Place: France

What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

See how the unstoppable Asymptote crew is finishing up 2018!

As the year draws to a close, Asymptote staff members have been as busy as ever. Here is a selection of what our colleagues have been up to, from reviews written, to panels spoken on, and new blogs too.

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow contributed a review, “Mystery and Surprise: Two Chinese Poets,” and translations of Swiss poet and photographer Gustave Roud, to the 88th edition of Plume.

Senior Editor (Chinese) Chenxin Jiang discussed the political power of literary translation as part of a conference at the Centre d’études de la traduction at Paris VII.

Romania & Moldova Editor-at-Large Chris Tanasescu aka MARGENTO jointly (along with Raluca Tanasescu) contributed a book chapter entitled “Translator networks of networks in digital space: The case of Asymptote Journal” to the hot-off-the-press Complexity Thinking in Translation Studies from Routledge (eds. Kobus Marais & Reine Meylaerts).

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest in world literature can be found here in Asymptote's weekly roundup!

This week, our weekly dispatches take you to Poland, France, Mexico and Guatemala for the latest in literary prizes, and literary projects, featuring social media, and indigenous poets in translation.

Julia Sherwood, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Poland:

Hot on the heels of a US book tour for her International Man Booker Prize-winning novel Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft), the indefatigable Olga Tokarczuk appeared at a series of events to mark the UK publication of her newest book. The “existential thriller” Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is fast garnering rave reviews, and London audiences had an opportunity for a Q&A with the author combined with a screening of Spoor, the book’s film adaptation. There was also a lively conversation between Olga Tokarczuk and writer and chair of the International Man Booker judges, Lisa Appignanesi, at the Southbank Centre. Meanwhile, Flights has been shortlisted for the National Book Award for translation as well as for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, the shortlist of which includes another book by a Polish author, Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with a Stained Glass Window (also translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones).

Anyone who may have been afraid to tackle the classics of Polish literature will no longer have any excuse now that Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz has appeared in a new and highly readable English version. “I undertook this translation out of the conviction that Pan Tadeusz is fundamentally an accessible poem for twenty-first-century non-Polish readers. It’s witty, lyrical, ironic, nostalgic, in ways that seem to me quite transparent and universal,” writes multi-award-winning translator Bill Johnston in his introduction. At a book launch at the Polish Hearth Club in London on October 8, Johnston compared notes with poet and translator George Szirtes, who introduced his translation of the Hungarian classic The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách.

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Don’t Look Back in Anger: Virginie Despentes and Modern France

Despentes shows that evil is all too human.

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.

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Documenting Translators: The Political Backstage of Translation

These films make protagonists out of the ultimate supporting actors in history, the translators.

Translators are often represented as mediators, actors in the communication of a text who are subordinate to the author. However, translators have often played crucial roles in politically pivotal moments. Denise Kripper tells us more about these translators, and the films in which their stories feature.

Coming soon this year is Les Traducteurs, directed by Regis Roinsard, a high-profile French thriller inspired by the true story behind the translation of Dan Brown’s novel Inferno. During this process, several international translators were shut away in a bunker in an effort to avoid piracy and illegal editions while aiming to launch the book simultaneously in different languages, all over the world. In real life, the book ended up generating $250 million, but in the action-packed film, “when the first ten pages of the top-secret manuscript appear online, the dream job becomes a nightmare – the thief is one of them and the publisher is ready to do whatever it takes to unmask him – or her” (IMDb).

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2018

Don’t know where to start with our Fall 2018 issue? Here are the stand-out pieces, according to our section editors.

The brand new Fall 2018 issue of Asymptote was released last week and we are still enjoying its diverse offerings from 31 countries, including a Special Feature on Catalan fiction. After the blog editors posted their highlights two days ago, the quarterly magazine’s section editors share their favorites from this season’s haul: 

What good is French today? After years of patient apprenticeship, and years of mastery, perhaps writing in French was only a means of escape, or a way of doing battle. These are the questions that Abdellah Taïa battles with, in ‘To Love and to Kill: Why Do I Write In French?’ Beautifully translated by Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg, Taïa’s essay attacks the French language, with great vigor and style, and—of course—in French. In a succinct essay, Taïa adroitly sets out the class politics of speaking French in Morocco, and the satisfactions (and oblivions) of conquering a language and a place, and all the complicated forms of hatred (and self-hatred) that come with it.

