Language: Chinese

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?

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What’s New in Translation: December 2017

Looking for new books? Look no further!

2017 was a fantastic year for books, but there’s still so much more we want to share before we enter the New Year! This month, our team of editors review two new books from China and Japan—each of them special in their own way. Dive in! 

lianke

The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas, Vintage (UK)

Reviewed by Dylan Suher, Contributing Editor

Released years after the publication of the original, translations benefit from historical hindsight. Although the two novellas contained within The Years, Months, Days (Grove Atlantic, December 2017) are the latest of Yan Lianke’s works to be translated into English, they were originally published in 1997 (The Years, Months, Days) and 2001 (Marrow, originally titled Balou Mountain Songs 耙耧天歌), just before the string of novels upon which Yan’s reputation now rests: Hard Like Water (2001), Lenin’s Kisses (2004), Dream of Ding Village (2005) and Four Books (2011). Read in retrospect, these novellas represent a critical point in the evolution of Yan’s aesthetic. In both, we can see Yan learning how to best use his preferred technique of primordial allegory, painted with a broad Fauvist brush. Carlos Rojas tends to smooth out and harmonize Yan’s expressive phrasing, but the credit (or blame) for the rough symbolist feel of a metaphor like time that “rushes past their interlocked gazes like a herd of horses” should all go to Yan.

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The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2017

Our editors choose their favourites from this issue.

Asymptote’s new Fall issue is replete with spectacular writing. See what our section editors have to say about the pieces closest to their hearts: 

As writer-readers, we’ve all been there before. Who of us hasn’t been faced with that writer whose words have made us stay up late into the night; or start the book over as soon as we’re done; or after finally savoring that last word, weep—for all the words already written and that would never to be yours. The feeling is unmistakeable, physical. In her essay, “Animal in Outline,” Mireia Vidal-Conte describes this gut feeling after finishing El porxo de les mirades (The Porch of the Gazes) by Miquel de Palol: “What are we doing? I thought. What are we writing? What have we read, what have we failed to read, before sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper? What does and doesn’t deserve readers?” There are the books that make you never want to stop writing, and the books that never make you want to write another word (in the best way possible, of course). Vidal-Conte reminds writers again that none of us is without context—for better or for worse. Her essay is smart, playful, honest, and a must-read from this issue.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your news from the literary world, all in one place.

Here we are with this week’s news on exciting developments in the world of literature! Our Editor-At-Large for Singapore, Tse Hao Guang, updates us on new translation initiatives and experimental literary events. Sarah Moses, our Editor-At-Large for Argentina and Uruguay, fills us in on recent literary festivals and on an event honoring everyone’s favorite cartoon cynic. Finally, Tomás Cohen, our Editor-At-Large for Chile, tells us about some exciting new publications appearing in the region.

Tse Hao Guang, Editor-At-Large, with the latest updates from Singapore: 

In the spirit of experimentation, stalwart independent bookstore Booksactually devised a Book Prescription Day (Sep 30) in conjunction with #BuySingLit, inviting the public to meet seven authors one-on-one as they administered literary balm to all manner of ailments. Literary nonprofit Sing Lit Station put on a zany, rave-reviewed, pro-wrestling-meets-spoken-word spectacle Sing Lit Body Slam (October 6-7), selling out on opening night. Sing Lit Station also announced the 2018 Hawker Prize for Southeast Asian Poetry, awarding the best poems published by SEA-affiliated journals to a combined tune of SGD$2500 (USD$1800). Finally, Singapore played host to the 2nd Asian Women Writers’ Festival (September 29-30), with Singaporean novelists Balli Kaur Jaswal and Nuraliah Norasid speaking alongside other writers from the UK, the Philippines, Pakistan, and India.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Music, art and linguistics have been knocking on literature's door around the world this week. Asymptote members bring you the scoop.

Literature is interdisciplinary by nature, and the world showed us how this week. From visual art exhibitions and a reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Hong Kong to a music festival infiltrated by writers in Slovakia and a commemoration of the late sociolinguist Jesús Tuson in Catalan, there is much to catch up on the literary world’s doings this week.

