Place: Italy

Announcing the Winter 2018 Issue of Asymptote

Celebrate our 7th anniversary with this new issue, gathering never-before-published work from 30 countries!

We interrupt our regular programming to announce the launch of Asymptote‘s Winter 2018 issue! Here’s a tour of some of the outstanding new work from 30 different countries, which we’ve gathered under the theme of “A Different Light”:

In “Aeschylus, the Lost,” Albania’s Ismail Kadare imagines a “murky light” filtering through oiled window paper in the ancient workroom of the father of Greek tragedy. A conversation with acclaimed translator Daniel Mendelsohn reveals the “Homeric funneling” behind his latest memoir. Polish author Marta Zelwan headlines our Microfiction Special Feature, where meaning gleams through the veil of allegory. Light glows ever brighter in poet Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s “syntactically frenetic” “Arachnid Sun”; and in Erika Kobayashi’s fiction, nuclear devastation blazes from Hiroshima to Fukushima.

The light around us is sometimes blinding, sometimes dim, “like a dream glimpsed through a glass that’s too thick,” as Argentine writer Roberto Arlt puts it, channeling Paul to the Corinthians in The Manufacturer of Ghosts. Something dreamlike indeed shines in César Moro’s Equestrian Turtle, where “the dawn emerges from your lips,” and, as if in echo, Mexican writer Hubert Matiúwàa prophecies for his people’s children “a house made of dawn.” With Matiúwàa’s Mè’phàà and our first works from Amharic and Montenegrin, we’ve now published translations from exactly 100 languages!

We hope you enjoy reading this milestone issue as much as everyone at Asymptote enjoyed putting it together. If you want to see us carry on for years to come, consider becoming a masthead member or a sustaining member today. Spread the word far and wide!

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Translation Tuesday: “The Future Perfect” by Paolo Zardi

You are sitting up straight, and don’t know that in less than a minute you are going to die.

The narrator of “The Future Perfect” is riding the bus, listening to the Beatles on an iPod, when a tragic accident occurs on the street outside. Paolo Zardi doesn’t tell us which album it is, but perhaps we can speculate that it is Sgt. Pepper. As a shattering portrait of parental loss and a terrifying vision of the randomness and finality of death, Zardi’s story recalls the songs “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day in the Life,” respectively. Like those songs, the reverberations of “The Future Perfect” stay with us long after the final line.

I’m sitting on a plastic chair on the number 7 bus, on Corso Stati Uniti, heading towards the station, laptop case in hand, and a sense of satisfaction for the great deal I just closed. You are riding a scooter, an Aprilia SR, with a black leg cover over your legs, a bunny-eared helmet on your head, and a windshield to protect you from the rain. You are sitting up straight, a common female stance, and don’t know that in less than a minute you are going to die. Opposite me, there is a woman who is the carbon copy of a girl who was in elementary school with me, but ten years older; you, in the meantime, drive up alongside the huge window where I’m watching Padua’s drenched industrial area flash by—I can also see a Seat León waiting to exit a side road, five hundred meters ahead of us—and I smile when I see the huge bright “Serramenti Cacco” sign; then, I look down at you, but the visor of your helmet is dark, and I can’t see the lines of your face. You continue driving in your lane, next to us, under a trickle of rain, while on the bus a black kid offers his seat to a man who had no idea he was that old. We will pass you soon, and you, trailing behind us, will crash into the front of a car that will not have yielded the right-of-way; we will only hear the muffled sound of sheet metal buckling, and we will ask ourselves what the noise was; someone will say it was two cars crashing; someone else will add, in the dialect of Padua, “That was some crash!” and then we will all go back to reading our books, to listening to the Beatles on our iPods, to asking ourselves why we hadn’t noticed we had aged. While your mother is preparing the pasta for dinner, a doctor will be trying to reanimate you, pressing his hands down on your chest 103 times a minute, the time it takes to cook the Barilla farfalle noodles; they will be throwing in the towel just as your mother is draining the pasta and is starting to ask herself why you are so late. At eight thirty, sweaty-palmed, she will call you on your cell phone, and on the other end a man will sit down and wait for it to ring just once more, just one more time before working up the courage to answer and explain to the person who brought you into this world what has happened to you; and on this side of the world your mother will slip to the ground and will scream, without understanding, “Oh God, oh my God!” Your father will get up off his armchair, where he had started watching the news of Obama’s victory on channel 2 and, heavy-hearted, he will go to the kitchen; and when he sees his wife sitting on the floor, he will understand everything, immediately; then he will kneel next to the woman he has always loved, and he will hold her as if she were made of fine glass, and, incredulous, they will cry, together; your mother will remember the day she gave birth to you and your father the first time you told him you loved him. Then, in time, your room will become a shrine and your things small relics; your mother will spend her next years listening to your CDs, stuck forever in 2009, hugging the first teddy bear she ever bought for you; your father will slip into a silence that is more and more dismal. But in the meantime, we, the passengers on the bus, will have already arrived home: when your mother was dialing the phone, I had already eaten dinner; when she slipped to the floor, I had finished brushing my teeth; when your parents were driving to the hospital, accompanied only by the sound of their sobs, I was finishing the book on my night stand. And while they were identifying your face, disfigured by death, I had just closed my eyes, thanking the Lord for such a beautiful day.

