Place: Japan

What’s New in Translation: November 2019

November’s best new translations, chosen by the Asymptote staff.

November brings plenty of exciting new translations and our writers have chosen four varied, yet equally enriching and timely works: Bohumil Hrabal’s memoir that is at once a detailed study of humans’ relationship with cats and an exploration of dealing with mounting pressures and stress; a debut collection of Chilean short stories which explores social and economic difficulties and sheds light on some of the causes behind Chile’s recent social unrest; Hiromi Kawakami’s follow-up novella to the international bestseller, Strange Weather in Tokyo; and a novel set on the Chagos Archipelago which recounts the expulsion of Chagossians from the island of Diego Garcia and examines cultural identity and exile. Read on to find out more!

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All My Cats by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson, New Directions, 2019

Review by Katarzyna Bartoszyńska, Educational Arm Assistant

Bohumil Hrabal’s All My Cats is not for the faint of heart. Though fans of the author will recognize and appreciate the quirky humor and lyrical melancholy, one must also be prepared to take on the harsher aspects of the story, and I suspect that the uninitiated may find the descriptions of cats being murdered a bit much to take. The short memoir documents the author’s relationship to the feral cats living in his country cottage in Kersko, and his anguished labors to brutally limit their number. It is a lovely homage, and a richly evocative account of the pleasures of feline companionship, with lush descriptions of their delicate paws and velvety noses. We become acquainted with each individual kitty and their distinctive markings, habits, and personalities, but these rhapsodic stories are punctuated by episodes of grim slaughter that are depressingly specific—a morose account of an awful deed. And so, gradually, horrifyingly, this becomes a book about guilt and how it shapes one’s worldview, producing a strange reckoning of crime and punishment that reads retribution in the random alignments of events.

Witnessing Hrabal shuttling back and forth between his life in Prague and Kersko, we begin to notice that his concerns about his cats are combined with a steadily accumulating sense of anxiety and torment about his work, neighbors, and life. “What are we going to do with all those cats?” his wife asks, in an echoing refrain, as new litters of kittens, inexorably, arrive. The book is about the cats, but we start to realize that it is also not about the cats, not really, but rather, about how Hrabal struggles to manage the various stresses of his life more generally as he gains success and recognition as a writer. Haunted by his guilt over the murdered creatures, he surveys the world around him, reflecting on the relationship between art and suffering, and increasingly begins to feel that he is a plaything of fate, doomed to unhappiness, with no choice but surrender. READ MORE…

A Paltry Little Scrap of the Past: Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police

Scrappy as memory may be . . . Ogawa emphasizes the importance of bearing witness to the past all the same.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, Pantheon, 2019

It is easy to read Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police as a political allegory, along the lines of Milan Kundera’s oft-quoted proclamation in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Upon The Memory Police’s release in English this summer, publishing presses label the novel “Orwellian;” critics have similarly gravitated toward the timely themes of state surveillance and totalitarianism that form the novel’s backdrop, to which I relate in some way.

At the time of writing this essay, Hong Kong, the city where I was born, has been entrenched in protest for three months against the institutional violence committed by the government and the police force. With a crowdfunded campaign to place protest ads on international newspapers, a post on the August 19, 2019 edition of The New York Times asked readers to “[b]ear witness to Hongkongers’ fight for freedom. Tell our story—especially if we can no longer do it ourselves.” A month after, when two shafts of light went up in New York City to commemorate the eighteenth anniversary of 9/11, news headlines and Twitter posts abounded with the slogan “Never Forget,” used year after year to show the resilience of memory against trauma. Never have we been more well-equipped to record and share our experiences, but we are also more afraid than ever of not retaining control over our narratives, or of going unheard amidst the overflow of calamities documented around the world.

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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…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Follow our editors through France, Japan, and Vietnam as they bring a selection of literary news of the week.

This week, our editors are bringing you news from France, Japan, and Vietnam. After quiet summers in the literary world for many countries, September brings the literary scene back to life. In France, the anticipation is building ahead of the most prestigious literary prizes being awarded. In Japan, a new edition of a historic quarterly is uniting Japanese and Korean literature through a shared feminist voice. And in Vietnam, the launch of a new anthology, as well as events held by prestigious translators, celebrate the ties that are created through translation.

Sarah Moore, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from France

September in France marks the rentrée littéraire, with hundreds of new titles published before the big award season starts in November. The prix Fémina, prix Renaudot, prix Interallié, prix Médicis, and the prix de l’Académie française will all be contested, as well as the prestigious prix Goncourt.

