Place: China

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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Translation Tuesday: Three Poems by Tahir Hamut

She walks along. She stops for a moment. / Like a small burning tree.

Tahir Hamut grew up in Kashgar, an ancient city in the southwest corner of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The city of Kashgar—its fierce local pride, its layout, its customs, and its slang—has been a persistent theme in his three decades of poetic work. The three poems included here, though, were written in the three other cities of Tahir Hamut’s life, each of them a capital city: Beijing, where he completed college and worked for several years as a young man; Ürümchi, Xinjiang’s capital, where he worked as a film director for nearly two decades; and Washington, DC, where he moved with his family last year amidst deteriorating conditions in Xinjiang.

While the young poet of “Her” (1993) speaks of aging and darkness, his tone is relaxed and relatively light. The poem’s unadorned style and syntax are typical of Tahir’s work from his Beijing period. More than two decades later, “Body” (2016, Ürümchi) and “What Is It” (2017, Washington) are more complex on both a stylistic and an emotional level; more troubled, too, with an insistent sense of motion. If “Her” is a moment in a young man’s private life, the two later poems are the collision of private life with forces beyond an individual’s power to control. In “Body” and “What Is It,” Kashgar and the world of Tahir’s youth are distant in time and space; but that deeply felt distance shapes the world of these poems.

—Joshua L. Freeman

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Every Choice is a Renunciation: Some Remarks on Translating Ba Jin’s Jia

How is it possible to draw clear boundaries between revisions motivated by stylistic concern, rather than by ideological repositioning?

There is an old Italian adage about translation that goes like this: traduttore traditore—“the translator’s a traitor.” The two words make for an easy pun whose catchiness baits the translation pundit to subtler allusions: because tradurre and tradire share similar etymologies that are built around the prefix trans (across) and the Latin verbs ducere (to lead) and dare (to deliver), the translator as “one who brings something across” is indeed, to some figurative extent, a traitor. The adage cautions the reader against the invisible power that the translator exerts over the text, though it does so by relying on an image—that of translation as a sort of mechanical delivery—which, as most translators know well, simply does not hold up in practice.[1] Still, the image of translation as metaphorical betrayal retains a grain of truth, in that the practice of translation relies upon an interplay of allegiances—to the text, the language, the author, and the reader—that are necessarily fluid and require ongoing negotiation.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2018

Our Section Editors pick their favorite pieces from the Spring 2018 issue!

The brand new Spring 2018 issue of Asymptote Journal is almost one week old and we are still enjoying this diverse set of writing. Today, our section editors share highlights from their respective sections. 

The phrase “Once upon an animal” has been circulating in me for ​months, ever since I first read Brent Armendinger’s translations of the Argentine poet Néstor Perlongher. The familiar fairy tale opening​, ​”Once upon a . . .” asks ​one ​to think of a moment, distant, in time, when such and such happened—happened miraculously or cruelly and from which ​one might take (dis)comfort or knowledge of some, perhaps universal, human frailty or courage. But Perlongher/Armendinger replace “time” with “animal”—a body. Against time, in its very absence, we’re asked to look at this body, which is in anguish, now. Perhaps now too is in anguish.

I can’t read Spanish, but the translation suggests ​a poetry of ​complex syntactical structures and lexical shock:

Once upon an animal fugitive and fossil, but its felonies
betrayed the same sense of petals
in whose gums it stank, tangled, the anguish
impaled, like a young invader

​A feat of translation, no doubt. ​Armendinger writes that “this intensely embodied and unapologetically queer language” is what drew him to Perlongher, and now we too are drawn in.

Perlongher was a founder of the Frente de Liberación Homosexual Argentino, agitated against the military dictatorship, and, as an anthropologist, wrote about sex workers, and gay and transgender subcultures. All this—writing, work, and play—w​as perhaps​ yet another​ way of saying: “Be still, death:”​; “in the steam of that / eruption: ruptured play, rose / the lamé.”

—Aditi Machado, Poetry Editor

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The Man Booker International 2018 Longlist: At the Boundaries of Fiction

"Non-European works included in the longlist come highly recommended by readers and critics alike."

The 2018 Oscars may be over, but the awards season for the literary world has barely begun, with the Man Booker International Prize receiving the most international attention. In the world of translated fiction, the Man Booker International holds a prestige similar to the Oscars, which explains the pomp and excitement surrounding the announcement of this year’s longlist, made public March 12. The longlist includes thirteen books from ten countries in eight languages, from Argentina to Taiwan.

The MBI used to be a career-prize akin to the Nobel, awarded to a non-British author for his or her entire body of work every two years. Since its merger with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize its format has changed. Now the Prize seeks to honor the author and translator of the best book (“in the opinion of the judges”) translated into English and published in the UK for the eligible period. For 2018, all eligible submission were novels or short story collections published between May 1, 2017 and April 30, 2018. Much like its sister prize (known simply as the Man Booker Prize), the winner of the MBI tends to garner much attention and sees a boom in book sales. Its history accounts for its prestige, but just as importantly, the MBI is one of the few prizes out there that splits the monetary value of its prize between the writer and translator.

