Today, early Arabic thinkers are largely overlooked in discussions of the origins of Western philosophy. In this essay (the second part of which will be published tomorrow), Brother Anthony of Taizé brings the focus back to this period of prolific scholarship and translation, and remembers the most influential philosophers and Greek-Arabic translators of the Medieval Islamic world.
In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “La busca de Averroes” (1947), we find Averroes (ibn Rushd, 1126-1198), the great Spanish Arabic commentator of Aristotle, at a loss to understand the words “comedy” and “tragedy” he has found in Aristotle’s Poetics, because his own culture has no tradition of theatrical drama. He is given hints by the sight of children playing at being the muezzin in a mosque, as well as by an account of a theatrical performance in China given by a returning traveler, but he can make nothing of them. Borges then intervenes to make this a parable illustrating the impossibility of ever understanding anyone who lives in a radically different time and culture. In reading this story, we are confronted with our own (and Borges’s) inability to write and read the actual words for “tragedy” and “comedy” which Averroes was struggling with. Today’s widespread Western inability to read Arabic, Greek, or even Latin, should be a source of shame, although it doesn’t seem to be. Many of Borges’s readers might already be at a loss to imagine an Arab struggling to understand Aristotle, so unfamiliar the intellectual history of the Muslim world has become. READ MORE…
Another issue of Asymptote means another dazzling array of voices, languages, and genres in translation. If you’re not sure where to begin, look no further than these recommendations from the editors who compiled this spectacular issue.
From Lee Yew Leong, Fiction and Poetry Editor:
This issue’s Fiction section is memorable for being the first fiction lineup in an Asymptote issue (and there are now 34 of them!) that does not include a single European author. Naguib Mahfouz and Bernardo Esquinca have already been singled out by the blog editors last week, so I’ll touch briefly on works by Bijan Najdi and Siham Benchekroun—two ambitious short stories that are remarkable in different ways. Showcasing the acclaimed narrative technique for which he was known, Najdi’s heartbreaking story “A Rainy Tuesday” (translated beautifully by Michelle Quay) unravels the thin seam between memory and reality, leading us on a nonlinear journey through grief. Benchekroun’s “Living Words,” on the other hand, is also a personal essay that exults in the very richness of language. Kudos to translator Hannah Embleton-Smith who masterfully tackled a text that leans so heavily on French phonetics to make synaptic leaps—and gave us something in English that preserves the delight of the original French. My personal favorites from the Poetry section this issue are the new translations of The Iliad by James Wilcox, which inject vigor into an ancient classic, and Tim Benjamin’s introduction of Leonardo Sanhueza, 2012 winner of the Pablo Neruda Prize for career achievement. Benjamin’s evocative translations bring into English for the first time an extraordinary poetic voice that deserves to reach a wider audience.
From Joshua Craze, Nonfiction Section Editor:
“Personal Jesus” by Fausto Alzati Fernández is a visceral study of the self that drugs make. Ably translated by Will Stockton, the prose slows down time, as we wait on the side of the highway, hoping for a fix, and then, finally, time stops, in the infinite space of the hit. Fernández explores an enchanted world, in which of all the dumb sad morass of the human animal is given the possibility of transcendence, and yet—cruelties of cruelties—it is this very transcendence that produces the animals living half-lives that stumble around his dealer’s living room. “Personal Jesus” is a love letter, written to a cleansing balm that leaves us only more pitiful than before.
Trace “Cosmic Connections” in Asymptote’s Spring 2019 edition, including 27 countries and 17 languages from every corner of our beautiful globe! Start with our double-whammy interviews with Viet Thanh Nguyen and Dubravka Ugrešić, or dance upon our “big old blue sphere” with the illustrious co-founder of Oulipo, Raymond Queneau. And don’t miss this quarter’s Special Feature, spotlighting creative reflections on the art of translation!
