Language: Portuguese

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of the world's literary news brings us to France, Singapore, and the United States.

It’s Friday, which means it is time to catch up on the literary news from around the world, brought to you by our fabulous Asymptote team! This week, we highlight France, Singapore, and the United States. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from France:

As previewed in our January dispatch, Paris is getting ready to host its annual Book Fair, starting March 16. The spotlight this year will be on contemporary Russian literature, with thirty-eight guests including Olga Slavnikova, Vladimir Charov, and Alexandre Sneguirev—all previous winners of the Russian Booker Prize. But even before the fair opens its literal doors, another event is organized in Southern France to satisfy those readers that can’t make it to Paris. Bron, a commune of Lyon, will hold its first Book Festival, dedicated entirely to contemporary fiction, between March 7 and 11. The festival celebrates those French authors who showcase the heterogeneous nature of the novel itself, with a spotlight on the works of Jean-Baptiste Andréa, Delphine Coulin, Pierre Ducrozet, Thomas Gunzig, and Monica Sabolo.

March is also Women’s History Month and French publishers have joined in the effort to promote literature by women and on women. Folio, a Gallimard imprint, has launched its “Femmes Prodigieuses” (“Brilliant Women”—a play on Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend”) campaign on social media, urging readers to read and share the works of their favourite women authors. Folio’s own suggested reading list include classics and contemporary authors, from Virginia Woolf to Marie NDiaye and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Beyond just the campaign, publishers are celebrating Women’s History Month by simply publishing more women. Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir “L’age de discrétion” (“The Age of Discretion”), analysing womanhood at sixty and beyond, will be published for the first time as a standalone book. Albin Michel, another major publisher, will publish Susan Rubin Suleiman’s “La question Némirovsky,” a biography of Irène Némirovsky, of “Suite Française” fame, to paint a portrait of a great, and yet forgotten, author.


Blog Editors’ Highlights: Winter 2018

Our blog editors pick their favorite pieces from the Winter 2018 issue!

To celebrate our seventh birthday here at Asymptote, the blog editors have chosen some of our favorite pieces from the Winter 2018 issue to showcase. This issue truly shines with a diversity of voices and literary styles, including a special feature on micro fiction, and it was such a pleasure for us to read through it. With work from thirty different countries, this issue has been gathered under the theme of “A Different Light.” Enjoy these highlights!

I’ve always admired Asymptote‘s advocacy for literatures that not only are underrepresented, but that take chances, resist easy reduction or interpretation by the reader. Poems that dare to be “the awkward spectacle of the untried move, not grace” (to borrow a phrase from American poet Don Byrd). Poets like Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine. The poems from Arachnid Sun shock me with their bold imagery, impelling me to read again and again. I latch on to certain repeated images: insect, illusion, blood. And definitely a noticeable theme of authoritarian rulers: “spider-eggs perfuming the silence the dictator” and “harpoon the king-shark who flees the riverbeds of polar scrubland.”


Roberto Piva, a Living Library

When a library such as Roberto Piva’s is reborn—especially through each reader bringing his legacy to the present—, a shaman is reborn with it.

It’s four in the afternoon and I step out to walk through the streets of downtown São Paulo, looking for what is left of a city I have not actually experienced but have imagined from Roberto Piva’s books. With a sense of nostalgia, I identify mythic street corners, revamped bars, buildings, parks, and statues, but time keeps grinding on and it weighs heavily on the landscape. That boy walking through Praça República, listening to that song “Deu Onda” for the umpteenth time, looks nothing like the kids who wandered around here sixty years ago, always carrying with them a book by Lorca, Artaud, Ginsberg, or Jorge de Lima. In a final, delirious attempt, I pause on a detail of the landscape: I look up, to the top of Edifício Copan, but Polén and Luizinho, spewing all the semen in the universe, aren’t there, either. The little that remains of that nostalgic delirium borne of reading a book may perhaps be found in the place where I’m headed, the second floor of number 108 on Avenida São João: the Roberto Piva Library. There they assemble the books, manuscripts, and other traces of an important poetic oeuvre that is more widely known because of its eccentric author’s cult status than because of a systematic study of his texts.

