Posts filed under 'words without borders'

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Join as us we celebrate indigenous writers, intercultural connection, and the importance of linguistic diversity.

This week, we return with three dispatches exploring multicultural and multilingual connection. We begin with a reflection on the work of Humberto Ak’abal, an influential Indigenous poet who wrote in both K’iche’ Maya and Spanish. We also explore the multilayered dialogue between China and New York in the Hong Kong literary scene, and get an exciting firsthand account of the recent Creative Multilingualism conference in the UK.

 Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-at-Large, reporting from Guatemala

As declared by the United Nations, 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. According to their website, of the 7,000 languages currently spoken on the planet, over 2,500 are currently endangered. In Mexico, the rest of Latin America, and around the world, many hope this global recognition will lead to wider acceptance of Indigenous languages, as well as to increased opportunities for their oral and written expression.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

Keep up with our staff's impressive literary news as the summer comes to a close!

As we celebrate Asymptote‘s 30 issues in September, join us in congratulating our team members who also kept themselves busy with spreading our love of translation and literature. Take a look at this list and see where else we are bringing you the latest and the best of the literary world.

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow has released a new collection of poetry, Appetites, with MadHat Press.

Drama Editor Caridad Svich received the 2018 Ellen Stewart Award for Career Achievement in Professional Theatre from ATHE (Association of Theatre in Higher Education), and she has also been awarded a Tanne Foundation Award.

Assistant Interviews Editor Claire Jacobson had her translation of a short story by Mortada Gzar published by Words Without Borders.

Contributing Editor Ellen Elias-Bursac will participate in the Boston Translators Group’s (aka Dolet’s) International Translation Day/Month on 27 September at Cambridge Public Library.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week, our editors bring you the literary news from Egypt, Poland, and the UK.

Solidly into the hustle and bustle of December, we are back with more updates from around the world. Omar El Adl shares the latest in film and academia from Egypt. We learn about the happenings on the Polish literary scene from Julia Sherwood. Finally, Cassie Lawrence updates us on recent literary prizes and a new publisher in the UK.

Omar El Adl, Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Egypt:

The Townhouse Gallery is hosting an event titled Mise.en.scène on the representation of women and the main female characters in author Ehsan Abdel Qudoos’s work, through the screening of films based on his writings. The event took place over two days, December 5 and 6. The first day featured a screening of Henry Barakat’s Thin Thread, followed by a conversation with women’s rights advocate Doaa Abdelaal. On the second day, there was a screening of I Am Free by Salah Abu Seif, followed by a conversation with Arabic literature professor Samia Mehrez, moderated by Nour El Safoury.

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Jill Schoolman Honored at the Glamorous WWB Gala

Young people are being told that America comes first. I think we are here tonight because we believe otherwise and because we read otherwise.

The annual Words Without Borders gala celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature on November 1, named for the first chair of the board, Jim Ottaway. This year, the award honored Jill Schoolman, publisher of Archipelago Books. Archipelago has been a stalwart of the small but dedicated cohort of advocates for international literature in the U.S. since Jill founded the house in 2003—the same year Words Without Borders was created. In her humble, sincere acceptance speech, she told the room full of publishers, writers, translators, educators, and philanthropists, “I’ve felt a special kinship with WWB from the beginning. We created ourselves around the same time for many of the same reasons… Books that Archipelago publishes allow us to lose ourselves in other cultures and explore other worlds. It is our extraordinary translators who guide us through those worlds. We are extremely lucky to be working with such talented translators who are able to make books come alive for us, in both language and spirit. This wonderful award also belongs to them, too.”

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

From launching journals to winning literary prizes, our team has had a wonderful month!

Incoming Communications Manager Alexander Dickow has recently received tenure from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech. He currently serves as Assistant Professor of French.

Spanish Social Media Manager Arthur Dixon has launched the second issue of Latin American Literature Today, a new journal where he serves as Managing Editor and Translator.