Part of the MBI’s unofficial mission is to raise the profile of translated fiction and translators in the English-speaking world and provide a fair snapshot of world literature. What does this year’s longlist tell us about the MBI’s ability to achieve that goal? Progress has been made from past years, especially with regard to gender equality: six of the thirteen nominated authors and seven of the fifteen translators are women. Unfortunately, issues arise when taking into account the linguistic and regional diversity of the prize not only this year, but with previous lists as well. For 2018, only four of the thirteen books come from non-European authors, with no titles from North and Central America or Africa. This is an issue that plagued the IFFP before it merged with the MBI and marks even the Nobel Prize for literature, as detailed by Sam Carter in his essay “The Nobel’s Faulty Compass.”

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

Check out what the team has been up to thus far in 2018!

Poetry Editor Aditi Machado has created a teaching guide for her recent book of poetry, Some Beheadings (Nightboat Books, 2017). She was also interviewed by Chicago Review of Books about the translatability of poetry.

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow released a short monograph in French on Max Jacob called Jacob et le cinéma (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Jean-Michel Place, 2017).

Guest Artist Liaison Berny Tan’s first solo exhibition, ‘Thought Lines’, opened last month. She also currently has work displayed in an exhibition called ‘Journeys with “The Waste Land”’ at the Turner Contemporary in Margate, UK.

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Announcing the Winter 2018 Issue of Asymptote

Celebrate our 7th anniversary with this new issue, gathering never-before-published work from 30 countries!

We interrupt our regular programming to announce the launch of Asymptote‘s Winter 2018 issue! Here’s a tour of some of the outstanding new work from 30 different countries, which we’ve gathered under the theme of “A Different Light”:

In “Aeschylus, the Lost,” Albania’s Ismail Kadare imagines a “murky light” filtering through oiled window paper in the ancient workroom of the father of Greek tragedy. A conversation with acclaimed translator Daniel Mendelsohn reveals the “Homeric funneling” behind his latest memoir. Polish author Marta Zelwan headlines our Microfiction Special Feature, where meaning gleams through the veil of allegory. Light glows ever brighter in poet Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s “syntactically frenetic” “Arachnid Sun”; and in Erika Kobayashi’s fiction, nuclear devastation blazes from Hiroshima to Fukushima.

The light around us is sometimes blinding, sometimes dim, “like a dream glimpsed through a glass that’s too thick,” as Argentine writer Roberto Arlt puts it, channeling Paul to the Corinthians in The Manufacturer of Ghosts. Something dreamlike indeed shines in César Moro’s Equestrian Turtle, where “the dawn emerges from your lips,” and, as if in echo, Mexican writer Hubert Matiúwàa prophecies for his people’s children “a house made of dawn.” With Matiúwàa’s Mè’phàà and our first works from Amharic and Montenegrin, we’ve now published translations from exactly 100 languages!

We hope you enjoy reading this milestone issue as much as everyone at Asymptote enjoyed putting it together. If you want to see us carry on for years to come, consider becoming a masthead member or a sustaining member today. Spread the word far and wide!

*****

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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.

Unfinished Business

It’s basically a test of endurance—how long can I go without completing it?

Happy New Year! To ring in 2018, we’re showcasing staff members’ New Year’s resolutions. Caitlin O’Neil, Chris Power, Claire Jacobson, and Theophilus Kwek have already submitted theirs to our special New Year edition newsletter (subscribe here if you’re not already on our mailing list). Today, South Africa Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reckons with the unfinished books on her shelf, resolving to read them before the year is out.

There they stand, with bookmarks at various points of incompletion, like paper tongues sticking out in gentle but persistent mockery: the books on the shelf that I have bought but never read or, to be precise, never finished reading.

It is at least a universal trait, this type of unfinished business, judging by the many part-read books in secondhand stores, marked with a receipt from a now-closed chain of stores, or a faded family photograph, a bubblegum wrapper, or a dog-eared page. Once, midway through a secondhand Elmore Leonard, I even found an airplane ticket—it was from 1982 and marked “non-smoking”.

Why don’t we finish books in which we’ve invested money and time? Why stop halfway like that non-smoking Leonard dabbler? Or on page 120 of 388, like I did with Nobel Prize-winning author Mo Yan‘s Frog? Well, in this case, I packed Frog, a present from Christmas 2014, into a box and only recently rediscovered it, along with several other half-read novels. Is this really an excuse, though? What about the many very visible reads-in-progress on my shelf? I decided to get them out, stack them up, and take their measure. READ MORE…

My 2017: Poupeh Missaghi

We, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work.

Today, we hear from Editor-at-Large for Iran, Poupeh Missaghi, who played an instrumental role in assembling our Spring 2017 issue’s Banned Countries’ Literature Showcase, even translating one of the pieces herself. Not unexpectedly, she reminds us of the need to be politically engaged, whether as readers, writers, or translators.  

