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.
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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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…
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.
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.”
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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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
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.
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!
Let words burn
While saying the truth
For I, the poet,
I would not keep her on a leash.
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.
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.
Len Rix is best known for translating Antal Szerb’s works into English: Journey by Moonlight has been a long-time favourite, reissued many times. In recent years, Len translated Magda Szabó’s The Door and Katalin Street, both poignant novels about memory, integrity and the way history intrudes into the private realm. In February this year, he was awarded the PEN America Translation Award for Katalin Street. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large Diána Vonnák asked him about his remarkable journey to the Hungarian language, his thoughts on Szerb and Szabó, and the translator’s craft.
Diána Vonnák (DV): Not that many people take it upon themselves to translate from Hungarian without family roots or some other connection. One of them is Ottilie Mulzet, who says Hungarian is “like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.” What was it about the language that made you choose it? Do you agree with Mulzet and her emphasis on elasticity?
Len Rix (LR): It was initially the sheer sound that drew me to it, so strange and beautiful, with its soft and alluring vowels and diphthongs that simply do not exist in English, and its musical spoken rhythms. Then it became the elaborate and rigorously logical grammar, with its agglutinative case endings and “reversed” word order that drew me on. And all those wonderful new words!
This “elasticity” is partly to do with the age and historic isolation of the language, which have both acted to keep the case-endings and other suffixes intact. Old English and Anglo-Saxon were similarly agglutinative until the Nordic invaders arrived. They shared the same (Germanic) root words but had evolved different endings, which were soon set aside. Cut off from its Finno-Ugric cousins, Hungarian missed out on that. The one language to which it was exposed down the centuries, Latin, would have done nothing to diminish its tendency to ramify endlessly. Cicero’s “periodic” sentences can equal the best of Krasznahorkai. There is one in his Pro Milone, as I recall, that runs to fifty-seven lines of close print without a full stop.
“A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader,” Vladimir Nabokov reminds us in his article “Good Readers and Good Writers”. There are so many books in this world, and unless your life revolves solely around books, it might be hard to be widely read and an active re-reader. Attaining this level of perfection that Nabokov describes is impossible, but the idea of re-reading as a tool to better understanding the value of a book underpins the philosophy of the Man Booker Prize International’s judging panel since its inception.