Winter 2022 Educator’s Guide out now!

I’ve awoken from my long dearth of creative writing with an update: the new (free) Asymptote Journal Educator’s Guide has been released this week. You can download it here. I thoroughly enjoyed contributing to, editing and proofreading the guide this quarter, as every quarter. It always gives me fresh insights into what’s been occupying my colleagues across the world.

I may have been inspired by my work on characterisations with my year 11 class to write my first lesson designed for non-native speakers of English based on Jorge de Sena’s short story ‘A Tribute to the Green Parrot’.

I currently am PCR-positive and on my 5th day of isolation at home. Beautiful, sun-drenched late winter/early spring weather outside, and it’s like the sun is mocking me. I struggled through wind and horizontal rain on my commute to school on Tuesday morning, tested positive Tuesday afternoon, and it’s been sunny ever since. Two more days to go. As the Germans say, I am pressing my thumbs.


Asymptote Summer 2021 Educator’s Guide Out Now!

I’m so excited to announce the Educator’s Guide we’ve worked on for the past three months is out now and can be downloaded for free here. I contributed the lesson plan on Lȇdo Ivo’s poem ‘Identities’, which helps high-school students to re-evalulate the male, Eurocentric literary canon they are often confronted with in schools. Students explore the idea of free verse and then conduct a creative re-writing of a poem they admire.

All our lesson plans are great, so if you’re any kind of educator it would be great to check it out!


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.

German Translations

Living Between Two Languages

Here’s my self-translation of my previous blog post:

Living between Two Languages

Do I bring a language to life? Or do I inhabit it? Can the same be said for a learned language? The term ‘Mother tongue’ is outdated, that we already know. I did, however, grow up with one language until I chose my second. I’m not sure whether this fact makes my relationship to German more or less meaningful. Before Year 9, I had absolutely no connection to German. But I chose it anyway. An artificial decision, yes. Meaningful all the same. 

As I wrote those first two questions, it became painfully obvious to me how difficult they would be to translate. Maybe even impossible. No matter what I choose, the English words will only ever be a pale shadow of what I wrote first. I’ve shot myself in the foot there. I’m a translator, a teacher, obsessed with words. How languages overlap one another, reflect one another, but never line up exactly. Because that never works. Because it’s always a fantasy. Translation is the endless acquisition of all the possibilities of how to put similar thoughts into words in two or more languages. Similar but never the same. A translation is an echo, a subjective re-writing. 

How much space can two languages take up? Is it endless, could I add more and more languages, like sailing until I reach the horizon? Or is there a limit? Would something eventually slip out the other side as I shove more and more in? I’ve found it difficult to commit myself to a third language. I’ve tried Russian, as well as French and Norwegian. But nothing sticks. Nothing has left the same indelible, intangible imprint as German.

My second language is learned. My existence split in two, the other half of me is learned. I’ve often been asked why I chose it. Why German, of all languages? Germans can all speak English, can’t they? (no). Do you have German relatives? German roots? (no). It was a simple choice between German and French at school, I say. But I know it’s probably not the whole truth. The truth is always much more complicated than you think. I’ve never been sure what my truth is in this respect. Yes, why German?

We belong to the same family. The further you go back in the past, the more similar the two languages become, German and English, English and German. The same extraction, the same roots. You just don’t see it these days waiting at the pedestrian crossing; the man is lit a steady red, and the British walk, unhurried, out into the road in front of an accelerating taxi. 

Maybe it was, for me, rather an exercise in vanity. I didn’t want to be like ‘all’ other Brits. I didn’t just want to live in one language, that felt too blinkered. The word is full of endless possibility for self-expression. Had I only been able to express myself in one language, I would always have wondered to myself: what am I missing? Still, as a bilingual, I’m far removed from the world’s most proficient linguists.

German still doesn’t come as easily to me as English. I speak and write like no German. Some would call it a deficiency, a failure— my not-quite-mastery. But I like to keep my flaws. Is there not room for an endless variety of Germans in the word, just as there’s an endless variety of Englishes? The English brought their language on slave and pilgrim ships and thought they could master the world as you ‘master’ a language. But now English belongs to everybody who learns or grows up with English. It doesn’t just belong to the English anymore. 