Translation can transport us to exotic locales—near or far. Daniel Guebel travels the lost world of Jewish pilpul, or “spicy thought,” an ancient method of interpreting the Talmud, while reconciling with the fact that the sages’ dialectical complexities cannot heal his dying father. Yet a life isn’t a mere journey from beginning to simple end: “All roads lead anywhere,” sings acclaimed Bulgarian poet Georgi Gospodinov, “not only to death.” For Mohsen Namjoo, the road must lead beyond nostalgia for hallowed national pasts to address the problems of the present. READ MORE…
Israeli writer Amos Oz and Cretan memoirist George Psychoundakis are two of the highlights of Assistant Blog Editor Jonathan Egid’s 2018 reading list. Addressing topics ranging from Israeli politics and the death of Jesus (Oz) to Renaissance poetry and home-brewed alcohol (Psychoundakis), the two writers nevertheless share a sense of humour and a talent for producing powerful and thought-provoking texts.
Having spent most of the first half of the year reading texts about, rather than in translation, as part of my research for a thesis on the philosophy of cultural and conceptual difference, I relished the opportunity to read texts with somewhat more invigorating prose than typically displayed in analytic philosophy journals, and my summer reading list was full of translated fiction.
High on this list was the Israeli writer Amos Oz’s first new novel in over a decade, Judas. An old-fashioned novel of ideas in the tradition of Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, Judas begins with an end; the protagonist Shmuel Ash is left suddenly by his girlfriend, and then learns of his father’s bankruptcy, which forces him to abandon his promising studies. He takes up work caring for an elderly cripple in an ancient house on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and the narrative follows Shmuel as he is drawn into the troubled history of this crumbling house and its mysterious and enticing inhabitants.
The narrative is interspersed with Shmuel’s reflections on his now-abandoned thesis, giving the story—which takes place almost entirely in the old house and the neighbouring streets, cafes, and alleyways—a dazzling historical and intellectual scope, as Oz spans continents and centuries from medieval Al-Andalus to Galician shtetls and kibbutzim on the Sharon plain, tracing the fraught history of Jesus and the Jews. The focus of these reflections is neither Jesus nor the Jews, but on the eponymous Judas, or rather on the figure of Judas, the figure of a most reviled and hated traitor.
Michael Henry Heim, the translator who introduced to English readers Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being—and my personal favorite, The Joke—dies on 29 September 2012. Not only do we mourn his passing, we regret not being able to publish the interview Heim agreed to months before. Michael Stein of Literalab, who has been researching interview questions for Asymptote when news breaks of Heim’s death, writes a tribute instead, which we publish on Tumblr (this being before the arrival of our blog). On the other hand, Yiyun Li—whom I have been courting since the beginning of Asymptote—finally agrees to grace the pages of our eighth issue (listen to a snippet of her conversation with Clare Wigfall here). Haven’t read Li? Start with “Love in the Marketplace” from A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Sometimes, in my more indulgent moments as editor, I think of that story and channel the question that the narrator asks of her mother, who prides herself on the care she takes to make the very best hard boiled eggs that she has been selling for forty years: Who even notices?
The Fall 2012 issue was the first issue of Asymptote that I encountered when I decided to reconnect with literature after a long hiatus. And I’ll be perfectly candid: as a skeptic who has never been afraid of ghosts, I was somewhat bemused by the Halloween-tinged theme of fear and the supernatural. But when I delved a little deeper I found no Disneyfication of the old pagan ritual but rather an exploration of fear that encompassed both the everyday and the extraordinary. In a whirlwind blend of poetry, fiction, loud-mouthed drama, and even phantasmagorical art, readers encounter the ghosts of of memory, AIDS, old age, Alzheimer’s, lost cultural identity, and so much more.
The pieces from this issue play off of each other’s fears and discoveries so well that it is almost uncanny. Afzal Syed Ahmed’s poem, which begins “In your language every line begins from an opposite end,” responds to Aamer Hussein’s fear of returning to a ‘home’ that no longer feels like home—and not simply because both are translated from Urdu. As Hussein explains, “I’m losing my mother tongue. I’m a vagabond, I carry my home on my back. Now I shall turn this foreign tongue into a whip and lash them with their words.” When discussing in her interview why she doesn’t feel ready to be translated into Chinese, Yiyun Li demonstrates a similar fear of losing one’s language, of being misinterpreted, of being pushed out or forgotten. READ MORE…