Reviews

Choose Silence or Dream: Alejandra Pizarnik’s The Galloping Hour in Review

Looking for your next woman in translation to read? Look no further!

The Galloping Hour: French Poems by Alejandra Pizarnik, Translated from the French by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander, New Directions, 2018

Have you ever been thrown into the deep end of a pool or overcome by a rogue wave, unable to get your bearings and reach the surface for air?

Unpublished during the poet’s lifetime, Alejandra’s Pizarnik’s The Galloping Hour: French Poems (New Directions), translated from the French by Patricio Ferrari (who has also translated the collection into Spanish) and Forrest Gander, tips the reader headfirst into an engulfing, bottomless sea of emotions.

Born in Argentina to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Alejandra grew up ridden with complexes: as a young girl she suffered from acne and was overweight; her European accent in her mother tongue of Spanish made her feel like an outsider wherever she went, and she was plagued by jealousy of her older sister. Although she never openly identified as gay and had difficulty expressing her Jewish identity and her sexuality, she was known to have several female love interests.

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What’s New in Translation: August 2018

Find respite from the heat with these new reads.

From Icelandic landscapes to art history, August brings with it an exciting new selection of books. Whether you’re looking for a book to pass the hot summer days, or are in the market for inspired poetry, the Asymptote team has something for you in this new edition of What’s New in Translation. And if that’s not enough, head over to the Asymptote Book Club for fresh reads, delivered to your doorstep every month!

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Öræfi: The Wastelands by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith, Deep Vellum, 2018

Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor

One of the many epic stories retold in Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s Öræfi: The Wastelands (“that punctuation mark… both pushes words (and worlds) away from one another and means they’re roped together,” according to translator Lytton Smith) is the story of Öræfi itself. Formerly known as Hérað, the Province, a place in which “butter drips from every blade of grass,” it was devastated by the most destructive volcanic eruption in Iceland’s recorded history:

The chronicles record that one morning in 1362 Knappafjells glacier exploded and spewed over the Lómagnúpur sands and carried everything off into the sea, thirty fathoms deep… The Province was destroyed, all its people and creatures annihilated; no sheep or cattle survived, no creatures left alive anywhere… the corpses of people and animals washed up on beaches far and wide… the bodies were cooked and tender and the flesh so loose on the bones it fell apart.

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In Review: Scales of Injustice by Loa Ho

Loa Ho is crucial to the development of modern Taiwanese literature

Scales of Injustice by Loa Ho, translated by Darryl Sterk, Honford Star, 2018

It is never easy to translate a founding figure in a literary field, let alone a pioneering writer who has been translated by influential translators before. Such is the tricky task assigned to Darryl Sterk of translating Loa Ho’s (賴和, “Lai He” in Mandarin Chinese pronunciation, 1894–1943) complete fiction collection, which includes twenty-one novellas composed by the “Father of New Taiwanese Literature.” Entitled Scales of Injustice and freshly published in May 2018 by the London-based publishing house, Honford Star, the book features Loa Ho’s fiction in Sterk’s brand new translations from vernacular Chinese, Japanese, and Taiwanese (the “Taiwanese varieties of ‘Southern Hokkien’,” as explained by the translator) into English. The mixed use of languages in Loa Ho’s writing reflects the historical background in which the Hakka author lived when Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule. While Japanese was the official language, Taiwanese people with Minnan heritage still spoke Taiwanese at home, even as the Japanese government enforced an assimilation policy around 1937 and banned the use of Taiwanese island-wide. The use of vernacular Chinese in Loa Ho’s fiction, on the other hand, stemmed from the New Literature Movement in China. In addition to Japanese and Taiwanese, Austronesian languages were spoken by the aboriginal peoples.

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What’s New in Translation: July 2018

Looking for your next read? You're in the right place.

For many, summertime offers that rare window of endless, hot days that seem to rule out any sort of physical activity but encourage hours of reading. While these might not be easy beach reads in the traditional sense of online listicles, we are here with a few recommendations of our favorite translations coming out this month! These particular books, from China, France, and Argentina, each explore questions of masculinity, death, and creativity in unexpected ways while also challenging conventional narrative structures. As always, check out the Asymptote Book Club for a specially curated new title each month. 

