Language: Italian

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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Translator Profile: Jennifer Scappettone

The notion of a unitary, homogenous, and monolingual “America” is as much an alternative fact as Spicer’s attendance numbers at the inauguration.

Former Asymptote blog editor Allegra Rosenbaum interviews translator and scholar Jennifer Scappettone, whose profile appeared in our Winter 2016 issue. Her translation of Italian poet Milli Graffi was featured on the Asymptote blog last week and her translation of F. T. Marinetti’s futurist poetry appeared in our Spring 2016 issue. 

Who are you? What do you translate? (This is just a preliminary question! To be taken with an existential grain of salt.)

I am a poet and scholar of American and Italian nationalities who grew up in New York, across the street from a highly toxic landfill redolent of the family’s ancestral zone outside of Naples (laced with illegal poisonous dumps). I translate Fascists and anti-Fascists; Italian feminists and a single notorious misogynist; inheritors of Futurism and the historical avant-garde; and contemporary poets who are attempting to grapple with the millennial burden of the “Italian” language by channeling or annulling voices from Saint Francis through autonomia.

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Translation Tuesday: “Love Crisson” by Milli Graffi

Talklossenette wavening / the palpid culdicurve / ambashes.

I fell in love with the poetry of Milli Graffi in 2008, when I was seeking authors to include in a dossier for Aufgabe on “poesia ultima e della ricerca,” or the latest Italian poetry of research. It was immediately clear to me that we had heroes in common—Lewis Carroll and James Joyce in particular.

There’s a section in Finnegans Wake on Anna Liva Plurabelle in which Joyce speaks of “loosening your talktapes.” When he translated this passage into Italian, Joyce himself rendered this phrase as “scioglilinguagnolo,” a translation that likely reveals the matrix of the original notion he had in mind: in English, we speak of tongue twisters, or what we might render in Italian as attorcilingua, while in Italian one uses the term “scioglilingua,” or tongue-dissolvers, tongue-thawers, tongue untiers. The Italian idiomatic expression might very well have been the origin of the “loosening” that ended up in Finnegans Wake, a book in which all languages converge in tangles of phonemes and roots.

I discovered this point of correspondence in a book of English exercises that Milli Graffi edited for Paravia publishers, aimed at high school students—because Graffi, unstoppable champion of the avant-garde that she is, chose this mind-twistingly complex passage for the teaching volume. When we got together this summer in Milan to prepare for a public chat on translation, on a sultry heat-thickened afternoon further stultified by a city-wide transit strike, Milli told me that she had used the word in a poem, and I knew that I had to try translating it.

The work was published in Mille graffi e venti poesie, 1977-78 (Geiger, 1979), and I soon found that Graffi had rendered Joyce’s phrase even more Byzantine, because she transformed scioglilinguagnolo into sperdilinquagnolo, turning the action of loosening embedded in the original Italian phrase into loss (sperdersi refers to losing oneself; sperdere means dispersal, scattering), and lingua (“tongue; language”) into linqua, some sort of calque tending toward the English “linkage” while containing the heavily deictic “qua” (Italian “here”; Latin “what; as; in the capacity of”). I took other necessary liberties while working with this poem: my translation of ambiscia is a calque of ambassador and ambush, and so on. A proper gloss would proceed word by word, but I’ll leave it up to readers to discover some tripwires of their own.

—Jennifer Scappettone

Love Crisson

Talklossenette wavening

the palpid culdicurve

ambashes.

 

The ambashed culdicurve

at the talklossenette wavening

palpids.

 

The palpid talklossenette

on the ambashed culdicurve

wavening.

 

Talklossenette wavening

the palpid culdicurve

ambashes.

 

Crisson d’amore

Sperdilinquagnolo tremolo

la coticurva palpida

ambiscia.

 

L’ambiscia coticurva

allo sperdilinquagnolo tremolo

palpida.

 

Il palpido sperdilinquagnolo

sull’ambiscia coticurva

tremola.

 

Sperdilinquagnolo tremolo

la coticurva palpida

ambiscia.


