Place: Italy

What’s New in Translation: October 2019

October's new translations, selected by the Asymptote staff to shed light on the best recent offerings of world literature.

A new month brings an abundance of fresh translations, and our writers have chosen three of the most engaging, important works: a Japanese novella recounting the monotony of modern working life as the three narrators begin employment in a factory, the memoir of a Russian political prisoner and filmmaker, as well as the first comprehensive English translation of Giorgio de Chirico’s Italian poems. Read on to find out more!

the factory cover

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada, translated from the Japanese by David Boyd, New Directions, 2019

Review by Andreea Scridon, Assistant Editor

Drawn from the author’s own experience as a temporary worker in Japan, The Factory strikes one as being a laconic metaphor for the psychologically brutalizing nature of the modern workplace. There is more than meets the eye in this seemingly mundane narrative of three characters who find work at a huge factory (reticent Yoshiko as a shredder, dissatisfied Ushiyama as a proofreader, and disoriented Furufue as a researcher), as they become increasingly absorbed and eventually almost consumed by its all-encompassing and panoptic nature. Coincidentally wandering into a job for the city’s biggest industry, or finding themselves driven there—against their instincts—by necessity, the three alternating narrators chronicle the various aspects of their working experience and the deeply bizarre undertones that lie beneath the banal surface. READ MORE…

Traversing the Forbidden: A Journey Through Prohibited Literatures

Banned literature offers us the opportunity to gain valuable insight, no matter how controversial.

For literature lovers, it is no secret that a great deal of our favorite titles have been—or still are—banned from the public. In this following essay by Anna Wang, Graphic Designer at Asymptote, she takes us around the multifarious and wide-ranging cartography of vital, yet blacklisted, titles from around the globe, from a novella that metaphorically depicts the persecuted Uyghurs of China, to an infamous work of revolutionary author Boris Pasternak. In realizing the context and culture in which these pertinent titles arose, we may in turn acknowledge both the price, and the power, of the truth.

In a speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled “The American Scholar,” Emerson gave both praise and warning to the power of literature, stating: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” Emerson was right. Books have the ability to persuade, influence, and inspire—an ability which many have found threatening. Time and time again, figures of authority have attempted to reign in or block out literature that challenges their agenda. In celebration of banned literature in the history of world literature, let’s take a look at some of the most impactful banned texts throughout time, why they were banned, and what we can learn from them. 

Wild Pigeon, by Nurmuhemmet Yasin 

Wild Pigeon is a novella originally published in Uyghur between the pages of the 2004 Kashgar Literature Magazine. Written by a young freelance writer, Nurmuhemmet Yasin, it quickly gained widespread acclaim among the Uyghur people in China. The work, written in Uyghur, is a political allegory that tells the story of a young pigeon who is the son of a dead king. While he is looking for a new home, he is trapped by a group of humans. His struggle for freedom and his eventual shocking decision has been interpreted by many as a criticism of the Chinese government for its treatment of its Uyghur population. 

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The Singing Knots of Jorge Eduardo Eielson: Room in Rome in Review

The white pages are treated like canvas, and the lines as singing knots.

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Room in Rome, by Jorge Eduardo Eielson, translated from the Spanish by David Shook, Cardboard House Press, 2019

Knots
That are not knots
And knots that are only
Knots

  1. Peruvian poet Jorge Eduardo Eielson once said of César Vallejo: “There is no superfluousness in Vallejo’s poetry, just as there isn’t any in Christian mysticism, although for opposite reasons”. This reason, according to Eielson, is that Vallejo’s poetry, as opposed to Christian mysticism that supposes a martyrdom of the body, is “a descent of the body—fleshly and social—into hell, that supposes another martyrdom, that of the soul.”
  1. Eielson writes the fleshly and social descent of the body into the Eternal City. Just looking at the title of the opening poem confirms Eielson’s commitment to the body: “Blasphemous Elegy for Those Who Live in the Neighborhood of San Pedro and Have Nothing to Eat.” Room in Rome was written in 1952, shortly after he had left Peru for Italy, where he would settle until his death in 2006. Vallejo, his hero, would also leave Peru for France. Despite this, Eielson’s book was widely available until 1977. During this period, he produced the novel El cuerpo de Gulia-no (The Body of Gulia-no). Again, its title suggests a rigorous investigation of the body and its descent into the worldly. Eielson would write, in 1955, Noche oscura del cuerpo (The Dark Night of the Body)—a shout-out to the Christian mystic St. John of the Cross.)
  1. “i have turned / my patience / into water / my solitude / into bread”
    “here i am headless and shoeless”
    “our father who art in the water”
    “love will be reborn/ between my parched lips”

