Place: China

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Literary awards, festivals, and commemorative exhibitions reign in this edition of weekly dispatches.

It’s been a busy October in world literature! Join us to find out more about literary happenings from around the world, in Taiwan, China, the United Kingdom, and Albania.

Vivian Chih, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Taiwan:

The “Double Tenth Day” on the 10th of October has been commemorated as the “birthday” of the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan. On this day in 2018, the Li Mei-shu Memorial Gallery in Sanxia District, New Taipei City, held an opening ceremony for a series of exhibitions featuring the works by two important Taiwanese cultural figures,  Li Mei-shu (李梅樹, 1902-1983) and Zhong Lihe (鍾理和, 1915-1960), respectively a painter and a novelist. Both were influential to the development of Taiwan’s art and literary scenes, and having lived through the martial law period, Li and Zhong grounded their paintings and novels in depicting the homelands that had nourished them. Both are considered to be among a group of Taiwanese nativist artists, who composed works to express their concerns and affections about the local people and places in Taiwan. The exhibition is open to the public until the 18th of November, featuring many precious manuscripts by Zhong, paintings by Li, as well as artworks of the other two younger Taiwanese artists.

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Spring 2018: The Dogged Chase of the Actual After the Ideal

Confronting the most immediate limits on human experience while resisting the arbitrary, narrow scope imposed by the commercial book market.

On 19 February 2018, responding to a pitch from Alessandro Raveggi—editor of Italy’s first bilingual literary magazine, The Florentine Literary Review—I arrange for Newsletter Editor Maxx Hillery to run in our Fortnightly Airmail the first of Raveggi’s two-part conversation with John Freeman on the occasion of Freeman’s Italian debut. “I do not feel American literary journals are doing a very good job of curating the best of our present moment,” the former editor of Granta says. “I think an American or American-based literary journal faces two ethical challenges right now, both of them related to aesthetics: 1) to try to redefine the cultural world as not being American-centric, and 2) to reveal America for what it is and has always been, but is just more apparently so now. Attacking these challenges means catching up with the best writers from around the world.” This brings me back thirteen years to the moment I stood up and posed a question to a panel of New York editors: “I am a Singaporean writing about Singapore; would my work be of interest to American publishers?” The immediate response: “Have your characters come to the US.” I end up submitting a story about Chinese diaspora in New York to a literary journal; the rejection letter that comes back reads: “Too much very culturally-specific backstory…that western readers would find compelling.” I remember a third encounter, this time with a literary agent who has read my work before our one-on-one meeting; she articulates very memorably why my fiction won’t be a hit: “A writer expresses his intelligence through plot.” But I like T. S. Eliot’s quote better: “Plot is the bone you throw the dog while you go in and rob the house.” Sometimes, in founding Asymptote, I wonder whether I was in fact revolting against all these things that all these well-meaning people have tried to tell me. But if the magazine isn’t a hit, at least I’ll have one fan in John Freeman: he very coincidentally writes me just as I’m composing this preface to say “how important what it is you do there has been for me and for a lot of us who itch to read away from the mundane.” Here to introduce our Spring 2018 issue and the Korean Fiction Feature I edited is Interviews Editor Henry Knight.

The Spring 2018 issue is one of Asymptote’s most asymptotic. Its pages are bound together by the familiar themes of futility and compromise and populated by people running up against the invisible but all too real limits imposed on them by the mysterious contours of the self, the precarious obligations of kinship, and the arbitrary structures of power undergirding society. Orphans, émigrés, postwar castaways, and second-generation immigrants all struggle to make sense of asymptotes of personal relationship (how close can we get to one another?), teleology (to fulfilling our desires?), epistemology (to knowing ourselves?), language (to legibility?), and narrative (to completion?). The issue, if it is about anything, is about how people situate themselves in the lacunae that shrink and expand as one approaches only for the other to recede. READ MORE…

Fall 2017: The Last Space For Resistance

Asymptote’s most precious gift to readers: each issue guarantees a rich dastarkhan that fully embraces and celebrates diversity.

