Place: Iceland

The Voice of Interiority: Lytton Smith on Translating Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s History. A Mess.

[The inward-looking quality] structurally and stylistically governs how the novel is written, its very form.

Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s profound and inward-looking saga, History. A Mess., was July’s Asymptote Book Club selection, translated from Icelandic to English. Callum McAllister speaks to the novel’s translator, Lytton Smith, on the process of translating this sweeping and intuitive work. In this conversation, the two discuss the intricacies of translating the evasive language of space and the even more mysterious language of the inner self, and Lytton gives as well some much-appreciated recommendations of Icelandic literature.

Callum McAllister (CM): Iceland is well-known for its impressively high literary output and vibrant creative culture, but Icelandic isn’t a widely spoken language. Are you daunted by how much Icelandic literature has yet to be translated into English, or do you think it gives you more freedom to opt for your favorite texts? Is there anything you’d love to see in English or work on next?

Lytton Smith (LS): Definitely daunted, even as I’m excited by the opportunity! There are wonderful translators from Icelandic working to bring more books into English (which can then also be a gateway to other languages), but there’s a limit to how many presses are willing to do what Open Letter does and take a chance on publishing titles—especially when translations are hard to sell to readers. I’m looking forward to Sigrún’s next novel, which is in part about the theory that Icelanders “discovered” America, and Ófeigur Sigurðsson, whose novel Öræfi / The Wastelands I translated last year (Deep Vellum), has another two novels that center on volcanoes that I’d like to translate. And I’d love to translate another book by the amazing, singular Kristín Ómarsdóttir. Next up, I’m lucky to be translating some of Andri Snær Magnason’s work.

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Announcing Our July Book Club Selection: History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir

We forget that we are reading someone else’s testimony and begin to take speculation as hard truth.

This month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir, asks us to reconsider our understanding of how history is constructed. The protagonist, an academic who “leads an almost unpunctuated domestic existence of solitude and paranoia,” makes a shocking discovery about the secret identity of a seventeenth-century writer—and then seems to disprove her own theory. As the protagonist becomes increasingly unstable, her erratic prose leads the reader to reflect on the tenuous boundary between stories and history.

Lytton Smith’s translation of History. A Mess. is the twentieth title selected by the Asymptote Book Club, which brings outstanding translated fiction to readers each month. You can sign up to receive next month’s book on our website or join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

Translator Lytton Smith told Splice that “the Icelandic language doesn’t have two distinct words for story and history. It uses the same word, saga, and so those two ways of writing are more closely connected for Icelanders than they are for us.” As such, they are more concerned with storytelling as a craft, fidelity to emotional truth above accuracy to facts. Yet Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s novel, History. A Mess., seemingly centers around historical fact: a text whose existence could make or break an academic career.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Winter 2019

Our blog editors provide a tasting menu of the literary feast that is Asymptote's Winter 2019 issue

Featuring work from twenty-three languages and a record-breaking thirty-five countries, there’s plenty to choose from in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 issue! Today, our three blog editors share their favorite pieces, from Icelandic, Slovak and Latvian poetry to Brazilian Portuguese social commentary and Bengali short stories.

From the Fiction section, the ever-intensifying “The Meat Market,” translated from the Bengali, takes one unexpected turn after another in a thrilling prose adventure. Set a week before Eid, what should be a celebratory, communal affair quickly turns sour in East Rajabazar. This is a city where transactions are tainted by the potential for danger, just as the meat sold is tainted by false advertising. Aminul Islam faces the full consequences of these circumstances that he fails to fully understand, culminating in a shocking conclusion carefully set up by Mashiul Alam’s artful prose, switching deftly between first- and third-person at crucial moments in the narrative.

If you are looking for exciting poetry freshly translated into English, don’t miss out on Steinn Steinarr’s “Time and Water.” Hailed as Iceland’s greatest modernist poet, Steinarr’s ethereal poetry combines Icelandic poetics with modernist free verse and imagism to create gems like:

And the sorrow I hid
nearly found your own,
like a fjord-blue sea.

In this sequence on a failed and flawed relationship, the distance between the speaker and the other is quite nearly but not quite ever bridged. Equally impressive are the complex rhythms of Monta Kroma’s extract from Lips. You. Lips. Me., a larger collection of experimental modernist poems. The Latvian poet plays on the use of refrains and repetition to create a circular, almost obsessive monologue. These poems are ones that I’ve been returning to, and ones you might love too! 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…

What’s New in Translation: August 2018

Find respite from the heat with these new reads.

From Icelandic landscapes to art history, August brings with it an exciting new selection of books. Whether you’re looking for a book to pass the hot summer days, or are in the market for inspired poetry, the Asymptote team has something for you in this new edition of What’s New in Translation. And if that’s not enough, head over to the Asymptote Book Club for fresh reads, delivered to your doorstep every month!

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Öræfi: The Wastelands by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith, Deep Vellum, 2018

Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor

One of the many epic stories retold in Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s Öræfi: The Wastelands (“that punctuation mark… both pushes words (and worlds) away from one another and means they’re roped together,” according to translator Lytton Smith) is the story of Öræfi itself. Formerly known as Hérað, the Province, a place in which “butter drips from every blade of grass,” it was devastated by the most destructive volcanic eruption in Iceland’s recorded history:

The chronicles record that one morning in 1362 Knappafjells glacier exploded and spewed over the Lómagnúpur sands and carried everything off into the sea, thirty fathoms deep… The Province was destroyed, all its people and creatures annihilated; no sheep or cattle survived, no creatures left alive anywhere… the corpses of people and animals washed up on beaches far and wide… the bodies were cooked and tender and the flesh so loose on the bones it fell apart.

