Place: Romania

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Bucharest makes waves and the Man Booker International hits headlines.

News of the Man Booker International winner has made its way around the senses of the literary-minded public around the world, but we are here with a personal take on its winner, and why this unprecedented win has earned its accolades and perhaps could also potentially earn a place on your shelf. Also on our list is the incredibly poetic nation of Romania, who presented a manifold of verse champions for Bucharest’s International Poetry Festival. Reporting from amongst the greats are our editors at the front.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, covering the Man Booker International 2019

I was many things the night of the Man Booker International announcement, but gracious wasn’t one of them. Before the announcement was made on May 21, I wrote for Asymptote about my thoughts on the longlist and (correctly) predicted that Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth and published by Scottish indie Sandstone Press, would win it. Celestial Bodies represents many firsts in the prize’s history: it is the first book written in Arabic to win the prize, as well as the first book by an Omani author (in fact, Jokha Alharthi is the first female Omani author to ever be translated into English) and with a Scottish press to do so. Although its win was a bit of a surprise to others (being as it was surrounded by books receiving a lot more press and praise), the judges seemed quite taken with it. Talking to Five Books, and even during her announcement, chair of the judges, Bettany Hughes, highlighted one particular line from Celestial Bodies that she believed embodies the spirit of the prize itself: “We get to know ourselves better in new, strange places.”

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Our Shared World of Language: Reflections on “US” Poets Foreign Poets

If I am a person, I make things with language. If I am a poet, I make art with language.

Today, as a sequel to this previous post, we are continuing to feature reflections on the computationally assembled poetry anthology “US” Poets Foreign Poets (ed. MARGENTO, frACTalia 2018) from some of the most outstanding contributors to the collection.

 “US” Poets Foreign Poets was launched in 2018 at the Electronic Literature Organization Conference and at Bookfest by the collective editor MARGENTO, featuring a line-up of Chris Tănăsescu, Diana Inkpen, Raluca Tănăsescu, Vaibhav Kesarwani, and Marius Surleac. The book won accolades from major theorists and practitioners in the genre such as Christopher Funkhouser, Maria Mencia, and David Jhave Johnston. It features both digital and page-based poets, represents and analyzes the resulting corpus as network graphs, and also includes an algorithm that expands the initial corpus by identifying poems that would “fit in,” that is, display certain stylistic features tracked down by computational analysis.

Regarding the previously mentioned way in which the anthology analyzes and expands its own contents, digital poet and critic Christopher Funkhouser has commented that, “I have never, in three decades of study, seen a literary anthology so determined to generate something out of itself, something beyond a 1:1 conversion, and then successfully do so. What an interesting idea, to both transcreate and more literally translate the contents of a collection of writing. Algorithmic, linguistic, and graphical expansion here grabs and holds onto my attention every time I delve into the book.”

In today’s feature, we choose to illustrate this “transcreation” Funkhouser speaks about as it goes even beyond the covers of the anthology, and continues in the digital or digitally inflected creative and/or critical work of four major names in contemporary electronic literature and digital humanities: John Cayley, Johanna Drucker, Alan Sondheim, and Brian Kim Stefans.

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What’s New with the Crew? (May 2019)

With new publications and festivals, Asymptote staff are being celebrated all around the world!

We have such an amazing collective of literary talent over here at Asymptote. Check out some of our news from the past quarter and stay tuned for more of the international literature you love! If you are interested in being a part of the team, please note that we will be extending our recruitment drive for two more weeks through May 21, out of consideration for those of you who are busy with end-of-semester work and graduation! 

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow published a long poem, The Song of Lisaine, at the journal X-Peri.

Copy Editor Anna Aresi recently ran her Italian translation of Pulitzer-winning Forrest Gander’s “On a Sentence by Fernanda Melchor” on Interno Poesia’s Blog.

