Place: Hungary

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Start your spring off with literary dispatches from around the world!

With the arrival of spring comes a new slate of literary translations, festivals, and events all over the world. In Iran, we follow the sprouting of two new literary journals and several translations challenging the country’s censorship laws; in Hungary, we look forward to the 26th Budapest International Book Festival and the season of literary awards; and in Brazil, we discover a range of upcoming events celebrating such topics as independent publishing, the Portuguese language, and International Women’s Day.

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting for Iran

March 20 marked the spring equinox, Nowruz (the Persian New Year), and the celebrations around it. To see the previous year off and welcome the new one, in addition to providing their readers with reading material for the holiday season, Iranian journals have long published special issues, each covering a range of diverse topics including, but not limited to: economy, philosophy, sports, film, and literature.

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Translation Tuesday: “Grandpa’s Little Glove” by Ilka Papp-Zakor

So I waited there under the tree, and Grandpa was slowly absorbed by the fog, which drizzled and grew ever thicker.

During a routine mushroom-picking expedition in the forest, a wheelchair-bound child gets separated from her grandfather and is left to face the forces of nature on her own. In today’s Translation Tuesday, Ilka Papp-Zakor takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that comes to a surreal and haunting conclusion.

Grandpa’s beard was made of cotton, and his face of crinkled crepe paper. His hands shook, so he almost always spilled his tea, but his eyes were beautiful. I liked to watch him read his old books in the evenings, squinting by the light of the oil lamp—we didn’t have electricity in our shack—rocking back and forth in his rocking chair, the corners of his eyes smiling delicately from time to time, which is how I could tell where he was in his book. I knew all his books by heart. That’s how our evenings would pass. He’d rock in his chair, I’d stare at him, and sometimes, when I’d grow bored of staring, I’d roll around in my wheelchair. Grandpa didn’t like that, because the wheels made an ugly sound on the uneven plank floors. But he loved me anyway.

He said I’d be a beautiful girl if it weren’t for my distorted features, my underdeveloped legs and mangled hands, but I was happy there was something about me that he liked. I had long, curly, golden hair, a little reddish. Grandpa said the bridge of my nose was freckled, though I’d never seen it myself, because our shack didn’t have a mirror either, and I couldn’t lean so far out of my wheelchair over puddles to catch my reflection clearly. In any case, Grandpa said these features were my sex appeal, and that when I’d have kids, I should strive to pass onto them only these two features, because they wouldn’t get very far with the rest. At the time, it was difficult to imagine that I’d someday have a family, and kids of my own, because I didn’t know anyone else besides Grandpa.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly guide to biggest news in world literature.

We’re starting this month with news of literary awards, festivals, and translation parties to distract you from the last few weeks of winter! From the Bergen International Literary Festival and a Mother Tongues translation party to the European Union Prize for Literature and the PEN America Literary Awards, we have you covered with all of this week’s most important literary news.

Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from the Bergen International Literary Festival, Norway

A literary event in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city and Europe’s wettest, doesn’t quite feel complete without a few minutes spent outside the venue—some people smoking, some talking with the writers, some watching the rain drip slowly into their beer. At Bergen’s first International Literary Festival, all participants were presented with free umbrellas, but the weekend (an extended weekend, beginning on Valentine’s Day and ending on February 17th) was miraculously close to remaining rain-free.

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Questions from Night School: An Interview with Jim Tucker

Look before . . . you enter the lion’s den. Which is the home address for translation, a job that can only be done wrong.

Zsófia Bán’s Night School, “a textbook like no other,” is among the most playful of our fourteen Asymptote Book Club selections so far. In keeping with the book’s “defiant irreverence,” its English translator, Jim Tucker, agreed to ditch our regular interview format and temporarily become one of Night School’s pupils.

Each chapter of Zsófia Ban’s textbook ends in a series of questions or assignments, each with a winning mixture of pure zaniness and profound resonance. Here, Jim Tucker answers a set of questions from his own English translation of Night School. 

Complete the following sentence: Look before . . . 

Jim Tucker (JT): Look before . . . you enter the lion’s den. Which is the home address for translation, a job that can only be done wrong. It’s a miracle that you can make a living at it. Similar to prostitution (“Oh yes, mister, whatever you say”) except it pays a lot less, and you don’t get out as much.

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Announcing our January Book Club Selection: Night School by Zsófia Bán

Night School is a textbook like no other.

