Reviews

What’s New in Translation: October 2019

October's new translations, selected by the Asymptote staff to shed light on the best recent offerings of world literature.

A new month brings an abundance of fresh translations, and our writers have chosen three of the most engaging, important works: a Japanese novella recounting the monotony of modern working life as the three narrators begin employment in a factory, the memoir of a Russian political prisoner and filmmaker, as well as the first comprehensive English translation of Giorgio de Chirico’s Italian poems. Read on to find out more!

the factory cover

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada, translated from the Japanese by David Boyd, New Directions, 2019

Review by Andreea Scridon, Assistant Editor

Drawn from the author’s own experience as a temporary worker in Japan, The Factory strikes one as being a laconic metaphor for the psychologically brutalizing nature of the modern workplace. There is more than meets the eye in this seemingly mundane narrative of three characters who find work at a huge factory (reticent Yoshiko as a shredder, dissatisfied Ushiyama as a proofreader, and disoriented Furufue as a researcher), as they become increasingly absorbed and eventually almost consumed by its all-encompassing and panoptic nature. Coincidentally wandering into a job for the city’s biggest industry, or finding themselves driven there—against their instincts—by necessity, the three alternating narrators chronicle the various aspects of their working experience and the deeply bizarre undertones that lie beneath the banal surface. READ MORE…

Where Theater Starts and Reality Ends: A Review of Fernanda Torres’s Glory and Its Litany of Horrors

When does fiction stop and reality begin? What is theater’s role in the production and perception of reality?

Glory and Its Litany of Horrors, by Fernanda Torres, translated from the Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker, Restless Books, 2019

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”
William Shakespeare, King Lear

You just sat down, opened up your internet browser—Chrome, because any other browser is just subpar—went to asymptotejournal.com, and finally stumbled across this review of Glory and Its Litany of Horrors by Fernanda Torres. Before reading, you had decided to go for a run, five miles through the woods behind your house that looked similar to the Brazilian backlands. As you ran, you saw a group of soldiers dressed in camouflage about to fire at each other. Without knowing it, you were running through a paintball match; but, thinking it was real, you hit the deck and waited to see what fate would bring you, allowing you to identify with Mario as he struggles through the theater, his acting career, and own reality.

For some of you, this story could be completely true—all details being events that may have occurred throughout your day; for some, bits and pieces were true, while for others, only the act of reading this review is true. These levels of the “you” in reality and the fictional “you” in the above story are the same levels that exist throughout Mario Cardoso’s life in Torres’s work. Published by Restless Books in 2019 (originally published in 2017), Eric M. B. Becker renders Torres’s blurred lines of the protagonist’s fiction and reality (narrated in the first person) in a prose that flows like the action and lines of a play, drawing the reader even further into the scene.

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The Singing Knots of Jorge Eduardo Eielson: Room in Rome in Review

The white pages are treated like canvas, and the lines as singing knots.

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Room in Rome, by Jorge Eduardo Eielson, translated from the Spanish by David Shook, Cardboard House Press, 2019

Knots
That are not knots
And knots that are only
Knots

  1. Peruvian poet Jorge Eduardo Eielson once said of César Vallejo: “There is no superfluousness in Vallejo’s poetry, just as there isn’t any in Christian mysticism, although for opposite reasons”. This reason, according to Eielson, is that Vallejo’s poetry, as opposed to Christian mysticism that supposes a martyrdom of the body, is “a descent of the body—fleshly and social—into hell, that supposes another martyrdom, that of the soul.”
  1. Eielson writes the fleshly and social descent of the body into the Eternal City. Just looking at the title of the opening poem confirms Eielson’s commitment to the body: “Blasphemous Elegy for Those Who Live in the Neighborhood of San Pedro and Have Nothing to Eat.” Room in Rome was written in 1952, shortly after he had left Peru for Italy, where he would settle until his death in 2006. Vallejo, his hero, would also leave Peru for France. Despite this, Eielson’s book was widely available until 1977. During this period, he produced the novel El cuerpo de Gulia-no (The Body of Gulia-no). Again, its title suggests a rigorous investigation of the body and its descent into the worldly. Eielson would write, in 1955, Noche oscura del cuerpo (The Dark Night of the Body)—a shout-out to the Christian mystic St. John of the Cross.)
  1. “i have turned / my patience / into water / my solitude / into bread”
    “here i am headless and shoeless”
    “our father who art in the water”
    “love will be reborn/ between my parched lips”

