As we reported in Asymptote’s weekly dispatch a few weeks ago, Slovak literature made waves at this year’s Salon du Livre in Paris, where thirty-seven books by Slovak authors, including twenty-five brand new translations, were presented. Also in attendance was writer and past Asymptote contributor Marek Vadas, on this occasion wearing his hat as staff member of LIC (Centre for Information on Literature), the agency responsible for promoting Slovak literature abroad. He has agreed to share his insider’s view of the book fair with us.
There are two kind of stands at international book fairs. The first attract attention because of their long-term reputation, literary stars and talent, thoughtful cultural policy and diplomacy or, simply, thanks to the money lavished on them. The second kind—old-fashioned, lacking in invention or sophistication—rarely attract anyone apart from a narrow circle of specialists or the odd passerby. This year, all of a sudden, the Slovak stand found itself in the first category. What happened? READ MORE…
Our dispatches this week range from the celebratory to the urgent. Slovak literature is victorious after a splendid showing in Paris, Guatemalan independent literature stakes out a spot on the main stage, and in Albania, writers have taken admirable steps in order to bring the importance of reading to public attention. Read on to keep up with the thrilling advances of these three national literatures.
Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Slovakia
Slovak literature has been making waves in France: Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, was the city of honour at this year’s Salon du Livre, held from March 15 to 18. Years of painstaking preparations, spearheaded by the Slovak Centre for Information on Literature, have resulted in twenty-six brand new translations of books by Slovak authors being translated into French in the past year or so—twice the number published in the thirty years since Slovakia’s independence. Book launches and presentations were accompanied by readings, discussions, and exhibitions, featuring over a dozen writers, playwrights, and journalists, with a good sprinkling of graphic designers, artists, filmmakers, publishers, musicians, as well as some government representatives, which attracted scores of the reading public and captured the attention of the media (find links to the press coverage on the Embassy of Slovakia’s Facebook page).
The star authors included Pavel Vilikovský, the undisputed grand old man of Slovak fiction (he would surely reject this label), who rarely travels abroad these days, but could not turn down the invitation to Paris given that three of his books have appeared in French translation. He has also beaten another record, as his most recent book, RAJc je preč (The Thrill is Gone, 2018) has just been nominated for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft Litera. This is his fifth nomination since the prize was first awarded in 2006; he won it that year as well as in 2014, and judging by this book’s first reviews, he may well manage a hat-trick this year. READ MORE…
Weronika Gogola is a Polish writer and translator from Slovak and Ukrainian. Her first autobiographical book Po trochu (Little by Little, 2017), which depicts her childhood in the small village of Olszyny in the Carpathian mountains, is composed of “stories from real life that are usually told bit by bit, in snippets and fragments.” The book was nominated for several literary prizes and in October 2018 won the Conrad Award for a prose debut. For the past three years, Gogola has been based in Bratislava, where Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, caught up with her last November.
Julia Sherwood: First of all, congratulations on winning the Conrad Award! I loved your book and think that the prize was more than deserved. What does it mean for you?
Weronika Gogola: This award is incredibly important to me, especially since, in the case of the Conrad Award, it’s not just the judges who decide but, first and foremost, the readers. I’m incredibly grateful to them. Besides, a prize is a kind of validation, as well as a bargaining chip for the future. I know that sounds unfair but that’s how the world works—the more prizes and nominations you have the more seriously you are taken. Unfortunately. But, of course, it’s nice to be appreciated. In addition, the Conrad Award includes a grant, which has allowed me to concentrate on my writing without financial worries.
JS: Your book is very firmly located in the world of your childhood. You grew up in a small village in rural Poland, yet ended up living abroad, and are currently based in Slovakia. Were you already living abroad while working on your book, and did the geographical distance give you a new perspective on the place, or did this make the writing more challenging?
Featuring work from twenty-three languages and a record-breaking thirty-five countries, there’s plenty to choose from in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 issue! Today, our three blog editors share their favorite pieces, from Icelandic, Slovak and Latvian poetry to Brazilian Portuguese social commentary and Bengali short stories.
