Place: Hungary

What’s New in Translation: November 2017

Looking for your next novel? Here are three of the most exciting new releases from around the world.

Every month, batches of books arrive fresh on the shelves of bookstores around the world. Our team has handpicked three exciting new reads to help you make up your minds on what to sink your teeth into, including novels from Martinique, France, and Hungary. 

The Dancing Other

The Dancing Other by Suzanne Dracius, Translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson and Catherine Maigret Kellog, Seagull Books

Reviewed by Madeline Jones, Editor at Large, United States

The Dancing Other opens as our anti-heroine Rehvana stumbles out of a dingy apartment in Paris, just barely escaping literal branding by the other members of the Ébonis, or the “Sons of Agar”—an African god. Rehvana wants nothing more than to be included in and loyal to this insular community of Antillean immigrants that tries to emulate traditional Martinique culture—though how authentically they manage this aspiration is debated among some of Dracius’s other characters.

Rehvana’s boyfriend Abdoulaye is the group’s leader, whose temper has more than once manifested itself in blooming bruises across Rehvana’s face and arms. But the kind, protective Jeremy holds no allure for her. Jeremy and Rehvana’s formidable older sister, Matildana, tell her blatantly that a young woman such as her has no business slumming it with this cultish group of wannabes, but Rehvana both resents and resists her smarter, more pretentious, whiter sister’s warnings. She takes her newly enforced identity to its final phase by running away without a word back to the homeland, to Martinique, with another man she just met and who immediately consumes her thoughts and energies.

In Martinique, Rehvana relishes every piece of her new neighborhood and lifestyle, throwing herself into fixing up Enryck’s decaying family home and learning to cook traditional dishes with ingredients from their garden; and yet, the hot days blur her consciousness, the wild plants cut her hands and arms, and Enryck often doesn’t make it home for dinner anyway. Where he goes, she doesn’t know or ask. She waits for him, eating nothing, forgetting herself. She wants to fit in, above all, in this place that was once her home and suddenly now is again.

“Rehvana now hides her hair, too straight for her taste; she’s abandoned her regular sunbathing sessions—too shocking to those around her—because a well-bred Martiniquan woman wants to look Creole, not Negro, and takes great pains to avoid exposure to the sun. Anyway, the sunbathing had only managed to turn her peach-like skin more golden—not darker—making her look like a tanned tourist. She hates the sight of her pasty arms, and only wears long sleeves. She’s tucked away her flowing mane—too ‘White’ for her taste—under a crude, white cotton square, the way Haitian women used to do… She does all this for Enryck, and because it’s Antillean.”

She barely communicates with her family back in Paris, but Matildana finds her when she learns that Rehvana is pregnant. She flies to Martinique and discovers the squalor in which her younger sister is living, the wounds she’s incurred from the gardening and from Enryck’s jealous imagination. She meets the grumbling, brutish man who has taken possession of Rehvana’s love against all logic, who gambles and has suspicious friends. But Matildana has also done some math, and comes armed with the knowledge that Rehvana’s child is really Jeremy’s. But Matildana is powerless to bring her sister back. She rails against her sister’s indoctrination for the last time:

“I’ve gone astray, I’m guilty of shamelessly crossing the line in every sense, because what you call ‘return’ seems to me no more than a carnivalesque regression, and because I don’t practice systematic regression and I don’t espouse the extremism of a fanatic fundamentalist. Woe is me, a pox on me, shame on me! I am denegrified. You can’t stoop any lower than that . . . Yes, I forgot the catechism of that dear Abdoulaye—what a saint! Article one, identity: since I’m not wholly White at the start, if I don’t negrify myself, then I’m nothing. I’ve got no color or race, no identity or culture, I’m nothing… Because it’s so important, so primordial, to be an authentic something! Even if you’ve got to force yourself to do it, and use tricks to cultivate the authentic. There are Whites, Indo-Aryans, Blacks, real Negros, ‘people of color,’ Chinese people, Asians, Native Americans, Arabs, Jews, and so forth. You absolutely must classify people, or otherwise it creates havoc, and folks will no longer get their bearings…You can’t just be a man, you have choose a race—no mixing, no breaking ranks! . . . My goodness, you’ve got to know what you are and be proud of it! You’re so kind, Rehvana, for leading your poor, lost sister back to original purity!”

