In celebration of Asymptote’s milestone 30th issue, Podcast Editor Dominick Boyle dives into the archives to uncover some of his favorite recordings from the archive. In this episode, he revisits poetry set to music in Tamil and Spanish from Aandaal and Enrique Winter, and snarky telephone conversations with a whole city by way of voice-mail from Jonas Hassen Khemiri. He also spotlights: the touching suicide notes left by Jean Améry, which reveal 3 different sides of a man in his death; experimental Vietnamese poetry by Bùi Chát, which comes to life read by translator Jack J. Huynh; and Owen Good’s translations of Hungarian poet Krisztina Tóth, which Eliot Weinberger awarded first prize in our inaugural Close Approximations contest. Take a walk down memory lane—this time with your headphones on!
Dig through our archive with Dominick Boyle, who unearths gems from South India, Chile, Sweden and more!
Global literary news for global readers.
We’re back this week with important news and exciting new developments from the world of literature. Our Editors-at-Large in Mexico and Tunisia share the latest prizes, events and details relating to writers based within these regions. Tune in for more global updates next week!
Sergio Sarano, Spanish Social Media Manager, reporting from Mexico:
Jorge Volpi, one of Mexico’s most well-known authors, has won the very prestigious Alfagura Novel Prize for 2018. Alfagura is one of the most renowned publishing houses in the Spanish-speaking world, and the prize has previously gone to writers such as Elena Poniatowska (also the recipient of a Cervantes Prize), Laura Restrepo, and Andrés Neuman. The award consists of the publication of the novel and a very hefty sum of money: US$175,000, making it one of the richest prizes for fiction in the world. Una novela criminal (A Criminal Novel) is a non-fiction novel in the vein of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; it takes up the notorious case of Israel Vallarta and Florence Cassez, a Mexican man and French woman accused of belonging to a kidnapping gang. The media eagerly covered the case, and it strained Mexican-French relations. Everyone in Mexico knows how the trial ended, but I’m sure the novel will be quickly translated into English—readers will be able to dig into this sordid story that weaves corruption, scandal, and diplomacy.
The Mexican literary community deeply mourned the death of Nicanor Parra, the Chilean antipoet. Numerous writers and poets voiced their debt to Parra and remembered his visits to Mexico in several media outlets. Honestly, very few Latin American writers can claim to have read his 1954 classic Poems and Antipoems and not wanting to become an antipoet. One of them was especially legendary: the time he went to Guadalajara to receive the first Juan Rulfo Prize (now called FIL Prize) back in 1991. There, Parra delivered his famous “Mai Mai Peñi” speech, in which he honored Juan Rulfo but at the same time ridiculed literary awards. One of its famous stanzas says: “The ideal speech / Is the one that doesn’t say a thing / Even though it seems like it says it all.” You can find “Mai Mai Peñi” and other classic mock-speeches in After-Dinner Declarations, translated by Dave Oliphant.
Your weekly roundup of global literary news and intrigue.
Ever get the feeling that even with all the news happening right now in the world, you’re still not getting enough? Well, that’s what we’re here for, keeping you covered with the latest in global literary news from our Editors-at-Large who are on the ground as we speak. This week we have reports about censorship and activism from Singapore and Mexico, as well as important news about festivals and prizes in the UK, and much, much more.
Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Singapore:
The Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA)―launched in 2014 to revive the Singapore Arts Festival, a landmark event in Southeast Asia’s arts calendar―drew to a close this week, concluding a month of theatre, film, music, and visual arts shows. These included a number of international partnerships such as Trojan Women, a Korean retelling of Homer’s epic directed by the SIFA’s founding festival director Ong Keng Sen; as well as Becoming Graphic, a collaboration between Australian theatre practitioner Edith Podesta and Eisner Award-winning graphic artist Sonny Liew, who previously had his funding withdrawn by the National Arts Council for his alternative political history of Singapore.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Guardian to mark his final year as festival director, Ong (who has previously spoken out against the censorship of SIFA’s programs by the government) lamented the “restrictive” attitudes of state funding agencies towards the arts, and said that he felt “drained by the fighting” of the past four years. His successor, fellow theatre practitioner Gaurav Kripalani―currently artistic director at the Singapore Repertory Theatre―struck a more conciliatory position earlier this year, saying that he would opt for increasingly “mainstream” programming.