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Announcing Our September Book Club Selection: The Siege of Troy by Theodor Kallifatides

Kallifatides has a stark, sensitive writing style that, in its simplicity, reveals a sense of reverence for his subjects.

Contemporary writers have continually found original ways to tell enduring stories, as demonstrated masterfully in our September Book Club selection, The Siege of Troy by Theodor Kallifatides. By weaving the retelling of a classic myth with a World War II-era bildungsroman, this stirring novel simultaneously enlivens The Iliad while delivering a potent and poetic demonstration of war’s senselessness. Psychologically probing and structurally unique, The Siege of Troy is a thoroughly modern work that proves why we return again and again to timeless themes—there is always something new to be found there.

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

The Siege of Troy by Theodor Kallifatides, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, Other Press, 2019

No matter how many stories we’ve heard about love, war, and growing up, they never fail to reach our hearts in the specificity of our own place and moment. This is the simple, poignant premise of Theodor Kallifatides’s The Siege of Troy, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, which sets an adolescent boy’s coming-of-age story against a selective retelling of The Iliad.

A Greek immigrant to Sweden, Kallifatides grew up during the German occupation of Greece, and his nameless protagonist emerges sweetly and painfully into his early manhood under the same conditions. The war is nearing its end; though both the occupiers and the occupied are exhausted, tensions continue to surge and survival is far from guaranteed. During regular air raids, the protagonist’s teacher recites The Iliad from memory to her class while they all take shelter in a cave. READ MORE…

How Should We Review Translations? Part III

Reviewing poetry in translation means writing about the power of art. It means writing about something the market doesn’t want us to write about.

In this third and final installment, we hear from Johannes Göransson and Katherine Hedeen, both of whom direct our attention to what we should consider when engaging with poetry in translation.  Göransson details the idea of a deformation zone that disorients our conventional understanding of the relationship between the original and the translation. Calling on us to care about poetry in translation precisely because the market does not care about it, Hedeen envisions the practice of reviewing these translations as an act of subversion and as a gesture of solidarity. Be sure to check out parts I and II if you missed them. And if you’re interested in reading even more, at the end of today’s installment, Criticism Editor Ellen Jones has offered a list of other contributions to this ongoing and important conversation on what it means to review translations. 

 

Deformationszon

Viltstängslet har upphört
fladdermusar fittar sig
kring krubbet
Vårt pösmunkfetto slaggar
I sin goda roa,
som stötdämpad
av svallningar
I knubbet

— Aase Berg 

Deformation Zone

The wilderness fence has ceased
flutterbats cunt
around the grub
Our doughnutfatso slops
in peace and quiet,
as if shockmuffled
by ripples
in the plump.

— Translated by Johannes Göransson

 

1.

Anybody who is willing to engage deeply with a foreign text in translation can write a review of such a work. And it’s important that you do. You don’t need specialist knowledge of the foreign culture, nor do you need to be able to read the original. All you need to do is to open yourself up to poetry—even poetry that may come out of traditions different from those you are used to.  READ MORE…

How Should We Review Translations? Part II

Above all, the translated poem allows us into its world—which exists somewhere between a language we don’t know and a language that we do.

In this second installment of our forum on reviewing translations, Lauren Albin and Sue Hyon Bae, two of the translators of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, reflect on their engagements with both the poet’s work and the culture in which it was produced. They highlight the dangers of adopting the role of an interrogator and emphasize the need for good faith in any encounter with a translated work. Today we also feature a contribution from Matt Reeck, who takes the opportunity to reflect on the ways that reviews might take into account contexts of reception and underscores how the idea of world literature can restrict our ability to understand local specificity as it attempts to develop a global framework. If you missed the first installment of this forum, be sure to check it out here, and stay tuned for tomorrow’s contributions from Katherine Hedeen and Johannes Göransson.

