Translations

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Bringing this week's greatest hits from the four corners of the literary globe!

We’re back with another round of exciting literary news from around the globe. This week’s dispatches take us to El Salvador, South Africa, and Tunisia. 

Nestor Gomez, Editor-at-Large, reporting from El Salvador:

It was announced in early June that Centroamerica Cuenta awarded writer and LGBT+ activist Alejandro Córdova the 6th annual Central American Prize for the Short Story. At 24 years old, Córdova is the first Salvadoran to win the prize for the Central American region. His short story “Lugares Comunes” (“Common Places”) took him 2 years to finish and is narrated from the perspective of a son attempting to reconstruct the events of how his parents met during the Salvadoran Civil War. Córdova was born just at the end of the war but commented in an interview with InformaTVX that fiction was a marvelous way of trying to comprehend a history that was not his. Córdova also comments on the status of Salvadoran literature and how it is alive and well, not necessarily because of support from the state or from various literary circles, but due to the collective suffering of a complex society in El Salvador. Those complexities can be seen in the country’s literature, which Córdova likens to a strange flower born in the desert, a type of rarity that makes Salvadoran literature even more alluring than other Central American regions.

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Translation Tuesday: “The End of Summer” by Zoran Pilić

Goodbye, Lucky, goodbye, my dear friend, I told myself, I’ll avenge you, sooner or later.

Today’s translation continues the theme of childhood we’ve had for several Tuesdays now. Zoran Pilić’s story depicts a young man struggling with how to emulate masculinity: admiring the great male chess champions, trying to build the biggest biceps, competing for the affections of a woman. And the memory of a beloved pig, a sacrificial animal whose fate echoes tragically in the conclusion. For more stories that explore the conflicts of childhood, check out the fiction from the Spring 2018 issue of Asymptote.

I loved that pig. Unlike all other pigs that I’ve seen until and since then, Lucky had that something—personality. In the late, late fall of 1975, Misho and I were chopping pumpkins, and Lucky watched us from his pigsty, grunting with satisfaction.

I know that’s for me, as if he wanted to say, there’s no one else here, oink-oink-oink!

“What are you doing?” my old man asked as he walked by distributing tobacco on his rolling paper.

“Chopping pumpkins,” I said. “For Lucky’s breakfast.”

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Translation Tuesday: “The Classmate” by Elsa Morante

Our classmate was so indulged by nature that none of us doubted that he was so treated by fortune.

This Translation Tuesday, we continue to showcase the theme of childhood, this time through a story from 1940’s Italy about the ways that children form their own narratives about their peers. The quiet intensity of Elsa Morante’s “The Classmate” gives us a compelling glimpse of the disruption of such narratives. Be sure to also check out the Spring 2018 Fiction section, which also explores childhood. Robert Walser, Joanna Bator, and Jacques Fux, for example, all consider the formative nature of childhood memory (or lack thereof) on identity. 

I was a boy of thirteen, a student in junior high school: among my many classmates, most of whom were neither particularly beautiful nor ugly, there was one who was extremely handsome.

He was too rebellious and lazy to be the first in the class, but everyone knew that even the slightest of effort on his part would have been enough to make him so. None us demonstrated an intellect like his, so limpid and fortunate. I was the first in the class; I had a poetic disposition and, at the thought of my classmate, I had the idea of calling him Arcangelo.

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Translation Tuesday: ‘Moss’ by Julia Fiedorczuk

I shall have to overcome the vanity, the applause, my own self, and measure up to life—measure up to death.

Much of the prose in Asymptote‘s Spring 2018 fiction section (especially Jon Fosse’s Scenes from a Childhood) includes keenly observed sketches from childhood. This Tuesday, we bring you a piece from Poland that continues that theme. In Julia Fiedorczuk’s ‘Moss’, the narrator’s recollections of her grandmother are a powerful evocation of a child’s experience through the grown-up’s consciousness. And fair warning: you’re probably gonna shed a tear or two when you get to the last line.

But I’m still a child, then, who doesn’t know how to read yet.

I’m five, maybe six years old, in a purple flannel dress with little green roses. That child’s thin legs are sticking out from under the dress. Scratched and bruised like seventy sorrows. I’m sitting on a high stool in front of a mirror, legs dangling in mid-air. She’s standing behind me. Brushing my hair. I have long hair, the colour of ripe corn. Fine hair; it won’t survive adolescence: it’ll have to be cut when I hit fifteen.