“Is a society made up of endless imitations that become canonized as tradition? Or do traditions change through borrowing from other cultures?"
Diverse languages and artistic disciplines intersected at the Youmein Festival in Tangier where artists and writers from Morocco, Algeria, Spain, and France created pieces to reflect the interplay between tradition(s), taqalid, تقاليد, and imitation, taqlid, تقليد.. Asymptote’s Tunisia Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman and writer Alexander Jusdanis report from Tangier.
For the past three years, Youmein (“Two Days” in Arabic) has brought together diverse artists in the city of Tangier to create art installations based on a central theme over a 48-hour period.
The festival is run by Zakaria Alilech, a translator and cultural events coordinator at the American Language Center (ALC) Tangier, George Bajalia, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Columbia University, and Tom Casserly, a production manager at Barbara Whitman Productions. They’re quick to emphasize their hands-off approach. “We’re not curators,” says Alilech. Instead, they see themselves as facilitators, providing artists the initial inspiration, space and support to realize their ideas. The trio stressed that Youmein is less about the final product and more about the process of making art.
They intend the festival to be an opportunity for the artists and audience to discover Tangier through the lens of each year’s theme. While strolling through the city’s streets, historically a meeting point for peoples from around the Mediterranean and beyond, it is not uncommon to hear any combination of Rifiya, Darija, Spanish, French, English, and Italian. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that language has played an essential role in selecting the theme of the Youmein festival from its inception.
But it’s wintertime, it’s been snowing a lot and as long as the weather stays like this the sky will be the same every day.
Shortlisted for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft Litera, it will not be unfair to say that Vanda Rozenbergová is a master of the short story form. In this story, she explores domestic tensions and dashed dreams through the skillful use of a child narrator.
I was in my room playing with my toy cars but Becko kept taking my black sports car away so I had to give him a slap on the hand, Stop it, Becko! I said. I’d been working on a racetrack for my lorries but because it was a Sunday I had to listen to my mum cursing ‘cause the kitchen is next to my room. “Bloody Sundays,” she said, then I heard a pot lid bang on the floor and a knife strike a chopping board. I used to think she was crying but she was just moaning aloud about having to cook. “I’m as lonely as little orphan Annie,” she kept shouting but Daddy and I had no idea who little orphan Annie was. And there’s another thing I don’t get: why does my mum keep doing stuff she hates, why does she keep roasting meat, peeling potatoes, grating carrots, baking and frying, and why does she always clean up afterwards but never sit down with us to eat and instead say she’s had her fill, having breathed in all the cooking smells. And then in the morning she pulls my trousers up to my ears, bundles me into the car and starts doing her hair as we’re driving and tells me with hairpins in her mouth to eat all my sandwiches at school ‘cause she made them for me even though she didn’t feel like it, she hates making sandwiches, as if I didn’t know she hates making them. I’m sure by next year I’ll be making my own sandwiches. But why does she keep on doing stuff she hates? Why doesn’t she just stay in bed and rest and receive visitors, why doesn’t she give me, Daddy, and Becko a hug and ask us to bring her a cup of tea?
When I ask her about it she blames it all on Daddy, but he’s totally not like her, he loves to lounge around and crack jokes, never in a hurry to go anywhere, not even to work. All my friends like him, and sometimes they go to see him for a chat ‘cause he works in the kebab shop next to our school. He doesn’t serve people at the counter, he’s at the back prepping vegetables. He brings home kebabs and doughnuts but Mum doesn’t eat that kind of stuff so it never makes her happy. Becko is not my real brother, I’ve made him up. I told Dad about him and he said that it was OK, that there was this other world and Becko does exist there. When he said that he was lying on a rug under the window looking at the sky, and then he told me a secret, which is that sometimes on his way home from work he stops by the hospital to see his friend who’s sick. I didn’t know what to say so I asked if at least his friend had a nice room, if it had a telly and stuff like that. Of course there’s a telly, said Daddy, and went over to the next room to put some Icelanders on the stereo. Because my Dad loves Icelanders. He loves Icelandic music and Icelandic people.
