Posts filed under 'history'

Translating the Ottoman Quartet: An Interview with Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi

In practical terms, communication with the author is difficult: we can only communicate through his lawyers.

Ahmet Altan’s writing is sprawling, ambitious, radical—so radical that the author is currently serving a life sentence on charges of inciting the plotters behind Turkey’s 2016 failed coup. In the latest instalment of the Asymptote Book Club interview series, Altan’s co-translators, Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi, reveal that their only contact with the author is through his lawyers. No written materials can be carried into or out of the prison where Altan is serving his sentence, but work continues on the final volume of the monumental Ottoman Quartet.

In conversation with Asymptote’s Garrett Phelps, Freely and Türedi give us an insight into how they came to translate Altan’s work, and why a novel sequence of novels dealing with the events of the early twentieth century has never felt fresher or more contemporary.

Garrett Phelps (GP): Like a Sword Wound is set during a momentous period in Turkish history and details the cycle of chaos which ultimately results in the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. As translators, did you feel the setting added to your burden of responsibilities?

Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi (BF/YT): Both of us are quite familiar with this period, so the setting as such did not present any particular problem. However, we were aware of the echoes of the current political situation in Turkey, and of how little the main political currents seem to have changed in over a hundred years. In practical terms, although Like a Sword Wound was written in modern Turkish rather than Ottoman Turkish, Ahmet Altan made an effort to reflect the language of the period, often choosing outdated words and phrases. In our initial meeting to discuss the translation, he was concerned about how we would approach this. We agreed to take the same approach he did—that is, to prefer older words and phrasing to evoke the mindset of the period while still keeping the language current enough to avoid alienating contemporary readers.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Literary awards, festivals, and commemorative exhibitions reign in this edition of weekly dispatches.

It’s been a busy October in world literature! Join us to find out more about literary happenings from around the world, in Taiwan, China, the United Kingdom, and Albania.

Vivian Chih, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Taiwan:

The “Double Tenth Day” on the 10th of October has been commemorated as the “birthday” of the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan. On this day in 2018, the Li Mei-shu Memorial Gallery in Sanxia District, New Taipei City, held an opening ceremony for a series of exhibitions featuring the works by two important Taiwanese cultural figures,  Li Mei-shu (李梅樹, 1902-1983) and Zhong Lihe (鍾理和, 1915-1960), respectively a painter and a novelist. Both were influential to the development of Taiwan’s art and literary scenes, and having lived through the martial law period, Li and Zhong grounded their paintings and novels in depicting the homelands that had nourished them. Both are considered to be among a group of Taiwanese nativist artists, who composed works to express their concerns and affections about the local people and places in Taiwan. The exhibition is open to the public until the 18th of November, featuring many precious manuscripts by Zhong, paintings by Li, as well as artworks of the other two younger Taiwanese artists.

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In Conversation: Mui Poopoksakul

Thailand has become politically divided...so many young Thai writers are now turning back toward the themes of politics and history.

September’s Asymptote Book Club selection, Moving Parts, is a dazzlingly original collection of short stories by Prabda Yoon, “the writer who popularized postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature.”

Translating from Thai to English can be daunting, to the extent that it sometimes feels as though “you can never do the right thing.” Continuing our monthly series of Book Club interviews, Mui Poopoksakul tells Lindsay Semel about the challenges of translating a language with “a multitude of pronouns that are extremely nuanced,” as well as an affinity for elaborate rhyme and alliteration.

Lindsay Semel (LS): I was immediately struck by the aurality of Moving Parts. It’s full of rhyming prose and onomatopoeia. When you interviewed Prabda Yoon for The Quarterly Conversation, you said, “I feel like the alliteration can be recreated sometimes, but rhyming is more of a problem because the Thai ear is far more used to it. Translating Thai, you face the problem of translating poetry. You can never do the right thing. Someone will always say you did the wrong thing because you kept the sound or you kept it straight. It’s a real problem.” His answer didn’t offer much of a solution. Can you talk about some of the more challenging or intriguing examples in Moving Parts of translating what in English might be considered poetic language in prose?  