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Translation Tuesday: Three Poems by Tahir Hamut

She walks along. She stops for a moment. / Like a small burning tree.

Tahir Hamut grew up in Kashgar, an ancient city in the southwest corner of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The city of Kashgar—its fierce local pride, its layout, its customs, and its slang—has been a persistent theme in his three decades of poetic work. The three poems included here, though, were written in the three other cities of Tahir Hamut’s life, each of them a capital city: Beijing, where he completed college and worked for several years as a young man; Ürümchi, Xinjiang’s capital, where he worked as a film director for nearly two decades; and Washington, DC, where he moved with his family last year amidst deteriorating conditions in Xinjiang.

While the young poet of “Her” (1993) speaks of aging and darkness, his tone is relaxed and relatively light. The poem’s unadorned style and syntax are typical of Tahir’s work from his Beijing period. More than two decades later, “Body” (2016, Ürümchi) and “What Is It” (2017, Washington) are more complex on both a stylistic and an emotional level; more troubled, too, with an insistent sense of motion. If “Her” is a moment in a young man’s private life, the two later poems are the collision of private life with forces beyond an individual’s power to control. In “Body” and “What Is It,” Kashgar and the world of Tahir’s youth are distant in time and space; but that deeply felt distance shapes the world of these poems.

—Joshua L. Freeman

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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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Translation Tuesday: “Provided we have a soul” by Zsuzsa Takács

We stand under the surveillance / cameras with a starved look, but will not eat.

Jelenkor is one of the most prestigious literary journals in Hungary. As often happens with small languages, literary prestige does not quite translate to a very wide reach: apart from the print version, Jelenkor‘s poems and short stories are read by a few hundred people at best. As the end of 2017 was approaching, journalist Péter Urfi set out to find the closest Hungarian equivalent to the success of “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian’s short story that took the internet by surprise. To Urfi’s astonishment, the winner was not only a poem instead of prose, it was not written by a writer with a significant online presence. It was Zsuzsa Takács’s “Provided we have a soul,” published in Jelenkor. More than 70,000 people read the poem and over 1,200 liked it without any significant publicity effort. The humanism, measured dignity, and accuracy of the poem might account for some of this popularity. It also speaks of the frustration many feel at the gradual, relentless dismantling of democratic institutions in the country, at once experiencing it and able to adopt the slight condescension of the token catastrophe tourist. Ultimately it is not incredibly important to pin down the reasons, as resonance is an elusive matter. The sheer power of the poem shall speak for itself.

Provided we have a soul

He’s not known to have one shape. That’s the rub.
Can we trust the one who keeps constantly changing
his appearance—Blind Hope? Now a beggar
on the corner, now a young woman, the servant who
follows her masters to Auschwitz, the Danube
Delta, Vorkuta, serving them even there: digging
up with her bare nails the roots from under
the snow, or scavenging in the dumpsters
for them. A decrepit old man telling stories to keep
our body and soul together, provided we have
a soul, and are not copulating animals only.

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Translation Tuesday: The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Manai

His girls. That’s how he referred to his bees.

Yamen Manai’s prose is simple and accessible—he isn’t trying to seduce or impress the reader. He is telling a story that is both important and funny, and he wants to make sure it is understood. That story being post-Jasmine Revolution Tunisia, after the autocratic President Ben Ali has been ousted and the Western spotlight has faded. The initial euphoria of the revolution has long been replaced by frustration, resignation, and indifference as Islamists and secularists vie for leadership of the nation. Manai tells the story through the eyes of one man—Sidi, the hermetic beekeeper of the village of Nawa, whose cherished honey bees are attacked by a swarm of fanatical hornets bent on murder. This kingdom of bees serves as an unexpected but clear stand-in for the political instability that plagued (and continues to plague) Tunisia after 2011. Manai draws on Tunisian oral tradition to construct this ecological allegory, portraying the Nawa villagers (the Nawis) as a chorus voicing their surprise and skepticism at the changing times.

—Lara Vergnaud

Everyone knew that Sidi would give his life for his girls, and do so without the slightest hesitation. His love for them rendered him capable of anything. Hadn’t he devoted his life to them, building them citadel upon citadel? Hadn’t he confronted a Numidian bear just to bring them the most beautiful flowers? Hadn’t he defied princes and left lovers to dedicate himself entirely to them? And so, when the news that hundreds of them had died under troubling circumstances spread from mouth to mouth, a response seemed inevitable.

