Place: Norway

Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Martin Aitken

Love can be a terrible thing, as terrible as its absence.

Continuing our monthly series of Asymptote Book Club interviews, Martin Aitken discusses his translation of Hanne Ørstavik’s Love.

Aitken, currently translating the sixth volume of Knausgård’s My Struggle alongside Don Bartlett, tells Asymptote’s Jacob Silkstone how readers are now more open to the idea that “English isn’t all there is,” and why it’s sometimes better to “switch yourself off as a translator and just read.” And, given the novel’s title, there’s also time for a brief meditation on love’s potential to be “a terrible thing, as terrible as its absence.”

Jacob Silkstone (JS): Love strikes me as a book that changes tone dramatically when read for a second time. Apparently innocuous lines (“He thinks he’ll look out for her on the bus tomorrow,” for example) suddenly take on a tremendous amount of weight. Do you generally read a novel cover to cover before beginning a new translation, to get a sense of where the plot is heading, or do you start translating immediately?

Martin Aitken (MA): This is a very short book, a novella, and every sentence in the Norwegian has been faceted very carefully indeed. The translator’s challenge is to poise the target-language sentences in the same way. I couldn’t envisage embarking on a novel like this without having read it first. I used to jump in at the deep end a lot, with crime fiction especially. There’s always a risk of being caught out by twists of plot when you do that, though of course rectifying mistakes is a lot easier these days than I imagine it used to be. However, with literary fiction I now prefer to spend time with the original before getting started on anything. With a novel like Love, so much of the work is about immersing yourself in the atmosphere of the piece, and I think the best way into that is to switch yourself off as a translator and just read. Getting the sense of the thing as a reader first, listening to its music as you move through the story, is a different thing entirely from the focus applied in crafting the translation.

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Announcing our February Book Club selection: Love by Hanne Ørstavik

We're spreading the love this Valentine's Day by giving a 10% discount on three-month book club subscriptions! Until 2359hrs EST today, so hurry!

This Valentine’s Day, we’re sharing Love with our Asymptote Book Club subscribers, in the form of a contemporary Norwegian classic newly published by Archipelago Books.

Love launched the career of Hanne Ørstavik, one of Scandinavia’s leading female novelists. In 2006, newspaper Dagbladet placed it sixth in a list of the best Norwegian novels of the past quarter-century.

We’re also spreading the love by giving a 10% discount on three-month Asymptote Book Club subscriptions, up until 2359hrs EST today, Feb 14. If you’ve been wanting to give our Book Club a try, or if you’d like to surprise your loved ones with an awesome reading adventure, this is the perfect opportunity! Visit our Book Club page right now to sign up to give or receive Love, our February title translated by Martin Aitken, and two more handpicked novels in March and April drawn from the latest offerings in world literature.
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My 2017: Sam Carter

As he puts it in an Asymptote-appropriate formulation, “Why not accept all possible countries and cultures? Why not spread out to be cosmopolitan?”

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it! This week, our staff continue to take turns looking back on 2017 through the lens of literature. Next up, Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter.

One of the highlights of my reading year was the entirely unplanned—and unexpectedly delightful—move between translations and originals within a series not once but twice. Early in the summer, I had the chance to review the third volume of conversations between Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari that Seagull Books brought out in July. Some years ago I had read in the original Spanish much of what constitutes the first two volumes in English translation, yet, for reasons I don’t quite recall, I never made it to these discussions that display a Borges who, despite being 85 years old at the time, remains a consummate conversationalist with a voracious intellectual appetite. He moves effortlessly from an unabashed Anglophilia—Joyce, Whitman, and Wilde are just some of the figures he enjoys reflecting on—to a more global concern. As he puts it in an Asymptote-appropriate formulation, “Why not accept all possible countries and cultures? Why not spread out to be cosmopolitan?”

It was with another Argentine author—cosmopolitan in his own right—that I ended up moving in the opposite direction: from translation to original. A few months before Restless Books was set to publish it in November, a friend handed me a galley of The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years. Unwilling to wait to get my hands on a Spanish copy, I devoured it in the course of a few hours. (You can find an excerpt of this title, which was released in November, in our October 2017 issue.) There are two more volumes of these diaries, the last of which was released in Spanish in September, and I was thrilled to finish this masterful trilogy that traces the vicissitudes of the writing life with a unique intelligence and unmatched willingness to reflect on what different forms might offer. In Piglia’s view, for instance, a diary is a place where “you should ultimately write about the limits or the frontiers that make certain words or actions impossible.” He elegantly explores those limits in this record of how a great reader struggles to become a great writer by drafting versions of a novel that will only appear decades later, defining himself both with and against dominant influences, and spending what little money he has on books. The first volume is also, somewhat miraculously, both a great starting point for anyone who has yet to read any Piglia and a welcome addition to those who already familiar with much of his work.