When I started writing today, I was intending to send it to my German friend, so that he could check it for flaws and mistakes. But now I’ve decided against it. The flaws can stay. They’re signposts along a long trail behind me, breadcrumbs of the years of patience and frustration, like the rings in a tree, layers built up over layers. My German was rootless, but now it’s laid down roots.

It’s strange to think about how this square, angular, spiked language is rejecting me. After Brexit, while COVID marches forwards, in this new, dystopian era: I’m not allowed in. Absolute travel ban to contain the Delta variant. In the last six months, there was a window of six days in which I could legally have travelled to Germany. I missed this window, of course.

I had the naive, childish hope that everything would progressively get better, and that I’d be able to see my partner this summer. But my German half is still in its extended winter hibernation. Re-book those flights, just once more, and again. We can make it one more month, then another, and another. I can’t hear the Odenwald dialect anymore, melodic, half-swallowed, rising and falling in my ears, the words falling over each other whilst I strain to catch his grandpa’s gist. He doesn’t understand me either, although I try to say my German as German as possible.

So what does German mean to me? I’ve already spent two years of my adulthood there. I’m young, but I see my future there. Lower rents, Freiluftlust, muesli with yoghurt. German means building a firepit on the terrace, breakfast on wooden boards, breadbasket in the middle of the table. German means warm evenings in the beer garden on rough benches. Just don’t lose your balance. It means sunsets over the trees behind the house, watching how the colours bleach and blend and the pines turn to shadow, black teeth against the night sky. It means pulling Bollerwagen through festival puddles as Hurricane proves its name. My partner smiling as I stick a jumble of words together, as I test the limits of this Lego-language, trying to express the intricacies of my feelings in exactly this moment. Today I called him unmitbestreitbar. Un-arguable-with.

I have to keep asking what a pine cone is called in Odenwäldisch. Or maybe it’s just called something different in his village, I forget that too. Hussmouge. I find it funny every time, before I forget it again. Why funny? Maybe because it’s so antithetical to the standard German Tannenzapfle. Maybe because it’s so specific to have a completely different word for something that so often lies unnoticed on the forest floor, trampled, or is ripped apart by village kids so they can get at the sweet-bitter nuts inside. I’ve almost forgotten the smell of moss under pines, how the ferns slowly unroll over the spring months, and how you develop your mushroom vision if you look long and hard enough. Endless degrees of brown and green.

Separation is an endless exercise in waiting, hesitation, deferral, refresh the website, book then re-book and cancel, read the restrictions, mandatory quarantine or not? Vaccination passport, proof of test, green-amber-red list. I spend my days at my desk and translate from German, but I haven’t ever felt further away from it.

Teaching Translations

Self-Translation (and Dissertation)

Recently, I’ve been thanking my lucky stars for the cooler weather. My office window faces the sun in the morning, and, when it’s over 25 degrees, I get real sweaty. Teaching, in any context, always gets me warm, so, in summer, it turns into a real pain. I just wear black every day, like the hermit vampire I’ve become over the last 18 months. It’s sunny today, though, and, up in my artist’s garret, I’m already starting to feel restless.

When it’s cloudy, I also don’t feel like I’m missing out too horrendously by not being outside. I’ve been slaving away at drafting the 10,000 words necessary for the translation side of my MA dissertation (although I’ve done around 12,000 now, so I can cut out my worst chapter). Since It’s historical fiction, I’ve been burying myself in all the unread historical fiction I’ve got laying around in English and I now have a newfound respect for the genre, if that’s even possible since I’d already developed a massive respect for it through writing my own this spring.

We’re also busy squirrelling away at the new Educator’s Guide for the next issue of Asymptote, which I’m really excited about. There’s a couple of blog posts in the wings, there, too. It was my first time designing a lesson plan around a poem, so I’m just real jazzed that no-one else on my team thought it in need of a complete overhaul.

I get the itch to write for myself, but all my creative energies are being swallowed by my dissertation. My tutoring work has also gone quieter, so I’ve been busy doing job interviews for new companies. Tutoring is a catch-22 situation. You can choose between good pay, no support and an extremely unreliable schedule, or a reliable schedule, bad pay and some support. Completely freelance students don’t come along very often, and I don’t work to any pre-ordained plan there. Which is both freeing and daunting. However, the majority of my work this year has been through agencies.