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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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Translation Tuesday: “English Lessons” by Mónica Lavín

"Stepping into the United States was stepping into order and cleanliness, Patricia always thought."

This Tuesday brings us a story that straddles the US-Mexico border. In Mónica Lavín’s “English Lessons,” a Mexican woman travels to San Diego for an all-too-brief reunion with her brother. Her notions of America, a “better world” glimpsed in the Dick and Jane stories from her childhood, are upended in an unexpected, heartrending manner. 

For more great short works like this, check out the fiction section and special Korean literature feature in the Spring 2018 issue of Asymptote.

English Lessons

Stepping into the United States was stepping into order and cleanliness, Patricia always thought. A sense of well-being settled in her chest when she crossed the border. It was like entering a story, a fiction, proof that a better world existed. Like the world her first grade English books had shown: the house with a garden, the family with a dog named Spot and a cat called Puff. Sally, Dick and Jane played with a “red wagon.”  “Red” was rojo, “wagon” carretilla? She’d never seen one except in the color illustrations of those books. The mother called them in to dinner, with her styled hair, her big smile and an apron over her full-skirted dress. Not that Patricia wasn’t critical of many things about the gringo lifestyle—their detachment from family life and excessive practicality, their sense of being the center of the world. But in her experience, U.S. highways had no potholes, there were fewer rattletrap cars, and San Diego’s landscaped roundabouts were a pleasure to see. She suspected her idea was childish, so it was a conception she didn’t dare confess. Certainly, after standing in the tedious line, and feeling like a convict when the guard took her papers and examined her, knowing she was safely “on the other side” made her breathe more calmly. She anticipated enjoying this trip especially because she’d visit her friend Laura in California, and her brother Daniel was also coming to San Diego for two days. They hadn’t planned it, but it was a happy coincidence. He lived in Guadalajara, further from the border, loved and knew San Diego. He’d promised to take her for a drink at the Hyatt at sundown to see the bay. And she would accompany him on his mission to buy household goods: sheets, towels, kitchen things, placemats for his bachelor breakfast table. She liked his attitude, how he was determined to make a pleasant abode for himself, treating it as a new project to be enthusiastic about, instead of being depressed by his divorce.

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Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from Darkness and Company by Sigitas Parulskis

Photography can do that—it can show us what an object really is. Photography is not just the object itself; it is always above it, beyond it.

This week we bring you a final installation of our series featuring Lithuanian writers inspired not only by these excellent writers, but because the Baltic countries are is this year’s Market Focus at the London Book Fair.

This excerpt of Darkness and Company is by the prolific Sigitas Parulskis. With a healthy sampling of Plato, this piece explores questions of photography, truth, and beauty as a young photographer goes in search of the perfect light to capture a horrific scene of violence and death during the Holocaust. The jarring and unsettling nature of this piece gives us a taste for the rest of Darkness and Company and reveals an incredibly talented writer. 

This showcase is made possible by Lithuanian Culture Institute.

The word ‘angel’ was scrawled on the blackboard in chalk. The rest of the sentence had been erased. Angel of vengeance, angel of redemption—it could have been either one.

He got up quietly so as not to awaken the other men and went out into the yard. He couldn’t see the guard, who was probably off dozing somewhere. The Germans were staying at the local police station; the brigade was sleeping in the town’s school. After a night of festivities at a local restaurant, most of the men were indistinguishable from the mattresses spread on the floor.

Vincentas stuffed his camera into his coat and headed off in the direction of the forest. He looked at his watch and saw that it was five in the morning. The sun was just coming up—the best time of the day if you wanted to catch the light. To capture the idea of light, as Gasparas would say. Where could he be now? Underground, probably; still wearing his thick-lensed glasses. Lying in the dark, trying to see the essence of things with his myopic eyes. His grey beard sticking up, his thin hair pressed to his forehead in a black band. Although short-sighted and ailing, he had been a strange and interesting person. His photography students called him by his first name, Gasparas. The photographer Gasparas. It was from Juozapas that Vincentas had first heard about photography, that miracle of light. While still a teenager he had read a few articles and a small book called The Amateur Photographer, and then, when he turned eighteen, he had bought his first camera, a used Kodak retina. But it didn’t go well, so he had found Gasparas. Without his thick-lensed glasses Gasparas couldn’t see a thing. He would take them off, look straight ahead with his strange, empty eyes and say, ‘Now I can see the real world.’