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones had an excerpt of her translation of Nancy by Bruno Lloret—forthcoming from Giramondo Publishing in 2020—showcased in a feature on Chilean domestic life in Words Without Borders. Her review of Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds was also printed in The Irish Times. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Grandpa’s Little Glove” by Ilka Papp-Zakor

So I waited there under the tree, and Grandpa was slowly absorbed by the fog, which drizzled and grew ever thicker.

During a routine mushroom-picking expedition in the forest, a wheelchair-bound child gets separated from her grandfather and is left to face the forces of nature on her own. In today’s Translation Tuesday, Ilka Papp-Zakor takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that comes to a surreal and haunting conclusion.

Grandpa’s beard was made of cotton, and his face of crinkled crepe paper. His hands shook, so he almost always spilled his tea, but his eyes were beautiful. I liked to watch him read his old books in the evenings, squinting by the light of the oil lamp—we didn’t have electricity in our shack—rocking back and forth in his rocking chair, the corners of his eyes smiling delicately from time to time, which is how I could tell where he was in his book. I knew all his books by heart. That’s how our evenings would pass. He’d rock in his chair, I’d stare at him, and sometimes, when I’d grow bored of staring, I’d roll around in my wheelchair. Grandpa didn’t like that, because the wheels made an ugly sound on the uneven plank floors. But he loved me anyway.

He said I’d be a beautiful girl if it weren’t for my distorted features, my underdeveloped legs and mangled hands, but I was happy there was something about me that he liked. I had long, curly, golden hair, a little reddish. Grandpa said the bridge of my nose was freckled, though I’d never seen it myself, because our shack didn’t have a mirror either, and I couldn’t lean so far out of my wheelchair over puddles to catch my reflection clearly. In any case, Grandpa said these features were my sex appeal, and that when I’d have kids, I should strive to pass onto them only these two features, because they wouldn’t get very far with the rest. At the time, it was difficult to imagine that I’d someday have a family, and kids of my own, because I didn’t know anyone else besides Grandpa.

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Finding Medical Precision in the Art of Translation: C.D. Zeletin

Translation is nothing less than a discovery, the study of a microbe through a microscope's lens.

In today’s world, where the study of science and the humanities are considered as oppositional, the art of translation lies arguably somewhere in the middle. In this essay, Asymptote’s Andreea Scridon profiles Romanian writer and doctor C.D. Zeletin, who challenged this false dichotomy, and through his work in both medicine and literature, showed the possibilities of inter-disciplinary cross-pollination.

I first heard of C.D. Zeletin in my Translation Studies course in Bucharest. I was spending a month in the city, just catching the brutal beginning of winter among the greys and blues of its urban landscape, and, sheltered in the seminar room from the iciness of the rough wind that is known to blow over the region’s plains, this was one of the lessons that I was enjoying most.

C.D. Zeletin, my professor told me, was a doctor. As he rode the trolleybus to the Pediatric Hospital every day, he would translate Michelangelo’s sonnets mentally, from Italian to Romanian, presumably wearing his white coat and gazing out the window. Eventually, the written product of this passion would see the light of day, published several years after its conception as Poezii [Poems]. These translations are considered, in fact, elegant and successful. The collection won the 1965 Edinburgh Book Award and Gold Medal. It would have a reverberative effect for generations of readers and poets to come; rather than adhering to Renaissance models strictly, the translation resembles a more personal search, thus producing an inventive and original approach that speaks to twentieth and twenty-first-century readers.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

In this week’s dispatches, literary highlights from Romania, Singapore, and the United States!

This week, join three Asymptote staff members as they report the latest in literary news from around the world. From the legacy of Romanian poet Emil Brumaru, to new releases of poetry, literary competitions, and the Iowa City Book Festival, there’s plenty to catch up and reflect on.

MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, reporting from Romania and Moldova

The most resounding recent piece of literary news in Romania is the passing of poet Emil Brumaru (born eighty years ago in Bessarabia, present-day Republic of Moldova), one of the greatest Romanian poets of the past fifty years. Superlative eulogies have inundated literary magazines and wide circulation newspapers alike, foregrounding both the vastness and the subtlety of the oeuvre, while also deploring the disappearance of a widely popular presence prolifically active in literary publications and even social media. Brumaru’s obsessively erotic verse, ranging from the profane and the pornographic to the angelic and the (still physically) mystical, comports a richness of nuances and a chameleonic craftsmanship that perhaps explain why such a huge voice remains for now largely unknown to the English-speaking world, except for a handful of poems translated in a couple of anthologies, graduate theses, or casual blogs.

While women are arguably the only—inextinguishable, nonetheless—subject of Brumaru’s poetry, women writers themselves are taking centre stage in Romanian letters as well. The first edition of the Sofia Nădejde literary awards—curated by poet and radio show host Elena Vlădăreanu—was in that respect a remarkable milestone. While doing justice to novels or collections by established writers such as Gabriela Adameșteanu and widely known young poets and critics like Teodora Coman, the judges also picked for the debut collection award a release significantly titled Kommos. A Hysterectomy Procession by Iuliana Lungu, an up-and-coming poet who has already won support and even accolades from living legends such as Angela Marinescu and Nora Iuga.

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“US” Poets Foreign Poets: A Computationally Assembled Anthology

Identities are analysed. Close neighbours may not be connected. Distant poems may be connected by one edge or less.

Computational poetry is possibly one of the most exciting literary developments of our technology-reliant age. Using algorithms and machines, digital poetry is a product of our modern world, its history stretching only as far back as the mid-20th century. In this essay, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO, tells us about an even more radical anthology. “US” Poets Foreign Poets brings together the world of digital poetry with more traditional, page-based poetry, finding connections between wildly different poems, expressed in graphs as well as two languages (English and Romanian). Joining MARGENTO are three contributors to the anthology, as well as the anthology’s publisher, who reflect on the publication and the implications it has for translating, and for making digital and page-based poetry comprehensible and connectable to each other.

What is digital poetry? Simply put, it is poetry that fundamentally relies on digital media for its ‘composition’ and ‘publication.’ What do we mean by ‘fundamentally’? This refers to the fact that the (sub)genre would not be possible, would not exist if it were not for the digital. ‘Traditional’ poetry, also known as ‘page [or page-based] poetry’ could still be written (even if virtually nobody does that anymore) by ‘putting pen to paper,’ whereas digital poetry would simply not be around without digital technology.

But things—and distinctions—are not really as simple as they may seem, and (as is often the case with definitions), when looking closely these definitions actually branch out into both elemental and complex ‘undefineds’ or undefinables. The many questions above are only a crude testimony to all that (and it can only get worse, as you’ll see in a second). What does, for instance, ‘composition’ in our tentative definition above stand for? In digital technology, it has more to do with algorithms and machinic procedures than the imaginative and ‘original,’ or deeply ‘personal,’ human use of language. It is about manipulating a (mathematical and operational) language behind the ‘natural’ language that is thus artificially (re)generated.

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The European Literature Days Festival: Highlights and Reflections

As always, the highlights of the weekend were authors’ readings showcasing a variety of styles and talents.

 In today’s dispatch, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood, reports on the high points of the European Literature Days festival, which she attended in Spitz, Austria from November 22-25. This year’s festival, whose theme was “film and literature,” featured many of Europe’s best film directors and screenwriters alongside high-profile novelists and essayists. 

What is the relationship between film and literature? How does narrative work in these two art forms and what is lost or gained when a story is transposed from paper to the screen? These questions were pondered during the tenth European Literature Days festival, amidst the rolling hills on the banks of the Danube shrouded in autumn mists, on the last weekend of November. As in previous years, the weekend was full of discoveries, with the tiny wine-making town of Spitz and venues in the only slightly larger town of Krems attracting some of the most exciting European authors, this time alongside some outstanding filmmakers.

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Robert Menasse and Richard David Precht. Image credit: Sascha Osaka.