Drama Editor Caridad Svich has been named one of 2017’s O’Neill Finalists at the National Playwrights Conference for her play, Town Hall.

Romania and Moldova Editor-at-Large Chris Tanasescu (MARGENTO) has launched a book titled poetryartexchange, co-authored with 8 other British and Romanian poets and artists, at the Birmingham Literary Festival. The project is a collaboration between University of Bucharest Press and Centrala, and will see more events in London and Birmingham in May through early June.

Contributing Editor Ellen Elias-Bursac will speak alongside poets Athena Farrokhzad and Noemi Jaffe, and fellow translators Jennifer Hayashida and Julia Sanches, on a panel entitled ‘Corrosive Power’ at PEN America’s World Voices Festival.

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Todd Portnowitz on Music, Language, and Italian Literature

Ultimately I end up translating most of what I write into Italian, as a way of workshopping my own writing.

Todd Portnowitz is a poet and translator from the Italian, and the recipient of the 2015 Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets which allowed him to translate the work of Pierluigi Cappello (featured in the Asymptote Winter 2015 issue). In this interview, he converses with our Educational Arm Assistant, Anna Aresi, about how his love for language and music converge in the writing of poetry and how speaking a foreign language can make you a better poet.

The following interview was conducted via email and over Skype.

Anna Aresi (AA): You work as a translator, poet, editor, and musician. I was wondering how all these are related for you, especially if and how your work as a musician affects your writing.

Todd Portnowitz (TP): My sense of music determines my syntax, where I choose to break a line, what vocabulary I use—sometimes I grope for a word by its syllable count or shape. This is particularly useful in translations of poetry, where a definite syntax and vocabulary are already there before me in the original text and hunting for the right words and rhythms is the central activity. Writing poems, translating poems, editing poems—all are an art of decision making, and music best informs those decisions. What a writer has read of others’ work, her knowledge of cultures, histories, languages, politics, family, love, death, faith, all of that comes to a terminus in the language, the sequence of words chosen—music best reflects the sum of that knowledge in verse.

Apollo could slay/flay on the lyre for good reason. Not every poet has to also be a musician, but a poet with an untrained ear, with no cultivated sense of phrasing or meter, is like a basketball player who has never practiced dribbling: able to shoot, but immobile.

AA:  What sparked your interest for Italian literature? What has your journey been like?

TP: My interest in Italian literature began with an interest in the Italian language. I took Italian 101 my sophomore year of college, and the language made immediate sense to me, most of all the pronunciation: the purity and regularity of the vowels, the value of every consonant on the page (penne [pens] is by no means pene [penis]). I was writing songs and singing for a band at the time and Italian expanded my cultural knowledge, my linguistic knowledge (in English as well, because of the Latin roots), my historical knowledge—all of which helped with lyric writing—while also challenging my vocal abilities, cleaning up my vowels, forcing me to roll my r’s and make whatever you want to call the sound that “gn” makes (as in gnocchi). It was fun, in other words. After a study-abroad in Italy, the decision to stick with Italian got easier. I got a minor in Italian and took as many classes as I could. When I graduated, the department named me Italian Graduate of the Year—one of those awards that might look banal on a CV but that has since determined the course of my life. Maybe this is what I’m best at, I started thinking. READ MORE…

The Words Without Borders Gala was Honestly Heartwarming

I can’t quite remember what American writing was like before Words Without Borders—it was a dark and domestic place.

This Tuesday evening marked one of the most important nights for international literature in New York (which are few and far between), and what a star-studded, city-lit affair it was. The annual Words Without Borders Gala at the spacious TriBeCa Three Sixty kicked off with a cocktail hour featuring surround views of the Manhattan skyline, reunions of old friends and co-translators, and plenty of champagne-fueled gossip. I was feeling a bit out of place (unpublished, fluent enough in just one foreign language) and wary of the champagne (knowing I might need to form complete sentences in front of Edith Grossman later).

