Posts filed under 'Translation'

Sex, Drugs, and Identity :Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things in Review

This is a novel of the street, the bedroom, the metro, the sex-club, and the recording studio. Of weed, whisky, and cocaine.

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, The Feminist Press, 2018. 

Anglophone fans of Virginie Despentes are celebrating the release of Pretty Things, the fourth of her novels to be published by The Feminist Press, but the first translated from the French by Emma Ramadan. Ramadan, a long-time fan of Despentes, says in an interview we conducted with her this summer, that she accessed her raw vernacular parlance by speaking sentences out loud, watching French soap operas, and simply being a young, ambitious 20-something-year-old woman (much like many Despentes protagonists). It worked. This is a novel of the street, the bedroom, the metro, the sex-club, and the recording studio. Of weed, whisky, and cocaine. Where public and private, self and sister, butt heads. It’s a novel of desire and fear, love and insecurity, a woman trying not to allow other people’s expectations to mire her in the muck of society’s ugliest pathologies.

Pauline and Claudine are twins. They’re identical, but there’s no way to mistake one for the other. They have the type of beauty that’s fashionable at the moment, and Claudine learned as soon as she hit puberty to harness her beauty’s enormous power through her own objectification. Pauline finds it disgusting, this shallow game of power and submission, and makes a surly public display of her dissent. They don’t get along. Claudine, having recently moved to Paris to try to make it big, ropes Pauline into making a record with her. Pauline’s voice and Claudine’s personality are meant to equal one perfect pop star. The night of their first concert, while Pauline is on stage, Claudine jumps out her apartment window. Pauline, arriving at the scene after an evening of impersonating her sister, simply continues to do so, thus committing her own sort of suicide. Both sort of dead and in one living body, they start to suture the split that occurred between them in the womb.

While Pauline started with a plan to be half a woman, she spends the rest of the novel integrating two halves into a stronger whole. “Equilibrium needs to be restored. It was constructed opposite her sister, a force exerted on another. She has a clear image in her mind: two little women in a bubble, each pushing with her forehead against the other’s. If one of the two little women is removed, the other immediately topples over, falls into the other’s domain.” She learns to convincingly pass as Claudine. For two weeks, with the help of their friend and manager Nicolas, she locks herself in the apartment and learns to apply makeup, shave her legs, and walk in heels. When she finally emerges, she’s shocked to realize not only how people treated her sister, but also what it feels like to be treated that way. Simply presenting herself differently makes her vulnerable to scrutiny, jealousy, greed, and desire. She can empathize with Claudine for the first time—the whiff of sexual power also tempts her to sacrifice things like genuine human connection and self-respect, even as loneliness and self-disgust take their place. She doesn’t exactly miss her sister, but perhaps instead mourns a life spent too isolated to truly know except by inhabiting it.

The text yields dramatically different readings if one considers Pauline and Claudine to be more one or more two; autonomous individuals influenced by their relationship to each other, or solely a set of relations to each other—neither character whole unto herself. And yet both readings are not just valid, the ambiguity is crucial. On one hand, if both sisters are fully realized individuals, Pauline’s nonconformity is the stronger, more successful choice. It indicates her inherent intelligence and builds in her the strength to withstand the same conditions that wore away at Claudine until she jumped out her window. Claudine ends up dead and Pauline ends up… well, I won’t spoil the ending. But just as the music industry feels entitled to her body, she feels entitled to their money. On the other hand, Pauline and Claudine are the thesis and antithesis of a dialectical concerning femininity in society. Two sides of one coin. In this scenario, Pauline killed a part of herself the same night that Claudine did—and kept a part of both of them alive. By the end of the novel she represents the resolution of the two not into some transcendent, separate, enlightened woman, but a sort of balance of the two pre-existing options. There is no right way for a woman to behave in the face of social expectations, but each mini personal revolution yields a bit of progress. The reader is left with simultaneous, contradictory truths.