Mui Poopoksakul (MP): In Thai, people like to say two or three or four synonyms in a row if they rhyme or if they’re alliterative. The sound play isn’t intended to create extra meaning. The Thai ear is used to that sing-song quality, so it doesn’t feel like someone is suddenly breaking into a nursery rhyme. Rhyme was more of an issue in this collection, whereas in The Sad Part Was, the first Prabda Yoon collection I translated, alliteration was more present. In Moving Parts, there were a couple of big moments where Prabda really played up the rhyming—in “Evil Tongue” and in “Eye Spy”—I think as a nod to that element of the Thai language, so I felt that I needed to carry those mini poems over to represent the sound. So there are sentences in those stories where every clause rhymes. With him, these moments aren’t always intended to be particularly lyrical—some are just playful. “Eye Spy” includes a rhyme about theater seats. There are also smaller instances of rhyming: in “Mock Tail,” for example, there’s “flip or slip.” I try to pepper them in, but I also have to watch out that there is not too much of a sing-song quality in the translation.

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Fall 2017: The Last Space For Resistance

Asymptote’s most precious gift to readers: each issue guarantees a rich dastarkhan that fully embraces and celebrates diversity.

Asymptote is more than a journal—it’s a one-stop portal for world literature news. September 2017 marks a milestone for two essential columns: the second anniversary of our monthly What’s New in Translation? reports, compiling in-depth staff reviews of the latest world literature publications; and the first anniversary of our weekly Around the World with Asymptote roundups, gathering literary dispatches from every corner of the globe (not aggregates of news hyperlinks culled from elsewhere, mind you, but actual reporting by staff on the ground). Though we do reviews better than most, I’m especially proud of the latter column, which has provided first-hand literary coverage from more than 75 countries by now thanks to Assistant Managing Editor Janani Ganesan, Senior Executive Assistant Daljinder Johal, and of course our valiant blog editors who upload, edit, and proofread every single dispatch. Inconveniently (because I have been invited to speak at five panels in four cities in the last quarter of 2017, and also because the then-erratic social media team will soon need to be replaced entirely), the lump in my neck turns out to be thyroid cancer, my doctor summons me back to his office to tell me in August 2017. A few days before the first of my three hospitalizations that quarter, I share the news with my team. Just as I’m about to be wheeled into surgery, one concerned colleague emails me to say that the same influential person who demanded I pay translators two years ago is making new noise about Asymptote on social media; some PR intervention might be called for. Well, if the work my team and I’ve done doesn’t speak for itself by now, I think to myself sadly, if no one comes to Asymptote’s defence, then let it be. Though my life expectancy—one year on—remains the same as before the diagnosis, the mortality scare from that time has made me confront what to do with Asymptote—as it stands right now, we are still a long way from sustainability; no one would willingly step into my role. Will readers rally to keep us alive, if push comes to shove? Here to introduce the Fall 2017 issue and the French New Voices Feature that I edited is French Social Media Manager Filip Noubel.

I joined Asymptote in the fall of 2017. This old dream finally came true as I was sitting in Tashkent, struggling with flaky Uzbek Internet and reflecting on how my nomadic life across cultures and languages was mirrored in the history of that city where identity has always been both plural and multilingual, and where literature has often turned into the last space for resistance.

As I looked at the Fall 2017 issue of Asymptote, I felt as if I had just been invited to a literary dastarkhan. In Central Asia, when guests arrive and are invited into the interior of a traditional house to sit on the floor, a large tablecloth is thrown on the ground and rapidly filled with a mix of delicacies and treats from various parts of the region. Fruits (fresh and dry), cooked meats, drinks (hot and cold), vegetables, sweets, bread and rice are all displayed to please the eye. Despite being very different, they all contribute to the same feast. Just like any issue of Asymptote in fact: a collection of diverse texts from various corners of the world all united by an underlying theme, and carefully curated to satisfy the most curious minds. As I read this issue, I sensed it had been especially designed to please my literary taste buds.

Marina Tsvetaeva opened the gates of translation for me when I was studying translation theory in Prague, and in one of her Four Poems I could once again hear the rebellious voice that had seduced me back then: READ MORE…

Winter 2015: We Almost Didn’t Make It

Asymptote was giving—and continues to give—voice to languages and regions across the globe without ever lowering the curatorial bar.

If you’re just joining us, we invite you to revisit our first 16 issues via our #30issues30days showcase here. In honor of our milestone 30th edition, we’ll shortly be launching a contest giveaway with a top prize of $200, so watch this space!

