Place: Spain

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Join us in Spain, Brazil, and South Africa this week as we take you on a literary escapade.

The tides of cultural change are reflected in the literary festivals of Spain, Brazil, and South Africa this week as our editors point us to the increased awareness of both past misrepresentation and the lack of representation altogether. As more dismal political news from around the world rolls in, such instances of rectification and progress from the cultural sphere are a source of light and comfort.

Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain 

April might be the cruellest month for some glum, English poets, but in Spain, spring has arrived and ushered in a blossoming book fair season. Alicante has just wrapped up its 2019 Feria del Libre with a refreshing theme of Mujeres de Palabra, celebrated from March 28 to April 7. The long week was packed full of readings, signings, booths, and workshops. This year, many activities were aimed at younger readers.

Among many great Spanish writers was a personal favourite, Murcian writer Miguel-Ángel Hernández, whose 2013 novel Intento de Escapada (Anagrama) was translated into English by Rhett McNeil (Hispabooks, 2016) as Escape Attempt and was also translated into German, French, and Italian. Compared to both Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, Hernández’s El dolor de los demás (Anagrama, 2018), which he was signing at the fair, is now high on the reading list.

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Asymptote Podcast: Infinite Text

"I'm constantly trying to disrupt what I think I know."

During Madrid’s Year of Lorca, which commemorates the centenary of the poet’s arrival to the city, podcast editor Layla Benitez-James speaks with Rebecca Seiferle, whose brilliant essay on Lorca translations appears in Into English. A multi-award winning poet and noted translator of César Vallejo and other Spanish language poets, Seiferle is deeply passionate about teaching and served as the poet laureate of Tucson, Arizona between 2012 and 2016. On this edition of the podcast, she discusses how her translation practice has woven its way through her own writing and teaching, and reminds us of the importance of interrogating each and every word to get at the very heart and origin of a text’s language.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Start your weekend with up-to-the-minute literary dispatches from around the world!

This week, we highlight a new Latinx literary magazine, an award-winning Catalan poet and translator, and a German-American literary festival in New York. We also learn about a Salvadoran who hopes to increase access to literature in his city by raising enough funds to build and stock a new library.

Nestor Gomez, Editor-at-Large for El Salvador, reporting from El Salvador

The Fall 2018 debut of Palabritas, an online Latinx literary magazine founded by Ruben Reyes Jr., is good news for Latinx writers from a variety of genres, especially those who are unpublished. Palabritas’ creation was inspired by a night of celebration of spoken word, poetry, and performances hosted by Fuerza Latina, a pan-Latinx organization of Harvard College. Reyes, a Harvard student and the son of Salvadoran immigrants, felt it was important to give access to unpublished writers from Latinx communities that are often ignored, such as LGBTQ+, the diaspora, and mixed-race communities. By providing a space for Latinx writers from all communities, Reyes hopes to minimize the exclusivity of published writers and bring them side-by-side with previously unpublished writers in the magazine.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Winter 2019

Explore the Winter 2019 issue with our section editors!

Not sure where to start with the brand new Winter 2019 issue of Asymptote? At 35 countries represented, this issue is our most diverse yet, and marks the eighth anniversary of Asymptote. Here, our Section Editors recommend some of their favourite pieces from their respective sections.

The writing of María Sánchez tracks close to the ground; she hunts experience. In “The Next Word,” compellingly translated by Bella Bosworth, we accompany Sánchez in her truck, as she drives around the Spanish countryside, working as a field veterinarian. There is a great slowness to her prose, born of hours of careful observation of people and things. The letters that composed this piece read like prayers, written to an unknown God, in praise of those small moments in which, as Sánchez writes, “life stands still and nothing happens.” There is a delicate empiricism at work here—an empathy with the world and its rhythms that Sánchez reads by looking at her, as if she were the geiger counter of existence. “Sometimes”, she writes, quoting Gabriella Ybarra, “imagining has been the only option I have had to try to understand.”

— Joshua Craze, Nonfiction Editor

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Find the latest in world literature here!