This just in! The latest literary scoop from Austria, Mexico, Guatemala and Canada
This week we bring you a generous helping of news from Flora Brandl, our contributor in Austria, reporting on the rich array of literary festivals and cultural events that took place in April and are coming up in May; Paul M. Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, our Editors-at-Large Mexico, take a look at one Guatemalan Maya writer’s highly original work, but also record the brutal continuation of violence against journalists in Mexico just last month; last but not least, our very own grant writer Catherine Belshaw writes on the hope for greater diversity in Canada’s literary scenes.
Contributor Flora Brandl gives us the round-up from Austria:
Despite winter being rather stubborn (only last week there was still some snow), the Austrian literary and cultural scene has witnessed a so-called Frühlingserwachen, a spring awakening, with numerous events, publications and national and international festivals taking place across the country.
At the end of April, the Literasee Wortfestival was hosted in Bad Aussee, a rural community and historical literary getaway for writers such as Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. This year, six German and Austrian writers, including Franzobel, Walter Grond and Clemens Meyer, were featured during the three-day festival.
However, it is not only German-language art that is currently being showcased in Austria: the Festival Europa der Muttersprachen (Europe of Mother Tongues) invited Ukrainian filmmakers, photographers, musicians and writers—amongst whom was the highly celebrated author Jurij Andruchowytsch—to the Literaturhaus Salzburg. Earlier in April, more international artists and audiences had frequented the city for the Osterfestspiele, the Easter feature of the internationally renowned Salzburg festival for classical music and drama.
Translators and musicians team up on a sweeping audio interpretation of Finnegans Wake
Finnegans Wake, the final book by Irish writer James Joyce, is a bit like the alien language in the movie Arrival. As the film’s spaceships tower mysteriously over the Earth, so Joyce’s book casts its strange shadow over world literature. Most literary minded people are aware of the text’s presence, but no one actually knows how to read the book, save for a select few who claim it is the greatest thing ever written.
In order to read Finnegans Wake, you must become a translator. You must translate the text out of it’s idiosyncratic, multilingual semi-nonsensical language, and into… music? For example, see Rebecca Hanssens-Reed’s interview with Mariana Lanari, about the process of translating the Wake into music.
For the last three years I’ve pursued the music that is Finnegans Wake. I organize an ongoing project called Waywords and Meansigns, setting the book to music. This week we release our latest audio, which is 18 hours of music created by over 100 musicians, artists and readers from 15 countries. We give away all the audio for free at our website (and you can even record your own passage, so get involved!)
It might sound strange, but translating the book into music is easier than, say, translating it into another foreign language. But that hasn’t deterred Fuat Sevimay, who translated the book into Turkish, nor has it stopped Hervé Michel, who calls his French rendering a “traduction” rather than a “translation.”
Translating opera is a multimodal undertaking.
Starting off the new year fresh, we’re taking a look at opera, an art form that purports to have it all: poetry, music, costumes, and lots of drama. Opera in translation is ubiquitous, and what originally started as a private performance for Florentine nobles quickly spread beyond the palace walls and around the world with the aid of translation. With so much going on, translating opera is a multimodal undertaking. Our new podcast editor Dominick Boyle talks with Lucile Desblache, a professor at the University of Roehampton in London who led the project Translating Music. She guides us through the history of opera, explaining that translation has been there all along—just in different costumes. We also talk to Amanda Holden, a practicing opera translator who specializes in creating sung translations. She talks about how our image of opera as a boring and staid art form is a problem of translation, and how its true power can be revealed. With enough twists and turns to fill an opera, this is the Asymptote podcast.
Podcast Editor and Host: Dominick Boyle
Ultimately I end up translating most of what I write into Italian, as a way of workshopping my own writing.
Todd Portnowitz is a poet and translator from the Italian, and the recipient of the 2015 Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets which allowed him to translate the work of Pierluigi Cappello (featured in the Asymptote Winter 2015 issue). In this interview, he converses with our Educational Arm Assistant, Anna Aresi, about how his love for language and music converge in the writing of poetry and how speaking a foreign language can make you a better poet.
The following interview was conducted via email and over Skype.
Anna Aresi (AA): You work as a translator, poet, editor, and musician. I was wondering how all these are related for you, especially if and how your work as a musician affects your writing.