Translated from the Italian by Jennifer Scappettone 

Milli Graffi is a writer, sound artist, and editor from Milan who has been working at the forefront of contemporary Italian and international poetry from the moment of the Neo-avant-garde through the present. Her studies were based in English literature and culture, with a strong focus on semiotics, linguistics, and psychoanalysis. She is the author of four sound compositions (Salnitro, Farfalla ronzar, and Tralci) and four poetry collections (Mille graffi e venti poesie, Fragili film, L’amore meccanico, and Embargo voice). She has translated Lewis Carroll (the two Alice books and The Hunting of the Snark) and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol). She has taught in a range of contexts, and has worked for decades to sound and interpret the condition of contemporary poetry. She is Editor-in-Chief of the seminal avant-garde journal il verri.

Jennifer Scappettone works at the crossroads of writing, translation, and scholarly research, on the page and off. She is the author of the cross-genre verse books From Dame Quickly and The Republic of Exit 43: Outtakes & Scores from an Archaeology and Pop-Up Opera of the Corporate Dump, and of the critical study Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice. Her translations of the polyglot poet and musicologist Amelia Rosselli were collected in the book Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli, and she edits PennSound Italiana,  an audiovisual archive of experimental Italian poetry. In 2008, she edited a book-long dossier on Italian poetry of research for Aufgabe. She is Associate Professor at the University of Chicago and archives at http://oikost.com.

*****

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What’s New In Translation: October 2017

Looking for your next novel? Here are three of the most exciting new releases from around the world.

Every month, batches of books arrive fresh on the shelves of bookstores around the world. Our team has handpicked three exciting new reads to help you make up your minds on what to sink your teeth into, including novels from Italy, Brazil and Norway. 

Dust-MC

Dust by Adrian Bravi, translated from the Italian by Patience Haggin, Dalkey Archive Press.

Reviewed by Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-Large, Brazil.

“‘How long will I have to flail about, drowning in the world of the microscopic?’”

This is one of the many questions that the narrator, Anselmo, of Antonio Bravi’s novel Dust anxiously asks himself while coping with his total phobia of dust. The depth of his internal interrogation hinges on the word “microscopic”: Anselmo faces not the literal question of clean living, but instead the concept of infinite accumulation and infinite loss—of seconds and minutes, of words and ideas, of skin and hair and other shavings of the physical self.

To read Patience Higgin’s forthcoming English translation of Dust (Dalkey Archive Press, October 2017) is to slowly sink into an ocean of everyday minutiae. The book centers on Anselmo, a librarian living with his wife Elena in the fictional city of Catinari, Italy, and his daily routine of cataloguing books, obsessively dusting surfaces, and frequently writing letters that invariably never reach their destination.

What gives this novel its power is not the literal subject matter of the book, which often threatens to overtake the prose in its tedium, but instead the artful language that invites us to meditate conceptually on the simple life represented. Anselmo, at one point, compares his monotonous work cataloguing books to that of a “simple mortician sorting bodies for burial according to their profession”; at another moment, his wife Elena says that reading newly published books is akin to, “‘studying smoke your whole life when you’ve never seen fire.’” These metaphors broaden a seemingly narrow scope, bringing us closer to fully imagining humanity’s constant and immense decay.

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Close Approximations: In Conversation With Fiction Runner-up, Clarissa Botsford

Claire Jacobson speaks to Clarissa Botsford about translating excerpts from an Elvira Dones novel from Italian to English.

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its third edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our interviews with Suchitra Ramachandran and Brian Bergstrom, we are thrilled to bring you fiction runner-up Clarissa Botsford in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Clarissa Botsford has worked in the fields of teaching, intercultural education, editing, translating, publishing and is also a singer, violinist, and independent celebrant. She currently teaches English and Translation Studies at Roma Tre University. Her translations include Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (And Other Stories, 2014), Valerio Magrelli’s Condominium of the Flesh (Free Verse Editions, 2015), and excerpts of Magrelli’s Geology of a Father (Comparative Critical Studies, 2017), which received a commendation at the John Dryden Translation Competition.

Ms. Botsford’s translation of excerpts from Elvira Dones’ novel Burnt Sun was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest, featured in the most recent issue. Fiction judge David Bellos wrote, “In a different class and genre, Burnt Sun by the distinguished Albanian émigrée writer and film-maker Elvira Dones delves into the inner worlds of her compatriots forced into prostitution and exile. Translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford, Dones’s second language, Burnt Sun is both documentary and fiction, a crafted story and a powerful exposé.”