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A Conversation with Norwegian-to-Azerbaijani Translator Anar Rahimov

There was not a single moment when I said to myself, “Stop”—even when I spent 10 to 15 minutes on one sentence!

As a translator of Norwegian, I travelled to the Gothenburg Book Fair in September to meet with Scandinavian authors, publishers, and fellow translators. One of the translators I met there was Anar Rahimov, a translator of contemporary Norwegian prose into Azerbaijani.

I was intrigued by Anar’s story as one of only two translators of Norwegian in Azerbaijan. I translate into English, probably the world’s most dominant language, and I was curious about the exchange between two relatively small languages, Norwegian and Azerbaijani. I wanted to ask Anar a little more about his work as a translator and how it fits into the literary culture of Azerbaijan. 

David Smith (DS): How did you come to learn Norwegian and what inspired you to translate literature?

Anar Rahimov (AR): Well . . . it was quite accidental, I have to admit. I was working at the University of Languages in Baku as an English language teacher. Then an event took place that changed my whole career, priorities, and future standing in life. In 2010, I heard about an interview that included financing two and half years’ study in Oslo. Ever since childhood, Norway has appealed to me as a northern, far away, and very cold land. Besides, studying in the prestigious universities of Europe was tempting in itself. After a little hesitation, I applied and was selected.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2017

Our blog editors pick their favorite pieces from the Fall 2017 issue!

Each issue, our blog editors choose some of their favorite pieces to showcase. The Fall 2017 issue is extra special for us, since we get to introduce two new assistant blog editors: Sarah Booker, who translates from Spanish, and David Smith, who works with Norwegian. Together with Stefan Kielbasiewicz, they make up the Asymptote blog team. Enjoy these highlights! 

Ricardo Piglia’s piece, “On the Threshold,” is a philosophical, melancholic meditation on the art of reading and the construction of the autobiography. Composed of a series of diary entries in which the narrator muses on his grandfather’s life and on the practice of writing, this text poses fundamental questions about the practice of writing: How do you write an autobiography? What moments really matter when considering a lifetime of memories? How do you begin to write? The realization that experience “is a microscopic profusion of events that repeat and expand, disjointed, disparate, in flight” is what finally allows the narrative to unfold and the pieces of these two men’s lives to come together.

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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: Across the China Sea by Gaute Heivoll

"Patients and patience quickly become intimately intertwined."

Across the China Sea explores an unconventional family in rural Norway coming together during the weakening German occupation of the country. A review by Asymptote Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter. 

It begins with the discovery of a contract, but Gaute Heivoll’s Across the China Sea, translated by Nadia Christensen, is ultimately the story of a community that generously insists on inclusion over exclusion. First published in Norwegian in 2013 and recently released by Graywolf in Nadia Christensen’s consistently elegant translation, this novel is Heivoll’s second to appear in English after Before I Burn, a partly autobiographical work that explores an incident of arson. In Across the China Sea, however, loss assumes a rather different form—one less concerned with spectacle and more attuned to the small gestures that often make all the difference.

A young family moves from Oslo to a small town near the coast in order to start anew. They’ve come not to flee the city but to build a better version of something they already understand: an asylum. The parents—both of whom are trained nurses—decide their newly-built house can accommodate more than just biological children. Soon afterward, in addition to caring for three grown men, they take in five siblings the state had taken away from mentally unfit parents. At this new home, the children, who are also variously disabled, live in a fully furnished attic, yet they’re hardly out of sight or mind. They begin to interact with other members of this curious collective, including the narrator and his younger sister—the only two members of the household biologically linked to the nurses.

Bonds, in other words, are not limited by blood, and an early tragedy not only puts that belief to the test but also brings into sharper relief the contours of this unusual community nestled into the Norwegian countryside. Any separation between the groups of children is rendered meaningless at a time when comfort cannot be sought selectively. Indeed, the delicate balance proves resilient enough to deal with another loss that, while only temporary, still takes an emotional toll. Patients and patience quickly become intimately intertwined, exhibiting a link that their etymological affinity can only begin to capture. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation? June 2017

We review three new books available in English from China, Norway and Mexico, revealing stories of cities and bodies.