If we try to insert him in the history of Brazilian poetry beginning in the 1960s, Piva resists, a dissonant voice. But perhaps the silencing of his work ought to be reevaluated. When we read much of the bibliography about the author, we are left with the impression that the reception following the launch of Paranoia turned out to be a fairly isolated case: first, in the 1960s, there was a moralizing silence from critics in which they agreed to read him in direct association with Surrealism. Later, in the 1970s, there was the strange inclusion of his writing in the anthology organized by Heloísa Buarque de Hollanda with twenty-five other poets. In the following decades, there was the “co-optation” of his poetry by homoerotic literature. Finally, he would come to occupy his current position with the launch of his “Collected Works” by Editora Globo, which won over a far wider public and continues to be rediscovered.


My 2017: Jacob Silkstone

Perhaps the fitting thing to do would have been to throw the book into the water and let the waves close over it...

Assistant Managing Editor Jacob Silkstone travelled between several countries and two distinct stages of his life in 2017—and still had time to read a ton of literature! Today, in our final column, he reflects on the books that accompanied him on the move.

* * *

“If I imagine something, I see it. What more would I do if I travelled? Only extreme feebleness of the imagination can justify anyone needing to travel in order to feel.”

The complete edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (translated by the incomparable Margaret Jull Costa) finally became available to English readers in 2017, and I first read Bernardo Soares’ hodophobic lines in an Airbnb flat in Portugal at the 40-degree height of summer. The water supply had been temporarily cut off and for hours the taps dribbled a thin brown fluid, but I had Soares’ life “of slow rain in which everything is … half-shadow” to keep me occupied.

In a year that began with the Trump travel ban and continued to be marred by small, scared attempts to shelter from the world behind various walls (both real and imaginary), it seems worth playing Devil’s advocate to Soares/Pessoa: perhaps there can be some justification for travelling “in order to feel.”

This year, I moved between several countries and two distinct stages of my lifehaving finally proposed after nearly nine years in a relationship, I got married in July. The evening after the wedding, I gave my copy of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness away on a whim to one of our guests, a foreign correspondent working in the Middle East. That copy subsequently embarked on a journey Arundhati Roy would have been proud of, travelling from Beirut to Syria to Yemen. READ MORE…

Asymptote Podcast: Language, Meet Arto Lindsay

In this episode of the Asymptote Podcast, Editor-at-Large Lara Norgaard speaks with the experimental Brazilian-American musician, Arto Lindsay.

Music and literature meet at the crossroads of Portuguese and English—what happens? Arto Lindsay. In this episode of the Asymptote Podcast, Editor-at-Large Lara Norgaard speaks with the experimental Brazilian-American musician of DNA and Ambitious Lovers fame. They discuss his unique combination of Brazilian and American influences which range from candomblé to Emily Dickinson. Together, they unpack his expansive and multilayered works while reflecting on the role of language and translation in negotiating identity.

Produced by: Lara Norgaard
Editor and Host: Dominick Boyle
Audio Editor: Dominick Boyle

Music: “Ilha Dos Prazeres” “Unpair” and “Seu Pai” by Arto Lindsay, used with permission.


Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your news from the literary world, all in one place.

Here we are with this week’s news on exciting developments in the world of literature! Our Editor-At-Large for Singapore, Tse Hao Guang, updates us on new translation initiatives and experimental literary events. Sarah Moses, our Editor-At-Large for Argentina and Uruguay, fills us in on recent literary festivals and on an event honoring everyone’s favorite cartoon cynic. Finally, Tomás Cohen, our Editor-At-Large for Chile, tells us about some exciting new publications appearing in the region.