Dracius’s writing often feels more like a texture to run your hands over or a liquid to imbibe than like words on a page. She never anchors the action in a specific time and her tenses intermingle and overlap so that the reader must simply trust that Dracius knows what she’s doing and follow her into the wardrobe. It’s an immersive, if often disorienting, experience to read, but once one relinquishes the expectation of exposition or framework and simply dives into the swirling memories, colors, and scenes, the picture and figures solidify. The translation feels at times overly concerned with communicating the sonic and poetic effects of the original—a valiant aim—at the expense of the practical communication needed to really set the scenes or bring the characters to life. For long stretches when the rhythm and fluidity in English cohere, however, the writing is truly worth savoring. The search for identity is neither tangible nor logical, after all, so Dracius’s transmission of these two sisters’ struggle to find themselves while remaining intelligible to one another becomes an intimate, immersive blend of form and story.

The World Goes On

The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai, Translated from the Hungarian by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and Georges Szirtes, New Directions Press

Review by Lindsay Semel, Director, Asymptote for Educators

László Krasznahorkai’s Hungarian short story collection, The World Goes On, rendered into English by esteemed Krasznahorkai translators John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and Georges Szirtes, doesn’t really contain periods. Or paragraphs. Sometimes there are section breaks. Having freed themselves from the ordinary obstacles of language conventions, the words and thoughts follow their own sense of gravity, their own trajectory, and stop where they hit into something. The effect is utterly three dimensional. The language has mass and direction of a sort usually reserved for physical objects. The content of the stories matches the form of the language, so that the text as a whole becomes a nearly tactile meditation on movement, form, resistance, and the potential that exists in the freedom beyond the rules that dictate them.

The reader experiences motion by inhabiting the body and gaze of the narrator, who in turn seems often to possess the bodies of his stories’ protagonists. In “Wandering-Standing,” the first story in the collection, he stands in a place where he cannot stay and from where he is too paralyzed by the mediocrity of his directional options to move. The narrator watches himself from a bird’s-eye-view, “he motionlessly starts off into the untamed world, in a direction—it doesn’t matter which, it could be any direction—and he doesn’t budge even an inch, already he has gone very far, and his wanderings in the untamed world have begun, because while in reality he is motionless, his hunched form, almost like a statue, engraves itself into an inability to be left behind here . . .” Later stories catalogue other flavors of motion. A drunk simultaneous interpreter comes-to inside a twelve-way Shanghai intersection, and against the backdrop of manic, unfettered speed, he has to drag himself back to his hotel. A post-office line inches forward as the narrator measures time by the number of people in front of him. Rockets launch into space, killing, overheating, or briefly incapacitating their passengers, whose molecules aren’t designed for such extraterrestrial speed and atmospheric change. A man sets out to run faster than the velocity of the earth. These juxtapositions of speed, direction, and viscosity heighten the impact of the descriptions, giving rise to the sensation that the reader is travelling with the character.

The counterpoint to movement is form, or structure. For example, in “A Drop of Water,” on the banks of the flowing Ganges River, an enormous man asks the narrator, “did you know that according to local tradition a single drop of the Ganges is in itself a temple?” He goes on to explore the notion through a detailed lesson on the structure of water. The form of a single water droplet becomes the cipher by which Varanasi, described as a tangled jumble of sacred and profane on the banks of the unidirectional river, becomes less impenetrable.

In “Obstacle Theory,” the reader learns (from a homeless drunk at a train station on Christmas Eve) that, at the conjunction of movement and form, there is obstacle. And these obstacles hold the world together in that, “everything that is in place, is there because it cannot fall any farther toward the earth, the force of gravity is pulling it down, but something doesn’t let it go . . .” A snowflake wants to fall, but wind resistance makes it do so gently, and the ground makes it stop entirely. The drunk wants to stand up and leave, but he bumps into his own drunkenness, which makes him fall down again. These examples inform the reader’s interpretations of coming stories and invite her to revise interpretations of previous ones.

The unpunctuated blocks of words, with their tangents and repetitions, can try a reader’s patience. But that patience is well rewarded. Seemingly unrelated stories, linked by form and theme, build a remarkably coherent, vivid, and nuanced whole. That this virtuosity is apparent in the English text speaks to the talent of the translators, all of whom have had a hand in building Krasznahorkai’s stellar English-language reputation.

