Language: Swedish

Words Containing Multitudes: Theodor Kallifatides on Writing The Siege of Troy

A basic human need is also to remember and be remembered. That is why we put one stone on top of another, we paint, we sing, we write.

In September, we were honored to present Theodor Kallifatides’ The Siege of Troy as our monthly Book Club feature. This poignant, multilayered novel intertwines a modern coming-of-age wartime story with a psychologically profound retelling of the classic Iliad. In the following interview, Assistant Managing Editor Josefina Massot speaks with the author himself on overcoming writer’s block, writing about Greece in a foreign land and tongue, and humanizing ancient heroes.

Josefina Massot (JF): You had an unexpected bout of writer’s block at age seventy-seven, back in 2015, after almost fifty years of uninterrupted literary output. The Siege of Troy was, I believe, the first novel you wrote once you overcame it. Did your writing process change at all as a result? What was it like, rediscovering your narrative voice in novel form?

Theodor Kallifatides (TK): Yes, it affected me and my writing greatly. I felt free from all expectations, from all demands from the publisher, the public, and myself, and my writing got wings it never had before. I did not care about anything except doing justice to my deepest feelings and ideas. I got back both my eyes. Before it, I always had—as most writers do, I dare say—an eye on what people would think about my work. Suddenly, I simply did not care. I was free. READ MORE…

Announcing Our September Book Club Selection: The Siege of Troy by Theodor Kallifatides

Kallifatides has a stark, sensitive writing style that, in its simplicity, reveals a sense of reverence for his subjects.

Contemporary writers have continually found original ways to tell enduring stories, as demonstrated masterfully in our September Book Club selection, The Siege of Troy by Theodor Kallifatides. By weaving the retelling of a classic myth with a World War II-era bildungsroman, this stirring novel simultaneously enlivens The Iliad while delivering a potent and poetic demonstration of war’s senselessness. Psychologically probing and structurally unique, The Siege of Troy is a thoroughly modern work that proves why we return again and again to timeless themes—there is always something new to be found there.

The Asymptote Book Club aspires to bring the best in translated fiction every month to readers in the US, the UK, and the EU. You can sign up to receive next month’s selection on our website for as little as USD15 per book; once you’re a member, you can join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

The Siege of Troy by Theodor Kallifatides, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, Other Press, 2019

No matter how many stories we’ve heard about love, war, and growing up, they never fail to reach our hearts in the specificity of our own place and moment. This is the simple, poignant premise of Theodor Kallifatides’s The Siege of Troy, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, which sets an adolescent boy’s coming-of-age story against a selective retelling of The Iliad.

A Greek immigrant to Sweden, Kallifatides grew up during the German occupation of Greece, and his nameless protagonist emerges sweetly and painfully into his early manhood under the same conditions. The war is nearing its end; though both the occupiers and the occupied are exhausted, tensions continue to surge and survival is far from guaranteed. During regular air raids, the protagonist’s teacher recites The Iliad from memory to her class while they all take shelter in a cave. READ MORE…

How Should We Review Translations? Part III

Reviewing poetry in translation means writing about the power of art. It means writing about something the market doesn’t want us to write about.

In this third and final installment, we hear from Johannes Göransson and Katherine Hedeen, both of whom direct our attention to what we should consider when engaging with poetry in translation.  Göransson details the idea of a deformation zone that disorients our conventional understanding of the relationship between the original and the translation. Calling on us to care about poetry in translation precisely because the market does not care about it, Hedeen envisions the practice of reviewing these translations as an act of subversion and as a gesture of solidarity. Be sure to check out parts I and II if you missed them. And if you’re interested in reading even more, at the end of today’s installment, Criticism Editor Ellen Jones has offered a list of other contributions to this ongoing and important conversation on what it means to review translations. 

 

Deformationszon

Viltstängslet har upphört
fladdermusar fittar sig
kring krubbet
Vårt pösmunkfetto slaggar
I sin goda roa,
som stötdämpad
av svallningar
I knubbet

— Aase Berg 

Deformation Zone

The wilderness fence has ceased
flutterbats cunt
around the grub
Our doughnutfatso slops
in peace and quiet,
as if shockmuffled
by ripples
in the plump.

— Translated by Johannes Göransson

 

1.