I want to point out this sentence in Matt Reeck’s review of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, which becomes the foregrounding reason for his question of whether Korean poetry should be made more Korean in translation: “Kim’s poems are not confessional (which might make them indicative of the writer’s life and culture), nor are they written in a style that’s reflective of a social reality.” The reviewer’s desire for the poet’s confession quickly brings to mind one of the seminal poems of Kim’s collection—“Cultural Revolution in My Dream”—where Ms. Photon, a symbol of the bright light used by an interrogator to extract confessions, uploads a confessional software to the poet’s body. What I mean to say in drawing this comparison is that, Reeck got it wrong. Kim’s poems are confessional, but perhaps, they are not the confession that the reviewer wishes to hear—a situation that recalls Ms. Photon, who keeps on interrogating the poet even after there are no real crimes left but only a continuously generated confession. Therefore, the reviewer rejects Kim’s poems and along with them he rejects Kim’s social reality and Kim’s Korea, asking for translations that are more Korean than the originals and pressing for a false confession. 

Moving away from Reeck’s review, when the reviewer of translated work plays at interrogator, the perspective of the translated poet is immediately endangered. The interrogator is a figure employed by repressive regimes to reconstruct narratives, to revise the truth, to rewrite what actually happened, and to reconstruct history. Interrogators often already know what story they wish to tell and work to illuminate only that reality. An interrogator is also someone who has inherent power over another. While Ms. Photon extracts false confessions, the sun, in Kim’s “Lady Yuhwa,” “streaming like a searchlight / pursues and violates the woman” of the poem. A reviewer who steps into the role of interrogator assumes power over the poem and violates it intentionally or unintentionally by forcing it to conform to their own ideas about what it should be; silencing the poem, instead of allowing the work to speak in its own language of idea, even when that language seems to push at the boundaries of our minds.  READ MORE…

How Should We Review Translations? Part I

A review is seriously lacking if it ignores a book’s translated nature.

Today marks the start of our forum on the question of how we should review translations. Along with a general introduction by Criticism Editor Ellen Jones, this first installment contains contributions from Bilal Hashmi and Sophie Lewis. Drawing our attention to what something as simple as a question mark might signal, Hashmi alerts us to the importance of openness when engaging with translated texts, and Lewis helps us envision what the potential participants and platforms in a healthy reviewing ecology would look like. You’ll find more reflections, recommendations, and reconsiderations here on Wednesday and Thursday.

In July of this year Asymptote published a review of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, translated from the Korean by Jiwon Shin, Lauren Albin, and Sue Hyon Bae, with contributions from Rebecca Teague, Dakota Hale, Kevin Salter, Sierra Hamel, and Nicole Lindell (Action Books, 2019). The review, written by translator Matt Reeck, sparked some heated discussion on Twitter on account of the questions it asked about the poems’ “Koreanness” and the visibility of that “Koreanness” in translation. A conversation began about the need for more reviewers of colour, and about the usefulness of concepts like “world literature” and “national literatures” in reviews of this kind. A factual mistake was pointed out and subsequently corrected, but it remained clear that some disapproved of the review’s tone and perspective. In writing about Kim’s poetry, Reeck attempts to interrogate his own position as a US-based reader and all the assumptions he therefore brings to a work translated from Korean; nevertheless, the review was seen to perpetuate and privilege those narrow assumptions.

A couple of months down the line, we want to make sure that those who criticised Reeck’s review know that they have been heard, and that as a result of those conversations, Asymptote has a renewed commitment to considering the political and ethical implications of the articles it publishes. As part of that commitment, we want to provide a more formal space to continue discussing the important questions raised in responses to the review. We have therefore invited a series of writers to contribute to a forum on reviewing translations, including Reeck himself, two of Kim Hyesoon’s translators (Sue Hyon Bae and Lauren Albin), two editors at Action Books (Katherine Hedeen and Johannes Göransson), and others who have elsewhere written incisively on this very topic (Sophie Lewis and Bilal Hashmi). These contributions will be featured here on the blog over the coming days as part of the journal’s ongoing dedication not just to the exchange of literature through translation but also to the circulation of ideas about translation.