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What’s New in Translation: January 2018

The new year kicks off with new releases from Japan, Germany, and Italy.

Every month, our staff members pick three notable new releases in world literature to review. The first month of 2018 brings us short fiction from Japan and novels from Germany and Italy.

bear and the paving stone

The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuki Horie, translated from the Japanese by Geraint Howells, Pushkin Press

Reviewed by Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large for Singapore

Mention ‘contemporary Japanese fiction’ to the average reader and bestselling names like Haruki Murakami, Ruth Ozeki, and Keigo Higashino might come to mind; or indeed last year’s Nobel laureate, the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. From that perspective, at least, Toshiyuki Horie can be considered one of the modern Japanese canon’s best-kept secrets, happily resurfaced for an Anglophone audience by the ever-intrepid Pushkin Press. A critic, translator, and professor of literature, Horie has garnered numerous accolades for his fiction and essays, and is also—as the three novellas collected here reveal—a masterly prose stylist, a ruthlessly effective narrator, and a seasoned traveller between the real and imagined geographies of experience and history, dream and memoir, and past and present.

The first and longest section of the volume contains Horie’s novella “The Bear and the Paving Stone,” which won the Akutagawa Prize in 2001, and lends this volume its title. The tale opens in a strange, allegorical dream-sequence that ends just as abruptly when the narrator wakes, alone, in a rural farmhouse in Normandy. Drawing on Horie’s own time as a graduate student at the Sorbonne, the story unfolds with exquisite pacing into a long-awaited reunion between two unlikely college pals: the narrator (then a student from Japan, now a professional translator) and Yann, a free-spirited, petánque-playing photographer. As they embark on a breakneck drive to see the sun set over Mont St Michel from Yann’s favourite spot on the coast, we are plunged as if into another dream: this time, comprising the layered narratives of French intellectual history, the Holocaust and its aftershocks, and a post-modern, international friendship. Ghostly historical figures such as Émile Littré, Jorge Semprún, and Bruno Bettelheim haunt these pages with a sense of driving, almost teleological purpose, but the two friends’ conversation somehow remains light, and movingly human, throughout.

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My 2017: Diána Vonnák

“Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.” They do, and the result is often great.

Editor-at-Large for Hungary Diána Vonnák, who joined us in October this year, moved between fiction and nonfiction titles in 2017. Some of these books blurred the lines between both and probed the relationship between invented worlds and our own. 

I spent much of this year reading books I would have trouble classifying either as fiction or nonfiction. They reminded me of Geoff Dyer, who began his “Art of Nonfiction” interview with the Paris Review by protesting the division: “Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.” They do, and the result is often great. Here are my favourites from 2017.

I started the year with Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, an engrossing family memoir-cum-intellectual history. Sands, a human rights lawyer, sets off on a journey to recover his own family history—which leads him back to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine. Before the Holocaust eliminated its prolific Jewish life, Ralph Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who would later become legal scholars, both studied there. Just like Sands’ own grandparents, Lemkin and Lauterpacht left their hometowns and were spared from the massacre that eradicated their entire families. Sands combines a precipitating personal memoir with a vivid reconstruction of how the Holocaust led these two thinkers to develop the notions, in Lemkin’s case, of genocide and, in Lauterpacht’s case, of crimes against humanity. Sands shows how their ideas originated from their personal lives, and as he follows Lemkin and Lauterpacht through emigration, he reconstructs their respective intellectual environments. It all culminates in the milestone legal debates that took place after the Holocaust—Sands shows us how Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s own compelling circumstances shaped their arguments. It is rare to see legal history woven so seamlessly into personal reflection.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

Stay up to date with the literary achievements of the wonderful Asymptote team!

