This week’s Translation Tuesday proffers a poem by Chinese poet Song Lin. This poem, “Untitled,” translated with a certain sublimity by Dong Li, offers a haunting vision that places the reader into a fleeting and gilded world, where the symbols of poetry invert and exhaust themselves upon being observed. Within this short poem, a whole lifetime quivers under the strain of thought and composition. “A belated meeting beckons” to the readers of the poem who become themselves the poetic voice, simultaneously offered and denied the splendor of traditional lyric. Dong Li’s translation captures the sparsity of language and the depth of tableau expected of traditional Chinese lyric poetry, while also capturing a sense of alienation from these stereotypical themes and imagery. The language of this poem leaves a lasting impression as it ignites and etches feelings and impressions. We are glad to be able to feature this innovative and compelling translation.
your evening battles with a certain angel / until stars become bones
I tried to decipher from their inflection and word choices whether perhaps one of the books held their attention more than the others.
We know you’re just as eager as we are to learn who will win the Man Booker International Prize tomorrow, so we’ve enlisted our very own Barbara Halla to walk you through her predictions! A member of this year’s Man Booker International Shadow Panel, Barbara has read every book on the short- and longlists, making her our resident expert. Read on for her top 2019 MBI picks!
Last year, someone called the Man Booker International my version of the UEFA Champions League, which is fairly true. Although I don’t place any bets, I do spend a lot of my time trying to forecast and argue about who will win the prize. And I am not alone. For a community obsessed with words and their interpretation, it is not surprising that many readers and reviewers will try to decipher the (perhaps inexistent) breadcrumbs the judges leave behind, or go through some Eurovision level of political analysis to see how non-literary concerns might favour one title over the other. Speaking from personal experience, this literary sleuthing has been successful on two out of three occasions. After a meeting with some of the judges of the 2016 MBI at Shakespeare & Company, I left with the sense that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) would take home the prize that year. In 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) seemed to be everyone’s favourite, and despite a strong shortlist, I was delighted, although not shocked, to see it win.
The winner of this year’s Man Booker prize is proving more elusive. The shortlist is strong, but no one title has become a personal, or fan-, favourite. And I find the uncertainty at this stage in the competition very interesting. It is almost in direct contrast to how the discussion around the prize unfolded between the unveiling of the longlist and the shortlist. When the longlist was announced on 12 March, it was immediately followed by a flurry of online reactions that are all part of a familiar script: despite predictions by “expert” readers, few big names and titles made it onto the longlist. With good reason, some literary critics addressed the list’s shortcomings with regards to its linguistic and national diversity. Independent presses were congratulated for again dominating the longlist, a reward for their commitment to translated fiction. But as dedicated readers tackled the longlist head-on, there was a general feeling of disappointment with a good portion of the titles, which allowed the best to rise to the top quickly.
I allied with your former lovers / emerged victorious / in the midst of the void
In this week’s Translation Tuesday, we are witnesses to a protest pulled forth from the body by outrage, sorrow, and an inherited music. Oriette D’Angelo’s poem is set to a revolutionary thrum of defiance against injustice. As we move with its lines, we arrive at a place that is not quite as simple as solace, but a space that resounds with the necessity for love.
Forbidden to pass by and stay
My country is a protest march
a cry of rage
with thunder and dance music
You couldn’t handle the birds sleeping on my forehead
you fractured the entire structure of my deformed breasts
squeezed the throat to silence my body
so it wouldn’t scream: I don’t like what you say!
The most torturing memories aren’t necessarily images, frozen, but films of about three minutes each.
In this haunting short story by Ricardo Lísias, the narrator contends with multiple stubborn memories, around which his narrative revolves. From an injured taxi driver in Buenos Aires, to overwhelming loneliness in Krakow, these memories are strung together to create a potent, overwhelming mixture.
I have determined why I am so upset by writers of clear sentences: they don’t struggle with memory. Their transparency denounces a simplistic intelligence. If someone cries because they are not able to render trauma into words then that person is a deep person.