Hong Kong Editor-at-Large Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan brings us up to speed:

Themed “Fictional Happiness,” the third edition of Hong Kong Literary Season ran from June to late August. The annual event is organised by one of the most important Hong Kong literary organisations, the House of Hong Kong literature. This year the event featured an opening talk by Hong Kong novelist Dung Kai-cheung and Taiwanese writer Luo Yijun, a writing competition, an interdisciplinary visual arts exhibition, and a series of talks, workshops and film screenings. Five visual artists were invited to create installations inspired by five important works of Hong Kong fiction in response to the exhibition title, “Fictional Reality: Literature, Visual Arts, and the Remaking of Hong Kong History.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration has been a hot trend in the Hong Kong literary scene recently. Led and curated by visual artist Angela Su, Dark Fluid: a Science Fiction Experiment, is the latest collection of sci-fi short stories written by seven Hong Kong artists and writers. The book launch on September 2 took place at the base of Hong Kong arts organisation, “Things that Can Happen,” in Sham Shui Po. The experimental project was initiated as an artistic effort to reflect on recent social turmoils through scientific imagination and dystopian visions. The book launch also presented a dramatic audio adaptation of one of the stories, “Epidemic Investigation,” from the collection.

On September 6, PEN Hong Kong hosted a bilingual reading session (Cantonese and English) as part of the International Literature Festival Berlin (ILB) at Art and Culture Outreach (ACO) in Wan Chai. About twelve Hong Kong writers, journalists, and academics participated in “The Worldwide Reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” by reading excerpts of their choice from works that deal with issues of human rights.

Amid the literary and artistic attention to Hong Kong social issues and history, local literary magazine, Fleur de Lettre, will take readers on a literary sketching day-trip in Ma On Shan on September 9. During the event named “August and On Shan,” participants will visit a former iron mine in Ma On Shan to imagine its industrial past through folk tales and historical relics. READ MORE…

Trishanku―Language as Purgatory

“My adulthood is covered with the bubble-wrap of English.”

So here’s a story―Trishanku was a mythological king, the ancestor of the Hindu god Ram. When Trishanku grew old, the gods invited his soul to heaven, but he wanted to rise to paradise in his earthly body. “Impossible,” the gods shuddered. Trishanku went to the sage Vishwamitra for help. Vishwamitra conducted a great yagya for Trishanku, and with the power of his ritual, started levitating Trishanku―body and all―towards heaven. But when the gods barred the gates, Vishwamitra built an entirely new universe between heaven and earth where Trishanku dangles, upside down, for eternity.

As a bilingual writer, I often feel like Trishanku. Having grown up in a postcolonial country with the shadow of a foreign language colouring every aspect of my existence, a duplicity cleaves my life. I inhabit two languages―English and Hindi―but I’m never fully comfortable in either. It’s telling perhaps that Trishanku is also the name of a constellation that in English is known as Crux. This confusion of languages I reside in, this no woman’s land of living between tongues defines me.

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What’s New in Translation? June 2017

We review three new books available in English from China, Norway and Mexico, revealing stories of cities and bodies.

A tree grows in Daicheng

A Tree Grows in Daicheng by Lu Nei, translated by Poppy Toland, AmazonCrossing

Review by Christopher Chan, Chinese Social Media Intern

Whether a book can obtain certain currency among a wide range of readers depends upon its unique qualities. Take the genre of fantasy novels for example. Some books, like the Harry Potter series, do well because of the uniqueness of their ideas. Harry Potter was a fresh story about the wizarding world, told in an accessible language; others books, such as The Lord of the Rings, succeed with their sense of larger-than-life gravitas. A Tree Grows in Daicheng, however, is neither exclusively a book of fresh ideas nor of epic seriousness, but a careful mix of both.

