Place: Spain

Co-Translation: Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn on Translating Juan José Millás’s From the Shadows

. . . Translation is a very curious combination of simultaneously being outside a text as an onlooker and deep within the guts of the thing.

For the month of August, Asymptote Book Club’s selection was From the Shadows, the English-language debut of acclaimed Spanish language writer, Juan José Millás. In the following interview, Asymptote’s Jacqueline Leung speaks to the novel’s translators, Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, on the pressures of translating a national literary hero, the various processes of co-translation, and how the novel’s pertinent themes of isolation and alienation relate to our current times.

Jacqueline Leung (JL): Juan José Millás is routinely recognized as one of the greatest writers in Spain today, and From the Shadows marks his long overdue debut into English. How (if at all) did these factors play into your process? I’m referring to critics’s inevitably high expectations regarding a literary master’s very first work in English translation, as well as the author’s own ability to potentially chip in on or judge the outcome. Was there an added sense of pressure or due deference on your end, or were you as free as ever to “play around”?

Daniel Hahn (DH): I don’t think it was a factor, actually—it’s certainly not something Tom and I ever discussed, whether between the two of us or with our publishers. You really just have to take each text as it comes, and simply commit to doing whatever it tells you to do, without fretting about expectations or reputations. Besides, while Millás is a big deal in Spain, I’m not sure the English-speaking world has been waiting on tenterhooks for a chance to read this translation—for all intents and purposes, he’s being presented to the Anglophones as a debut. Of course, this first book could turn out to be a stupendous runaway success, which would indeed put extra pressure and expectations on book two, but if that added pressure is the price we have to pay for insane bestseller sales, I’ll take it . . . READ MORE…

Announcing Our August Book Club Selection: From the Shadows by Juan José Millás

With what appears to be an absurdist plot, Millás explores the psyche of an individual made redundant by society.

According to Sylvia Plath, August is an “odd and uneven time” so it’s all the more fitting that we’ve chosen Juan José Millás’ spectacularly surreal and cerebral novel, From the Shadows, as our Book Club selection this month. Millás is an author known for bringing existential thought into dreamlike spaces, and in this exemplifying work, the narrative carves a labyrinthine path through a mind withstanding both physical and mental confinements, and the language, rife with darkness and comedy, traces the fine walls of worlds both real and imagined with Kafkaesque soliloquy. 

The Asymptote Book Club strives to bring the best translated fiction every month to readers in the US, the UK, and the EU. From as low as USD15 a book, sign up to receive next month’s book on our website; once you’re a member, you can  join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

From the Shadows by Juan José Millás, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, Bellevue Literary Press, 2019

“Every love story is a ghost story”: David Foster Wallace’s epigraph encapsulates the phantasmagoric search for love and acceptance in Juan José Millás’ From the Shadows, the author’s much-anticipated English debut. Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, From the Shadows follows the story of Damián Lobo, an unemployed maintenance worker, who, in a strange turn of events, hides himself inside an old wardrobe and gets transported to the home of a young family. Instead of escaping from his physical confinement, Damián inhabits the space behind the wardrobe and becomes the “Ghost Butler,” a spectral being who tends to chores around the house in the daytime when the family is out and slips back to his hiding place in the master’s bedroom at night.

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What’s New with the Crew? (Aug 2019)

We've been keeping busy!

What do Asymptote staff get up to when they’re not busy advocating for world literature? Answer: Quite a lot! For those interested in joining our team, please note that we have just completed the first phase of our recruitment drive and will conclude the second and final phase by the end of the month. It’s not too late to send in an application!

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow published two poems in Plume, in English and French versions.

Assistant editor Andreea Iulia Scridon‘s poem, Glossa, a re-writing of Mihai Eminescu’s Romanian poem of the same name, has been published by WildCourt.

Copy Editor Anna Aresi‘s Italian translation of Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn, 2014) was released in May by Edizioni Ensemble. 

Chris Tanasescu (aka MARGENTO, editor-at-large for Romania and Moldova) has been featured in a Romanian poetry anthology in Italian translation, Sette poeti rumeni (Seven Romanian Poets) edited by Matteo Veronesi.

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Long Forgotten Stories of Translation: Part Two

Those long-dead translators and scholars deserve to be celebrated for what they were, giants on whose shoulders we sometimes still need to climb...

In the second part of this previous post, Brother Anthony of Taizé continues to celebrate the forgotten thinkers of the early Arab world. Although Renaissance Europe turned its back on Arabic writing, two of Spain’s greatest thinkers, Averroes and Maimonides, had produced invaluable commentaries and philosophies based on the works of Aristotle, whilst Toledo became a literary epicenter for re-translations from Arabic into Latin and Spanish. Read on to find out more.