Through The World Goes On, the reader wander-stands to Shanghai, Budapest, Varanasi, Berlin, Turin, Venice, Kiev, a locked auditorium, and outer space. After such an exhaustive tour, the narrator concludes with “I Don’t Need Anything from Here.” Having catalogued some of the world’s simplest charms, he states, “I would leave this earth and these stars, because I would take nothing with me, because I’ve looked into what’s coming, and I don’t need anything from here.” The final weight of attachment dropped, the reader is left with a delicious, soaring lightness.

Incest

Incest by Christine Angot, Translated from the French by Tess Lewis, Archipelago Books.

Reviewed by Giorgos Kassiteridis, Marketing Manager, Asymptote 

“Your readers don’t understand a thing and they understand everything”

The torrential and chimeric prose of Christine Angot remarkably recreated in English by the 2017 PEN Prize awarded translator Tess Lewis cannot always be fully understood intellectually; her rhizomatic associations—incestuous, even—are visceral, vibrating, affective, accessible only if the reader surrenders to the spate of words that runs through Incest, finding a centre only to detach it and carry it away to a forbidden dance producing new variations, expansions, and offshoots: “a miracle of logical disorganization.”

A dim sludge of words—unattractive but fertile—that encapsulate insanity, incest, love, memories, and yearnings. Christine Angot begins her work with a chaotic flux triggered by her disassembled relationship; a three-month love affair with MC. The tangled first part generates a process of self-reflection: “I mix everything up, I go too far, I wreck everything … I want to stop making them.” She watches herself from the distance that the written word provides and attempts to trace the origins of this mental structure, to stop drawing all these entropic connections, mixing everything together. The text progresses in more abstractive strata from the chaos of the first part to a self-understanding that culminates in a juxtaposition of a dictionary definition of schizophrenia, sadomasochism, and homosexuality in an attempt to understand the origins of her paranoid logic. Nevertheless, these psychoanalytical classificatory categories will not reign in her analysis; they will be untied and become embedded in the same paranoid thinking she tries to explain. A lost love, a vehement struggle to understand the archaic substrate of her incestuous mind, her incestuous touch.

Her words are abrupt, disruptive, and confessional; a flickering language extracting traces and structures from “other voices, other texts, other things.” This is a polyphonic collage that forges a text with no centre, only nodes from where new roots emerge as frayed threads. With parallels to auto-fiction, a genre Angot refuses to associate with her work, this novel creates a space where imagination, potential futures, and pasts mingle with experiences, where the ‘I’ slips from the author to the narrator and gets lost in the vortex of language; it is language that speaks—the writer just writes.

Therefore, the translation of such viscous fluidity and polyphony into a different linguistic materiality would have been a challenging task. The translator might have had to immerse herself into these messy connections in order to draw new ones and to adopt an incestuous mental structure. The intertextuality and the slippery subjectivity of the narrator could have been demanding, as well as the peculiar structures and punctuation, which even the author acknowledges. The “bits of flesh” that Christine Angot left out on the pages to dry must have been fragile and resistant to translation. Nevertheless, Tess Lewis has attested her capacity to twist and turn in and through language(s) by winning the 2017 PEN Translation Prize for her translation of the novel Angel of Oblivion by the Austrian writer Maja Haderlap, published by Archipelago Books. The translator masterfully developed an intuitive relationship with the work of Christine Angot, endowing the English words with vibrating affectivity and ruptures, illustrating Hœpffner’s description of the practice as follows: “the abiding image of the translator is, then, of an unstable and even schizoid ouroboros, eating himself while expanding outwards, plagued by contrary urges.”

Christine Angot’s book trigger both lauding and severe criticism, creating a work worth talking about; shedding light on issues that are not easily comprehensible—taboos—not from the position of an expert but from her own particularity, her own manner of writing. Voices echoing from the fractures, this is Incest: a collective adventure for the one that writes and the ones that read. There is nothing to say, only to talk about, to become part of the sludge.

*****

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpts from Tempodrome by Simona Popescu

"You have as many countries as the languages you speak."

Today’s Translation Tuesday is brought to you by MARGENTO, Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova. The lyrical excerpts from Romanian essayist and poet Simona Popescu’s writing explore a mood—memories of the nineties related as if at a remove, stating plainly what the narrator saw, while encapsulating the myriad complications simmering beneath the still surface of the narration. 