Asymptote is more than a journal—it’s a one-stop portal for world literature news. September 2017 marks a milestone for two essential columns: the second anniversary of our monthly What’s New in Translation? reports, compiling in-depth staff reviews of the latest world literature publications; and the first anniversary of our weekly Around the World with Asymptote roundups, gathering literary dispatches from every corner of the globe (not aggregates of news hyperlinks culled from elsewhere, mind you, but actual reporting by staff on the ground). Though we do reviews better than most, I’m especially proud of the latter column, which has provided first-hand literary coverage from more than 75 countries by now thanks to Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan, Senior Executive Assistant Daljinder Johal, and of course our valiant blog editors who upload, edit, and proofread every single dispatch. Inconveniently (because I have been invited to speak at five panels in four cities in the last quarter of 2017, and also because the then-erratic social media team will soon need to be replaced entirely), the lump in my neck turns out to be thyroid cancer, my doctor summons me back to his office to tell me in August 2017. A few days before the first of my three hospitalizations that quarter, I share the news with my team. Just as I’m about to be wheeled into surgery, one concerned colleague emails me to say that the same influential person who demanded I pay translators two years ago is making new noise about Asymptote on social media; some PR intervention might be called for. Well, if the work my team and I’ve done doesn’t speak for itself by now, I think to myself sadly, if no one comes to Asymptote’s defence, then let it be. Though my life expectancy—one year on—remains the same as before the diagnosis, the mortality scare from that time has made me confront what to do with Asymptote—as it stands right now, we are still a long way from sustainability; no one would willingly step into my role. Will readers rally to keep us alive, if push comes to shove? Here to introduce the Fall 2017 issue and the French New Voices Feature that I edited is French Social Media Manager Filip Noubel.

I joined Asymptote in the fall of 2017. This old dream finally came true as I was sitting in Tashkent, struggling with flaky Uzbek Internet and reflecting on how my nomadic life across cultures and languages was mirrored in the history of that city where identity has always been both plural and multilingual, and where literature has often turned into the last space for resistance.

As I looked at the Fall 2017 issue of Asymptote, I felt as if I had just been invited to a literary dastarkhan. In Central Asia, when guests arrive and are invited into the interior of a traditional house to sit on the floor, a large tablecloth is thrown on the ground and rapidly filled with a mix of delicacies and treats from various parts of the region. Fruits (fresh and dry), cooked meats, drinks (hot and cold), vegetables, sweets, bread and rice are all displayed to please the eye. Despite being very different, they all contribute to the same feast. Just like any issue of Asymptote in fact: a collection of diverse texts from various corners of the world all united by an underlying theme, and carefully curated to satisfy the most curious minds. As I read this issue, I sensed it had been especially designed to please my literary taste buds.

Marina Tsvetaeva opened the gates of translation for me when I was studying translation theory in Prague, and in one of her Four Poems I could once again hear the rebellious voice that had seduced me back then: READ MORE…

Fall 2016: A Fresh Opportunity to Talk

Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision.