Tse Hao Guang, Editor-At-Large, with the latest updates from Singapore: 

In the spirit of experimentation, stalwart independent bookstore Booksactually devised a Book Prescription Day (Sep 30) in conjunction with #BuySingLit, inviting the public to meet seven authors one-on-one as they administered literary balm to all manner of ailments. Literary nonprofit Sing Lit Station put on a zany, rave-reviewed, pro-wrestling-meets-spoken-word spectacle Sing Lit Body Slam (October 6-7), selling out on opening night. Sing Lit Station also announced the 2018 Hawker Prize for Southeast Asian Poetry, awarding the best poems published by SEA-affiliated journals to a combined tune of SGD$2500 (USD$1800). Finally, Singapore played host to the 2nd Asian Women Writers’ Festival (September 29-30), with Singaporean novelists Balli Kaur Jaswal and Nuraliah Norasid speaking alongside other writers from the UK, the Philippines, Pakistan, and India.


Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet and the destruction of the “I”

The original text must be boiled down to its constituent parts and lovingly re-moulded into new forms

The dissolution of authorship is intrinsic to the act of translation. Far from being mechanical vessels for the words of another, translators invariably leave a phantom imprint of themselves upon a piece of writing. They are the invisible co-authors of a text, the ghost writers who flit across linguistic frontiers, flirting with multiple literary identities. It seems unsurprising, then, that the most elusive of Portuguese modernist poets, the godfather of urban melancholia and man of many selves, Fernando Pessoa, should have worked as a translator for much of his life.

Pessoa’s writing spans countless styles and modes, but perhaps his most famous innovation lies in his use of ‘heteronyms,’ the multiple literary identities under which he wrote. Centred around the core triumvirate of Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos, Pessoa’s heteronyms continue to be discovered today, with over 130 currently known to us. Some of the heteronyms are even characterized by linguistic divisions, such as Alexander Search who wrote uniquely in English. As Pessoa scholar Darlene Sadlier points out, Pessoa’s splintering of authorship was in a sense symptomatic of the “general crisis of subjectivity in nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophy,” suggesting that the self is something to be created rather than preordained, and, therefore, that it can contain multitudes.

This summer has seen the publication of a new English edition of the work that brought Pessoa posthumous renown, the modernist masterpiece entitled The Book of Disquiet. The publication history of this work has become the stuff of legends. On his death in 1935 aged forty-seven, Pessoa left behind at least two large wooden trunks filled with thousands upon thousands of scribbled scraps of manuscript paper, a life’s work in fragmentary form. Out of these fragments, Pessoa’s project for a work called Livro do Desassossego (once translated as The Book of Disquietude, now as The Book of Disquiet) was discovered, but the “book” was found to have multiple authors, no discernible order, and was never completed. Here was the ultimate modernist text: a “deconstructed” book that could be infinitely reassembled out of thousands of scraps of paper lying in a trunk.


Translation Tuesday: “Blind Spot” from Brief Cartography for Places of No Interest by Marcílio França Castro

"We banished from cartography all lions, mermaids, pygmies, and dragons. The sterilization of maps only confirms the disdain we have for nature."

When I first met Marcílio França Castro at a coffee shop in Brazil during the winter of 2016, he showed up toting a bag full of presents for me. When he dumped the bag onto the table, out came books, like he was some sort of combination of Jorge Luis Borges and Santa Claus. What most impressed me was his eagerness to promote Brazilian literature in general; several of the books were from his peers and not just ones he had authored. And perhaps Borges is a good comparison for Marcílio; indeed, his writing is in line with the likes of Borges, Calvino, and Cortázar. Yet he does not simply imagine other worlds, he perceives with brilliance unsuspected oddities in places of absolutely no interest. In his short stories, which range from traditional length to flash fiction, and with a prose that is at once economic and yet never lacking in precision, Marcílio França Castro transforms his culture’s most unsuspecting spaces into fantastic reading. The author and I have worked together in producing translations for many of his stories, overcoming differences in idioms, metaphor, sentence structure and other obstacles found in the passage from Portuguese to English. Most importantly, this project kept the translator sane during the subsequent North Dakotan winter of 2017. 

—Heath Wing. 