I identified the root of my issue with clear-writing writers when I was in Poland. It is a very stark memory. I felt, standing more or less five hundred metres away from a small bus terminal in Krakow, the most intense loneliness I have ever experienced.
A year later, when I decided to dig up the loneliest moment in my life, I realized that it is not a bad feeling. It doesn’t hurt me or make me suffer.
When you tell and retell something, sometimes you reach a point when you can no longer remember the event itself, but only the story.
To mark the anniversary of the Asymptote Book Club, we’re delighted to be publishing our first author-translator interview. Ivana Bodrožić, author of The Hotel Tito, speaks to her English translator, Ellen Elias-Bursać, about the events that led to her debut novel, the book’s initial reception in Croatia and Serbia, and how she went from being “everybody’s sweetheart” to being attacked by nationalist critics.
In a conversation that gets to the heart of the novel, Ivana Bodrožić reveals which scene was most difficult to convey on the page, and explains why she needed a police guard for her book-signing in Belgrade.
Ellen Elias-Bursać (EEB): What started you writing The Hotel Tito?
Ivana Bodrožić (IB): Ever since I first learned how to write I have been writing down anything that seemed important, the things that formed me and my world; in my pre-teen years it was wise sayings, when the war was raging around us I copied out the lyrics of Nirvana and R.E.M songs, I kept a diary. Then I tried my hand at writing my own poetry: when I was sixteen I’d shut myself in my room and by the light of a candle, with a little bottle of vodka, I’d imagine I was Yesenin—until my mother knocked at the door. Writing was always something important for me and a little exalted; I see this now as an attempt at interrogating the world around me. When I came to understand, as an adult, that my childhood had been out of the ordinary, I began to think that in time I’d forget, as people do, all that had made my life what it was, what made my world and me as I am today. That is when I began jotting down fragments of memories and after I’d written out some forty pages I realized I was writing prose that said something, to me. That was the point when I realized I needed a protagonist through whose eyes and heart I’d narrate this piece of my life and the life of my whole generation who grew up during the war. My love of reading and writing and my specific life experience quickly gave The Hotel Tito its shape.
Travel to Cuba, South Korea, and Russia with these newly translated works.
Just like that, the final weeks of 2018 are upon us. You might be looking for Christmas gifts, or perhaps some respite from the stress of the festive season, or maybe for something new to read! We have you covered here in this edition of What’s New in Translation, with reviews by Asymptote staff of three fresh titles from Wendy Guerra, Hwang Sok-Young, and Lez Ozerov.
Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas, Melville House, 2018
Reviewed by Cara Zampino, Educational Arm Assistant
“What is left after your voice is nullified by the death of everything you ever had?” asks Cleo, the narrator of Wendy Guerra’s Revolution Sunday. Set in the “promiscuous, intense, reckless, rambling” city of Havana during the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Guerra’s genre-defying book explores questions of language, memory, and censorship as it intertwines images of Cleo, a promising but controversial young writer, and Cuba, a country whose narratives have long been controlled by its government.
That viewer is me, is you, is us: readers of Asymptote, a journal offering the freedom of infinite interpretations.