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What’s New in Translation? July 2017

We review three new books from France, Turkey, and Switzerland that are available in English for the first time.

 

myhearthemmedin

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump, Two Lines Press

Reviewed by Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

Think: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper meets Han Kang’s The Vegetarian meets Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge; then for good measure, throw in a bit of Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing. Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In defies categorization. And yet, the novel’s crux lies in the unspoken categorization of its main characters—the schoolteacher couple, Nadia and Ange—who the townspeople have inexplicably (and violently) turned against. Not long after the reader arrives in this novel, Ange sustains a critical injury and Nadia must find a way to live in this new, hostile world. Told entirely from Nadia’s limited perspective, this forced intimacy between reader and paranoid narrator leaves us feeling curious, suffocated, and unsettled.

French literary star, NDiaye, has been my writer crush ever since Ladivine, which was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. She published her first novel when she was just eighteen years old and has since received the Prix Femina and the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Written in NDiaye’s distinctive, phantasmagorical style, My Heart Hemmed In is an unrelenting look inward in a world where the psychological manifests itself externally. Whether it’s the food Nadia devours or Ange’s mysterious, gaping wound, we are confronted with things that are consumed and the things they are consumed by; the things left for dead, and the things they birth. NDiaye’s details are so seductive and unforgiving, lavish and grotesque, it leaves you reeling.

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In Review: Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout and the Poetry of Radicalism

Radicalism itself thus gets subverted, in the sense that any possible single-minded version of it is blown up.

Written in the mid-through-late seventies, Blackout was released in the wake of the 1968 moment, which involved a wave of radical students and anti-capitalist workers’ unrest surging throughout Western Europe. But unlike in France, that “moment” lasted in Italy for over a decade. And it is the prolonged endurance and mostly tragic ramifications that inspired Nanni Balestrini to write this outstanding algorithmically-experimental work.

It is perhaps useful to note from the very beginning how Balestrini’s radical allegiance gets in fact filtered through, mixed with, and ultimately shaped by the various cacophonous kinds of discourse he feeds into his algorithmic procedures. He is not the first to inform digital poetics with radicalism—in the US for instance, a father figure of algorithmic/digital poetry, John Cage, had professed Maoism as the ideology consistent with his own “m: writings” and “mesostic”-generating operations as early as the 1960s—but he is indeed a singular case of focusing a whole book of algorithmic writing on a radical movement. Balestrini in this respect is a pioneer, since if 21st century digital poetry can be partly characterized by a radical, anti-capitalistic ethos (albeit diffused by lingering postmodernist reflexes), back in the day digital poetics focused a lot more on the method rather than the political implications of its subjects.

Balestrini’s “how” therefore enacts a remarkably nuanced view on the “what.” Perhaps the most relevant if intriguing paradox of this book is its unrelenting focus on the radical movement and related events, expanded by an inclusive, democratic perspective that invites diversity and a discordance of viewpoints and voices—all of which is eventually turned on its head, political stance included. Radicalism itself thus gets subverted, in the sense that any possible single-minded version of it is blown up by the most uncompromising—and therefore inclusive—radicalism of all: that of the (politically and commercially unsanctioned) algorithm.

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“Old Seams of the Ancient World”: Reading Patrick Chamoiseau’s Manifesto Against Borders

“The dream and the political vision must arise, and that is when the poetic word is as fundamental as that of experts or economists.”

In our Spring Issue this year, we ran a special feature covering literature from countries affected by President Trump’s infamous “Muslim Ban.” This was in recognition that literature is reflective of political conditions and that it is a powerful form of protest against oppression. In today’s piece, Fiona Le Brun looks at the manifesto against the Muslim Ban penned by Patrick Chamoiseau, a Prix Goncourt recipient and notable figure in Créolité literature. As France emerges from a divisive election against the backdrop of the unprecedented European refugee crisis, reading Chamoiseau reminds us that literature enables us to conceptualize cultural openness. 