Amongst the French titles announced for the rentrée, Amélie Nothomb’s Soif (Albin Michel, 21 August) is highly anticipated, although not at all unexpected—an incredibly prolific author, she has consistently featured in the rentrée littéraire every year since the publication of her debut novel, Hygiène de l’assassin, in 1992 (Hygiene and the Assassin, Europa Editions, 2010). With a narrative that takes the voice of Jesus during the final hours of his life, Soif is sure to be as audacious, controversial, and successful as ever for Nothomb.

Marie Darrieussecq’s new novel, La Mer à l’envers (P.O.L, 2019), examines the migration crisis, narrating an encounter between a Parisian woman and a young refugee, rescued from a capsized boat. Many of Darrieussecq’s novels have already been translated into English, including her first novel Pig Tales (Faber & Faber, 2003), and, most recently, The Baby (Text Publishing, 2019). An interview with her translator, Penny Hueston, for Asymptote can be read here and an extract of her translation of Men was part of Asymptote‘s Translation Tuesday series for The Guardian.

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Translation Tuesday: “Gold Dust’s Sleep (Seven Fragments)” by Yonezawa Nobuko

Beneath them, oh living things, / wander / as you dance.

This week for Translation Tuesday, Asymptote is pleased to present the lush poem “Gold Dust’s Sleep (Seven Fragments).” These fragments from Japanese luminary Yonezawa Nobuko revel in the fusion of concept and image in miniature. Inspired by the Symbolist tradition, Yonezawa’s poetry seems to refract the very words that make it up, allowing for subjective particulates to surface from the flow of experience and conspire with the reader. In this skillful translation, the concrete style of the original is maintained, so that the form of the stanzas themselves seem to impress a visual coherence and solidity to the movement of the language. As if struck with an afterthought, the poems end with suspended lines that evoke a response and an elaboration. With movement and the quotidian electrified, they breathe. 

Gold Dust’s Sleep (Seven Fragments) 

I

That moment, like the blind,
running
at full speed,
gently
gold dust was sleeping
the simple,
faded color of dreams.

II

Bare reality,
just a flower planted in a beaker.
Spotted as if with falling blood,
raw
gladiolus. READ MORE…

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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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

The glorious fragrance of fresh literary works, hot off the presses from around the world.

It seems that national literatures around the world are shaping their next representatives as we receive further updates of new works by authors from around the globe. From publications by a Guatemalan indie press, to a remarkably young award honouree in Brazil, to a historic list of nominations for the most prestigious literary prizes in Japan, our editors are bringing you a glimpse of what is in yourand your bookshelf’sfuture. 

José García Escobar, Editor-at Large, reporting from Central America 

The biggest book fair in Central America, the Feria Internacional del Libro en Guatemala (FILGUA) is only a few weeks away. And like every year, on the days leading to FILGUA, the Guatemalan indie press Catafixia has been announcing its newest drafts. Mid-July, Catafixia will put out books by Manuel Orestes Nieto (Panama), Jacinta Escudos (El Salvador), and Gonçalo M. Tavares (Angola-Portugal). 

Additionally, this year’s FILGUA marks the tenth anniversary of Catafixia, which has helped launch the careers of poets like Vania Vargas and Julio Serrano Echeverría.

Last month, Costa Rican press los tres editores put out Trayéndolo todo de regreso a casa by Argentine author Patricio Pron, who won the Alfaguara Prize in 2019. los tres editores have previously published books by Luis Chavez, Mauro Libertella, and Valeria Luiselli. 

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Transporting Poetry Across Borders: On Teaching Ethnographic Poetry in Japan

With its multiple writing systems, Japanese seemed to lend itself particularly well to the task of writing multilingual poems.

Educator’s Guides are published alongside each issue of Asymptote and include detailed lesson plans that can be used with students of literature, language, or writing. The Asymptote website has additional audiovisual materials, translator and author bios, and works in the original language, making it a valuable educational resource. The most recent issue of the Educator’s Guide can be found on the Asymptote for Educators page.

This article describes the lesson plan Language in Transit: Understanding Ethnographic Poetry from the Asymptote Summer 2018 Educator’s Guide. The piece, from House to House, consists of two poems, “House to House” and “Barjeel,” both of which were written and translated by Shamma Al Bastaki. These poems are part of her undergraduate senior project based on interviews she conducted with people living in the United Arab Emirates. Although she has translated the poems into English, some words or phrases are transliterated, while others are left untranslated and remain in the original languages. From the translator’s note, we discover more about the role of language in the piece:

. . . it is a project about language: language in translation, language as bearer of meaning and medium for story telling, language as a catalyzer of communion and communication, language as sound and a series of phonetics, and language as physical material, existent for its own sake.