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Giorgio de Chirico, The Poet

With a word, de Chirico made languages collide . . . In translation, I have tried to honor these textures, to stay hovering just a bit between.

Ut pictura poesis. The language of painters has long been a source of inspiration for poets, and a sense of poetics has equally been an irreplaceable element in painting. In this evocative, sensual essay on the iconic painter and poet Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), Stefania Heim illustrates the various intersections between literature and visuality, between translation into text and translation into images, and between life and the page. This piece has been adapted from the original introduction of Geometry of Shadows, the first comprehensive and bilingual collection of de Chirico’s Italian poetry and translated into English by Heim, which will be published by A Public Space Books in October 2019.

Sun-scorched piazza, marble torso, rubber glove, arched arcade tossing shadows, smoke puffing from a background train: the landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico’s imagination have become iconic. It is a kind of magic to imprint the scenes created by your yearning onto the malleable backdrop of so many minds.

The uncanny emotive power of de Chirico’s visual compositions has gotten him called a poet, even a great poet. “He could condense voluminous feeling through metaphor and association,” writes art critic Robert Hughes about the painter’s canvases, marveling that, “[o]ne can try to dissect these magical nodes of experience, yet not find what makes them cohere.” Metaphor, juxtaposition, unsettling connections, meaning evoked in the missing connective tissue between somehow familiar objects—these are a poet’s tools. De Chirico cultivated this association. He addresses the two “goddesses:” “true Poetry” and “true Painting.” With allusion, symbols, and mythmaking, he connects his work to the great striving of the ages. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

In Romania and Albania this week, literature abounds.

Any occasion to celebrate language is a happy one, as demonstrated in this week’s dispatches from Romania and Albania. With events honoring Romanian Language Day and an emphasis on Albanian literature in Italy, the forces propelling the continuation and evolution of literary language are well and alive. Read on for the news, reported from the ground by our committed editors.

Andreea Scridon, Assistant Editor, reporting from Romania

Romanian Language Day has officially been celebrated on August 31 since 2011. This year, I had the privilege of being in Romania to observe this holiday, more specifically to find myself in Cluj-Napoca, a city with a powerful literary scene thanks to its academic and historical tradition. The event dedicated to this occasion (held one day before, on August 30) was held in an interwar casino revamped into an art gallery in Cluj’s central park, and the general public ranged from the city’s literary elite to a group of kids in baseball caps.

Horia Bădescu, one of the representative literary figures of the 1960s (available in English and French translation) and historian and writer Ovidiu Pecican spoke on the history, significance, evolution, and particularities of the Romanian language, while professor of journalism and writer Ilie Rad and translator Gabriela Lungu (who has translated books like Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn, among many others, from Italian to Romanian) discussed the originality, richness, and their own intimate perceptions of the Romanian language.

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“Unintentional Unity”: Deborah Woodard and Roberta Antognini on translating Amelia Rosselli’s Obtuse Diary

Translating Rosselli’s prose is not different from translating her poetry. Her language is equally challenging, her syntax equally subversive.

Amelia Rosselli’s work is deeply marked by her family and personal history. Born in 1930 to a British activist and a martyred Italian-Jewish antifascist, she lived as an eternal outsider in France, the US, the UK, and Italy. A polyglot with persistent depression, her poetry challenges. It challenges the confines of genre and conventional syntax, it challenges the society with which she was ever at odds, and it challenges the reader to accompany her through her brave literary wanderings. Rosselli ended her own life by jumping out the window of her fifth-floor apartment in Rome in 1996.