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Ma Bo’le’s Second Life by Xiao Hong, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, Open Letter (2018)

Reviewed by Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor

The “second life” in the title of this scintillatingly satirical novel alludes to how we live on in fictions as well as to how fictions sometimes take on a life of their own. Partially published in 1941 simply as Ma Bo’le, Xiao Hong’s late work was in the process of being expanded, but the throat infection and botched operation that cut her life short at age thirty left further planned additions unfinished. Fortunately for English-language readers, though, it’s now been capably, inventively, and gracefully completed by Howard Goldblatt in an exemplary instance of a translation demanding—as do all renderings into another language—that we attend to its twinned dimensions of creativity and craft. Previously the translator of two Xiao Hong novels as well as a quasi-autobiographical work, Goldblatt was undoubtedly the perfect person to carry out what he fittingly calls “our collaboration,” which is the result of “four decades in the wonderful company—figuratively, intellectually, literarily, and emotionally—of Xiao Hong.”

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In Review: Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo

This is a text written from within the belly of the beast.

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo, Translated by Charlotte Coombe, Charco Press, 2018

Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup (lovingly translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe) opens with a poem from Shel Silverstein: “I am writing these poems / From inside a lion, / And it’s rather dark in here. / So please excuse the handwriting / which may not be too clear.” Silverstein’s poetry was largely written for children, but its language and ideas appeal to readers long into adulthood. These lines fittingly define the voices in García Robayo’s story collection, while making clear the particular challenges of writing about a world while also being trapped inside it. This sense of a multi-layered voice, entrapment, dark atmosphere, and liminality largely defines the latest publication coming from the new and exciting Charco Press.

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What’s New in Translation: June 2018

Float away with one of these three new June releases.

Time for another round of translations hitting bookstores this month. June sees the publication of new translations from Morocco and Portugal. As always, check out the Asymptote Book Club for a specially curated new title each month.

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The Hospital (translated by Lara Vergnaud) and The Shutters (translated by Emma Ramadan), from the French by Ahmed Bouanani, New Directions, 2018

Reviewed by Poupeh Missaghi, Iran Editor-at-Large

Two books by Ahmed Bouanani, Moroccan writer, poet, illustrator, and filmmaker hit the English literary scene this June.

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In Review: The Emissary by Yoko Tawada

In The Emissary, the reader feels a sense of a hope, a beacon glowing in the grim reality of post-disaster Japan.

The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, New Directions, 2018

 Reviewed by Ben Saff, Responsive Layout Designer

If you have ever walked into a house of mirrors, you may remember the uncomfortable feeling of seeing your reflection staring back at you. Your forehead is ten times its normal size, your nose is reduced to a pin point, and your limbs appear like wavy ribbons upon the curving surface of the mirrors. What’s disturbing about the reflection is that it still kind of looks like you—it’s a believable image. In The Emissary (originally published as Kentōshi (献灯使)), Yoko Tawada conjures this exact effect, presenting an image of her native country of Japan that is nightmarish, surreal, and just a little too possible for comfort.

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In Review: La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

This work remains both a feminine artifact and a testimony of a uniquely female experience.

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, takes place in the author’s native Equatorial Guinea, a relatively small country on the west coast of Africa that celebrates fifty years of independence from Spain this year. La Bastarda, the first novel by a female author from Equatorial Guinea translated to English, is a deceivingly simple story of a young girl, Okomo, who grows up in the country and defines her identity in the absence of a living mother and with a father who does not claim her. Told from the perspective of Okomo, the reader begins to understand the disjointed and complicated definition of family. She is raised by her grandmother, who is the first wife of Okomo’s polygamous grandfather, is told that her mother died in childbirth due to witchcraft, and that the father she has never met is a “scoundrel.” The novel depicts Okomo’s struggle with and escape from the confines of social convention in a story that teaches the often seemingly simple, yet difficult path to individual freedom. In addition, the work can be read as an allegory for the young nation separating from its colonial “parent” Spain, and Equatorial Guinea’s existential place as an orphan—culturally and geographically separated from Spain, Latin America, and Africa, and often ignored by an array of academic fields and global politics. In La Bastarda, we read Okomo’s coming-of-age story while also acquiring a great deal of understanding about the particularities of Spanish-speaking Africa.

