Posts filed under 'essay'

Section Editors’ Highlights: Winter 2018

Our editors choose their favorites from the Winter 2018 Issue.

Asymptote’s new Winter 2018 issue is replete with spectacular writing. See what our section editors have to say about the pieces closest to their hearts: 

It’s a struggle to pick ​just one poet to highlight from this momentous issue of our journal, but perhaps I will mention the Infrarealist Mexican poet José Vicente Anaya ​whose work Heriberto Yépez described as “revelation, a sacred practice against brainwashing and lobotomy” (source: translator​’s​ note). Much as each poet in this issue and ​the set of circumstances in which they write are distinct, I read all their works as sacred, necessary attempts to counter the forces of obliteration and oblivion against which they—and ​we—strive. In Anaya’s case, a core element of the ritual is híkuri (​”peyote” in ​the ​indigenous language of​ Rarámuri), the ingestion of which makes the speaker spiral, psychedelically, inward and outward​,​ so that nothing is quite separate from everything else. The revelation is this: we’ve overbuilt the world and left ourselves broken. Joshua ​Pollock’s translation recreates the visionary​ spirit​ of the hyperlingual source text to bring us the ferocity of lines such as these:

On Superhighways we hallucinate
in order to carry on living, Victor,
let’s build an anti-neutron bomb
that leaves life standing
demolishing suffocating buildings /
new machines working for everyone
so that time raises us
from joy
to Art
to joy / and
HUMANity governs without government

—Aditi Machado, Poetry Editor

“[there are also] a number of young writers who are emerging, for instance, in the Gambia, who are also catering a lot to the local market. They are to come.” — Tijan M. Sallah at an interview at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, 2012

It is impossible to think of Gambian literature without thinking of the poetry, short stories, and essays of Tijan M. Sallah. Sallah is The Gambia’s most renowned and prolific literary figure, but what makes him most remarkable is his generosity. Sallah, like many of the great Gambian writers before him, balanced his “day job” while continuing his tireless support of other writers and The Gambia’s burgeoning literary scene. For writers such as Lenrie Peters, it was being a medical doctor, while holding literary workshops for aspiring young Gambian writers; for Tijan M. Sallah, it was a successful career as an economist at the World Bank, while continuing to foster community among the Gambian diaspora’s literary voices, his early contributions to the Timbooktoo Bookstore, or even—lucky for us at Asymptote—his willingness to write this essay on some of The Gambia’s emerging poets. Sallah’s essay is both a tribute to the previous wave of Gambian writers and a passing on of the baton to the next generation of poets. In this essay, he spotlights three of the exciting new voices in the Gambian literary landscape today. It’s a must-read from this issue.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor


Translation Tuesday: “Le Rouge et le Noir (Moving House and Farewell)” by Zsófia Bán

As we were leaving the paralyzed city and the country, we too were facing a journey, though rather than flight, it turned out to be a return.

An award-winning fiction writer, essayist, and critic who grew up in Hungary and Brazil and now teaches American literature, Zsófia Bán is no stranger to forking paths; the roads not taken. Her beautiful essay below segues quickly from house-moving to the broader and richer philosophical theme of derailment against the backdrop of the ongoing refugee crisis. We hope you like it as much as we do.

* * *

In memory of Svetlana Boym


Tumultuous, yes, tumultuous is what the summer of 2015 was. An unruly, riotous, tempestuous, bewildered summer, ravaged by the lack of order. Only the weather would not stir, hellbent on keeping up the atmospheric conditions prevalent since the beginning of summer. All heat records were broken, with temperatures close to 40 degrees recorded in July and August. We were clearly making meteorological history in Europe. The dull blanket of heat paralyzed our reason just enough to keep us from realizing the obvious until it was too late: history was being made, quite apart from the weather. In fact, the masses, the tumult of refugees pouring through the southern border, then the large families stranded in railway stations in the heart of our city, the gathering of desperate, exhausted people robbed of almost all their possessions warned us clearly enough, that this was the time, here and now, of fateful events. As we were leaving the paralyzed city and the country, we too were facing a journey, though rather than flight, it turned out to be a return: the compulsive, perpetual return to memory, to absence, to the relentless rigor of facts.

