This week we are thrilled to celebrate women in translation by bringing you a heartbreaking story from Dutch writer Dieuwke van Turenhout. Beautifully translated by Michele Hutchison, this story makes use of the cycling tradition of the Netherlands to delve into one woman’s experience of loss.
Now autumn has shown its face, I bike to the shops every day. I’ve stopped keeping my bike at the back of the bike shed; it’s at the front of the garage now. I avoid the asphalt road and when I cross the ring road it’s as though I’m seeing my old self through the windscreens of the waiting cars. I dress for the autumn chill and each time I put on my coat I think about you, and about elephants. (You can’t really call it chilly, objectively speaking. The weatherman, the one you despise, with the bent back and the stupidly hip suits, keeps smiling and calling it wonderful weather, but what does he know? I shiver and even wear your scarf indoors sometimes.).
Tuesday was the first time there was a bit of rain, ‘real’ autumn. The oak trees and beeches along the canal shook their heads scornfully and punished me for going out by collecting big droplets and swishing them at the lenses of my glasses.
After Flavia Teoc took us to ancient Constantionople last week, I’m thrilled to present two microfictions by Turkish writer Muzzafer Kale. Deceptive in their outward simplicity, these perfectly poised stories hinge on the unsaid and work beautifully in English thanks to translator Ralph Hubbell’s precise language.
—Lee Yew Leong, Translation Tuesdays editor
I wasn’t from that mountain village.
What brought me there was work, and by work I mean looking at carpets and kilims. There were plenty of people from the village that I knew.
So we were sitting in the July heat, trying to cool ourselves off in the shade of a walnut tree—me, Ibrahim and Lazy-Eyed Salih.
That Salih, he was a cheerful one. He had a different way of looking at things. Leaping from one topic to the next, he talked of this, that and the other thing while we all laughed it up. These two friends of mine were good shots too. They were wagering who could hit a half-lira piece with a thirty-two caliber from forty meters away…
And then she appeared, with her donkeys, coming off the mountainside path. She’d loaded the animals piecemeal with some sagging goods, which swung all over the place.
We are thrilled to feature Flavia Teoc’s poetry for the first time on Translation Tuesday. Teoc’s lines visit Yerebatan—the magical site in Istanbul where the Basilica Cistern hides a special sighting of Medusa. Under the dim lights of Yerebatan, Teoc’s fragrant lines shine brighter.
More fragrant than the righteous ones perfect in all of their ways
Are the grapes slowly growing sour on a vendor stall in Yerebatan.
Under their cracked skin a sweet potion of sounds is distilled,
Memories from back when they were early sour berries or less,
An equal proportion mixture of screams from a woman flogged
Up against their vine, the bell of a leper who took shelter in the split leaves’
Shadow one late afternoon, and a stray dog’s quick nap nearby.
I’m telling you—
More fragrant are the grapes slowly growing sour on a vendor stall in Yerebatan,
For those perfect in all their ways will never touch them.
Our Summer 2018 issue launched a few days ago and it is filled with gems from around the world. This Translation Tuesday we bring you another fabulous translation from a language and country never before featured on the blog! Translator Mirgul Kali introduces us to the piece:
Kazakh writer Almaz Myrzakhmet’s brilliant prose is often described as detached, but this is the detachment of a sharp and skillful writer confident in his ability to lure an unsuspecting reader into his story and play with their mind. “The Notes of a Writer,” which follows a young author who is anguished by the visions of his own unwritten story, is both a puzzle and a taste of the joys and struggles of the creative process.
The most delightful and challenging moments in translating this short story concern the old Kazakh expressions which refer to images that might not be easily invoked in an English-language reader’s mind. Yet they offer a rare and intimate glimpse into the culture and history of the nomadic people who had for centuries roamed the steppes of Central Asia. The language of the Kazakhs, who bred horses, maintains that misery can be “the size of a long trough,” evoking an image of an old wooden tub filled with putrid water; that the laughter of happy lovers sounds like a “jingle of coins,” perhaps at a lively, colorful market in a town along the Silk Route; and that fear feels like “a snake coiled in your bosom.” You are invited to discover these expressions, scattered like vintage jewels throughout Myrzakhmet’s striking post-modernist story.
The sound of her heels—like a tongue clicking—would begin at the bottom of a staircase, eventually reach the brown door of my rental apartment on the third floor, reverberate weakly and pause. At this point, she would become unusually still as if she was holding her breath and listening. A moment later she should tap the door timidly with the tips of her fingers.
I would open the door immediately. Acting as if she came to her own place, she barely looked at me and walked in, grazing me with her shoulder. The usual moves. Her, glancing over a picture of a bear playing with cubs, listlessly flipping through scribbled pieces of paper on my desk, walking over to a window and looking out—these actions were her daily routine. A bed would squeak as she sat on it. I would lock the door and take a cigarette from the desk.