Explicitly about overcoming traditional roles concerning gender and sexuality, La Bastarda makes a significant contribution to queer literary culture. The novel opens as Okomo’s grandfather, Osá, scolds her for persistently wishing to seek out her father and orders her to cut his toenails, a task that, according to her, “had hardened into my personal burden” (2). Through the metaphor of her grandfather’s toenails, Okomo reveals to the reader the gender hierarchy in her family, which belongs to the largest ethnic group in mainland Equatorial Guinea, the Fang people. These gendered roles continue as her grandfather explains that in Fang tradition your mother’s brother should take over the role as father in the absence of the biological one. However, Okomo’s uncle, Marcelo, is dubbed a “man-woman” because he will not impregnate another woman and is rumored to have intimate relations with other men. While Okomo is the story’s protagonist and narrator, Marcelo is also the target of homophobia, revealing how the traditional gender roles as well as normative expectations regarding sexuality in the novel affect both men and women. Okomo’s grandmother, complicit in the perpetuation of patriarchal tradition and female subjugation, constantly berates her for not already having found a male suitor because, according to tradition, a young girl’s most important goal is to catch a husband and start a family. Her grandmother always warns, “I don’t want you to make the same mistake as your mother. She never learned a woman’s place in Fang tradition. She lived much too freely” (4). In these first few pages, Okomo summons the reader into a suffocating patriarchal and heteronormative Fang community.

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In Review: Cadavers by Néstor Perlongher

Every language has its cadavers, and it must come to terms with it—be it through art, politics or any other medium.

Cadavers, by Néstor Perlongher, translated from the Spanish by Roberto Echavarren and Donald Wellman, Cardboard House Press

In the nets of fishermen
In the tumbling of crayfish
In she whose hair is nipped
by a small loose hairclip
There Are cadavers.”

0. Cadavers is the best-known poem by Argentinian Néstor Perlongher and it is one of the representative works of a Latin American postmodern poetry movement dubbed neobarroco, Neo-Baroque. José Kozer, a Cuban poet, describes neobarroco as: “The second line [of Latin American poetry; the first one is a thin, familiar line], meaning the thick line, I associate with international poetry, a stronger convergance and diversity, indeed more opaque, but, in spite of its thickness, more encompassing. This international poetry includes aspects of twentieth Century [North] American poetry, as well as a basic source rooted in the Spanish Golden Age Baroque, Góngora, and Quevedo above all.” Poetry that is written with a thick line demands texts about it to be thick-lined as well. The following text is my attempt at complicating the all-too-familiar form of the book review. There Are Cadavers.

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What’s New in Translation: May 2018

Looking for your next read? You're in the right place.

The newest issue of Asymptote has just dropped and it is beautiful. In the physical world, the literary world is abuzz with festivals and publications around the world. We are back with another round of the newest and most exciting translation gems coming to bookshelves this month. This month, we bring you reviews of recent publications from Norway and Canada. And if you are looking for even more, carefully selected translations, check out the Asymptote Book Club!

Little Beast

Little Beast by Julie Demers, translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins, Coach House Books, 2018

Reviewed by Emma Page, Communications Manager

Julie Demer’s Little Beast (translated by Rhonda Mullins) is a dark fairy tale, more Grimm than Disney, set in the forbidding landscape of wintery rural Quebec. The shape of the story is familiar. A child, an absent parent, a “curse,” fumbling adults to be outwitted, a quest, a return home. Demers never flinches away from her young narrator’s perspective and yet Little Beast slowly emerges as a tale about the end of childhood and the intersection between experience, self-perception, and cultural narrative.

Our narrator is a young girl who has been ostracized from her village since sprouting a full, bushy beard. The bearded child has been living in an abandoned cabin for a month, foraging for food in and obsessively recording her tale in writing. Running out of fuel in freezing weather, she burns her makeshift home to the ground and sets off in search of a new dwelling. She eventually comes across two hunters with a captive bear, stealing food from them until they spot and capture her. Although at first they are determined to bring her back to the village, they eventually have a change of heart and release her. The child must then make a choice of her own, whether to return to society or disappear into the wilderness for good.

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In Review: The Book of Tbilisi

It radiates a sentiment, an ephemeral affect, a spark, that is more than enough to germinate something new.

