Posts featuring Jorge Luis Borges

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Literary updates from our editors on the ground in Albania and Slovakia.

As central Europe heats up this month, so does the literary scene! In Albania, an unprecedented $10,000 prize was awarded, while in Slovakia, readings are taking place everywhere: in gardens, on trams, and at an old mill! Read on for details.

Barbara Halla, Assistant Editor, reporting from Albania

Although it is only in its fifth year, the Kadare Prize is one of the most important prizes in Albanian literature at the moment. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that I use this label because the prize bears Kadare’s name, but I think its importance relies more on a few other elements, the first of which is not strictly literary. First of all, the Kadare Prize proclaims to award its winners the sum of $10,000 (though there has been gossip floating around that the awarding body has not been forthcoming with the cash) that includes financial help to get the book published in the first place. A not insignificant amount of money to consider, especially as in the Albanian publishing world, literary agents don’t exist and new authors have to pay publishing houses to get published in the first place.

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Intricacies Through Imagination: The Book of Cairo in Review

The Book of Cairo invites us to this very complex city without committing the crime of exoticizing it.

book of cairo

The Book of Cairo, A City in Short Fiction, edited by Raph Cormack, translated from the Arabic by multiple translators, Comma Press, 2019

The Book of Cairo, A City in Short Fiction, edited by Raph Cormack, is the newest addition to the “Reading the City” series published by Comma Press (Manchester, UK), collecting stories by local authors from cities around the world. Each story in the book (like those of the other books in the series) is translated into English by a different translator, which makes the book even more multi-vocal, introducing readers to not only writers, but also to translators working from a particular language into English, in this case Arabic.

The stories (except for one) were originally published between 2013 and 2018, making them of the present time and place, and giving us access into the current literary scene of Cairo. The authors are all born in the late 1970s and the ’80s, which makes them part of the young, hopeful generation who took part in the Tahrir Square protests, who made the Arab Spring possible, and who imagined a different future for their country. And it is through the diverse, imagined worlds in the present collection that they investigate the present moment of a city mutually rooted in history and moving toward the future.

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Thirteen Keys to a Doorless House in Toledo: On Tela de sevoya by Myriam Moscona

The Ladino language has etched on her tongue the addresses of countless houses in the Jewish Quarters of Toledo and Burgos.

Myriam Moscona’s Tela de sevoya (Onioncloth) was published in English in 2017, translated from the Ladino by Antena (Jen Hofer with John Pluecker). In today’s essay, Asymptote’s Sergio Sarano, himself a Ladino speaker, uses Moscona’s book as a starting point to explore the language and its history, shaped by the complex migrations of the Jewish diaspora. Sergio also discusses Ladino’s current status as an endangered language and highlights the important role that Moscona, as one of just a few writers who continue to publish in Ladino, has to play in keeping the language alive.

“I come upon a city
I remember
that there lived
my two mothers
and I wet my feet
in the rivers
that from these and other waters
arrive to this place”

—Myriam Moscona

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2019

Special selections from our Spring 2019 issue!

If you have yet to read our spectacular Spring 2019 issue, what are you waiting for? Maybe for our Section Editors to give you their favourites so you can get off of the right foot—well, we’ve delivered. From the poetry by the hand of acclaimed fiction writers, to century-traversing tales, to contemporary criticism on the role of the translator, here are the highlights, straight from those who have devoted themselves to perfecting this issue.

From Lee Yew Leong, Fiction and Poetry Section Editor:

This issue’s fiction lineup is bookended by two Argentine authors (born in 1956) who grapple with Jewish identity in their work. With The Planets shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in 2013, Sergio Chejfec is much better known to Anglophone readers, but Daniel Guebel is not exactly an unknown entity—recently the publisher Beatriz Viterbo released an anthology of essays contributed by such writers as César Aira celebrating Guebel’s work. Via “Jewish Son,” Jessica Sequeira’s perfectly pitched translation, English readers are introduced to bits of a weltanschauung that include pilpul (aka spicy thought, a method of interpreting the Talmud), tango singers, readings of Kafka and The Aeneid, all taking place in the last act of a father-son relationship. Yet, it is also very emotional—despite, or perhaps all the more so because of, the philosophical exposition. As with the best fictions, Guebel gestures toward a gestalt beyond the text. I can’t wait for more of this heavyweight to appear in English.