The manuals say such devices are made to take anything. Bumps, turbulence, high winds, lightning. Even crashes and hurricanes. It’s said they come out unscathed from the most intemperate of weather. You know the protocols. For every inconvenience there is a plan, an automatic fix. An aircraft like this one, with all its resources, ought to be, according to the manuals, practically uncrashable. That’s why, if it were up to manuals and manufacturers, our role would be merely to maintain course and keep her steady, taking advantage of the dignity of flight and the charm of our profession. And that’s really what we do here, before this gorgeous instrument panel, full of buttons and colorful lights: with the prudence it conveys, we relax and commend our fate and everyone else’s to the invisible wisdom of the display.

Look ahead. The sky’s magnificent, full of stars; someone might say it’s a painting commissioned to decorate the cockpit. A captain, from the moment of departure, always has his beard well-groomed, his uniform impeccable; he pilots the plane with swan-like indifference. That’s how the passengers see you. We fly calmly. The seats are anatomic and dinner well-balanced. An almost anesthetic experience. The Pacific is nothing more than an enormous tapestry of black silk that clips the horizon. We think and act as if the world outside no longer existed, as though the clouds and the ocean below us were but unfailing radar bleeps or a set of geographical coordinates. In truth, as we fly we simply ignore the substance found in Earth’s elements. Try this coffee, it’s wonderful.


Trishanku―Language as Purgatory

“My adulthood is covered with the bubble-wrap of English.”

So here’s a story―Trishanku was a mythological king, the ancestor of the Hindu god Ram. When Trishanku grew old, the gods invited his soul to heaven, but he wanted to rise to paradise in his earthly body. “Impossible,” the gods shuddered. Trishanku went to the sage Vishwamitra for help. Vishwamitra conducted a great yagya for Trishanku, and with the power of his ritual, started levitating Trishanku―body and all―towards heaven. But when the gods barred the gates, Vishwamitra built an entirely new universe between heaven and earth where Trishanku dangles, upside down, for eternity.

As a bilingual writer, I often feel like Trishanku. Having grown up in a postcolonial country with the shadow of a foreign language colouring every aspect of my existence, a duplicity cleaves my life. I inhabit two languages―English and Hindi―but I’m never fully comfortable in either. It’s telling perhaps that Trishanku is also the name of a constellation that in English is known as Crux. This confusion of languages I reside in, this no woman’s land of living between tongues defines me.


Sustaining Diversity: Translating the Literatures of Smaller European Nations

A new study investigates whether the growth in translations from literatures of smaller European countries is matched by an increase in diversity.

Smaller European literatures don’t necessarily come from geographically or numerically small nations, but they are generally clustered in what for, say, English, French, or German readers, are European peripheries like the Balkans, the Baltic, Central and Eastern Europe, the Low Countries, the Mediterranean and Scandinavia. They are written in less widely spoken languages, come from less familiar traditions and depend on translation to reach an international audience. A project called ‘Translating the Literatures of Small European Nations’, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, aimed to understand both the challenges and opportunities that exist for these literatures as they try to break into the cultural mainstream in the UK, and in June 2017 we finally published a report on our findings.

Our project brought together four academics from the UK who promote very different smaller literatures―not only through their teaching and research, but also through various kinds of public engagement and publisher collaboration: I work on Czech and Slovak at Bristol, Rhian Atkin on Portuguese at Cardiff, Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen on Scandinavian and Zoran Milutinović on South Slav at UCL. We sensed that we work quite similarly, in parallel or even in competition, without much opportunity to discuss how our smaller literatures perceive and promote themselves internationally and how they are received by readers. We suspected that this parallel, competitive experience applied more generally to other professional advocates of smaller European literatures, whether translators, publishers, literary agents or state and third-sector promoters.