Thanks to the hard work of Duncan Lewis, Jacob Silkstone, József Szabo, Marina Sofia, Emma Page, Kyrstin Rodriguez, Giorgos Kassiteridis, Tiffany Tsao, Alexander Dickow, and myself, November 2017 sees the launch of the Asymptote Book Club, a sustainability initiative meant to support independent publishers of world literature while also helping Asymptote stay afloat. By January 2018, after an intensive marketing campaign (e.g., I answer some questions about the Book Club here), we succeed in attracting more than 120 subscribers. In addition, our seventh anniversary is greeted by two important milestones, both to do with the number 100: We cross the 100 mark for number of team members on our masthead, and, with the addition of Amharic and Montenegrin in the Winter 2018 edition, we have gathered work from exactly 100 languages in our archive of world literature! In his interview with Asymptote that we ran in this issue, Lithuanian editor Marius Burokas laments that, as with many peripheral literatures, Lithuanian writing “can only speak of a one-way influence” from English at the moment; that said, Lithuanian literature is by no means a “small [one].” “There are only writers who are not good enough,” he observes wryly, “or writers who are not publicized enough.” This speaks to the very heart of Asymptote’s mission, which is why we have whole teams (from social media to graphic design) set up for the purpose of marketing the work that we’ve been entrusted with, as detailed in an earlier post where I released this publicity report. Where we direct our efforts applies to where we direct our funds as well: For instance, by January 2018, the money we’ve cumulatively thrown at Facebook promotion alone has exceeded $10,000 USD. It’s not only money that I’ve staked personally; in our eight years, I’ve supported almost every single Facebook post in order to encourage other team members as well as our own readers to engage with Asymptote’s feed, all so that we can be a more powerful advocate for so-called “small literatures.” Cruelly, then, around this time, because of the backlash from Russian interference of the 2016 US elections, Facebook deprioritizes social media pages like ours, hurting our ability to connect authors with new readers. I know because I was still supervising the new English Social Media Managers (as well as the Assistant Director of Outreach—whose day job was in social media analytics—I was hoping to install as a permanent team member) from the hospital ward where I was quarantined after radioactive treatment, anxious as much about our falling social media engagement as my own Geiger counter reading (which on the other hand refused to fall as quickly as the doctor and I had hoped, thereby prolonging my hospitalization and resulting in a larger medical bill). Here to introduce the Winter 2018 issue is Brazil editor-at-large Lara Norgaard.
Two parallel snapshots of everyday scenes spliced by double-circle frames form the cover image of Asymptote’s Winter 2018 issue. A woman calmly pushes a stroller on the left, mirroring a different woman on the right who wears dark sunglasses and stares directly into the camera, allowing us to only guess at her penetrating gaze. In these cover photographs, the edition’s guest artist, Elephnt, captures one of its central components: the way each contribution takes a powerful approach to perspective. The authors in this issue all write with a particular and intense gaze that confronts or perhaps commiserates with the reader.
I decided to look back at the woman on the right as I prepared to write this reflection. It is not just her staring back at me that catches my eye; she seems to recognize the camera, to acknowledge how the image representing her was created. The Winter 2018 issue of Asymptote was my first as part of the magazine’s team. I witnessed—and participated in—the compilation of so many voices into one unified whole. READ MORE…
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.
I shall have to overcome the vanity, the applause, my own self, and measure up to life—measure up to death.
Much of the prose in Asymptote‘s Spring 2018 fiction section (especially Jon Fosse’s Scenes from a Childhood) includes keenly observed sketches from childhood. This Tuesday, we bring you a piece from Poland that continues that theme. In Julia Fiedorczuk’s ‘Moss’, the narrator’s recollections of her grandmother are a powerful evocation of a child’s experience through the grown-up’s consciousness. And fair warning: you’re probably gonna shed a tear or two when you get to the last line.
But I’m still a child, then, who doesn’t know how to read yet.
I’m five, maybe six years old, in a purple flannel dress with little green roses. That child’s thin legs are sticking out from under the dress. Scratched and bruised like seventy sorrows. I’m sitting on a high stool in front of a mirror, legs dangling in mid-air. She’s standing behind me. Brushing my hair. I have long hair, the colour of ripe corn. Fine hair; it won’t survive adolescence: it’ll have to be cut when I hit fifteen.
Our blog editors pick their favorite pieces from the Spring 2018 issue!