On August 3 we packed the car and set out for Berlin. With an ingenious space-saving trick we packed the child’s plush animals into plastic bags shrunk with a vacuum cleaner, so even the plumpest specimens were docilely flattened to two dimensions.


Photograph by Zsófia Bán

Once taken out of their plastic bags upon arrival, they slowly regained their original dimensions: the breath of life gradually returned into them. Zserbó, the giant owl was the first to come to, then Dr Czuki-Czukermann, the anteater and finally Menyus, the ferret, Pöpe, the parrot and the rest, the whole sizeable coterie. The child greeted each miraculous resurrection with a dance of joy: her friends were saved, we had outwitted Archimedes or one of those types. The death news that came the day after our arrival flattened us to two dimensions the same way, except we held no hope of ever regaining our original shape. Remembrance, however alive, is inevitably flatter than the tumultuous nature of presence, the noisy, confusing, disorderly and yet, by virtue of the senses, coherent presence which only one word fits: the person’s name. The name that refers to the single being who is the sum of her traits: the voice, the gait, the colorful fabric of her mind, the fears and desires, the betrayals of the body, the dreams, and the loneliness. Her name is a message inscribed in stone, the imprint of sea-waves on prehistoric geological strata.


Asymptote’s Pushcart Prize Nominations

It's that time of year, and we're proud to recognize six wonderful pieces of literature!

We are thrilled to nominate the following six articles published during the past year for the Pushcart Prize. Please join us in giving a round of applause to both the authors and translators behind these incredible pieces.

At 997 words, Pedro Novoa’s devastating short story, “The Dive”, won Peru’s “Story of 1,000 Words” contest. Translating this nautical thriller cum family saga into English, George Henson made it an Oulipian exercise by keeping the English text under 1,000 words as well. Shimmering with poignancy, the multi-layered story delivers a powerful allegory about the blood ties that bind even when broken—the concatenation of islands we will nevertheless always be.

“To translate means, therefore, not only to exercise extreme vigilance over the movements of the original text, but above all to scrutinize the limits of one’s own language, as it creeps up to the original.” Via co-translators Rebecca Falkoff and Stiliana Milkova, Anita Raja’s magnificent essay frames “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance ” and argues that the translator’s greatest resource must be her own inventiveness.


In Review: It’s No Good by Kirill Medvedev

"Medvedev uses everything as 'an opportunity to think a little' about what is in the world and is the world around him."


It’s no Good is a collection of Russian writer Kirill Medvedev’s poems, essays, actions (mostly reports of his protests), and obituaries, taken from his published books, blog, websites, and Facebook account.

Perhaps reading what appears in the copyright page of the book (“copyright denied by Kirill Medvedev”) and the first lines of the first poem in the collection “I’m tired of translating / I probably won’t translate / anymore” will be enough hint that we are in for a ride that will demand us to look, question, rethink, and look again and again. A writer who makes the choice to leave the literary scene behind is not one you can read and walk away from unscathed. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation? February 2016

So many new translations this month!—Here's what you've got to know, from Asymptote's own.

Mario Bellatin, The Large Glass (Eyewear Publishing, February 2016, United Kingdom and Phoneme Media, January 2016, United States). Translated by David Shook—review by Alice Inggs, Editor-at-large, South Africa


Can a life be expressed in a single narrative, or a single form; can it be confined to a single genre? Mario Bellatin’s experimental autobiography (or is it autobiographies?), The Large Glass, employs three different ways of writing a life, challenging the accepted idea of what constitutes biography, and therefore self-expression.

This is not the first time Bellatin has engaged with the genre. His 2013 novel, Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, is a satirical biography of a fictional Japanese author, which includes excerpts, photographs and a bibliography. As critic Diana Palaversich explains, “With Bellatin you are never on solid ground”.