Bookended by two high-profile events, the gathering opened with a discussion between Austrian novelist and essayist Robert Menasse and German celebrity philosopher Richard David Precht, moving at breakneck speed from the theory of evolution to a critique of the current education system, sorely challenging the hard-working interpreters. The closing event saw Bulgarian-born writer Ilija Trojanow receive the Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action and make a passionate plea for engaged literature: “As a writer I have to live up to the incredible gift of freedom by writing not about myself but away from myself, towards society.”

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of the world’s literary news brings us to Iran, Albania, Romania, and Moldova.

This week’s dispatches take us on a tour of November’s most important literary festivals. In an attempt to combat perennial issues of low readership and lack of access to literature, the festivals offered live readings, awards ceremonies, and discounted books to readers in Iran, Albania and Romania.

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Iran

Since 1993, November 15th has been celebrated as the day of Books and Reading in Iran, ushering in a week of celebrations and events to promote literature. The slogan for this year’s Book Week was “The Great Joy of Reading.” Public libraries around the country offered free membership on November 15th, and the Books in the City Festival provided introductions to important Iranian literary figures through music and theatrical readings in subway stations around Tehran.

On November 18th, at the closing ceremony of the 17th Festival of Books and Media, the winners of awards in different media categories (including news, interviews, specialized criticism, humor, photography, websites, and audio and visual media) were announced.

The Imam Ali Society, a charitable foundation, took the occasion to invite its supporters, through the Kids Without Books Twitter campaign, to donate books for children. The campaign also published video in which children invited writers and public figures to donate books to the society’s library.

On the last day of the week, publishers also held readings and talks in different bookstores, creating spaces for readers and authors to come together in celebration of their love for books.

Similar events were held at schools, mosques, and other cultural institutions around the country. However, with low rates of readership and books published per edition, it is unclear how influential these symbolic annual gestures are in changing the reading culture of Iranian society.

In other news, a recent collective initiative has begun to bring together an informal archive of Persian language accents. On November 15th, translator and writer Erfan Mojib tweeted, “Let’s create a website, upload a text, and invite people to read the text in their various Persian accents.” The idea started as a curiosity, but Mojib hopes it can be developed and used eventually for systematic studies. He got so much positive feedback about the idea that he started a telegram channel (t.me/lahjeyab) and a Twitter account (@lahjeyab), and people have been sending him voice messages of themselves reading a text he posted about the diversity of accents in Iran and their unity under the umbrella of the Persian language.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

Delve into the latest literary news from our ever-industrious Asymptote crew!

Apart from working hard on the Fall 2018 Issue, Asymptote staff have also been busy making waves in the literary world. Join us in celebrating their achievements!

Poetry Editor Aditi Machado published a chapbook, Prologue Emporium, with Garden-Door Press. She also discussed her editorial work at Asymptote and her translation of Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia with the Wash U Translators Collective.

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow reviewed From the Files of the Immanent Foundation by Norman Finkelstein for Rain Taxi.

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Documenting Translators: The Political Backstage of Translation

These films make protagonists out of the ultimate supporting actors in history, the translators.

Translators are often represented as mediators, actors in the communication of a text who are subordinate to the author. However, translators have often played crucial roles in politically pivotal moments. Denise Kripper tells us more about these translators, and the films in which their stories feature.

Coming soon this year is Les Traducteurs, directed by Regis Roinsard, a high-profile French thriller inspired by the true story behind the translation of Dan Brown’s novel Inferno. During this process, several international translators were shut away in a bunker in an effort to avoid piracy and illegal editions while aiming to launch the book simultaneously in different languages, all over the world. In real life, the book ended up generating $250 million, but in the action-packed film, “when the first ten pages of the top-secret manuscript appear online, the dream job becomes a nightmare – the thief is one of them and the publisher is ready to do whatever it takes to unmask him – or her” (IMDb).

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Summer 2016: In-Between Times

How can we get past a feeling of being shipwrecked among the intensity of our selves?