A tree grows in Daicheng

A Tree Grows in Daicheng by Lu Nei, translated by Poppy Toland, AmazonCrossing

Review by Christopher Chan, Chinese Social Media Intern

Whether a book can obtain certain currency among a wide range of readers depends upon its unique qualities. Take the genre of fantasy novels for example. Some books, like the Harry Potter series, do well because of the uniqueness of their ideas. Harry Potter was a fresh story about the wizarding world, told in an accessible language; others books, such as The Lord of the Rings, succeed with their sense of larger-than-life gravitas. A Tree Grows in Daicheng, however, is neither exclusively a book of fresh ideas nor of epic seriousness, but a careful mix of both.

The novel is a work of pastiche in many ways, especially through the narrative voices of different characters. The book’s uniqueness lies perhaps in its kaleidoscopic depiction of the great changes brought to a city called Daicheng and its people during China’s Cultural Revolution. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from the Nordic countries, the UK and Israel.

The week is nearly over, which not only means it’s the weekend but also that it’s time for our literary catch-up! For this edition, Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen shares updates on the upcoming awards season, among other news from Scandinavia. Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood then reports on literary happenings from the UK. Rounding it all up is our correspondent for Israel, Alma Beck, currently residing in New Orleans, where she teaches philosophy for children.

Obligatory reminder: After you’ve caught up with all the news, head over to our just-launched Fall 2016 issue here!

First up, Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen has the latest from the Nordic countries:

Lars Huldén, the Swedish-speaking Finn poet, has passed away at the age of 90. Born in Pietarsaari, Finland, Huldén was a much loved and highly regarded writer, scholar, translator, and recipient of the Swedish Academy Nordic Prize in 2000. He grew up among a tradition of oral storytelling in the local Swedish dialect and worked tirelessly throughout his adult life, publishing a large collection of poetry, prose, plays, and sonnets, among other works. He also produced Swedish translations of Finnish and English classics, such as the Finns’ national epic, Kalevala, and Shakespearean texts.

Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) is accepting applications for grants until November 1. If you are a publisher, translator, author, or event organizer interested in working with Finnish literature, FILI has a handy guide on their site to guide you through the options. FILI, founded in 1977, hands out approximately 700,000€ worth of grants annually, in addition to hosting translator residencies and maintaining a database of translations of Finnish literature.

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This is also a Center-Point

"Her presence, her voice and her body language when communicating, was the key I had been missing."

I confess: I thought the most interesting thing about Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was the cover. My edition had an old sepia-toned picture of two children—“the [something] sisters.” One has a boy’s haircut, and looks very unhappy. The other stands sweetly beside her. I found it so much more eloquent than the book itself, which seemed to me denser than a loaf of pumpernickel bread, denser than a steel ingot, denser than a white dwarf star. I don’t think I made it through the preface. If I did, it made the same kind of sense to me as reading À la recherche du temps perdu backwards, in French, while drunk. That is to say: the occasional glimmers of understanding felt fabulous, but it was all so ephemeral.

So when Judith Butler, together with fellow feminist theorist Rosi Braidotti on Monday evening in Oslo, met two members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot for a talk about politics, art and feminism, I was not expecting fireworks. Except for Pussy Riot, of course, who spoke through a balaclava and a voice distorter the last time I saw them. This time, they had ditched the disguises and spoke only through a translator. But I’m getting ahead of myself. And ahead of Judith Butler. READ MORE…

How well do you know your neighbor?

"The linguistic closeness is a false cognate for cultural closeness. And for that, we can't blame the translators."

My chair is uncomfortable, I don’t understand Danish, and it smells like someone in my general vicinity had kippers for dinner. I’m at the Oslo Central Library’s panel discussion on “What is good Scandinavian literature?,” and it isn’t going well. READ MORE…

His Ordinary

Knausgaard's 'My Struggle'

There is a phrase among the earliest in Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait that has remained with me: “When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue.” Now, when I look at a strawberry, I think of “When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue.” There was a primacy to it, the words became a memory akin to a first kiss or ocean sighting—they became an event, a thing that happened to me. When I read, that feeling is what I look for. To be struck by something, to turn the corner and bump into something beautiful. Sometimes, I find something better.

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