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What’s New in Translation: September 2019

Looking for what to read next? Our staff share their latest discoveries in new translations.

It is another month bringing us various gifts in the form of translated literatures, and our editors have selected the finest. Read below to find reviews of a short story collection detailing the various and complex natures of India, a haunting and poignant Swedish novel, unsettling tales from Israel, and a poignantly feminist work from Palestine.

ambai

A Kitchen in the Corner of the House by Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi), translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström, Archipelago Books, 2019

Review by Ben Dreith, Assistant Editor

C.S. Lakshmi, who writes in English and Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai, is a scion of post-revolutionary Indian feminism and women’s studies researcher who was raised and educated in Mumbai, Bangalore, and New Delhi. Of her work, the most recent to appear in English is A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, a mellifluous and courageous work translated by Lakshmi Holström, a dedicated scholar who passed away in 2016. She will be missed, and her efforts, evident in the enduring legacy and themes of A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, may inform the concerns of Indian feminism in the English-speaking world for generations.

The book is a collection of stories, told from multiple voices and perspectives, which centers on the travails and aspirations of women across a broad socio-economic and linguistic spectrum. The voices in A Kitchen in the Corner of the House reflect the varied cultural expectations and norms that simultaneously thrive and jostle for distinction within the Indian nation, which can be too easily regarded as a seamless whole by outside observers. What unites the characters in the stories, though, is a keen sense of subjective solidarity amongst women who are draped in desperation—and hope.

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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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Collective Memory: Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Human Matter: A Fiction in Review

An exercise in the resilience of human memory, the novel integrates a broad swath of literary and global cultural touchstones . . .

Human Matter: A Fiction by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Eduardo Aparicio, University of Texas Press, 2019

As noted over the years by scholars such as Arturo Arias, Central American cultural production remains largely at the margins of academic study. As Arias points out in Taking Their Word, because popular knowledge of the region is so sparse, and because geographic ignorance (particularly in the United States) is so widespread, Central American immigrants will often identify Mexico as their country of origin, both for reasons of Latinx solidarity, and to protect themselves from discrimination and prejudice. This erasure is not even a recent phenomenon: the protagonists of the 1983 film El Norte, the Guatemalan-Maya brother and sister Enrique and Rosa Xuncax, are told to tell people that they are from the heavily Indigenous state of Oaxaca, Mexico, to avoid being taken advantage of in both Mexico and the US. However, from the United Fruit Company in the early twentieth century to the practices of Canadian mining companies, and even US president Donald Trump’s facilitating, in the words of the Guatemalan-American author Francisco Goldman, “organized crime” in Guatemala’s 2019 presidential elections, global forces have always played, and continue to play, an outsized role in the region.

Despite its apparently marginal status, the region has made a number of enduring contributions to world literature. Foremost among them is one of the fathers of Latin American modernism, the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío, and the Guatemalan Nobel Laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias, not to mention one of the most important works of Indigenous literature in the Americas, the K’iche’ Maya Popol Wuj. Outside of these points of reference, however, much of the region’s vast, rich literature remains untranslated, which makes Eduardo Aparicio’s translation of Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s El material humano as Human Matter all the more important.

Rey Rosa, perhaps Guatemala’s most important living novelist, has had an eclectic literary trajectory. Having gone to New York in the early 1980s, he eventually became the protégé of the US-expatriate author Paul Bowles, spending a good deal of time with the author in his adopted home of Tangier, Morocco, and even becoming executor of Bowles’s literary estate upon the author’s death in 1999. Tellingly, one of Rey Rosa’s previously translated novels, the magnificent The African Shore, deals with the intersection of tourism, privilege, and migration in the border zone not between Guatemala and the US, or even between Guatemala and México, but between Morocco and Spain.