In the poetry section, which I also assembled, two highlights (also bookending the section) are Raymond Queneau, co-founder of the now-international formalist Oulipo movement, and Georgi Gospodinov, acclaimed for The Physics of Sorrow, showing that they have as much talent as poets as they do as fiction writers. An especially exciting discovery is Gertrud Kolmar, nom de plume of Gertrud Käthe Chodziesner, advocated by cousin Walter Benjamin, but only now celebrated as one of the great forgotten poets. Characterized by mystery, the taut but dreamlike poems channeled with elan by Anna Henke and Julia Gutterman are fueled by an “ache unnamed”; “a glimmer burning out its flame.” 

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What I Learned: The Benefits of a Poetry Translation Workshop

Unlike in life, in translation you can generally decide what you can bear to lose, and you should know that there are multiple methods.

What should a budding translator read? What kinds of critical lenses should he or she apply to the process of translation? Assistant Editor Andreea Scridon shares some insights she gathered from the poetry translation workshop she attended this summer in Norwich, UK.

Every summer, the University of East Anglia in Norwich (home of the first Creative Writing program in the United Kingdom) holds an International Literary Translation & Creative Writing Summer School. This past July, the program was held in partnership with the British Centre for Literary Translation, and I attended the multilingual poetry translation workshopled by internationally translated poet and writer Fiona Sampsonas an emerging translator of Romanian and Spanish into English. Below I recount musings on the most significant things I learned, which I hope will be of use to those potentially looking to break into literary translation.

A sound starting point in this discussion is the question of considering what to read as a translator. It should go without saying that a literary translator must necessarily be a well-read person in order to be able to make the best possible choices in terms of context, likely more so than anybody else. Having established this as a point of consensus, we discussed, both officially in workshops and amongst ourselves, what exactly a translator should be reading today. In my opinion, the library of a(n) (aspiring) literary translator should include contemporary literature, non-contemporary literature (both classics and obscure-but-lovely older works), and, of course, translations, preferably in as many languages as possible. For instance, examples of each subsection in my current library include Lauren Groff’s Florida and Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart (which are English-language works but useful examples of the spirit of today’s literary scene), Romain Gary’s The Kites and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, and Anna Akhmatova’s various poetry collections in translation by Yevgeny Bonver, Richard McKane, and Alexander Cigale, to name only a few. I asked Ian Gwin, an emerging translator of Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian who also participated in the Summer School, for suggestions. He recommends Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, noting that Gessen is himself a bilingual and that the theme of the two cultures meeting within the novel may be useful for a translator to consider. Regarding multiple translations, he recommends Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, pinning the more linguistically faithful translation of Eithne Wilkins and Ernest Kaiser against the newer one produced by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. He also suggests the high-quality recent translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz by Michael Hoffman, citing it as a long work that shows an attempt to render a specific style in a second language.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week we report from Mexico, Guatemala, and the UK.

We’re still elated over the launch of our Spring 2018 issue, but that doesn’t mean the work of compiling literary news ever stops. Our weekly roundup brings us to Mexico, Guatemala, and the United Kingdom.

Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors at Large, reporting from Mexico

April has been an exciting month for the Tsotsil Maya poetry collective Snichimal Vayuchil. First, on April 12 the collective participated in a transnational indigenous poetry reading with Kimberly L. Becker, a poet of mixed Cherokee, Celtic, and Teutonic descent. Poems were read in English, Spanish, and Tsotsil, with collective coordinator Xun Betán translating several of Becker’s works into Tsotsil. The event was sponsored by Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, United States, and Abuelita Books in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.

