Language: Russian

Blog Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2018

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

Here at the blog, we continue to be amazed by the breadth of the material featured every quarter at Asymptote. From our Korean literature feature to a Japanese dadaist‘s outrageous fusion of text and image, our Spring 2018 issue again proves that the most groundbreaking material is being produced far from the centers of Anglo-American literary dominance. This issue’s Tolstoyan theme, “Unhappy Families,” might suggest an individualized focus on how each of us is unhappy in our own way. However, the blog editors’ selections all touch on wider themes of war and genocide, suggesting an undercurrent of collective trauma beneath the stories of personal travail. These pieces are just a small taste of the vast terrain covered in the Spring 2018 issue. You won’t want to miss any of it!

Iya Kiva’s three poems from “little green lights” (translated by Katherine E. Young) almost immediately caught my attention in this new Spring issue. It is divided into three sections that are distinguishable through their tone—the first one resentful, the second satirical, and the third calmly futile. The second section revolves around the punning of воды [water] and война [war], which is perhaps a rare instance when the translation succeeds even more than the original. The war in the Donbass region of Ukraine is now in its fifth year of conflict between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces, with no end in sight. Kiva’s ironic assertions of “what if there’s no war by the time night falls” and “in these parts it’s considered unnatural / if war doesn’t course through the pipes” creates two possible interpretations: the disbelief at the war’s complete destruction, to the point that there is no running water (as if a war could be comfortably fought from both sides), and the biting accusation that war, not water, is essential to a people’s survival, as well as their nation. Running water is no longer the passive object for Romantic contemplation, but has become a basic expectation for life in a modern society, tragically, just as war has. On the other hand, not everything in Kiva’s poems is double-edged. One of my favourite lines is the simplest: “and it’s really beautiful / like in a Tarkovsky film”, which at first sounds like a platitude, but becomes charming with the realisation that nothing more can be said about a Tarkovsky film without slipping into pretention. I highly recommend our readers to delve into this poem, to question Kiva’s stance and at the same time to feel as if their own ideas are being questioned.

—Stefan Kielbasiewicz

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In Conversation: Alexander Cigale

Mandelstam's “argument” is inseparable from his music and, for me, it is that music that has always been primary.

The post-symbolist Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, as dazzling and immediate as he is daunting and complex, is best known in English for the early formal work of Stone (1913) and Tristia (1922). Mandelstam would mature into a poet of visionary modernity in the late 1920s and 1930s. Translator Alexander Cigale is working on an as yet unpublished new volume of selected works by Mandelstam and considers himself part of a Silver Age of Mandelstam translation, after the Golden Age of the 1980s and 90s. While earlier translations established Mandelstam’s reputation in English principally through Tristia and Stone, Cigale chooses to render many of the middle-period “Moscow” poems by Mandelstam, written in the late 1920s and 1930s, and heretofore less well-known in English.  

Cigale has also translated Daniil Kharms, a contemporary of Mandelstam and a poet of nonsense and absurdity akin to Lewis Carroll and Samuel Beckett, a poet who seems, at first blush, almost diametrically opposed to Mandelstam in temperament and aesthetic. Both Mandelstam and Kharms have become pillars of Russian twentieth-century poetry. Since publishing a volume of selected works by Kharms in 2017, Cigale seems poised to become an esteemed translator of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth Century—and, perhaps, of the twenty-first, since Cigale is also at work on the contemporary poet Mikhail Eremin thanks to an NEA Fellowship in Literary Translation.  

As a longtime reader of Mandelstam and Kharms, poet Alexander Dickow asks Cigale about the difficulties and rewards of scaling the highest peaks of Russian poetry, and especially that of Mandelstam’s glittering verse.

Alexander Dickow (AD): Alex, you just published in February 2017 a new translation of selected work by the OBERIU (Russian absurdist) writer Daniil Kharms, Russian Absurd: Selected Writings, from Northwestern University Press. Your latest project is a volume of selected poems by the celebrated Acmeist Osip Mandelstam. I’d like to start with a question about the historical situation of these writers who both reached their poetic maturity in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Kharms and Mandelstam were both destroyed by Stalin. How do you think this manifests differently in these poets’ work?

Alexander Cigale (AC): Stalin was cognizant of and acknowledged the genius of Mandelstam (in a phone conversation with Pasternak). I’m not sure Kharms was on anyone’s radar. He outlived most of his friends because the authorities dismissed him for a madman.