From the Fiction section, the ever-intensifying “The Meat Market,” translated from the Bengali, takes one unexpected turn after another in a thrilling prose adventure. Set a week before Eid, what should be a celebratory, communal affair quickly turns sour in East Rajabazar. This is a city where transactions are tainted by the potential for danger, just as the meat sold is tainted by false advertising. Aminul Islam faces the full consequences of these circumstances that he fails to fully understand, culminating in a shocking conclusion carefully set up by Mashiul Alam’s artful prose, switching deftly between first- and third-person at crucial moments in the narrative.
If you are looking for exciting poetry freshly translated into English, don’t miss out on Steinn Steinarr’s “Time and Water.” Hailed as Iceland’s greatest modernist poet, Steinarr’s ethereal poetry combines Icelandic poetics with modernist free verse and imagism to create gems like:
And the sorrow I hid
nearly found your own,
like a fjord-blue sea.
In this sequence on a failed and flawed relationship, the distance between the speaker and the other is quite nearly but not quite ever bridged. Equally impressive are the complex rhythms of Monta Kroma’s extract from Lips. You. Lips. Me., a larger collection of experimental modernist poems. The Latvian poet plays on the use of refrains and repetition to create a circular, almost obsessive monologue. These poems are ones that I’ve been returning to, and ones you might love too! READ MORE…
World literature will be inclusive only through a continuous effort of organizing against the dominant, listening to the underrepresented, and making space for the unheard to bloom. This week our Editors-at-Large report such efforts from Australia, Hong Kong, and Slovakia. Read on to find out how the voices of women, indigenous and local peoples are being amplified around the world.
Tiffany Tsao, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Australia:
As part of an effort to resist the colonial systems that are the Australian publishing industry, the Australian media and arts industries, and modern Australia itself, the literary quarterly The Lifted Brow made the decision to hand over the entire production of their December issue to an all-First-Nations team of writers, editors, and ancillary staff. “We at TLB are too white, in all senses of that term,” read the magazine’s official statement on the matter. “[I]t’s way past the time that this should’ve changed. Our job and responsibility now is to push back against these oppressive and harmful regimes-within-regimes, not because we can undo the past, but because we can make better the present and the future.”
By April 2014, Asymptote has snowballed into a team of 60. Though I never signed up to lead so many team members, expansion is a matter of inevitability for a magazine that publishes new work from upwards of 25 countries every quarter (and that prides itself on editorial rigor). After all, if Asymptote section editors only relied on personal connections, it would only be a matter of time before available leads dried up. There is simply no substitute for local knowledge and, more importantly, local networking, since getting the author’s permission to run or translate his or her work is often the hardest part. (For the English Fiction Feature in the Spring 2014 issue alone, I sent solicitations, directly or indirectly, to Rohinton Mistry, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Chang-rae Lee, Tash Aw, Akhil Sharma, and Tao Lin—all in vain alas.) An entire book could probably be written about how Asymptote wooed author X or translator Y or guest artist Z to come on board as contributor. One particularly memorable (and—I assure you—not representative of the way we operate) episode comes to mind: When her phone call to an author was intercepted and met with a flat rejection by his secretary, a particularly persistent team member signed up for a two-day workshop conducted by said author. At an intermission, she casually makes the ask. The author agrees to discuss the matter the next day, at a restaurant. During dinner, our team member is subjected to intensive grilling before permission is finally granted to run and translate his work. Here to recount how we managed to ask Nobel laureate Herta Müller to come on board as contributor (and to give us permission to translate her moving essay into 8 additional languages) is editor-at-large Julia Sherwood:
I was invited to join the Asymptote team as editor-at-large for Slovakia after volunteering to translate into Slovak Jonas Hassen Khemiri´s Open Letter to Beatrice Ask, which appeared in 20 languages in the Spring 2013 issue of Asymptote. The journal had only been around for two years, but it had already established a reputation for featuring translations from a staggering array of languages and authors who had never been published in English. Slovak, my native language, had yet to make an appearance, so I immediately set out to source suitable texts in high-quality translations. My first success came when “Where to in Bratislava”, a story by Jana Beňová and translated by Beatrice Smigasiewicz, was chosen for the Winter 2014 issue. Soon after that I managed something of a scoop: bringing to Asymptote “The Space Between Languages,” an essay by Nobel laureate Herta Müller. READ MORE…
Welcome back for a fresh batch of literary news, featuring the most exciting developments from Slovakia, Brazil, and Egypt.
Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Slovakia:
Hot on the heels of the prolonged Night of Literature, held from 16 to 18 May in sixteen towns and cities across Slovakia, the fifth annual independent book festival, BRaK, took place between 17 and 20 May in the capital, Bratislava. In keeping with the festival’s traditional focus on the visual side of books, the programme included bookbinding, typesetting and comic writing workshops, activities for children, and exhibitions of works by veteran Czech illustrator, poster and animation artist Jiří Šalamoun, as well as French illustrators Laurent Moreau and Anne-Margot Ramstein. The last two also held illustration masterclasses, while the German Reinhard Kleist launched the Slovak translation of his graphic novel Nick Cave: Mercy on Me, accompanied by a local band.
We have such an amazing group of creative people over here at Asymptote. Check out some of our recent news and stay tuned for more of the international literature you love!
Poetry Editor Aditi Machado’s book of poetry, Some Beheadings, has been awarded The Believer Poetry Award.
Communications Manager Alexander Dickow has published an article in French on the creative imagination in Apollinaire’s Méditations esthétiques in Littérature’s 190th edition.
Editor-at-Large for Romania & Moldova Chris Tanasescu aka MARGENTO delivered a computational poetry paper at a major Artificial Intelligence conference, presented a Digital Humanities paper at Congress2018, and has flown to Europe to launch a computationally assembled poetry anthology.
Small cultures import disproportionately more texts—both translated and original—than they export. However, literatures using a language with a limited number of speakers are not just markets for globalised goods. Translations quite naturally also help them develop and sometimes even exist, as cases of small languages that ceased to be the target languages for translations show. Revue svetovej literatúry (Review of world literature) is a Slovak magazine founded in the “golden” 1960s that brought an abundance of new impulses to Slovak literature from all over the world for the past fifty years. Late last year, writer and translator (and Asymptote past contributor) Peter Macsovszky and literature and translation scholar Ivana Hostová edited and co-translated (with the help of a team of translators) an issue of the magazine with a focus on contemporary and twentieth-century Anglophone literature from the US.
In her Buying into English (2008), Catherine Prendergast analyses the semantics and economics linked to the ability of speakers of a minor language—in this case Slovak—to use the language of global communication. She compares the perceived value of English in Slovakia immediately after the fall of state socialism and then in almost two decades in the post-communist Slovakia. The strict restriction of the flow of information between socialist Czechoslovakia and the Western world gave rise to an idealised notion of the Anglophone (and, more specifically, American and capitalist) world. It came to signify freedom and prosperity and was—in the minds of many Slovaks—expected to embrace and accept with curiosity and eagerness the cultures and peoples freed from the socialist regime. Prendergast suggests that the notion was only abandoned after it slowly became clear that “the lingua franca is language-as-battlefield; it is the terrain upon which players in the global information economy grapple for property, respectability, and political voice.” Now it has become obvious that it takes more than pureness of heart and an admiration for the American culture and way of life to extract any interest from what Michael Cronin in his Eco-Translation (2017) has called the crowded Anglophone attentionscape.
The proportion of imported versus exported goods including cultural products can be very well illustrated by the amount of translations produced in the Anglophone countries as opposed to cultural spaces[i] like Slovakia. Therefore, wanting to import even more texts from the dominant to small culture might seem like carrying coals to Newcastle. However, if we try to differentiate between a piece of writing as a commodity that primarily generates economic profit and institutional legitimation and look at the autonomous sections of the literary field—at those works that were not created to make the author famous or rich, but which came into being in order to exist for themselves and in their own right—it may come as a surprise that not much American writing can really be found in Slovak translation. In this context, an issue of a Slovak literary magazine bringing translations of Anglophone writing from the United States seems redundant only at first glance. Most of the literature written in the US that gets translated into Slovak nowadays can best be described as a commodity—currently, the best-selling book in the biggest Slovak bookshops is the translation of Dan Brown’s Origin (2017)—it is the kind of writing that, although undeniably culturally domineering and shaping the receiving context, does not inspire in the sense of creating resistance to the existing (cultural) preconceptions or fluent strategies of reading.
This week, we bring you news of literary festivities in Romania and Moldova, a resurgence of female writing in Slovakia, and the tragic loss of a promising young translator in Iran. As always, watch this space for the latest in literary news the world over!
MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Romania and Moldova:
A book of interviews with Romanian-German writer and past Asymptote contributor Herta Müller came out in French translation from Gallimard just a few days ago (on Feb 15). The book has already been praised for the lucidity showed by the Nobel-prize winner in combining the personal and the historical or the political.
Poetry Editor Aditi Machado has created a teaching guide for her recent book of poetry, Some Beheadings (Nightboat Books, 2017). She was also interviewed by Chicago Review of Books about the translatability of poetry.
Communications Manager Alexander Dickow released a short monograph in French on Max Jacob called Jacob et le cinéma (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Jean-Michel Place, 2017).
Guest Artist Liaison Berny Tan’s first solo exhibition, ‘Thought Lines’, opened last month. She also currently has work displayed in an exhibition called ‘Journeys with “The Waste Land”’ at the Turner Contemporary in Margate, UK.
No longer plagued by censors and paper shortages since the end of communism, the publishing industry in former Czechoslovakia has faced other kinds of constraints that it shares with much of the commercially-driven world in which we live. Literary scholar and critic Ivana Taranenková shares with Asymptote’s Slovak editor-at-large Julia Sherwood the findings of a survey comparing editorial practices in Czech and Slovak publishing houses before and after 1989. The survey was carried out by the web journal Platform for Literature and Research, which Taranenková runs together with her colleagues Radoslav Passia and Vladimír Barborík.
Recent publications of new literary works by Slovak authors as well as works in translation have exposed a trend that is trivial yet irksome. While the number of published books continues to grow and their visual quality is improving, pundits have increasingly noted the declining standard of manuscript editing. This is a problem not just for literary reviewers, but also for those who judge literary awards when they assess each year’s literary output.
Editorial standards are often so dismal that these poorly edited manuscripts can no longer be seen as just isolated instances of incompetence or failure on the part of individual editors (as some reviewers have suggested), but rather as a systemic issue. Other than in some major publishing houses, the profession of editor appears to be waning, a victim of the drive for “increased efficiency” in publishing, and a growing reliance on outsourcing that requires a smaller investment of time and money per book, ultimately resulting in dilettantism. The same also applies to emerging independent publishers.
Literature is interdisciplinary by nature, and the world showed us how this week. From visual art exhibitions and a reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Hong Kong to a music festival infiltrated by writers in Slovakia and a commemoration of the late sociolinguist Jesús Tuson in Catalan, there is much to catch up on the literary world’s doings this week.
Hong Kong Editor-at-Large Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan brings us up to speed:
Themed “Fictional Happiness,” the third edition of Hong Kong Literary Season ran from June to late August. The annual event is organised by one of the most important Hong Kong literary organisations, the House of Hong Kong literature. This year the event featured an opening talk by Hong Kong novelist Dung Kai-cheung and Taiwanese writer Luo Yijun, a writing competition, an interdisciplinary visual arts exhibition, and a series of talks, workshops and film screenings. Five visual artists were invited to create installations inspired by five important works of Hong Kong fiction in response to the exhibition title, “Fictional Reality: Literature, Visual Arts, and the Remaking of Hong Kong History.”
Interdisciplinary collaboration has been a hot trend in the Hong Kong literary scene recently. Led and curated by visual artist Angela Su, Dark Fluid: a Science Fiction Experiment, is the latest collection of sci-fi short stories written by seven Hong Kong artists and writers. The book launch on September 2 took place at the base of Hong Kong arts organisation, “Things that Can Happen,” in Sham Shui Po. The experimental project was initiated as an artistic effort to reflect on recent social turmoils through scientific imagination and dystopian visions. The book launch also presented a dramatic audio adaptation of one of the stories, “Epidemic Investigation,” from the collection.
On September 6, PEN Hong Kong hosted a bilingual reading session (Cantonese and English) as part of the International Literature Festival Berlin (ILB) at Art and Culture Outreach (ACO) in Wan Chai. About twelve Hong Kong writers, journalists, and academics participated in “The Worldwide Reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” by reading excerpts of their choice from works that deal with issues of human rights.
Amid the literary and artistic attention to Hong Kong social issues and history, local literary magazine, Fleur de Lettre, will take readers on a literary sketching day-trip in Ma On Shan on September 9. During the event named “August and On Shan,” participants will visit a former iron mine in Ma On Shan to imagine its industrial past through folk tales and historical relics. READ MORE…