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Meet the Publisher: Chris Fischbach of Coffee House Press

It’s a well-known fact that I am often drawn to books that tear your heart out and stomp on it.

Coffee House Press is an independent publisher of fiction, poetry, and essays. Since 2014, with the publication of Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney), the press has sought out authors from Latin America and farther abroad. Coffee House Press is also a nonprofit organization that collaborates with artists on Books in Action projects that expand the relationship between reader and writer. Over email, Chris Fischbach, CHP’s publisher, and Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, discussed the press’s interdisciplinary collaborations, how they discover books by Latin American authors, and some of the titles in translation readers can check out.

Sarah Moses (SM): How did Coffee House Press come to be?

Chris Fischbach (CF): We were founded by Allan Kornblum in the early 1970s in Iowa, and we were purely a letterpress venture back then, publishing poets from both Iowa and from the New York School, where Allan had moved from. In the early 1980s, Allan moved the press to Minneapolis, where it became the first press-in-residence at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. A couple years later, we incorporated as a nonprofit, became Coffee House Press, moved down the street, and started publishing trade editions (fiction and poetry) as well as continuing our letterpress work. I joined the press as a letterpress intern in December of 1994 and was hired as an editorial assistant in August of 1995. I became publisher in 2011.

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Translation Tuesday: “In the City of White Paper” by Nagae Yūki

Each spring we wish / to leave the city, and we will always / end up staying.

In today’s Translation Tuesday, Nagae Yūki captures the alienation felt by urban office workers who have lost their connection with the natural world. She draws on the image of fleeting cherry blossoms, a staple of traditional Japanese poetry, to emphasize how little time we have to waste on meaningless tasks.

In the City of White Paper

Though not on the calendar,
the year begins for us city-dwellers
in April. That’s when the fiscal year
resumes and we trade in our selves
for desks. Earth still spins, news
cycles don’t stop to consider
our triumphs or griefs. READ MORE…

A Linguistic Dystopia: Language and Metamorphosis in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary

What happens to a language when generation gaps are allowed to stretch on forever?

For Yoko Tawada, a Japanese author who writes in both German and Japanese, language’s power—and its failings—are a central concern. In today’s essay, Asymptote Editor-at-Large Jacqueline Leung explores how Tawada’s fascination with language informs her novel The Emissary, which takes place in a dystopian Japan that has forbidden the use of foreign languages. 

The very existence of language—the signified and the signifier, the sender and the recipient—denotes distance. For a writer like Yoko Tawada, who practices her craft in both Japanese and German (the latter picked up in her twenties), the space between reality and what is written or said is where poetry resides. Linguistic play is at the heart of Tawada’s creativity; in The Naked Eye, she wrote one chapter in German and another in Japanese, alternating between the two until the end. Then she decided to translate everything the other way so that she had a German manuscript and a Japanese manuscript for her publishers.

This exophonic maneuver—exophony being a term indicating the practice of writing in a language not your mother tongue (the distinction makes you wonder if there ever was a term for writing in your mother tongue)—is an impossibility in the dystopian Japan depicted in Tawada’s latest novel, The Emissary, translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani. Learning a foreign language is forbidden in the fictionalized Japan that has regressed to closing its borders after irreparable environmental disasters, possibly nuclear, contaminated the archipelago and pulled it away from the Eurasian continent, geographically and politically forcing its isolation. The aftermath is an exacerbated impression of Japan’s current dilemma with its aging population—government statistics released just this April reveal that over a third of its people are 60 and above.

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Who Will Win the 2019 Man Booker International?

I tried to decipher from their inflection and word choices whether perhaps one of the books held their attention more than the others.

We know you’re just as eager as we are to learn who will win the Man Booker International Prize tomorrow, so we’ve enlisted our very own Barbara Halla to walk you through her predictions! A member of this year’s Man Booker International Shadow PanelBarbara has read every book on the short- and longlists, making her our resident expert. Read on for her top 2019 MBI picks!

Last year, someone called the Man Booker International my version of the UEFA Champions League, which is fairly true. Although I don’t place any bets, I do spend a lot of my time trying to forecast and argue about who will win the prize. And I am not alone. For a community obsessed with words and their interpretation, it is not surprising that many readers and reviewers will try to decipher the (perhaps inexistent) breadcrumbs the judges leave behind, or go through some Eurovision level of political analysis to see how non-literary concerns might favour one title over the other. Speaking from personal experience, this literary sleuthing has been successful on two out of three occasions. After a meeting with some of the judges of the 2016 MBI at Shakespeare & Company, I left with the sense that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) would take home the prize that year. In 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) seemed to be everyone’s favourite, and despite a strong shortlist, I was delighted, although not shocked, to see it win.

