Xenia Emelyanova’s luminous “A golden cloud goes to fetch / the evening star” is dedicated to Russian punk singer Yanka Dyagileva who drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1991. Dyagileva’s final recording, “Pridyot voda” (The Water is Coming), includes the refrain “The water is coming / I will sleep.”
In this poem, as in her other work, Emelyanova explores what it means to be a woman, mother, and artist alienated from her surroundings and, at the same time, inextricably bound to them. Emelyanova’s poems resonate with an inner spirituality tied to nature, motherhood, and a certain faith in eternity and rebirth that shines through even the deepest suffering. For the translator, these poems present particular problems of register because their simplicity, sincerity, and spirituality are qualities difficult to render in contemporary English, where so much of our poetic discourse is highly self-conscious and skeptical.
In this week’s dispatches, we travel to Hong Kong to remember wuxia writer, Jin Yong, who passed away late in October. More recently, Hong Kong played host to an international literary festival that was unfortunately plagued by controversy. Elsewhere, National Novel Writing Month kicks off in the UK, even as two large publishing houses begin outreach initiatives, and another lands itself in a Twitter controversy.
Charlie Ng, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Hong Kong
In recent weeks, Hong Kong’s literary scene has been clouded by loss and anxiety. On October 30th, the prominent Hong Kong martial arts fiction writer Jin Yong passed away. His oeuvre of fifteen fictional works spawned numerous film and TV adaptations, and even popular computer games widely played by young and old alike in the Sinophone world. The Jin Yong Gallery at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum has set up a condolence point for the public to commemorate the wuxia fiction master from November 13th to 30th.
At the same time, this year’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival took place from November 2nd to 11th. The festival experienced an unexpected setback when the main venue provider, the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, abruptly decided to cancel the venues for two talks involving Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian, namely “Hong Kong through the Lens of Literature” and “Ma Jian: China Dream”. The English translation of Ma’s most recent work, China Dream, has just been published by Penguin Random House, while the original Chinese version is forthcoming from a Taiwanese publisher. The cancellation provoked a fierce reaction from local literary and cultural circles. PEN Hong Kong issued a statement to express the organisation’s concern over Tai Kwun’s self-censorship and its threat to Hong Kong’s freedom of speech. Tai Kwun finally withdrew the cancellation and restored the events.
One of the festival’s panels, “Hong Kong through the Lens of Literature” (moderated by Asymptote’s Editor-At-Large for Hong Kong, Charlie Ng), featured a vibrant conversation between Hong Kong writers Ng Mei-kwan, Hon Lai-chu, and Ma Jian on the current state of Hong Kong literature and its possible future developments. The three writers affirmed the uniqueness of Hong Kong literature as a varied body of creative writing that expresses Hong Kong’s identity and experience and is shaped by special historical and linguistic contexts. In the nearly-cancelled “Ma Jian: China Dream” panel, Ma also engaged in a dialogue with moderator Maura Cunningham about his satirical dystopian novel China Dream, which presents a scathing portrait of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s grand vision of national greatness.
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.
What should a budding translator read? What kinds of critical lenses should he or she apply to the process of translation? Assistant Editor Andreea Scridon shares some insights she gathered from the poetry translation workshop she attended this summer in Norwich, UK.
Every summer, the University of East Anglia in Norwich (home of the first Creative Writing program in the United Kingdom) holds an International Literary Translation & Creative Writing Summer School. This past July, the program was held in partnership with the British Centre for Literary Translation, and I attended the multilingual poetry translation workshop—led by internationally translated poet and writer Fiona Sampson—as an emerging translator of Romanian and Spanish into English. Below I recount musings on the most significant things I learned, which I hope will be of use to those potentially looking to break into literary translation.