However, if you work for a tutoring organisation, don’t expect to get paid much more than if you were stacking shelves at Tesco. Not that there’s anything wrong with stacking shelves at Tesco. I worked in McDonald’s for two years as my first job, and it was a well-deserved education from my cushy couch contemplation into this cutthroat capitalist world we live in and have to somehow adapt to. However, tutoring is extremely skilled labour which is paid like unskilled labour. And you can forget the time you spend planning for and messaging each student, writing down your plans, organising their progress and your schedule, booting up your laptop, opening all your tabs, reading through the materials and opening Zoom and waiting for them. That stuff isn’t paid. So then 12 euros an hour starts to feel more like 10, at which point I could clean tables in Extrablatt and expect just as much.

And self-translation. I’ve been working on my piece in German for this year’s Specimen translation competition. I posted the draft a few days ago. I’ve updated the draft since then, because writing is never finished. Now I have to provide an English translation of it for the judges. I’ve never translated myself before, and certainly not from my second language into my first. I feel like It’s just going to end up with me editing both versions eternally and simultaneously, noticing flaws in one which I change in the other, like a dog chasing its own tail.


5 Must-Read Articles on Asymptote

Asymptote is an international non-profit journal specialising in translated literature of all kinds.

1- Zaina by Polina Zherebtsova, translated from the Russian by Irina Steinberg

Read here.

Genre: Prose Fiction

This story had so many layers it was like an onion. It’s set against the backdrop of the Chechen wars, and there was also a dark irony to the gender politics at play. The protagonist, Zaina, is the most financially independent and liberated woman in town. Conversely, she is also the most reviled. She is a sex worker, doing work which society still sees as degrading and shameful. Her neighbours are simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by her. They think she must have some tragic backstory to end up as a ‘fallen woman’, but Zaina is mysteriously reserved, at least until the final paragraphs. Zaina proves herself to be braver than any other resident when she puts herself between Russian soldiers and an old couple who are her neighbours. But not even her heroism is enough to quell malicious gossip about her situation and life choices.

At the same time as provoking reflection on the fate of sex workers in highly conservative societies and conflict zones, this story also provoked research on a fairly forgotten conflict in an unfamiliar part of the world, which I think successful international literature often does well. To me, a Westerner, the words ‘Chechen War’ conjured up nothing other than a vague sense of Russian imperialism, at least before reading this piece.

2- Epilogue by Irina Odoevtseva, translated from the Russian by Irina Steinberg

Read here.

Genre: Prose Fiction

First published in 1926, this story is beautifully situated within its own sociopolitical context. Having studied history, I am fascinated by the way in which historical events influence people’s writings. This is simultaneously a distinctively moral tale and a heartfelt testament to feeling adrift and uprooted. It’s reminiscent of Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace– a warning against the dangers of lusting after the veneer of a luxurious lifestyle without considering the consequences, yet it also offers a rare insight into the lonely life of a Russian emigré living in exile. The narrator has a difficult relationship with her home country. She hates what Russia has become, but has lost all sense of direction and agency. She has become passive, relying on men for her financial and emotional security, and realises too late how fickle and superficial her situation really is.

3-The Cut-off Caucasus – A Trip to the Village in the Mountains: Exploring Azerbaijan’s Xinaliq, Quba and the Five Fingers by Noémi Kiss, translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood

Read here.

Genre: Non-fiction essay, travelogue

This was a welcome bit of escapism after a claustrophobic year. I’m a keen traveller with a particular interest in southeastern Europe. I had to cancel my third Balkans trip in 2020 and I’d like to venture even further East whenever that becomes possible again. I find countries around the Caucasus so alluring because of their fusion of Eastern and Western cultures. These countries straddle Europe and Asia, not truly ‘belonging’ to either continent. They often have a serious lack of tourists and suffer under a new generation of dictators that have emerged since the collapse of the USSR. Azerbaijan, where this travelogue is situated, is even more mysterious for its political isolationism. I would be unlikely to ever go there specifically as a tourist. I do enjoy reading travel writing about countries which are difficult to visit or particularly remote, even if it is accompanied by a pang of jealousy.