After our first mention in The New York Times in June 2015 (which merely notes that there is a real-life counterpart to the journal by the name of “Asymptote” in Alena Smith’s drama), April 2016 sees our second mention and two key members stepping down. The departure of Senior Editor Florian—a friend from my time at The New School whose support has been a great source of strength for me, personally—is a great setback. But April 2016 also ushers in our first-ever monthly report, a two-page summary of each month’s activities which I’ll make available to the public for the first time here. Designed by Theophilus Kwek to be easily skimmed, this internal report not only records Asymptote‘s progress across the board each month, but also represents my commitment to transparency of the magazine’s financials. After all, as any serious dieter knows, tracking stats that matter is the way to go. A quick glance reveals that we spent $1,798 (all figures in USD) in total over April, while only $247 has come in through small donations and the sale of one publicity package. This means that over the month of April, Asymptote has bled $1,551 (which I cover either with funds previously raised or out of my own pocket). For the first three monthly reports (i.e., from April to June 2016), these figures do not yet include wages for Asymptote‘s only full-time team member (i.e., me). It is only in July 2016, exactly six years after I conceived the journal and opened a tab in my name that would add up to 70,000 USD while also foregoing a full-time salary all these years, that I begin to stipulate my own remuneration. This obviously doesn’t change the fact that monthly incoming funds are still a trickle compared to monthly outgoing funds, but at least it sets up a proper accounting as to how much I am being owed by my own organization. Here to introduce our Summer 2016 issue—possibly our most diverse ever, with 34 countries being represented and featuring additional translations into Albanian, Bengali, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, Greek, Japanese, Kannada, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Slovak, and Tamil—is Assistant Editor Andreea Scridon.

What are our human perceptions made of? Water. Our nervous systems, the machineries of feeling, float in a quiet, dark world of water. Our most dramatic moments—at least in terms of development—take place in amniotic fluid. This quasi-godlike and continuous source of life is a trope that never runs dry. Yet in addition to its undeniable positive qualities, it makes for an inevitable metaphor for inner turmoil: after all, doesn’t turbulence stem from an aquatic scenario? The idea of fluidity, increasingly present in a contemporary world with an unstable future, further complicates things.

On the subject of “in-between times”, after finishing university a friend described herself as feeling as though she’d been soaked and left out in the sun to dry. Yet for a good writer (the kind I’d like to be), anxieties of this sort can acquire a kaleidoscopic quality on the page. How do we anchor ourselves to the world? How can we get past a feeling of being shipwrecked among the intensity of our selves? Can we even psychologically approach that which seems beyond our conception and our control? Finding myself too drenched by such ruminations to draw any conclusions, I turned to the varied readings of Asymptote’s Summer 2016 Issue. READ MORE…

Spring 2016: Going Places

You [write] to orchestrate what it is about the world that hurts you.