This February, Martiniquais author Patrick Chamoiseau, whose previous works include the Goncourt-winning novel Texaco (1992. Translated into English by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997),  launched a call for solidarity with migrants of the world. Not only was this call a reaction to President Trump’s executive order blocking citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, but also a reaction against Europe’s palpable fear revealed by Brexit and the several manifestations of the rejection of migrants.

A couple of months later in May 2017—between the two rounds of the closely watched French presidential election—his essay Frères migrants: Contre la barbarie (Migrant Brothers: Against Barbarism) was released. This invitation to resist intolerance, racism, and indifference is concluded by his manifesto, Les Poètes déclarent (Declaration of Poets).

Today Chamoiseau’s manifesto is more relevant than ever, for both the United States and France. While the French are rejoicing in the victory of the youthful, moderate and well-read Emmanuel Macron over the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, the latter still gathered over 10 million votes, mostly motivated by immigration topics. This temporary relief must not have us overlook the fact that France, whose leaders never miss an opportunity to cast the country as the nation of human rights, has welcomed only a little over 25,000 refugees last year, far less than Germany or Sweden over the same period of time. The results of this election sure bring a glimmer of hope, as the winning candidate seems interested in real change and wants to work hand in hand with fellow EU countries. He also appears to be ready to wipe the dust off our old colonial shelves: back in February, while on a trip to Algeria, Macron called France’s colonial past a “crime against humanity,” and stood firm in the face of attacks by right-wingers. But his task remains difficult. He still has to convince millions of French citizens to support his agenda. The upcoming parliamentary elections will be decisive for Macron’s mandate in a very divided country, as well as for the uncertain future of the EU.

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Between two worlds: An exclusive interview with Ubah Cristina Ali Farah

"The language we choose to write has a powerful political meaning."

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is a poet, novelist, playwright, and oral performer of Italian and Somali heritage, best known for her novels Madre piccola (2007) and Il comandante del fiume (2014). Her piece, “A Dhow Crosses the Sea” recently appeared in the April issue of Asymptote, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson of the University of Iowa.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): What can you tell me about the oral storytelling quality of your work?

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (UCAF): While I was studying at the Sapienza University of Rome, my favorite authors were Amos Tutuola, Amadou Hampâté Bâ and the great Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa. I learned to love the oral, anonymous poetry of the medieval bards, the romancero evoked by García Lorca, Italo Calvino’s rewriting of traditional Italian tales, and Pierpaolo Pasolini’s striking collection of popular songs and poems. However, my first loves, the texts that influenced me most, were the Somali oral poems and tales, under the wings of which I grew up. I was looking for the oneiric feeling that resonated in the oral poetry, a text disconnected but at the same time coherent, a voice encompassing both colloquial and erudite styles and registers of language. A storytelling that could embody the throbbing power of the voice.

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Teach This—Banned Countries Special Feature

Simon Fraser University’s Cristina Serverius on Understanding Identity in Oral Storytelling Traditions

Welcome to Teach This, Asymptote for Educators’ answer to the current issue’s Banned Countries Special Feature. We believe that the classroom is the perfect setting for young people to be exposed to diverse, contemporary voices, both allowing them to challenge their assumptions and to engage them with living literature… a conversation in which their own voices matter. To that end, Asymptote for Educators has launched this weekly blog series in which global educators share how and why they would teach the feature’s articles. We hope you and your students enjoy!

Are you an educator with your own lesson plan ideas? Teach This – Banned Countries Special Feature is currently open for submissions. Email education@asymptotejournal.com for more information.

While the work of Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is always situated between two cultures—Somali and Italian—it provides a point of access for students to learn about oral traditions, because despite the author’s long residencies outside of Somalia, these traditions remain present in her writing. Their ubiquity is testament to the very nature of oral stories, which creep into our lives unannounced and perhaps unnoticed, and travel with us. This is how they survive; this is how we survive.

The activities below focus on Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s use of the Somali oral tradition and the question of personal identity in the context of stories that are passed down and retold, and which have become part of the socio-cultural fabric of our being. Besides offering an introduction to these topics, the lesson provides practice for analysis of a literary text and use of a secondary source to enrich our understanding of literature.