The winner of this year’s Man Booker prize is proving more elusive. The shortlist is strong, but no one title has become a personal, or fan-, favourite. And I find the uncertainty at this stage in the competition very interesting. It is almost in direct contrast to how the discussion around the prize unfolded between the unveiling of the longlist and the shortlist. When the longlist was announced on 12 March, it was immediately followed by a flurry of online reactions that are all part of a familiar script: despite predictions by “expert” readers, few big names and titles made it onto the longlist. With good reason, some literary critics addressed the list’s shortcomings with regards to its linguistic and national diversity. Independent presses were congratulated for again dominating the longlist, a reward for their commitment to translated fiction. But as dedicated readers tackled the longlist head-on, there was a general feeling of disappointment with a good portion of the titles, which allowed the best to rise to the top quickly.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2019

Special selections from our Spring 2019 issue!

If you have yet to read our spectacular Spring 2019 issue, what are you waiting for? Maybe for our Section Editors to give you their favourites so you can get off of the right foot—well, we’ve delivered. From the poetry by the hand of acclaimed fiction writers, to century-traversing tales, to contemporary criticism on the role of the translator, here are the highlights, straight from those who have devoted themselves to perfecting this issue.

From Lee Yew Leong, Fiction and Poetry Section Editor:

This issue’s fiction lineup is bookended by two Argentine authors (born in 1956) who grapple with Jewish identity in their work. With The Planets shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in 2013, Sergio Chejfec is much better known to Anglophone readers, but Daniel Guebel is not exactly an unknown entity—recently the publisher Beatriz Viterbo released an anthology of essays contributed by such writers as César Aira celebrating Guebel’s work. Via “Jewish Son,” Jessica Sequeira’s perfectly pitched translation, English readers are introduced to bits of a weltanschauung that include pilpul (aka spicy thought, a method of interpreting the Talmud), tango singers, readings of Kafka and The Aeneid, all taking place in the last act of a father-son relationship. Yet, it is also very emotional—despite, or perhaps all the more so because of, the philosophical exposition. As with the best fictions, Guebel gestures toward a gestalt beyond the text. I can’t wait for more of this heavyweight to appear in English.

In the poetry section, which I also assembled, two highlights (also bookending the section) are Raymond Queneau, co-founder of the now-international formalist Oulipo movement, and Georgi Gospodinov, acclaimed for The Physics of Sorrow, showing that they have as much talent as poets as they do as fiction writers. An especially exciting discovery is Gertrud Kolmar, nom de plume of Gertrud Käthe Chodziesner, advocated by cousin Walter Benjamin, but only now celebrated as one of the great forgotten poets. Characterized by mystery, the taut but dreamlike poems channeled with elan by Anna Henke and Julia Gutterman are fueled by an “ache unnamed”; “a glimmer burning out its flame.” 

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Xi Xi, Bianca Bellová, and Osamu Dazai. Have we got your attention? Read on.

The days are opening wide this season, like the pages of a new book: for most of us growing longer and fuller. It’s a good thing, because we’ve got a lot to catch you up on. This week, we’re bringing a full dosage of global literature news with achievements from Hong Kong, rolling publications by Czech talent, and literary commemorations gliding through the literal end of an era in Japan.

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

This spring has been a series of firsts for Hong Kong literature. Continuing from my previous dispatch in March on Xi Xi winning the Newman Prize for Chinese literature, historically awarded to writers from mainland China and Taiwan, World Literature Today is dedicating its first annual city issue to writing from Hong Kong. Sourcing contributions from writers, translators, and academics at the forefront of Hong Kong literature, the issue includes poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction with a focus on food and languages as well as a selection of recommended reading about the city. Xi Xi and Bei Dao are among the list of writers featured in the magazine, as is Wawa—recently showcased in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 issue in an interview with Poupeh Missaghi, our editor-at-large in Iran—and Chris Song, one of the winners of the Fifth Hai Zi Poetry Prize which announced its results a few weeks prior.

To celebrate the launch of the issue, Cha, Hong Kong’s resident online literary journal, is organizing an event on April 27 at Bleak House Books, where eight contributors will be reciting and discussing their works. Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, founding co-editor of Cha and the guest editor of World Literature Today’s Hong Kong feature, will also speak about the conception of the special edition.

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