Todd Portnowitz (TP): My sense of music determines my syntax, where I choose to break a line, what vocabulary I use—sometimes I grope for a word by its syllable count or shape. This is particularly useful in translations of poetry, where a definite syntax and vocabulary are already there before me in the original text and hunting for the right words and rhythms is the central activity. Writing poems, translating poems, editing poems—all are an art of decision making, and music best informs those decisions. What a writer has read of others’ work, her knowledge of cultures, histories, languages, politics, family, love, death, faith, all of that comes to a terminus in the language, the sequence of words chosen—music best reflects the sum of that knowledge in verse.
Apollo could slay/flay on the lyre for good reason. Not every poet has to also be a musician, but a poet with an untrained ear, with no cultivated sense of phrasing or meter, is like a basketball player who has never practiced dribbling: able to shoot, but immobile.
AA: What sparked your interest for Italian literature? What has your journey been like?
TP: My interest in Italian literature began with an interest in the Italian language. I took Italian 101 my sophomore year of college, and the language made immediate sense to me, most of all the pronunciation: the purity and regularity of the vowels, the value of every consonant on the page (penne [pens] is by no means pene [penis]). I was writing songs and singing for a band at the time and Italian expanded my cultural knowledge, my linguistic knowledge (in English as well, because of the Latin roots), my historical knowledge—all of which helped with lyric writing—while also challenging my vocal abilities, cleaning up my vowels, forcing me to roll my r’s and make whatever you want to call the sound that “gn” makes (as in gnocchi). It was fun, in other words. After a study-abroad in Italy, the decision to stick with Italian got easier. I got a minor in Italian and took as many classes as I could. When I graduated, the department named me Italian Graduate of the Year—one of those awards that might look banal on a CV but that has since determined the course of my life. Maybe this is what I’m best at, I started thinking. READ MORE…
With a dab of paint I become the singing, dancing doll everyone loves.
The stories told with Southeast Asia’s shadow puppets, better known in the region as ‘Wayang Kulit’, range from adaptations of ancient epics to familiar, domestic sagas. This poem was written in 1977, when the Malayan-born Wong Yoon Wah (by then an outspoken scholar, critic, and award-winning writer) was appointed Director of the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nanyang University—just as higher education in Singapore was experiencing a period of upheaval. In this poem, Wong holds his own multiple identities up to the light, and a candid sense of his inner self shines through.
A sharp knife
pares the leather into shape.
A ruthless awl
carves each nub of my character.
With a dab of paint
I become the singing, dancing doll
ii. Family Background
Though I’m a shadow
acting in the night’s mystery,
I am a child of light,
nothing without its beam.
The village’s earth is a white gauze.
In this soiled world, I can’t find myself.
I’ve never left a footprint
on the path.
I sing movingly
but never with my own voice.
At home, I’m a shadow on the screen.
On stage: a self you can see.
Don’t take me
for one who loves fights,
schemes to be king,
after Solomon’s princesses.
A shapeless thread holds each of my four limbs.
Being superstitious, I can’t refuse being fate’s plaything.
The old man backstage
has my voice in his hands.
Whether I’m crying or laughing,
If you go backstage
when the show ends,
you’ll find us—heroes, ladies—all
in the arms of the ugly puppeteer.
After we’ve been played,
our heads are taken down,
bodies folded and stacked again
in his box, secured with string
where patiently, like prisoners,
we’ll wait to see the sun.
Translated from the Chinese by Theophilus Kwek
Born in Malaysia, Professor Wong Yoon Wah has won Singapore’s Cultural Medallion (1986), Thailand’s South-East Asia Write Award (1984), and the ASEAN Cultural Award (1993). He has published more than twenty books as well as over fifty articles on modern and postcolonial Chinese literature, and is presently Senior Vice President of Southern University College, Malaysia.
Theophilus Kwek has published three collections of poetry, most recently Giving Ground (2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets’ Prize in 2016, and his translation of ‘Moving House’ by Wong Yoon Wah placed second in this year’s Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation.
Read More Translations:
Writer and musician Lívia Lakomy reflects on Tom Jobim's songwriting in translation.
