Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its 3rd edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our podcast interview with Suchitra Ramachandran, we are thrilled to bring you fiction runner-up Brian Bergstrom in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson.
Brian Bergstrom is a lecturer in the East Asian Studies Department at McGill University in Montréal. His articles and translations have appeared in publications including Granta, Aperture, Mechademia, positions: asia critique, and Japan Forum. He is the editor and principal translator of We, the Children of Cats by Tomoyuki Hoshino (PM Press), which was longlisted for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award.
His translation of “See” by Erika Kobayashi from the Japanese was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest. This is what fiction judge David Bellos had to say about it: “Erika Kobayashi’s ‘See’ earns its place as a runner up by imagining a world just like ours save for a craze for a pill called ‘See’ that induces temporary blindness. People take it so as to go out on blind dates and drives to the sea. Read on! The English of the translation by Brian Bergstrom seems to me flawless.”
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 The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Minae Mizumura’s refusal to succumb to the dominance of the universal language is both political and aesthetic, as evidenced by the lyricism of her text. To her credit, the author does not employ theoretical jargon, but rather the same lucid prose that characterizes her novels. Luckily for English readers, Juliet Winters Carpenter and Mari Yoshihara’s skillfully crafted translation renders the nuances between katakana and hiragana into English. Indeed, Mizumura’s prose, use of narrative framing, and manipulation of the national language embed the justification for preserving the latter in the text.
This volume covers Mizumura’s encounter with the international writing community, the translingual formation of national languages, and a pragmatic assessment of education policy. It is not just Mizumura’s compelling prose, however, but also her use of literary techniques that gives her license to cover such a wide breadth of topics. Her introduction, in the form of a personal essay, conveys the ambiguous identity of a Japanese woman brought up in the U.S. and schooled in French literature. Readers witness how the author’s polyglot upbringing predisposes her to view writing as a medium one must struggle with, rather than one for free self-expression. As such, Mizumura makes a case for writers, not theorists, to ascertain the meaning of world literature. Gradually, the hegemony of English over Japanese shifts from a personal, to a communal, to a national, and, ultimately, to a global concern.
Isolation: that is the most powerful emotion that emanated from most of the stories in The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories of Tove Jansson. As I read them, breathlessly, I was plagued with that wonderful, excruciating sense of unease that radiates from a good, strong, melancholic book. It’s the tingling that comes before the numbness; that profound yet unknown sensation of loss that makes you sigh.
The stories mostly center around one protagonist and are written either in first person or a close third. Set in Scandinavian landscapes, strange and nameless cities or within the confines of a house, these stories follow the protagonists as they become locked in their own minds, detached from the world around them, either physically (the illustrator in Black-White), mentally (Aunt Gerda in The Listener) or emotionally (the sculptor in The Monkey). Often they are propelled into mysterious travel, accompanied by a stranger to whom they are instantly drawn and who highlights their own weakness (The Wolf and A Foreign City). Other times they are experiencing some undefined breakdown of their own, revealing only the symptoms, and not the cause, to the reader (as in The Storm or The Other).
Some nights the pigeons made noises, and Mitsuo—an imaginative man, always willing to see things in a favorable light—wondered, as he got out of his bed, if it wasn’t the cold that ruffled them up, if that wasn’t their way, by nature, of keeping warm, rubbing their chins against their gizzards, searching for the winding sound that curled their craw and let them escape, all at once, whenever he approached them, through the window bars. Because as soon as he moved across the bed, the flapping of their wings began to make a mess of his clutter; and he, with his own involuntary movements, alarmed them, and they flew away.
Once, even, a porcelain cup had fallen onto the floor, creating a small catastrophe.