The novel is a work of pastiche in many ways, especially through the narrative voices of different characters. The book’s uniqueness lies perhaps in its kaleidoscopic depiction of the great changes brought to a city called Daicheng and its people during China’s Cultural Revolution. READ MORE…

International Prize for Arabic Fiction Winner Announced

“These works existed but were not known outside the Arab world as they deserved to be.”

Last night in Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Hasan Alwan was announced the winner of the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his novel, A Small Death, chosen from an impressive shortlist including Elias Khoury of Lebanon and Mohammed Abdel Nabi of Egypt.

In a video for IPAF, Alwan, who was born in Saudi Arabia but now lives in Toronto, said, “It might seem odd to choose to write a novel about Ibn ‘Arabi with all those extreme eastern concepts, whilst residing in this distant cold corner of the world in Canada. I often think about this. So, at first, I directly linked it to me feeling nostalgic, then I realised that being exposed to what is seemingly foreign or different is what drives me to reconnect with myself, as well as with my heritage and old culture.”

Since its inception almost ten years ago, IPAF, often referred to as the “Arabic Booker,” has maintained as its central mission the translation of winning and shortlisted novels to encourage greater readership of high-quality Arabic literature internationally.  In fact, it guarantees translation of winning novels into English (and other languages when the budget permits), provides monetary awards to shortlisted pieces ($10,000 each, and $50,000 to the winner), and supports appearances of authors at international festivals, including Shubbak in London and the Berlin Literary Festival.

The initial idea for IPAF emerged in 2007 when Ibrahim el Moallem, then President of the Arab Publishers’ Association, “talked of the regrettably few numbers of high quality contemporary Arabic novels being translated into leading Western languages,” as Fleur Montanaro, current administrator of IPAF, recounted to me in a recent interview.  Ms. Montanaro added “these works existed but were not known outside the Arab world as they deserved to be.”

According to numbers alone, IPAF does appear to have made some headway in promoting translation.  Although some have argued in the past (see this report from Literature Across Frontiers) that IPAF primarily encourages Anglophone translations, winning and shortlisted novels have been translated into 20 languages, including several non-European languages, among them Chinese, Turkish, and Russian.  Furthermore, distribution has not been limited to the European continent.  For example, The Druze of Belgrade by Rabee Jaber, winner in 2012, was distributed in Latin America.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2017

Insights from the experts on the Spring 2017 Issue of Asymptote

Looking for new entry points into the latest issue of the journal? The section editors of this behemoth cash of international literature, out just last week, are here to guide you!  

In this spring issue, the drama section features two complementary pieces—one from Catalonia and the other from Poland. Both portray hellish, nightmarish worlds in a distinct, unique theatrical manner. Grzegorz Wroblewski’s The New Colony in translation by Agnieska Pokojska depicts a claustrophobic asylum where patients/citizens live out their days in a state of restless, mocking unease. Wroblewski’s text is typical of what has been deemed “post-dramatic” theatre (in Hans Lehmann’s terms). It is an open text which offers its audience an intentionally disorientating roadmap to a contemporary world that is fractured and broken, where individuals seek wholeness despite all signs that such a search is hopeless.

Written as a proto-feminist cabaret, Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaret in translation by Phyllis Zatlin, looks at an elemental Eve, channeling visions of historical female icons throughout history. Is guilt a woman? To whom will society place its blame in times of war? Helen of Troy? Other alluring, bewitching sirens up to no good? Escudé i Gallès teases and cajoles her audience in a piece that through anarchic humor questions the roles we all play to claim concepts of territory, identity, and ownership. Both Wroblewski and Escudé I Gallès are from the same generation, even though they represent different cultures and sensibilities as dramatists. It’s fascinating to see two skilled and provocative playwrights, in fine translations, address states of fear and anxiety all too prevalent in the modern world.

—Drama Editor Caridad Svich

Among three exceptional essays—including one that introduces readers to the brilliant but tortured Swiss writer, Hermann Burger, and another that briefly loiters at the fork in Iran’s contemporary literary scene—I found myself particularly drawn to Noh Anothai‘s generous and intimate reflections on a world turned akimbo, seen through the eyes of Thai poet, Saksiri Meesomsueb. As we follow Anothai through the pages of Meesomsueb’s award-winning collection, That Hand is White, and from north Bangkok to Chicago and back, I’m reminded once more of literature’s gift in transgressing borders, its necessary lucidity, kindness, and prescience; and consequently, its call for response. Only with clean hands can we clean the world, Meesomsueb tells us. Dear Reader, what will you do next?