The golden age of Córdoba did not last long. In 997, the military leader Almanzor captured Santiago and soon became the effective ruler of southern Spain. He ordered the destruction of books related to philosophy and astronomy, which he considered contrary to Islam, leaving only those about medicine and mathematics. After his death in 1002, bands of marauding North African Berbers sacked Córdoba, sparking an exodus of Jews, in particular, to other cities. Later in the century, in 1085, the Christian kingdom of Castile captured the great city of Toledo. The Muslim leaders were forced to turn to the Almoravid dynasty in North Africa for help, likewise composed of fierce Berber warriors. In 1089, the Almoravids took complete control of Islamic Spain. Less than a century later, they were replaced by an even fiercer and more fanatical North African dynasty, the Almohads, who were especially intolerant of Jews and Christians. READ MORE…

Long Forgotten Stories of Translation: Part One

Anti-Islamic attitudes are not a modern phenomenon and the campaign to erase the Islamic contribution to modern thought began long ago.

Today, early Arabic thinkers are largely overlooked in discussions of the origins of Western philosophy. In this essay (the second part of which will be published tomorrow), Brother Anthony of Taizé brings the focus back to this period of prolific scholarship and translation, and remembers the most influential philosophers and Greek-Arabic translators of the Medieval Islamic world.

In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “La busca de Averroes” (1947), we find Averroes (ibn Rushd, 1126-1198), the great Spanish Arabic commentator of Aristotle, at a loss to understand the words “comedy” and “tragedy” he has found in Aristotle’s Poetics, because his own culture has no tradition of theatrical drama. He is given hints by the sight of children playing at being the muezzin in a mosque, as well as by an account of a theatrical performance in China given by a returning traveler, but he can make nothing of them. Borges then intervenes to make this a parable illustrating the impossibility of ever understanding anyone who lives in a radically different time and culture. In reading this story, we are confronted with our own (and Borges’s) inability to write and read the actual words for “tragedy” and “comedy” which Averroes was struggling with. Today’s widespread Western inability to read Arabic, Greek, or even Latin, should be a source of shame, although it doesn’t seem to be. Many of Borges’s readers might already be at a loss to imagine an Arab struggling to understand Aristotle, so unfamiliar the intellectual history of the Muslim world has become. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Awards, book sales, conferences, festivals—poetics in its varied forms span the globe in this week's news.

Our editors pull both national bodies of literature and international exchanges into focus this week with a melange of events alive with tribute, celebration, and solidarity. In Toronto, a wide ranging arts and culture festival bring Iranian New Wave poetry and theatre to its stages. Valencia Poetry Festival proves a worthy debut with enthralling performances, experiments, and urgent messages. Tibetan literature and academia is featured with a comprehensive translation of a classic Buddhist text and a rich anniversary conference. This week’s dispatches are not to be missed!

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting from New York City

Tirgan Festival, a celebration of Iranian art and culture, is held between July 25 and 28 in Toronto, Canada. This year’s festival includes some fifty events with participation of two hundred thirty guests, including performers, musicians, writers and poets, scholars, and others.

One of the events is a tribute to Iranian New Wave poet Yadollah Royaï (born 1932). Currently based in Paris, Royaï is one of the founders of “espacementalisme,” a poetry style influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology. The event will include scholars Farzaneh Milani and Khatereh Sheibani, editor and journalist Hassan Zerehi, Tirgan CEO Mehrdad Ariannejad, and Yadollah Royaï himself.

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Creating What One Cannot Find: In Conversation with Deborah Ekoka

Cervantes called Sevilla “the chess board” because there were as many blacks as there were whites.

Today on the blog, podcast editor Layla Benitez-James draws us into the vibrant but seldom-discussed community of Black writers in Spain. In this essay-interview hybrid, she introduces us to two booksellers working to amplify the voices and and experiences of black Spanish writers.

In the past year, I have interviewed three of the panelists from the 2018 Tampa AWP panel sponsored by ALTA, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” for the Asymptote podcast: Lawrence Schimel, John Keene and, Aaron Coleman. My last interview with Coleman gave me a quote which has been rewritten at the beginning of each new journal I’ve started since December as it got at something that I have often felt but never expressed so well: literary translation is a tool to make more vivid the relationships between Afro-descendent people in the Americas and around the world.

I was reminded of the first time I read Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Of course, nothing overlapped with my life exactly, but there was this kind of constant shock and pleasure at recognizing pieces of my identity described by people from places I had never been, a sense of belonging and kinship.

Beyond dictionaries and historical reference works, in my latest projects I have relied heavily on community to understand the context of the text. I moved to Spain in 2014 to work on translation and improve my Spanish. I had fallen in love with the practice after a translation workshop at the University of Houston and started translating the work of Madrid-born and based poet Óscar Curieses. After a teaching placement in the city of Murcia flung me much farther south than I had originally planned, I began to find incredible Murcian poets, like Cristina Morano, Bea Mirales, José Daniel Espejo, and José Óscar López, whose work I wanted to bring into English.

