Paula Gordon is a freelance editor and translator of Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin based in Delaware. She has lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, working in the nonprofit sector as a translator, and on the staff of the Sarajevo Film Festival. Her translation of Ilija Đurović’s “Pod čistom podu” (“Across the Clean Floor”), in our Winter 2018 issue, is the very first translation from the Montenegrin to appear in Asymptote.
In her translator’s introduction, Gordon writes: “Many stories [by Đurović], but particularly this one, stand out for what remains unsaid as much as for what is spoken or described. “Across the Clean Floor” is told in the first person, but the narrator speaks tersely and dispassionately, leaving it to readers (should we be so inclined) to provide the backstory. It is as if we are observing a night in the life of this couple through a telephoto lens, or perhaps through a keyhole.”
Our interviews editor, Claire Jacobson, conducted this interview with Gordon.
Claire Jacobson (CJ): In your translator’s note, you talk about realizing that you were “filling in the gaps” in the narrative in English, and making changes (such as the tense) to your draft as a result. Where did you find yourself over-interpreting by translating, and how did you bring the piece back to its natural ambiguity?
Paula Gordon (PG): Interestingly, when I look back over my various drafts, I don’t find much proof in the text of what I said in my translator’s note. The biggest revision was in changing past tense to present fairly early on (and I tracked those changes, so I guess I wasn’t certain whether that would work or not).
We wrap up an exciting week for the Asymptote team—and for the book club in particular—with our weekly roundup of world literature. This week, Barbara Halla gives us the latest on authors and festivals in Albania and Kosovo, including Ismail Kadare, who was featured in the Winter 2018 issue. Cassie Lawrence explores the latest in British publishing, including an exciting diversity endeavor from Jacaranda Books. Finally, Kate Garrett shares the latest literary award winners in Australia. Enjoy a reading-filled weekend!
Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Albania and Kosovo
Kadare might have been snubbed for the Nobel Prize once more last year, but 2018 is going well for him already. We are barely two months in and Kadare is collecting prizes. In January, he won the Italian Nonino International Prize, whose previous winners include Claude Lévi-Strauss and V. S. Naipaul. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development launched its first literary prize as well, with Kadare’s The Traitor’s Niche making the inaugural shortlist. As if this weren’t enough, the English-speaking public will receive two new books by Kadare, both published in early 2018. A Girl in Exile (translated by John Hodgson) is both an adaptation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and a nostalgic look at Tirana during Communism. Restless Books, on the other hand, is issuing for the first time in English a collection of Kadare’s essays aptly titled Essays on World Literature: Aeschylus, Dante, and Shakespeare, translated by Ani Kokobobo. For those interested, an excerpt can be read in Asymptote’s latest issue.
This piece comes from a published collection of mostly short prose. Many of the stories draw on themes of childhood, memory, unrequited love, and inner conflict, often using strong imagery of hunger and smells. As a translator, what drew me to the stories was the author’s ability to take ordinary and daily experiences and display them in a way that is surreal or fantastical, with a focus on the physicality of our bodies and the objects around us—and to do it all in very short stories (100-150 words each). In this format the subtle differences in syntax and grammar between Greek and English become particularly pronounced. Foskolou often uses longer sentences with one or more dependent clauses, in a way that is not unusual in Greek but would sound awkward or wrong in English. Similarly, the author uses the Greek past imperfect tense to evoke a sense of time and events, and the emotions that surround these events, that is incomplete, deferred, imperfect. English does not have a past imperfect tense, forcing the translator to use other linguistic devices to create a similar effect.
Much of our Winter 2018 issue, from the poetry to the microfiction, shows a strongly surrealist bent; writers like Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine and Nina Iskrenko have an almost limitless capacity to juxtapose discordant words that come off like explosive charges. Against this backdrop, Paul Cunningham’s translations of Helena Österlund appear somewhat sparser, though no less jarring. Ôsterlund’s Words and Colors features a pared-down, repetitive voice, a movement through snowy woods, and a terrifying encounter with a sharp-toothed creature. For me, Words and Colors is reminiscent of Beckett’s How It Is, another work where the contours of individual identity seem to dissolve into a blind, frantic momentum through past, present and future.
Paul Cunningham’s work has been on my radar for some time: not only his translations but also his original writing and video art. In his translations, Cunningham tends to avoid domesticating the poems into a “natural-sounding” English, instead directly transferring the Swedish language’s natural use of compound words. Imagine if we spoke of the German Schadenfreude as “damagejoy” or Poltergeist as “crashghost,” and you might have an idea of the strange effects this can produce in English.
I am always interested in the origin stories of my fellow Scandinavian translators: how they became interested in the languages and their general translation philosophy. I was thrilled to be able to ask Paul a few questions about his previous translations of Sara Tuss Efrik, his video art, and his translation of Österlund’s Words and Colors in the Winter 2018 issue.
David Smith (DS): Your former MFA teacher, Johannes Göransson, has written of your translation approach: “Cunningham is not a Swede or a scholar of Swedish culture . . . he only has rudimentary knowledge of Sweden or Swedish, but uses his artistic instincts and dictionaries . . . His work evidences that rather than demanding some kind of scholarly mastery, sometimes translation demands fascination, interest, and a willingness to be vulnerable, to get it done without having legitimized status as Master.” This is beautifully put and intriguing on multiple levels. But I thought I’d start just by asking you to fill in your story a little. What was it that brought you to learn Swedish, specifically? And what was the “fascination and interest” that led you to literary translation?
To celebrate our seventh birthday here at Asymptote, the blog editors have chosen some of our favorite pieces from the Winter 2018 issue to showcase. This issue truly shines with a diversity of voices and literary styles, including a special feature on micro fiction, and it was such a pleasure for us to read through it. With work from thirty different countries, this issue has been gathered under the theme of “A Different Light.” Enjoy these highlights!
I’ve always admired Asymptote‘s advocacy for literatures that not only are underrepresented, but that take chances, resist easy reduction or interpretation by the reader. Poems that dare to be “the awkward spectacle of the untried move, not grace” (to borrow a phrase from American poet Don Byrd). Poets like Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine. The poems from Arachnid Sun shock me with their bold imagery, impelling me to read again and again. I latch on to certain repeated images: insect, illusion, blood. And definitely a noticeable theme of authoritarian rulers: “spider-eggs perfuming the silence the dictator” and “harpoon the king-shark who flees the riverbeds of polar scrubland.”