Zsófia Bán’s Night School, “a textbook like no other,” is among the most playful of our fourteen Asymptote Book Club selections so far. In keeping with the book’s “defiant irreverence,” its English translator, Jim Tucker, agreed to ditch our regular interview format and temporarily become one of Night School’s pupils.
Each chapter of Zsófia Ban’s textbook ends in a series of questions or assignments, each with a winning mixture of pure zaniness and profound resonance. Here, Jim Tucker answers a set of questions from his own English translation of Night School.
Complete the following sentence: Look before . . .
Jim Tucker (JT): Look before . . . you enter the lion’s den. Which is the home address for translation, a job that can only be done wrong. It’s a miracle that you can make a living at it. Similar to prostitution (“Oh yes, mister, whatever you say”) except it pays a lot less, and you don’t get out as much.
With our February selection, the Asymptote Book Club is taking subscribers back to school. Fortunately, Zsófia Bán’s Night School is a school unlike any other—populated by a cast of literary and cultural figures ranging from Frida Kahlo (and her double) to Laika the space dog. Each chapter of Bán’s textbook primer is filled with ‘defiant irreverence’ and the perfect combination of wit and profundity.
We’re delighted to be sending our subscribers one of the year’s most coruscatingly original short story collections, in Jim Tucker’s superb English translation. If you’d like to join us in time for next month’s Book Club pick, you’ll find all the information you need on our web page. Once you’ve joined, head to our Facebook group to meet other Book Club members and contribute to the discussion. We look forward to seeing you there!
Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Jim Tucker, Open Letter, 2019
Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor
Let’s begin with a simple biographical detail: Zsófia Bán has spent much of her life in academia, and her first novel (originally published in Hungarian in 2007) is a textbook. It seems barely necessary to add that Night School is a textbook like no other.
In this week’s dispatches, we cover Salvadoran literary news and a special Asymptote event! We begin in London, where members of the Asymptote Book Club came together to chat about our fall book selections—and much more. From there, we delve into updates from El Salvador, including the death of a renowned poet and a women’s literary gathering.
Marina Sofia, Marketing Manager, reporting from the UK
One of the downsides of working for an international literary journal is that our volunteers and readers are scattered all over the world, so in-person gatherings are a rarity. It was therefore all the more special to see members of the Asymptote Book Club in London on November 29 at our first ever meet-up. Designed to be an informal drop-in event to celebrate our first anniversary, it included a quick tour of the current Rights for Women exhibition at the Senate House Library, followed by a discussion over drinks at the recently-opened Waterstones bookshop on Tottenham Court Road. Although we had to compete with a parallel (and noisy) event, our spirits were undampened as we discussed the surprisingly pulpy historical fiction of Ahmet Altan (October’s title) and the acrobatic linguistic challenges of translating Thai writer Prabda Yoon (September’s title). It was a great opportunity to see what readers thought we were getting right (diverse selection of genres, languages and countries; high literary quality) and what they would like to see more of (questions for online discussion; face-to-face events, perhaps including publishers). Thank you to all who ventured out on a windy and rainy evening and contributed to the lively debates!
Our October Asymptote Book Club selection is the first novel in a quartet that aims to reveal “the dark and bloody face of history.” Earlier this month, a Turkish court upheld a life sentence for the quartet’s author, Ahmet Altan, on charges of aiding the plotters behind the failed military coup in 2016. He continues to work on the final volume of the quartet from inside his cell. Like a Sword Wound can be read as an autopsy on “the sick man of Europe”, the ailing Ottoman Empire at the turn of the last century, but also as a powerful indictment of despotic regimes across history.
We’re proud to be bringing our subscribers a novel of incredible courage, inspired by a belief that literature is close as we can come to finding “an antidote to the poison of power.”
If you’re already an Asymptote Book Club subscriber, head to our official Facebook group to continue the discussion; if you haven’t joined us yet, Garrett Phelps’ review should give you a brief taste of the novel, and all the information you need in order to subscribe is available on our Book Club site.
Moving Parts, our September Asymptote Book Club selection, is the second book-length English translation of Prabda Yoon’s work, but perhaps the first book (in any genre) ever to culminate in what our reviewer describes as one of life’s “most seductive question[s]: is it a sadder thing to throw oneself unnoticed from the top of a building or to live out one’s days without a functioning butt plug?”
In addition to translating A Clockwork Orange and Lolita into Thai, Prabda Yoon has, according to Words Without Borders, “popularized postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature.” Bringing Prabda Yoon’s work into English (together with Tilted Axis), Mui Poopoksakul demonstrates a “facility for translating puns” and delivers one of this year’s must-read short story collections. We’re excited to be sharing it with our subscribers in the USA, Canada, and the UK.
If you’d like to receive next month’s Asymptote Book Club pick, all the necessary information is available on our official Book Club page. Current subscribers can join the discussion on Moving Parts, and each of our nine previous titles, through our facebook group.
