Award-winning translator Tess Lewis was first drawn to the Swiss author Monique Schwitter by two “quirky and rather dark” short story collections. Schwitter’s first full novel, One Another, is now an Asymptote Book Club selection, and Tess Lewis tells Asymptote Assistant Editor Chris Power why she couldn’t wait for a chance to translate it to English.
In the latest edition of our monthly Book Club interview series, we also discover the roles Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill played (indirectly!) in translating One Another and learn why a particular type of coffee nearly led to the English edition of the book being published with extensive endnotes.
Chris Power (CP): How did you end up translating One Another?
Tess Lewis (TL): Monique’s quirky and rather dark short stories in Goldfish Memory and If it Snows at the Crocodile Pen won me over when I read them years ago. So when I had the opportunity in 2014 and ’15 to curate Festival Neue Literatur, the New York City literary festival that showcases fiction from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, she was at the top of my list of writers. In 2015, the Festival’s theme was “Love and Money,” and because so many of her stories are about the different forms intimacy can take, about connections made and abysses that open up between friends, lovers, family members, and even strangers, she was a perfect fit for the “love” side. In fact, her participation in the festival was a great preview of how deftly she plays with readers’ expectations on a topic as well-trodden as love, sometimes meeting these expectations, sometimes subverting them, and sometimes going off on a tangent.
I couldn’t wait for her to finish her first novel—which turned out to be One Another—and am delighted that I was able to translate it.
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.
Mektoub. Taleb. Mesquin. Cheb. Bezef. Each of these French words is also Arabic, albeit represented in French orthography. Through long proximity by colonization and immigration, Arabic influence has bled—at some moments more overtly than others—into the French language, and Azouz Begag’s 1986 autobiographical novel Le gone du Chaâba engages with this reality in each word choice and every line of dialogue.
The son of an Algerian migrant worker who settled permanently in France in 1949, not long before the brutal war for independence began, Begag employs a remarkable mixture of French, spoken Arabic, and Lyonnais slang to illustrate the linguistic realities of his community—something that poses problems for a translator who wants to retain its linguistic flavor without rendering the text totally opaque. Written in the eighties, the book and its projet linguistique is perhaps even more relevant at a time when so many Westerners think the Arabic phrase “Allahu akbar” is exclusively synonymous with terrorism.
A quick zip through the literary world with Asymptote! Today we are visiting Iran, Brazil, and South Africa. Literary festivals, new books, and a lot more await you.
Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, fills you up on what’s been happening in Iran:
The Persian translation of Oriana Fallaci’s Nothing and Amen finding its way into Iran’s bestsellers list almost fifty years after the first publication of the translation. The book was translated in 1971 by Lili Golestan, translator and prominent Iranian art gallery owner in Tehran, and since then has had more than a dozen editions published. The most recent round of sales is related to Golestan giving a TEDx talk in Tehran a few weeks ago about her life in which she spoke of how that book was the first she ever translated and how its publication and becoming a bestseller has changed her life.
In other exciting news from Iran, the Tehran Book Garden opened its doors to the public recently. Advertised as “the largest bookstore in the world,” the space is more of a cultural complex consisting of cinemas, cultural centers, art galleries, a children’s library, science and game halls, and more. One of the key goals of the complex is to cater to families and provide the youth with a space for literary, cultural, scientific, educational, and entertainment activities. The complex is considered a significant cultural investment for the the Iranian capital of more than twelve million residents and it has since its opening become a popular destination with people of different ages and interests.
Finally, a piece of news related to translation from Iran that is amusing but also quite disturbing. It relates to the simultaneous interpretation into Persian of President Trump’s speech in the recent U.N. General Assembly broadcasted live on Iranian state-run TV (IRIB). The interpreter mistranslated several of his sentences about Iran and during some others he remained silent and completely refrained from translating. When the act was denounced by many, the interpreter published a video (aired by the IRIB news channel and available on @shahrvand_paper’s twitter account) in which he explained that he did not want to voice the antagonistic words of Trump against his country and people. This video started another round of responses. Under the tweeted video, many users reminded him of the ethics of the profession and the role of translators/interpreters, while others used the occasion to discuss the issue of censorship and the problematic performance of IRIB in general.