In this week’s dispatches, we cover Salvadoran literary news and a special Asymptote event! We begin in London, where members of the Asymptote Book Club came together to chat about our fall book selections—and much more. From there, we delve into updates from El Salvador, including the death of a renowned poet and a women’s literary gathering.
Marina Sofia, Marketing Manager, reporting from the UK
One of the downsides of working for an international literary journal is that our volunteers and readers are scattered all over the world, so in-person gatherings are a rarity. It was therefore all the more special to see members of the Asymptote Book Club in London on November 29 at our first ever meet-up. Designed to be an informal drop-in event to celebrate our first anniversary, it included a quick tour of the current Rights for Women exhibition at the Senate House Library, followed by a discussion over drinks at the recently-opened Waterstones bookshop on Tottenham Court Road. Although we had to compete with a parallel (and noisy) event, our spirits were undampened as we discussed the surprisingly pulpy historical fiction of Ahmet Altan (October’s title) and the acrobatic linguistic challenges of translating Thai writer Prabda Yoon (September’s title). It was a great opportunity to see what readers thought we were getting right (diverse selection of genres, languages and countries; high literary quality) and what they would like to see more of (questions for online discussion; face-to-face events, perhaps including publishers). Thank you to all who ventured out on a windy and rainy evening and contributed to the lively debates!
Ahmet Altan’s writing is sprawling, ambitious, radical—so radical that the author is currently serving a life sentence on charges of inciting the plotters behind Turkey’s 2016 failed coup. In the latest instalment of the Asymptote Book Club interview series, Altan’s co-translators, Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi, reveal that their only contact with the author is through his lawyers. No written materials can be carried into or out of the prison where Altan is serving his sentence, but work continues on the final volume of the monumental Ottoman Quartet.
In conversation with Asymptote’s Garrett Phelps, Freely and Türedi give us an insight into how they came to translate Altan’s work, and why a novel sequence of novels dealing with the events of the early twentieth century has never felt fresher or more contemporary.
Garrett Phelps (GP): Like a Sword Wound is set during a momentous period in Turkish history and details the cycle of chaos which ultimately results in the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. As translators, did you feel the setting added to your burden of responsibilities?
Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi (BF/YT): Both of us are quite familiar with this period, so the setting as such did not present any particular problem. However, we were aware of the echoes of the current political situation in Turkey, and of how little the main political currents seem to have changed in over a hundred years. In practical terms, although Like a Sword Wound was written in modern Turkish rather than Ottoman Turkish, Ahmet Altan made an effort to reflect the language of the period, often choosing outdated words and phrases. In our initial meeting to discuss the translation, he was concerned about how we would approach this. We agreed to take the same approach he did—that is, to prefer older words and phrasing to evoke the mindset of the period while still keeping the language current enough to avoid alienating contemporary readers.
Our October Asymptote Book Club selection is the first novel in a quartet that aims to reveal “the dark and bloody face of history.” Earlier this month, a Turkish court upheld a life sentence for the quartet’s author, Ahmet Altan, on charges of aiding the plotters behind the failed military coup in 2016. He continues to work on the final volume of the quartet from inside his cell. Like a Sword Wound can be read as an autopsy on “the sick man of Europe”, the ailing Ottoman Empire at the turn of the last century, but also as a powerful indictment of despotic regimes across history.
We’re proud to be bringing our subscribers a novel of incredible courage, inspired by a belief that literature is close as we can come to finding “an antidote to the poison of power.”
If you’re already an Asymptote Book Club subscriber, head to our official Facebook group to continue the discussion; if you haven’t joined us yet, Garrett Phelps’ review should give you a brief taste of the novel, and all the information you need in order to subscribe is available on our Book Club site.
We’re back with our regular Friday column featuring weekly dispatches from our Asymptote team, telling you more about events in world literature. Join us on a journey to Guatemala and Chile, before heading to New York City, to find out more about the latest in world literature.
José García Escobar, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Guatemala:
We begin with great news coming from the Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon whose novel Mourning (Duelo in Spanish) got shortlisted for the 2018 Kirkus Prize. Halfon, whom we interviewed for our blog last June, is sitting beside other fantastic writers such as Ling Ma, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Lauren Groff. Mourning, published by Bellevue Literary Press, was translated into English by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn. The winner will be announced on Thursday, October 25, 2018.
Additionally, Halfon was just declared the recipient of the 2018 Miguel Angel Asturias National Prize in Literature, the most important literary prize in Guatemala.
On a much sadder note, recently, one of Guatemala’s most influential and emblematic poets, Julio Fausto Aguilera has passed away at the age of 88. He won the Miguel Angel Asturias prize, in 2002; he was part of the arts collective Saker-Ti, and one of the founding members of Nuevo Signo—arguably one of the most important literary groups in Central America. He wrote close to twenty books of poetry, and his family confirmed that he left two manuscripts that they hope will get published soon. Francisco Morales Santos, his friend en Nuevo Signo’s editor, called Julio Fausto a worthy and unbreakable man. Many other writers such as Vania Vargas and the most recent winner of the Miguel Angel Asturias Prize, Francisco Alejandro Méndez, also mourned the death of Aguilera.