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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.

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In Conversation: Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky on Words for War

There’s a way in which great poetry goes beyond the specifics of language, time, and place, illuminating patterns.

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky are award-winning poets from opposite ends of Ukraine, writing in Ukrainian and Russian, respectively. They work together as translators from Russian and Ukrainian to English, having lived in the US for over a decade. When Crimea, where Max is from, was annexed by Russia, and the war started in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the geographic and linguistic differences they embody became markers of a conflict they were detached from, yet that was intimately close. The war gave Ukrainian poetry an impetus they could not ignore as translators, prompting them to assemble a collection that documents the war in its multiplicity, from various positions, modes of involvement, across languages. Words for War (Academic Studies Press, 2017), the resulting anthology, replants poetic testimonies of the war away from the local ground—there, the war loses some of its singularity—at once a document of this particular conflict and poems that speak of loss, pain and anger across borders. Today, Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Hungary, Diána Vonnák, discusses this groundbreaking project with Oksana and Max.

Diána Vonnák (DV): When I read the title of your collection, Wilfred Owen came to my mind as one of those poets who became iconic for English war poetry. He wrote this in 1918, just before he died: “This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War.” These claims are strong and for me they resonated with what you wrote in the preface: “Like broken furniture and mutilated bodies, these poems are traces of what had happened, as well as evidence that it did really happen.” What do you think about the relationship between poetry and war, the aesthetic and the political?

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky (OM/MR): Words for War is a provocative title. It’s also a difficult title to pull off, in that it can appear glib, easily interpreted in a hortative aspect: “Let’s get ready for war, sing some war songs, and say some war words!” For better or for worse, it’s not that kind of book. Our starting point was a series of observations: there’s a war in Ukraine, and people there think about it and talk about it. Politicians and administrators make speeches about it. Journalists and reporters cover it. It fills news channels and newspapers. Youtube users upload amateur videos from cities affected by war, and your own Facebook friends take different sides. In the streets, you see people in military uniforms; and you see civilians reacting to them, expressing a range of responses from gratitude to overt hostility. You see young men with missing limbs, with deformed faces. And then there are the endless witness reports. Because many people have been to war, and still more have been to the war zone, and they have stories to tell, and stories they prefer to be silent about. In short, war is ever-present, and it uses up a lot of words.

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Translation Tuesday: “Place” by Dmitry Danilov

Sit at home, in the shadows, in the empty, shadowy flat. The empty, dark flat, things hung on the rail stir softly.

This week’s Translation Tuesday comes from the amazing Russian author Dmitry Danilov. For more microfiction, head over to the brand new Winter 2018 issue of Asymptote!

Sit at home, in the shadows, in the empty, shadowy flat. The empty, dark flat, things hung on the rail stir softly. Only in one corner of the empty, dark, shadowy flat does life smoulder with a red-yellowy glimmer. In the corner of the empty, dark flat nestles a human being, a calculating machine works. A lamp illuminates this space in the corner of the empty, shadowy flat; all the rest of the flat is empty and dark.

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Rimli Bhattacharya

Doesn’t the strength of a work of fiction lie in its lack of closure?

Our second Asymptote Book Club interview is an in-depth discussion of Aranyak, a seminal work of Bengali literature translated into English by Rimli Bhattacharya.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Asymptote Assistant Editor Chris Power, Rimli Bhattacharya reflects on Aranyak’s enduring importance, how a bout of “language sickness” led to its translation into English, and why author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s “extraordinarily sensitive” portrayal of women was ahead of its time.

Chris Power’s review of the novel is available to read here.

Chris Power (CP): I’d first like to ask about the history of Aranyak’s reception. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay wrote this classic Bengali novel, based on his years spent in northern Bihar, between 1937 and 1939. What new significance does it take on in the twenty-first century? What inspired you to translate it? When did you first read it, and how has your reading of it evolved?

Rimli Bhattacharya (RB): Aranyak was serialized in the late 1930s—the same decade in which a clutch of other remarkable novels, such as Aparajito and Drihstipradip, were published. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was already celebrated as the writer of Pather Panchali. The interesting thing about Aranyak is that many forests meld in the novel, not only Bibhutibhushan’s years in Bhagalpur in the 1920s, but also his travels in Singbhum and Mayurbhanj in Orissa in the mid-1930s, as his biographer Rusati Sen points out.