At one point in his career, in the late 1960’s, Antônio Carlos Brasileiro Jobim (known universally as Tom Jobim) was the second most recorded artist in the world, second only to the Beatles. “But take note that there are four of them in English and only one of me in Portuguese!” he would joke. He was then, and still is, even twenty years after his death, arguably Brazil’s greatest popular composer.
Think of Rio de Janeiro, the view of the Christ statue in the distance, the bay of Copacabana, the beautiful women walking on the beach, their skin glistening under the sun. If you can feel the breeze of the ocean, you can hear the bossa nova beat that Tom Jobim and his contemporaries helped export to the world. Though somewhat out of fashion now, this genre—started in the late 1950s—helped influence jazz and pop music, and (unfortunately) became synonymous with muzak. You have certainly heard it in some office-building elevator. You might even know it as “Brazilian lounge music.”
This sophisticated style introduced a completely new way of playing the classical guitar and managed to be a pop fusion of African-inspired styles like samba with contemporary influences such as American experimentations in jazz. Musicians and lyricists leading the movement were at the very top of their game, and Jobim himself was referred to as the maestro. READ MORE…
On translating (and preserving) threatened women's stories—through image, sound, and text.
“So she’s asking the husband what his favorite vegetable is. And she’s cooking it for him,” a male teacher in Banswara District, Rajasthan is telling me in his home. I peer down at my notes. By the end of the session, I’ve realized a peculiarity: the lines he’s given me for the song being translated—grinning all the while—number far fewer than my lines of lyrics. A discrepancy calling for a more concerted effort, more translators, more women to tell their own tales.
Around this time last year, I was recording and just beginning to be enraptured by Bori Village women’s song-stories in Vagdi, an oral language under threat. As part of the EQUILIBRIUM artist’s residency at Sandarbh, working with women’s self-help economic groups as equals to create new artistic contexts, six songs were recorded by my friends from Bori in a studio—what became “The 12 Acres EP”—transcribed into Vagdi, then translated into English and Hindi, with the help of colleagues. The end goal, however, was to make these songs come to life in a wordless world, a picture book melange of visual imagery. READ MORE…
"The afronaut tells the disjunctive story of the history of the world, and says it with his own words (read: establishes the new lingual order)."
Mat Randol has a stylist. Her name is Miá—she’s nice, and so is Mat’s agent, Mulu. Mat Randol has an entire crew. I stress this point if only to try to convey my extreme surprise at finding out that I had unwittingly commissioned Mat’s first-ever live performance.
I met Mat on the Internet. He was part of a future-soul scene in Portland, along with formidable rappers like Grape God and Ripley Snell. In fact, these three musicians (Mat, Grape, and Rip) went on to become the Portland faction of a collective I started called The Spacesuits, an international network of musicians putting on otherworldly performances. READ MORE…
How do you "understand" James Joyce to translate him? Rebecca Hanssens-Reed in conversation with Mariana Lanari, musical translator of the "Wake"
Mariana Lanari hosts performative readings of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in Amsterdam, and recently recorded two chapters for an audio-musical version of Finnegans Wake, unabridged, called Waywords and Meansigns. Featuring established—as well as up-and-coming—artists from around the world, Waywords and Meansigns strives for a version of Joyce’s work that is stimulating and accessible to even the most casual of readers and listeners. The project officially launched a week ago, on Monday, May 4th: the 76th anniversary of Finnegans Wake.
Finnegans Wake contains over sixty languages. In spite of this, it has, in turn been translated into several other languages from its original English (though a number of translators of the text have given up, gone mad, or mysteriously disappeared, as was the case for a Japanese translator). This raises some interesting questions when considering its “translation” into an audio-musical language. What is lost, gained, or changed when we transfer a multilingual text to a musical, non-linguistic platform? Finnegans Wake reconstructs notions of language, and that process is echoed in converting such a text audio-musically. What we are left with is something resembling a full spectrum of meaning-making (in the loosest sense of the term).
Mariana, alongside composer Sjoerd Leijten, scored the first and last chapters of the text to music. Mariana and I talked about the novel and her involvement in Waywords and Meansigns, including the sensation of foreign-ness, how Finnegans Wake changed her life, and the odd comfort of settling into a vulnerable place of not-knowing or understanding. READ MORE…