The Large Glass is non-linear, and at times almost nonsensical, rendering memory as character. Bellatin’s style has been described as hewing closer to that of avant-garde filmmakers—Lynch, Cronenberg —than anything literary. This brand of inscrutability or opacity—inherent in all three sections of The Large Glass—means that to distil meaning from Bellatin’s work it is necessary to rely on aspects of the author’s “objective” biography. This has something of a Lazarus Effect on Barthes’s dead author. But to what end?

The Large Glass magnifies those fundamental philosophical questions: Are we the same person throughout our lives? How do experiences and the manner in which we experience them and remember experiencing them shape our understanding of ourselves? How do these memories fit into the narrative of a life? Does a life have a single narrative? Bellatin seems determined to “reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs,’ and not ‘me.’” READ MORE…

In Review: “Sign Tongue” by Enrique Winter

Amy Rebecca Klein reviews David McLoghlin's translation: "to read Winter is to surrender to the flood of images we live in."

The title of Enrique Winter’s new chapbook, “Sign Tongue,” translated by David McLoghlin, poses a challenge for poetry: Can the flat mirror of language contain the fullness of the tongue, the way we taste and even kiss? Can we ever translate a single mother tongue into a form of collective experience when the real has no language at all, but has given rise to so many? Winter, who hails from Chile and has lived and studied in New York, and whose poems appear in “Sign Tongue” side-by-side in English and Spanish forms, understands that to name the world in only one language is to impose borders on his imagination.

Yes, if naming the world was the first thing Adam did, then it was also the task he could never do well enough—besides, of course, keeping Eve happy. How can one word—‘tongue’—mean both the cold and analytical and the warm and sensual? The sign, whether word or image, is always too simple to convey the thing we see.


What’s New in Translation? January 2016

So many new translations this month!—Here's what you've got to know, from Asymptote's own.

Carlos Velázquez, The Cowboy Bible (Restless Books, January 2016). Translated by Achy Obejas—review by Selina Aragón, Spanish Social Media Manager

The Cowboy Bible (La Biblia Vaquera) is Carlos Velazquez’ second book, which contains two fictional and three nonfictional stories, plus two neither-fiction-nor-nonfiction texts and two epilogues. They are all set in the land of PopSTock!, for which there is a map at the beginning of the book.

The Cowboy Bible is also a character that metamorphoses into other characters (The Western Bible, The Cowgirl Bible, etc.) who live and act in different times and spaces but share the same talent for entering the dark alleyways of life. Despite their morally questionable actions, wrestlers, drunkards, DJs, street-food sellers, whose “legendary” deeds go from writing songs about drug dealers to crowning a Queen of Piracy in reality shows, become underground heroes equivalent to Mexican popular culture icons:

“I went dressed as a Cartesian seminarist. As soon as the guy in charge of composing the soundtrack to reflect the wrestling audience’s passions saw me take a step forward the ring, he put on a song by the great Sonora Dinamita.”


Our January 2016 Issue is Live!

Blog editors Allegra Rosenbaum, Patty Nash, and Ryan Mihaly share their favorites from our glittering 2016 issue

It’s that quarterly, magical time of year again, guys: Asymptote is loud and proud with a stellar January issue. And this is not just any issue—it’s our fifth anniversary issue, “Eternal Return,” and that means Asymptote is practically old enough to head off to kindergarten and start finger-painting and writing poetry (after winning an award a the London Book Fair and becoming a member of the Guardian books network, of course).

It couldn’t be more fitting, then, that this issue features some of our most inventive, thrilling work to date: interviews with Yann Martel and Junot Díaz, a really, really cool experimental translation feature, work and an interview with Caroline Bergvall, and writing from authors that will be sure to capture your literary imagination—like Olga Tocarczuk, who was featured on the blog in a gripping essay by her translator Jennifer Croft—or this fascinating anonymous story called “The Legend of the Dakini Ray of Sunlight (White Tārā),” handily translated from the Mongolian by Ottilie Mulzet. Really, you can’t go wrong, but we can still try to point you toward our favorite issue picks this time around:  READ MORE…

Spectacle Shopping

"They will wear the product and talk about it (and to it) incessantly. They will buy another one next year."