This week, join our wonderful Asymptote staff members, Barbara, Rachael, and Nina, as they bring you literary updates from Albania, Spain, and the United States. From prestigious national literary awards to new and noteworthy titles and translations, there is plenty to discover in this week’s dispatches. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large for Albania, reporting from Albania:

December was a productive month for Albanian publishers, a natural result of the conclusion of the Tirana Book Fair and the expected increase in book sales that marks the holiday period. On December 18, 2018, the Albanian Ministry of Culture conferred the National Award for Literature for the best books published in 2017. Henrik Spiro Gjoka won the “Best Novel” award for his work Sonatë për gruan e një tjetri (A Sonnet for Another Man’s Wife), which details the life of a psychiatrist who falls in love with one of his patients. Translator Aida Baro won the “Best Translated Novel” award for her rendition into Albanian of Primo Levi’s The Truce (translated into English by Stuart J. Woolf), the continuation of Levi’s autobiography, If This is a Man.

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Under the Microscope: Theatre in Translation

Translated theatre can be transformative, while putting both source and target cultures under the microscope.

As a theatre translator and researcher working in London, the work that I create is motivated by a desire to enable British audiences to engage with a particular voice, author, theme, perspective, or situation from another country and culture. I seek to facilitate this in multiple ways through academic scholarship, through study in the classroom, and through rehearsal and performance. My translation decisions are informed by a process of in-depth analysis in which I ask the following questions: how might a text resonate in a local context, for example, in Britain today? What are the links between source and target culture that enable a play to become mobile? How can dialogue begin on stage and then extend into the audience, sparking new conversations, in a new context?

In 2017 I completed the translation of two plays; Ready or Not (Punto y Coma) by Uruguayan dramatist, Estela Golovchenko, and Summer in December (Verano en diciembre) by Spanish dramatist, Carolina Africa Martín. In Ready or Not, a young girl is separated from both of her parents during the period of intense military repression (1973-1985) in Uruguay and then later reunited with her father, who is a political activist turned Senator. They clash over their political views, their ways of remembering the past, and their roles in the present. In Summer in December, a family of six women is faced with seemingly small everyday dilemmas of worrying about what their neighbours might think about them, whether the food in the fridge has passed its sell-by date, and the latest diet fad. However, the play goes on to address much more significant concerns about new and old relationships, unplanned pregnancies, and what should happen to an ageing relative with dementia.

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What’s New in Translation: January 2019

You won't be lacking reading material in the new year with these latest translations, reviewed by Asymptote team members.

Looking for new books to read this year? Look no further with this edition of What’s New in Translation, featuring new releases translated from Kurdish, Dutch, and Spanish. Read on to find out more about Abdulla Pashew’s poems written in exile, Tommy Wieringa’s novel about cross-cultural identities, as well as Agustín Martínez cinematic thriller.

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Dictionary of Midnight by Abdulla Pashew, translated from the Kurdish by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, Phoneme Media (2018)

Review by Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong

Dictionary of Midnight is a collection of several decades of Abdulla Pashew’s poetry as he recounts the history of Kurdistan and its struggle for independence. Translated from the Kurdish by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, the work includes a map of contemporary Iraq and a timeline of Kurdish history for those unfamiliar with the plight of the Kurds, something Pashew, one of the most influential Kurdish poets alive today, has taken upon himself to convey and to honor.

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Festive Reads: Holiday Writing from Around the World

The Christmas season can be oppressive in everything from familial expectation to brow-beating advertising to relentless good cheer.

For many of us, Christmas is a time for gathering with family, giving gifts, and singing carols. For others, however, the holiday isn’t a snowy Love Actually postcard scene; in some parts of the world, it features tropical weather and end-of-year department store sales, while in others, it’s a just a regular day. You’ve read the blog’s Summer Ennui reading recommendations, and now we’re back with a list of our favorite Christmastime reads from Assistant Managing Editor Rachael Pennington, Communications Manager Alexander Dickow, and Editors-at-Large Alice Inggs and Barbara Halla.

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large for South Africa

Picture this: it’s December 25 in South Africa and there is drought somewhere in the country. Farmers pray for rain, sink boreholes, shoot dying sheep. The acacia in the bushveld to the north is bone-white and the grass invites fire. The heat is a white heat and cattle bones glare in the sun. The paint on Father Christmas statues outside shopping centres begins to melt and pine cuttings out of water droop. Tempers crackle and flare. The roads are too busy and the accident death toll climbs. White-robed umnazaretha worshipping in the open veld stand out against the brown-grey earth. It is hot and bleak and houses are full because all the family came to visit.