“I confess I do not believe in time. I like
to fold my magic carpet, after use,
in such a way as to superimpose one part
of the pattern upon another.”
—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

“Then everything regroups as if in a hot fog
where things recover among the obscure
plantations of the accidental.”
—Gellu Naum, The Blue Riverbank

“I have no idea of time, and I don’t wish to have”
—Wislawa Szymborska, On the Tower of Babel

In the house of my childhood, somewhere in my parents’ mixed up bookcase, leaning on a couple of books stood a black teddy bear in a white sash ribbon with some red lettering on it saying Grüsse aus Berlin. On other shelves there were other “souvenirs” from Abroad. For instance, a wooden cylinder with a lid in the shape of a Russian church dome, with a rose and the word “Bulgaria” burnt onto it. Inside was a vial of Bulgarian rose perfume. My folks never traveled Abroad. In fact, nobody in our little town ever traveled Abroad. Not even the Saxons and the Hungarians who, judging by the language they spoke, had to have another country somewhere, if push came to shove, right? You have as many countries as the languages you speak, the saying went. The Hungarians and the Saxons were therefore half foreign. But even so, even they never got Abroad—it was only the old people that sometimes went, but they always returned. Nobody needed them and they didn’t need anybody or anything except a quiet life in their homes. Only old people returned. They and the migrating birds.

It was me who had brought the rose perfume home. I was 12 when I went, without my parents, on a trip—well, yes—Abroad. I don’t recall much. It was I think in spring, there was I think a crisp sun, I was on a terrace I think by the sea, somewhere on a cliff, there were breakers I think in front of me, not very close though, I think I never went down the stairs to dip my toes in the sea. In the “vision” conjured by the word “Bulgaria” in which I’m a child a milky light and a bluish expanse approach me. And I’m all alone there, for a second, my back turned on everybody else. And I can hear a roaring wind. (I am back there anytime I want. I’m 12 and then—as I keep adding now—44. I hold an invisible butterfly net in my hand and collect images with it.) READ MORE…

When There’s No Wind, the Sounds of the Past are Audible Over the Danube

On opposite banks of the Danube in Hungary and Slovakia, separated peoples find a way to talk in many languages across the ancient river.

Today we profile a unique literary gathering, AquaPhone Festival, that takes place on both banks of the Danube. It not only features literature from Hungary and Slovakia but also acts as a cultural bridge between the nations that have been isolated from each other’s shared histories by totalitarian rule. It serves as a powerful symbol against the rising tide of xenophobia, as a conversation with Karol Frühauf reveals. 

it could be done by us just shouting
just talking to each other over the water
and not by me going over to you by boat
you going angling? I’d shout into the wind
and your voice would echo across the water
no! I’m going angling! oh, right! I’d shout
all right I thought you’re going angling

— From ‘Modalities of Crossing’ by Dániel Varró, translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood

From the southwestern part of the Danubian Hills, poetry drifts above the waves of the Danube. Lines of verse bounce from one side of the river to the other, hard on each other’s tails yet in accord, dissolving in the air.

lehetne az is hogy csak kiabálunk
hogy csak beszélgetünk a víz fölött
és nem megyek át hozzád ladikon
horgászni mész? kiáltanám a szélbe
és hangod visszaringna a vizen
nem! horgászni megyek! ja! kiabálnám
ja jól van azt hittem horgászni mész!

— From ‘az átkelés módozatai’ by Dániel Varró

Someone is reciting poetry. It takes a while for the words, carried by sound waves, to cross the river. This is how poetry behaves when a poem is recited aloud above a river. The author of this year’s poem, “Modalities of Crossing,” is the wonderful Hungarian poet and children’s writer, Dániel Varró.

dá sa aj tak že si len zakričíme
len si nad vodou pohovoríme
a neprejdem za tebou cez lávku
ideš na rybačku? volal by som do vetra
a tvoj hlas by sa na vode prihojdal
nie! idem na rybačku! aha! volal by som
aha dobre myslel som že na rybačku!

— From ‘možnosti prepravy’ by Dániel Varró, translated from the Hungarian into Slovak by Eva Andrejčáková

Varró’s poem is read out in several languages: first in Hungarian (the poet’s native tongue), then in Slovak, and finally in German. You have to wait patiently for the lines to reach you from the far shore before you can send your version back by the same route. The extraordinary dialogue is accompanied by live cello, saxophone, and clarinet. There is no wind, the June sunshine is reflected in the water, bathing the majestic domes of the basilica in the distance in its soft light. This is what the AquaPhone festival is like.

READ MORE…

In Conversation: Ottilie Mulzet on Multilingualism, Translation, and Contemporary Literary Culture: Part II

But his was a mind that never stopped questioning and was exquisitely attuned to the pain of the world.