Black Friday is not only a chaotic holiday for shoppers, but it is also an extremely exciting time for those in the media to represent the spectacle of this chaos to the public. The public then consumes this content at face-value, continuing the chaos online and in their homes. In light of Black Friday’s “festivities,” Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle shone out to me as a great way to explain it. It’s not really a phenomenon, but an obsession in a society that perhaps values the commodity more than other areas. This personal essay explores the parallels I have seen between Black Friday and Guy Debord’s writing.

All citations are from Guy Debord in his work La Société du spectacle (Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1967). Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994).


“The world the spectacle holds up to view is at once here and elsewhere; it is the world of the commodity ruling over all lived experience. The commodity world is thus shown as it really is, for its logic is one with men’s estrangement from one another and from the sum total of what they produce.”

I’m a Search Engine Optimization Specialist in French and in English for a marketing company in Detroit. I like to say that I fix the Internet for a living, while getting to implement my French Literature degree. The reality is that I put the right words in the right places, and if the search engine algorithms take kindly to them, these words will rank better on Google. I describe it to my college advisor as, “writing French and English prose poems about the Chevrolet Silverado.”

I celebrate my anniversary at the company in November. My manager congratulates me. She was worried I wouldn’t make it this long, away from my family and friends in New York, in a field that isn’t as creative as one might hope. (Conversations with my manager include, “No Allegra, you can’t say that the Chevrolet Malibu is ‘making waves in Ottawa.’ I don’t think Canadians even know what Malibu Beach is.”) READ MORE…

Working Title: Babylon

Babylon became a hit in the Anglophone world—but only thanks to Bromfield's skill and verve.

Advertisements are the translator’s hell. Only the other day, I struggled with a Russian analogue to “a patient journey to asthma management:” each version sounded either too Western or too Soviet. That fruitless exercise has put me in mind of Victor Pelevin, one of the most popular contemporary Russian authors, whose books are often tributes to his early career in advertising.

A classic example is Generation “П,” originally published in Russian under this funky title in 1999. The П is for P, which is for Pepsi. It traces a copywriter’s journey (sic) to greatness in the formative days of Russian capitalism. Andrew Bromfield’s version, published by Faber and Faber, is called Babylon, referring to the name of the protagonist, Vavilen Tatarsky (his pet name, “Vavan,” is rendered as “Babe” here), which brings up a whole host of Sumerian associations in the book. The book’s US title, Homo Zapiens, is Pelevin’s own invention: a term for a model consumer, it appears in a text communicated by the spirit of Che Guevara by means of an ouija board, where it’s abbreviated to ХЗ, a shortened form of the Russian equivalent of “fuck knows.”


What’s New in Translation? September 2015

So many translations hit the shelves this month—here's what you need to know, from Asymptote's own.

Mercè Rodoreda, Death in Spring (Open Letter, September 2015). Tr. from the Catalan by Martha Tennant—Review by Ellen Jones, Criticism Editor


Martha Tennant’s translation of Death in Spring, the (posthumously published) final novel by Mercè Rodoreda, is republished in paperback this month by Open Letter, having been long out of print. Written while in exile from Franco’s Spain during the Civil War, the novel is considered Rodoreda’s most accomplished work, and can be read as an allegory of a repressive regime.

Told through the eyes of a nameless boy who seems perpetually on the cusp of manhood, the novel recounts the cruel, bewildering traditions of a village community constantly under threat of being washed away by the river that runs underneath it. The villagers’ brutalism is bizarre and often casual—they pour cement down people’s throats as they lie dying to prevent their souls from escaping, then bury them in hollowed out trees. A thief is imprisoned in a tiny cage until he begins to behave like an animal; children are locked in cupboards until they half-suffocate; and every year a young man is forced to swim underneath the village and endure inevitable mutilation or death.


