Award-winning translator Tess Lewis was first drawn to the Swiss author Monique Schwitter by two “quirky and rather dark” short story collections. Schwitter’s first full novel, One Another, is now an Asymptote Book Club selection, and Tess Lewis tells Asymptote Assistant Editor Chris Power why she couldn’t wait for a chance to translate it to English.
In the latest edition of our monthly Book Club interview series, we also discover the roles Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill played (indirectly!) in translating One Another and learn why a particular type of coffee nearly led to the English edition of the book being published with extensive endnotes.
Chris Power (CP): How did you end up translating One Another?
Tess Lewis (TL): Monique’s quirky and rather dark short stories in Goldfish Memory and If it Snows at the Crocodile Pen won me over when I read them years ago. So when I had the opportunity in 2014 and ’15 to curate Festival Neue Literatur, the New York City literary festival that showcases fiction from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, she was at the top of my list of writers. In 2015, the Festival’s theme was “Love and Money,” and because so many of her stories are about the different forms intimacy can take, about connections made and abysses that open up between friends, lovers, family members, and even strangers, she was a perfect fit for the “love” side. In fact, her participation in the festival was a great preview of how deftly she plays with readers’ expectations on a topic as well-trodden as love, sometimes meeting these expectations, sometimes subverting them, and sometimes going off on a tangent.
I couldn’t wait for her to finish her first novel—which turned out to be One Another—and am delighted that I was able to translate it.
This week, we’re taking a look at the precise and haunting work of a thrilling young Argentinian writer, celebrating and revelling in Latin American Indigenous literatures, and queuing up for a veritable mélange of literary and artistic events in the international hub of Hong Kong. It’s been a pretty good month.
Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large for Chile, reporting from Buenos Aires and Berlin:
On January 1, 2019, the New York Times reviewed Megan McDowell’s powerful translation of Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s book of short stories, Mouthful of Birds (originally titled Pájaros en la boca). In this review, the Times reveals what fans of contemporary Latin American fiction have known for years: that Schweblin’s haunting, claustrophobic writing is fascinating and addictive. Admittedly, Schweblin had previously received ample praise from critics in both the Spanish-speaking and Anglophone world. Among other accolades, we might consider: in 2010, the British magazine Granta named her a top young Spanish-language writer; Schweblin is a winner of the prestigious Juan Rulfo short story prize; she appeared on the Bogotá 39 list (2017), which lauded the top 39 Spanish-language authors under 40 years of age. READ MORE…
In late 2016, the Guatemalan publishing house SOPHOS put out Rodrigo Fuentes’s literary debut, entitled Trucha panza arriba. The book follows, sometimes closely and at other times tangentially, Don Henrik, a white landowner living in Guatemala, and the way his decisions and economic and emotional downfall affect those around him. The book includes intense dramas like “Dive”—available in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 Issue—and “Ubaldo’s Island”; vibrating suspense stories like “Whisky”; and profound character explorations like “Henrik.” And all of them are wrapped in exquisite dialogue, like “Terrace,” my favorite story. I told Rodrigo it was my favorite.
“Really?” Rodrigo said, somehow confused.
“Sí,” I told him, and said it was a tight story. “Apretada,” I said, “elegantly condensed, effective, quick as a flash.” READ MORE…
With our February selection, the Asymptote Book Club is taking subscribers back to school. Fortunately, Zsófia Bán’s Night School is a school unlike any other—populated by a cast of literary and cultural figures ranging from Frida Kahlo (and her double) to Laika the space dog. Each chapter of Bán’s textbook primer is filled with ‘defiant irreverence’ and the perfect combination of wit and profundity.
We’re delighted to be sending our subscribers one of the year’s most coruscatingly original short story collections, in Jim Tucker’s superb English translation. If you’d like to join us in time for next month’s Book Club pick, you’ll find all the information you need on our web page. Once you’ve joined, head to our Facebook group to meet other Book Club members and contribute to the discussion. We look forward to seeing you there!
Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Jim Tucker, Open Letter, 2019
Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor
Let’s begin with a simple biographical detail: Zsófia Bán has spent much of her life in academia, and her first novel (originally published in Hungarian in 2007) is a textbook. It seems barely necessary to add that Night School is a textbook like no other.
Ubud Writers and Readers Festival may have concluded last month, but our series, A World with A Thousand Doors hasn’t! In our penultimate installment of the series, we are proud to present a short story by Dewi Kharisma Michellia.
