A new month brings an abundance of fresh translations, and our writers have chosen three of the most engaging, important works: a Japanese novella recounting the monotony of modern working life as the three narrators begin employment in a factory, the memoir of a Russian political prisoner and filmmaker, as well as the first comprehensive English translation of Giorgio de Chirico’s Italian poems. Read on to find out more!
The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada, translated from the Japanese by David Boyd, New Directions, 2019
Review by Andreea Scridon, Assistant Editor
Drawn from the author’s own experience as a temporary worker in Japan, The Factory strikes one as being a laconic metaphor for the psychologically brutalizing nature of the modern workplace. There is more than meets the eye in this seemingly mundane narrative of three characters who find work at a huge factory (reticent Yoshiko as a shredder, dissatisfied Ushiyama as a proofreader, and disoriented Furufue as a researcher), as they become increasingly absorbed and eventually almost consumed by its all-encompassing and panoptic nature. Coincidentally wandering into a job for the city’s biggest industry, or finding themselves driven there—against their instincts—by necessity, the three alternating narrators chronicle the various aspects of their working experience and the deeply bizarre undertones that lie beneath the banal surface. READ MORE…
For literature lovers, it is no secret that a great deal of our favorite titles have been—or still are—banned from the public. In this following essay by Anna Wang, Graphic Designer at Asymptote, she takes us around the multifarious and wide-ranging cartography of vital, yet blacklisted, titles from around the globe, from a novella that metaphorically depicts the persecuted Uyghurs of China, to an infamous work of revolutionary author Boris Pasternak. In realizing the context and culture in which these pertinent titles arose, we may in turn acknowledge both the price, and the power, of the truth.
In a speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled “The American Scholar,” Emerson gave both praise and warning to the power of literature, stating: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” Emerson was right. Books have the ability to persuade, influence, and inspire—an ability which many have found threatening. Time and time again, figures of authority have attempted to reign in or block out literature that challenges their agenda. In celebration of banned literature in the history of world literature, let’s take a look at some of the most impactful banned texts throughout time, why they were banned, and what we can learn from them.
Wild Pigeon, by Nurmuhemmet Yasin
Wild Pigeon is a novella originally published in Uyghur between the pages of the 2004 Kashgar Literature Magazine. Written by a young freelance writer, Nurmuhemmet Yasin, it quickly gained widespread acclaim among the Uyghur people in China. The work, written in Uyghur, is a political allegory that tells the story of a young pigeon who is the son of a dead king. While he is looking for a new home, he is trapped by a group of humans. His struggle for freedom and his eventual shocking decision has been interpreted by many as a criticism of the Chinese government for its treatment of its Uyghur population.
This week’s dispatches report on a four-day literature festival in Italian-speaking Bellinzona in Switzerland, a new podcast dedicated exclusively to Guatemalan and Central American literature, as well as news of the arrest of journalist Hajar Raissouni in Morocco and a theatre group resisting such censorship and freedom of the press violation with a performance of Don Quixote.
Anna Aresi, Copy Editor, reporting from Switzerland
An interest in mapping (often the result of conquests and colonization) and remapping—rethinking what was erased and systematically left out in the mapping process—is at the core of Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli’s latest novel. In Lost Children Archive, mapping is related to sound: “Focusing on sound forced me to hear as opposed to seeing, it forced me into a different rhythm. You cannot consume sound immediately,” she explains, “when focusing on sound, you have to sit with it, let it unfold.” It is within this rhythm, she adds, that English emerged as the language that was conducive to the writing of this novel, which she had begun writing in both English and Spanish simultaneously.
Luiselli reflects on this and other aspects of her writing in an intense conversation with Italian writer Claudia Durastanti, in the intimate setting of Bellinzona’s social theater.
Every year, Bellinzona—the capital of Swiss Italophone Canton Ticino—hosts Babel Festival, a four-day event entirely dedicated to literature and translation. This year’s fourteenth edition, entitled “You will not speak my language,” explored the limits and boundaries of language and literature, as well as languages that are “imagined, invented, despised, censored, regional, silent, visual, and enigmatic.”