Halldór Laxness, Stefan Zweig, László Krasznahorkai—just when you think you are announcing just these three international literary superstars in the Fall 2016 lineup, it turns out you have four. On October 3, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti controversially unmasks Elena Ferrante as Anita Raja. But, even before Gatti’s unwelcome revelation, I had already picked out Anita Raja’s contribution as a highlight and intended to include her name in all our issue-related promotional materials. Fearing that we would be accused of riding the controversy, I drop a note to Criticism Editor Ellen Jones: “What do you make of all this Anita Raja = Elena Ferrante business? Is it opportunistic of us to feature her name in our publicity materials (which we already sent for printing) and on the cover (which can still be changed)?” The issue’s been on her mind as well. “We want to avoid the same kinds of accusations NYRB are getting in this morning’s papers,” Ellen says, “but I don’t think it would do too much harm to have her as one among many names in our promotion materials… I don’t think we need to bury a good essay on purpose, in short.” But what about in the promotional materials themselves? How much do we say about Anita Raja? Communications Manager Matthew Phipps decides in the end to take a risk and state matter-of-factly that Elena Ferrante has been unmasked as Anita Raja (which anyone who has been following literary news already knows). Too frazzled to make a call on the copy after staying up for 36 hours to put together the video trailer (it’s been a while since I made these for Asymptote, and I am rusty), I sign off on the newsletter. That’s how, in spite of a massive publicity blitz that involved printing and distributing 4,000 postcards; print and digital ads in the Times Literary Supplement that set us back by 900 GBP; 97 personalized emails to media outlets, 90 tweets, 20 Facebook posts, and seven blog posts about the Fall 2016 issue (all documented in then Marketing Manager Ryan Celley’s publicity report here), dear reader, we still came to be booed. Here to introduce our Fall 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Garrett Phelps. 

What a work of literature ‘means’ is always tough to get a feel for, let alone talk about. Of course a famous theorist or two have claimed this is an insurmountable difficulty. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. Not being too slick with the theoretical stuff, I’ll just say that literature is meaningful to the extent it’s ambiguous and open-ended. And if any idea unifies Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue, it’s the way interpretive problems result from this state-of-affairs.

For Anita Raja, ignorance is the reader’s point of departure and return. In “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance” she argues that “the translator must be above all a good reader, capable of diving into the intricacies of the text, taking it apart, discerning all its nuance. The translator is, in short, a reader required to puzzle over the complexity of the original text, line after line, and to piece it together in the new language—a fundamentally impossible task.” Good translators are, essentially, readers par excellence. Anyone who’s dabbled in the field probably won’t find this idea controversial. Sooner or later, though, even a top-notch translator hits the same wall as the average reader, who’s more okay letting intricacies, nuances and puzzle-pieces remain gut-feelings. Demanding much more is futile even if doing so is worthwhile. This is especially true of translation, where success is often the sum of accumulated failures. READ MORE…

Fall 2014: Interlinked Dimensions of Spacetime

The Fall 2014 issue of Asymptote demonstrates an exceptional thematic cohesion across genre, language, location, and time.

Around this time, equipped with a new legal advisor (the extremely efficient Win Bassett), a small group is formally set up within our team to look into the feasibility of Asymptote becoming a non-profit organization in the USA. This makes most sense for tax-deductibility, since our largest readership, outnumbering the second largest demographic by a ratio of three to one, is American. It would take one and a half years for me to reach a definitive decision, but I decide in the end not to take the plunge. To become a non-profit, a board would first have to be formed, and all major decisions about the journal’s direction would have to be run by this board (which would mostly comprise Americans). Had I worked so hard for the magazine’s survival only to surrender its reins to others? Aren’t there already more than enough American mediators of otherness? I’m also wary because of what one board member of another online magazine has told me in confidence: being bound to a board has held that magazine back from reaching its full potential. We do, however, thanks to Win Bassett, Erin Stephens-North, Lynette Lee, and Eric M. B. Becker, succeed in acquiring fiscal sponsorship with Fractured Atlas on August 26, 2014. This is a breakthrough: For the first time, we are tax-deductible for American donors, removing one more barrier standing in the way of support. Here to introduce the Fall 2014 issue is Assistant Editor Erik Noonan.

Published in sync with the release of the inaugural episode of the Asymptote Podcast—whose producer Emma Jacobs suggests that the mythical stories we tell ourselves are really signs of “our inability to map our own minds”—the Fall 2014 issue of Asymptote sets the reader afloat through a tesseract located among the interlinked dimensions of spacetime.

In Shi Tiesheng’s “The Year of Being Twenty-One,” that mapless place masquerades in public life as a monotheistic deity: “I did see God, one day—but he went by a different name, and that name was the mind,” Shi writes. “In the hazy patches of science; in the chaos of destiny; you can only turn to your own mind. Everything we believe in—no matter what that might be—comes from the promptings and the guidance of our minds.”    READ MORE…

Winter 2014: A Rookie Among Giants

Living now under the shadow of Trump, the contents of the issue seem even more desperately near to us.

