Language: Icelandic

Fall 2016: A Fresh Opportunity to Talk

Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision.

Halldor Laxness, Stefan Zweig, László Krasznahorkai—just when you think you are announcing just these three international literary superstars in the Fall 2016 lineup, it turns out you have four. On October 3, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti controversially unmasks Elena Ferrante as Anita Raja. But, even before Gatti’s unwelcome revelation, I had already picked out Anita Raja’s contribution as a highlight and intended to include her name in all our issue-related promotional materials. Fearing that we would be accused of riding the controversy, I drop a note to criticism editor Ellen Jones: “What do you make of all this Anita Raja = Elena Ferrante business? Is it opportunistic of us to feature her name in our publicity materials (which we already sent for printing) and on the cover (which can still be changed)?” The issue’s been on her mind as well. “We want to avoid the same kinds of accusations NYRB are getting in this morning’s papers,” Ellen says, “but I don’t think it would do too much harm to have her as one among many names in our promotion materials… I don’t think we need to bury a good essay on purpose, in short.” But what about in the promotional materials themselves? How much do we say about Anita Raja? Communications Manager Matthew Phipps decides in the end to take a risk and state matter-of-factly that Elena Ferrante has been unmasked as Anita Raja (which anyone who has been following literary news already knows). Too frazzled to make a call on the copy after staying up for 36 hours to put together the video trailer (it’s been a while since I made these for Asymptote, and I am rusty), I sign off on the newsletter. That’s how, in spite of a massive publicity blitz that involved printing and distributing 4,000 postcards; print and digital ads in the Times Literary Supplement that set us back by 900 GBP; 97 personalized emails to media outlets, 90 tweets, 20 Facebook posts, and seven blog posts about the Fall 2016 issue (all documented in then Marketing Manager Ryan Celley’s publicity report here), dear reader, we still came to be booed. Here to introduce our Fall 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Garrett Phelps. 

What a work of literature ‘means’ is always tough to get a feel for, let alone talk about. Of course a famous theorist or two have claimed this is an insurmountable difficulty. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. Not being too slick with the theoretical stuff, I’ll just say that literature is meaningful to the extent it’s ambiguous and open-ended. And if any idea unifies Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue, it’s the way interpretive problems result from this state-of-affairs.

For Anita Raja, ignorance is the reader’s point of departure and return. In “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance” she argues that “the translator must be above all a good reader, capable of diving into the intricacies of the text, taking it apart, discerning all its nuance. The translator is, in short, a reader required to puzzle over the complexity of the original text, line after line, and to piece it together in the new language—a fundamentally impossible task.” Good translators are, essentially, readers par excellence. Anyone who’s dabbled in the field probably won’t find this idea controversial. Sooner or later, though, even a top-notch translator hits the same wall as the average reader, who’s more okay letting intricacies, nuances and puzzle-pieces remain gut-feelings. Demanding much more is futile even if doing so is worthwhile. This is especially true of translation, where success is often the sum of accumulated failures.

Guillermo Fadanelli’s “In Praise of Vagrancy” makes a strong case why all the above is exactly as it should be. “After labouring over so many books—reaching conclusions, contradicting myself, stating and re-stating my principles—it feels wonderful to be without answers… Nothing excites me more than to be asked a question that leaves me utterly confounded, and mute.” This return to uncertainty is the greatest effect literature can have on a reader. It’s all about being lost at sea. What little security does exist is a product of conversation, which pushes people to make up their minds, even if only for conversation’s sake.

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A similar pressure to take a position occurs in literature. Just take a look at a few stories from the fiction section: “Wayward Heroes” by Halldór Laxness, “Ten Years of Marriage” by Su Qing, and “Cafés Morts” by Maïssa Bey. If you read the issue “cover-to-cover”—or whatever the digital-journal equivalent is—these are the first three pieces you’ll encounter. Despite the enormous gaps in language, culture and period separating them, several thematic threads appear when they’re read together. (The clearest is an age-old gender divide, which gets foisted upon these female characters even though it’s little more than an empty custom.) As a result the stories feel like they were written to be read in tandem. This naturally wasn’t the case, but Asymptote’s rigorous editorial efforts did give them a fresh opportunity to talk. They no longer have to stand alone, self-referential and largely self-contained.

Again and again Fadanelli tries to clearly state what conversation is. Every verdict ends up contradicting the others, which I suppose is fitting. Still, they all point out that we’re stuck at square one no matter how wide our perspective. If you’ll allow a second quote of his: “Digressions and accidents along the road might give rise to new discoveries—like a long forgotten bottle of wine, or the realisation that the whole excursion is simply absurd. The act of wandering contains within it the most important of all human values: it reinforces our intuition of the void.” As far as he’s concerned a vagrant’s life is better than any fleeting security, even if it accepts ignorance as a permanent condition. That said, plenty of these digressions and accidents can teach us something.

In the issue’s interview with László Krasznahorkai (conducted by János Szegő and translated from Hungarian by Eszter Krakkó) the novelist puts the situation simply: “I tend to think that the only thing that exists is nature, that nothing else is real but nature, and the reality one perceives is similarly nature itself, beyond which only void resides.” At its best literature is nature’s analogue. Not in any stale realist sense, but insofar as it mirrors what Krasznahorkai’s talking about, i.e., the equilibrium between tangibility—call it nature or reality, whatever you like—and the big terrifying unknown. A heightened experience of one heightens the other in turn. The most important thing literature can give a reader, as Fadanelli claims, is the guts to acknowledge this. It’s a spur to curiosity, and sometimes it  produces an insatiable desire to read.