Ut pictura poesis. The language of painters has long been a source of inspiration for poets, and a sense of poetics has equally been an irreplaceable element in painting. In this evocative, sensual essay on the iconic painter and poet Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), Stefania Heim illustrates the various intersections between literature and visuality, between translation into text and translation into images, and between life and the page. This piece has been adapted from the original introduction of Geometry of Shadows, the first comprehensive and bilingual collection of de Chirico’s Italian poetry and translated into English by Heim, which will be published by A Public Space Books in October 2019.
Sun-scorched piazza, marble torso, rubber glove, arched arcade tossing shadows, smoke puffing from a background train: the landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico’s imagination have become iconic. It is a kind of magic to imprint the scenes created by your yearning onto the malleable backdrop of so many minds.
The uncanny emotive power of de Chirico’s visual compositions has gotten him called a poet, even a great poet. “He could condense voluminous feeling through metaphor and association,” writes art critic Robert Hughes about the painter’s canvases, marveling that, “[o]ne can try to dissect these magical nodes of experience, yet not find what makes them cohere.” Metaphor, juxtaposition, unsettling connections, meaning evoked in the missing connective tissue between somehow familiar objects—these are a poet’s tools. De Chirico cultivated this association. He addresses the two “goddesses:” “true Poetry” and “true Painting.” With allusion, symbols, and mythmaking, he connects his work to the great striving of the ages. READ MORE…
Amelia Rosselli’s work is deeply marked by her family and personal history. Born in 1930 to a British activist and a martyred Italian-Jewish antifascist, she lived as an eternal outsider in France, the US, the UK, and Italy. A polyglot with persistent depression, her poetry challenges. It challenges the confines of genre and conventional syntax, it challenges the society with which she was ever at odds, and it challenges the reader to accompany her through her brave literary wanderings. Rosselli ended her own life by jumping out the window of her fifth-floor apartment in Rome in 1996.
Obtuse Diary, published by Entre Rios Books in late 2018, is the first and only collection of Rosselli’s prose. The writing spans a number of years and is organized into three sections and two illuminating afterwords, one by the author and one by one of the translators. Asymptote’s Lindsay Semel spoke with Deborah Woodard and Roberta Antognini, two of the collection’s three translators, about the joys and challenges of rendering Rosselli’s stunning and difficult Italian into English.
Lindsay Semel (LS): Tell me about the origin of this project. How did you come to translate this text together? What was the collaboration process like?
Deborah Woodard (DW): Translating Amelia Rosselli’s Diario Ottuso into Obtuse Diary was quite the saga. It’s a little book, but it took forever to translate. Giuseppe Leporace, my first co-translator, and I brought out some sections of the Diary in The Dragonfly, a selection of Rosselli’s poetry, back in 2009. After we finished The Dragonfly and brought it out through Chelsea Editions, I decided to rework Obtuse Diary and publish it in its entirety. When Giuseppe became too busy to review it with me, he graciously stepped down from the project. On Giuseppe’s suggestion, I worked on the Diary with Vanja Skoric Paquin, a talented young linguist with a particular gift for unraveling snarled syntax. When Vanja gave birth to her daughter she, in turn, stepped down. A year or so passed, and then I recommenced with Dario De Pasquale. Dario and I tore the earlier translation apart, sentence by sentence. When Dario became too busy to continue to translate with me (do we see a pattern here?), I was extremely fortunate to join forces with Roberta, my current—and from here on out, sole—co-translator on the final version. READ MORE…
Prizes, festivals, and book fairs! This week, our editors bring us news about Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Strega, Mantua’s Festivalletteratura, Edinburgh’s vibrant International Book Festival, and Shanghai’s vast international Book Fair. At the heart of all these dispatches is the wonderful ability of cities to draw huge numbers of people together to celebrate a year in literature.
Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Italy
In early June, Antonio Scurati won the 2019 Premio Strega, Italy’s most important literary prize, for his book M. Il figlio del secolo (M. Child of the Century). Scurati’s book is the epitome of ponderous tome: at more than eight hundred pages it is the first of what will be three volumes that novelize the life of Benito Mussolini, with this first title covering Mussolino’s rise to power. The book has been hugely popular with the Italian public, selling some one hundred and twenty thousand copies before it snatched the prize and has even given rise to some interesting debates with some critics calling into question whether Scurati’s book can actually be considered fiction at all, rather than a straightforward biography. What is particularly interesting is the fact that last year’s winner was also a novelized biography set in 1930s Europe: Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica (translated by Ann Goldstein) traces the final years of Gerda Taro, a German-Jewish war photographer, who bore witness to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism.