Something which does jump out at me in this piece is the tension between cultures and languages underlying the region, most prominently between Azerbaijan and its closest neighbour and enemy, Armenia. Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim country with various minority folk religions in the more mountainous regions, whereas Armenia is majority Apostolic Christian. A lot of people in Azerbaijan still speak both Russian and Azeri, a hangover from Soviet times. Many countries in this region are emerging from the long shadow of the USSR yet still feel the effects of political isolation and underdevelopment, partly due to their geography and partly due to the style of government which followed. I loved the references to Azerbaijan’s linguistic diversity, as I would never have heard of the Xinaliq and Juhun languages had I not read this piece. Preserving linguistic diversity of sparsely populated regions will be an ongoing challenge in the 21st century.

On Literature and Film by Volker Schlöndorff, translated from the German by Julie Winter

Read here.

Genre: Non-fiction essay

There’s a beautiful focus here on the interconnectedness of literature and film which details both their convergences and divergences. Reading novels is often seen as a higher and more noble pursuit than film, yet filmmakers have the ability to condense pages upon pages of prose into a single camera shot, the example given being a close-up of Julie Delpy in Homo Faber.

I found Schlöndorff’s excitement at filming novels often considered ‘unfilmable’ refreshing and challenging. I can see why he considered Günther Grass’ The Tin Drum unfilmable. Grass specialises in unreliable narrators and shifting, complex perspectives which stray into the surreal.

Schlöndorff also made me reflect on exactly what kind of secret energy a book has which pushes me to keep turning the page, sometimes hundreds of times. His preferred method of filming a novel includes close collaboration with the author (when alive), which reminded me of the translation process. In some ways, you can see the filming of a novel as just another form of translation. Translation works best when there is clear and amicable communication between the author and translator, or author and director in this case. Only then does Schlöndorff feel he is fully able to realise his and the author’s vision.

5- Disenchantment in Dirty Snow by Tomáš Forró, translated from the Slovak by Magdalena Mullek

Read here.

Genre: Non-fiction essay, conflict journalism

In all the drama of recent years (Brexit, Trump, Covid-19), it’s easy to forget about the Russian invasion and continued occupation of some regions in Ukraine. It was only when I visited Kyiv in October 2019 that I was viscerally reminded of the ongoing conflict. There are memorials and museum exhibitions detailing the names of every Ukranian casualty, some of the most recent victims of Russian expansionism and nationalist caprice. A strange mainstream media silence has settled over the subject recently, and one has to wonder why. Are we bored of hearing about Russia’s bully-boy tactics? Is the West scared of something?

I have a great respect for journalists who put themselves in danger, and sometimes even in the line of fire, in the pursuit of truth. War zones are some of the most propagandised places in the world, so Forró’s account of interrogation and eventual release at the hands of the feared Ukrainian Berkut forces is as impressive as it is nail-biting. Unsurprisingly, the geopolitical situation is still both incredibly complex and tense.

In some ways, Russia and the Ukraine are so similar. They have a very similar language, are geographical neighbours, have often been in some kind of political union (although not often consensual on the side of the Ukranians), and share many cultural and religious traditions. However, there is a deep, pulsating resentment there. Memories of the Holodomor have caused inter-generational trauma, and the invasion of the Crimea reopened old wounds. It’s almost inconceivable that this acrimony could be overcome in my lifetime.


Keeping a Translation Diary: September/October 2020 (and reflections)

Starting the MALT (Master of Arts in Literary Translation) course at UEA, we’ve had it drummed into us repeatedly (and I mean that in the most positive way possible) by our capable tutors that we should we keeping a translation diary, and updating it regularly. However, my good intentions for the start of term in September took a rather predictable nose-dive as things got busier. I used the diaries for seminar notes and general scribbles, and less and less for actually keeping tabs on my current thoughts on translation and the projects I was working on. Between reading and note-taking for the seminars, the seminars themselves, my belated attempts at socialising with societies through Zoom, working as a self-employed ESL tutor, starting the Norwegian course on Duolingo, starting my first short story in ten years, working on my assignments and reading as much as possible in my source and target languages, I did have my hands full, and kind of just forgot about the translation journal.