It takes a while for the blog to hit its stride. Editing to a quarterly schedule is different than editing to a daily one, we quickly discover. It does not help that both ‘founding’ blog editors jump ship within three months (Nick’s elegiac last post goes up on 30 October; Zack’s 31 December). Fortunately, the rest rally and get us through. (One bright spot from that time is Patty Nash’s breezy roundupsa breath of fresh air.) Five weeks after it inaugurates, Aditi Machado’s post on the blog gets picked up by Poetry’s Harriet Blog, joining mentions in BBC Culture and The Guardian. The Guardian article gives a nod to Asymptote’s first-ever London event in January 2014, also the first of many multi-continental events in honor of our 3rd anniversary. These go on to include panels and readings in New York, Zagreb, Boston, Philadelphia, Shanghai, Berlin, and Sydney over the next three months. A point of pride: determined to organize an event in Asia, I somehow manage to pull off a reading without a single team member on the ground, thanks to NYU Shanghai, contributors Eleanor Goodman and Eun Joo Kim, and a friend who happens to pass through. In New York, under real threat of snowpocalypse, Asymptote supporters Eliot Weinberger, Robyn Creswell, Idra Novey, Jeffrey Yang, and Daniella Gitlin all show up to our anniversary event at Housing Works emceed by then Assistant Managing Editor, Eric M. B. Becker, to read alongside Cory Tamler, first prize-winner of our inaugural Close Approximations translation contest (as written up in WWB Daily’s dispatch here). Here to get you excited for the Winter 2014 issue (featuring, among others, a translator’s note that I got J. M. Coetzee to write) is Alexander Dickow, runner-up to that very contest and Asymptote Communications Manager since April 2017. But, first, check out Winter 2014’s issue trailer—probably our best ever—by then Video Producer Sarah Chan.

I knew of Asymptote since its inception in 2011, but it was only in January 2014 that I was named runner-up in the first edition of Asymptote’s Close Approximations translation contest. That contest has had a lasting impact on my work: I later won a Pen/Heim Translation Fund Grant to finish translating Sylvie Kandé’s Neverending Quest for the Other Shore, which was first showcased in Asymptote and is now under consideration by a major publisher. Evoking the Winter 2014 issue of Asymptote, then, cannot not be a little about my own relationship to Asymptote, even though I was an eager young rookie among the issue’s giants— J. M. Coetzee, Jana Beňová, and Michael Hofmann, to name a few. READ MORE…

Summer 2013: What a Tentative, Unruly Enterprise Language Is

How miraculous it is when a translator is able to express someone else’s thoughts—it is already so difficult to express your own.

We have organized four IndieGoGo campaigns in all our eight years now, and each of the last three times, it’s sucked so much life force from us that we have, on one occasion, even had to skip an issue (there is no Spring 2015 edition) to recover from it. For some reason, however, it does not take long at all after our first campaign to hit our stride again. A sampling of what we were up to immediately after April 2013, apart from sending ‘thank you’s and perks to 231 supporters: We (1) launched our first-ever translation contest; (2) organized a massive translation project that saw translations into eighteen additional languages of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s brilliant send-up of racial profiling; (3) revamped our website to include a map (thus allowing readers to access our content by geographical region); (4) nominated ourselves for a TED Prize (albeit in vain) and, last but not certainly not least; (5) held our largest recruitment drive ever. The rapid expansion takes a toll: my inbox is invaded daily by check-ins. Fortunately, around this time, we migrate to Trello for issue production work. To give you a sense of how much back and forths are required for just one article (say, Can Xue’s interview conducted by Dylan Suher and Joan Hua, as recounted by Dylan below): Trello records 84 comments by 12 team members spanning the period of May 28 to July 15. Here is Robyn Creswell of The Paris Review on the Summer 2013 issue: “It’s hard to read in a heat wave, but the July issue of Asymptote is so absorbing I hardly notice my sweat drops hitting the keyboard. Even more impressive than the diversity of things translated—book reviews in Urdu, fiction in Bengali, poetry in Faroese—is their quality.