“Dad, have you found the keys?”
I often hear grateful people say that each day in life has its own blessing.
“Son, put in the luggage in the trunk. Why do I have to tell you this? Where is your brother?”
If those people really admire the mystery of time, then it’s only fair if they extend the same admiration to space.
“If we leave now, will we still be able to see the sunrise, Dad?”
Each place has its own value, which can only be felt by those attached to that place.
September’s Asymptote Book Club selection, Moving Parts, is a dazzlingly original collection of short stories by Prabda Yoon, “the writer who popularized postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature.”
Translating from Thai to English can be daunting, to the extent that it sometimes feels as though “you can never do the right thing.” Continuing our monthly series of Book Club interviews, Mui Poopoksakul tells Lindsay Semel about the challenges of translating a language with “a multitude of pronouns that are extremely nuanced,” as well as an affinity for elaborate rhyme and alliteration.
Lindsay Semel (LS): I was immediately struck by the aurality of Moving Parts. It’s full of rhyming prose and onomatopoeia. When you interviewed Prabda Yoon for The Quarterly Conversation, you said, “I feel like the alliteration can be recreated sometimes, but rhyming is more of a problem because the Thai ear is far more used to it. Translating Thai, you face the problem of translating poetry. You can never do the right thing. Someone will always say you did the wrong thing because you kept the sound or you kept it straight. It’s a real problem.” His answer didn’t offer much of a solution. Can you talk about some of the more challenging or intriguing examples in Moving Parts of translating what in English might be considered poetic language in prose?
Mui Poopoksakul (MP): In Thai, people like to say two or three or four synonyms in a row if they rhyme or if they’re alliterative. The sound play isn’t intended to create extra meaning. The Thai ear is used to that sing-song quality, so it doesn’t feel like someone is suddenly breaking into a nursery rhyme. Rhyme was more of an issue in this collection, whereas in The Sad Part Was, the first Prabda Yoon collection I translated, alliteration was more present. In Moving Parts, there were a couple of big moments where Prabda really played up the rhyming—in “Evil Tongue” and in “Eye Spy”—I think as a nod to that element of the Thai language, so I felt that I needed to carry those mini poems over to represent the sound. So there are sentences in those stories where every clause rhymes. With him, these moments aren’t always intended to be particularly lyrical—some are just playful. “Eye Spy” includes a rhyme about theater seats. There are also smaller instances of rhyming: in “Mock Tail,” for example, there’s “flip or slip.” I try to pepper them in, but I also have to watch out that there is not too much of a sing-song quality in the translation.
Moving Parts, our September Asymptote Book Club selection, is the second book-length English translation of Prabda Yoon’s work, but perhaps the first book (in any genre) ever to culminate in what our reviewer describes as one of life’s “most seductive question[s]: is it a sadder thing to throw oneself unnoticed from the top of a building or to live out one’s days without a functioning butt plug?”
In addition to translating A Clockwork Orange and Lolita into Thai, Prabda Yoon has, according to Words Without Borders, “popularized postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature.” Bringing Prabda Yoon’s work into English (together with Tilted Axis), Mui Poopoksakul demonstrates a “facility for translating puns” and delivers one of this year’s must-read short story collections. We’re excited to be sharing it with our subscribers in the USA, Canada, and the UK.
If you’d like to receive next month’s Asymptote Book Club pick, all the necessary information is available on our official Book Club page. Current subscribers can join the discussion on Moving Parts, and each of our nine previous titles, through our facebook group.
In partnership with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, we’re very proud to present A World with a Thousand Doors, a series showcasing writing from Indonesia hitherto unpublished in English—including some from authors featured in this year’s festival.
Curating this series had its challenges: it was impossible to do full justice to Indonesia’s diversity through a selection of only eight writers’ works. But each of these pieces excites us and we hope with all our hearts that this series will not only highlight just a few of the many talents on today’s Indonesian literary scene for our readers, but also provide a critical intervention in discussions of how to best disseminate Indonesian literature in the world, which tend to advocate reliance on government-sponsored initiatives and large institutions.
Although assistance from these quarters is undoubtedly invaluable, even the most wonderful of writers may fall through the cracks and remain untranslated. The editors of this Translation Tuesday series, Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Tiffany Tsao, sincerely hope that A World with a Thousand Doors will encourage writers and translators of Indonesian literature to consider pairing up directly and submitting widely to literary journals and publishers, of which Asymptote is only one. The ‘thousand doors’ of the series’ title is a metaphor for the immense diversity of Indonesian writing. But it could also stand for the thousand routes that Indonesian-language writers and translators might take to reach the wider world.