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Imagining Truths: In Conversation with Gabriela Ybarra

I always feel that I’m a detective of my own life.

“The story goes,” begins Gabriela Ybarra’s novel The Dinner Guest, “that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal.” This guest, Ybarra writes, occasionally “appears, casts his shadow and erases one of those present” and forms part of the complex family mythology that Ybarra seeks to unravel in her stunning documentary-style debut. The Dinner Guest is a free reconstruction of the events surrounding the kidnapping and murder of her grandfather in 1977 and the death of her mother in 2011. Ybarra deftly combines collective memory, media reports, photographs, Google search results, and instinctive imaginings to unearth her family’s traumatic past. Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, The Dinner Guest, flawlessly translated by Natasha Wimmer, has just been released in the U.S. by Transit Books. On the eve of publication, we spoke with Gabriela Ybarra about writing grief, playing detective, and finding freedom in a photograph of Robert Walser.

—Sarah Timmer Harvey

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): When did you start writing The Dinner Guest, and was it always intended to be the novel it became?

Gabriela Ybarra (GY): I started to work on The Dinner Guest shortly after my mother died in September 2011. Her illness went by so fast that, when she passed away, I felt the need to write down what I had lived through during the previous months just to make sense of it all. During the process, I got stuck several times. In the beginning, I thought that this was because I was a novice writer and still lacked experience, but as time went by, I realized that there were some behaviors in my family that I couldn’t explain. For example, during my mother’s illness, my father kept talking about a rosary covered in blood, which I thought was very weird, but couldn’t find an explanation for it. As I started to look back, I realized that many of these behaviors were related to the kidnapping and murder of my grandfather by the terrorist group ETA in 1977. In grieving my mother, I stumbled upon the unresolved grief related to my grandfather.

STH: The Dinner Guest is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. The framework of the story is undoubtedly factual; the kidnapping and death of your grandfather, your mother’s illness, and her subsequent passing are all real, and yet, there are also parts that are pure fiction; imagined events, conversations, and connections. Is it important for you that readers view The Dinner Guest as a novel?

GY: Genre isn’t so important to me. I consider the book a novel because I believe that memory is always fiction and, in the case of my grandfather, I had to make up big parts of his kidnapping because nobody in my family would tell me anything about it. For many years, my family lived as if these traumatic events had never happened. I could infer their pain through their silences, but lacked a story; the only information that I had came from the newspapers. In the case of my mother, I did know the events quite well, but reality is often too complicated to make believable, so I had to twist it.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Friendship, solidarity, and freedom: this week, our editors present literary news under the banner of liberation.

Borders fade into the background during literary festivals and book fairs in Spain, El Salvador, and Kosovo this week as our editors report on an increasing resolve to disregard distance in honouring literature, gathering readers, publishers, and writers from around the world. Madrid glows with a rich festival of poetry, history is made in El Salvador as its first multilingual online literary publication is unveiled, and Kosovo pays tribute to women artists and writers in its capital. 

Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain 

A rowdy concert, out-of-control house party, or public protest are what come to mind when I think about the police showing up to a gathering in Madrid. However, it was a poetry reading whose audience had spilled out onto the street in front of bookshop Desperate Literature which brought them to give a warning on a warm Tuesday night on May 28.

Over the past two years, I have become involved with the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid, first by doing some introductions for the more or less monthly reading series, and eventually becoming their Director of Literary Outreach as we began to make plans to launch Madrid’s first ever anglophone poetry festival. A grassroots and volunteer outfit from the beginning, the series started by accident on March 27, 2012 when poet and Episcopal priest, Spencer Reece, held what was intended to be a “one-off” reading on the patio of the Catedral del Redentor for Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco. In partnership with bookseller and co-founder/co-manager of Desperate Literature Terry Craven, and scholar Elizabeth Moe, Reece was unaware that the series would eventually evolve into the packed and vibrant Unamuno Poetry Festival. In the end, the week of May 27 through June 1, 2019 would see eighty readings spread across five venues, including a lecture series hosted in the historic Residencia de Estudiantes, where Federico Garcia Lorca, Salvador Dalí, and Luis Buñuel all lived and studied. Taking place in the mornings, these panels counted poet Mark Doty, Laura García-Lorca (niece of Federico García- Lorca), and local Madrid native poet Óscar Curieses among their ranks, alongside many others. 

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Francisco Layna Ranz

If there’s any heart left to swear on, I do it to sue for innocence.

To write seems a common salve for grief, and in this week’s Translation Tuesday, we’re reminded of why, in times of darkness, we turn to the written word for solace. Francisco Layna Ranz’s words are rife with the sharpness of new sorrow, clean and stark, yet with a keen eye he turns toward the motion that is an inevitable consequence of living. With language we may continue, and the action of admittance in poetry is a good thing, a good thing that results from continuing.