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My 2017: Sam Carter

As he puts it in an Asymptote-appropriate formulation, “Why not accept all possible countries and cultures? Why not spread out to be cosmopolitan?”

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it! This week, our staff continue to take turns looking back on 2017 through the lens of literature. Next up, Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter.

One of the highlights of my reading year was the entirely unplanned—and unexpectedly delightful—move between translations and originals within a series not once but twice. Early in the summer, I had the chance to review the third volume of conversations between Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari that Seagull Books brought out in July. Some years ago I had read in the original Spanish much of what constitutes the first two volumes in English translation, yet, for reasons I don’t quite recall, I never made it to these discussions that display a Borges who, despite being 85 years old at the time, remains a consummate conversationalist with a voracious intellectual appetite. He moves effortlessly from an unabashed Anglophilia—Joyce, Whitman, and Wilde are just some of the figures he enjoys reflecting on—to a more global concern. As he puts it in an Asymptote-appropriate formulation, “Why not accept all possible countries and cultures? Why not spread out to be cosmopolitan?”

It was with another Argentine author—cosmopolitan in his own right—that I ended up moving in the opposite direction: from translation to original. A few months before Restless Books was set to publish it in November, a friend handed me a galley of The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years. Unwilling to wait to get my hands on a Spanish copy, I devoured it in the course of a few hours. (You can find an excerpt of this title, which was released in November, in our October 2017 issue.) There are two more volumes of these diaries, the last of which was released in Spanish in September, and I was thrilled to finish this masterful trilogy that traces the vicissitudes of the writing life with a unique intelligence and unmatched willingness to reflect on what different forms might offer. In Piglia’s view, for instance, a diary is a place where “you should ultimately write about the limits or the frontiers that make certain words or actions impossible.” He elegantly explores those limits in this record of how a great reader struggles to become a great writer by drafting versions of a novel that will only appear decades later, defining himself both with and against dominant influences, and spending what little money he has on books. The first volume is also, somewhat miraculously, both a great starting point for anyone who has yet to read any Piglia and a welcome addition to those who already familiar with much of his work.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly report on the latest in the world of literature.

We’re back for another exciting week of prizes, festivals and news about authors and events happening in the world of literature. Editors-at-Large on the ground in Nicaragua, Brazil and Egypt give us a run-down of the most important literary announcements from their regions. Watch this space for more news every Friday! 

José García Escobar, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Nicaragua:

Nicaragua hasn’t stopped celebrating its writers this week.

In perhaps the most important literary news from around the world, Nicaraguan writer, journalist, and politician Sergio Ramirez was announced as the latest recipient of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, awarded annually to honor the lifetime achievement of a writer in the Spanish language. Awarded since 1976, previous recipients include Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges, María Zambrano, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Elena Poniatowska. Sergio became the first Central American writer to receive this distinction.

While the Cervantes Prize was still yet to be announced, the Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegría got the prestigious Reina Sofía Prize for Iberoamerican Poetry. During the ceremony, Claribel received $49,000 and the publication of an anthology of her life’s work entitled Aunque dure un instante. 93-year old Claribel follows Sophia de Mello Breyner, Nicanor Parra, Antonio Gamoneda, and Ernesto Cardenal.

In Guatemala, F&G Editores just reissued and presented one of the most important poetry books in Guatemalan history, Vamos patria a caminar by the revolutionary poet Otto René Castillo. The book was originally published in 1965. One year later, in the early years of the Guatemalan armed conflict, Otto René returned to Guatemala after years of exile to join the guerrilla forces. In 1967 Otto René was captured, interrogated, tortured, and burned alive. To this day, Otto René Castillo remains one of the most important poets of Guatemala. His work has been praised by Luis Cardoza y Aragón, Roque Dalton, up to the newest generations of Central American poets. You can read some of his poems here.