Even the text’s imagery is ambiguous on the extent to which they are one or two. For example, the novel describes the gender dynamic between the girls’ parents. Their father is aggressive and self-centered. Their mother exists only as an auxiliary appendage. Until their mother gets a job that she’s good at and begins to gain confidence and independence. The twins were conceived in response to his fury: “From that day on, he started fucking her like he was nailing something into the ground, all the way inside so she would get a fat stomach and stay put.” Two twins from one “nail.” But then, while their mother is pregnant, the parents argue about names. They decide to each choose one. “And so it was done, her stomach ripped in two.” Separate. We don’t learn much more on the topic until Pauline begins to take over Claudine’s life. In some ways she seems truly alien, trying to comprehend a way of being entirely foreign. For example, during a phone conversation with one Claudine’s lover/colleagues:

“She [Pauline] listens to him a little distantly, makes little agreeable sounds, trying to get it through her skull that he’s talking to a girl [Claudine] that he watches on all fours, and filmed from behind doing things like pretending to be a cat, whenever he wants.”

But when her guard is down, she’s simply existing, their mutual friend observes, “Familiar silhouette, he likes to watch it move. Intact shreds of a lost being, obsolete traces that he finds bewitching.”

Two of the novel’s male figures in particular further nuance the portrait of gender dynamics at the heart of this novel. The twins’ father pits them against each other from childhood, ensuring their dependence on his affection by bestowing it upon only one of them at a time—and subjecting the other to repulsive cruelty. During a flashback, Pauline watches their father beat Claudine. Afterward, she reaches out:

“When he hits you I swear I feel it too.” Claudine stood up, turned to face her, grabbed her by the hair. Pauline didn’t scream so that her parents wouldn’t come. Claudine dragged her down onto the bed. “You’re sure you feel it?”  . . .  To really hurt her, she had taken the pillow and held it down against her sister’s face with both hands. To be absolutely sure she heard, she started to scream, “That’s weird because, when he kisses you, I feel nothing.”

The violence of a man ensures enmity between two women who (as young Pauline demonstrates) could instead have loved and supported each other. The second is Pauline’s boyfriend Sébastien, the only man to ever choose her over Claudine. They’ve built a loving, trusting relationship exactly on her refusal to look and act “feminine.” But a series of events calls into question the extent to which opposing the status quo really separates them from it. Having witnessed her transformation, he leaves her with these words:

“You never treated me disrespectfully, you never demeaned yourself. I was proud of you, as soon as I saw some bitch on the street I thought of you, I was so fucking proud. But now, look at yourself, look at how you’re dressed, look at how you walk… And who’s boning you, over there? Is it a bunch of guys? . . . Is it good, do they screw you how you like? I respect you too much, you don’t respect yourself at all anymore.”

We discover that his love and respect for her was never unconditional, but was just as possessive and ugly as her father’s and just as informed by social expectation as any other man’s.

The characters in the novel are both vivid and allegorical (as perhaps are people). In this way, the post-mortem reconciliation of the sisters demonstrates, however imperfectly, a way out of the dialectical thesis/antithesis model of femininity. The status quo and what’s against the status quo validate and perpetuate each other. Just as a woman degrading herself for a man gives her power over him. But discovering empathy for her sister at least gives Pauline enough distance to learn to use the system for her own benefit, rather than letting it destroy her. It’s far from a utopic path, but I suppose this is the same world in which little girls defend themselves from abusive fathers by crossing their frail little arms over their heads. It was never going to be perfect.

Lindsay Semel is an Assistant Editor for Asymptote. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature and works as a freelance editor from her home on a farm in Northern Portugal.