The Summer 2013 issue of Asymptote is a fine illustration of the principle that translation is just a special subset of the general problem of communication: the problem of trying to relate your experience to someone else, of trying to put something “in other words,” of trying to put something into words in the first place. This principle comes across most clearly in Naoki Higashida’s attempts to relate his experience as an autistic person, and in the visual section’s pieces on asemic writing and Ghada Amer’s use of Arabic script. All three remind us what a tentative, unruly enterprise language is. The shapes shackled into service by the Phoenicians millennia ago long to return to the wilds of visuality; when tasked with expressing the plentitude of the autistic mind, simple words seem as crude a tool as a chert axe.

The problem of referentiality epitomized by these pieces runs throughout this entire issue. The way Banaphool’s “Nawab Sahib” (translated by Arunava Sinha) seems to exist just outside the bounds of reality, its repetitive structure, and its surprising twists all suggest a fable (or a joke), but the moral to which it points remains sublimely hazy. E.C. Belli, translating Pierre Peuchmaurd, repeats the word “glimmer” again and again in a mantra of irreducible images: “The glimmers of lakes, of iron, of girls”; “The glimmers of otters inside their prey.” The insistence of the repetition pounds significance into a non-entity of a word. READ MORE…

Fall 2012: A Whirlwind Blend of Poetry, Fiction, Loud-mouthed Drama, and Phantasmagorical Art

The pieces from the issue play off of each other’s fears and discoveries so well that it is almost uncanny.

Michael Henry Heim, the translator who introduced to English readers Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being—and my personal favorite, The Joke—dies on 29 September 2012. Not only do we mourn his passing, we regret not being able to publish the interview Heim agreed to months before. Michael Stein of Literalab, who has been researching interview questions for Asymptote when news breaks of Heim’s death, writes a tribute instead, which we publish on Tumblr (this being before the arrival of our blog). On the other hand, Yiyun Li—whom I have been courting since the beginning of Asymptote—finally agrees to grace the pages of our eighth issue (listen to a snippet of her conversation with Clare Wigfall here). Haven’t read Li? Start with “Love in the Marketplace” from A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Sometimes, in my more indulgent moments as editor, I think of that story and channel the question that the narrator asks of her mother, who prides herself on the care she takes to make the very best hard boiled eggs that she has been selling for forty years: Who even notices?

The Fall 2012 issue was the first issue of Asymptote that I encountered when I decided to reconnect with literature after a long hiatus. And I’ll be perfectly candid: as a skeptic who has never been afraid of ghosts, I was somewhat bemused by the Halloween-tinged theme of fear and the supernatural. But when I delved a little deeper I found no Disneyfication of the old pagan ritual but rather an exploration of fear that encompassed both the everyday and the extraordinary. In a whirlwind blend of poetry, fiction, loud-mouthed drama, and even phantasmagorical art, readers encounter the ghosts of of memory, AIDS, old age, Alzheimer’s, lost cultural identity, and so much more.

The pieces from this issue play off of each other’s fears and discoveries so well that it is almost uncanny. Afzal Syed Ahmed’s poem, which begins “In your language every line begins from an opposite end,” responds to Aamer Hussein’s fear of returning to a ‘home’ that no longer feels like home—and not simply because both are translated from Urdu. As Hussein explains, “I’m losing my mother tongue. I’m a vagabond, I carry my home on my back. Now I shall turn this foreign tongue into a whip and lash them with their words.” When discussing in her interview why she doesn’t feel ready to be translated into Chinese, Yiyun Li demonstrates a similar fear of losing one’s language, of being misinterpreted, of being pushed out or forgotten. READ MORE…

Summer 2012: A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To Editing a Journal of World Literature

I had no interest in replacing a perfectly serviceable translation with a bad one.