Here to relieve the unbearable suspense we left you in after part I are Julia Sherwood and Ottilie Mulzet, picking up where they left off in their chat about Mulzet’s translations from Hungarian and Mongolian, and more! 

JS: Not all translators take on both fiction and poetry, but you have also translated Szilárd Borbély’s poetry for Asymptote, and your revised and expanded collection of his Berlin-Hamlet came out in the US last year. In what ways is your approach different when translating poetry and prose?  And given that in Hungary, Szilárd Borbély was primarily known as a poet, there is a whole treasure trove out there waiting for the English reader—are you planning to tackle any more of his poetry?

OM: I’ve actually already translated two other volumes by Borbély: Final Matters: Sequences, and To the Body: Odes and Legends. Final Matters has been described as a monument to his mother, who was murdered by thugs who broke into her home in a tiny village on the night before Christmas Eve, 1999. She was murdered brutally in her bed, Borbély’s father was left for dead but survived. (He passed away in 2006.) Borbély was the one who found them, and well, I don’t think it takes too much imagination to picture the unspeakably deep trauma this must have occasioned.

Final Matters is like a three-part memorial to her, although it doesn’t address her murder directly; instead, Borbély employs allegorical language—he drew his inspiration for the first part from central European Baroque folk poetry about Christ and the Virgin Mary, in particular the poetry of Angelus Silesius—to talk about death and the body. There’s a lot of brutally direct detail and philosophical language at the same time. In reading The Dispossessed, though, you see exactly where this comes from—the little boy is confronted with brutal details all day long, but in his own mind, he is preoccupied with abstraction, his love for prime numbers. In the second part of Final Matters, Borbély turns to the myth of Amor and Psyche to explore questions of physicality and immateriality. And in the third part, he reworks another part of Hungarian religious-poetic culture that’s been largely forgotten: the legends and parables of the Hungarian-speaking Szatmár Hassidic Jews from Hungary’s rural northeast. (Now, of course, the Szatmár region is mostly in Romania, and the Szatmár Hassidim, except for the Yiddish-speaking Satmari in Brooklyn, were almost all murdered in the Holocaust.) And yet through these three sections, which he terms ‘Sequences’, he causes the three great western traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and the world of the ancient Greeks—to confront each other, form a dialogue with each other; they all cause the others to be seen in a different light.

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In Conversation: Ottilie Mulzet on Multilingualism, Translation, and Contemporary Literary Culture

"One of the most amazing things about learning Czech is that it has enabled me to study Mongolian..."

Ottilie Mulzet translates from Hungarian and Mongolian. Her translation of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below won the Best Translated Book Award in 2014. Her recent translations include Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai (Seagull Books, 2016); The Dispossessed (HarperCollins, 2016); and Berlin-Hamlet by Szilárd Borbély (NYRB Poets, 2016); forthcoming is her version of Lazarus by Gábor Schein (Seagull Books, 2017), as well as Krasznahorkai’s The Homecoming of Baron Wenckheim (New Directions). She is also working on an anthology of Mongolian Buddhist legends. In 2016 she served as one of the judges of Asymptote’s Close Approximations translation competition and is on the jury for the 2017 ALTA National Translation Award in Prose.

Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood, spoke with Mulzet via email. Below is the first part of their enlightening correspondence. Stay tuned for part 2!

Julia Sherwood (JS): You translate from the Hungarian, are doing a PhD in Mongolian and are based in Prague.  Your recent Asymptote review of Richard Weiner’s Game for Real shows that you also have an impressive command of Czech, enabling a close reading of the original and an in-depth review of the translation. How did your involvement with Hungarian begin and what is it like to live between all these languages?

Ottilie Mulzet (OM): Part of the difference is due to my involvement with each of these languages.  I started studying Hungarian because of my family background (two of my grandparents emigrated from Hungary), although I didn’t speak it as a child. I decided to learn it in adulthood as the result of some kind of fatal attraction, I guess, and never even realized I would end up translating. Hungarian grammar struck me as being so strange that I couldn’t wait to get onto the next lesson to see if what followed could possibly be any stranger than what I just learnt. I used a hopelessly out-of-date textbook with pen-and-ink illustrations of women in 1950s coiffures having a cigarette in front of a prefabricated housing estate. They spent their evenings complimenting each other on their clothes, sipping tea and playing match games, all the while making sure they were back at their parents’ houses by 8 pm. In retrospect, this textbook actually encoded, along with Hungarian grammar, a manual to the kind of “petty bourgeois-dom” that was so characteristic of central European socialism in the 1980s.

ottilie

An illustration from my first Hungarian textbook. Here we are introduced to Mr. Comrade Nagy, and his lovely wife, Mrs. Comrade Nagy.