Full of dark humor and vibrant details, today’s Translation Tuesday, by Réka Mán-Várhegyi and translated by Owen Good, shows the inner workings of a Hungarian family. Dealing with obesity, sibling relationships, and emerging sexuality, this gripping story captures that uncomfortably liminal time known as adolescence.
‘It’ll be beach weather at the weekend,’ our mum squeaked. ‘Get your swimming costumes ready, we’re going to the lake. Dad, have you checked the batteries in the cooler bag? Does it still work? We’ll not miss it if we don’t buy a new one. No point in wasting money.’
Panni was staring at her hand. I was counting the strips in the rotting wainscot on the dining room wall. We didn’t put up any protest but we didn’t want to go to the lake and they knew it. We didn’t want to lie in the sun in swimsuits, we didn’t want to soak in the water, and, most of all, we didn’t want to gawp at jet-skis. Every summer, jet-skis tore up and down the puddle-sized lake with pornstar-esque girls and boys on them, our classmates, but at least in school they didn’t shriek all day long.
I was born into a fat, hemorrhoidal family as the younger member of fraternal twins. By our teenage years, Panni and I had turned into sluggish potato sacks, we’d become our own parents one size smaller. Later on it became clear that our features weren’t overly similar, but the differences between us were hidden by the fat, just like our parents. When I was seventeen the spare pounds didn’t hurt so much as the fact that I didn’t have any distinguishing features. After class Panni and I often went to the wood, we sat on our coats at the foot of a tree, smoked a cigarette each and scratched our faces with thorns. We both wanted a proper scar. But these were just pathetic thin scratches. They healed in half a day. Especially on my skin—which was positively brown compared to Panni’s milky white—when I wiped the blood off you couldn’t even see them.
From Malta to Japan, we continue our island-hopping this week with a new translation from Cyprus. This week’s Translation Tuesday of “Cellophane” by Maria A. Ioannou tells a heartbreaking story of a child dealing with the loss of a father. The young voice filled with both hope and pain comes through beautifully in Despina Pirketti’s translation.
Dad and I chat away at night; he wrapped in cellophane.
When mum goes to bed I open the closet in the guest room. I show him my new toys, the big remote control tractor and my teddy bear—and he fogs up the cellophane with his breath, grooving hearts for me with his nose. I try to come closer and kiss him in the Eskimo way, but I can’t reach him, and before too long the sketches on the cellophane will fade, there’s no room for more. He stands there still, like Tutankhamun’s mummy enclosed in wood. This reminds me of the boxes that keep the dead locked in. “The living can’t stand the dead,” grandma used to say. The living are afraid of the dead, that’s why they shut them in a box, to keep them from waking up and seeking revenge like vampires do! My words.
Today we bring you three enigmatic pieces by “the father of the Japanese short story.” You probably know Ryūnosuke Akutagawa without realizing it—one of his short stories served as the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashōmon. Each of these tales brings a quick punch of emotion, leaving an impression on the reader not unlike that of microfiction.
There was once a sennin who worked as a jurist in O Town near Lake Biwa. His favorite pastime, more than anything else, was collecting gourds. Stored inside a giant closet on the upper floor of his rented home was his vast collection hanging from nails hammered into the posts and lintels.
Three years had gone by, when, one day, the sennin received a notice of transfer from the government. He was to relocate forthwith to his new post in H City. He made arrangements for all of his furniture and belongings except for his gourds, of which he had amassed over two hundred. He had no idea how to go about moving them, and he refused to part with a single one.
Tuesday means we are back with more translations! This week is a first for us as we travel to Malta with Clare Azzopardi’s story “Gracey”, translated from the Maltese by Albert Gatt. A sense of glumness and class disparity permeate this beautiful story.
Helen always looks glum. She finds it so much easier to look glum. She won’t give anyone that satisfaction. She looks glumly upon the vegetables sold by Fredu who’s parked, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the next corner down from where she lives; she looks glumly at the fresh ġbejniet on the counter in Vitorin’s hovel of a shop, before she asks her to wrap four up for her; she looks glumly at the girls wearing pink shoes and the boys whizzing past on bicycles; she looks glumly at the women who put a chair out on their doorstep on summer evenings and while away the time chattering or reciting the rosary; she looks glumly into every shop window in Republic Street and every shop window beneath the arcades; she looks glumly from where she’s sat, surrounded by shoes, at the people walking past in a hurry; she looks glumly at Polly, who’s always scrounging for empty lemonade bottles; she looks glum as she dusts the shoes in the shop, as she counts the cash, as she raises the shutter, as she lowers the shutter; she looks glumly at her own face in the ancient, brown-stained mirror hanging on the wall in the dark, narrow corridor and at her own image in the long mirror inside the wardrobe door. She looks glumly at her mother, aged and doddering, as she sits in an armchair in the balcony with the shutters closed listening to the radio against her ear.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.