2015 was a milestone year for Asymptote: We won a London Book Fair award and partnered with The Guardian. But only Asymptote staff back then know we almost didn’t make it past January. On 15 December 2014, despairing of the lack of progress in fundraising, I wrote the following (lightly edited) email: 

“Hello team, I’ve been reassessing the situation. It seems I underestimated the support for the magazine and it doesn’t look as if we’re going to hit our campaign target by December 19. Therefore, we’ll be extending the deadline to January 29, 2015. Our January issue will be pushed back to January 30, the very date of our debut in 2011, four years ago, so that we’ll have come full circle. If we don’t hit the target on January 29, we will announce in the editorial that the Jan 2015 issue will be our very last. Social media and blog activities (including the podcast, very sadly) shall cease with effect from 1 Feb. The magazine will fold. Planning for all activities after January should be halted with immediate effect. Please respect this. Section editors, please do not communicate any more acceptances, and please be prepared to rescind your acceptances for anything after the January issue on the event of our closure, if it does come to that. As promised, we will break for the holidays. (I’ll hold the fort on social media during this time.) In January, we will prioritize work on the January edition as well as the two January events. As for those who are willing to help, we will keep publicizing the IndieGoGo campaign and sending out appeals. We’ll see if the magazine can be saved. (During a recent discussion with the senior editors, the question did arise about whether to shield all of you from the hard reality in front of us. But I don’t think it’s good to keep mum, for morale’s sake; also, I would not be so cruel as to ask you to continue working on projects that may not see the light of publication, or events that have to be cancelled. The reality is that I am simply out of funds, and also depleted in other ways. If we don’t hit the IndieGoGo target, I would prefer to end on a high note and move on.)”

Here to introduce our Winter 2015 issue, released one day after 287 supporters brought us past the finish line of $25,000, please welcome Assistant Editor Victoria Livingstone. 

“I am always trying to push the market very hard,” David Damrosch told Asymptote contributing editor Dylan Suher in an interview included in the Winter 2015 issue. The Harvard professor of comparative literature explained that he strives to bring so-called minor literatures into the canon of world literature by translating, anthologizing, and teaching works from underrepresented regions and languages.

Asymptote has been similarly pushing against the market since Lee Yew Leong founded the journal in 2011. When the Winter 2015 issue was published, I was finishing my doctoral work, which focused on connections between political contexts and translated literature. As I was immersed in the work of critics such as Damrosch, I was also reading Asymptote, and I recognized then that that the journal was doing something different. Rather than reproducing the inequalities of what Pascale Casanova calls “the world republic of letters,” Asymptote was giving—and continues to give—voice to languages and regions across the globe without ever lowering the curatorial bar.  READ MORE…

In Conversation: Eduardo Halfon

All of my books are intimately related, like brothers who live far away.

The last time Eduardo and I talked, in July of 2015, days before he presented his latest book, Signor Hoffman, we were both weeks away from coming to New York City, though each for different reasons. “You got a Fulbright to do your MFA? That’s impressive,” he said, smiling. “You’ll be the writer-in-residence at Baruch College?” I said. “I’m not sure what that means, but it also sounds impressive.”

Eduardo and I had met in Guatemala, near his house, at a brand new mall that, according to him, was now between local residents and a lush view of tall trees, misty mountains, and coppery sunrises. Or sunsets? Within five minutes he dismantled most of the questions I had prepared for the interview.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup lands us in Romania, Moldova, India and Egypt.

Prizes, events, book publications, festivals—whatever you can think of, our Weekly Dispatches have you covered from one end of the world to the other. This week our editors are focusing on the most exciting news from India, Romania and Moldova, and Egypt. 

Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from India: 

When everything is sponsored by a multinational company, from football to governments, literature is no different. India’s richest literary award was announced this March by JCB group. An annual prize money of INR twenty-five lakhs (USD 38,400) for a fiction book could have only come from a company manufacturing construction equipment.

(The DSC Prize, which was the most generous literary award in the country till its prize money was reduced from USD 50,000 to USD 25,000 in 2017, is also funded by a company specializing in infrastructure.)

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Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from Silva Rerum by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė

"There was a desperate need for faith so that all this activity would really have some meaning."