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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.”

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2018: A Year of Reading Adventurously

In 2018, I’ll be making an effort to trace my inheritance as an Anglophone, Southeast Asian poet of faith and colour.

After the recently concluded blog series in which we looked back on 2017’s literary discoveries, we bring you our New Year’s reading resolutions.

Chris Power, Assistant Editor:

I work in French and German, so I’ll start with my French literary resolutions: I’m reading Marx et la poupée (Marx and the Doll) by Maryam Madjidi with my friend and former French professor, the psychoanalytic literary theorist Jerry Aline Flieger. Excerpts of the novel of course appear in our current issue. If it isn’t my favorite work we’ve published, then it stands out for being the one that overwhelmed my critical faculties. I couldn’t write about it in the disinterested manner that I prefer. Instead I wrote a confused, gushing blurb listing my favorite scenes and describing how it brought tears to my eyes. An emphatic “yes” was all I could muster. Next on my list is Réparer le monde (Repair the World) by Alexandre Gefen, to which Laurent Demanze dedicated a beautiful essay in Diacritik in late November. I’m looking forward not only to an insightful survey of contemporary French literature, but also to a provocative anti-theoretical turn in the history of literary theory, namely a theory of the utility of literature (to repair the world) which cites pragmatist philosophers like John Dewey. Gefen introduces this theory enticingly through a reading of Barthes in his lecture “A quoi bon ? Les pouvoirs de la littérature (La tentation de l’écriture)” / “What’s the use? The powers of literature (the temptation of writing)” which is available online, but I must admit that I’m reminded of a Baudelaire quote dear to me: “Être un homme utile m’a toujours paru quelque chose de bien hideux.” (“To be a useful man has always appeared to me to be particularly hideous.”) In 2018 I’ll also continue exploring the work of Sarah Kofman, who seems to me to be a diamond in the rough of historical amnesia and a potential dissertation topic. She’s exactly the kind of Nietzschean, Parisian philosopher-poet of the 1960s who worked at the intersection of philosophy and art that we’ve grown so comfortable labelling a “theorist,” but she hasn’t (yet) acquired the cult following of her dissertation advisor Gilles Deleuze or colleague Jacques Derrida.

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My 2017: Poupeh Missaghi

We, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work.

Today, we hear from Editor-at-Large for Iran, Poupeh Missaghi, who played an instrumental role in assembling our Spring 2017 issue’s Banned Countries’ Literature Showcase, even translating one of the pieces herself. Not unexpectedly, she reminds us of the need to be politically engaged, whether as readers, writers, or translators.  

I want to focus on a few timely, essential titles that remind us all that politics infiltrates every layer of our existence.

I started my year reading Finks, a book by Guernica cofounder Joel Whitney about “How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers.” The book reveals the ugly side of the literary world during the Cold War, by delving into the blurred lines between literature, journalism, and “the needs of the state; between aesthetics” and “political requirements” of the times. In the present political climate, I found it an important reminder that literature cannot truly separate itself from politics and money; and that we, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work and need to strive to continuously raise awareness—both our own and others’—about such contexts.

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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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On Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained Glass Window

A strikingly crafted window into how our lives are a mosaic of the things that happened before us.

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. London, England: MacLehose Press, 2017. 240 pages. £12.99.

Toward the middle of The House with the Stained Glass Window, the Ukrainian-Polish writer Żanna Słoniowska’s debut novel, the unnamed narrator tells us that her great-grandmother occasionally falls into fits of hysterical sobbing, which her grandmother explains as having to do with “the past.” “I imagined ‘the past’ as an uncontrolled intermittent blubbering,” the narrator says. This definition is not a far cry from the idea of the past portrayed in The House with the Stained Glass Window: not blubbering, but certainly not controlled by human forces, intermittently entering the present day until it infiltrates it, saturates it, and finally becomes indistinguishable from it.

The novel centers around four generations of women who live under the same roof in Lviv, in a house noted for its enormous stained glass window. The window sets the present-day plot in motion: it is because of the window that the novel’s narrator, who we only know as Marianna’s daughter, meets Mykola, her mother’s former lover, and begins an affair with him herself. A relationship like that would provide enough internal and external conflict to fill a novel to its brim, but Słoniowska does not dedicate much page space to it. Instead, if anything, the affair serves as a springboard to the past, to exploring the irresistible pull of it.