I want to focus on a few timely, essential titles that remind us all that politics infiltrates every layer of our existence.

I started my year reading Finks, a book by Guernica cofounder Joel Whitney about “How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers.” The book reveals the ugly side of the literary world during the Cold War, by delving into the blurred lines between literature, journalism, and “the needs of the state; between aesthetics” and “political requirements” of the times. In the present political climate, I found it an important reminder that literature cannot truly separate itself from politics and money; and that we, as writers and translators, cannot afford the luxury of separating ourselves from the sociopolitical contexts of our work and need to strive to continuously raise awareness—both our own and others’—about such contexts.

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In Conversation: Boey Kim Cheng on his new novel, Gull Between Heaven and Earth

You could say the entire novel is a work of translation...mediating between languages and cultures, memory and imagination...past and present."

Boey Kim Cheng’s reputation as a critically acclaimed writer rests on his work as a poet and essayist. He has authored five poetry collections—Somewhere-Bound (1989); Another Place (1992); Days of No Name (1996); After the Fire (2006); and Clear Brightness (2012)the first two of which won Singapore National Book Development Council awards, and the last of which was selected by The Straits Times as one of the best books of 2012. His collection of essays Between Stations (2009) was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Prize in nonfiction.

This past October saw the publication of his first foray into novel writing. Set during a turbulent period in Tang-Dynasty-era China, Gull Between Heaven and Earth (Epigram Books, 2017) is a fictionalized biographical account of Du Fu, one of China’s most esteemed classical Chinese poets. The end-result of a ten-year-long, meticulously researched labor of love (the early fruits of which appeared in Asymptote’s inaugural issue), Gull represents the first extensive literary treatment of Du Fu’s life, fictional or otherwise, in any language.

In addition to venturing into the territory of prose fiction to complete the project, the Singaporean-born poet also undertook new translations of Du Fu’s poetry, which appear scattered throughout the novel, gem-like and epiphanic. In this interview with Asymptote Australia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao, Boey recounts what compelled him to see this book to completion, as well as the challenges and joys of translating not only Du Fu’s poems, but his character and life.

Tiffany Tsao: On the one hand, your novel Gull Between Heaven and Earth represents a shift for you. Until now, you’ve been a poet and essayist. On the other hand, there’s considerable continuity between your previous works and this one: Gull is about a poet and his poetic calling; it contains poetry as well as themes of travel and nostalgia, which feature prominently in your past work. What prompted you to switch forms for this project? How have you found the experience of writing fiction in prose compared to writing poetry and nonfiction in prose?

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What’s New in Translation: December 2017

Looking for new books? Look no further!

2017 was a fantastic year for books, but there’s still so much more we want to share before we enter the New Year! This month, our team of editors review two new books from China and Japan—each of them special in their own way. Dive in! 

lianke

The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas, Vintage (UK)

Reviewed by Dylan Suher, Contributing Editor

Released years after the publication of the original, translations benefit from historical hindsight. Although the two novellas contained within The Years, Months, Days (Grove Atlantic, December 2017) are the latest of Yan Lianke’s works to be translated into English, they were originally published in 1997 (The Years, Months, Days) and 2001 (Marrow, originally titled Balou Mountain Songs 耙耧天歌), just before the string of novels upon which Yan’s reputation now rests: Hard Like Water (2001), Lenin’s Kisses (2004), Dream of Ding Village (2005) and Four Books (2011). Read in retrospect, these novellas represent a critical point in the evolution of Yan’s aesthetic. In both, we can see Yan learning how to best use his preferred technique of primordial allegory, painted with a broad Fauvist brush. Carlos Rojas tends to smooth out and harmonize Yan’s expressive phrasing, but the credit (or blame) for the rough symbolist feel of a metaphor like time that “rushes past their interlocked gazes like a herd of horses” should all go to Yan.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2017

Our editors choose their favourites from this issue.

Asymptote’s new Fall issue is replete with spectacular writing. See what our section editors have to say about the pieces closest to their hearts: 

As writer-readers, we’ve all been there before. Who of us hasn’t been faced with that writer whose words have made us stay up late into the night; or start the book over as soon as we’re done; or after finally savoring that last word, weep—for all the words already written and that would never to be yours. The feeling is unmistakeable, physical. In her essay, “Animal in Outline,” Mireia Vidal-Conte describes this gut feeling after finishing El porxo de les mirades (The Porch of the Gazes) by Miquel de Palol: “What are we doing? I thought. What are we writing? What have we read, what have we failed to read, before sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper? What does and doesn’t deserve readers?” There are the books that make you never want to stop writing, and the books that never make you want to write another word (in the best way possible, of course). Vidal-Conte reminds writers again that none of us is without context—for better or for worse. Her essay is smart, playful, honest, and a must-read from this issue.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

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