The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden, Open Letter Books, 2018
“At its core,” reads its synopsis, The Bottom of the Sky is “about two young boys in love with a disturbingly beautiful girl”; author Rodrigo Fresán adds that it’s not a work of science fiction but with science fiction—a “love story in a space suit.” I’d like to challenge (or, more humbly, qualify) both statements: Fresán’s striking novel, now available in English from Open Letter Books, is more gender-bending than its back cover suggests and more genre-bending than its author says.
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.
Each issue, our blog editors choose some of their favorite pieces to showcase. The Fall 2017 issue is extra special for us, since we get to introduce two new assistant blog editors: Sarah Booker, who translates from Spanish, and David Smith, who works with Norwegian. Together with Stefan Kielbasiewicz, they make up the Asymptote blog team. Enjoy these highlights!
Ricardo Piglia’s piece, “On the Threshold,” is a philosophical, melancholic meditation on the art of reading and the construction of the autobiography. Composed of a series of diary entries in which the narrator muses on his grandfather’s life and on the practice of writing, this text poses fundamental questions about the practice of writing: How do you write an autobiography? What moments really matter when considering a lifetime of memories? How do you begin to write? The realization that experience “is a microscopic profusion of events that repeat and expand, disjointed, disparate, in flight” is what finally allows the narrative to unfold and the pieces of these two men’s lives to come together.
Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its third 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 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our interviews with Suchitra Ramachandran and Brian Bergstrom, we are thrilled to bring you fiction runner-up Clarissa Botsford in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson.
Clarissa Botsford has worked in the fields of teaching, intercultural education, editing, translating, publishing and is also a singer, violinist, and independent celebrant. She currently teaches English and Translation Studies at Roma Tre University. Her translations include Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (And Other Stories, 2014), Valerio Magrelli’s Condominium of the Flesh (Free Verse Editions, 2015), and excerpts of Magrelli’s Geology of a Father (Comparative Critical Studies, 2017), which received a commendation at the John Dryden Translation Competition.
Ms. Botsford’s translation of excerpts from Elvira Dones’ novel Burnt Sun was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest, featured in the most recent issue. Fiction judge David Bellos wrote, “In a different class and genre, Burnt Sun by the distinguished Albanian émigrée writer and film-maker Elvira Dones delves into the inner worlds of her compatriots forced into prostitution and exile. Translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford, Dones’s second language, Burnt Sun is both documentary and fiction, a crafted story and a powerful exposé.”
Doomi Golo is the first book to be translated into English from Wolof, an indigenous language widely spoken in Senegal. In its interesting linguistic journey, the Francophone author Boubacar Boris Diop has also personally translated the novel from Wolof to French.
The protagonist Nguirane Faye’s six notebooks written for his grandson compose the heft of the novel. One of the many iconic passages in the book tackles a central question facing the decolonizing world:
I am perfectly aware, Badou, that turning one’s back on the outside world is tantamount to the kiss of death. It’s bound to be a good thing if a nation lets the winds that are blowing from all corners of the globe expand its chest, but not unless we do what we can to preserve the crucible destined to receive its breath when they are blowing. Life, after all, is not born out of the void.
Every aspect of Diop’s masterpiece, from its content to choice of language to its translation, addresses this struggle to preserve marginalized identities in a globalized context. It is unsurprising that this pioneering novel was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award 2017, founded by Three Percent.
Interestingly, Diop decided to translate Doomi Golo from Wolof after being “inundated with requests,” according to Vera Wülfing-Leckie, one of the two translators of the English version. Adding intrigue to the situation, Wülfing-Leckie notes in her captivating introduction that some scholars argue that the French version, entitled Les petits de la guenon, “was a new novel that merely bore close similarities to the original.“ As for the English translation, Wülfing-Leckie mainly worked with the French version. However, El Hadji Moustapha Diop, Boubacar Boris Diop’s son and the second person in the translating duo, consulted the Wolof version as well.
Reza Ghasemi’s third novel, The Spell Chanted by Lambs, was initially published in installments under the title of Madman and the Moonpars Tower on the author’s personal blog in 2002 as a reaction to censorship, making Ghasemi the first Iranian writer to turn to the Internet in the face of artistic suppression. It took six years to be traditionally printed by the Paris-based Khavaran Publications, and still five more years to be translated into English by novice translator Erfan Mojib. Says Mojib: “Ghasemi admits that he’s not aware of the existence of [online narrative] in other languages and is sure of [its] nonexistence in Persian literature, as he calls it the first Iranian ‘online novel’ and sarcastically labels the term as one of his own bastardizations.”
Nao-cola Yamazaki’s first published work, 2004’s Don’t Laugh At Other People’s Sex, won the Bungei Award, was adapted into a major motion picture, and was nominated for the Akutagwa Award, a prestigious honor given annually to a promising Japanese writer. “I believe that the mission of contemporary Japanese writers is to express ambiguity,” she says, as an introduction to the following piece, an excerpt from her novel The Beginning of the Long End. Yamazaki was a participant in the 2013 Writers Omi at Ledig House Translation Lab, along with the translator of this piece, Takami Nieda. Yamazaki, who has in the past been skeptical that her work would be translatable, found her views altered by her time at Ledig. “The Japanese have always had a tendency to celebrate ambiguity as a virtue,” she writes, and “the Japanese language itself seems to be suited for expressing ambiguity… For example, it is possible to construct sentences without a subject, there are many passive expressions, and sentences can be written without specifying an object. These are some of the characteristics of Japanese that differ from English and perhaps many other languages.” Though she recognizes how her work takes advantage of the nuances of her native tongue, Yamazaki completed her stint at Writers Omi believing that a translation that conveyed her fascination with vagueness would maintain some of its distinct qualities, and “perhaps those reading the translation might enjoy those elements as a kind of ‘Japaneseness.’”