—Writers on Writers Editor Ah-reum Han

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your Friday update from Argentina, Mexico, and Taiwan

TGIF because we have so much to tell you about the literary goings-on around the world! From book fairs in Argentina to new electronic media in indigenous languages from Mexico, to touring documentary screenings in Taiwan, this week has been packed with exciting news.

Sarah Moses, Editor-at-Large for Argentina, reports on upcoming events:

On March 22, The Museo del Libro y de la Lengua launched “Déjalo Beat. Insurgencia poética de los años 60,” an exhibit that seeks to bring attention to the beatniks porteños, a group of Buenos Aires authors and poets who embodied 1960s counterculture through works that were genre-bending and anti-academic. Open until July, the exhibit showcases magazines, photographs, early editions of novels, and other audiovisual material from writers including Reynaldo Mariani, Poni Micharvegas, Sergio Mulet, Ruy Rodríguez, and Néstor Sánchez. “Celebración Beat. La belleza de lo roto,” a multidisciplinary work of theatre based on texts from fifteen of the authors included in “Déjalo Beat” will be performed at the museum on April 7.

Bar Piglia, located in Buenos Aires’s Library of Congress, was inaugurated on March 31. The café commemorates Ricardo Piglia, who passed away on January 6; its walls are decorated with a mural and photos of the writer, and its shelves contain copies of his books. Piglia knew of the homage and, hours before his death, completed a piece tracing a history of the library and the role it had played in his life. The text was read by actress Cristina Banegas on the first night of “Palabras Vivas,” a reading series that will take place at the café.

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In Review: Can Xue’s Frontier

[Grace] thought one of the frontier’s major characteristics was that the scenery outside exerted tremendous pressure on people.

Luijin lives in Pebble Town, a place that lies between two peripheries. People often travel there from the interior, as her parents once did, moving farther and farther north until they arrive at the border of the frontier. The Snow Mountain, eternally white, watches over the townspeople in the slight distance. ‘Surreal’ and ‘mystical’ can perhaps describe the lives of those who live and work in Pebble Town, with its disappearing, floating tropical gardens, the grove of Poplar trees, roaming snow leopards and the impalpable Design Institute.

The narrative unfolds through a dozen or so perspectives, each a unique unveiling of the subtle yet marvelous flow of life that plays out in the mind of its author, Can Xue. And here is where our plot summary ends, at least in the typical sense. The narrative arc is perhaps the least helpful point of reference for a reader of Can Xue, and it would do no service here, to either reader or subject, to continue. That is not to say the story lacks structure (more on that later), but that to focus on it here would be to disregard what makes her work so unique. It is what lies behind the walls of narrative and concrete plot points that interests Can Xue: the intangible is valued over the material.

As with much of Can Xue’s translated work, people and things, time and space, all tend to envelope each other like a mist. Perhaps most notable in her short stories, her ability to find careful footing in the space between the real and the surreal is unique and achieves a balance that is both remarkable and often unsettling. In Frontier (Open Letter, 2017), her newest novel to appear in English, this balance is penetrating and comes through most forcefully in the town itself. In a letter to her parents, who have left Pebble Town to return to the city, one of the primary characters, Luijin, writes, “she felt that Pebble Town was a slumbering city. Every day, some people and things were revived in the wind. They came to life suddenly and unexpectedly.” For the reader, Pebble Town both grounds and disorientates us at the same time, without interruption. It serves as neither a character nor a place, but magnifies what is around it; enhances and completes it. Can Xue leaves no landmarks or way points to light the path when navigating this curious place, except to remind us “on snowy days, one’s field of vision widens.”