But the atmosphere overall was decidedly celebratory. When I chatted with Words Without Borders’s founding chairperson, the retired newspaper man Jim Ottaway, we noted that perhaps this air of goodwill reflects how literature in translation is motivated more by passion than profit—there was no business to be done, no egos in the room. Translators and the community that supports them are all rooting for a common cause. “I suppose it is a nonprofit,” I said of the organization. “Very nonprofit-y,” Mr. Ottaway agreed, surveying the room.

The gala is known for being a who’s who of writers, translators, and publishing bigwigs. Everyone mingled in the rare, low-pressure environment to celebrate the online magazine that put literature from elsewhere on the United States’ map for the first time, at least in a consistent and visible way. As acclaimed translator Susan Bernofsky put it to me, “Words Without Borders has been the pioneer of this kind of publishing—it sort of gave rise to all these other great journals and now there’s a whole fantastic landscape, which I’m really happy about.”

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WWB translators reading poetry both in the original language and in English for the guests

Throughout the cocktail portion, groups of guests taking advantage of the unusually formal occasion, by publishing standards, to dress in understated black ensembles and sensible heels posed for photos in front of a red-carpet-style, Words Without Borders backdrop. Calls of “how have you been?” bounced off the floor-to-ceiling windows as familiar faces caught sight of more familiar faces, reinforcing the completely true notion that everyone in publishing—especially of translated literature—knows each other. Refined cheek pecks were quickly followed by earnest probes of “what are you working on now?” in keeping with the crowd. We all wanted to know what we had to look forward to next season or next year. María José Jiménez told WWB Communications Coordinator Savannah Whiting about translating a novel by Uruguayan writer Rafael Courtoisie with Anna Rosenwong. Ms. Bernofsky had just turned in a new Jenny Erpenbeck translation the day before. Natasha Wimmer and agent Cristóbal Pera chattered in Spanish about the Wimmer’s current project—translating El Comensal by Grabriela Ybarra, which is also in development for a film, according to Pera. I felt very excited and also as if I were just assigned a lot of homework—a feeling familiar to any avid reader.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest in literary news from Africa and North America

As the week comes to a close, we’ve been busy reading and re-reading the Fall 2016 issue of Asymptote, while trying to escape the fact that November is nearly upon us. This week, we hear from Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large based in South Africa, who shares the details of the literary awards season from across the continent. We visit Editor-at-Large Marc Charron in Canada next, before heading south to catch up with Blog Editor Nina Sparling in New York City. 

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large in South Africa, sets us afloat with a whirlwind literary tour of the continent:

After peaking in the polls but missing out on the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, author of Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature and In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir, was subsequently awarded the prestigious Pak Kyong-ni Literature Award by the South Korean Toji Cultural Foundation. Thiong’o, a champion of African literature(s), has produced novels, plays, short stories, and essays, publishing primarily in the Gikuyu language.

In West Africa, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim won the Nigeria Prize for Literature for Season of Crimson Blossoms, which explores sexuality, loss, and community through an affair between a twenty-five-year-old street gang leader and a devout widow and grandmother. Shortlisted candidates included Elnathan John (Born on a Tuesday) and Asymptote-featured writer Chika Unigwe (Night Dancer).

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Zambia, South Africa, Czechia, Singapore and the 82nd PEN International Congress

All aboard the Asymptote Express, first stop: Zambia! Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reports on the latest literary events, and then takes us to the PEN International Congress in Spain and to South Africa, where the defense of freedom of expression is the issue of the hour. From Czechia, Editor-at-Large Julia Sherwood notes the most recent publications and endeavors to widen the readership of Czech literature, and from Singapore, Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek gives us the rundown on awards, festivals, and funding concerns. Enjoy the ride!

Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reports from Zambia, South Africa, and the 82nd PEN International Congress:

Zambia’s inaugural Tilembe Literary Festival took place over three days last week in the country’s capital, Lusaka. The festival theme was “Celebrating the Art of the Liberation Struggle”, inspired by a quote from South Africa’s poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile: “In a situation of oppression, there are no choices beyond didactic writing: either you are a tool of oppression or an instrument of liberation.” The festival’s headline guest, Malawian Shadreck Chikoti, explores this theme in his work in both English and Chichewa.

The theme of protest writing and writing in protest was also on the agenda at the 82nd PEN International Congress, which began on September 29 in Ourense, Spain and brought together over 200 writers and PEN members from around the world. PEN South Africa and PEN Mexico proposed a change to the PEN Charter that would build on the initial mandate to help dispel race, class, and national prejudices. The amendment calls to dispel discrimination based on religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation. PEN South Africa also submitted a resolution, seconded by PEN Uganda, for Egyptian government to free writers and activists detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression, guarantee the independence of the Egyptian Writers Union and Egyptian Journalist’s Syndicate, and repeal certain restrictive laws. Speaking about this year’s congress, PEN International President Jennifer Clement quoted former President Arthur Miller: “When political people have finished with repression and violence, PEN can indeed be forgotten.”

In South Africa, student protests over the right to free tertiary education and a decolonialized academic programme continue. A list of books inspiring the various student movements has been circulated online. Prominent authors include Steve Biko, Franz Fanon, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Meanwhile, the launch of Amagama eNkululeko! Words for freedom: Writing life under Apartheid will take place next week in Johannesburg. An anthology of short fiction, poetry, narrative journalism, and extracts from novels and memoirs, the book features writers like Nat Nakasa and RRR Dhlomo and aims to highlight local literature as a way to engage with South Africa’s past. In the foreword, author Zakes Mda offers the adage, “you will not know where you are going unless you know where you come from”, and urges the reader to keep a record of the present since “[t]here is a writer, or at least a storyteller, in all of us”.

Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood has literary updates from Czechia:

In December 2014, Prague joined UNESCO’s Creative Cities network as one of eleven “Cities of Literature.” The city’s Municipal Library, which also offers residencies for translators and writers, has since organised several street projects as part of the initiative. One of the first beneficiaries, English author Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent), is currently working on a modern gothic novel set in Prague. Not everyone is convinced of the program’s merits, however. Writer Ivana Myšková, who resigned after a year on the project team, explained in the literary journal Host that without proper planning and coordination, it may “remain an end in itself, an empty political gesture”.

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What’s New With the Asymptote Team

We've been keeping busy!

Contributing Editor Anthony Shugaar has been shortlisted for the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA)’s Italian Prose in Translation Award 2016. The winner will be announced at ALTA’s annual conference in Oakland from October 6 to October 9.

Contributing Editor Ellen Elias-Bursac’s new co-translation of Noemi Jaffe’s novel from the Portuguese, What Are The Blind Men Dreaming?, was published on September 20 by Deep Vellum and featured in Words Without Borders’ watch list for the month.

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones spoke at the British Library’s annual International Translation Day event. She and fellow panellists Simon Coffey, Elin Jones, and Fiona Sampson responded to the question, ‘What does multilingual creativity mean for translators?’ and Ellen discussed her experiences editing Asymptote’s Special Features on Multilingual Writing in 2015 and 2016, as well as her own research.

Commissioning Editor J.S. Tennant was interviewed for The Guardian’s recent feature on Fiction in Translation, on the state of world literature and translated book sales in the UK.

Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood’s new co-translation of Uršuľa Kovalyk’s novel The Equestrienne will be launched on October 6 at Waterstones Piccadilly in London.

Editor-at-Large for the UK Megan Bradshaw, who organized Asymptote’s International Translation Day celebration in London last week, will be chairing a conversation with the prolific Japanese author and translator Mitsuyo Kakuta on October 26 at the Japan Foundation in London.

Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter’s new translation of the Spanish poet Benito del Pliego’s collection Fábula/Fable (bilingual edition, Díaz Grey Editores) launched at a McNally Jackson event in New York on September 16.

Finally, Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek’s essay on writing about history and difference in poetry was published by The Lonely Crowd on September 25. Some of his poems were published in the latest issues of The London Magazine and The North.

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Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

Translation is really something other than a striving for vague perfection.

Our resident translation expert, writer, and jack-of-all-trades, Daniel Hahn, is back to respond to reader questions on the fine art of translation. Today’s question comes from Lin Chia Wei, a reader in Taiwan. Anddon’t miss our first-ever “Ask a Translator” live event with Daniel Hahn in London on Wednesday, July 20 (RSVP at or invite your friends to the Facebook event page here).

Is there anything that is completely untranslatable, in your opinion?

Everything is untranslatable, that’s what I think.

Or alternatively, I think that nothing is.

And honestly, I’m perfectly comfortable with either of those ideas; both make sense to me. I’m not altogether comfortable, however, with the idea behind the question itself.

There are certain components to a text that are likely to present particular challenges to a translator (I talked about these in last month’s column), things that feel like absolute impossibilities. And conversely there are moments when you’re translating and a clever solution presents itself, or when a new voice you’re creating comes into focus, and the sheer rightness seems miraculous, the fact of it being so very possible feels exhilarating. But these experiences, and the question, would seem to suggest a simple binarytranslatable / not translatablewhich is misleading. Translation is all failure, because it’s never “perfect”; and it is all also, simultaneously, a triumph, because however imperfectly something living has been created out of the most unlikely circumstances.

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From the 2014 “Words Without Borders” Gala

On education initiatives, honoring Carol Brown Janeway, and who owns the English language at this remarkable annual event

On October 28, a crowd of more than 200 came out for Words Without Borders’ annual gala to celebrate the publication’s 11-year history of publishing and promoting international literature.

With a crowd from across the New York literary world, the evening was hosted by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. True to Words Without Borders form, the evening featured bilingual readings in English and from Belarusian, Chinese, and Sinhala by Valzhyna Mort, Yiyun Li, and Ru Freeman.

Emphasizing the importance of translation to cultivate conversation across time and place, Li read two poems from Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, herself under house arrest. Freeman drew a parallel between translation and the Sistine Chapel, suggesting translation is like Michelangelo’s depiction of the hands of God and Saint Michael, not quite touching yet still beautiful. READ MORE…

From the Front Lines of AWP: A Dispatch

Managing editor Tara FitzGerald on meeting the Asymptote community at this year's AWP!

I’d been warned (in jest) about the rain, but the first day of AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) in Seattle dawned bright and clear, and the weather stayed that way throughout my stay. Not that it would have mattered anyway, because my home away from home was the Asymptote table at the AWP book fair, which was safely tucked away inside the Washington State Convention Center. Thousands of writers had gathered at this convention center to hobnob, talk craft, and attend panels during three days of intense book-related activities. From my vantage point at our table, I had the chance to meet around 250 AWP-ers—some of them Asymptote contributors, some editors from other journals, some already our fans, and others simply curious about the journal and what we do here. It was also exciting to hear that at least a handful of them found out about us because they had attended a panel where we were mentioned as the go-to place for international literature.

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Cuban Literature, Translation, and Baseball with Leonardo Padura

"What I say here in Brooklyn is exactly what I say in Havana.”

As the diplomatic stand-off between the United States and Cuba reaches its fifty-fifth year, an anxious audience packed into 61 Local in Brooklyn, New York to hear from Cuban writer Leonard Padura and his translator, Anna Kushner.

Online translation journal Words Without Borders gathered Padura, Kushner, and writer-editor Jonathan Blitzer to discuss the recently released Padura novel The Man Who Loved Dogs (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux 2013), translated by Kushner. The evening included a reading by Padura in the original Spanish, followed by Kushner reading the same passage in English. READ MORE…