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In Conversation: Natasha Wimmer on Teaching Translation

Teaching translation feels like I’ve been lifting weights, and then I go to my own translation and it's like, whoa, these weights are so light!

What does it mean to teach translation? Many translators are self-taught, having honed their skills in careers as writers or editors, academics or language experts. But some universities in the United States also offer seminars in the craft of translation. The teacher-translator, then, takes on the unique challenge of developing new pedagogy for a field in flux, one that exists at the intersection of language study, theory, and the instructor’s own experiences in the creative practice of translation.

Today, translator Natasha Wimmer sits down with her former student and Asymptote Editor-at-Large in Brazil, Lara Norgaard, to discuss her approach to teaching translation. 

Lara Norgaard (LN): How did you begin teaching translation? What made you interested in education?

Natasha Wimmer (NW): Princeton approached me, actually. I had never taught a class. Not only that, but I also only have an undergraduate degree, so I had never even taken a graduate class. I was a little bit nervous about taking the job. A few years later I started at Columbia. In that case, I did a panel discussion with the other Bolaño translator, Chris Andrews, and the department heads enjoyed the discussion, so they asked me to teach.

LN: Was there a particular class you took or text you read that influenced the way you approached teaching for the first time?

NW: I actually imagined the course as the class I wish I’d taken before I became a translator. I had no formal education in translation at all. I had never taken a translation class and, in fact, I hadn’t even read anything about translation until about eight years into my translation career. When I was asked to give a talk about translation, I realized I had avoided reading about translation because I was afraid that I would discover that I had been doing it wrong, or that maybe I would mess with the instinctive approach that had somehow been successful so far. But then I found reading about translation really stimulating. I discovered that, not surprisingly, there was a conversation about the questions I had and about the things that I hadn’t articulated but had been working through as a translator.

I worked really hard the first year I taught the Princeton class. I spent a few months just reading translation theory and translation essays for material that I thought was interesting and put together a reading list. The first semester I taught at Princeton was very experimental. In retrospect, I’m surprised I survived. The format of the class changed a lot from the first year to the second.

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What’s New in Translation? August 2017

Not sure what to read next? Here are three of the most thrilling new releases from around the world.

With Asymptote you can be sure to have the latest reading recommendations. True to form, we bring you a selection of the exciting new books this month. Which one is going to claim a place in your bookshelf?

Kholin Front Cover Promo 72dpi at 1000 pixels_3

Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems by Igor Kholin, translated from the Russian by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, Ugly Duckling Presse.

Reviewed by Paul Worley, Editor-at-Large, Mexico

English language readers already enamored of poets such as the Roman Catullus or the more recent Charles Bukowski will find a similarly humorous, difficult, and enthralling companion in the pages of Russian Igor Kholin’s (1920-1999) recently translated Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems from Ugly Duckling Presse. An autodidact whose experiences in the military included a near-death experience in World War II, Kholin in many ways perhaps serves as a vital counterpoint to the American Bukowski insofar as both writers, despite the fact that they are writing throughout the Cold War between their respective countries, cast an unrelentingly critical gaze on the societies they inhabit, bearing witness to abuse, the dirty, and the neglected, and rendering these as poetry. The translators note that although Kholin’s “occasionally unrestrained misogyny” may rankle the sensibilities of many readers, they nonetheless felt compelled to leave his attitude in their translation as “it seems to constitute part and parcel of his self-positioning and character” (9). Along those lines and, in tandem with Bukowski, one also wonders about the extent to which the writer’s misogyny is not a gendered version of a broader misanthropy from which the poet does not even exclude himself. After all, the poetic Kholin muses on the possibility that thinking he is “a creep…It’s not such a leap” (80), as well as understanding he is one for whom wine is “made” and shit is “laid” (85). As he criticizes his social circle for their faults and flaws in his diary, a passage written in a friend’s handwriting takes on the subject of Kholin himself, claiming the poet is “intellectually limited” (46) and that his “advice on writing is naive” (48). Perhaps unsurprisingly, marginal notes in the poet’s own hand describe these as “the best thing Yodkovsky [the friend] has ever written” (49).

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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.

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