Working Title: The Lost Daughter

When does "lost" mean willful abandonment?

Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has been called scrittrice oscura: an “obscure writer” who never makes public appearances and uses a pen name. In 1991, when her debut novel was due to be published, in a letter to her publisher she wrote: “I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it.”

And in a recent interview, she talked to her editors about her writing practices, the female voice and the origins of her books. While the fourth and final of her Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child, published this month, is making its triumphant entrance, let’s return to La figlia oscura  (2006), a precursor to the quartet, which, according to Ferrante, is the book she is “most painfully attached to.” Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s regular translator, has chosen a nonliteral title for it, The Lost Daughter, replacing by “lost” the word that usually means “unclear” or “murky”, all the better to convey the multitude of meanings the original title encapsulates.

The “lost daughter” of the title has many incarnations: as a little girl who wanders away on a beach; as the narrator’s own daughter in a similar situation; as both of her daughters (now in their twenties), living far away and calling only when they need her; as Leda herself, who “didn’t start liking myself until I turned eighteen, when I left my family, my city.” Another interpretation of the title can be found in Nina, the mother of the girl lost on the beach, a beautiful young woman chosen by Leda as a mirror in which to scrutinize her own past life: “Choose for your companion an alien daughter. Look for her, approach her.” READ MORE…

In Review: Maps of the Soul by Ahmed Fagih

Sawad Hussain reviews part 1/12 of Ahmed Fagih's compelling, complex epic of the heart.

It has been a while since I have come across a novel that not only keeps me spellbound but educates me thoroughly. Maps of the Soul, written by Ahmed Fagih and brilliantly translated by Thoraya Allam and Brian Loo, is such a work.

Set during the early 1930s in a Libya ruled by Italian colonialist Italo Balbo, Fagih introduces the reader to the louche neighborhoods of Tripoli alongside the glamorous lives of the prosperous (mostly Italian) elite. Tripoli, its architecture, markets, residents and nightlife are described in such vivid and palpable detail that it lends the novel a cinematic feel. A piece of historical fiction, Maps of the Soul is actually the first three installments of a much larger, twelve-part body of work.

The book opens with the gripping scene of the protagonist Othman al-Sheikh waiting to be executed. To his right, fellow Italian army soldiers are having their heads methodically chopped off by an Abyssinian warrior armed with a knife the length of a sword. As heads roll and blood spurts across the narrator’s face, we are transported back into time to supposedly understand how Othman al-Sheikh comes to end up with neck exposed, primed to be severed. The author’s decision to write in second person endows the novel with a personal sense of urgency that swiftly pulls the reader into the action, and propels the story forward effortlessly, and the translation has skillfully rendered an otherwise difficult form in English. READ MORE…

Different Beauty, Equal Beauty

Can you translate beauty if it isn't beautiful otherwise?

A Ming Dynasty vase and an ancient Greek urn share beauty but not aesthetics. The artisans of the different styles might have appreciated each other’s work—and yet they might have stuck to their own ways, perhaps because they saw no reason to change or perhaps because they simply lacked the material and equipment to produce anything else.

Languages also have different rules for beautiful prose, based both on cultural inheritance and on the possibilities and limits of each language within its grammar and vocabulary.

I translate Spanish to English, and I often face the delightful task of transforming beautiful Spanish prose into beautiful English prose. To do that, I have had to learn to appreciate the standards of beauty for each language, which share little in common due to different historical trajectories.

Spanish emerged from a local dialect of Latin. King Alfonso X the Wise, who reigned from 1252 to 1284, made Spanish (Castilian, to be precise) the preferred language for scholarship in his realm, replacing Latin. To cement that change, he funded scholars in Toledo and elsewhere to translate literature from other languages into Spanish and to write new books. He himself wrote some important works, knowing that a language must have literature. READ MORE…