In this second installment of our forum on reviewing translations, Lauren Albin and Sue Hyon Bae, two of the translators of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, reflect on their engagements with both the poet’s work and the culture in which it was produced. They highlight the dangers of adopting the role of an interrogator and emphasize the need for good faith in any encounter with a translated work. Today we also feature a contribution from Matt Reeck, who takes the opportunity to reflect on the ways that reviews might take into account contexts of reception and underscores how the idea of world literature can restrict our ability to understand local specificity as it attempts to develop a global framework. If you missed the first installment of this forum, be sure to check it out here, and stay tuned for tomorrow’s contributions from Katherine Hedeen and Johannes Göransson.
I want to point out this sentence in Matt Reeck’s review of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, which becomes the foregrounding reason for his question of whether Korean poetry should be made more Korean in translation: “Kim’s poems are not confessional (which might make them indicative of the writer’s life and culture), nor are they written in a style that’s reflective of a social reality.” The reviewer’s desire for the poet’s confession quickly brings to mind one of the seminal poems of Kim’s collection—“Cultural Revolution in My Dream”—where Ms. Photon, a symbol of the bright light used by an interrogator to extract confessions, uploads a confessional software to the poet’s body. What I mean to say in drawing this comparison is that, Reeck got it wrong. Kim’s poems are confessional, but perhaps, they are not the confession that the reviewer wishes to hear—a situation that recalls Ms. Photon, who keeps on interrogating the poet even after there are no real crimes left but only a continuously generated confession. Therefore, the reviewer rejects Kim’s poems and along with them he rejects Kim’s social reality and Kim’s Korea, asking for translations that are more Korean than the originals and pressing for a false confession.
Moving away from Reeck’s review, when the reviewer of translated work plays at interrogator, the perspective of the translated poet is immediately endangered. The interrogator is a figure employed by repressive regimes to reconstruct narratives, to revise the truth, to rewrite what actually happened, and to reconstruct history. Interrogators often already know what story they wish to tell and work to illuminate only that reality. An interrogator is also someone who has inherent power over another. While Ms. Photon extracts false confessions, the sun, in Kim’s “Lady Yuhwa,” “streaming like a searchlight / pursues and violates the woman” of the poem. A reviewer who steps into the role of interrogator assumes power over the poem and violates it intentionally or unintentionally by forcing it to conform to their own ideas about what it should be; silencing the poem, instead of allowing the work to speak in its own language of idea, even when that language seems to push at the boundaries of our minds. READ MORE…
Amelia Rosselli’s work is deeply marked by her family and personal history. Born in 1930 to a British activist and a martyred Italian-Jewish antifascist, she lived as an eternal outsider in France, the US, the UK, and Italy. A polyglot with persistent depression, her poetry challenges. It challenges the confines of genre and conventional syntax, it challenges the society with which she was ever at odds, and it challenges the reader to accompany her through her brave literary wanderings. Rosselli ended her own life by jumping out the window of her fifth-floor apartment in Rome in 1996.
Obtuse Diary, published by Entre Rios Books in late 2018, is the first and only collection of Rosselli’s prose. The writing spans a number of years and is organized into three sections and two illuminating afterwords, one by the author and one by one of the translators. Asymptote’s Lindsay Semel spoke with Deborah Woodard and Roberta Antognini, two of the collection’s three translators, about the joys and challenges of rendering Rosselli’s stunning and difficult Italian into English.
Lindsay Semel (LS): Tell me about the origin of this project. How did you come to translate this text together? What was the collaboration process like?
Deborah Woodard (DW): Translating Amelia Rosselli’s Diario Ottuso into Obtuse Diary was quite the saga. It’s a little book, but it took forever to translate. Giuseppe Leporace, my first co-translator, and I brought out some sections of the Diary in The Dragonfly, a selection of Rosselli’s poetry, back in 2009. After we finished The Dragonfly and brought it out through Chelsea Editions, I decided to rework Obtuse Diary and publish it in its entirety. When Giuseppe became too busy to review it with me, he graciously stepped down from the project. On Giuseppe’s suggestion, I worked on the Diary with Vanja Skoric Paquin, a talented young linguist with a particular gift for unraveling snarled syntax. When Vanja gave birth to her daughter she, in turn, stepped down. A year or so passed, and then I recommenced with Dario De Pasquale. Dario and I tore the earlier translation apart, sentence by sentence. When Dario became too busy to continue to translate with me (do we see a pattern here?), I was extremely fortunate to join forces with Roberta, my current—and from here on out, sole—co-translator on the final version. READ MORE…
We look both backward and forward: a revolution in China, an election in India, poets uniting in Barcelona to cohere past and future with performance and verse. This week our editors are here with literary news items that display a history starkly immediate, a present gathering visions, and tomorrows which hope that remembrance may also be an act of resistance.