To read more about Aguilera and Nuevo Signo, click here.
In May, we welcome summer with long reading lists, ambitious writing projects, and travel plans. But as the temperatures rise, books get abandoned, and drafts get lost. Slowly we leave ourselves to mid-day slumbers, timeless symphonies of cicadas, and a yearning for the early evening breeze. Summer ennui establishes itself around this time, and makes us wonder, when is this heat and everything about it going to end? Our blog editors Sarah Booker, Chloe Lim, and Ilker Hepkaner are joined by our guest contributor William Booker as they introduce their favorite writing about summer’s idleness and slowness.
Manuel Puig (1932-1990) was an Argentine writer best known for his novel Beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Colchie) in which he showcases his ability to develop a complex narrative through conversation and his passion for film. Dwindling tropical evenings—sticky, never-ending, and buzzing with life and memories—are the setting in Puig’s final novel, Cae la noche tropica (Tropical Night Falling, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine), for the conversations held between two sisters in the twilight of their lives. Indeed, the novel begins with a recognition of the melancholic nature of this particular moment: “There’s such a sad feeling at this time of day, I wonder why?”
After Flavia Teoc took us to ancient Constantionople last week, I’m thrilled to present two microfictions by Turkish writer Muzzafer Kale. Deceptive in their outward simplicity, these perfectly poised stories hinge on the unsaid and work beautifully in English thanks to translator Ralph Hubbell’s precise language.
—Lee Yew Leong, Translation Tuesdays editor
I wasn’t from that mountain village.
What brought me there was work, and by work I mean looking at carpets and kilims. There were plenty of people from the village that I knew.
So we were sitting in the July heat, trying to cool ourselves off in the shade of a walnut tree—me, Ibrahim and Lazy-Eyed Salih.
That Salih, he was a cheerful one. He had a different way of looking at things. Leaping from one topic to the next, he talked of this, that and the other thing while we all laughed it up. These two friends of mine were good shots too. They were wagering who could hit a half-lira piece with a thirty-two caliber from forty meters away…
And then she appeared, with her donkeys, coming off the mountainside path. She’d loaded the animals piecemeal with some sagging goods, which swung all over the place.
My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump, Two Lines Press
Reviewed by Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor
Think: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper meets Han Kang’s The Vegetarian meets Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge; then for good measure, throw in a bit of Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing. Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In defies categorization. And yet, the novel’s crux lies in the unspoken categorization of its main characters—the schoolteacher couple, Nadia and Ange—who the townspeople have inexplicably (and violently) turned against. Not long after the reader arrives in this novel, Ange sustains a critical injury and Nadia must find a way to live in this new, hostile world. Told entirely from Nadia’s limited perspective, this forced intimacy between reader and paranoid narrator leaves us feeling curious, suffocated, and unsettled.
French literary star, NDiaye, has been my writer crush ever since Ladivine, which was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. She published her first novel when she was just eighteen years old and has since received the Prix Femina and the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Written in NDiaye’s distinctive, phantasmagorical style, My Heart Hemmed In is an unrelenting look inward in a world where the psychological manifests itself externally. Whether it’s the food Nadia devours or Ange’s mysterious, gaping wound, we are confronted with things that are consumed and the things they are consumed by; the things left for dead, and the things they birth. NDiaye’s details are so seductive and unforgiving, lavish and grotesque, it leaves you reeling.
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.
Finnegans Wake, the final book by Irish writer James Joyce, is a bit like the alien language in the movie Arrival. As the film’s spaceships tower mysteriously over the Earth, so Joyce’s book casts its strange shadow over world literature. Most literary minded people are aware of the text’s presence, but no one actually knows how to read the book, save for a select few who claim it is the greatest thing ever written.
In order to read Finnegans Wake, you must become a translator. You must translate the text out of it’s idiosyncratic, multilingual semi-nonsensical language, and into… music? For example, see Rebecca Hanssens-Reed’s interview with Mariana Lanari, about the process of translating the Wake into music.
For the last three years I’ve pursued the music that is Finnegans Wake. I organize an ongoing project called Waywords and Meansigns, setting the book to music. This week we release our latest audio, which is 18 hours of music created by over 100 musicians, artists and readers from 15 countries. We give away all the audio for free at our website (and you can even record your own passage, so get involved!)
Listen to a clip of the project here!
It might sound strange, but translating the book into music is easier than, say, translating it into another foreign language. But that hasn’t deterred Fuat Sevimay, who translated the book into Turkish, nor has it stopped Hervé Michel, who calls his French rendering a “traduction” rather than a “translation.”