Obtuse Diary, published by Entre Rios Books in late 2018, is the first and only collection of Rosselli’s prose. The writing spans a number of years and is organized into three sections and two illuminating afterwords, one by the author and one by one of the translators. Asymptote’s Lindsay Semel spoke with Deborah Woodard and Roberta Antognini, two of the collection’s three translators, about the joys and challenges of rendering Rosselli’s stunning and difficult Italian into English.

Lindsay Semel (LS): Tell me about the origin of this project. How did you come to translate this text together? What was the collaboration process like?

Deborah Woodard (DW): Translating Amelia Rosselli’s Diario Ottuso into Obtuse Diary was quite the saga. It’s a little book, but it took forever to translate. Giuseppe Leporace, my first co-translator, and I brought out some sections of the Diary in The Dragonfly, a selection of Rosselli’s poetry, back in 2009. After we finished The Dragonfly and brought it out through Chelsea Editions, I decided to rework Obtuse Diary and publish it in its entirety.  When Giuseppe became too busy to review it with me, he graciously stepped down from the project. On Giuseppe’s suggestion, I worked on the Diary with Vanja Skoric Paquin, a talented young linguist with a particular gift for unraveling snarled syntax. When Vanja gave birth to her daughter she, in turn, stepped down. A year or so passed, and then I recommenced with Dario De Pasquale. Dario and I tore the earlier translation apart, sentence by sentence. When Dario became too busy to continue to translate with me (do we see a pattern here?), I was extremely fortunate to join forces with Roberta, my current—and from here on out, sole—co-translator on the final version. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Follow our editors through Italy, the UK, and Shanghai as they bring a selection of literary news of the week.

Prizes, festivals, and book fairs! This week, our editors bring us news about Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Strega, Mantua’s Festivalletteratura, Edinburgh’s vibrant International Book Festival, and Shanghai’s vast international Book Fair. At the heart of all these dispatches is the wonderful ability of cities to draw huge numbers of people together to celebrate a year in literature. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Italy

In early June, Antonio Scurati won the 2019 Premio Strega, Italy’s most important literary prize, for his book M. Il figlio del secolo (M. Child of the Century). Scurati’s book is the epitome of ponderous tome: at more than eight hundred pages it is the first of what will be three volumes that novelize the life of Benito Mussolini, with this first title covering Mussolino’s rise to power. The book has been hugely popular with the Italian public, selling some one hundred and twenty thousand copies before it snatched the prize and has even given rise to some interesting debates with some critics calling into question whether Scurati’s book can actually be considered fiction at all, rather than a straightforward biography. What is particularly interesting is the fact that last year’s winner was also a novelized biography set in 1930s Europe: Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica (translated by Ann Goldstein) traces the final years of Gerda Taro, a German-Jewish war photographer, who bore witness to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism.

Looking forward, if you happen to find yourself in northern Italy between September 4 and 8, it might be worth popping by the small city of Mantua in Lombardy which hosts one of the biggest literary festivals in the country: Festivalletteratura. The line-up of guests could put the Edinburgh literary festival to shame, with a very international cast of writers and themes. Margaret Atwood will be popping by, as will Ali Smith, Valeria Luiselli and Elif Shafak. The festival will explore the contradictions of current American society with the help of Colson Whitehead and Meg Wolitzer among others, and academics like Amin Maalouf and Simon Schama will be hosting talks and debates around the future of the European Union. Other interesting events will be centered around modern Albanian and even Italian literature, science and the environment. You can check a full guide of the guests and events here. READ MORE…

What’s New with the Crew? (Aug 2019)

We've been keeping busy!

What do Asymptote staff get up to when they’re not busy advocating for world literature? Answer: Quite a lot! For those interested in joining our team, please note that we have just completed the first phase of our recruitment drive and will conclude the second and final phase by the end of the month. It’s not too late to send in an application!

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow published two poems in Plume, in English and French versions.

