If you love reading fiction by writers from around the globe, you are used to hearing about the big prizes that put international literature in the spotlight: the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Man Booker International, the Caine Prize, the Prix Goncourt, the German Book Prize, the Cervantes Prize, the Tanazaki Prize, and many others.
In fact, you might even have trouble keeping up with the variety of United States–based awards just for literature in translation, from the Best Translated Book Award (now eleven years old) to the National Book Award’s new Translated Literature category. It’s getting to be like following the Olympics, without all the fuss over new stadium construction. For one thing, winning books, like medal-bedecked Olympians, don’t get to the podium all by themselves. Winners need a team (and a coach and money) behind them. For another, we know that lots of great contenders don’t make it to the final round.
So what should we know about book prizes as we are reading the shortlisted candidates or hoping for a win for one of our favorite writers?
For many, summertime offers that rare window of endless, hot days that seem to rule out any sort of physical activity but encourage hours of reading. While these might not be easy beach reads in the traditional sense of online listicles, we are here with a few recommendations of our favorite translations coming out this month! These particular books, from China, France, and Argentina, each explore questions of masculinity, death, and creativity in unexpected ways while also challenging conventional narrative structures. As always, check out the Asymptote Book Club for a specially curated new title each month.
Ma Bo’le’s Second Life by Xiao Hong, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, Open Letter (2018)
Reviewed by Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor
The “second life” in the title of this scintillatingly satirical novel alludes to how we live on in fictions as well as to how fictions sometimes take on a life of their own. Partially published in 1941 simply as Ma Bo’le, Xiao Hong’s late work was in the process of being expanded, but the throat infection and botched operation that cut her life short at age thirty left further planned additions unfinished. Fortunately for English-language readers, though, it’s now been capably, inventively, and gracefully completed by Howard Goldblatt in an exemplary instance of a translation demanding—as do all renderings into another language—that we attend to its twinned dimensions of creativity and craft. Previously the translator of two Xiao Hong novels as well as a quasi-autobiographical work, Goldblatt was undoubtedly the perfect person to carry out what he fittingly calls “our collaboration,” which is the result of “four decades in the wonderful company—figuratively, intellectually, literarily, and emotionally—of Xiao Hong.”
It’s never a slow news day on Fridays at Asymptote. This week we bring you the latest publications, events, and news from France, Brazil, and Argentina.
Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from France
Is it perhaps time to talk about a renaissance for French literature in English translation? More classic French literature has always had an audience in the English-speaking world, but in the past few months new authors are taking the literary world by storm. Édouard Louis is only twenty-five but already a public figure in France. His latest book, a semi-autobiographical work, History of Violence (translated by Lorin Stein) was published to great acclaim in late June. Alison L. Strayer translated for Seven Stories Press Annie Ernaux’s The Years (published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions), an innovative collective autobiography that is both memoir and social critique of our times. To continue the trend, in June came also the publication of Gaël Faye Small Country (translated by Sarah Ardizzone), a coming-of-age story that tackles hard issues, including the Rwandan genocide and Civil War in Burundi. The Guardian went so far as to call Faye “the next Elena Ferrante.”
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.
Mektoub. Taleb. Mesquin. Cheb. Bezef. Each of these French words is also Arabic, albeit represented in French orthography. Through long proximity by colonization and immigration, Arabic influence has bled—at some moments more overtly than others—into the French language, and Azouz Begag’s 1986 autobiographical novel Le gone du Chaâba engages with this reality in each word choice and every line of dialogue.
The son of an Algerian migrant worker who settled permanently in France in 1949, not long before the brutal war for independence began, Begag employs a remarkable mixture of French, spoken Arabic, and Lyonnais slang to illustrate the linguistic realities of his community—something that poses problems for a translator who wants to retain its linguistic flavor without rendering the text totally opaque. Written in the eighties, the book and its projet linguistique is perhaps even more relevant at a time when so many Westerners think the Arabic phrase “Allahu akbar” is exclusively synonymous with terrorism.
We have such an amazing group of creative people over here at Asymptote. Check out some of our recent news and stay tuned for more of the international literature you love!
Poetry Editor Aditi Machado’s book of poetry, Some Beheadings, has been awarded The Believer Poetry Award.
Communications Manager Alexander Dickow has published an article in French on the creative imagination in Apollinaire’s Méditations esthétiques in Littérature’s 190th edition.
Editor-at-Large for Romania & Moldova Chris Tanasescu aka MARGENTO delivered a computational poetry paper at a major Artificial Intelligence conference, presented a Digital Humanities paper at Congress2018, and has flown to Europe to launch a computationally assembled poetry anthology.
This week we are proud to feature three poems by the Angolan-French poet Landa wo, in which he blends enquiries into human nature with nature itself, and transforms the silence and stillness of the world into the qualities of song. We hope you enjoy it, and don’t miss next week’s Translation Tuesday!
Let words burn
While saying the truth
For I, the poet,
I would not keep her on a leash.
Woah! It has apparently been a busy week in world literature. Today we bring you news from not just one, not two, but five different countries: Iran, Morocco, Spain, Argentina, and France.
Poupeh Missaghi, Editor at Large, reporting from Iran:
The 31st Tehran International Book Fair was held from May 2nd to May 12th, 2018, in Tehran, Iran.
In this year’s fair, a much-awaited novel by Iran’s foremost novelist, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, was finally offered to readers. طریق بسمل شدن , a novel about the Iran-Iraq war, had been awaiting a publication permit from the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for ten years. The book has, however, already been offered to English readers, under the title Thirst, translated by Martin E. Weir and published by Melville House in 2014. (You can read a review of Thirst here.) (You can also read a piece by Dowlatabadi in Asymptote’s special feature on the Muslim ban here.)