“World literature” often gets a lot of attention in the months leading up to each year’s Nobel Prize announcement, but what do we really mean by it? Is it simply all the literatures of the world? Is it a status that applies to texts that circulate in a certain way? As the editor-in-chief of an international journal, I see “world literature” as a shifting aggregate of the literatures that have been translated into any given language. It’s clear to me, writing from Taipei, that an English “world literature” is vastly different from a Chinese one. Upon his passing in June 2012, for example, I discovered that Ray Bradbury had never been translated into Chinese — an omission made more perverse by the fact that translations make up an impressive 50% of all books published in Taiwan, compared to the woeful 3% in the United States. And if Taiwanese readers had been denied the genius of so well-loved an author, one can only imagine what American readers are missing out on.

This asymmetry was what motivated me in May 2012 to initiate a translation project that would introduce to Anglophone readers the newest crop of Chinese writers—a “20 Under 40,” if you will, of the Chinese-speaking world. Such a feature, modeled after Granta’s “Best British Novelists,” consisting of 20 medium-length essays introducing 20 of the most promising authors not only from China — but also from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia — had just been published that month by the leading Taiwanese journal Unitas and I thought Asymptote would be uniquely positioned to showcase it in English. Leveraging a connection, I made a few enquiries; the response from Unitas was positive. Tapping volunteer translators from the And Other Stories Chinese Reading Group and, crucially, proceeding with Unitas’ assurance that we would have free rein in editing the texts, my team and I decided to commit to turning the translation project around in five months: the first ten essays would appear in our Summer 2012 issue, followed by the other ten in the Fall 2012 issue. READ MORE…

Fall 2011: The Pleasure of Literary Engagement

Featuring Lydia Davis’ first translation from the Dutch, an excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Dubravka Ugrešić on Croatian novelists

Miraculously, word spreads. Asymptote is selected as The Center for Fiction’s international journal of the month for September 2011. Publishers Weekly features us in a writeup. We are a Paris Review staff pick: apparently, poetry editor Robyn Creswell has been “poking around in Asymptote” and has especially enjoyed the (very) short story by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky, Adonis’s “Ambiguity,” translated by Elliott Colla, and an essay about riddles by the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, translated by Shushan Avagyan(!)” Literary heavyweights Jane Hirshfield and John Kinsella, whom I don’t know personally, write to offer blurbs in support. I discover that Parul Sehgal, an award-winning literary critic I admire, has a Singaporean connection. Had she been based in Singapore, would her talent in literary criticism have been recognized? Would it even have flourished in the first place? This inspires me to move to Taiwan for the lower cost of living. Here to introduce the first issue that I edited out of Taipei (and that also features my translations of Jing Xianghai and Belinda Chang) is contributing editor Sim Yee Chiang. 

As I re-read the interview I conducted with Motoyuki Shibata for the Fall 2011 issue of Asymptote, I am catapulted at once to the terror of that late summer afternoon at the University of Tokyo. Why on earth had I insisted that we speak in Japanese? I was armed with notes, even a few jaunty segues, but I knew my adopted tongue could abandon me at any moment, just as it had abandoned me six months before at a disastrous interview for prospective Ph.D. students.

What prevented disaster that day was hearing Professor Shibata talk about the “pleasure” of literary engagement and translation. Translators tend to fall prey to all kinds of pesky anxieties: of influence, of equivalence, of legitimacy etc. Even now, years after that conversation, I still find the principles of pleasure and humour not only useful defences against said anxieties, but also indispensable qualities of a successful translation. READ MORE…

Announcing the Summer 2018 Issue of Asymptote

Introducing our thirtieth issue, which gathers never-before-published work from 31 countries!

We interrupt our regular programming to announce the launch of Asymptote’s Summer 2018 issue!