“It is a dry, white season” begins South African Black Consciousness writer Mongane Wally Serote’s poem “For Don M. — Banned.” It was written in the early 1970s for Don Mattera, a Xhosa-Italian poet and friend of Serote’s who had been banned by the apartheid government. The first line of Serote’s poem was later borrowed by Afrikaner André Brink for his 1979 novel ’n Droë Wit Seisoen (A Dry White Season). The book was banned too, as well as a subsequent film adaptation starring Zakes Mokae and Donald Sutherland. It’s been two and a half decades since those laws were repealed and the cultural whitewash acknowledged, but that line—“It is a dry, white season”—still echoes through summer in South Africa, the season in which Christmas falls; a reminder of the oppressive atmosphere that back then was not limited to the months when the temperature climbed.

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Asymptote Podcast: International Blacknesses

Poet and comparatist Aaron Coleman on translation as a tool for making vivid the relationships between Afro-descendants around the world

“I felt myself in translation all the time.”

Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James sits down via Google Hangouts with poet and translator Aaron Coleman in this third and final installment of interviews inspired by John Keene’s essay Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness. In October’s conversation with Keene and our previous podcast with Lawrence Schimel, we explored the more radical social possibilities of translation. Our discussion continues with Coleman, a Fulbright Scholar and recipient of the 2017 Philip K. Jansen Memorial Fellowship, awarded to outstanding translators of color. He joins us to talk about his studies in international Blacknesses, interpreting on the red carpet at the MTV Music Awards in Madrid, and playing basketball in Extremadura. Tune in for this and much, much more!

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly literary news from around the world.

This week, we remember a prolific Catalan novelist and celebrate the achievements—including prizes, publications and a Ph.D.—of Indigenous writers from Mexico, Colombia and Australia.

Tiffany Tsao, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Australia

In October, Australian literary magazine The Lifted Brow announced that their fortieth issue would be produced entirely by a First Nations collective of writers, artists, editors, academics, and activists. The cover and contributors for the issue, which was titled Blak Brow, were revealed in late November. The issue launched on Wednesday, December 12th, at the Footscray Community Arts Centre in Melbourne, and is also now available to be ordered.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2018

To give you a taste of the Fall 2018 issue, the blog editors share their favorite pieces from Russian, Catalan, and Vietnamese.

Today, we share our favorite pieces from the Fall 2018 issue, released just four days ago, highlighting the diversity of cultures, languages, and literary styles represented. Chloe Lim, writing from Singapore, is joined today by two new blog editors as of last week: Jonathan Egid and Nina Perrotta, writing from the UK and Brazil respectively. Happy reading! 

From the visceral, violent power of José Revueltas’ The Hole to the lyricism of Osama Alomar’s “Nuclear Bomb” and the schizoid voices of George Prevedourakis’ Kleftiko, our Fall 2018 edition plays host to a typically broad variety of styles, forms, and languages. A piece that particularly caught my eye was “Epilogue,” a quiet, sombre short story by Irina Odoevtsova about two Russian émigrées in Nice, their separation and their separate fates.

The story follows the unhappy existence of Tatiana and Sergei, initially as poor migrants surrounded by the Anglo-American holidaying elite of the Riviera, through Sergei’s uncertain departure and Tatiana’s newfound wealth to a tragic conclusion, with much of the story being told through short, terse conversations between Tatiana and Sergei, Tatiana and her new lover and (more frequently) Tatiana and herself. The restrained, even sparse dialogue and plain prose nevertheless creates touching, vivid and tragic characters in strikingly limited space, conveying to us the tragic story of a woman struggling to understand her dreams and desires, and the tragic consequences that come from her acting upon those confused and conflicting desires.

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A Journey of Faith: Shūsaku Endō’s The Samurai In Review

Do you think He is to be found within those garish Cathedrals? He does not dwell there... I think He lives in the wretched homes of these Indians.