Contributing Editor Adrian Nathan West has two new translations out: Rainald Goetz’s Insane published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and reviewed in The Economist; and Juan Benet’s Construction of the Tower of Babel, published by Wakefield Press.

Writers on Writers Editor Ah-reum Han‘s flash fiction, “The Last Heifer,” was published in Fiction International, for its 50th Issue.

Copy Editor Anna Aresi’s translation of Gifts & Bequests by Carol Aymar Armstrong was published on the Italian poetry blog InternoPoesia (IP). She also edited “Poetry in Translation,” the 2017 issue of Mosaici: Learned Online Journal of Italian Poetry, which went live in November.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The most important literary news from Slovakia, the UK, Mexico and Guatemala.

This week brings us some exciting news from Slovakia, the United Kingdom, and Mexico, thanks to Editors-at-Large Julia Sherwood, Paul Worley, and Kelsey Woodburn as well as Senior Executive Assistant, Cassie Lawrence. Here’s to another week!

Julia Sherwood, Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Slovakia:

Two festivals concluded the hectic literary festival season in Slovakia. LiKE 2017, a contemporary literature and multimedia festival was held in Košice, the eastern metropolis, running parallel with the 14th Žilina Literature Festival in the country’s north. The latter, held from September 28 to October 8 in the repurposed New Synagogue and entitled Fakt?Fakt! (Fictitious Truth or Truthful Fiction?), focused on the alarming spread of disinformation, pre-empting the decision by Collins Dictionary to declare “fake news” the official word of the year 2017. The programme featured student discussions, workshops on how to distinguish fact from fiction, as well as readings and meetings with literary critics and writers. Michal Hvorecký discussed his latest novel, Trol (The Troll), a dark dystopia set in the murky world of Russian fake news factories, which has acquired a frightening new relevance far exceeding what the author had anticipated when he set out to write his book a few years ago.

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Translator Profile: Jennifer Scappettone

The notion of a unitary, homogenous, and monolingual “America” is as much an alternative fact as Spicer’s attendance numbers at the inauguration.

Former Asymptote blog editor Allegra Rosenbaum interviews translator and scholar Jennifer Scappettone, whose profile appeared in our Winter 2016 issue. Her translation of Italian poet Milli Graffi was featured on the Asymptote blog last week and her translation of F. T. Marinetti’s futurist poetry appeared in our Spring 2016 issue. 

Who are you? What do you translate? (This is just a preliminary question! To be taken with an existential grain of salt.)

I am a poet and scholar of American and Italian nationalities who grew up in New York, across the street from a highly toxic landfill redolent of the family’s ancestral zone outside of Naples (laced with illegal poisonous dumps). I translate Fascists and anti-Fascists; Italian feminists and a single notorious misogynist; inheritors of Futurism and the historical avant-garde; and contemporary poets who are attempting to grapple with the millennial burden of the “Italian” language by channeling or annulling voices from Saint Francis through autonomia.

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Translation Tuesday: “Love Crisson” by Milli Graffi

Talklossenette wavening / the palpid culdicurve / ambashes.

I fell in love with the poetry of Milli Graffi in 2008, when I was seeking authors to include in a dossier for Aufgabe on “poesia ultima e della ricerca,” or the latest Italian poetry of research. It was immediately clear to me that we had heroes in common—Lewis Carroll and James Joyce in particular.

There’s a section in Finnegans Wake on Anna Liva Plurabelle in which Joyce speaks of “loosening your talktapes.” When he translated this passage into Italian, Joyce himself rendered this phrase as “scioglilinguagnolo,” a translation that likely reveals the matrix of the original notion he had in mind: in English, we speak of tongue twisters, or what we might render in Italian as attorcilingua, while in Italian one uses the term “scioglilingua,” or tongue-dissolvers, tongue-thawers, tongue untiers. The Italian idiomatic expression might very well have been the origin of the “loosening” that ended up in Finnegans Wake, a book in which all languages converge in tangles of phonemes and roots.