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Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from Silva Rerum by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė

"There was a desperate need for faith so that all this activity would really have some meaning."

For the second Translation Tuesday in a row, we are proudly featuring an author from Lithuania—not just for their excellent writers, but because the Baltic countries are is this year’s Market Focus at this year’s London Book Fair.

This excerpt is by one of the country’s most lauded authors, Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, from her four-part historical novel, Silva Rerum. The novel gives us a panoramic sweep of history from 1659 to 1795 in narrating the generations of a noble family, the Narwoyszes. In Lithuania, the series has been a literary sensation on the level of Knausgaard in Norway or Ferrante in Italy. This excerpt, a seriocomic episode about the death of a beloved cat, provides us with a taste of what Sabaliauskaitė’s talent has in store for the world. 

This showcase is made possible by Lithuanian Culture Institute.

On that hot July in the year of Our Lord 1659 Kazimierz and Urszula Narwoysz saw death for the first time. Even though death was all around them, the twins in the tenth year of their lives looked directly into its grey mutable face for the first time and that confrontation which lasted but a few moments, it could be said, decided their fate.

Everything had started several weeks before, when their beloved tabby Maurycy died, a well-fed creature, their companion from the cradle who, keeping his claws retracted, like a Stoic, suffered all their pranks with patience. Even their favourite prank where one of the twins would hold it tight, while the other pulled on its tail. Caught unawares, Maurycy obeyed nature and, forgetting the forgiveness of felines to small children, struggling fiercely, would scratch the one holding it. Most often it was Kazimierz who would feel the brunt, since it was Urszula who had the miraculous ability to put on an angelic face and ambush the cat by pulling on its tail; sometimes, amusing themselves, they would tie something that made a noise to its tail and wrap the unfortunate pet like a babe in swaddling clothes. The last time was when they took things too far: without anyone seeing them and exercising great caution they wrapped Maurycy up and changed their newborn sister lying in her cradle with him. The wet nurse, on seeing the cat wrapped up, began to scream in a voice not her own, while the twins fell around and shrieked with laughter, and later they themselves were screaming in voices not their own while being thrashed, this dangerous prank causing even Jan Maciej Narwoysz to lose his normally unshakeable patience.

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Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from Fishes and Dragons by Undinė Radzevičiūtė

"In China, even the elements in a landscape have their rank," thinks Castiglione.

On the occasion of the 2018 London Book Fair (April 10-12), in which the Baltic countries are this year’s Market Focus, this week’s Translation Tuesday brings us an unusual literary pleasure from Lithuania. 

Undinė Radzevičiūtė’s Fishes and Dragons entwines two separate stories. The first strand comprises an eighteenth-century encounter between East and West, in which the Jesuit father Castiglione attempts to impart Western art standards to a skeptical Chinese imperial court. The second part has a contemporary setting and involves the banter between three generations of women living in one apartment: Mama Nora, a writer of erotic novels, the old-fashioned Grandmother Amigorena, and two grandchildren. An altogether unpredictable masterpiece, Fishes and Dragons is a literary feast that we can’t wait to read in its entirety!

This showcase is made possible by the Lithuanian Culture Institute.

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Translation Tuesday: “Pyrotechnics” by Adriana Lisboa

A boy had a dream about fireworks.

In this piece by Adriana Lisboa that could be classified as micro-fiction or a prose poem, a reader discovers a poet who has transformed fireworks into words. Reminiscent of the Brazilian writer’s longer work, the piece plays with the possibilities of language and its sound in a way that is surprising to the reader. Enjoy! 

A boy had a dream about fireworks.

Years later, he found out that words sometimes formed verses. He became a poet and during his entire life he wanted to describe the itinerary of that dream from his childhood. He dug through dictionaries and discovered the possibility of creating hybrid images like mermaids or manticores. Verses that sounded like freshly brewed coffee, that corrupted like pure sugar-cane rum, that saved like a white lily.

Years later, he published his anthology of poems. The last one was called The Parallel Fires and it was the realization of his life project: fireworks transformed in verses.

Years later, a certain reader bought the anthology. When she was reading the last poem, she noticed that the words took on different colors and shone against the black background of the white page, obfuscating the stars, and impregnating the whole book with a discreet smell of gunpowder.

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