*****

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Asymptote Podcast: Blackness Revisited

2018 MacArthur Genius John Keene on how translation underlies all artistic pursuit

“All art, all artistic production, entails the base of this word translation, a carrying over…”

In this latest edition of the Asymptote Podcast, we sit down with translator and writer John Keene on the heels of the tremendous news of his MacArthur Genius Award. Author of Annotations and Counternarratives, Keene was longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for his translation from the Portuguese of Hilda Hilst’s Letters from a Seducer. But it was his essay Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness which inspired a panel at the most recent AWP Conference as well as our June podcast, so we wanted to get insight straight from the source. Join us as we talk about how translation carries over into a writer’s creative life, how English still holds powerful sway over writers working in other languages, and much much more! Listen to our latest podcast now!

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In Conversation: Emma Ramadan

I had to insert myself literally as a character, and be creative as a translator.

Our latest Asymptote Book Club selection, Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator, depicts a terrifying scenario for many authors. According to its translator, the main character is “an author’s worst nightmare”: a translator with their own ulterior motives.

In the latest installment of the Book Club interview series, Emma Ramadan (herself one of numerous characters in the multi-layered English translation of Matthieussent’s novel) speaks to Mallory Truckenmiller. Read on to find out more Ramadan’s unique experience translating Revenge of the Translator — a text that offers us a glimpse into “some of our darkest fantasies as translators.”

Follow up this conversation’s insights into the art of translation with our #30issues30days program, celebrating 7 years of Asymptote.

Mallory Truckenmiller (MT): One defining quality of Revenge of the Translator is its translation within a translation structure, with the translator actually entering the plot of the novel. As the English translator, your role adds yet another layer to the work. How did you approach this position? Did you find ways to insert yourself as a new voice or character within your translation?

Emma Ramadan (ER): Because the French novel Vengeance du traducteur is framed as a French translation of a (non-existent) English original titled Translator’s Revenge, creating my own English translation got a bit complicated. I couldn’t use Translator’s Revenge as the title of my translation, and at the end, when the narrator mentions a supposed “American translator” of Vengeance du traducteur currently undertaking the translation of the book into English in their city, that translator had to be me, that city had to be Providence. It had to come full circle and the reader of the English translation had to understand that this was an explicit reference to the book they were currently holding in their hands, a reference to my work, otherwise, the whole conceit falls apart. Which, in turn, adds extra layers: how faithful is this translation I’ve been reading? How much has this book I’m currently holding in my hands about a rogue translator been messed with in turn by its own translator? I had to insert myself literally as a character, and be creative as a translator, to do justice to Matthieussent’s multi-layered work and keep it from veering into total insanity.

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Space Oddity: Rodrigo Fresán and the Dawn of the Psy-fi Heroine

Who's watching whom in the evasion and invasion of love?

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.

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Asymptote Podcast: Cultivating Multilingual Spaces

What does it take to create a multilingual space? Layla Benitez-James explores this question with a dispatch from Alicante, Spain.

In honor of Asymptote‘s Summer 2018 edition, which marks our milestone 30th issue and includes a dazzling Multilingual Writing Feature, Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James explores what it takes to create multilingual spaces by taking a visit to the IV Encuentro Internacional de Artistas de la Kasbah in Alicante, Spain. This festival, now in its fourth year, brings together over twenty artists from around the world in an effort to foster greater cultural exchange and artistic friendship. There, she chats with Colombian artist Manuel Antonio Velandia Mora about his work, as well as founders Nourdine Tabbai and Natalia Molinos about the event’s origins. READ MORE…

Ricardo Lísias, the Brazilian Novelist on Trial for Unconventional Form

If an author designs his text to inspire a reader response in a specific social context, is translation even possible?

Featured in our Summer 2018 issue, Brazilian writer Ricardo Lísias’s “Anna O.” examines Latin American politics and memories of dictatorships in the region. In her translator’s note, Lara Norgaard discusses the way Lísias blends truth and fiction to create a unique reading experience: “Lísias’s many references are a key component of the unique relationship he builds between text and reader. The author’s goal is to cause confusion in his audience, to break the boundaries of the book as a discrete object, separate from the world. Nonfiction pours into his fiction and, conversely, the reader reacts to his stories in the real world. In ‘Anna O.,’ Lísias plays with the expectations and knowledge of his audience.” In the following essay, Norgaard further explores this exciting young author’s work.