On a final note, the Guatemalan children’s book publishing house Amanuense has released its new website after completing their move to South America. Amanuense is also finalizing the details of their participation in this year’s FIL (the Guadalajara International Book Fair), and they are days away from releasing Balam, Lluvia y la casa, the latest book of one of their champion writers, Julio Serrano Echeverría.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2017

Our blog editors pick their favorite pieces from the Fall 2017 issue!

Each issue, our blog editors choose some of their favorite pieces to showcase. The Fall 2017 issue is extra special for us, since we get to introduce two new assistant blog editors: Sarah Booker, who translates from Spanish, and David Smith, who works with Norwegian. Together with Stefan Kielbasiewicz, they make up the Asymptote blog team. Enjoy these highlights! 

Ricardo Piglia’s piece, “On the Threshold,” is a philosophical, melancholic meditation on the art of reading and the construction of the autobiography. Composed of a series of diary entries in which the narrator muses on his grandfather’s life and on the practice of writing, this text poses fundamental questions about the practice of writing: How do you write an autobiography? What moments really matter when considering a lifetime of memories? How do you begin to write? The realization that experience “is a microscopic profusion of events that repeat and expand, disjointed, disparate, in flight” is what finally allows the narrative to unfold and the pieces of these two men’s lives to come together.

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Translation Tuesday: “Blind Spot” from Brief Cartography for Places of No Interest by Marcílio França Castro

"We banished from cartography all lions, mermaids, pygmies, and dragons. The sterilization of maps only confirms the disdain we have for nature."

When I first met Marcílio França Castro at a coffee shop in Brazil during the winter of 2016, he showed up toting a bag full of presents for me. When he dumped the bag onto the table, out came books, like he was some sort of combination of Jorge Luis Borges and Santa Claus. What most impressed me was his eagerness to promote Brazilian literature in general; several of the books were from his peers and not just ones he had authored. And perhaps Borges is a good comparison for Marcílio; indeed, his writing is in line with the likes of Borges, Calvino, and Cortázar. Yet he does not simply imagine other worlds, he perceives with brilliance unsuspected oddities in places of absolutely no interest. In his short stories, which range from traditional length to flash fiction, and with a prose that is at once economic and yet never lacking in precision, Marcílio França Castro transforms his culture’s most unsuspecting spaces into fantastic reading. The author and I have worked together in producing translations for many of his stories, overcoming differences in idioms, metaphor, sentence structure and other obstacles found in the passage from Portuguese to English. Most importantly, this project kept the translator sane during the subsequent North Dakotan winter of 2017. 

—Heath Wing. 

The manuals say such devices are made to take anything. Bumps, turbulence, high winds, lightning. Even crashes and hurricanes. It’s said they come out unscathed from the most intemperate of weather. You know the protocols. For every inconvenience there is a plan, an automatic fix. An aircraft like this one, with all its resources, ought to be, according to the manuals, practically uncrashable. That’s why, if it were up to manuals and manufacturers, our role would be merely to maintain course and keep her steady, taking advantage of the dignity of flight and the charm of our profession. And that’s really what we do here, before this gorgeous instrument panel, full of buttons and colorful lights: with the prudence it conveys, we relax and commend our fate and everyone else’s to the invisible wisdom of the display.

Look ahead. The sky’s magnificent, full of stars; someone might say it’s a painting commissioned to decorate the cockpit. A captain, from the moment of departure, always has his beard well-groomed, his uniform impeccable; he pilots the plane with swan-like indifference. That’s how the passengers see you. We fly calmly. The seats are anatomic and dinner well-balanced. An almost anesthetic experience. The Pacific is nothing more than an enormous tapestry of black silk that clips the horizon. We think and act as if the world outside no longer existed, as though the clouds and the ocean below us were but unfailing radar bleeps or a set of geographical coordinates. In truth, as we fly we simply ignore the substance found in Earth’s elements. Try this coffee, it’s wonderful.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Probably the best source of global literary news available.