Charlie Ng, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong:
The May Fourth Movement was one of the most influential events for China in the twentieth century as it powerfully revolutionised Chinese culture and society. The cultural movement complemented the political Xinhai Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen in heralding China’s modern era. Its centenary is celebrated across the Straits, and Hong Kong is no exception. Hong Kong’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum is in collaboration with the Beijing Lu Xun Museum to organise “The Awakening of a Generation: The May Fourth and New Culture Movement” Exhibition, displaying relevant collections from both Beijing and the Hong Kong Museum of History to the public, including the handwritten manuscripts of Chen Duxiu and Hu Shih. The exhibition will also showcase visual and multimedia artworks that are inspired by the event.
The Hong Kong Literary Criticism Society has inaugurated the “Hong Kong Chinese Literary Criticism Competition 2019” to promote literary criticism in Hong Kong, and the launch ceremony of the competition was held in the Hong Kong Arts Development Council on May 18. Hong Kong writer Yip Fai and Chinese scholar Choy Yuen-fung from Hong Kong Baptist University were invited to give a talk on the necessity of literature and literary criticism, moderated by the chairman of Hong Kong Literary Criticism Society, Ng Mei-kwan.
The tides of cultural change are reflected in the literary festivals of Spain, Brazil, and South Africa this week as our editors point us to the increased awareness of both past misrepresentation and the lack of representation altogether. As more dismal political news from around the world rolls in, such instances of rectification and progress from the cultural sphere are a source of light and comfort.
Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain
April might be the cruellest month for some glum, English poets, but in Spain, spring has arrived and ushered in a blossoming book fair season. Alicante has just wrapped up its 2019 Feria del Libre with a refreshing theme of Mujeres de Palabra, celebrated from March 28 to April 7. The long week was packed full of readings, signings, booths, and workshops. This year, many activities were aimed at younger readers.
Among many great Spanish writers was a personal favourite, Murcian writer Miguel-Ángel Hernández, whose 2013 novel Intento de Escapada (Anagrama) was translated into English by Rhett McNeil (Hispabooks, 2016) as Escape Attempt and was also translated into German, French, and Italian. Compared to both Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, Hernández’s El dolor de los demás (Anagrama, 2018), which he was signing at the fair, is now high on the reading list.
This year’s winner of the Poetry category in Asymptote’s fourth annual Close Approximations Translation Contest was Daniel Owen. Poetry judge Eugene Ostashevsky called Alfizal Malna’s text “intellectual poetry of the highest caliber,” praising Owen for his “elegant, reserved English,” and for offering readers “a beautiful thing of clear obscurity” in his translations of Malna’s Document Shredding Museum.
We recently caught up with Yogyakarta-based Daniel to learn more about his work with the legendary Afrizal Malna, the process of “unsomeoneification,” and what he has been up to since winning the Close Approximations contest in January.
Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): I found your translations of Document Shredding Museum to be incredibly beautiful and inviting; no easy feat given the complexity of Malna’s writing. How did you first come to Afrizal Malna and his work?
Daniel Owen (DO): I met Afrizal at Kampung Buku Jogja, an annual literary event in Yogyakarta with a book fair, readings, and discussions. I had just come to stay awhile in Jogja to intensively study Indonesian language and to read and subsequently translate Indonesian literature. While my Indonesian was okay when we first met, I hadn’t yet read much and was quite ignorant of the literary landscape. We were introduced by my friends, the writers and small press publishers Lelaki Budiman and Tiaswening Maharsi, after Afrizal’s discussion on theater and poetry with Gunawan Maryanto. I bought a copy of his new book of short stories, Pagi Yang Miring Ke Kanan (Nyala, 2017) and we chatted a bit. Following our initial meeting, I started reading Afrizal’s work pretty intensely, the short stories along with poems I found on the internet, and then his book of essays Sesuatu Indonesia. I found myself entranced by the poems; it was like encountering something extremely familiar yet at the same time novel. That kind of tickling of the sensibilities that’s both troubling and pleasurable, takes you, as a reader, outside yourself while making you feel more yourself. I started translating these poems which I’d found online, primarily to see what would happen and to share them with non-Indonesian-speaking friends who asked about what I was reading, thinking about, engaging with. And then I borrowed Museum Penghancur Dokumen from Budiman, read the whole thing and started translating it.