Looking forward, if you happen to find yourself in northern Italy between September 4 and 8, it might be worth popping by the small city of Mantua in Lombardy which hosts one of the biggest literary festivals in the country: Festivalletteratura. The line-up of guests could put the Edinburgh literary festival to shame, with a very international cast of writers and themes. Margaret Atwood will be popping by, as will Ali Smith, Valeria Luiselli and Elif Shafak. The festival will explore the contradictions of current American society with the help of Colson Whitehead and Meg Wolitzer among others, and academics like Amin Maalouf and Simon Schama will be hosting talks and debates around the future of the European Union. Other interesting events will be centered around modern Albanian and even Italian literature, science and the environment. You can check a full guide of the guests and events here. READ MORE…
What do Asymptote staff get up to when they’re not busy advocating for world literature? Answer: Quite a lot! For those interested in joining our team, please note that we have just completed the first phase of our recruitment drive and will conclude the second and final phase by the end of the month. It’s not too late to send in an application!
Communications Manager Alexander Dickow published two poems in Plume, in English and French versions.
Assistant editor Andreea Iulia Scridon‘s poem, Glossa, a re-writing of Mihai Eminescu’s Romanian poem of the same name, has been published by WildCourt.
Copy Editor Anna Aresi‘s Italian translation of Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn, 2014) was released in May by Edizioni Ensemble.
Chris Tanasescu (aka MARGENTO, editor-at-large for Romania and Moldova) has been featured in a Romanian poetry anthology in Italian translation, Sette poeti rumeni (Seven Romanian Poets) edited by Matteo Veronesi.
From translations by heavyweights like Ann Goldstein and Jennifer Croft to novels by writers appearing for the first time in English, July brings a host of exciting new books in translation. Read on for coming-of-age stories set in Italy and Poland, a drama in rural Argentina, and the tale of a young man and his pet lizard in Japan.
A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2019
Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor
In A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award-winning novel, a nameless young woman retrospectively narrates the defining event of her adolescence—the year when the only family she has ever known returns her to her birth family. From the title, the reader can already sense the protagonist’s conundrum. A passive object of the act of being returned, her passivity in her own uprooting threatens to define her identity. Ann Goldstein’s searing translation from the Italian inspires the reader both to accompany the narrator as she wades through the tender memories of that time and to reflect on her or his own family relationships through a new lens.
We have such an amazing collective of literary talent over here at Asymptote. Check out some of our news from the past quarter and stay tuned for more of the international literature you love! If you are interested in being a part of the team, please note that we will be extending our recruitment drive for two more weeks through May 21, out of consideration for those of you who are busy with end-of-semester work and graduation!
Communications Manager Alexander Dickow published a long poem, The Song of Lisaine, at the journal X-Peri.
Copy Editor Anna Aresi recently ran her Italian translation of Pulitzer-winning Forrest Gander’s “On a Sentence by Fernanda Melchor” on Interno Poesia’s Blog.
Criticism Editor Ellen Jones had an excerpt of her translation of Nancy by Bruno Lloret—forthcoming from Giramondo Publishing in 2020—showcased in a feature on Chilean domestic life in Words Without Borders. Her review of Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds was also printed in The Irish Times. READ MORE…
Late last year, Benjamin Moser’s critical NYT review of Kate Briggs’s This Little Art occasioned a rousing debate in the literary translation community about the nature of translation quality and criticism. The review prompted a scathing letter to the editor from a group of translation heavyweights, including Susan Bernofsky and Lawrence Venuti. Tim Parks weighed in with an NYR Daily piece, “Why Translation Deserves Scrutiny,” which outlined some challenges of criticizing translation and defended the effort.
In this conversation, Parks elaborates on the role of the translation critic, clarifies his notion of mistakes, and explains how translation theory affects his criticism. Raucous debates about quality and criticism have characterized conversations about translation for centuries. The conversation continues here.