Here at the blog, we continue to be amazed by the breadth of the material featured every quarter at Asymptote. From our Korean literature feature to a Japanese dadaist‘s outrageous fusion of text and image, our Spring 2018 issue again proves that the most groundbreaking material is being produced far from the centers of Anglo-American literary dominance. This issue’s Tolstoyan theme, “Unhappy Families,” might suggest an individualized focus on how each of us is unhappy in our own way. However, the blog editors’ selections all touch on wider themes of war and genocide, suggesting an undercurrent of collective trauma beneath the stories of personal travail. These pieces are just a small taste of the vast terrain covered in the Spring 2018 issue. You won’t want to miss any of it!
Iya Kiva’s three poems from “little green lights” (translated by Katherine E. Young) almost immediately caught my attention in this new Spring issue. It is divided into three sections that are distinguishable through their tone—the first one resentful, the second satirical, and the third calmly futile. The second section revolves around the punning of воды [water] and война [war], which is perhaps a rare instance when the translation succeeds even more than the original. The war in the Donbass region of Ukraine is now in its fifth year of conflict between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces, with no end in sight. Kiva’s ironic assertions of “what if there’s no war by the time night falls” and “in these parts it’s considered unnatural / if war doesn’t course through the pipes” creates two possible interpretations: the disbelief at the war’s complete destruction, to the point that there is no running water (as if a war could be comfortably fought from both sides), and the biting accusation that war, not water, is essential to a people’s survival, as well as their nation. Running water is no longer the passive object for Romantic contemplation, but has become a basic expectation for life in a modern society, tragically, just as war has. On the other hand, not everything in Kiva’s poems is double-edged. One of my favourite lines is the simplest: “and it’s really beautiful / like in a Tarkovsky film”, which at first sounds like a platitude, but becomes charming with the realisation that nothing more can be said about a Tarkovsky film without slipping into pretention. I highly recommend our readers to delve into this poem, to question Kiva’s stance and at the same time to feel as if their own ideas are being questioned.
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
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
“Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.” They do, and the result is often great.
Editor-at-Large for Hungary Diána Vonnák, who joined us in October this year, moved between fiction and nonfiction titles in 2017. Some of these books blurred the lines between both and probed the relationship between invented worlds and our own.
I spent much of this year reading books I would have trouble classifying either as fiction or nonfiction. They reminded me of Geoff Dyer, who began his “Art of Nonfiction” interview with the Paris Review by protesting the division: “Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.” They do, and the result is often great. Here are my favourites from 2017.
I started the year with Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, an engrossing family memoir-cum-intellectual history. Sands, a human rights lawyer, sets off on a journey to recover his own family history—which leads him back to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine. Before the Holocaust eliminated its prolific Jewish life, Ralph Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who would later become legal scholars, both studied there. Just like Sands’ own grandparents, Lemkin and Lauterpacht left their hometowns and were spared from the massacre that eradicated their entire families. Sands combines a precipitating personal memoir with a vivid reconstruction of how the Holocaust led these two thinkers to develop the notions, in Lemkin’s case, of genocide and, in Lauterpacht’s case, of crimes against humanity. Sands shows how their ideas originated from their personal lives, and as he follows Lemkin and Lauterpacht through emigration, he reconstructs their respective intellectual environments. It all culminates in the milestone legal debates that took place after the Holocaust—Sands shows us how Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s own compelling circumstances shaped their arguments. It is rare to see legal history woven so seamlessly into personal reflection.
Even when we are not writing about death, we are in some way writing about it.
In a riveting interview with the world-renowned writer Edwidge Danticat—announced just yesterday as next year’s recipient of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature or the “American Nobel”—Romie Desrogéne poses incisive questions about life and death, and how art attempts to make sense of them. Danticat’s works have earned her a long list of awards and have been translated into numerous languages including French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, and Swedish. Her most recent novel, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, was released via Graywolf Press this past July.
Edwidge Danticat’s work creates spheres where the natural and the supernatural, the “isit” (here) and the “lòt bò” (elsewhere), the evil and the good, the historical and the fictional, the personal and the political, are in perpetual contention and symbiosis.