I discovered this point of correspondence in a book of English exercises that Milli Graffi edited for Paravia publishers, aimed at high school students—because Graffi, unstoppable champion of the avant-garde that she is, chose this mind-twistingly complex passage for the teaching volume. When we got together this summer in Milan to prepare for a public chat on translation, on a sultry heat-thickened afternoon further stultified by a city-wide transit strike, Milli told me that she had used the word in a poem, and I knew that I had to try translating it.

The work was published in Mille graffi e venti poesie, 1977-78 (Geiger, 1979), and I soon found that Graffi had rendered Joyce’s phrase even more Byzantine, because she transformed scioglilinguagnolo into sperdilinquagnolo, turning the action of loosening embedded in the original Italian phrase into loss (sperdersi refers to losing oneself; sperdere means dispersal, scattering), and lingua (“tongue; language”) into linqua, some sort of calque tending toward the English “linkage” while containing the heavily deictic “qua” (Italian “here”; Latin “what; as; in the capacity of”). I took other necessary liberties while working with this poem: my translation of ambiscia is a calque of ambassador and ambush, and so on. A proper gloss would proceed word by word, but I’ll leave it up to readers to discover some tripwires of their own.

—Jennifer Scappettone

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your news from the literary world, all in one place.

This week, our Editors-at-Large bring us up to speed on literary happenings in South Africa, Central America, and Brazil.

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large, South Africa: 

South Africa has eleven official languages, a fact not often evident in local literary awards and publications, which generally skew towards English and Afrikaans as mediums. However, the announcement of the 2017 South African Literary Awards (SALA) has done much to change this perception.

In addition to including five contributors to narratives in the extinct !Xam and !Kun languages (drawn from the Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd archives), a biography in Sepedi (Tšhutšhumakgala by Moses Shimo Seletisha) and poetry collections in isiXhosa (Iingcango Zentliziyo by Simphiwe Ali Nolutshungu) and the Kaaps dialect (Hammie by Ronelda S. Kamfer) have been shortlisted.

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What’s New In Translation: October 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 Italy, Brazil and Norway. 

Dust-MC

Dust by Adrian Bravi, translated from the Italian by Patience Haggin, Dalkey Archive Press.

Reviewed by Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-Large, Brazil.

“‘How long will I have to flail about, drowning in the world of the microscopic?’”

This is one of the many questions that the narrator, Anselmo, of Adrian Bravi’s novel Dust anxiously asks himself while coping with his total phobia of dust. The depth of his internal interrogation hinges on the word “microscopic”: Anselmo faces not the literal question of clean living, but instead the concept of infinite accumulation and infinite loss—of seconds and minutes, of words and ideas, of skin and hair and other shavings of the physical self.

To read Patience Haggin’s forthcoming English translation of Dust (Dalkey Archive Press, October 2017) is to slowly sink into an ocean of everyday minutiae. The book centers on Anselmo, a librarian living with his wife Elena in the fictional city of Catinari, Italy, and his daily routine of cataloguing books, obsessively dusting surfaces, and frequently writing letters that invariably never reach their destination.

What gives this novel its power is not the literal subject matter of the book, which often threatens to overtake the prose in its tedium, but instead the artful language that invites us to meditate conceptually on the simple life represented. Anselmo, at one point, compares his monotonous work cataloguing books to that of a “simple mortician sorting bodies for burial according to their profession”; at another moment, his wife Elena says that reading newly published books is akin to, “‘studying smoke your whole life when you’ve never seen fire.’” These metaphors broaden a seemingly narrow scope, bringing us closer to fully imagining humanity’s constant and immense decay.

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In Review: Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout and the Poetry of Radicalism

Radicalism itself thus gets subverted, in the sense that any possible single-minded version of it is blown up.

Written in the mid-through-late seventies, Blackout was released in the wake of the 1968 moment, which involved a wave of radical students and anti-capitalist workers’ unrest surging throughout Western Europe. But unlike in France, that “moment” lasted in Italy for over a decade. And it is the prolonged endurance and mostly tragic ramifications that inspired Nanni Balestrini to write this outstanding algorithmically-experimental work.