Ricardo Lísias should be on everyone’s radar.

In Brazil, he already is, and in unconventional ways: two of the writer’s novels over the past four years have landed the writer in court trials. The first, a detective fiction eBook series; the other, a novel signed “pseudonym: Eduardo Cunha,” the name of a prominent right-wing senator currently in prison for corruption charges.

Lísias has the uncanny ability of ruffling feathers in a country where literature too often falls by the wayside. These trials—the former, a charge for the falsification of state documents; the latter, for the defamation of character—might indicate a lack of understanding or urge to control experimental art, both within the justice system and in the general public. But they might also imply that this specific author has managed to escape the bubble of traditional literary readership. His work is controversial, in a broad sense. And yet, despite his dramatic reputation in Brazil, and despite having been named one of Granta’s best young Brazilian novelists, only two of Lísias’ texts have appeared in English translation: the short stories “Evo Morales,” published in Granta and “Anna O.”, just released in Asymptote’s Summer 2018 issue.

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In Conversation: Hamid Ismailov

I wish that different literatures were mutually translated, bypassing English or other dominant global languages.

Very rarely does contemporary Uzbek prose get translated directly into English. Yet English readers have just been given a rare chance to discover the novel The Devils’ Dance (Tilted Axis Press, trans. by Donald Rayfield), by the prominent Uzbek writer and journalist Hamid Ismailov. In it, Ismailov introduces the curious reader to perhaps the most famous modern Uzbek writer, Abdulla Qodiriy. The novel tells the story of Qodiriy, who, like many intellectuals in the Soviet Union in the late 30s, was imprisoned and eventually shot dead. While in jail, Qodiriy attempts to recreate the unfinished novel the KGB has just confiscated, which portrays Oyhon, a poet-queen who lived in the last, grand days of nineteenth-century Turkestan when London and Saint Petersburg were fighting over Central Asia in the Great Game. I interviewed Ismailov about his diverse identities and the place of Uzbek literature in today’s global writing. 

Filip Noubel (FN): You are a global writer: you were born in what is today Kyrgyzstan, studied and worked in Uzbekistan, and now live in London. You write in both Uzbek and Russian, and appear in translation in a number of languages ranging from English to Chinese. In your books and interviews, you often refer to the plurality of cultures but also to their clashes. How is this multiple identity shaping your writing?

Hamid Ismailov (HI): Recently I did a DNA test, and aside from the obvious, I discovered that 4% of my genes are of South Asian origin and 2% are Irish, not to mention 1% Native American. So if my genes are telling me that I’m related to people like Rabindranath Tagore and James Joyce even on a genetic level, so be it! But, generally, the people of Central Asia, which is an area historically placed in the middle of the Silk Road, should be blessed to be born into multiculturalism, multi-lingualism and multi-identity. If you read my book The Railway you can see how many nationalities, traditions, and ways of life I have been exposed to in my childhood, so no wonder that I love to write in different languages, and to put myself into different shoes. In fact, exploring “otherness” both as a subject and an object is the most interesting part of literature.

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In Conversation: Naoki Sakai

We have to learn to address ourselves to multiple audiences, to speak as foreigners to other foreigners.

Naoki Sakai, professor of comparative literature and Asian studies at Cornell University, does the brilliant work of bringing translation theory into dialogue with other disciplines. In his writings on Japanese studies, cultural studies, comparative literature and philosophy, the gritty questions of translation, national language, nationhood, and subjectivity emerge at the heart. His book Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism undermines the mainstream understanding that writers and readers are defined—or confined—by national language and culture.