I learned Czech more for practical reasons, because of living in Prague, but there are many aspects of the language I’ve come to love, not least its humour and slang. I try to keep up with what’s going on in Czech literature, although I don’t translate from it.  One of the most amazing things about learning Czech is that it has enabled me to study Mongolian—at Charles University, an institution with extraordinary language pedagogy with roots in the pre-war Prague Linguistic Circle, and an astonishing array of languages on offer—from Manchurian and Jagnobi (a descendant of Sogdian) to Jakut and Bengali. One can only hope, given the current trend toward mindless rationalisation, i.e. shutting down whatever seems too impractical or exotic, that the university will stay that way. It’s impossible to understand anything really essential about another culture without knowing something about the language: and the more you know about the language, the better off you are.

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Zsuzanna Gahse’s Europe: Like Her New Book, It’s a Collection

Translations are more or less a doubling of life, or rather, a translation is the doubling of a book’s life.

Zsuzanna Gahse’s strange and eloquent meditation on the question of what, or rather, who “Europe” is has only become more relevant over the course of the past year in politics. Gahse’s Europe is the continent that shares her name with a princess abducted by Zeus. “Europe consists of its disintegration,” she writes. Gahse’s writing is all the more relevant for not being “topical”: these prescient thoughts on Europe’s disintegration date from 2004, the year of the EU’s most ambitious expansion. Her Europe is composed of a collection of accents, languages, and landscapes, “a collection of mountain ridges wrinkling the earth.” It’s an Europe for travellers, migrants, and lovers.

Her first book to be published in English comes out this month with Dalkey Archive in Chenxin Jiang’s translation. The translator and writer spoke shortly before the book’s release.

Chenxin Jiang (CJ): The Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote of you a few days ago: “As a master of short prose, she has become a truly European author.” Is the short prose form central to your being a European author?

Zsuzanna Ghase (ZG): Short compact narratives and even individual sentences can be memorable and indeed arresting. Whether in prose, poetry, or drama, these types of writing have a remarkable role to play in the modern world, and the endless (serious and unserious) ways of playing on them constitute an experimental challenge. As for being a European author, I certainly am one, in that I don’t focus on any one country (or my so-called “own” country) in my books, but am interested in many different countries.

CJ: In what sense are the pieces in Volatile Texts part of what the first piece would call “a collection”?

ZG: The word “collection” only applies to the first piece in the book and the pictures of Europe it presents. Europe can be described as a collection of various customs and histories, different languages, climates, political arrangements and so on; a collection that is both well- and less-than-well-developed. You could spend a long time surveying the cuisines alone. All that taken together is Europe: in other words, a collection.

But the individual pieces in Volatile Texts are carefully composed. As such, they do not constitute an arbitrarily assembled collection—hence the subtext of Europe that runs throughout. The fact that a Hamburger can become a Roman and a woman from France an American in one of the Volatile Texts speaks to the porousness of identity, to the existence of a collection of identities.

CJ: In Volatile Texts, you write that “languages [are] shaped by landscape, by topography.” How has your own attentiveness to language and your writing been shaped by living in Switzerland?

ZG: In the mountains, in order to make yourself understood between the cliffs, you need a different voice from the voice you’d use on the plains. It must be true in the Rockies too, that voices have to prevail against the mountains. Conditions are different on the tranquil plains: for instance, in windswept northern Germany, I’ve observed that people talk with a distinct singsong, so that the wind doesn’t take all their syllables and sounds with it. The striking number of phonological shifts in Swiss German, which might have to do with the topography of the landscape, has always interested me—not to mention the fact that Switzerland has four languages. Because of these linguistic boundaries and the different regions within Switzerland, I began playing with the idea of depicting Switzerland, of all places, as Europe—since, as you know, Switzerland is part of the continent but not part of the EU.

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Translation Tuesday: “Le Rouge et le Noir (Moving House and Farewell)” by Zsófia Bán

As we were leaving the paralyzed city and the country, we too were facing a journey, though rather than flight, it turned out to be a return.