Yet anxiety about the inexpressible still lingers, especially for readers, writers, translators, editors and others with a bet in this game. Often there’s a fear of having no clue what one is saying, of being found out. It’s a fear that “Should music stop we would be suddenly heard. Chorus of stutterers.” (That’s taken from Dimitris Lyacos’ “Z213: EXIT” which, for the record, is one of my top three pieces from the issue.) A journal like Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision. It’s worth mentioning that this is key to successful works of translation as well. And to works of fiction. And poetry. And criticism and drama and so on. They all ease our fear of becoming voiceless.

Garrett Phelps has been an assistant editor with Asymptote since July 2018.

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Read more from our #30issues30days showcase:

What’s New in Translation: August 2018

Find respite from the heat with these new reads.

From Icelandic landscapes to art history, August brings with it an exciting new selection of books. Whether you’re looking for a book to pass the hot summer days, or are in the market for inspired poetry, the Asymptote team has something for you in this new edition of What’s New in Translation. And if that’s not enough, head over to the Asymptote Book Club for fresh reads, delivered to your doorstep every month!

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Öræfi: The Wastelands by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith, Deep Vellum, 2018

Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor

One of the many epic stories retold in Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s Öræfi: The Wastelands (“that punctuation mark… both pushes words (and worlds) away from one another and means they’re roped together,” according to translator Lytton Smith) is the story of Öræfi itself. Formerly known as Hérað, the Province, a place in which “butter drips from every blade of grass,” it was devastated by the most destructive volcanic eruption in Iceland’s recorded history:

The chronicles record that one morning in 1362 Knappafjells glacier exploded and spewed over the Lómagnúpur sands and carried everything off into the sea, thirty fathoms deep… The Province was destroyed, all its people and creatures annihilated; no sheep or cattle survived, no creatures left alive anywhere… the corpses of people and animals washed up on beaches far and wide… the bodies were cooked and tender and the flesh so loose on the bones it fell apart.

READ MORE…

Forthcoming Autumn Translations, in Review

Asymptote’s own review brand new translated literature.

 

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Wayward Heroes, by Halldór Laxness, tr. Philip Roughton. Archipelago Books.

Review: Beau Lowenstern, Editor-at-large, Australia

The process of reading literature in translation is to dip into the perennial pool: possible meanings are compounded by language, we splash and struggle and only when we begin to get on our feet do we realise how much deeper and longer the cave goes. Often great writers see only a tiny fraction of their oeuvre translated for a wider audience—as a reader, we must play a game of guessing the size and shape and clarity of the submerged iceberg from only its superficial crown. Not to mention the person we all know who constantly admonishes us that if we had only read the original

Iceland’s Halldór Laxness falls into this lamentable category, with the majority of his collection of stories, essays, novels (including a four-volume memoir), plays and poetry frozen in time to all bar those with a blue tongue. Published in Iceland in 1952 as Gerpla, The Happy Warriors was the title of the original, sparsely recognised English translation, though it contributed to his body of work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. 

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What’s New in Translation? August 2016

Fresh off the printing press, here are Asymptote's must-reads in translation this month!

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Limbo Beirut, by Hilal Chouman, tr. Anna Ziajka Stanton. Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin. Review: Claire Pershan, Assistant Director, Educational Arm

Beirut is a city of collisions. Bad drivers, sudden friendships, graffiti in a mess of languages. And yet, when enough chaos collides, it produces its own order—the way a sprawling city looks from far away.

This is the effect of Hilal Chouman’s latest novel, Limbo Beirut, recently translated from Arabic into English by Anna Ziajka Stanton, and published by University of Texas Press. Chouman’s novel fills the space between history and memory. Six narrative chapters document the fighting that broke out in the city in May of 2008, as it was experienced by the city’s residents. These clashes, between Hezbollah and pro-Syrian militias on one side, and members of the Sunni-supported Future Movement on the other, didn’t gain much attention from western media, but for the Lebanese people, they were a frightening echo of the Civil War that devastated the country between 1975 and 1990.

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What’s New in Translation? July 2016

This month's hottest titles—in translation.

 

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The Blue Blood by Oddný Eir, tr. Philip Roughton, Amazon’s Day OneReview: K.T. Billey, Assistant Editor

The Blue Blood seems simple: a woman wants to have baby. Motherhood has always been “in her cards.” She has found a partner who is game, and they love each other. They try everything, including multiple artificial inseminations from donors selected for their blue eyes—hoping the baby will approximate the father. Disappointment and hope begin to frame the narrator’s consuming obsession: finding someone who can help with ‘their problem.’ Her search for a donor expands into the world, as heartbreak and determination test the limits of her relationship. The reader is privy to the narrator’s pseudo-diary “As if recounting a clever story gives my life purpose…”

In a series of titled vignettes, The Blue Blood does more than chronicle the toll of dreams and bodily realities on our relationships. Blue is everywhere—signs, names, auras, eyes, oceans—a mystic slice reminiscent of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, revolving around fertility and the windows to the soul. The reader experiences the writer’s symbology and suffers along with the woman struggling to read into and ignore them. We feel the weight of their accumulation, the damaging pressure. Desire and action are not enough. When is trying trying too hard? The nature of coincidence gets tangled with intimacy, confronting us with the what we cannot know, will, or hope into being. Of course the couple’s vacation to Argentina finds them in a mountain village with a Nazi past and many blue eyed specimens. Of course they cannot neuter the dog. READ MORE…