It’s the official start of Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere and Spring in the South―the beginning of a new season where minor plans and promises are made that we desperately try to be faithful to. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just the temperature that changes. Nonetheless, here at Asymptote we’ll always fulfill our promise of bringing you the latest news from around the globe, just in time for the weekend, with this week’s reports from Argentina, Romania and Moldova, and Taiwan. 

Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-Large, brings us the news from Argentina:

August in Argentina was a month for reading. Buenos Aires celebrated Jorge Luis Borges’ birthday on August 24 by organizing a walking tour tracing Borges’ most notable haunts. The 24th is also the country’s annual Día del Lector, commemorating the renowned writer.

On August 23, the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA) hosted a conversation between North American policy analyst David Rieff, and Argentine novelist Luisa Valenzuela on the topic of collective memory. Valenzuela is known for her novels that recall state violence, written during and after Argentina’s brutal last military dictatorship. The topic of historical memory is especially relevant right now as the Argentine public protests the alleged disappearance of indigenous rights activist Santiago Maldonado, who went missing at a protest in Patagonia on August 1.

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In Review: Conversations (Volume 3) by Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari

“Ferrari and I tried to let our words flow through us, perhaps despite ourselves" - Jorge Luis Borges

“What else remains for an 85-year-old to do but repeat himself?” asks Jorge Luis Borges in the first volume of these conversations between the author of Ficciones and the poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari. Still playful a mere year before his death in 1986, Borges then offers a sly nod to the listener of these radio dialogues that can now reach English readers: “Or try variations, which comes to the same thing.” Such a remark recalls a classic Borges piece like “The Library of Babel,” with its intricately intertwined ideas of repetition and variation, and in his preface Ferrari even alludes to Borges’ “zenithal perception of everything,” suggesting that the author of  “The Aleph” or “The Zahir” might resemble his own creations. Detecting such subtle intersections between page and personality can certainly serve as one entertaining way into this newly released—and both occasionally and charmingly repetitive—third volume of radio conversations published by Seagull Books. But these pages become truly fascinating as we encounter not one Borges but many: the poet, the critic, the writer of fictions that tend toward the philosophical, and, perhaps most importantly, the attentive reader capable of discovering some delight or insight on every page.

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Borges, the Quixote, and Two Street Markets

The author of "The Antiquarian" tackles Borges, contextual understanding… and the singular joys of book shopping

The first time I read “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote,” I was seventeen and in my freshman year in college in Lima. As anyone who reads Borges for the first time, I was dazzled by the story of a fictional French writer who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, wants to write once again, without plagiarizing or recovering it from memory, Cervantes’s Don Quixote. The most memorable passage of the story comes when the narrator, a friend of Menard’s, and very likely a French fascist, analyzes one paragraph from the novel in two different ways. First, assuming that Cervantes is the author, he concludes that the paragraph is rhetorical and verbose, when written by a seventeenth-century Spaniard. Later, assuming the author is Pierre Menard, a contemporary right-wing surrealist poet, he finds that the same words are fantastically counterintuitive and herald a new form of understanding the world. Since the narrator is a fascist, one suspects that his interpretation is an overinterpretation, the grotesque imposition of ideas that were not there in the original text.

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The Joys and Dangers of Translating Asian Dictionaries: Part II.

"An encyclopedia already performs one dangerous act of translation: it translates the language of things into that of man."

When last we left off (read part I here!), I was discussing an imagined translation of an ordering system devised by a (fictitious) king of Siam in the mind of the (very real) W. Somerset Maugham. This time, I will jump to a different author.

Jorge Luis Borges, like Maugham, takes us once again to a land East of Eden, more precisely, somewhere East of Suez (where the best is like the worst, where there aren’t no Ten Commandments). In his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” Borges introduces us to “a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge’” that was discussed by one “doctor Franz Kuhn.” Borges writes:

In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

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