For the second Translation Tuesday in a row, we are proudly featuring an author from Lithuania—not just for their excellent writers, but because the Baltic countries are is this year’s Market Focus at this year’s London Book Fair.

This excerpt is by one of the country’s most lauded authors, Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, from her four-part historical novel, Silva Rerum. The novel gives us a panoramic sweep of history from 1659 to 1795 in narrating the generations of a noble family, the Narwoyszes. In Lithuania, the series has been a literary sensation on the level of Knausgaard in Norway or Ferrante in Italy. This excerpt, a seriocomic episode about the death of a beloved cat, provides us with a taste of what Sabaliauskaitė’s talent has in store for the world. 

This showcase is made possible by Lithuanian Culture Institute.

On that hot July in the year of Our Lord 1659 Kazimierz and Urszula Narwoysz saw death for the first time. Even though death was all around them, the twins in the tenth year of their lives looked directly into its grey mutable face for the first time and that confrontation which lasted but a few moments, it could be said, decided their fate.

Everything had started several weeks before, when their beloved tabby Maurycy died, a well-fed creature, their companion from the cradle who, keeping his claws retracted, like a Stoic, suffered all their pranks with patience. Even their favourite prank where one of the twins would hold it tight, while the other pulled on its tail. Caught unawares, Maurycy obeyed nature and, forgetting the forgiveness of felines to small children, struggling fiercely, would scratch the one holding it. Most often it was Kazimierz who would feel the brunt, since it was Urszula who had the miraculous ability to put on an angelic face and ambush the cat by pulling on its tail; sometimes, amusing themselves, they would tie something that made a noise to its tail and wrap the unfortunate pet like a babe in swaddling clothes. The last time was when they took things too far: without anyone seeing them and exercising great caution they wrapped Maurycy up and changed their newborn sister lying in her cradle with him. The wet nurse, on seeing the cat wrapped up, began to scream in a voice not her own, while the twins fell around and shrieked with laughter, and later they themselves were screaming in voices not their own while being thrashed, this dangerous prank causing even Jan Maciej Narwoysz to lose his normally unshakeable patience.

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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). 

tundra

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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In Review: The Restless by Gerty Dambury

Those who speak out against oppression, especially women, form the foundation of a better future.

The Restless by Gerty Dambury (The Feminist Press, 2018). Translated by Judith G. Miller  

Gerty Dambury’s The Restless, translated from the French by Judith G. Miller, takes place in her native Guadeloupe, a Caribbean island that has been an overseas department of France since just after the second World War. Guadeloupeans of different ages, genders, and social statuses narrate the events surrounding the violent confrontation between the construction workers’ union and the French prefecture that took place on May 26th, 1967. On this day, as workers gathered outside the building where the union negotiated wage raises with business owners, the French prefect ordered troops to fire on the crowd, and the situation degenerated from there. The lynchpin of the novel is a little girl, Émilienne, who’s waiting for her father to come home so he can explain to her why her teacher has disappeared. While she waits in the courtyard of her home, a chorus of her family members and neighbors (both living and dead) contextualize the two absences and how they relate to the broader experiences of the island.

Though Émilienne acts as the focalizer, the chief narrators are her eight brothers and sisters, who speak with a more-or-less undifferentiated voice. They proclaim themselves the “callers” of the story, which they structure after the Caribbean quadrille, a sort of creolized version of a French square-dance. The caller of the quadrille is conventionally singular and male, but Émilienne’s siblings are happy to innovate. They often hand over the reins to guest narrators, who act as temporary callers. Each section of the narrative has a primary caller, though others often chime in, and corresponds to one of the four quadrille figures in rhythm and mood. Émilienne’s siblings helpfully guide the unfamiliar reader’s expectations of the musical conventions at the beginning of each figure/chapter. The multivocality and musicality of the text, two of its most distinguishing features, could have posed a challenge to Miller’s translation. The differences between the figures and the characters’ voices are discussed more than demonstrated.

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In Conversation: Annaliza Bakri on the Politics of Malay Language and Literature in Singapore

I consider translation to be a key to understanding and elevating humanity.