With our February selection, the Asymptote Book Club is taking subscribers back to school. Fortunately, Zsófia Bán’s Night School is a school unlike any other—populated by a cast of literary and cultural figures ranging from Frida Kahlo (and her double) to Laika the space dog. Each chapter of Bán’s textbook primer is filled with ‘defiant irreverence’ and the perfect combination of wit and profundity.

We’re delighted to be sending our subscribers one of the year’s most coruscatingly original short story collections, in Jim Tucker’s superb English translation. If you’d like to join us in time for next month’s Book Club pick, you’ll find all the information you need on our web page. Once you’ve joined, head to our Facebook group to meet other Book Club members and contribute to the discussion. We look forward to seeing you there!

Zsofia Ban Night School

Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Jim Tucker, Open Letter, 2019

Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor

Let’s begin with a simple biographical detail: Zsófia Bán has spent much of her life in academia, and her first novel (originally published in Hungarian in 2007) is a textbook. It seems barely necessary to add that Night School is a textbook like no other.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly literary news from around the world, all in one convenient package.

Awards, new translations, and a poet working to help the homeless—all this and more awaits in today’s dispatches! From Hong Kong, Hungary, and Indonesia, our editors-at-large have the latest updates.

Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong, reporting from Hong Kong

In the last few months of 2018, Hong Kong saw the deaths of several literary greats, but with January comes commemoration and activity. Martial arts novelist Louis Cha Leung-yung, or “Jin Yong,” passed away on October 30, 2018, just half a year after the publication of Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born, the English translation of one of his emblematic wuxia series set during the Song Dynasty. A Bond Undone, the second volume of the quartet, will be published at the end of this month in Gigi Chang’s translation. Its release is likely to gain even more traction in the aftermath of the writer’s passing.

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Translation Tuesday: “Petri in Tunisia” by George Gömöri

this sweetened life will turn as bitter as / saliva mixed with blood in your mouth before you spit.

To ring in the new year, past contributor George Gömöri revisits the final year in the life of Hungarian poet György Petri (1943-2000). In the 1980s, Petri had been one of Communist Hungary’s most outspoken dissidents. He spent his last holiday abroad in Tunisia in early 2000 and died of throat cancer later that year. May this poem be a reminder to us all to make the most of our living moments.

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The European Literature Days Festival: Highlights and Reflections

As always, the highlights of the weekend were authors’ readings showcasing a variety of styles and talents.

 In today’s dispatch, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood, reports on the high points of the European Literature Days festival, which she attended in Spitz, Austria from November 22-25. This year’s festival, whose theme was “film and literature,” featured many of Europe’s best film directors and screenwriters alongside high-profile novelists and essayists. 

What is the relationship between film and literature? How does narrative work in these two art forms and what is lost or gained when a story is transposed from paper to the screen? These questions were pondered during the tenth European Literature Days festival, amidst the rolling hills on the banks of the Danube shrouded in autumn mists, on the last weekend of November. As in previous years, the weekend was full of discoveries, with the tiny wine-making town of Spitz and venues in the only slightly larger town of Krems attracting some of the most exciting European authors, this time alongside some outstanding filmmakers.

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Robert Menasse and Richard David Precht. Image credit: Sascha Osaka.

Bookended by two high-profile events, the gathering opened with a discussion between Austrian novelist and essayist Robert Menasse and German celebrity philosopher Richard David Precht, moving at breakneck speed from the theory of evolution to a critique of the current education system, sorely challenging the hard-working interpreters. The closing event saw Bulgarian-born writer Ilija Trojanow receive the Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action and make a passionate plea for engaged literature: “As a writer I have to live up to the incredible gift of freedom by writing not about myself but away from myself, towards society.”

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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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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week, the global literary world was busy with prizes, language politics, and festivals.

Join us on a journey around the world from Hungary to Morocco and Brazil to find out more about the latest festivals, prizes, and news in world literature. Come back to our blog next week for other news and pieces about world literature. 

Diána Vonnák, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hungary

One of the highlights of the Hungarian literary scene, Margó Festival and Bookfair took place between 18-21 October. The festival happens twice each year, and while the summer edition focuses on contemporary writers in general, autumn is dedicated to emerging new voices and to literary translation.