Without further ado, it is our pleasure to kick off our series with this short story by beloved author and Ubud Writers and Readers Festival guest Dee Lestari.
There should be a wise saying that goes something like this: Never take two if you only want one. One brings completion—but two, oblivion. It may sound a little strange, but it’s the truth. Such sayings aren’t mere literary cotton candy—all fluff, no stuff. It takes bitter experience to formulate each one. It takes a person to practically perish paddling upstream before they can appreciate the serene swim to shore, as the old adage goes. Or to draw on yet another maxim—it takes someone to fall flat on her face, then have the ladder land on her as well. It takes an entire tureen of milk to prove a drop of ink will spoil the whole lot. In this case, it took a Hera who was searching for a Herman.
Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo, Translated by Charlotte Coombe, Charco Press, 2018
Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup (lovingly translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe) opens with a poem from Shel Silverstein: “I am writing these poems / From inside a lion, / And it’s rather dark in here. / So please excuse the handwriting / which may not be too clear.” Silverstein’s poetry was largely written for children, but its language and ideas appeal to readers long into adulthood. These lines fittingly define the voices in García Robayo’s story collection, while making clear the particular challenges of writing about a world while also being trapped inside it. This sense of a multi-layered voice, entrapment, dark atmosphere, and liminality largely defines the latest publication coming from the new and exciting Charco Press.
The Book of Tbilisi, edited by Becca Parkinson and Gvantsa Jobava, Comma Press
The Tbilisi funicular that leads all the way to the Mtatsminda Mountain, one that families might usually take on Sunday mornings or lovers for an afternoon date, gives an opportunity to get a glimpse of the city from above while still being close and immersed in the noises and lives it encapsulates. The Book of Tbilisi attempts to be an extension thereof, unravelling to the readers the literary landscape of Georgia after the recuperation of its independence and the consequent transformations it underwent. Comma Press’s “Reading the City” series brings to the surface works and literary traditions of underrepresented areas. This endeavour aspires to insert forsaken voices and cosmologies into the Eurocentric literary canon.
One should not overlook the genre chosen for this aspiration. An underrated form that has experienced a renaissance in recent years (as could be attested by Asymptote’s Winter 2018 Issue special feature on microfiction and the 2013 Nobel Prize awarded to Alice Munro), the short story is distanced from illusions of coherency and authority. Instead, its fragments embrace the gaps and absences, charged with an energy that surpasses the mere focus on the sequence of events, in order to capture a state or a quality. Thus it is not difficult to imagine why this impressionistic genre seemed the adequate vehicle—much like the funicular itself—to capture the fleeting force that runs through Georgia.
Korean literature in translation has enjoyed newfound popularity in the English-speaking world over the past few years, but most recent publications have been—unsurprisingly—of contemporary literature. With a trend towards temporal and geographic diversity amongst Korean literature available in English (North Korean writer Bandi’s The Accusation being the most well-known divergence from South Korean voices), it is worth taking a look at British publisher Honford Star’s recent collection of the short stories of twentieth-century writer Kim Tong-in. In this anthology, Sweet Potato, translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure in the retranslation of a historical text.
Sweet Potato takes its name from its most well-known story, also titled “Sweet Potato,” or “Kamja” in Korean. First published in 1925 by the Japanese colonial-era journal Joseon Mundan, the story is one of the seminal texts of twentieth-century Korean literature. In fewer than ten pages, it recounts the life of Pong-nyŏ, a young Pyongyang woman of low social status who is sold to a much older and similarly impoverished widower. When Pong-nyŏ’s husband fails to support the couple financially, Pong-nyŏ turns to prostitution in the slums of Pyongyang in order to earn a living. She is overcome with anger upon learning that the Chinese Mr. Wang, her most frequent customer, plans to marry, but her attempts to kill Wang backfire, ending instead in her own death. The work is emblematic of Kim’s literary realism and has been interpreted to demonstrate that moral “choices” are situational, resulting from external circumstance rather than character flaws. Three quarters of a century after its initial publication, “Sweet Potato” remains popular, with new editions of the story released in 2000 and 2005 by publishers Ch’ŏngmoksa and Ch’angbi, respectively.
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.