It is perhaps useful to note from the very beginning how Balestrini’s radical allegiance gets in fact filtered through, mixed with, and ultimately shaped by the various cacophonous kinds of discourse he feeds into his algorithmic procedures. He is not the first to inform digital poetics with radicalism—in the US for instance, a father figure of algorithmic/digital poetry, John Cage, had professed Maoism as the ideology consistent with his own “m: writings” and “mesostic”-generating operations as early as the 1960s—but he is indeed a singular case of focusing a whole book of algorithmic writing on a radical movement. Balestrini in this respect is a pioneer, since if 21st century digital poetry can be partly characterized by a radical, anti-capitalistic ethos (albeit diffused by lingering postmodernist reflexes), back in the day digital poetics focused a lot more on the method rather than the political implications of its subjects.

Balestrini’s “how” therefore enacts a remarkably nuanced view on the “what.” Perhaps the most relevant if intriguing paradox of this book is its unrelenting focus on the radical movement and related events, expanded by an inclusive, democratic perspective that invites diversity and a discordance of viewpoints and voices—all of which is eventually turned on its head, political stance included. Radicalism itself thus gets subverted, in the sense that any possible single-minded version of it is blown up by the most uncompromising—and therefore inclusive—radicalism of all: that of the (politically and commercially unsanctioned) algorithm.

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Between two worlds: An exclusive interview with Ubah Cristina Ali Farah

"The language we choose to write has a powerful political meaning."

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is a poet, novelist, playwright, and oral performer of Italian and Somali heritage, best known for her novels Madre piccola (2007) and Il comandante del fiume (2014). Her piece, “A Dhow Crosses the Sea” recently appeared in the April issue of Asymptote, translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson of the University of Iowa.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): What can you tell me about the oral storytelling quality of your work?

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (UCAF): While I was studying at the Sapienza University of Rome, my favorite authors were Amos Tutuola, Amadou Hampâté Bâ and the great Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa. I learned to love the oral, anonymous poetry of the medieval bards, the romancero evoked by García Lorca, Italo Calvino’s rewriting of traditional Italian tales, and Pierpaolo Pasolini’s striking collection of popular songs and poems. However, my first loves, the texts that influenced me most, were the Somali oral poems and tales, under the wings of which I grew up. I was looking for the oneiric feeling that resonated in the oral poetry, a text disconnected but at the same time coherent, a voice encompassing both colloquial and erudite styles and registers of language. A storytelling that could embody the throbbing power of the voice.

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Teach This—Banned Countries Special Feature

Simon Fraser University’s Cristina Serverius on Understanding Identity in Oral Storytelling Traditions

Welcome to Teach This, Asymptote for Educators’ answer to the current issue’s Banned Countries Special Feature. We believe that the classroom is the perfect setting for young people to be exposed to diverse, contemporary voices, both allowing them to challenge their assumptions and to engage them with living literature… a conversation in which their own voices matter. To that end, Asymptote for Educators has launched this weekly blog series in which global educators share how and why they would teach the feature’s articles. We hope you and your students enjoy!

Are you an educator with your own lesson plan ideas? Teach This – Banned Countries Special Feature is currently open for submissions. Email education@asymptotejournal.com for more information.

While the work of Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is always situated between two cultures—Somali and Italian—it provides a point of access for students to learn about oral traditions, because despite the author’s long residencies outside of Somalia, these traditions remain present in her writing. Their ubiquity is testament to the very nature of oral stories, which creep into our lives unannounced and perhaps unnoticed, and travel with us. This is how they survive; this is how we survive.

The activities below focus on Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s use of the Somali oral tradition and the question of personal identity in the context of stories that are passed down and retold, and which have become part of the socio-cultural fabric of our being. Besides offering an introduction to these topics, the lesson provides practice for analysis of a literary text and use of a secondary source to enrich our understanding of literature.

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Asymptote Podcast

The Translator's Craft

In this week’s all new Asymptote podcast we’re getting crafty! We’ll be hearing from translator Roland Glasser about how he uses technology in his work, as well as getting sage advice from Susanna Basso who is featured in our new Spring Issue. We’ve also got a special dispatch from poet Suzannah V. Evans from the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, where she sat down with writers and artists Aurélia Lassaque and Tessa Berring to get the scoop on their translation workshop. Get ready to untangle a lot of French feelings: fear, dread, horror, terror, and finding out how marigolds inspire very different moods in standard French versus Occitan—and what exactly all this has to do with a giant fish.

Podcast Editor and Host: Layla Benitez-James

Audio Editor: Mirza Puric