Step into our bountiful Summer edition to “look for [yourself] in places [you] don’t recognize” (Antonin Artaud). Hailing from thirty-one countries and speaking twenty-nine languages, this season’s rich pickings blend the familiar with the foreign: Sarah Manguso and Jennifer Croft (co-winner, with Olga Tokarczuk, of this year’s Man Booker International Prize) join us for our thirtieth issue alongside Anita Raja, Duo Duo, and Intizar Husain, and our first work from the Igbo in the return of our Multilingual Writing Feature.

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What’s New in Translation: July 2018

Looking for your next read? You're in the right place.

For many, summertime offers that rare window of endless, hot days that seem to rule out any sort of physical activity but encourage hours of reading. While these might not be easy beach reads in the traditional sense of online listicles, we are here with a few recommendations of our favorite translations coming out this month! These particular books, from China, France, and Argentina, each explore questions of masculinity, death, and creativity in unexpected ways while also challenging conventional narrative structures. As always, check out the Asymptote Book Club for a specially curated new title each month. 

Ma_Boles_Second_Life-front_large

Ma Bo’le’s Second Life by Xiao Hong, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, Open Letter (2018)

Reviewed by Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor

The “second life” in the title of this scintillatingly satirical novel alludes to how we live on in fictions as well as to how fictions sometimes take on a life of their own. Partially published in 1941 simply as Ma Bo’le, Xiao Hong’s late work was in the process of being expanded, but the throat infection and botched operation that cut her life short at age thirty left further planned additions unfinished. Fortunately for English-language readers, though, it’s now been capably, inventively, and gracefully completed by Howard Goldblatt in an exemplary instance of a translation demanding—as do all renderings into another language—that we attend to its twinned dimensions of creativity and craft. Previously the translator of two Xiao Hong novels as well as a quasi-autobiographical work, Goldblatt was undoubtedly the perfect person to carry out what he fittingly calls “our collaboration,” which is the result of “four decades in the wonderful company—figuratively, intellectually, literarily, and emotionally—of Xiao Hong.”

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Nicky Harman

The novel is savagely realistic in its description of relationships between squabbling siblings and its forensic teasing-out of a family’s secrets.

Continuing our Asymptote Book Club interview series, Assistant Editor Kevin Wang talks to Nicky Harman, translator of Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. In addition to co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors), Nicky Harman is one of the foremost contemporary Chinese-to-English translators and a passionate advocate for Chinese literature in English. Her previous work includes translations of novels by Jia Pingwa and Xu Xiaobin.

Read on to find out why Yan Ge asked for the swearing to be made more “colourful” in the English version of her work, which sections of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan were almost untranslatable, and why relying on Google Images can sometimes be a dangerous approach to translating…

Kevin Wang (KW): In your acknowledgements, you mention that Yan Ge “went above and beyond the call of duty in examining and discussing the English text.” How would you describe the differences between working with an author closely involved in the process and translating a nonliving author? 

Nicky Harman (NH): Well, I do like my authors to be alive! I almost always want to be able to raise a few queries with them. For instance, with Jia Pingwa, I needed to know more about a rudimentary cooker that the migrant workers used in 高兴 (Happy Dreams). He kindly did a sketch for me, and it turned out to be made from an old oil drum. That’s the kind of crucial information that you couldn’t get if the author was dead: in this case, the internet was no help.

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Announcing Our May Book Club Selection: The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge

It is delightfully irreverent and dead-on in its descriptions of a dysfunctional modern family, resembling an uproarious dinner party.

The Asymptote Book Club will be celebrating our six-month anniversary with a first (virtual) trip to China. Back in 2014, Words Without Borders described The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (我们家 in the original) as China’s “best untranslated book.”

Four years on, Yan Ge’s “delightfully irreverent” novel is finally appearing in English, thanks to Balestier Press, and Asymptote Book Club members will be among the first to sample a “masterful translation” by Nicky Harman.

We’ll be hosting a full discussion of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan on our dedicated Book Club page; to get you started, here’s Asymptote Assistant Editor Kevin Wang’s take on the novel:

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