Assistant editor Andreea Iulia Scridon‘s poem, Glossa, a re-writing of Mihai Eminescu’s Romanian poem of the same name, has been published by WildCourt.

Copy Editor Anna Aresi‘s Italian translation of Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn, 2014) was released in May by Edizioni Ensemble. 

Chris Tanasescu (aka MARGENTO, editor-at-large for Romania and Moldova) has been featured in a Romanian poetry anthology in Italian translation, Sette poeti rumeni (Seven Romanian Poets) edited by Matteo Veronesi.

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What’s New in Translation: July 2019

Four reviews of translations you won't want to miss this month!

From translations by heavyweights like Ann Goldstein and Jennifer Croft to novels by writers appearing for the first time in English, July brings a host of exciting new books in translation. Read on for coming-of-age stories set in Italy and Poland, a drama in rural Argentina, and the tale of a young man and his pet lizard in Japan. 

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A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

In A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award-winning novel, a nameless young woman retrospectively narrates the defining event of her adolescence—the year when the only family she has ever known returns her to her birth family. From the title, the reader can already sense the protagonist’s conundrum. A passive object of the act of being returned, her passivity in her own uprooting threatens to define her identity. Ann Goldstein’s searing translation from the Italian inspires the reader both to accompany the narrator as she wades through the tender memories of that time and to reflect on her or his own family relationships through a new lens.

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Thirteen Keys to a Doorless House in Toledo: On Tela de sevoya by Myriam Moscona

The Ladino language has etched on her tongue the addresses of countless houses in the Jewish Quarters of Toledo and Burgos.

Myriam Moscona’s Tela de sevoya (Onioncloth) was published in English in 2017, translated from the Ladino by Antena (Jen Hofer with John Pluecker). In today’s essay, Asymptote’s Sergio Sarano, himself a Ladino speaker, uses Moscona’s book as a starting point to explore the language and its history, shaped by the complex migrations of the Jewish diaspora. Sergio also discusses Ladino’s current status as an endangered language and highlights the important role that Moscona, as one of just a few writers who continue to publish in Ladino, has to play in keeping the language alive.

“I come upon a city
I remember
that there lived
my two mothers
and I wet my feet
in the rivers
that from these and other waters
arrive to this place”

—Myriam Moscona

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Erri De Luca

We pave roads, shovel snow, / smooth lawns, beat carpets, / gather tomatoes and insults, / we are the feet and know every inch of the land.

In this Translation Tuesday, Italian poet Erri De Luca reflects on the Mediterranean migrant crisis and movement across borders, seas, and languages. From desert crossings and the “thrashing of dust in columns” to exploitation in the first world, De Luca poignantly evokes the struggles faced by the newest Europeans.

 

Six voices

It was not the sea that welcomed us
we welcomed the sea with open arms.

Descending from highlands burnt by war and not the sun
we crossed the desert of the Tropic of Cancer.

When from a high ground we were able to view the sea
it was a finish line, a caress of waves at our feet.

Ending there was Africa, the under-sole of ants,
from them caravans had learned to tread.

Under the thrashing of dust in columns
the first man alone is required to raise his eyes.

The others follow the heel that precedes them,
the voyage on foot is a trail of backs.

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My 2018: Barbara Halla

It would be a lie to say that I don’t seek stories written by women about what it feels like to live as a woman.

Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, walks us through her reading list for 2018, a diverse set of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books by women writers. Along the way, she reflects on feminist theory, the beauty of contemplative essays, and the power of collective memoirs.

Anyone who has had the (mis)fortune of following me on Twitter knows I am a dedicated disciple of Elena Ferrante. So, when I found out that Edizioni E/O had published an extended literary analysis of her work, I risked missing my flight by rushing to my favourite Milan bookstore (Rizzoli) to buy a copy.