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What’s New in Translation: August 2019

Noirs, voyeurs, and sensuality abound in this week's reviews of the newest in translated literature.

This week’s reviews of the newest and most compelling translated literature include the latest work by Poland’s preeminent writer, Olga Tokarczuk, a fascinating portrayal of manic self-interrogation and class by Stéphane Larue, and a darkly dionysian tale of the female gaze by the award-winning Nina Leger. Our editors burrow into the philosophy, language, and atmosphere of these three novels to give you some extra additions to your reading list.

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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Riverhead Books, 2019

Review by Andreea Scridon, Assistant Editor

Janina Duszejko is the kind of woman that many would call “eccentric”: she’s in her mid-sixties, often bordering on paranoia, and she’s firmly convinced by astrology, absolute vegetarianism, and William Blake. In rural Poland, Janina—as she hates to be called—lives peacefully and in relative solitude as a guardian for the summer cabins surrounding her home. However, she quickly comes into conflict with the insensitive and barbarous hunters who reign over the area. The death of a neighbor escalates such tension, creating a series of mysterious murders that Janina will be privy to, and which will culminate in an unexpected twist.

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Announcing Our July Book Club Selection: History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir

We forget that we are reading someone else’s testimony and begin to take speculation as hard truth.

This month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir, asks us to reconsider our understanding of how history is constructed. The protagonist, an academic who “leads an almost unpunctuated domestic existence of solitude and paranoia,” makes a shocking discovery about the secret identity of a seventeenth-century writer—and then seems to disprove her own theory. As the protagonist becomes increasingly unstable, her erratic prose leads the reader to reflect on the tenuous boundary between stories and history.

Lytton Smith’s translation of History. A Mess. is the twentieth title selected by the Asymptote Book Club, which brings outstanding translated fiction to readers each month. You can sign up to receive next month’s book on our website or join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

Translator Lytton Smith told Splice that “the Icelandic language doesn’t have two distinct words for story and history. It uses the same word, saga, and so those two ways of writing are more closely connected for Icelanders than they are for us.” As such, they are more concerned with storytelling as a craft, fidelity to emotional truth above accuracy to facts. Yet Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s novel, History. A Mess., seemingly centers around historical fact: a text whose existence could make or break an academic career.

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What’s New in Translation: July 2019

Four reviews of translations you won't want to miss this month!

From translations by heavyweights like Ann Goldstein and Jennifer Croft to novels by writers appearing for the first time in English, July brings a host of exciting new books in translation. Read on for coming-of-age stories set in Italy and Poland, a drama in rural Argentina, and the tale of a young man and his pet lizard in Japan. 

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A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

In A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award-winning novel, a nameless young woman retrospectively narrates the defining event of her adolescence—the year when the only family she has ever known returns her to her birth family. From the title, the reader can already sense the protagonist’s conundrum. A passive object of the act of being returned, her passivity in her own uprooting threatens to define her identity. Ann Goldstein’s searing translation from the Italian inspires the reader both to accompany the narrator as she wades through the tender memories of that time and to reflect on her or his own family relationships through a new lens.

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That Unnameable “Something”: Mario Levrero’s Empty Words in Review

This struggle for clarity through self-regulated therapy-by-writing is what makes the novel so compelling.

Empty Words by Mario Levrero, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott, Coffee House Press, 2019

“The best part about Coffee House Press books is that they are often difficult to categorise, difficult to describe . . . because they are pushing the boundaries of form, language, syntax, genre, and so on,” says Chris Fischbach, publisher for Coffee House, in a recent interview with Asymptote’s Sarah Moses. Empty Words, the first book by Uruguayan author Mario Levrero to be translated into English (by Annie McDermott), fits this description to a tee. The premise is simple: the narrator, whose voice Levrero claims to be his own with some (potentially heavy) editing, is determined to alter his personality through altering his handwriting. Since, according to graphology, “there’s a profound connection between a person’s handwriting and his or her character,” surely altering one’s handwriting through diligent daily practice would bring about discernible changes in personality.

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