An award-winning fiction writer, essayist, and critic who grew up in Hungary and Brazil and now teaches American literature, Zsófia Bán is no stranger to forking paths; the roads not taken. Her beautiful essay below segues quickly from house-moving to the broader and richer philosophical theme of derailment against the backdrop of the ongoing refugee crisis. We hope you like it as much as we do.

* * *

In memory of Svetlana Boym

 

Tumultuous, yes, tumultuous is what the summer of 2015 was. An unruly, riotous, tempestuous, bewildered summer, ravaged by the lack of order. Only the weather would not stir, hellbent on keeping up the atmospheric conditions prevalent since the beginning of summer. All heat records were broken, with temperatures close to 40 degrees recorded in July and August. We were clearly making meteorological history in Europe. The dull blanket of heat paralyzed our reason just enough to keep us from realizing the obvious until it was too late: history was being made, quite apart from the weather. In fact, the masses, the tumult of refugees pouring through the southern border, then the large families stranded in railway stations in the heart of our city, the gathering of desperate, exhausted people robbed of almost all their possessions warned us clearly enough, that this was the time, here and now, of fateful events. As we were leaving the paralyzed city and the country, we too were facing a journey, though rather than flight, it turned out to be a return: the compulsive, perpetual return to memory, to absence, to the relentless rigor of facts.

On August 3 we packed the car and set out for Berlin. With an ingenious space-saving trick we packed the child’s plush animals into plastic bags shrunk with a vacuum cleaner, so even the plumpest specimens were docilely flattened to two dimensions.

1vacumedanimals1

Photograph by Zsófia Bán

Once taken out of their plastic bags upon arrival, they slowly regained their original dimensions: the breath of life gradually returned into them. Zserbó, the giant owl was the first to come to, then Dr Czuki-Czukermann, the anteater and finally Menyus, the ferret, Pöpe, the parrot and the rest, the whole sizeable coterie. The child greeted each miraculous resurrection with a dance of joy: her friends were saved, we had outwitted Archimedes or one of those types. The death news that came the day after our arrival flattened us to two dimensions the same way, except we held no hope of ever regaining our original shape. Remembrance, however alive, is inevitably flatter than the tumultuous nature of presence, the noisy, confusing, disorderly and yet, by virtue of the senses, coherent presence which only one word fits: the person’s name. The name that refers to the single being who is the sum of her traits: the voice, the gait, the colorful fabric of her mind, the fears and desires, the betrayals of the body, the dreams, and the loneliness. Her name is a message inscribed in stone, the imprint of sea-waves on prehistoric geological strata.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Slovakia, Hungary, and the Nordic countries.

Friday is once again upon us, dear Asymptoters! This time, our report brings you the latest literature in translation news from Europe. Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has been at the Central European Forum conference and Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen attended the Helsinki Book Fair, while Zsofia Paulikovics has an update from Hungary. Enjoy the ride!

Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has these stories from Slovakia:

On 20 October, the emerging writer Dominika Madro’s story Svätyňa [Sanctuary] won the annual short story contest Poviedka 2016. Now in its twentieth year, the competition is run by the publisher Koloman Kertész Bagala and all submissions are anonymous. This year’s runner-up was the story Šváby [Cockroaches] by novelist and Elena Ferrante’s Slovak translator and Asymptote contributor Ivana Dobrakovová.

A survey of reading habits, commissioned by the Slovak Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association, has recently published very depressing findings: 72 percent of the public don’t buy a single book in any year; 40 percent read books only once a month and 28 percent don’t read at all. Nevertheless, judging by the crowds attending a huge variety of literary events taking place across the capital, Bratislava, over the past month, the picture isn’t perhaps quite as bleak as these figures suggest.

Slovak-Swiss writer and journalist Irena Brežná, Polish novelist Grażyna Plebanek, and recent Neustadt Prize winner Dubravka Ugrešić sought antidotes for despair as part of Bratislava’s annual Central European Forum conference from 11 to 13 November (video recordings here); Dubravka Ugrešić also read from her book of essays, Europe in Sepia, which will be published soon in a Slovak translation by Tomáš Čelovský. Parallel with the conference, some 200 publishers displayed their recent publications at the Bibliotéka Book Fair, held in the somewhat drab Incheba exhibition halls and vying for space with a “World of Minerals” exhibition. At the Centre for the Information of Literature stand two young authors, Peter Balko and Peter Prokopec, along with graphic designer David Koronczi, introduced their new “anti-logy” of Slovak writing. Aimed at schools but very far from being a stuffy textbook, Literatúra bodka sk (Literature.dot.sk) aims to show that contemporary authors inhabit the same world and share the same sensibilities as young readers, and includes samples of fiction and non-fiction as well as a graphic novel, Rudo, by Daniel Majling. Rudo started life as a Facebook cartoon strip and has now been issued in book form by Czech publisher Labyrint (in a Czech translation!).