In Conversation: Lesley Saunders on translation, poetic collaboration and creating new writing with refugees

I think there’s a place opening up where poet-translators can have a kind of collective presence

Lesley Saunders has published several books of poetry, and a new collection Nominy Dominy is due out from Two Rivers Press next year. She has won several awards for her poetry, including the inaugural Manchester Poetry Prize, the Stephen Spender Award for poetry in translation and The Poetry Business 2016/17 International Book & Pamphlet Competition; she is currently working on a book of translations of selected poems by the acclaimed Portuguese writer Maria Teresa Horta. Find our more about her work at

Theophilus Kwek (TK): Congratulations on winning the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation with your lovely translation of Poema by Maria Teresa Horta! In your commentary, you write about that striking central image of the poem—a ‘prowler-intruder’—which, as compared to Hughes’ ‘thought-fox’, is felt rather than seen. Did you face any challenges in rendering such a tactile ‘muse’ in a different language?

Lesley Saunders (LS): This is a really hard question! I’m very much guided, in my translation, by a text I’ve come across quite recently: James Underhill’s Voice and Versification in Translating Poems, which is wonderful – and which I first discovered by being asked to review it. I started reading the book more out of duty, then was completely captivated by how Underhill describes the difficult but not impossible challenge of translating poetry.


In Review: Abdulai Sila’s novel confronts the future of Guinea-Bissau

She wants to create a school unlike those she attended, which were born out of the “civilizing” arm of the colonial regime.

“It was the first time the Sepoys had seen such a cowardly Chief of Post. It left them very disillusioned. They told everyone in the tabanca what had happened, adding a little salt of course.”

No “salt” appears to be lost in Jethro Soutar’s translation of The Ultimate Tragedy, which is the first Bissau-Guinean novel to be translated into English.

Reflecting the Bissau-Guinean oral traditions that influenced Abdulai Sila’s writing style, the novel reads like an uninterrupted conversation about what the future holds for this nation, seemingly on the verge of liberation.

Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine protagonist Ndani’s life (re)told in an oral narrative as she transforms from cursed outcast to abused servant, to the wife of a wealthy régulo in whose village she will meet her true love. With every change in Ndani’s environment, we are introduced to a different facet of colonial-era Bissau-Guinean society: rural, under-served poor; white, colonial elite; powerful, indigenous leaders; and finally, Church-educated citizens.


Translation Tuesday: “Testament” by Ana Luísa Amaral

if I should die on a plane and be…a free-floating atom in the sky

To commemorate International Women’s Day coming up tomorrow, I’m thrilled to present the following poem by award-winning Portuguese poet, Ana Luísa Amaral, translated by the brilliant Margaret Jull Costa. Addressed to the narrator’s daughter (and, it seems, the daughter of that daughter), these words celebrate the hidden potentiality inside every woman—and the spontaneity of life itself, even in its contemplation of sudden death.


I’m about to fly off somewhere
and my fear of heights plus myself
finds me resorting to tranquillisers
and having confused dreams

If I should die
I want my daughter always to remember me
for someone to sing to her even if they can’t hold a tune
to offer her pure dreams
rather than a fixed timetable
or a well-made bed

To give her love and the ability
to look inside things
to dream of blue suns and brilliant skies
instead of teaching her how to add up
and how to peel potatoes

To prepare my daughter
for life
if I should die on a plane
and be separated from my body
and become a free-floating atom in the sky

Let my daughter
remember me
and later on say to her own daughter
that I flew off into the sky
and was all dazzle and contentment
to see that in her house none of the sums added up
and the potatoes were still in their sack forgotten


Asymptote Podcast: Of Hybrids and Habitats

Thriving in a new creative (eco)system.

It’s early March and here in the northern hemisphere, we’re all ready for spring. Take a walk in the park with the new Asymptote podcast as Layla Benitez-James discusses all manner of transplants. Crossing borders and taking root in a new creative (eco)system, artist Lauren Moya Ford shares new writing in her native English and non-native Portuguese—a language she is still learning, but already exploring in her composition. In a kind of mixture of translation and botanical study, these writings blend bright description with flora inspired research calling back to the likes of Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners and W. G. Sebald’s own hybrid text Austerlitz. Imagine flowers “the size of loose fists or dinner plates”, or hothouses that defy natural habitats and artificial borders. Our latest episode will be a breath of fresh air and more.


Podcast Editor and Host: Layla Benitez-James

Music provided by TinyTiny Trio, free for non-commercial and artistic use.