Annaliza Bakri is an educator and translator. She believes that literary works can be the subliminal voice that cultivates greater understanding, awareness and consciousness of the past, present and future. An ardent advocate of works that are beautifully penned in Singapore’s national language, she strongly believes in the divine art of translation where shared heritage and mutual discovery promote humanity. Our Editor-At-Large for Singapore, Tse Hao Guang, recently caught up with Annaliza about her work and about the politics of language and literature in Singapore.

Tse Hao Guang (HG): You teach, write papers, translate Malay texts into English, and organise programmes and panels on Malay culture, language and heritage. What is the driving force behind all this work? What first got you interested in this? You seem to be one of a few people here doing what I’d call literary activism.

Annaliza Barki (AB): There’s a lot of commitment and responsibility when you call yourself an activist. I don’t think it’s as much about activism as it is about sharing ideas and knowledge. In class, I use literature to teach the Malay language. Grammar and syntax can make for a dry learning experience. With literature, however, you examine ideas, explore culture, and enrich your worldview. Literature reveals intricacies of the human identity to us, and, I believe, reignites in us a flame of humanity. This is also one of the many reasons why I translate literary works. What I gain from the interweaving of cultures in my translation work allows me to better understand humanity and human predicaments.

I was part of the organising team that initiated the cultural-literary seminar series CITA@The Arts House in 2012. We provided a platform for the sharing of Malay culture, in both English and Malay, to both adults and students. Part of CITA involved inviting our older writers to speak about their work, writers who were active in the 1970s and still continue to write today. The kind of honour and gratitude we have for them made younger people curious to attend and listen, as it had been a while since we last heard from them. It was interesting for me too, as a teacher who had read and even taught their books, but had no idea who they were apart from their role as writers, or what their aspirations were. Beyond giving these writers prizes like the Cultural Medallion or the Tun Sri Lanang, I think we, as a nation, honour them by giving them a chance to engage an audience in person once again.

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Resurrection Song: William Tyndale

Fifth in Josh Billings's "Lives of the Translators" series—on God, death, and translation.

One morning in October 1536, in the Flemish town of Vilvorde, William Tyndale was led by his guards from his cell to a cross in the public square, to which he was tied at the ankles and waist with chains, and at the neck with a loose hemp cord.

Contrary to popular legend, he was not burned alive. Thieves and beggars were burned alive, women were burned alive, but Tyndale was a scholar and degraded priest: he was afforded the courtesy of being strangled first. When the procurer-general gave the signal, an executioner standing behind the cross pulled the hemp cord tight around Tyndale’s neck until he was dead. Then he lit the pile of brush and gunpowder that had been built up around the cross, and stood back.

Translation has always had its fair share of occupational hazards, but the execution of William Tyndale is one of rare examples in literary history of a translator killed for his work. It happened in an era when translation was taken extremely seriously, not just because it allowed ordinary people to read the Bible in their own languages, but because it implied those languages were as capable of containing God’s Word as Latin, Greek or Hebrew. Tyndale’s New Testament didn’t just imply this: it proved it, giving readers a Gospel that was both noble and familiar—a book of shepherds, the kitchen, the market, sons. READ MORE…

The Return of the Flood: How ISIS is Destroying Iraq’s Literary Heritage

Paul M.M. Cooper assesses the damage done to Iraqi literature and heritage by ISIS’s destruction of thousands of undeciphered cuneiform tablets.

ISIS continues to shock the world with calculated acts of cultural vandalism: taking sledgehammers and electric drills to the millennia-old pieces of art held at Mosul Museum, bulldozing the archaeological sites of Nimrud and Dur-Sharrukin, and most recently releasing a video showing the destruction of artefacts at Hatra. While the predictable images of gleeful vandalism circulate on social media, archaeologists took stock of the antiquities destroyed: statues of the kings of Hatra that form “the finest of all the sculptures unearthed” in the region, several enormous winged bulls with human heads known as lamassu, and assorted irreplaceable relics of the Babylonian, Persian and Roman Empires.

ISIS’s goals are clear: to destroy anything that hints at the region’s pluralistic past, and to strike a blow full of impotent cruelty against the Iraqi government and international organisations such as the UN and UNESCO. Against this backdrop and coupled with the stunning callousness of the group’s ongoing humanitarian atrocities, it has been easy to overlook another loss, one felt particularly acutely by lovers of international literature the world over: that of the still-undeciphered cuneiform tablets caught up in ISIS’s frenzy of destruction. READ MORE…