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Monthly Update from the Asymptote Team

The first month of 2017 has been a big one for the folks here at Asymptote!

Poetry Editor Aditi Machado read with fellow poet Kea Wilson at Washington University in St Louis on 26 January. Her recent translation of Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia was reviewed in Europe Now by Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Iran, Poupeh Missaghi.

Spanish Social Media Manager Arthur Dixon launched Latin American Literature Today, a new bilingual journal affiliated to World Literature Today. He serves as Managing Editor and principal translator.

Contributing Editor (Chinese) Francis Li Zhuoxiong’s recent memoir looking back on his 20 illustrious years as a Chinese lyricist was announced as a top ten finalist for the nonfiction category by the organizers of the Taipei International Book Exhibition.

Assistant Managing Editor Lori Feathers is opening Interabang Books in Dallas, Texas. The independent bookstore is expected to open in May. In addition to being a co-owner, Lori will be the store’s book buyer. For more information about the store visit interabangbooks.com.

India Editor-at-Large Poorna Swami spoke at a panel on South Asian books in translation at Jaipur Bookmark, part of the Jaipur Literature Festival. On another panel, she and Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan presented on Asymptote‘s Indian Languages Special Feature. The Indian online news publication The Wire ran a selection of poems from this Feature in a week-long series titled The Republic of Verse.

Social Media Manager Sohini Basak has received the inaugural Beverly Series manuscript prize. Her debut poetry collection We Live in the Newness of Small Differences will be published by Eyewear Publishing in early 2018. She has also received a Toto Funds the Arts award for her poetry.

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek‘s latest chapbook, The First Five Storms, which won the 2016 New Poets’ Prize, was released this month by smith | doorstop press. His also launched ‘Words of Welcome’, a new fortnightly series dedicated to spotlighting the literary voices of refugees in Oxford and writers who work directly with them.

*****

Read More Dispatches from the Asymptote Team:

Joshua Freeman talks Uyghur Poetry, Part II

The endless choices confronting a translator constitute a great deal of creative freedom.

Our latest issue features three poems by the Uyghur writer Tahir Hamut. Here, the Asymptote Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly talks to the translator, Joshua Freeman.

When we first spoke in October 2015, you mentioned your excitement about translating Tahir Hamut. It’s wonderful to see these poems now. How long have you been working with Hamut? Have you worked with him on translation issues?

Tahir Hamut was actually one of the first poets I translated, almost ten years ago. I met him soon after I started translating his work, since I was also living in Ürümchi, capital of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, at the time. He’s a terrific conversationalist with wide-ranging interests, and I’ve enjoyed exchanging ideas with him on all manner of subjects over the years. I used to ask him occasionally why he didn’t write much poetry anymore, since I regard him as one of the most talented living poets writing in Uyghur. (His poem “Returning to Kashgar” is perhaps my favorite.) Over the last couple years it’s been exciting for me that he’s suddenly reemerged with a torrent of new work, every bit as good as his work from the nineties.

When I translate work by a living poet—and most poets I translate are still around—I usually produce a semi-final draft of my translation, and then get in touch with the poet about any lingering questions of meaning or interpretation. Those conversations can be quite lengthy, and in fact I really enjoy them; as a non-poet myself, it’s a unique chance to have some access to the literary thought processes of poets I admire. Speaking with Tahir about his work, we’ll sometimes slip briefly from Uyghur into Chinese to discuss a word or a line from the “meta” level of a second language.

Interesting that you call yourself a non-poet. I wonder if you are of the camp that considers a translated poem a new poem all its own? Or do you think it is strictly a translation?

There’s lots of interesting theory on the subject by people who’ve thought about it longer than I have, so I’ll just share my own sense of it. A translated poem is not exactly a new poem, but it’s definitely distinct from the original work. The endless choices confronting a translator constitute a great deal of creative freedom, but the starting point of each choice is still the original poem, and in that sense translating poetry differs fundamentally from writing it. One analogy that comes to mind is music: different musicians will interpret a composer’s work differently, but their performance will still be guided by the same notes on the page. READ MORE…