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Asymptote Issue: Summer 2021

The Summer 2021 issue of Asymptote has just dropped! (here)

There’s new free-to-read world literature in translation, with a focus on an ‘Age of Division’ for this edition. It’s the first edition of Asymptote that I’ve personally been a part of making, so I’m really excited.

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The Educator’s Guide we’ve been working on over the last three months will also be out in the next week or so – Free-to-download lesson plans on fiction, poetry and non-fiction for high school and university students, all based on contributions on the website!

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More than any other issue in recent memory, “Age of Division,” our Summer 2021 issue, also speaks to the current divisiveness of our times.

In Ethiopian writer Mulugeta Alebachew’s fiction, childhood memories are betrayed when the narrator returns home after a long time away only to find his friends “intently drawing family trees and working out ethnic background of people as if they worked for the cartography agency, and it was their task to draw boundaries.” Meanwhile, at a “time of infinite sadness,” diasporic Palestinian poet Olivia Elias speaks to us of “a life in the eye of the hurricane” and of “a country / engulfed in a fault of history.”

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see a country’s divides. This is the case in Lusine Kharatyan’s fiction comprising tweet-sized vignettes delivered in a brilliant deadpan, such as this zinger of an opening: “After 9/11 my American family decided to learn about other cultures. This is how I appeared in their home. I tell them about Armenia, they tell me about the Chinese guy they hosted before me.” It is also the case in Hwang Sok-yong’s memoir, in which he tells us of his return to North Korea “some forty-odd years after pretending to leave on a picnic”—but only after recounting at length his visit to a divided Berlin in 1985.

A name such as Abdushukur Muhammet’s in Sweden can be cause for ”unverbalised anguish” even as it recalls the “circular naan” of the poet’s homeland. For Bouchaib Gadir, however, names are a contested site of exile—that most painful of divisions: “When you live in a country that does not resemble you, / Your name becomes: Those ones.” Newly transplanted in Brooklyn, Chinese artist Zi Yi Wang recalls being “pulled between Eastern and Western ideologies . . . [longing] for belonging and identification”; as a result, both hybridity and a sense of history inform her beautiful assemblages of trash. Also an assemblage of sorts, Marius Ivaškevičius’s staging of historical figures like Chopin and Balzac in conversation with one another suggests that belonging can yet be cultivated on foreign soil.

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Report

I wish I had time to write reviews of all the lovely books I’ve been managing to squeeze into my evenings at the moment (the stack next to my bed is slowly going from 3ft high to something under that), but I don’t. However, I still feel the itch to write. So, a quick window into my state of mind:

Wuthering Heights was fabulous, if horrendously confusing. I referred to the family tree in the front about 400 times. I should have stuck a post-it on that page so I could find it easier. Nobody smiles. Almost everyone dies. There’s nothing raunchy, only violence and terrible people with terrible motives making everyone else feel miserable and thus perpetuating the cycle of terribleness.

Frankenstein definitely felt like an early novel. Why say something in one page that you can say over several? Who says a paragraph can’t be three pages long? Do I have enough adjectives in this sentence? No, surely not! Add some more! More! MORE ADJECTIVES! And a monster who can quote Dante? Let’s not address that at all!

Hats off to Shelley, though. I mean no disrespect. She did something amazing in writing the first science fiction novel. Imagine a world without Star Wars.

Other than that, keywords of the month have been:

-deadlines

-entry restrictions

-vaccine

-double-jab

-travel ban

-dissertation

-viva

-work

-work, work

Fingers crossed this post-Brexit Covid dystopia we’re living in doesn’t get in the way of starting my teaching course in Germany in September, but it may well. It. May. Well.

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What next for public protest in Russia?

Writings of Joshua

The FSB, Russia’s own intelligence service, estimates that on the 23rd and 31st of January around 90,000 people took to the streets in countrywide protests. The trigger for this was the arrest and detention of anti-corruption blogger and opposition figure Alexei Navalny, an event which provided an opportunity for citizens to express long-held discontent over corruption, economic stagnation, and increasingly oppressive government.

The police response to the protests was severe. Smartphones captured the use of physical violence by police to intimidate and shut down the demonstrations. One memorable and widely shared video showed a woman approach an officer to be kicked in the stomach to the ground. Others showed batons and riot shields being used to bludgeon and beat back groups and individuals, both standing up and on the ground.

With the protests shut down, Navalny incarcerated with deteriorating health, and no clear path forward in sight, it begs the…

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Translating from the Visual 3: Constable’s ‘View on the River Stour’

John Constable's 'View on the Stour near Dedham' | Christie's

Aching feet.

the first thing that comes to mind is 

aching feet.

But there’s also muddy boots,

mackerel sandwiches,

being shushed through silent galleries, 

and verdant green turning to sandy soil.

There’s the squeaking of shoes on the parquet,

passing antique and renaissance 

Onto landscapes (19th century):

an older man inside looking at

his natural habitat

and “Just one more mile.”

There’s the reeds on the riverbank,

willow fronds trailing,

estuary, marsh, forest, flats

Stour, Waveney, Gipping, Rat

smoothed onto canvas.

There’s a moorhen

black and white-

the mime of the bird world 

and there she is, trying 

to make breadcrumbs

reach the middle 

of the lake.

“Constable country”-

it clears the throat.

South Suffolk and

North Essex:

Con-

stable

Coun-

try.

Don’t put your hands in the water,

she says,

you’ll get Lyme disease.

She wouldn’t live to hear me get it

decades later

at the age of twenty-three 

from a German tick embedded

in the crook of my knee.

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Translation as Palimpsest

Gerard Genette has often written about intertextuality and writing as a palimpsest. A palimpsest is basically where a manuscript is written over, perhaps multiple times, erasing or obscuring the words underneath. This happened a lot more often when paper, or vellum, was extremely valuable and therefore infinitely re-usable.

The idea of translation, and all writing, as a palimpsest is both incredibly seductive and broad. in writing, there is no such thing as immaculate conception, all writing is derivative. All writing works and builds upon what came before, the particular influences on the author or translator depends upon what they have been reading and in which literary traditions. The way a text is read can also vary hugely across times and cultures.

For this exercise, I copied out a couple of extremely fruitful pages of Swift’s Waterland, an incredibly expansive and genre-bending novel which spends a lot of its time preoccupied with historiography. I first highlighted the text, once in pink, and then once again in purple, picking out anything which didn’t stand out to me the first time but became more and more conspicuous on a second reading. I then added on my own writings in a selection of different fineliner colours, depending on the ’round’ of writing. I underlined parts as well as circling the most productive words, creating an end effect showing all the different branches of thinking that can shoot off from a single page of text.

I think this really goes to show that translation is just the writing of a reading, and demonstrates just how many levels our minds are operating on whilst reading. All texts remind us of other texts or experiences. No wonder translating is so tiring! Getting our thoughts down about a source text, and really stopping to think about it, can have a huge impact on our final choices.