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Translation Tuesday: “Icelanders” by Vanda Rozenbergová

But it’s wintertime, it’s been snowing a lot and as long as the weather stays like this the sky will be the same every day.

Shortlisted for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft Litera, it will not be unfair to say that Vanda Rozenbergová is a master of the short story form. In this story, she explores domestic tensions and dashed dreams through the skillful use of a child narrator.

I was in my room playing with my toy cars but Becko kept taking my black sports car away so I had to give him a slap on the hand, Stop it, Becko! I said. I’d been working on a racetrack for my lorries but because it was a Sunday I had to listen to my mum cursing ‘cause the kitchen is next to my room. “Bloody Sundays,” she said, then I heard a pot lid bang on the floor and a knife strike a chopping board. I used to think she was crying but she was just moaning aloud about having to cook. “I’m as lonely as little orphan Annie,” she kept shouting but Daddy and I had no idea who little orphan Annie was. And there’s another thing I don’t get: why does my mum keep doing stuff she hates, why does she keep roasting meat, peeling potatoes, grating carrots, baking and frying, and why does she always clean up afterwards but never sit down with us to eat and instead say she’s had her fill, having breathed in all the cooking smells. And then in the morning she pulls my trousers up to my ears, bundles me into the car and starts doing her hair as we’re driving and tells me with hairpins in her mouth to eat all my sandwiches at school ‘cause she made them for me even though she didn’t feel like it, she hates making sandwiches, as if I didn’t know she hates making them. I’m sure by next year I’ll be making my own sandwiches. But why does she keep on doing stuff she hates? Why doesn’t she just stay in bed and rest and receive visitors, why doesn’t she give me, Daddy, and Becko a hug and ask us to bring her a cup of tea?

When I ask her about it she blames it all on Daddy, but he’s totally not like her, he loves to lounge around and crack jokes, never in a hurry to go anywhere, not even to work. All my friends like him, and sometimes they go to see him for a chat ‘cause he works in the kebab shop next to our school. He doesn’t serve people at the counter, he’s at the back prepping vegetables. He brings home kebabs and doughnuts but Mum doesn’t eat that kind of stuff so it never makes her happy. Becko is not my real brother, I’ve made him up. I told Dad about him and he said that it was OK, that there was this other world and Becko does exist there. When he said that he was lying on a rug under the window looking at the sky, and then he told me a secret, which is that sometimes on his way home from work he stops by the hospital to see his friend who’s sick. I didn’t know what to say so I asked if at least his friend had a nice room, if it had a telly and stuff like that. Of course there’s a telly, said Daddy, and went over to the next room to put some Icelanders on the stereo. Because my Dad loves Icelanders. He loves Icelandic music and Icelandic people.

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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…

New in Translation: September 2016

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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What’s New in Translation? August 2016

Fresh off the printing press, here are Asymptote's must-reads in translation this month!

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Limbo Beirut, by Hilal Chouman, tr. Anna Ziajka Stanton. Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin. Review: Claire Pershan, Assistant Director, Educational Arm

Beirut is a city of collisions. Bad drivers, sudden friendships, graffiti in a mess of languages. And yet, when enough chaos collides, it produces its own order—the way a sprawling city looks from far away.

This is the effect of Hilal Chouman’s latest novel, Limbo Beirut, recently translated from Arabic into English by Anna Ziajka Stanton, and published by University of Texas Press. Chouman’s novel fills the space between history and memory. Six narrative chapters document the fighting that broke out in the city in May of 2008, as it was experienced by the city’s residents. These clashes, between Hezbollah and pro-Syrian militias on one side, and members of the Sunni-supported Future Movement on the other, didn’t gain much attention from western media, but for the Lebanese people, they were a frightening echo of the Civil War that devastated the country between 1975 and 1990.

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What’s New in Translation? July 2016

This month's hottest titles—in translation.

 

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The Blue Blood by Oddný Eir, tr. Philip Roughton, Amazon’s Day OneReview: K.T. Billey, Assistant Editor

The Blue Blood seems simple: a woman wants to have baby. Motherhood has always been “in her cards.” She has found a partner who is game, and they love each other. They try everything, including multiple artificial inseminations from donors selected for their blue eyes—hoping the baby will approximate the father. Disappointment and hope begin to frame the narrator’s consuming obsession: finding someone who can help with ‘their problem.’ Her search for a donor expands into the world, as heartbreak and determination test the limits of her relationship. The reader is privy to the narrator’s pseudo-diary “As if recounting a clever story gives my life purpose…”

In a series of titled vignettes, The Blue Blood does more than chronicle the toll of dreams and bodily realities on our relationships. Blue is everywhere—signs, names, auras, eyes, oceans—a mystic slice reminiscent of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, revolving around fertility and the windows to the soul. The reader experiences the writer’s symbology and suffers along with the woman struggling to read into and ignore them. We feel the weight of their accumulation, the damaging pressure. Desire and action are not enough. When is trying trying too hard? The nature of coincidence gets tangled with intimacy, confronting us with the what we cannot know, will, or hope into being. Of course the couple’s vacation to Argentina finds them in a mountain village with a Nazi past and many blue eyed specimens. Of course they cannot neuter the dog. READ MORE…