Our latest Asymptote Book Club selection, Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator, depicts a terrifying scenario for many authors. According to its translator, the main character is “an author’s worst nightmare”: a translator with their own ulterior motives.
In the latest installment of the Book Club interview series, Emma Ramadan (herself one of numerous characters in the multi-layered English translation of Matthieussent’s novel) speaks to Mallory Truckenmiller. Read on to find out more Ramadan’s unique experience translating Revenge of the Translator — a text that offers us a glimpse into “some of our darkest fantasies as translators.”
Follow up this conversation’s insights into the art of translation with our #30issues30days program, celebrating 7 years of Asymptote.
Mallory Truckenmiller (MT): One defining quality of Revenge of the Translator is its translation within a translation structure, with the translator actually entering the plot of the novel. As the English translator, your role adds yet another layer to the work. How did you approach this position? Did you find ways to insert yourself as a new voice or character within your translation?
Emma Ramadan (ER): Because the French novel Vengeance du traducteur is framed as a French translation of a (non-existent) English original titled Translator’s Revenge, creating my own English translation got a bit complicated. I couldn’t use Translator’s Revenge as the title of my translation, and at the end, when the narrator mentions a supposed “American translator” of Vengeance du traducteur currently undertaking the translation of the book into English in their city, that translator had to be me, that city had to be Providence. It had to come full circle and the reader of the English translation had to understand that this was an explicit reference to the book they were currently holding in their hands, a reference to my work, otherwise, the whole conceit falls apart. Which, in turn, adds extra layers: how faithful is this translation I’ve been reading? How much has this book I’m currently holding in my hands about a rogue translator been messed with in turn by its own translator? I had to insert myself literally as a character, and be creative as a translator, to do justice to Matthieussent’s multi-layered work and keep it from veering into total insanity.
At first glance, the plot of our August Asymptote Book Club selection is simple enough: we’re following the footnotes of an imaginary novel called Translator’s Revenge.
Translator’s Revenge is itself the story of a novel-in-translation, and our knowledge of the text is filtered through our narrator, Trad—a translator who feels that Translator’s Revenge is wholly inadequate and actively attempts to distort the original version. Add together those complex plot layers and you have Vengeance du traducteur, Brice Matthieussent’s perplexingly brilliant reconfiguration of translation theory. Add one further act of prestidigitation and you arrive at Emma Ramadan’s Revenge of the Translator, the English translation of Matthieussent’s prize-winning novel.
Our latest selection, then, comprises at least four books in one. If you’d like to join us in unraveling the threads of the plot, read Mallory Truckenmiller’s review below and then head to our dedicated online discussion page. If you’re not yet an Asymptote Book Club subscriber, there’s still time to sign up for our September selection: all the information you need is available on our official Book Club site.
“Talk… speak… voice”: each word appears dozens of times in I Didn’t Talk, our July Asymptote Book Club selection. Beatriz Bracher’s novel blends together a chorus of voices, orchestrated by retiring professor Gustavo, to explore one of the darkest periods of Brazil’s history.
In conversation with Asymptote’s Jacob Silkstone, translator Adam Morris outlines how the novel came to be translated into English, why it resonates with a contemporary audience, and why the central question of whether or not Gustavo talked is perhaps best left unanswered.
Jacob Silkstone (JS): What led to you translating I Didn’t Talk? It’s the first of Beatriz Bracher’s four full-length novels to appear in English: do you have a sense of how it compares to Bracher’s other work?
Adam Morris (AM): I proposed I Didn’t Talk for Bracher’s English debut because its thematic concerns, although universal, seemed to possess fresh urgency in the context of ongoing political upheaval in Brazil. Censorship and various forms of state repression have re-emerged, and so has openly expressed nostalgia for a law-and-order society like the one the dictatorships professed to uphold. The crisis of democracy in Brazil is so severe that occasional murmurs of a return to military rule must be taken as a serious threat.
Of course, in the time since I first proposed the translation in 2016, authoritarianism has been on the march all across the world. I did not foresee that happening, but it makes the novel that much more timely—some fourteen years after its publication and nearly half a century since 1970, a pivotal year in Gustavo’s story.
Under an authoritarian dictatorship, a single sentence can be the difference between life and death. In our July Asymptote Book Club selection, Beatriz Bracher’s I Didn’t Talk, retired professor Gustavo is preparing to leave São Paulo. First, though, he has a more demanding journey to make: a journey that will take him back to a darker time, when he and his brother-in-law were tortured by Brazil’s military regime. Did he talk?
Adam Morris’ English translation of I Didn’t Talk, published by New Directions, has been described as a “brilliant, enigmatic rumination of a novel.” We’re delighted to be sharing it with our Book Club subscribers across the USA, the UK, and Canada.
If you’re not yet a subscriber but want to sign up in time to receive next month’s selection, all the information you need is over on our official Book Club page. Meanwhile, subscribers are more than welcome to join the online discussion via our facebook group.