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Asymptote Podcast

The Translator's Craft

In this week’s all new Asymptote podcast we’re getting crafty! We’ll be hearing from translator Roland Glasser about how he uses technology in his work, as well as getting sage advice from Susanna Basso who is featured in our new Spring Issue. We’ve also got a special dispatch from poet Suzannah V. Evans from the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, where she sat down with writers and artists Aurélia Lassaque and Tessa Berring to get the scoop on their translation workshop. Get ready to untangle a lot of French feelings: fear, dread, horror, terror, and finding out how marigolds inspire very different moods in standard French versus Occitan—and what exactly all this has to do with a giant fish.

Podcast Editor and Host: Layla Benitez-James

Audio Editor: Mirza Puric

Teach This—Banned Countries Special Feature

UT Arlington’s Gabe Mamola on The Meta-Poem

Welcome to Teach This, Asymptote for Educators’ answer to the current issue’s Banned Countries Special Feature. We believe that the classroom is the perfect setting for young people to be exposed to diverse, contemporary voices, both allowing them to challenge their assumptions and to engage them with living literature… a conversation in which their own voices matter. To that end, Asymptote for Educators has launched this weekly blog series in which global educators share how and why they would teach the feature’s articles. We hope you and your students enjoy!

Are you an educator with your own lesson plan ideas? Teach This – Banned Countries Special Feature is currently open for submissions. Email education@asymptotejournal.com for more information.

Technology is changing the way we think about information. We not only collect data, but we collect data about that data, i.e. meta-data. By thinking about the patterns, concerns, images and word choices that we find not only in one poem but across several, we can use the language of information technology and meta-data as an intriguing and topical portal through which to access poetry. What does poetry or a poem become when we subject it to the kinds of processes we use to organize other kinds of data? Do we learn more about the poets or poems by comparing them to other poets and poems in this way? And what (if anything) is lost when we do so?

Underlying these questions is the more fundamental fact that all our thinking and talking and writing about poetry is itself a kind of meta poem: a new thing we construct with our insights, our speculations, our assumptions, and yes, the words and contexts of the poems. This exercise is an attempt to make this fact clear and accessible to students in a way that also touches on our current digital concerns about anonymity, technology, and data.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2017

Dive into our Spring Issue, starting with an Italian short story, Assamese poetry, and Catalan drama!

Here at the Asymptote blog, we’re mining the new Spring 2017 Issue for all its treasures and have selected a few our favorite pieces to introduce here. And while we’re making introductions, I’m pleased to present two new members of the Asymptote team, Assistant Blog Editors Stefan and Sneha, who will have much more content and expertise to share in the coming months. For now, enjoy our highlights from the new issue! 

‘A Dhow Crosses the Sea’ by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson, is a story that rises and falls from dreams to the visceral reality of the author’s roots in Somalia and Italy. Between dreams of the protagonist’s grandmother, an ecological disaster, and a capsizing dhow (a type of traditional sailing vessel), the sea is at the very heart of the narrative, its significance alternating between loss and attachment, hope and tragedy. Farah’s blending of Somali oral tradition into her writing also gives an incantatory quality to the work, wrapping you up in its sounds and smells. Those few lines from Somali, “a dhow crosses the sea, carrying incense and myrrh,” have stayed with me, sweet and comforting on the one hand, but on the other filled with an inescapable sense of danger and apprehension.”

—Assistant Blog Editor Stefan Kielbasiewicz

“Of all the uniquely special pieces in the Spring Issue brought to you by the Asymptote staff, Sananta Tanty’s poems spoke the most to me, not least because the poems were originally written in Assamese, my first language.

The fact that the poems are by an Assamese poet is significant. As you might be aware, Assam is the major language spoken in the Northeast Indian state of Assam. The region is widely regarded to have a distinct social and cultural identity compared to ‘mainstream’ India. These differences have unfortunately led to its neglect by the power centres of mainstream India, and the region has been marked by ethnic strife, political conflict, and insurgencies against the Indian state since Independence from the erstwhile British Empire. Highlighting Assamese poetry probes the fault-lines of marginality, underwriting that, even as Indian literature has been a recurring focus of the journal in an attempt to break away from the Western canon, engagement with identity politics requires constant reflection and self-reflexivity.

