Radna Denemarková (RD): The reason for China being the center stage of my novel comes out of a series of trips I made to that country, the first in 2013. I was literally shocked by what I experienced there: the breaking down of a socio-political system combined with the consequences of globalization, and how all of this affects us in the most intimate way. Initially, I had a very idealized notion of China, shaped by the little knowledge I had about its poetry, calligraphy, and philosophy. What I hadn’t expected at all was the brutality of daily life.

The main issue in China we face concerns how economic pragmatism changes the human soul, and how we can bring back the notion of humanism in our daily language. While the world seems to embrace new forms of totalitarian ideologies, we need a new language. People are afraid to speak openly. People report on each other even within the family circle. In Beijing, in the case of a car accident, people accepted as normal the fact that the male driver of an expensive car hit a woman because she was poor and uneducated and had no business ‘getting in the way.’

READ MORE…