In this interview, there is much talk of a specific “representation of translation.” Translation is most commonly represented in today’s world as a practice that happens between two wholly different national languages. Tell anyone you’re a translator and they will ask: “between what languages?” However, this is actually only one version of events. While translation can be explored in much broader terms, Sakai suggests that this particular story about translation serves to reinforce the often-menacing architecture of the nation state.

In TRACES, a one-of-a-kind multilingual, cross-disciplinary journal led by Sakai, a new sort of community is created beyond the nation’s walls in which contributors speak with a “forked tongue.” As Sakai’s words suggest and as we know full well at Asymptote, this is the exciting potential of translation; it opens up new shared spaces and spaces for sharing.

Mattea Cussel, Asymptote Assistant Managing Editor, spoke with Sakai about some of the questions raised in his work to invite our readers to ponder the constructedness of national language and culture, as well as to add new working definitions to our entry on that slippery word “translation.”

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So you want to be a literary translator . . .

. . . but don't know where to start? Here's what you need to know.

Literary translators come from a multitude of backgrounds. Many are authors first of all, for whom translation is a natural extension of their work. Others are literary critics or academics, who translate to give a wider audience access to the works they study. With the growing popularity and visibility of global literature in the English-speaking world, on the other hand, has come increased visibility of literary translation as an art of its own.

As an American high schooler, I knew I wanted to translate books. But unlike my friends who wanted to be writers or performers, editors or scientists, I had no idea how to make that happen. I fumbled my way through, doing plenty of research and seeking out guidance from people in the translation industry wherever possible. I now work as a full-time translator on a combination of literary and non-literary projects, something I wouldn’t have believed possible at the age of 17 or 18.

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Asymptote Podcast: Translating Blackness

Listen in on a conversation with the eloquent Lawrence Schimel on translating blackness, female authors, and more!

In this episode of the Asymptote Podcast, we explore the identities of translators and authors via an interview with translator Lawrence Schimel whose groundbreaking translation from the Spanish of Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda was recently reviewed on the Asymptote blog. (Obono is the first female author from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English.) Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James, returning from her sabbatical, sits down with Schimel in Madrid to discuss the challenges of translating this novel in the light of John Keene’s essay, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness.” We also delve into Schimel’s work at the helm of A Midsummer Night’s Press, the challenge of getting more female authors translated into English, and how to advocate for a more inclusive global literature.

Produced by:
Layla Benitez-James Featuring: Lawrence Schimel Music: Studio Mali – Wake Up – “It’s Africa Calling” by IntraHealth International. Creative Commons licenses can be found at http://freemusicarchive.org/. Some changes were made to these tracks. Photograph: Nieves Guerra

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

International literary news for an international audience.

Another week has flown by and we’re back again with the most exciting news in world literature! This time our editors focus on Central America, Germany, and Spain. 

José García Escobar, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Central America: 

Sadly, Centroamérica has been officially put on hold this year. After five years of unflagging work, the festival Centroamérica Cuenta, hosted each year across Nicaragua, has become the most significant and important literary gathering of the region, annually welcoming writers, journalists, filmmakers, editors, and translators from over thirty countries around the world. This year’s CC was scheduled to unfold May 21-25. However, since Nicaragua’s tense political situation that has taken the lives of so many civilians shows no signs of slowing down, the Centroamérica Cuenta committee has decided to suspend the festival until further notice.

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Translation Tuesday: Three Poems by Landa wo

What to do with these hands and these orphan caresses

This week we are proud to feature three poems by the Angolan-French poet Landa wo, in which he blends enquiries into human nature with nature itself, and transforms the silence and stillness of the world into the qualities of song. We hope you enjoy it, and don’t miss next week’s Translation Tuesday! 

Words

Let words burn
While saying the truth
For I, the poet,
I would not keep her on a leash.
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In Review: La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

This work remains both a feminine artifact and a testimony of a uniquely female experience.