Tiziana de Rogatis is an Italian professor of Comparative Literature, and her book Elena Ferrante. Parole Chiave (Elena Ferrante. Key Terms, not yet available in English) is exactly the kind of book my nerdy heart needed: an investigation into the literary and philosophical works underpinning Ferrante’s literary creations. I think it’s important to note that a great part of Ferrante’s appeal is in her ability to shore her works into a lived reality, one that does not require an extensive knowledge of Italian history, or feminist theory, to be appreciated fully. In fact, with the slight exception perhaps of her collection of essays and interviews Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein), you lose absolutely nothing if you go into it with little context. That being said, de Rogatis does a fantastic job at explicitly laying out and connecting Ferrante’s text to the literary foundation upon which they were built, her analysis a sort of Ariadne’s thread helping the reader through the labyrinth of Ferrante’s writing. Ferrante borrows heavily from Greek and Latin mythology, like Euripides’ Medea or Virgil’s The Aeneid. Many of the struggles her women experience and the way they think about those struggles can be mapped directly onto various modern feminist texts, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Hopefully Europa Editions will translate this book, too, because it is essential reading if you are even mildly obsessed with Ferrante. I am currently re-reading the series and am amazed at how much de Rogatis’s work enriched my understanding: Elena Greco, for example, uses the word “subaltern” frequently throughout the Quartet.

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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…

Winter 2015: We Almost Didn’t Make It

Asymptote was giving—and continues to give—voice to languages and regions across the globe without ever lowering the curatorial bar.

If you’re just joining us, we invite you to revisit our first 16 issues via our #30issues30days showcase here. In honor of our milestone 30th edition, we’ll shortly be launching a contest giveaway with a top prize of $200, so watch this space!

2015 was a milestone year for Asymptote: We won a London Book Fair award and partnered with The Guardian. But only Asymptote staff back then know we almost didn’t make it past January. On 15 December 2014, despairing of the lack of progress in fundraising, I wrote the following (lightly edited) email: 

“Hello team, I’ve been reassessing the situation. It seems I underestimated the support for the magazine and it doesn’t look as if we’re going to hit our campaign target by December 19. Therefore, we’ll be extending the deadline to January 29, 2015. Our January issue will be pushed back to January 30, the very date of our debut in 2011, four years ago, so that we’ll have come full circle. If we don’t hit the target on January 29, we will announce in the editorial that the Jan 2015 issue will be our very last. Social media and blog activities (including the podcast, very sadly) shall cease with effect from 1 Feb. The magazine will fold. Planning for all activities after January should be halted with immediate effect. Please respect this. Section editors, please do not communicate any more acceptances, and please be prepared to rescind your acceptances for anything after the January issue on the event of our closure, if it does come to that. As promised, we will break for the holidays. (I’ll hold the fort on social media during this time.) In January, we will prioritize work on the January edition as well as the two January events. As for those who are willing to help, we will keep publicizing the IndieGoGo campaign and sending out appeals. We’ll see if the magazine can be saved. (During a recent discussion with the senior editors, the question did arise about whether to shield all of you from the hard reality in front of us. But I don’t think it’s good to keep mum, for morale’s sake; also, I would not be so cruel as to ask you to continue working on projects that may not see the light of publication, or events that have to be cancelled. The reality is that I am simply out of funds, and also depleted in other ways. If we don’t hit the IndieGoGo target, I would prefer to end on a high note and move on.)”

Here to introduce our Winter 2015 issue, released one day after 287 supporters brought us past the finish line of $25,000, please welcome Assistant Editor Victoria Livingstone. 

“I am always trying to push the market very hard,” David Damrosch told Asymptote contributing editor Dylan Suher in an interview included in the Winter 2015 issue. The Harvard professor of comparative literature explained that he strives to bring so-called minor literatures into the canon of world literature by translating, anthologizing, and teaching works from underrepresented regions and languages.

Asymptote has been similarly pushing against the market since Lee Yew Leong founded the journal in 2011. When the Winter 2015 issue was published, I was finishing my doctoral work, which focused on connections between political contexts and translated literature. As I was immersed in the work of critics such as Damrosch, I was also reading Asymptote, and I recognized then that that the journal was doing something different. Rather than reproducing the inequalities of what Pascale Casanova calls “the world republic of letters,” Asymptote was giving—and continues to give—voice to languages and regions across the globe without ever lowering the curatorial bar.  READ MORE…