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!
This week’s Translation Tuesday draws us into the mind of a middle-aged woman named Maria, who is struggling to find a job. As she moves through her humdrum morning routine, Maria’s thoughts stray to her parents, her husband, and her former employer, and, from these fragmentary memories, we begin to piece together the circumstances that led to her current situation. In a prose colored with pathos and loneliness, Anna Weidenholzer, in Elisabeth Lauffer’s translation, nevertheless maintains a lightness and humor that make this story a pleasure to read.
When he opens the door, I’ll say, Thank you for the invitation. I’ll say, My name is Maria Beerenberger, pleased to meet you. Have a seat, he’ll say, offering me a chair. I will have known what to wear. I will have thought about how I’d describe myself as a person. He’ll be wearing a necktie and a silver wristwatch. He’ll say, Frau Beerenberger, tell me a little bit about yourself. Gladly, I’ll say, gladly. I am familiar with the material. At least I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. And now we wait. What are you saying, he’ll ask. Frau Beerenberger, what are you talking about. Well, I’ll say, I am sitting across from you because I know the things people say, people who know what life is all about, because I’ll be one of those people. I didn’t believe in myself, you see, I didn’t believe in my future. Why, he’ll ask. Please explain. Then he’ll fall silent, lean back in his seat. Very well, I will say. As you wish. The day goes on, the light goes out, my neighbor used to say. Let’s start at the end.
This month brings us a set of novels in translation from some of the giants of international literature: László Krasznahorkai, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Ananda Devi. These reviews by Asymptote team members will give you a taste of an exiled baron’s return to his home town, a meditation on fascism and gender relations, and the decline of an older woman living in a London divided by race and class.
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, New Directions, 2019
Review by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor
“With this novel,” László Krasznahorkai told Adam Thirwell in their conversation for the Paris Review, “I can prove that I really wrote just one book in my life . . . When you read it, you’ll understand. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming must be the last.”
Ottilie Mulzet’s English translation of Báró Wenckheim hazatér has, understandably, been one of this year’s most keenly-anticipated books. It opens with a “Warning,” a labyrinthine eight-page sentence ending with a sigh of weariness that merits quoting at some length:
I don’t like at all what we are about to bring together here now, I confess, because I’m the one who is supervising everything here, I am the one—not creating anything—but who is simply present before every sound, because I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.
In the prologue to Susanne Röckel’s uncanny novel The Bird God, we are transported to a remote, unnamed corner of Europe, sometime during the twentieth century. The vagueness of the setting is entirely intentional and adds to the unworldly character of the story. This opening passage reads like an ornithological expedition to the back of beyond. Indeed, the text is presented as the unpublished account of an inveterate birdwatcher, Konrad Weyde, whose unbridled ambitions and inner demons eventually prove to be his undoing.
. . . It was, as I soon realized, that fabled region about which I’d read so much by the greats of my field. While the battered old locomotive was towed off to a depot, I was approached by several local taxi drivers sporting mustaches and muddy rubber boots who offered to drive me over the winding and pothole-ridden mountain road to the next railway station, but after glancing at the sky, which promised to be unusually bright and clear, I decided to remain right where I was and seek accommodation in the village of Z.—an irregular assemblage of leaning structures perched high among the cragged rocks, like the nesting site of a peregrine falcon.
The path that had been pointed out to me wound its way gently upwards through meadows, groves, and fields. At first glance, the landscape appeared picturesque, but as I trudged with my heavy bags I realized that my gaze had been clouded by the memory of the books that I’d read. Pechstein and von Boettiger had rhapsodized over the diverse views of the cultivated fields, green hills, gushing springs, and charming woodlands, with the stunning silhouette of the rocky peaks rising in the distance. Droste had—I particularly recall this passage from his Wanderings of an Inveterate Birdwatcher—described how the melodious singing of industrious peasant women had blended with the devout exultation of the larks. READ MORE…
The days are opening wide this season, like the pages of a new book: for most of us growing longer and fuller. It’s a good thing, because we’ve got a lot to catch you up on. This week, we’re bringing a full dosage of global literature news with achievements from Hong Kong, rolling publications by Czech talent, and literary commemorations gliding through the literal end of an era in Japan.
Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong
This spring has been a series of firsts for Hong Kong literature. Continuing from my previous dispatch in March on Xi Xi winning the Newman Prize for Chinese literature, historically awarded to writers from mainland China and Taiwan, World Literature Today is dedicating its first annual city issue to writing from Hong Kong. Sourcing contributions from writers, translators, and academics at the forefront of Hong Kong literature, the issue includes poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction with a focus on food and languages as well as a selection of recommended reading about the city. Xi Xi and Bei Dao are among the list of writers featured in the magazine, as is Wawa—recently showcased in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 issue in an interview with Poupeh Missaghi, our editor-at-large in Iran—and Chris Song, one of the winners of the Fifth Hai Zi Poetry Prize which announced its results a few weeks prior.
To celebrate the launch of the issue, Cha, Hong Kong’s resident online literary journal, is organizing an event on April 27 at Bleak House Books, where eight contributors will be reciting and discussing their works. Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, founding co-editor of Cha and the guest editor of World Literature Today’s Hong Kong feature, will also speak about the conception of the special edition.
The April Asymptote Book Club selection sends us to Lebanon for the first time, trailing the footsteps of protagonist Samir as he searches for his father and “struggles to resolve the contradictions and scars of his upbringing into a cohesive identity.”
Pierre Jarawan’s debut novel, The Storyteller, “does for Lebanon what Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner did for Afghanistan, [pulling] away the curtain of grim facts and figures to reveal the intimate story of an exiled family torn apart by civil war and guilt.” The English version of the novel, co-translated by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl, is available thanks to World Editions.
Our Book Club, catering to subscribers across North America and the EU (still including the UK!), has now published titles from seventeen different countries and thirteen different languages, and there’s still an opportunity to sign up for next month’s title via our website. If you’re already a member, join our online discussion here.
The Storyteller by Pierre Jarawan, translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl, World Editions, 2019
Reviewed by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor
The protagonist of The Storyteller, Samir, is born in Germany to Lebanese parents who fled their country’s civil war in the 1980s. Like many of his real-life contemporaries, he struggles to resolve the contradictions and scars of his upbringing into a cohesive identity. Grazing liberally from various cultures for its influences and allusions, Pierre Jarawan’s debut novel weaves between a past that feels too recent to be considered one, a present that feels too immediate to be already written about, and a future too intangible to trust.
The tides of cultural change are reflected in the literary festivals of Spain, Brazil, and South Africa this week as our editors point us to the increased awareness of both past misrepresentation and the lack of representation altogether. As more dismal political news from around the world rolls in, such instances of rectification and progress from the cultural sphere are a source of light and comfort.
Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain
April might be the cruellest month for some glum, English poets, but in Spain, spring has arrived and ushered in a blossoming book fair season. Alicante has just wrapped up its 2019 Feria del Libre with a refreshing theme of Mujeres de Palabra, celebrated from March 28 to April 7. The long week was packed full of readings, signings, booths, and workshops. This year, many activities were aimed at younger readers.
Among many great Spanish writers was a personal favourite, Murcian writer Miguel-Ángel Hernández, whose 2013 novel Intento de Escapada (Anagrama) was translated into English by Rhett McNeil (Hispabooks, 2016) as Escape Attempt and was also translated into German, French, and Italian. Compared to both Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, Hernández’s El dolor de los demás (Anagrama, 2018), which he was signing at the fair, is now high on the reading list.
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…
Looking for new books to read this April? Look no further with this edition of What’s New in Translation, featuring new releases translated from Thai, German, and Brazilian Portuguese. Read on to find out more about Clarice Lispector’s literature of exile, tales of a collection of eccentric villagers, and a comic book adaptation of Bertolt Brecht.