Anybody who is willing to engage deeply with a foreign text in translation can write a review of such a work. And it’s important that you do. You don’t need specialist knowledge of the foreign culture, nor do you need to be able to read the original. All you need to do is to open yourself up to poetry—even poetry that may come out of traditions different from those you are used to.  READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation: September 2019

Looking for what to read next? Our staff share their latest discoveries in new translations.

It is another month bringing us various gifts in the form of translated literatures, and our editors have selected the finest. Read below to find reviews of a short story collection detailing the various and complex natures of India, a haunting and poignant Swedish novel, unsettling tales from Israel, and a poignantly feminist work from Palestine.

ambai

A Kitchen in the Corner of the House by Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi), translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström, Archipelago Books, 2019

Review by Ben Dreith, Assistant Editor

C.S. Lakshmi, who writes in English and Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai, is a scion of post-revolutionary Indian feminism and women’s studies researcher who was raised and educated in Mumbai, Bangalore, and New Delhi. Of her work, the most recent to appear in English is A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, a mellifluous and courageous work translated by Lakshmi Holström, a dedicated scholar who passed away in 2016. She will be missed, and her efforts, evident in the enduring legacy and themes of A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, may inform the concerns of Indian feminism in the English-speaking world for generations.

The book is a collection of stories, told from multiple voices and perspectives, which centers on the travails and aspirations of women across a broad socio-economic and linguistic spectrum. The voices in A Kitchen in the Corner of the House reflect the varied cultural expectations and norms that simultaneously thrive and jostle for distinction within the Indian nation, which can be too easily regarded as a seamless whole by outside observers. What unites the characters in the stories, though, is a keen sense of subjective solidarity amongst women who are draped in desperation—and hope.

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“I Feel Free When I Write”: Linda Boström Knausgård on Her New Novel, Welcome to America

I am my dark, inner twin when I write.

Linda Boström Knausgård’s second novel, Welcome to America, is set not in the United States, but within the confines of a Swedish apartment swollen with family secrets and contrarian silence. Following the death of her father—a tragedy she is convinced she engineered through prayerBoström Knausgård’s child narrator, Ellen, stops speaking. While the trauma inciting Ellen’s selective mutism is palpable, the young protagonist synchronously radiates power, wielding her silence as the only means of maintaining control in the face of a self-absorbed mother, her increasingly volatile brother, and the specter of impending adulthood. Meticulously translated by Martin Aitkin, Welcome to America is Boström Knausgård’s defiantly pithy portrait of a family disconnected and consumed by grief. On the eve of the novel’s publication in the United States, we asked the Swedish author, poet, and radio documentary producer about writing bravely, the experience of being written into someone else’s narrative, and the unexpected power of silence.

 Sarah Timmer Harvey, August 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Welcome to America is your second novel to be translated into English. Did you collaborate with Aitken on the translation?

Linda Boström Knausgård (LBK): I didn’t work with Martin on the translation. In fact, I didn’t hear from him while he was working on it. Martin is a very good translator, and I think that he’s produced a beautiful translation. I’ve read it twice in English, and I am very happy with it. I believe that if I had started to concentrate too much during his work and asked him all my questions before he was ready, I’d be exhausted. Our languages have a lot of differencessentences do not start, or end, in the same way. I know Norwegian and Danish very well, and when it comes to translating work into these languages, it can be difficult not to intervene too much. When I finally had a book translated into Finnish, it was a relief because I didn’t understand a word. I think it’s best to let go as much you can, but you then must also be happy when you finally read it. If you have a good translator, you should stick with him or her!

STH: When you are writing, do you consider the language in which you are writing? For example, how Swedish might shape and contain the narrative? 

LBK: I write in Swedish and could not write in any other language, never! The language forms the story; it is my frame, and so I cannot abandon it. I love to write in Swedish. I like how it presents itself on the page, almost like a surprise. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

New Guatemalan publications, a feminist conference, as well as awards in translation feature in this week's literary updates!

This week brings notable translations of up-and-coming Guatemalan authors, an insightful conversation between two Nigerian writers, and the announcement of highly-regarded translation prizes in the UK. If you’ve been searching for exciting new writers and translators, look no further!