A sound starting point in this discussion is the question of considering what to read as a translator. It should go without saying that a literary translator must necessarily be a well-read person in order to be able to make the best possible choices in terms of context, likely more so than anybody else. Having established this as a point of consensus, we discussed, both officially in workshops and amongst ourselves, what exactly a translator should be reading today. In my opinion, the library of a(n) (aspiring) literary translator should include contemporary literature, non-contemporary literature (both classics and obscure-but-lovely older works), and, of course, translations, preferably in as many languages as possible. For instance, examples of each subsection in my current library include Lauren Groff’s Florida and Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart (which are English-language works but useful examples of the spirit of today’s literary scene), Romain Gary’s The Kites and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, and Anna Akhmatova’s various poetry collections in translation by Yevgeny Bonver, Richard McKane, and Alexander Cigale, to name only a few. I asked Ian Gwin, an emerging translator of Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian who also participated in the Summer School, for suggestions. He recommends Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, noting that Gessen is himself a bilingual and that the theme of the two cultures meeting within the novel may be useful for a translator to consider. Regarding multiple translations, he recommends Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, pinning the more linguistically faithful translation of Eithne Wilkins and Ernest Kaiser against the newer one produced by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. He also suggests the high-quality recent translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz by Michael Hoffman, citing it as a long work that shows an attempt to render a specific style in a second language.
Welcome to the seventh and final installment of A World with a Thousand Doors—a multi-part collaboration with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival to showcase previously untranslated contemporary Indonesian writing. This week, we feature three poems by award-winning Indonesian writer Cyntha Hariadi, translated by Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, Norman Erikson Pasaribu.
We suggest reading installments one, two, three, four, five, and six of the series if you haven’t already. We also recommend the final reflection by Festival attendees Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Tiffany Tsao, Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Australia.
they used to paw the sky, squeeze the clouds
they fought the wild crows, bargained with the gatekeeper of heaven
these hands—they took down the moon, put it here to light this bedroom
they tickled the sun, so it shone longer, brighter
now, they cave in every time I raise them up
they squeal in pain at the mere task of tying up my hair
sewn-up to this chest, they can only wait
for the saviour to stop its never-ending sob READ MORE…
A giant in world poetry and experimental text, much of Inger Christensen’s influence can be seen cascading to many generations of writers, in several languages. Her book-length poem, Det (1969) shook the foundations of Danish poetry, and in its translations, continues to startle and affect readers profoundly. Her essays have been translated into English and collected into a volume for the first time. To mark this literary event, poet and former Asymptote team member Sohini Basak spoke via email to Susanna Nied, who has translated into English Christensen’s poetic oeuvre as well as the forthcoming book of essays The Condition of Secrecy (New Directions).
SOHINI BASAK: For those of us bound by the English-language, it is because of you that we’ve come to know of Inger Christensen’s poetry. And as you’re the translator of her complete poetic oeuvre, it’s very interesting that you started with her first book (Light), and then the sequence almost coincides with the order in which the original collections were published … although not entirely. How did you decide your working order?
SUSANNA NIED: I actually didn’t do anything like choosing a working order. When I started on Light, in the 1970s, I didn’t know Inger had written anything besides Light and Grass. I didn’t even know who Inger was, and I certainly didn’t know that I was going to become a translator, much less her translator. I was just a university student browsing the library stacks for something Danish to read for pleasure, and I happened upon this little bibliography of contemporary Danish poets. When I got to “C” I found “Christensen, Inger”.
The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers, translated from the Spanish by Kit Maude, Feminist Press, 2018.
What could freedom from the pressures and expectations of society mean for a woman in Uruguay in the 1950s, and what might the impact of this freedom be on others? These questions are explored by Uruguayan author, scholar, and feminist Armonía Somers in The Naked Woman. Written in 1950, this is the first of Somers’ books to be translated into English. The novel tells an energetic and enthralling story through which Somers articulates a pressing need in society for people to find ways to escape prescribed roles, express desire, and renew one’s sense of self. The narrative focuses on the experience of the female protagonist, Rebeca Linke, and sheds light on the repressive context of 1950s Uruguay when, according to scholar Maria Olivera-Williams, “middle-class social mores proved particularly suffocating to women.” Somers explores the effects of these constraints on women and creates a subversive protagonist who creatively and successfully challenges these expectations by allowing herself to release her natural instincts and understand new forms of intimacy. Whilst the female experience is the focus of the book, Somers’ carefully-crafted novel reveals the effects that living in a society in which women are repressed has on both women and men. She achieves this by depicting male violence against women and the harmful effects of a lack of freedom of choice.