The Margó Award is a relatively new initiative that helps to launch a young prose writers’ career each year, awarded to the best debut novel or short story collection of the year. Previous winners include Benedek Totth, whose debut novel Dead Heat (Holtverseny) will be published in English by Biblioasis in 2019 and Mátyás Szöllősi, whose new novel Péter Simon is out now. Short stories of this years’ winner, Anna Mécs peek into young women’s lives as they navigate the chores of adult life. Mécs writes in a voice that merges accuracy with much-needed lightness and acerbic humour.

The audience could meet authors in dozens of readings and roundtable discussions during these densely packed four days. Man Booker winner László Krasznahorkai’s new novel, Aprómunka egy palotáért follows librarian Hermann Melvill’s wanderings in New York into his labyrinth inner world, delivered in Krasznahorkai’s signature, meandering sentences, while György Dragomán’s Rendszerújra collects his politically themed short stories that grapple with oppressive systems, be they political or technological.

Many eagerly awaited new works were discussed from the emerging new generation as well: Boldizsár Fehér debuted with a satirical utopia of social experiment, and a new novel by Péter Gerőcs follows a portrait photographer’s quest against forgetting, Sándor Neszlár published a volume of experimental prose that pairs every kilometre he ran with a sentence, while Ilka Papp-Zakor‘s new collection sketches out a surreal Budapest with zoo-animals on the run. Two documentary films rounded the experience, portraits of Nádas and Krasznahorkai.

As the festival is over, celebrations give way to anxiety over the ongoing culture wars of the Orbán government, that switched to a higher gear in the past months, dismissing the director of Petőfi Literary Museum, and airing plans about a potential centralisation of literary publishing. Meanwhile, many writers protested against a new law that criminalises rough sleeping. Politics and literary production are increasingly different to disentangle, but events like the Margó Festival are strong testimonies of resilience.

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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 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…

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…

Summer 2011: Our First Great Issue

Asymptote issues offer much serendipity and often puzzling amounts of connections, and the Summer 2011 one is no exception.

The Summer 2011 issue is, to my mind anyway, Asymptote’s first great issue—not least because of the sheer embarrassment of riches showcased therein. (To this day, I still regret not being able to find a spot in our list of featured names on the cover for: AdonisPéter EsterházyBrother Anthony of TaizéSagawa ChikaHai-Dang PhanAraya RasdjarmrearnsookAzra Raza & Sara Suleri GoodyearJonas Hassen Khemiri, and, last but certainly not least, Tomaž Šalamun, who enclosed English translations of his poetry in a letter sent to my Singaporean address. A savvier editor would probably have chosen to promote local opposition politician and household name Chen Show Mao; indeed, after he shared it on his Facebook page, my exclusive interview with Chen drew thousands of hits from Singaporean readers, causing an unprecedented spike in traffic.) No, it was our first great issue because despite the adverse conditions under which it was produced—a key editor dropped out, taking Asymptote funds along with him; our guest artist resigned three weeks before the issue launch—we still delivered on time, working into the wee hours of the morning. On a lighter note: Sven Birkerts, whose essay on Roberto Bolaño I solicited, once handed me a crisp five-dollar bill after betting in class that no one would be able to identify an unattributed passage from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Who says you can’t make money from world literature? Here to introduce this issue (and the Hungarian Fiction Feature that I edited in honor of my Hungarian friend Nora, whose wedding I couldn’t attend because of the journal) is Diána Vonnák, editor-at-large for Hungary since October 2017.

I started writing about Hungarian literature in translation in 2012, right after I moved away from Budapest. In a way, this was a coping mechanism, a strategy to handle the sudden absence of both shared references and the immediacy of lived language. It was a half-serious attempt  to not only recreate the context I had been immersed in back home but also weave it into the much larger and more diverse literary world I encountered in a UK university full of students from overseas.

These new encounters fascinated me, and I found myself immersed in world literature more than ever before. But I realized that if I wanted to write about it, I needed to explore Hungarian literature in English translation and the platforms where it could be found. This journey soon led me to what was then a rather young journal: Asymptote. In 2013, I stumbled upon the journal’s third issue, from July 2011, and was astonished to find the special feature on Hungarian fiction. Yet as I read through the rest of the issue I was mesmerised by the many hidden links between the other pieces, particularly the subtle hints to Odysseus and his many literary heirs as well as modernism in its divergent traditions. If there had been a Greek god overseeing the birth of this issue, it would have certainly been Hermes. READ MORE…