José García Escobar, Editor-at-Large for Guatemala, reporting from Guatemala

In early December, Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP) put out No Budu Please, a selection of poems by the Guatemalan and Garifuna author Wingston González, translated by the Puerto Rican poet Urayoán Noel. No Budu, which has been favorably reviewed by Columbia Journal, Verse, and PANK, marks the first time Wingston’s work has been published in the United States. Additionally, Wingston’s book place of comfort has been incorporated into artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s performance and installation Heart of the Scarecrow, which will be on exhibit through March 9 at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

Across the pond, independent publishing house Charco Press is bringing another Guatemalan author into the English language. Celebrated short story writer Rodrigo Fuentes published a collection called Trucha panza arriba in Guatemala in 2017. Since then, the book has been reissued in Bolivia by Editorial El Cuervo and in Colombia by Laguna Libros. Trucha was even longlisted for the Premio Hispanoamericano de Cuento Gabriel García Márquez. And as of February 7, thanks to researcher and translator Ellen Jones, Trucha is now available in English as Trout, Belly Up. You can read one of the stories from the collection in our Winter 2019 issue.

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Summer 2017: New Words Usher Forth New Worlds

Come play Spin the Globe with us!

ANATOMY OF AN EDITOR’S NOTE

World literature is the literature of many worlds[1], intersecting on one “endlessly rotating earth[2]” (Chen Li). This summer, come play Spin the globe![3] with the only magazine that could assemble never-before-published[4] writing from 27 countries and 21 languages[5] in one issue. Alongside an interview with Michael Hofmann, fiction by master story-teller Mercè Rodoreda, poetry by Ghassan Zaqtan and Marosa di Giorgio, essays on Bohumil Hrabal and Tove Jansson[6], and reviews of the latest titles, we celebrate the very best the canon has to offer via a showcase of contest winners[7] picked by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu. While new words pave the way for new worlds, every one of these gems, to quote repeat contributor Ko Un[8], also represents “[a] world…in want of the world.[9]

Noemi Schneider’Life as Trauma[10] introduces us to Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of a fabricated Holocaust memoir, and hence a man who has never existed. In Orshina, Hanit Guli’s poignant drama, a promise to the family is revealed to be empty when, all packed up, the father remembers he has no address to provide the movers. And in Mercè Rodoreda’s Aloma, remembrance of childhood loss punctuates a woman’s mundane existence, just as Ah-reum Han’s tribute to Kerascoët’s “dazzling, ruthless worlds” is interwoven with the mourning for a deceased teacher. While Samudra Neelima’s narrator plants “black seeds” in order to grow a “beloved black tree,” Alejandro Albarrán desires to “write the amputation”—both poets sketch writing’s failure, but, through performing failure, succeed.[11]

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Spring 2016: Going Places

You [write] to orchestrate what it is about the world that hurts you.

92,400 words—if an Asymptote issue could be held in your hands, it would be a book with 92,400 words and 368 pages (based on the typical range of 250-300 words a page). And it would be a free book, since, to catalyze the transmission of world literature, we don’t charge for access and hope it always remains that way. That’s 92,400 words that have to be solicited, considered, selected, edited, uploaded, formatted to both our house style and the satisfaction of contributors, and then fact-checked and proofread by four to six pairs of eyes. Out of the 44 articles that these 92,400 words constitute, eight might require extensive footwork for rights, ten commissioned from scratch, and as many as 18 illustrated by a guest artist. Then newly appointed chief executive assistant Theophilus Kwek obtains this figure of 92,400 (for the English text alone) “by copying the entire [Winter 2016] issue into a word document, and rounding off to the nearest 100 for footnotes [he] may have missed.” The occasion for this? We have been invited to submit an application to a grant administered by Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC), and one of the requested data is wordcount. How this comes about after five years of no official contact between Asymptote and NAC goes like this: In February 2016, back in Singapore to visit with family over Chinese New Year, I send out a batch of solicitations. One is addressed to Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who played a major role in facilitating the June 2018 Kim-Trump summit, the costs of which (twelve million USD) the Singaporean government willingly absorbed. On 14 February, 2016, I receive a call at 8 a.m. by someone from Balakrishnan’s office encouraging me to take up the matter with NAC instead. I mutter something about NAC being unsupportive, and put the phone down quite quickly. The next day, someone more senior—an actual spokesperson from the Ministry—calls. Charmed by her diplomacy, I agree to “allow [myself] to be approached.” On February 16, an email entitled “funding for Asymptote,” pops up in my inbox. Negotiation takes a protracted seven months, during the course of which my case is rotated between four different officers, and in the process of which hopes are raised only to be dashed—with even the acting director of NAC’s literary arts sector development admitting to me that they had changed their mind (i.e., that it is not a matter of one officer’s stance being discontinuous with another). The long and short of it is that funding is allotted to Singaporean writers and translators of Singaporean work only; support for literary editors only extends as far as sponsoring workshops or mentorships. This was NAC’s policy in 2011 (and one I was well aware of); if it hadn’t changed, why make contact? She sends me off with a one-time grant to the tune of 8,800 USD, tied to publication of Singaporean content on Asymptote platforms in the fourth quarter of 2016. In April, at the invitation of AmazonCrossing and with partial support from the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors in the UK, I speak at a London Book Fair panel on “Discovering Stories from Asia, Africa, and Turkey”; despite the geographical reach of the subject matter, I am the only person of color represented on the panel. Unlike, say, an all-male panel, this goes unremarked, underscoring a troubling diversity problem in publishing that I’ve tried to counter with my own magazine by appointing section editors from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Here to introduce the Spring 2016 edition—that I launched from the couch of my college friend Vanessa’s apartment in Brixton, London—is Visual editor Eva Heisler:

Revisiting the Spring 2016 issue, I am struck by how far-ranging and innovative the work is—and how moving. Through the inspired efforts of Asymptote’s translators, I am transported across cultures and geopolitical contexts as I gain access to poems, stories, drama, creative nonfiction, and criticism originally written in Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Filipino, Nahuatl, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovenian, and Thai, to name just a few of the languages represented in this issue.

As editor of Asymptote’s visual section, I am interested in featuring artists who explore issues of text, narrative, linguistic identity, translation, or voice. One work that explores language as shifty, always on the move, is Bad Language, a collaboration between translator Laura Marris and video artist Matt Kenyon. The video, which documents Marris’s process of translating a poem by Paol Keineg, presents the poem as a moving entity animated by possibilities, the page rippling with adjustments and substitutions. This “moving translation” is particularly suited to Keineg’s French since the writer, who was raised in Brittany, often integrates Breton vocabulary. As Marris explains, “I wanted to translate in a way that could accommodate shifting linguistic loyalties, rather than delivering one authoritative version.” READ MORE…

Asymptote Podcast: #30Issues30Days Edition

Dig through our archive with Dominick Boyle, who unearths gems from South India, Chile, Sweden and more!

In celebration of Asymptote’s milestone 30th issue, Podcast Editor Dominick Boyle dives into the archives to uncover some of his favorite recordings from the archive. In this episode, he revisits poetry set to music in Tamil and Spanish from Aandaal and Enrique Winter, and snarky telephone conversations with a whole city by way of voice-mail from Jonas Hassen Khemiri. He also spotlights: the touching suicide notes left by Jean Améry, which reveal 3 different sides of a man in his death; experimental Vietnamese poetry by Bùi Chát, which comes to life read by translator Jack J. Huynh; and Owen Good’s translations of Hungarian poet Krisztina Tóth, which Eliot Weinberger awarded first prize in our inaugural Close Approximations contest. Take a walk down memory lane—this time with your headphones on!

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In Conversation: Ghayath Almadhoun

My poems are full of death, but that’s because they are also full of life.

Describing Ghayath Almadhoun’s poetry in Adrenalin is anything but easy. The blurbs on the book call the collection ‘crucial political poetry’, ‘urgent and necessary’, ‘passionate and acerbic’, and ‘our wake-up call’, although we find out that Almadhoun’s own views on his poetry are slightly different. Written in the wake of the Syrian war, the refugee crisis, and a personal loss of his homeland, the poems in Adrenaline are formally experimentally and emotionally explosive. In a voice that is, in equal measure, full of wonder and irreverence for the turn the world has taken, Adrenalin dwells on war, empathy, displacement, suffering, love, and hatred unapologetically. Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham, and released by Action Books last November, this is the poet’s first selection of poems to be published in English.

The collection starts with the poem ‘Massacre’ (which can be read at our Guardian Translation Tuesday showcase), with the unforgettable lines: “Massacre is a dead metaphor that is eating my friends, eating them without salt. They were poets and have become Reporters With Borders; they were already tired and now they’re even more tired.”

Born in Damascus, the Palestinian poet Almadhoun has been living in Stockholm since 2008. The following interview was conducted over email and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sohini Basak (SB): As a point of departure, could you tell us which writers you have been reading these days? And are you working on something new?