—Joshua Craze, Nonfiction editor

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2018

To give you a taste of the Fall 2018 issue, the blog editors share their favorite pieces from Russian, Catalan, and Vietnamese.

Today, we share our favorite pieces from the Fall 2018 issue, released just four days ago, highlighting the diversity of cultures, languages, and literary styles represented. Chloe Lim, writing from Singapore, is joined today by two new blog editors as of last week: Jonathan Egid and Nina Perrotta, writing from the UK and Brazil respectively. Happy reading! 

From the visceral, violent power of José Revueltas’ The Hole to the lyricism of Osama Alomar’s “Nuclear Bomb” and the schizoid voices of George Prevedourakis’ Kleftiko, our Fall 2018 edition plays host to a typically broad variety of styles, forms, and languages. A piece that particularly caught my eye was “Epilogue,” a quiet, sombre short story by Irina Odoevtsova about two Russian émigrées in Nice, their separation and their separate fates.

The story follows the unhappy existence of Tatiana and Sergei, initially as poor migrants surrounded by the Anglo-American holidaying elite of the Riviera, through Sergei’s uncertain departure and Tatiana’s newfound wealth to a tragic conclusion, with much of the story being told through short, terse conversations between Tatiana and Sergei, Tatiana and her new lover and (more frequently) Tatiana and herself. The restrained, even sparse dialogue and plain prose nevertheless creates touching, vivid and tragic characters in strikingly limited space, conveying to us the tragic story of a woman struggling to understand her dreams and desires, and the tragic consequences that come from her acting upon those confused and conflicting desires.

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What’s New in Translation: October 2018

Join us to find out more about titles fresh off the press in the world of translation.

Cities can be energizing or inspiring, sites of sensuality or spirituality. Two such cities take center stage in this edition of What’s New in Translation, where our team members introduce you to new and exciting publications.

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Sarab by Raja Alem, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price (Hoopoe Books)

Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor

Not only does Sarab, the forthcoming novel by Saudi author Raja Alem, open a new chapter in the fictional treatment of the 1979 siege of the Great Mosque—following Badriah al-Bishr’s Love Stories on al-Asha Street, Yousef al-Mohaimeed’s Where Pigeons Don’t Fly and Alem’s own The Dove’s Necklace (winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction)—it also marks a precarious moment in the development of the global novel.  The book first appeared in April in German, and it’s set to be published in English in October by Hoopoe, an imprint of Cairo University Press. The work is intriguing, translated from a text that the novelist does not regard as finished. Since it deals with “a dark chapter in the history of this most holy city” of Mecca—as the Paris resident, Raja, says of her hometown, in a recent interview with Publisher’s Weekly—“I am very sensitive to the words, and up until now I cannot find the right words to capture this story, this wound,” she continues.  “I feel I need to rewrite this book in some new Arabic, after taking a distance.”  Thanks to translator Leri Price, the Anglophone public who cannot read Arabic can nevertheless now imagine that new Arabic for themselves, across a different, and otherwise uncrossable, distance.

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Teaching and Learning Narrative Identity

"Though there is no substitute for language immersion in pursuit of fluency, you don’t need to leave home...all you need is a book"

What does it take to truly communicate? In this essay, Claire Jacobson takes us on a journey from language classrooms to the souqs of Morocco, exploring the narrative frameworks that create culture. Read on to discover the differences between learning a language, and the narrative identities that language use is built on.

Humans are inveterate storytellers. We narrativize our memories, use allegory and metaphor to communicate complex ideas, and search for meaning in suffering by placing it in the narrative arc of our lives. “When someone asks you who you are,” writes Richard Kearney, “you tell your story. That is, you recount your present condition in the light of past memories and future anticipations. You interpret where you are now in terms of where you have come from and where you are going to.” Or, as Paul Ricoeur says, “Selfhood is a cloth woven of stories told.”