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On the other side of the Danube, housed inside the Slovak National Gallery and overlooking the river, Café Berlinka is fast establishing itself as a vibrant literary venue, in association with the adjoining Ex Libris bookshop. Since September 2016, the café has been hosting Literárny kvocient [Literature quotient], a series of debates featuring leading literature scholars and critics.  Of the many book launches that took place over the past few weeks, the liveliest must have been the feminist press Aspekt’s presentation of a selection of poems by Hungarian activist poet Virág Erdős, Moja vina [My Fault].  The book was translated into Slovak by Eva Andrejčáková (a past Asymptote blog contributor) in cooperation with poet Vlado Janček, who read some of the hilariously outrageous poems to his own guitar accompaniment (you can watch Virág Erdős perform “Van egy ország”/ “There is a Country” in Hungarian with the band Rájátszás here). READ MORE…

Forthcoming Autumn Translations, in Review

Asymptote’s own review brand new translated literature.

 

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Wayward Heroes, by Halldór Laxness, tr. Philip Roughton. Archipelago Books.

Review: Beau Lowenstern, Editor-at-large, Australia

The process of reading literature in translation is to dip into the perennial pool: possible meanings are compounded by language, we splash and struggle and only when we begin to get on our feet do we realise how much deeper and longer the cave goes. Often great writers see only a tiny fraction of their oeuvre translated for a wider audience—as a reader, we must play a game of guessing the size and shape and clarity of the submerged iceberg from only its superficial crown. Not to mention the person we all know who constantly admonishes us that if we had only read the original

Iceland’s Halldór Laxness falls into this lamentable category, with the majority of his collection of stories, essays, novels (including a four-volume memoir), plays and poetry frozen in time to all bar those with a blue tongue. Published in Iceland in 1952 as Gerpla, The Happy Warriors was the title of the original, sparsely recognised English translation, though it contributed to his body of work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. 

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Translation Tuesday: “All the Countries of the World” by Krisztina Tóth

"not that face, those hands, or youth’s sepia tint / but the body, the body, that’s all, that's it"

The poplars’ catkins, no “Crematory” sign,
then a tin roof, the stack’s angled design,
that’s it, in the yard a guy’s on his phone,
the gate’s open, hello, best leave it alone,
a man stops me: Yes? —The office? I ask,
the grandma’s yours, then, the one o’clock,
that’s good, he adds, the old lady’s just out,
you mean…I thought, but could hardly doubt,
I’ve still to confirm she’s of our nation
and so by law allowed a cremation.
I show the papers to a woman fiddling
at a screen, the passport flat, its stitching
lies open, in the room’s press like a window,
its stamps attesting: the bearer to
all the countries of the world can go.  READ MORE…

“Good Books Make Good Neighbours”: Slovak literature makes its mark on Hungarian writers at the Budapest International Book Festival

"Slovak literature seems to have made its mark."

Mačka/macska (cat); cukor/cukor (sugar) pálenka/pálinka (fruit brandy);  kabát/kabát(coat); taška/táska (bag); palacinka/palacsinta (pancake); bosorka/boszorkány (witch). These are just a few of the words that sound the same in Slovak and Hungarian. The surprisingly long glossary formed a witty and poignant visual backdrop to the main stand at this year’s Budapest International Book Festival, held 22-24 April, which had a focus on Slovak literature.

What did this mean in practice? Quite a lot: an audience of potential new readers in a neighbouring country; forty books by Slovak writers translated into Hungarian specially for this occasion; debates, book presentations, readings, discussions with authors, translators, publishers, journalists, scholars, historians—plus concerts, media interviews and interactive events for children. All that followed by receptions, informal conversations, fun.

Never has Slovak literature been presented abroad on such a massive scale. Never before have so many Slovak books been translated into any other language. And it is unlikely that such an event will happen again anytime soon.

The Budapest Book Festival is a major European literary event, with over 60,000 visitors every year. In the past guests have included such stars of the literary firmament as Umberto Eco and Paolo Coelho. This year it must have seen the greatest concentration of Slovak writers per square metre.  READ MORE…