The Book of Tbilisi, edited by Becca Parkinson and Gvantsa Jobava, Comma Press

The Tbilisi funicular that leads all the way to the Mtatsminda Mountain, one that families might usually take on Sunday mornings or lovers for an afternoon date, gives an opportunity to get a glimpse of the city from above while still being close and immersed in the noises and lives it encapsulates. The Book of Tbilisi attempts to be an extension thereof, unravelling to the readers the literary landscape of Georgia after the recuperation of its independence and the consequent transformations it underwent. Comma Press’s “Reading the City” series brings to the surface works and literary traditions of underrepresented areas. This endeavour aspires to insert forsaken voices and cosmologies into the Eurocentric literary canon.

One should not overlook the genre chosen for this aspiration. An underrated form that has experienced a renaissance in recent years (as could be attested by Asymptote’s Winter 2018 Issue special feature on microfiction and the 2013 Nobel Prize awarded to Alice Munro), the short story is distanced from illusions of coherency and authority. Instead, its fragments embrace the gaps and absences, charged with an energy that surpasses the mere focus on the sequence of events, in order to capture a state or a quality. Thus it is not difficult to imagine why this impressionistic genre seemed the adequate vehicle—much like the funicular itself—to capture the fleeting force that runs through Georgia.

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In Review: White Shroud by Antanas Škėma

"This work is a befitting emblem of an art which lends enduring shape to adversity."

As the Baltic countries are this year’s Market Focus at the London Book Fair, we continue our showcasing of Lithuanian literature this week with a review of a Lithuanian modernist classic. This showcase has been made possible by Lithuanian Culture Institute.

White Shroud by Antanas Škėma, translated from the Lithuanian by Karla Gruodis, Vagabond Voices, 2018.

Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor

White Shroud (1958), the best-known work and the only novel by Lithuanian artist Antanas Škėma (1910-1961), presents the life story of a poet named Antanas Garšva as he arrives at the threshold of adulthood. The novel is told through stream-of-consciousness interior monologue, journal entry, and omniscient third-person narration, arranged according to the association of ideas, rather than the conventions of rhetoric. This work is a befitting emblem of an art which lends enduring shape to adversity.

Garšva grows up in the town of Kaunas as the only child of two teachers, a mother “of noble birth” and a “charming liar” of a father. Neither of his parents is faithful to the other, and he witnesses the dissolution of their marriage, his mother’s descent into dementia and his father’s decision to place her in a sanitarium. Throughout an indigent existence the character adheres to a bohemian way of life, as variously as possible, doggedly. Škėma presents his story in a mode apt to the character, the mode Modernist, the language Lithuanian, the stance postglobal.

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What’s New in Translation: April 2018

Looking for your next read? You're in the right place.

It’s spring, the days are (hopefully) sunny, and this month we’re back to shine a light on some of the most exciting books to come in April, including works in translation spanning Colombia, Lithuania, Martinique, and Spain (Catalonia). 

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Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas, Peirene Press

Reviewed by Josefina Massot, Assistant Editor

In his Afterword to Shadows on the Tundra, Lithuanian writer Tomas Venclova draws a parallel by way of praise: Dalia Grinkevičiūtė’s account of the Gulag ranks with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s and Varlam Shalamov’s. Those acquainted with Gulag survivor literature know that’s high praise indeed: Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales are paragons of the genre. And yet, I venture, Shadows on the Tundra transcends them both.

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In Review: Twist by Harkaitz Cano

Let’s hope that translation remains not so much a means of preservation but rather the best way for one tool to sharpen another.

Harkaitz Cano’s Twist, recently released by Archipelago Books in Amaia Gabantxo’s translation from the Basque, both shimmies and shimmers on various levels, each of which exhibits its own twist. Like the famous Chubby Checker song, which was itself a cover or translation of sorts, this novel offers a new version of events that rocked the Basque world in the convulsive 1980s—a period when ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), an armed separatist group promoting the independence of the Basque nation, was not only active but also actively pursued by the GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación), which were illegal, government-sponsored death squads dedicated to destroying ETA and its influence in the region.

Officially disarmed in 2017, ETA used as its symbol a snake enveloping an axe, with the former representing politics and the latter armed struggle. Twisted around each other to suggest their inseparability, it is also ultimately a reminder that what lies at the heart of the Basque conflict is precisely the idea of separation: there is a nation that wishes to separate itself from the Spanish state; a Basque nation already separated by the French-Spanish border; and a broad separatist movement that includes those who wish to distance themselves from forms of violence like that carried out by ETA.

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