But it’s not only individuals, Kearney writes. “Communities come to know themselves in the stories they tell about themselves.” When families gather, we always tell stories, sometimes new ones but mostly the old ones over and over—these stories are part of what makes us family. No Christmas celebration in my home is complete without reading about shepherds and wise men and the sociopolitical implications of the term “messiah” in first-century Palestine. These stories are part of what marks us as people of faith and also total nerds. A few weeks ago, my boss told me about the day we went from one bookmobile in town to two, traveling around to neighborhoods without access to the public library—this is one of the many stories that place me firmly in Iowa City, the only city I’ve ever known where you can find inter-bookmobile competition drama.

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A Book of 50 Square Meters: Thomas Clerc’s Interior In Review

This book will not sit comfortably on any genre shelf.

Interior by Thomas Clerc, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

“The doorbell rings. I go. Peephole. Nobody. I grab my keys. I open the door. The 3rd-floor hallway. Empty. A glance.” Interior is an elaborate, three-hundred-page description of the experimental writer Thomas Clerc’s Paris apartment, a modest 50 square meters on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin. The reader begins at the doorstep and is taken on a room-by-room tour of all of Clerc’s furniture and possessions, guided by a narrator—Thomas—as he leaves no nook or cranny unexplained.

Published in French in 2013 and translated into English by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Interior is not Clerc’s first meticulous endeavor. In a previous book (Paris, musée du XXIe siècle, le dixième arrondissement; or Paris, Museum of the 21st Century, the Tenth Arrondissement), the writer walked along all the streets in his neighborhood and documented everything he saw over the course of three years, the same amount of time it took to construct this literary blueprint of his apartment.

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Summer 2015: The Wonders of Travelling To and From Different Languages

Let’s hope, then, that languages can heal—let’s make them a force of reconciliation.

A meme recently caught my eye: “If you do what you love, you’ll never have to work a single day in your life. you won’t have any work-life balance and you’ll take things personally.” This is true. What I might add is in order to keep doing what little you love, you have to do a lot of things you don’t want to do. Leading a virtual volunteer team and upholding the quality of a magazine across so many different platforms (including social media) aren’t things that go naturally together. Whether or not you feel like it, you have to step in whenever work pledged by someone else falls through or is submitted in an unsatisfactory state. Over the years, editing the magazine has taken a toll. With the Winter 2015 issue and a gruelling IndieGoGo campaign out of the way, it’s time to recover some joie de vivre. Since the Vietnamese Feature we planned for April 2015 is in woeful shape anyway, I decide to cancel the Spring 2015 issue. A football widow is someone who must cope with the temporary death of her relationship during football games. My long-suffering magazine widower of a partner and I book a month-long Airbnb in Paris (my first time stepping on European soil in ten years), where we work on a book-length translation project together in between visits to gardens and museums. While in Paris, news arrives that Asymptote has been shortlisted for the London Book Fair award for International Literary Translation Initiative. I buy Eurostar tickets and make arrangements for Asymptote’s first-ever team gathering in London, documented here. April 15 comes, and on the day we might have launched the Spring 2015 issue, I walk up a stage instead to receive an award on behalf of the entire magazine. Although we competed against the Dutch Foundation for Literature (which, unlike Asymptote, has institutional backing) and China’s Paper Republic (which predates Asymptote), the selection committee declares their decision “unanimous,” calling our magazine “the place where translators want to publish their own and their authors’ work.” My own euphoric team members aside (some at the ceremony, most not), I’m also congratulated by the reporter at Lianhe ZaobaoSingapore’s main Chinese broadsheetwho ran a full-page story on me in March and thus made my Chinese-speaking parents proud (being avid readers of this broadsheet but not of English literature, let alone Asymptote, this is possibly a bigger deal to them than any London Book Fair award—and so for the next six months, they don’t nag at me to look for ‘proper work’). Otherwise, attention from Singaporean media is close to non-existent. On the other hand, news of our win is joyously received by our international readers on social media. How different the magazine’s outlook from exactly four months ago! Here to introduce the first issue after our London Book Fair win is Assistant Managing Editor Lou Sarabadzic.