Tales of Mr. Keuner by Bertolt Brecht and Ulf K., translated from the German by James Reidel, Seagull Books, 2019
Review by Josefina Massot, Assistant Managing Editor
If Brecht’s bite-sized, biting tales of Mr. Keuner can be thought of as a corpus, it isn’t by virtue of their “what,” “when,” “where,” or “how”: they deal with everything from existentialism to Marxist politics, have often hazy settings, and run the gamut from parable to poem; it’s the titular “who” that pulls these sundry musings together.
Until recently, their fellowship was purely formal: Mr. Keuner (also known as Mr. K) was practically nondescript, a mere “thinking man” whom Walter Benjamin traced back to the Greek keunos and the German keiner—a universal no one. This seemingly baffling figure would have made sense given the original tales’ fifth W, their “why”: since they were meant to edify general audiences, they would have gained from as null a champion as possible. After all, a man stripped of his traits is stripped of individuality, untainted by bias; he is the ultimate thinker, the voice of global truth. READ MORE…
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.
Abel and Cain by Gregor von Rezzori, introduction by Joshua Cohen, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel, and Marshall Yarbrough, New York Review Books, 2019
Gregor von Rezzori published Der Tod meines Bruders Abel in 1976, and the book was translated by Joachim Neugroschel into English in 1985. What the back of the book describes as a “prequel” (the term doesn’t quite fit) was published posthumously in German in 2001 as Kain. Das Letzte Manuskript and appears for the first time in English in this edition. The book is structured by four folders that lie in front of the narrator after he enjoys an evening with a prostitute: “Pneuma,” “A,” “B,” and “C.” The contents of the first three folders compose the first book (“Abel”), while “Cain” unveils the last folder (“C”).
Monique Schwitter’s multi-award-winning One Another, a contemporary set of love stories with classical echoes, was described in Switzerland as having “the gentlest gaze and the hardest kick.” The original (Eins im Andern) was shortlisted for the German Book Prize before winning both the Swiss Book Prize and the Swiss Prize for Literature.
Tess Lewis’ English translation, published by Persea Books, is our Asymptote Book Club selection for March, and is currently heading to our subscribers across North America and the EU. To join us in time for next month’s title, you can subscribe via our website.
One Another by Monique Schwitter, translated from the German by Tess Lewis, Persea Books, 2019
One Another is an honest novel about love. The narrator, who also claims to be the author, and in later chapters references writing and titling the earlier ones, finds out about the unexpected death of a former boyfriend, Petrus. This provokes her to describe every romance she’s ever experienced. She devotes a chapter to each. The best part of this book is an honest account of contemporary womanhood that is not pious, ashamed, or guilty. An undramatic consensus ends almost every one of these vignettes. She never begs anyone to stay. She has cheated but she isn’t consumed with guilt. Certain complications in these affairs lead the reader to expect the familiar sentimentalism of broken hearts, but the narrator is much too rational for that. READ MORE…
This week, we highlight a new Latinx literary magazine, an award-winning Catalan poet and translator, and a German-American literary festival in New York. We also learn about a Salvadoran who hopes to increase access to literature in his city by raising enough funds to build and stock a new library.
Nestor Gomez, Editor-at-Large for El Salvador, reporting from El Salvador
The Fall 2018 debut of Palabritas, an online Latinx literary magazine founded by Ruben Reyes Jr., is good news for Latinx writers from a variety of genres, especially those who are unpublished. Palabritas’ creation was inspired by a night of celebration of spoken word, poetry, and performances hosted by Fuerza Latina, a pan-Latinx organization of Harvard College. Reyes, a Harvard student and the son of Salvadoran immigrants, felt it was important to give access to unpublished writers from Latinx communities that are often ignored, such as LGBTQ+, the diaspora, and mixed-race communities. By providing a space for Latinx writers from all communities, Reyes hopes to minimize the exclusivity of published writers and bring them side-by-side with previously unpublished writers in the magazine.