A Friend’s Son Died

A friend’s son died.
I pay my respects.
It’s Tuesday, cold between the stones, and I come back by Daroca Avenue.
Brick wall.
The bricks always look old. I don’t know: I think I’d start smoking again if I could.
It’s also too soon for sound. The proof is in the frost on the weeds and garbage.
It’s a question of innocence in the reading of what happens: soon and late
are words of now.
And all I can do is babble excuses for what’s left of my life, and everybody else’s life.
Of course a written letter is a sign that you’re getting old. For paper and for you it’s already much too late.
I know it makes no sense, but maybe I should go back to that crematorium and stay for what’s left of the morning.
Sitting on those benches, thinking of nothing.
Hear the traffic and think of nothing, the way the cold does.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

We come to you this week armed with manifestos from Hong Kong, recipes from India, and voices giving shapes to poetry in Barcelona.

We look both backward and forward: a revolution in China, an election in India, poets uniting in Barcelona to cohere past and future with performance and verse. This week our editors are here with literary news items that display a history starkly immediate, a present gathering visions, and tomorrows which hope that remembrance may also be an act of resistance. 

Charlie Ng, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong:

The May Fourth Movement was one of the most influential events for China in the twentieth century as it powerfully revolutionised Chinese culture and society. The cultural movement complemented the political Xinhai Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen in heralding China’s modern era. Its centenary is celebrated across the Straits, and Hong Kong is no exception. Hong Kong’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum is in collaboration with the Beijing Lu Xun Museum to organise “The Awakening of a Generation: The May Fourth and New Culture Movement” Exhibition, displaying relevant collections from both Beijing and the Hong Kong Museum of History to the public, including the handwritten manuscripts of Chen Duxiu and Hu Shih. The exhibition will also showcase visual and multimedia artworks that are inspired by the event.

The Hong Kong Literary Criticism Society has inaugurated the “Hong Kong Chinese Literary Criticism Competition 2019” to promote literary criticism in Hong Kong, and the launch ceremony of the competition was held in the Hong Kong Arts Development Council on May 18. Hong Kong writer Yip Fai and Chinese scholar Choy Yuen-fung from Hong Kong Baptist University were invited to give a talk on the necessity of literature and literary criticism, moderated by the chairman of Hong Kong Literary Criticism Society, Ng Mei-kwan.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

From literary festivals to prize winners, this is the week in world literature.

This week, dispatches from Spain and Central America witness the rise of Spanish-language writers and events that support and promote the literatures of up-and-comers alongside established stars of the field. To celebrate the community of world literature is a necessary joy, and our editors are here with the revelry. 

Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain  

It was time for big celebrations in a tiny, trilingual bookshop located in the centre of Madrid on the night of May 10. Francesca Reece had been named winner of the second ever Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize, and ten other writers were being honoured alongside her in the publication of Eleven Stories 2019, the shortlist for the competition which follows after the sold out original Eleven Stories from their inaugural 2018 contest.

The event celebrated the launch of the mini collection with readings from ten of the eleven shortlisted authors. The project is an international prize based out of the bookshop Desperate Literature in Madrid, but with partners in London, Paris, and New York, it has drastically evolved over just its first year. After feedback from the inaugural winner and shortlist, the founders decided to add a one week stay as the artist-in-residence at the Civitella Ranieri in Italy, and a consultation with a New York literary agent who works for Foundry Literary + Media. With the aim of giving as much support to emerging and non-traditional writers as possible, they sought to develop additional assistance alongside a cash prize and are looking to continue this line of development for next year’s iteration. This year they partnered with five literary journals: 3:AM, Structo Magazine, Helter Skelter, The London Magazine, and The Second Shelf (women only), who will publish stories from the shortlist throughout the year. They also added a collaboration with the Casa Ana in Andalucia, who selected Jay G Ying from the shortlist for another residency.

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Thirteen Keys to a Doorless House in Toledo: On Tela de sevoya by Myriam Moscona

The Ladino language has etched on her tongue the addresses of countless houses in the Jewish Quarters of Toledo and Burgos.

Myriam Moscona’s Tela de sevoya (Onioncloth) was published in English in 2017, translated from the Ladino by Antena (Jen Hofer with John Pluecker). In today’s essay, Asymptote’s Sergio Sarano, himself a Ladino speaker, uses Moscona’s book as a starting point to explore the language and its history, shaped by the complex migrations of the Jewish diaspora. Sergio also discusses Ladino’s current status as an endangered language and highlights the important role that Moscona, as one of just a few writers who continue to publish in Ladino, has to play in keeping the language alive.

“I come upon a city
I remember
that there lived
my two mothers
and I wet my feet
in the rivers
that from these and other waters
arrive to this place”

—Myriam Moscona

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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…