The Samurai by Shūsaku Endō, translated from the Japanese by Van C. Gessel, new edition by New Directions, August 2018

The Samurai is Shūsaku Endō’s 1980 historical fiction that won him the prestigious Noma Literary Prize in Japan in the same year. As stated by Endō himself, this novel’s purpose was not meant merely as historical illustration—it is the story of a spiritual journey through suffering and, in some ways, a story of Endō himself. The Samurai has been published in a fresh edition by New Directions, featuring Van C. Gessel’s original English translation.

The Samurai begins in a poor village in the marshlands of northeast Japan at the very beginning of the seventeenth century. Peasants slave in the fields to pay rice taxes to their feudal lords, often unable to keep any to feed themselves. The samurai, Hasekura Rokuemon, looks after the village dutifully and works alongside the peasants in the fields. Based on real historical events, the samurai is commanded by his feudal lord to leave behind his village and set sail to New Spain (now Mexico) as an emissary to establish trade relations. Along with three fellow Japanese envoys, an ambitious, Jesuit-hating, Franciscan missionary named Velasco, and a horde of Japanese merchants looking for profits, the samurai’s voyage takes him across the deserts of New Spain, Madrid, and finally to Rome, at the foot of the Pope. This voyage is modeled after the real historical journey known as the Keichō Embassy (1613-1620). This historic embassy was one of Japan’s last diplomatic outreaches before the Tokugawa shogunate enacted a strict isolation policy known as the Sakoku, which lasted for the next two hundred and twenty years.

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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…

Spring 2012: Why Asymptote Matters

I say this from experience, because Asymptote has helped to get a number of the authors I translate into print.

Asymptote is featured in the January/February 2012 issue of Poets & Writers and mentioned for the first time at The Millions—we are given the fond nickname, “The Audible Antipodal,” I suppose, in a nod to our multimedia offerings? (Said multimedia offerings recently expanded to include full-screen immersive slideshows in all Visual articles at a whopping cost of USD1,100, out of pocket.) Dalkey Archive approaches me with an offer to edit the inaugural Best Asian Fiction Anthology, modeled after their Best European Fiction Anthology. But there’s a catch: I have to find a sponsor for the series (who would be willing to part with $85,000 per annum), and I would only get $5,000 for the editing gig. Given how hopeless I am at fundraising, then, this is not going to happen. One detail from our discussion sticks, however. Given the state of China-Taiwan relations, Dalkey Archive thinks Taiwan will be “tricky,” just as Macedonia was eventually dropped because Cypress did not want to be included in the same lineup as Macedonia (with its current name) in the European counterpart. Ah, politics. Here to introduce the Spring 2012 issue is contributing editor Adrian Nathan West.

Even a casual reader who spends time overseas will notice something odd about English-language publishing. Just recently, at my favorite bookstore, La Central in Barcelona’s Raval, I saw, set out on shelf displays or on tables, books by Virginie Despentes, Mircea Cartarescu, and Han Kang—all available in Spanish and Catalan translation. In the US and UK, in places where bookstores still exist, translation is treated, at best, as a genre—though many talented independent bookstores are trying to change this. The figure 3% is often bandied about as the proportion of translated books published in English; this is bad enough, but the figure may well be optimistic (the figures for poetry and fiction are available at the translation database at Three Percent). Those masochistic enough to read reviews at Amazon or goodreads will see the same absurd prejudices against translated literature crop up over and over again; while professional translators cannot help but be dismayed at the inveterate willingness of large publishers to fork over lavish advances to plodding has-beens while keeping at arm’s length writers of undeniable stature from other countries. The stereotype persists—translated literature doesn’t sell—and neither Knausgaard nor Ferrante have done much to change it.

Nor do journals and magazines provide much of a haven for readers who want to know what is happening elsewhere. While a cornucopia of poorly funded, university-based journals offers prospective writers and translators next-to-no visibility, more famous outlets, many of which state in their masthead a willingness to publish the new, the daring, and the uncategorizable, go on cranking out one mind-numbing workshop story after another. Then, up in the ether, are the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and their ilk, at the gates of which the translator lingers like poor K. before the portal of Kafka’s castle.     READ MORE…