It is also important to note that the poet was born to a family of tea plantation workers. Assam is known around the world for tea, a legacy of British colonialism. Unfortunately the tea gardens are notorious to this day for deep class divides between the upper management and the manual labourers who were drawn from Central Indian tribal communities to work in the estates by the British tea planters in conditions many argue are akin to slavery.  Tanty, a name carrying the history of his working class background, thus writes a poetry of protest against the indignities of the conditions of his community’s existence: “All twelve men were landless and without independence”. Tanty’s modernist verse is brought out in all its sparkling clarity by the translator, Dibyajoti Sarma, who is a poet and has written introspective pieces on the politics of representing literature from Northeast India in the Indian publishing industry. You can read more of Tanty’s work in the book Selected Poems Sananta Tanty, translated to English by Dibyajoti Sarma. You can also have a look at Sameer Tanti’s poems (translated by Sarma) for similar themes.”

—Assistant Blog Editor Sneha Khaund

“The excerpt from Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaret, translated by Phyllis Zatlin, made me so excited. I realize that is probably a bizarre thing to say about a rather absurd, darkly comic work of social commentary, but I couldn’t help but imagine some of my theater friends from college working on this in the basement of a dorm in preparation for an amateur production that we would have imbued with overblown significance and that uniquely naïve brand of activism that can only flourish in a walled-off university setting. It might have turned out decently and not remotely done justice to the script.

So that’s not to say there is anything naïve or amateurish about the play in the least. It’s only to say that reading the excerpt was an experience I’m sure you’ve all had: a spark of joy, perhaps even bringing you to a giggle, that is completely incongruous with the tone of what you’re reading, but that’s a result of being surprised and tickled by how incredibly good it is. Which, though I’m sure it wasn’t the reason for the title, makes calling it a cabaret more than apt. Part corrective history, part satire, and part poignant, confessional monologue, this piece of the Diabolic Cabaret was not enough for me. Here’s hoping the entire play gets staged, and published, in English very soon.”

—Blog Editor Madeline Jones

 *****

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A Lexicon Like No Other

“The crushing of the Prague Spring was followed by another communist party crackdown. Dozens of translations...were banned."

Oľga Kovačičová, PhD is a Slovak literature scholar and specialist in old Russian literature and translation studies. She works at the Institute for Literary Studies at the Slovak Academy of Sciences where for the past few years she has been the driving force behind a unique project, “The Lexicon of 20th century Slovak translators,“ which she co-edited and contributed some 80 of the total 400 entries. She has agreed to share some reflections on the special role literary translation played in shaping Slovak language and culture with Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Julia Sherwood, who then translated her insights into English.

Translated literature necessarily plays a more important role in smaller countries compared with bigger nations where much of the reading public’s literary and general cultural needs are met by local literary output. When it comes to a really small country like Slovakia, even without citing statistical data it is obvious that the ratio of translated to domestic literary production is roughly the converse of that in Western Europe, where translations represent 12% (Germany) or 20% (Italy) of book publishing overall, let alone English speaking countries with the notorious 3-4% of translated books.

Lexicon cover

Another big difference is that while the major European cultures have had access to the great works of world literature in their own language for many centuries, in Slovakia the process of reception was basically condensed into the 20th century, since Slovak as a literary language was only constituted in the second half of the 1840s.  Volume I of the Lexicon of Slovak 20th century Literary Translators (Slovník slovenských prekladateľov umeleckej literatúry 20. storočia), published in 2015 by the Slovak Academy of Sciences (volume II is almost complete), provides a fascinating glimpse of this frantic catching up process.

There are lexicons and then there are lexicons. Unlike pragmatic manuals of the “Who’s Who” type, the profiles of some 400 translators featured in The Lexicon aim to chart the trajectory of literary translation in the 20th century and through this, the history of reception of world literature in Slovakia. Individual entries are between three and five pages long, and apart from basic biographical details and each translator’s bibliography, they look at the works each of them translated and how he/she translated them.  The fruit of the painstaking labour of over 30 linguists and translation studies scholars, the book includes Katarína Bednárová’s comprehensive introductory essay on the history of literary translation in Slovakia and its international context, a bibliography of secondary sources, and an index. Volume II will feature an illustrated supplement, showcasing a selection of around 200 book covers, which doubles as a comprehensive survey of the evolution of Slovak book design, as well as lists of translators by source country.

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