Wolfgang Hilbig was once “one of German literature’s best kept secrets”, but that needn’t be the case any longer. Thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole’s translations, every bit as “enchantingly brilliant” as the original texts, Hilbig’s work is now available to English readers—including Asymptote Book Club subscribers.
In our monthly Book Club interview, Isabel Fargo Cole talks to Asymptote’s Josefina Massot about the challenges of preserving Hilbig’s “music” in English, and discusses her own journey across borders and languages.
Josefina Massot (JM): Wolfgang Hilbig’s prose has been described as lyrical, and your translation of The Tidings of the Trees certainly is. Part of what makes it so is its cadence—I often stopped to re-read passages out loud. How did you go about translating these? Did you allow yourself to play with sentence structure, for example, in order to preserve the “music” of the original? How do you feel about occasionally straying from the letter of a text in order to preserve its spirit?
Isabel Fargo Cole (IFC): There’s an element of cold analysis—is he using short or long words, terse or convoluted syntax, alliteration, assonance, similarities or contrasts in sound and structure? But often it comes down to an intuitive sense of where the key emphasis in a sentence or passage lies, and how to produce an equivalent in English. I try to preserve Hilbig’s sentence structure as far as possible in English, because that’s what creates much of the music and rhythm. His sentences can be fragmented or elliptical, or unfold into a whole cascade of clauses; the shifting syntax produces shifting rhythms, but also crucially reflects the narrator’s mental state. So the “music” isn’t a distinct element that can be separated out. In general, I’m not sure there’s a hard and fast distinction between the letter and the spirit of a text. It’s a matter of making judgement calls in each particular instance and deciding where the emphasis lies or what motivates the use of a certain word. If I sense that he’s using a word mainly for its sound value and less for its literal meaning, I might feel free to change it. But sometimes the sound value resonates with the meaning, so ideally the English word has to convey the same synthesis.
In its first seven months, the Asymptote Book Club has brought subscribers brand new translations from seven languages: Spanish, Bengali, Norwegian, Italian, Catalan, Chinese, and now German.
Our magnificent seventh selection will be Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Tidings of the Trees, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Two Lines Press. Writing for an Asymptote feature in memory of Hilbig, Ingo Schulze said that, “It is difficult to talk about Wolfgang Hilbig in terms of a magnum opus. His early or late poems, his early short prose, his novels, his stories—with him, everything is good.”
If you’re already a Book Club member and would like to join our discussion on the writer Krasznahorkai described as “an artist of immense stature”, head to our online discussion page now. If you’re not yet a member, find out how to become part of our community here.
Continuing our Asymptote Book Club interview series, Assistant Editor Kevin Wang talks to Nicky Harman, translator of Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. In addition to co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors), Nicky Harman is one of the foremost contemporary Chinese-to-English translators and a passionate advocate for Chinese literature in English. Her previous work includes translations of novels by Jia Pingwa and Xu Xiaobin.
Read on to find out why Yan Ge asked for the swearing to be made more “colourful” in the English version of her work, which sections of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan were almost untranslatable, and why relying on Google Images can sometimes be a dangerous approach to translating…
Kevin Wang (KW): In your acknowledgements, you mention that Yan Ge “went above and beyond the call of duty in examining and discussing the English text.” How would you describe the differences between working with an author closely involved in the process and translating a nonliving author?
Nicky Harman (NH): Well, I do like my authors to be alive! I almost always want to be able to raise a few queries with them. For instance, with Jia Pingwa, I needed to know more about a rudimentary cooker that the migrant workers used in 高兴 (Happy Dreams). He kindly did a sketch for me, and it turned out to be made from an old oil drum. That’s the kind of crucial information that you couldn’t get if the author was dead: in this case, the internet was no help.
The Asymptote Book Club will be celebrating our six-month anniversary with a first (virtual) trip to China. Back in 2014, Words Without Borders described The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (我们家 in the original) as China’s “best untranslated book.”
Four years on, Yan Ge’s “delightfully irreverent” novel is finally appearing in English, thanks to Balestier Press, and Asymptote Book Club members will be among the first to sample a “masterful translation” by Nicky Harman.
We’ll be hosting a full discussion of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan on our dedicated Book Club page; to get you started, here’s Asymptote Assistant Editor Kevin Wang’s take on the novel:
What do artistic creation and polar explorations have in common? Is translating from Catalan more daunting than translating from Spanish? If a joke isn’t funny in the original text, should it remain unfunny in the translation? In the fifth instalment of our Asymptote Book Club interview series, Mara Faye Lethem gives Georgia Nasseh her answers to those questions, and many more…
Georgia Nasseh (GN): You translate from both Catalan and Spanish. What are some of the differences you encounter when you translate from Catalan rather than Spanish, or vice versa?
Mara Faye Lethem (MFL): I could answer that in a lot of different ways. But let’s see: Spanish has a vastly wider range of regional variations, and much better Internet forums. Catalan writers feel a special closeness to their language and are very grateful when foreigners learn it well. They are very generous about answering questions, so translating Catalan novels has changed the way I work with all novels—made the process more interactive, more collaborative.