The Naked Woman begins with Rebeca Linke’s revelation of the failed hopes that she had pinned on her thirtieth birthday. This sense of disillusionment is the driving force behind her decision to abandon her everyday existence and move to the countryside: she is desperate to break the daily monotony of her life, to embrace freedom and to live in the present. She takes a train to a small cottage in a remote part of the Uruguayan countryside where she casts off her one remaining item of clothing, her coat, having abandoned everything else. As a result, her break with the past and her commitment to the here and now becomes urgent: “[s]he was beholden to the present, like water held in the palm of a hand.” When she ventures out into the night, she is immersed in a natural environment that she has never before experienced so intimately. This then extends to her own body: she discovers its uniqueness by touching it and she remarks upon changes that she had not previously noted. It is Somers’ focus on the present, the protagonist’s physical experience of each moment, and the centrality of the female body that make the book so compelling, exciting and enticing for readers today.
Ubud Writers and Readers Festival may have concluded last month, but our series, A World with A Thousand Doors hasn’t! In our penultimate installment of the series, we are proud to present a short story by Dewi Kharisma Michellia.
“Dad, have you found the keys?”
I often hear grateful people say that each day in life has its own blessing.
“Son, put in the luggage in the trunk. Why do I have to tell you this? Where is your brother?”
If those people really admire the mystery of time, then it’s only fair if they extend the same admiration to space.
“If we leave now, will we still be able to see the sunrise, Dad?”
Each place has its own value, which can only be felt by those attached to that place.
Following our recently published review of Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things, Barbara Halla takes on the Vernon Subutex Trilogy. In this essay, Despentes’ most recent work is seen to interrogate female anger, everyday life, and the power of community in new, thought-provoking ways.
In a 2017 profile of Virginie Despentes, Le Monde eschewed Despentes’ name, preferring to refer to her simply as Le Phénomène, The Phenomenon, throughout the piece. This epithet is no exaggeration: Despentes has held the French literary scene in her grip since the mid-nineties when she published her first book, Baise-moi (translated into English as Rape me, by Bruce Benderson), and then directed its 2001 movie adaptation, featuring two porn actresses in the lead. Manu and Nadine, the main characters and both victims of violence of some kind, embark upon a road trip where they lure, sexually exploit and kill off men. It wasn’t just the violent acts that made Baise-moi feel radical. It was the lustful pleasure the protagonists took in this violence that stunned audiences, leading to a temporary ban of the film in France. As Lauren Elkin points out in The Paris Review, when the movie came out, there was nothing else to compare it to, so critics fell back on Thelma & Louise, another feminist road film about two women on the run. But Despentes’ nihilistic and sadistic story has little in common with Thelma and Louise.
In this edition of weekly dispatches, we remember Argentine author Hebe Uhart, celebrate the continuation of Guatemala’s national book fair, and look to China for news of cultural exchange and literary prizes.
Sarah Moses, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Argentina:
Argentine author Hebe Uhart passed away on October 11 at the age of eighty-one. Uhart was the author of numerous collections of travel essays, stories, and novellas, and in recent years dedicated herself exclusively to the former, visiting towns in Argentina as well as countries in Latin America and further abroad to document what she saw. Her most recent work was a collection of non-fiction pieces about animals, which included her own sketches.
Uhart was born in the town of Moreno and moved to the capital to study philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires, where she later taught. For many years, she also led writing workshops out of her home. She was recognized as one of the greats among both readers and colleagues, and authors such as Mariana Enríquez and Inés Acevedo have written about her work. In 2017, she was awarded the prestigious Premio Iberoamericano de Narrativa Manuel Rojas.