By rebelling against his country’s dominant Euro-centric discourse and disobeying the fundamental rules of Albanian grammar, writer Idlir Azizi has created a new kind of Albanian literature. In today’s essay, researcher Adem Ferizaj analyzes Azizi’s Terxhuman and helps us understand the implications it might have for Albanian-language literature and Albania as a whole.
The pyramid crisis in Albania and the Kosovo Liberation War are the only two Albanian incidents that simultaneously made headlines in The New York Times, Le Monde, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in the 1990s. Since Western journalists’ interest in the Albanian lands depends on political turmoil in the Balkans that could ruin European “geopolitical stability,” this comes as no surprise. When Western editorial offices are urgently in need of articles about this region, the local who organizes meetings, provides information on the addressed issue, and translates interviews becomes indispensable for them.
In Albania, this local is often referred to as a “fixer,” although the word terxhuman (which shares a root with the English “dragoman”) is used as well. The latter is also the title of Idlir Azizi’s 2010 novel, which takes this profession as a starting point to address Western arrogance towards Albanians and to provide an unprecedented analysis of Albanian society. In a very original way, Azizi deconstructs the mainstream Albanian discourses that are based on Eurocentric concepts, or, to put it differently, on Western arrogance towards Albanians. In this way, Terxhuman (which has yet to be translated into English) interprets Albanian reality in an alternative and postcolonial way. Such an analysis did not previously exist in contemporary Albanian literature.
Publishing since the 1980s, Tsering Döndrup’s novels and short stories have been honored with Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese literary prizes. He’s among the most prominent Tibetan writers working today, but as with the great majority of Tibetan fiction, translations of his work remain scarce. This winter, Columbia University Press released the first collection of Döndrup’s work in English, with a suite of stories selected and translated by Christopher Peacock.
Populated by a dizzying cast of characters—from corrupt lamas and venal deities to the incorrigible Ralo and the souls of the recently deceased—the collection The Handsome Monk and Other Stories presents us with both the diversity of subject matter that only decades of craft and experience can bring, and the discernible unity of vision we expect of a great artist. Peacock’s translation lucidly animates the stories, even as their author arranges separate realities for the action of each to unfold inside. Also preserved is the author’s humor: at times profoundly bleak, but always incisive. In this conversation, we discuss the challenges of translating Tsering Döndrup’s fiction, as well as the position of Tibetan fiction outside Tibet.
Max Berwald (MB): How did you first come to the work of Tsering Döndrup?
Christopher Peacock (CP): I first came to Döndrup through my academic work on contemporary Tibetan literature. I specialize in modern Chinese literature, and I am interested in the ways in which Tibetan writing does and doesn’t fit into the context of literature in modern China as a whole. Tibetan critics have interpreted Tsering Döndrup’s story “Ralo” as an equivalent of Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q, one of the most famous works of modern Chinese fiction. I went to interview the author to get his thoughts on the matter (he doesn’t exactly agree), and while I was writing on the subject I decided to translate “Ralo” for my own use.
I kept on reading his work, and the more I read the more I felt it was essential that such a unique and fascinating writer should be accessible to English readers, especially given the extreme scarcity of modern Tibetan literature available in English. I kept on translating, choosing some stories that I liked personally and some that the author recommended, and eventually we had a collection.
“I’m always surprised by how docile American intellectuals are when they enter the public space,” says Matt Reeck, the translator of Zahia Rahmani’s strikingly bold “Muslim”: A Novel. In the course of a wide-ranging interview with Asymptote Assistant Editor Erik Noonan, Reeck aims to challenge that dominant paradigm of always being “on our best behaviour.”
In our most in-depth Book Club interview to date, Reeck sifts through the “layers of imperial cultural history in Algeria”, makes an eloquent plea for the widening of the capital/cultural space currently allotted to translation, and suggests that “the translation of texts that are already domesticated work[s] against translation in a broader sense.”
Erik Noonan (EN): Discussing the role of the translator in your statement for the National Endowment for the Arts, you say that “In a globalized world, while we know more about many parts of the world that we didn’t have access to previously, often what we know seems to get cemented quickly into easy stereotypes. Then, in a way, we don’t know much more at all; we just know what we think we know.” Dealing with the potential of certain texts to expand our knowledge of the world, you also say, in a piece in The Los Angeles Review: “While university presses help by publishing some of these [truly exotic] works, they don’t take on others: the manuscript must match a list, and this list consolidates established emphases of teaching and research.” Your work includes research and teaching in the Comparative Literature Department at UCLA, I believe, as well as translation. How is your teaching related to your research and your translating, and has that relationship changed in any way over time?
Matt Reeck (MR): I’m interested in many things, and they don’t all necessarily fit anyone’s idea of a single pursuit, a single trajectory, a single work. But they do for me. They are unified by being the things I’m interested in! It would be nice to be able to teach things that match my translating interests and my research interests, but to date I’ve been able to do that only here and there. Fingers crossed this will change soon.