It is literary prize season and recent news that the Nobel Prize for Literature will not be awarded this year along with growing excitement for forthcoming award announcements have kept the literary community on our toes! This week we bring you the latest news from the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tunisia. Enjoy!
Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-large, reporting from the Czech Republic:
April 4 saw the announcement of the winners of the most celebrated Czech literary prize, the Magnesia Litera. For the first time in four years the title “book of the year” went not to a work of fiction but to an analysis of contemporary Czech politics against the backdrop of recent history, Opuštěná společnost (The Abandoned Society) by journalist Erik Tabery. The fiction prize was awarded to Jaroslav Pánek for his novel Láska v době globálních klimatických změn (Love in the Time of Global Climate Change), the story of a scientist forced to confront his own prejudices while attending a conference in Bangalore.
Rita Stirn is a translator, author, and musician who lives in Rabat, Morocco. Her book, Les musiciennes du Maroc: Portraits choisis (Morocco’s Women in Music: Selected Portraits) was published by Marsam in late 2017. Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Hodna Nuernberg spoke with Stirn about her new publication, Moroccan music, and language politics in the region.
Hodna Nuernberg (HN): How did you decide to write a book on Morocco’s women musicians? And how did being a woman musician yourself shape your approach to researching and writing the book?
Rita Stirn (RS): I’ve always been interested in the silences of history concerning women in art and music. When I started listening to the blues as a teenager, I realized music was a man’s world. Sure, there were plenty of female singers, but very few instrumentalists; I wanted to learn about hidden talents—the women in music who weren’t getting much recognition.
I came to Morocco in 2011. I paid a lot of attention to what was going on here musically. Whenever there was a celebration out on the streets—a marriage, for example—there were inevitably women playing music. So, I’d talk to them. They’d say, “Yeah, sure, people know us,” but none of them were online anywhere. They got all their gigs by word of mouth, and little by little, I began to find out about more and more women musicians.
Around the same time, I was looking though archives for photographs of women in music. All the images were of men. There was no focus whatsoever on women’s talents or the tradition of women instrumentalists, and that’s when the book project started to take shape in my head.
Yamen Manai’s prose is simple and accessible—he isn’t trying to seduce or impress the reader. He is telling a story that is both important and funny, and he wants to make sure it is understood. That story being post-Jasmine Revolution Tunisia, after the autocratic President Ben Ali has been ousted and the Western spotlight has faded. The initial euphoria of the revolution has long been replaced by frustration, resignation, and indifference as Islamists and secularists vie for leadership of the nation. Manai tells the story through the eyes of one man—Sidi, the hermetic beekeeper of the village of Nawa, whose cherished honey bees are attacked by a swarm of fanatical hornets bent on murder. This kingdom of bees serves as an unexpected but clear stand-in for the political instability that plagued (and continues to plague) Tunisia after 2011. Manai draws on Tunisian oral tradition to construct this ecological allegory, portraying the Nawa villagers (the Nawis) as a chorus voicing their surprise and skepticism at the changing times.
Everyone knew that Sidi would give his life for his girls, and do so without the slightest hesitation. His love for them rendered him capable of anything. Hadn’t he devoted his life to them, building them citadel upon citadel? Hadn’t he confronted a Numidian bear just to bring them the most beautiful flowers? Hadn’t he defied princes and left lovers to dedicate himself entirely to them? And so, when the news that hundreds of them had died under troubling circumstances spread from mouth to mouth, a response seemed inevitable.
The newest issue of Asymptote has just dropped and it is beautiful. In the physical world, the literary world is abuzz with festivals and publications around the world. We are back with another round of the newest and most exciting translation gems coming to bookshelves this month. This month, we bring you reviews of recent publications from Norway and Canada. And if you are looking for even more, carefully selected translations, check out the Asymptote Book Club!
Little Beast by Julie Demers, translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins, Coach House Books, 2018
Reviewed by Emma Page, Communications Manager
Julie Demer’s Little Beast (translated by Rhonda Mullins) is a dark fairy tale, more Grimm than Disney, set in the forbidding landscape of wintery rural Quebec. The shape of the story is familiar. A child, an absent parent, a “curse,” fumbling adults to be outwitted, a quest, a return home. Demers never flinches away from her young narrator’s perspective and yet Little Beast slowly emerges as a tale about the end of childhood and the intersection between experience, self-perception, and cultural narrative.
Our narrator is a young girl who has been ostracized from her village since sprouting a full, bushy beard. The bearded child has been living in an abandoned cabin for a month, foraging for food in and obsessively recording her tale in writing. Running out of fuel in freezing weather, she burns her makeshift home to the ground and sets off in search of a new dwelling. She eventually comes across two hunters with a captive bear, stealing food from them until they spot and capture her. Although at first they are determined to bring her back to the village, they eventually have a change of heart and release her. The child must then make a choice of her own, whether to return to society or disappear into the wilderness for good.
“A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader,” Vladimir Nabokov reminds us in his article “Good Readers and Good Writers”. There are so many books in this world, and unless your life revolves solely around books, it might be hard to be widely read and an active re-reader. Attaining this level of perfection that Nabokov describes is impossible, but the idea of re-reading as a tool to better understanding the value of a book underpins the philosophy of the Man Booker Prize International’s judging panel since its inception.