Allison Braden (AB): At a translation conference, I heard a panelist argue that mistakes in translation, as long as they don’t significantly impede the author’s message, are irrelevant. He then went on to say that he tries to avoid making mistakes as much as possible. Later, an audience member argued that as her career as a translator has progressed, she’s found herself making more “mistakes,” because of the increased latitude that experience affords. For a group that would seem to value semantic precision, there appears to be an alarming blurriness around the notion of mistakes versus agency. How do you conceive of the relationship between the two?
Tim Parks (TP): A literary text comes alive when a reader can bring to it the kind of competence and cultural reference that gives sense to the words. Since a translator is someone who reads a foreign text for those of us who can’t read it directly ourselves, we hope that he or she is such a reader and has that competence and knowledge. Of course becoming a deep and accurate reader in a language that is not your mother tongue is not an easy proposition. Almost all of us have our lacunae. So there are going to be times when the translator misses something, doesn’t recognize that a certain phrase is an idiom, doesn’t realize that in a certain context this or that word can have an unusual connotation; then when they write down their version we have a mistake. The importance of the mistake will depend on its place in the text and the kind of text it is. It may indeed be irrelevant or minor. But equally it may be crucial. Or frequent small mistakes may eventually amount to an overall difference in tone or feeling. Whatever the case, mistakes—and I can’t see one can call them anything but that—are hardly desirable.
Returning though to the “blurriness” you observe in regard to what is hardly a difficult question, one can’t help feeling it arises from a sense of vulnerability about the translator’s competence in the source language. There is a tendency these days to suggest that you only need have a basic grip on a foreign language and a neat turn of phrase in your English and you can translate successfully, even win prizes. Or that it’s enough to do an MA in Translation Studies. But language is a rich feast and literature exploits and intensifies that richness. We love a fine piece of writing for the abundance of allusion and wit and suggestion it conjures up, and the feeling that when we read it again we will find more. It’s not easy to arrive at the kind of second-language competence where one genuinely gets all this, or even most of it. So some translators are understandably defensive or vague. READ MORE…
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.
In this Translation Tuesday, Italian poet Erri De Luca reflects on the Mediterranean migrant crisis and movement across borders, seas, and languages. From desert crossings and the “thrashing of dust in columns” to exploitation in the first world, De Luca poignantly evokes the struggles faced by the newest Europeans.
It was not the sea that welcomed us
we welcomed the sea with open arms.
Descending from highlands burnt by war and not the sun
we crossed the desert of the Tropic of Cancer.
When from a high ground we were able to view the sea
it was a finish line, a caress of waves at our feet.
Ending there was Africa, the under-sole of ants,
from them caravans had learned to tread.
Under the thrashing of dust in columns
the first man alone is required to raise his eyes.
The others follow the heel that precedes them,
the voyage on foot is a trail of backs.
In today’s world, where the study of science and the humanities are considered as oppositional, the art of translation lies arguably somewhere in the middle. In this essay, Asymptote’s Andreea Scridon profiles Romanian writer and doctor C.D. Zeletin, who challenged this false dichotomy, and through his work in both medicine and literature, showed the possibilities of inter-disciplinary cross-pollination.
I first heard of C.D. Zeletin in my Translation Studies course in Bucharest. I was spending a month in the city, just catching the brutal beginning of winter among the greys and blues of its urban landscape, and, sheltered in the seminar room from the iciness of the rough wind that is known to blow over the region’s plains, this was one of the lessons that I was enjoying most.
C.D. Zeletin, my professor told me, was a doctor. As he rode the trolleybus to the Pediatric Hospital every day, he would translate Michelangelo’s sonnets mentally, from Italian to Romanian, presumably wearing his white coat and gazing out the window. Eventually, the written product of this passion would see the light of day, published several years after its conception as Poezii [Poems]. These translations are considered, in fact, elegant and successful. The collection won the 1965 Edinburgh Book Award and Gold Medal. It would have a reverberative effect for generations of readers and poets to come; rather than adhering to Renaissance models strictly, the translation resembles a more personal search, thus producing an inventive and original approach that speaks to twentieth and twenty-first-century readers.