92,400 words—if an Asymptote issue could be held in your hands, it would be a book with 92,400 words and 368 pages (based on the typical range of 250-300 words a page). And it would be a free book, since, to catalyze the transmission of world literature, we don’t charge for access and hope it always remains that way. That’s 92,400 words that have to be solicited, considered, selected, edited, uploaded, formatted to both our house style and the satisfaction of contributors, and then fact-checked and proofread by four to six pairs of eyes. Out of the 44 articles that these 92,400 words constitute, eight might require extensive footwork for rights, ten commissioned from scratch, and as many as 18 illustrated by a guest artist. Then newly appointed chief executive assistant Theophilus Kwek obtains this figure of 92,400 (for the English text alone) “by copying the entire [Winter 2016] issue into a word document, and rounding off to the nearest 100 for footnotes [he] may have missed.” The occasion for this? We have been invited to submit an application to a grant administered by Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC), and one of the requested data is wordcount. How this comes about after five years of no official contact between Asymptote and NAC goes like this: In February 2016, back in Singapore to visit with family over Chinese New Year, I send out a batch of solicitations. One is addressed to Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who played a major role in facilitating the June 2018 Kim-Trump summit, the costs of which (twelve million USD) the Singaporean government willingly absorbed. On 14 February, 2016, I receive a call at 8 a.m. by someone from Balakrishnan’s office encouraging me to take up the matter with NAC instead. I mutter something about NAC being unsupportive, and put the phone down quite quickly. The next day, someone more senior—an actual spokesperson from the Ministry—calls. Charmed by her diplomacy, I agree to “allow [myself] to be approached.” On February 16, an email entitled “funding for Asymptote,” pops up in my inbox. Negotiation takes a protracted seven months, during the course of which my case is rotated between four different officers, and in the process of which hopes are raised only to be dashed—with even the acting director of NAC’s literary arts sector development admitting to me that they had changed their mind (i.e., that it is not a matter of one officer’s stance being discontinuous with another). The long and short of it is that funding is allotted to Singaporean writers and translators of Singaporean work only; support for literary editors only extends as far as sponsoring workshops or mentorships. This was NAC’s policy in 2011 (and one I was well aware of); if it hadn’t changed, why make contact? She sends me off with a one-time grant to the tune of 8,800 USD, tied to publication of Singaporean content on Asymptote platforms in the fourth quarter of 2016. In April, at the invitation of AmazonCrossing and with partial support from the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors in the UK, I speak at a London Book Fair panel on “Discovering Stories from Asia, Africa, and Turkey”; despite the geographical reach of the subject matter, I am the only person of color represented on the panel. Unlike, say, an all-male panel, this goes unremarked, underscoring a troubling diversity problem in publishing that I’ve tried to counter with my own magazine by appointing section editors from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Here to introduce the Spring 2016 edition—that I launched from the couch of my college friend Vanessa’s apartment in Brixton, London—is Visual editor Eva Heisler:

Revisiting the Spring 2016 issue, I am struck by how far-ranging and innovative the work is—and how moving. Through the inspired efforts of Asymptote’s translators, I am transported across cultures and geopolitical contexts as I gain access to poems, stories, drama, creative nonfiction, and criticism originally written in Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Filipino, Nahuatl, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovenian, and Thai, to name just a few of the languages represented in this issue.

As editor of Asymptote’s visual section, I am interested in featuring artists who explore issues of text, narrative, linguistic identity, translation, or voice. One work that explores language as shifty, always on the move, is Bad Language, a collaboration between translator Laura Marris and video artist Matt Kenyon. The video, which documents Marris’s process of translating a poem by Paol Keineg, presents the poem as a moving entity animated by possibilities, the page rippling with adjustments and substitutions. This “moving translation” is particularly suited to Keineg’s French since the writer, who was raised in Brittany, often integrates Breton vocabulary. As Marris explains, “I wanted to translate in a way that could accommodate shifting linguistic loyalties, rather than delivering one authoritative version.” READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Constantinople” by Flavia Teoc

More fragrant are the grapes slowly growing sour on a vendor stall in Yerebatan

We are thrilled to feature Flavia Teoc’s poetry for the first time on Translation Tuesday. Teoc’s lines visit Yerebatan—the magical site in Istanbul where the Basilica Cistern hides a special sighting of Medusa. Under the dim lights of Yerebatan, Teoc’s fragrant lines shine brighter. 

Constantinople

More fragrant than the righteous ones perfect in all of their ways
Are the grapes slowly growing sour on a vendor stall in Yerebatan.
Under their cracked skin a sweet potion of sounds is distilled,
Memories from back when they were early sour berries or less,
An equal proportion mixture of screams from a woman flogged
Up against their vine, the bell of a leper who took shelter in the split leaves’
Shadow one late afternoon, and a stray dog’s quick nap nearby.
I’m telling you—
More fragrant are the grapes slowly growing sour on a vendor stall in Yerebatan,
For those perfect in all their ways will never touch them.

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