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!
This week, join three Asymptote staff members as they report the latest in literary news from around the world. From the legacy of Romanian poet Emil Brumaru, to new releases of poetry, literary competitions, and the Iowa City Book Festival, there’s plenty to catch up and reflect on.
MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, reporting from Romania and Moldova
The most resounding recent piece of literary news in Romania is the passing of poet Emil Brumaru (born eighty years ago in Bessarabia, present-day Republic of Moldova), one of the greatest Romanian poets of the past fifty years. Superlative eulogies have inundated literary magazines and wide circulation newspapers alike, foregrounding both the vastness and the subtlety of the oeuvre, while also deploring the disappearance of a widely popular presence prolifically active in literary publications and even social media. Brumaru’s obsessively erotic verse, ranging from the profane and the pornographic to the angelic and the (still physically) mystical, comports a richness of nuances and a chameleonic craftsmanship that perhaps explain why such a huge voice remains for now largely unknown to the English-speaking world, except for a handful of poems translated in a couple of anthologies, graduate theses, or casual blogs.
While women are arguably the only—inextinguishable, nonetheless—subject of Brumaru’s poetry, women writers themselves are taking centre stage in Romanian letters as well. The first edition of the Sofia Nădejde literary awards—curated by poet and radio show host Elena Vlădăreanu—was in that respect a remarkable milestone. While doing justice to novels or collections by established writers such as Gabriela Adameșteanu and widely known young poets and critics like Teodora Coman, the judges also picked for the debut collection award a release significantly titled Kommos. A Hysterectomy Procession by Iuliana Lungu, an up-and-coming poet who has already won support and even accolades from living legends such as Angela Marinescu and Nora Iuga.
Testimony of Circumstances by Rodrigo Lira, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría, Cardboard House Press
Latin America gave the second half of the twentieth century some of its most destructive and incendiary poetry. In Bogotá, in the 1960s, the Nadaistas threw copies of Cervantes into a bonfire and shouted from rooftops of an imminent socio-poetic revolution, and anyone who knows the name Bolaño has likely heard how Mexico’s Infrarealistas heckled the hell out of Octavio Paz. This was the period of poesía rebelde, rebel poetry, in which agitation played a big role on the street and the page. One particularly volatile poet from this milieu was Rodrigo Lira, who stuck out even at a time when this sort of counter-cultural militancy wasn’t unheard of. Testimony of Circumstances, translated into English by Rodrigo Olavarría and Thomas Rothe, secures his position as a true outsider in a world full of pretenders.
Born in 1949 into an upper middle-class family, Rodrigo Lira received a good education and spent his first fifteen years in close proximity to Chile’s elite, but as a teenager he began to veer far from bourgeois respectability. He ingested substantial amounts of weed. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had electroshock therapy at his family’s insistence. He rallied behind Salvador Allende’s socialist government until Augusto Pinochet’s U.S.-backed coup turned Chile into a nationalist, ultra-capitalist nightmare. Anyone with left-wing sympathies risked persecution, and the new regime kidnapped and executed thousands of its own citizens on that very charge. Although Lira grew quiet on political matters, he was hardly mute.
What should a budding translator read? What kinds of critical lenses should he or she apply to the process of translation? Assistant Editor Andreea Scridon shares some insights she gathered from the poetry translation workshop she attended this summer in Norwich, UK.
Every summer, the University of East Anglia in Norwich (home of the first Creative Writing program in the United Kingdom) holds an International Literary Translation & Creative Writing Summer School. This past July, the program was held in partnership with the British Centre for Literary Translation, and I attended the multilingual poetry translation workshop—led by internationally translated poet and writer Fiona Sampson—as an emerging translator of Romanian and Spanish into English. Below I recount musings on the most significant things I learned, which I hope will be of use to those potentially looking to break into literary translation.