Ghayath Almadhoun (GB): I am now re-reading Tarafah ibn al-Abd. He was so young when he died, in the sixth century (around twenty-six years old). He is a great poet and could be described as pre-postmodern as he was ahead of his times. I’m also reading Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal.

About my work, I have begun a new project—my fifth poetry book. I find myself in front of the question that I faced when I started writing more than twenty years ago: will I survive this time? Will I be able to write something new? And, like always, I punch the world in the face and continue writing.

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Winter 2018: In Conversation with Translator Paul Cunningham

"I don’t want my translations to come across as definitive."

Much of our Winter 2018 issue, from the poetry to the microfiction, shows a strongly surrealist bent; writers like Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine and Nina Iskrenko have an almost limitless capacity to juxtapose discordant words that come off like explosive charges. Against this backdrop, Paul Cunningham’s translations of Helena Österlund appear somewhat sparser, though no less jarring. Ôsterlund’s Words and Colors features a pared-down, repetitive voice, a movement through snowy woods, and a terrifying encounter with a sharp-toothed creature. For me, Words and Colors is reminiscent of Beckett’s How It Is, another work where the contours of individual identity seem to dissolve into a blind, frantic momentum through past, present and future.

Paul Cunningham’s work has been on my radar for some time: not only his translations but also his original writing and video art. In his translations, Cunningham tends to avoid domesticating the poems into a “natural-sounding” English, instead directly transferring the Swedish language’s natural use of compound words. Imagine if we spoke of the German Schadenfreude as “damagejoy” or Poltergeist as “crashghost,” and you might have an idea of the strange effects this can produce in English.

I am always interested in the origin stories of my fellow Scandinavian translators: how they became interested in the languages and their general translation philosophy. I was thrilled to be able to ask Paul a few questions about his previous translations of Sara Tuss Efrik, his video art, and his translation of Österlund’s Words and Colors in the Winter 2018 issue.

David Smith (DS): Your former MFA teacher, Johannes Göransson, has written of your translation approach: “Cunningham is not a Swede or a scholar of Swedish culture . . . he only has rudimentary knowledge of Sweden or Swedish, but uses his artistic instincts and dictionaries . . . His work evidences that rather than demanding some kind of scholarly mastery, sometimes translation demands fascination, interest, and a willingness to be vulnerable, to get it done without having legitimized status as Master.” This is beautifully put and intriguing on multiple levels. But I thought I’d start just by asking you to fill in your story a little. What was it that brought you to learn Swedish, specifically? And what was the “fascination and interest” that led you to literary translation?

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Asymptote Podcast: Favorite Readings of 2017

Start out 2018 right by taking a listen to our favorite readings published over the last year.

One of the most unique features of Asymptote is that, with almost every piece published, a reading in the original language is published along with it. So start out 2018 right by taking a listen to our favorite readings published over the last year. Hear work read by Swedish author Ida Börjel, leading Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut, rising French author Maryam Madjidi, and Syrian poet Omar Youssef Souleimane. Podcast Editor Dominick Boyle puts each piece in context, including a special interview with Hamut’s translator, Joshua Freeman.

 

Music used under a Creative Commons License from the Free Music Archive.

Fear Everywhere: European Literature Days, Spitz/Krems Austria, 16–19 November 2017

“We live in societies which do not want a future; we just want to endlessly extend the present.”

A few days ago, just as the busy Christmas shopping season in London got underway, Oxford Circus underground station was evacuated with thousands of people fleeing from one of the city’s busiest spots. Soon it turned out that what triggered the panic weren’t shots fired but rather an altercation between two men on one of the platforms. Fear has now pervaded our everyday lives.

Fear is Everywhere. European Literature Days couldn’t have chosen a more apt theme for the time in which we live. “Fear of those who flee and fear of refugees; anxiety about poverty and collapse; fear of religious fundamentalism and the implosion of values; fear of technology and of technology making humans obsolete; fear of permanent communication and language loss; fear of disorientation as well as of total control—the list could go on endlessly.” This is how the Artistic Director of the European Literature Days, Austrian writer Walter Grond (whose latest book, the historical novel, Drei Lieben/Three Loves, was published earlier this year), defined the headline theme of the gathering of leading European authors, this year held from 16 to 19 November in Spitz on the bank of the Danube in Austria’s wine region.

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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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