I have a real passion for multilingualism that can be explained from two different perspectives. First, the half-full one: as a poet writing in French and English (and sometimes incorporating both within the same piece) I love hearing about any multilingual writing experience, or any writer using an adopted language. The half-empty (a lot more than half, actually…) perspective would instead focus on the fact that as an author writing in only two languages, there are thousands of languages I can’t read, understand, or even name. French and English: so far, that’s all I’ve got. And while I need writing in both these languages to explore things I couldn’t explore in just one of them, I am acutely aware that these are two dominant, Western European languages. In my case, multilingualism doesn’t equal diversity. It’s more about personal choices, education in an Erasmus era, and privileged immigration.

Yet from both perspectives I reach the same conclusion: I love multilingualism because it has so much to teach me. It’s also what I immediately liked in Asymptote. In the Summer 2015 issue, the journal explicitly embraces and celebrates multilingualism by making it the subject of a Special Feature, edited by Ellen Jones. (And it will do so again in 2016 and 2018.) This commitment takes diversity and inclusion to a whole new level. I was already extremely impressed by the international line-up of writers, artists, and translators featured in Asymptote. However, this specific—and recurring—focus on multilingualism encapsulates what the journal is all about: not only providing translations from one language into another, but ‘facilitat[ing] encounters between languages’. In other words: making languages inseparable, fostering new connections, exploring history, and suggesting a future. In his editor’s note, Lee Yew Leong writes that this issue “contains work from more than thirty countries and from four new languages, bringing [Asymptote’s] tally to seventy-two(!)” Now, that’s something you don’t see in just any journal… Along with multilingualism, contributing to a platform for a truly worldwide literature is something that was crucial in my decision to apply to work at Asymptote: a single language doesn’t mean a single country, as colonisation and history sadly show us. 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…

Announcing Our August Book Club Selection: Revenge of the Translator by Brice Matthieussent

A novel in which a translator escapes from the confines of the translator’s note to enter and interact with the text he is translating.

At first glance, the plot of our August Asymptote Book Club selection is simple enough: we’re following the footnotes of an imaginary novel called Translator’s Revenge.

Translator’s Revenge is itself the story of a novel-in-translation, and our knowledge of the text is filtered through our narrator, Trad—a translator who feels that Translator’s Revenge is wholly inadequate and actively attempts to distort the original version. Add together those complex plot layers and you have Vengeance du traducteur, Brice Matthieussent’s perplexingly brilliant reconfiguration of translation theory. Add one further act of prestidigitation and you arrive at Emma Ramadan’s Revenge of the Translator, the English translation of Matthieussent’s prize-winning novel.

Our latest selection, then, comprises at least four books in one. If you’d like to join us in unraveling the threads of the plot, read Mallory Truckenmiller’s review below and then head to our dedicated online discussion page. If you’re not yet an Asymptote Book Club subscriber, there’s still time to sign up for our September selection: all the information you need is available on our official Book Club site.

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Cracks in the Ordinary: Yasmina Reza’s Babylon in Review

How are ordinary people pushed to inconceivable acts of violence and stupidity?

Babylon by Yasmina Reza, translated from the French by Linda Asher, Seven Stories Press, 2018

The “soirée entre amis” (literally an evening among friends) is one the most quintessential of French clichés. Quintessential not only for its pervasiveness in art centred in Paris, but also because it is ridiculously pervasive in real life, too. A staple, even, of life in France. And, if like Yasmina Reza, you believe that “you can’t understand who people are outside [their] landscape,” what better setting for the exploration of the pressures and absurdities of daily existence than precisely a dinner party between friends, a space that demands constant performance due to its many spoken and unspoken social rules?

In a fictional suburb of Paris, Elisabeth and her husband, Pierre, are throwing a party for their friends and family. Invited, at the very last minute, are their neighbours the Manoscrivis, Jean Lino, and Lydie. The party goes well, but tragedy strikes shortly after: Elisabeth and Pierre are woken in the middle of the night by Jean Lino, who has killed his wife after a banal domestic dispute. Even more inexplicable is what follows as Elisabeth, a sensible and rather ordinary woman, decides to help Jean Lino get away with the crime, despite sharing nothing more than a tentative friendship.

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