A sound starting point in this discussion is the question of considering what to read as a translator. It should go without saying that a literary translator must necessarily be a well-read person in order to be able to make the best possible choices in terms of context, likely more so than anybody else. Having established this as a point of consensus, we discussed, both officially in workshops and amongst ourselves, what exactly a translator should be reading today. In my opinion, the library of a(n) (aspiring) literary translator should include contemporary literature, non-contemporary literature (both classics and obscure-but-lovely older works), and, of course, translations, preferably in as many languages as possible. For instance, examples of each subsection in my current library include Lauren Groff’s Florida and Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart (which are English-language works but useful examples of the spirit of today’s literary scene), Romain Gary’s The Kites and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, and Anna Akhmatova’s various poetry collections in translation by Yevgeny Bonver, Richard McKane, and Alexander Cigale, to name only a few. I asked Ian Gwin, an emerging translator of Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian who also participated in the Summer School, for suggestions. He recommends Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, noting that Gessen is himself a bilingual and that the theme of the two cultures meeting within the novel may be useful for a translator to consider. Regarding multiple translations, he recommends Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, pinning the more linguistically faithful translation of Eithne Wilkins and Ernest Kaiser against the newer one produced by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. He also suggests the high-quality recent translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz by Michael Hoffman, citing it as a long work that shows an attempt to render a specific style in a second language.
Welcome to the seventh and final installment of A World with a Thousand Doors—a multi-part collaboration with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival to showcase previously untranslated contemporary Indonesian writing. This week, we feature three poems by award-winning Indonesian writer Cyntha Hariadi, translated by Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, Norman Erikson Pasaribu.
We suggest reading installments one, two, three, four, five, and six of the series if you haven’t already. We also recommend the final reflection by Festival attendees Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Tiffany Tsao, Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Australia.
they used to paw the sky, squeeze the clouds
they fought the wild crows, bargained with the gatekeeper of heaven
these hands—they took down the moon, put it here to light this bedroom
they tickled the sun, so it shone longer, brighter
now, they cave in every time I raise them up
they squeal in pain at the mere task of tying up my hair
sewn-up to this chest, they can only wait
for the saviour to stop its never-ending sob READ MORE…
A giant in world poetry and experimental text, much of Inger Christensen’s influence can be seen cascading to many generations of writers, in several languages. Her book-length poem, Det (1969) shook the foundations of Danish poetry, and in its translations, continues to startle and affect readers profoundly. Her essays have been translated into English and collected into a volume for the first time. To mark this literary event, poet and former Asymptote team member Sohini Basak spoke via email to Susanna Nied, who has translated into English Christensen’s poetic oeuvre as well as the forthcoming book of essays The Condition of Secrecy (New Directions).
SOHINI BASAK: For those of us bound by the English-language, it is because of you that we’ve come to know of Inger Christensen’s poetry. And as you’re the translator of her complete poetic oeuvre, it’s very interesting that you started with her first book (Light), and then the sequence almost coincides with the order in which the original collections were published … although not entirely. How did you decide your working order?
SUSANNA NIED: I actually didn’t do anything like choosing a working order. When I started on Light, in the 1970s, I didn’t know Inger had written anything besides Light and Grass. I didn’t even know who Inger was, and I certainly didn’t know that I was going to become a translator, much less her translator. I was just a university student browsing the library stacks for something Danish to read for pleasure, and I happened upon this little bibliography of contemporary Danish poets. When I got to “C” I found “Christensen, Inger”.
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On this episode of the Asymptote Podcast, we dive once more into the archives to tune into some of the riches that Asymptote has offered readers over the last 30 (now 31!) issues. Pick up where Podcast Editor Dominick Boyle left off in his last episode to listen to recordings from 2014 up to the present issue. Hear a thought provoking essay by Nobel laureate Herta Müller on the space between languages, along with an experimental translation of poetry by Nenten Tsubouchi that fully embraces this space. A fragmented, anonymous love poem in Old English translated by Christopher Patton and an electric reading by poet Steven Alvarez in English, Spanish, and Nahuatl round out the episode. Take a listen, and revel in the riches.
Welcome to the third installment of A World with a Thousand Doors—our Translation Tuesday series showcasing Indonesian literature, brought to you in partnership with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. This week’s feature: poetry by festival guest Gratiagusti Chananya Rompas, translated by past Asymptote contributor Mikael Johani. If you are joining these amazing writers and translators, don’t forget that you can save 20% on the 4-Day Pass by entering the code MPAS at the online checkout!
soap bubbles float in the air explode
on the tip of my toes
a scavenger collects rubbish from tiny barrels crams them into oversized
plastic hessian bags
washes his hands with water from a half-empty mineral
mums run around, carry hello kitty backpacks, ben ten water bottles,
an extra change of clothes, a tiny towel
kids scream and shriek they want to buy baby turtles kept in colourful transparent
a tourist photographer presses the shutter on his camera
ten thousand rupiahs per photo
and always you forget to smile