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, takes place in the author’s native Equatorial Guinea, a relatively small country on the west coast of Africa that celebrates fifty years of independence from Spain this year. La Bastarda, the first novel by a female author from Equatorial Guinea translated to English, is a deceivingly simple story of a young girl, Okomo, who grows up in the country and defines her identity in the absence of a living mother and with a father who does not claim her. Told from the perspective of Okomo, the reader begins to understand the disjointed and complicated definition of family. She is raised by her grandmother, who is the first wife of Okomo’s polygamous grandfather, is told that her mother died in childbirth due to witchcraft, and that the father she has never met is a “scoundrel.” The novel depicts Okomo’s struggle with and escape from the confines of social convention in a story that teaches the often seemingly simple, yet difficult path to individual freedom. In addition, the work can be read as an allegory for the young nation separating from its colonial “parent” Spain, and Equatorial Guinea’s existential place as an orphan—culturally and geographically separated from Spain, Latin America, and Africa, and often ignored by an array of academic fields and global politics. In La Bastarda, we read Okomo’s coming-of-age story while also acquiring a great deal of understanding about the particularities of Spanish-speaking Africa.

Explicitly about overcoming traditional roles concerning gender and sexuality, La Bastarda makes a significant contribution to queer literary culture. The novel opens as Okomo’s grandfather, Osá, scolds her for persistently wishing to seek out her father and orders her to cut his toenails, a task that, according to her, “had hardened into my personal burden” (2). Through the metaphor of her grandfather’s toenails, Okomo reveals to the reader the gender hierarchy in her family, which belongs to the largest ethnic group in mainland Equatorial Guinea, the Fang people. These gendered roles continue as her grandfather explains that in Fang tradition your mother’s brother should take over the role as father in the absence of the biological one. However, Okomo’s uncle, Marcelo, is dubbed a “man-woman” because he will not impregnate another woman and is rumored to have intimate relations with other men. While Okomo is the story’s protagonist and narrator, Marcelo is also the target of homophobia, revealing how the traditional gender roles as well as normative expectations regarding sexuality in the novel affect both men and women. Okomo’s grandmother, complicit in the perpetuation of patriarchal tradition and female subjugation, constantly berates her for not already having found a male suitor because, according to tradition, a young girl’s most important goal is to catch a husband and start a family. Her grandmother always warns, “I don’t want you to make the same mistake as your mother. She never learned a woman’s place in Fang tradition. She lived much too freely” (4). In these first few pages, Okomo summons the reader into a suffocating patriarchal and heteronormative Fang community.

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Translation Tuesday: “Inventory for After the War” by Raquel Rivas Rojas

"One day the treasures will be exchanged for food."

Our showcase this week is a short story by Raquel Rivas Rojas, a writer who masterfully stretches the limits of language to catalogue what is left of life in the aftermath of an atrocity. 

“Inventory for After the War” by Raquel Rivas Rojas

For Gina Saraceni

To fight against death in the open air, in the midst of the ruins of a war that has just ended or that continues somewhere else.

The noises of the far-off war that advances or that retreats.

The animals that surround us. Birds of prey, wild dogs, rats, winged insects. Caymans in the rivers. Venomous snakes under the stones and the sticks.

Rags. Old cloths are used on top of one another. The oldest cloths disintegrate and fall apart by themselves, into pieces. The loose strips are lifted at times in the breeze.

The smell of burning. Always and everything smells of burning. Until it rains. Then it smells of soaked ashes and running blood.

The earth roads. Dusty or muddy. Walking on them is always torture. They don’t seem to lead anywhere. And yet, sometimes, a ruin is crossed by on the way.

Bare feet. Nobody has shoes any more. There are some thick rags left that are tied with other rags. And then, always and without fail, bare feet.

The absence of desire beside the surprising and sudden shock of desire.

Hunger. Guts filled with air. The air that circulates round the empty guts producing an uprooted pain. A pain that starts in the gums and ends in the anus. A pain that is prolonged outside as you urinate three drops and expel droppings as hard as stone.

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