As a workshop, we read Emma Ramadan’s year in the life of a translator (you can read it here). Most of us found it insightful, touching, funny and a little bit sad. A bone of contention of most translators is how underappreciated, invisible and badly-paid our work is in comparison to other highly-skilled professions. Any translator who keeps a diary is likely to cover this. But we were also surprised at how uplifting it was. Translation is often seen as such a lonely job: one person (usually a woman, but sometimes a man), sits on their own at a desk and puzzles through translating an entire work independently. But that really isn’t how it works in practice. Translators are a close-knit community who are always there to help each other, support each other and try to solve each other’s problems, even if that just does mean a WhatsApp group rather than coffee mornings in the Corona Age. That really comes through in Ramadan’s text.

One of Ramadan’s top pieces of advice for translators is to write in the style and genre of the texts you are currently translating. If you’re translating prose poems, write prose poems. If you’re translating drama, write scripts. I’ve definitely *failed* at that point this academic year. I’ve mainly been translating East German writers, and I’ve mainly been writing horror fiction. From the 1st of February, I’ll also be writing historical fiction for an upcoming module on Novel History. It would probably be a good idea to combine historical fiction and translation for my dissertation. I feel I’ve been sitting in a GDR niche for too long, and it’s starting to feel like a rut. I’m currently attempting a second book by Clemens Meyer (die Stillen Trabanten: Erzählungen) , and so far it’s much better than the first book of his I tried. So I’ve promised myself that this will be the last ex-GDR book I read, at least for a while. I need to find a new niche, and I’m inching towards the light of historical fiction.

I recently unearthed my first real attempt at a full entry in my translation journal “in the style of Emma Ramadan”, and, with the rose-tinted glasses of retrospect, found it rather charming. It was written under full time pressure in the middle of a seminar, full of sentence fragments and digressions. So I’ve transcripted (oops, I nearly wrote translated) and edited my entry here, which mainly concerns my existential angst about starting a literary course without even having done English at A-level. Transcribing was such a great opportunity to look back and reflect on what twelve short weeks at MA level and two hefty assignments have taught me.

“The past month has been full of unexpected challenges, opportunities and anxieties. I am now studying at Master’s level, having not opened anything written by an academic for a year and a half. I have to keep up, I have to be dedicated, go over and above, live and breathe translation. I am academically challenged, I have to learn the language again.

I feel like I’m a fresher again, walking under the Edwardian red-brick tallest free-standing clock tower in the UK. Except now it’s brutalist concrete and I feel its weight crowding me as I trot from one building to the other. My coursemates are witty, brilliant. Some are already professionals. I balance being a ‘student’ translator with living through a pandemic. People eyeing each other warily, no-one wanting to make the first social-distancing faux pas. Don’t come too close. Don’t sit there. Rule of six. Hands, Face, Space. Please do your hands as you come in. Do I really have to pick up that bottle and squeeze it? Doesn’t it defeat the point?

I try not to feel inadequate. My only published work is the instructions for a children’s game called “Dodo: Rettet das Ei!” (Dodo: Save the Egg!), and that was three years ago. It took me five hours and I earned 50 euros. Judging by the calculations of an average translator’s wage, 70 cents above minimum wage per hour is nothing to be sniffed at. I mentioned this to my grandfather one summer’s day over fish and chips at a country pub on Suffolk home turf.

“I won’t be earning much once I qualify”, I said.

A self-made man (a polite word for coin-operated), he raised his eyebrows. He didn’t understand the plight of an arts graduate in the middle of a pandemic which was busy squeezing the last few drops of life blood out of the economy. He’s a baby boomer with a nice pension.

“Why are you doing it?”, he asked, folding his bread and butter over his chips to make a butty.

There is no other satisfactory or all-explanatory answer other than “because I love it”. But is that enough? Do I need a more profound reason than that, a higher goal? I suppose it has to be enough.

Translation appeals to my love of literature, my love of foreign cultures, my language-learning obsession (my German teacher at A-Level used to call me ‘sponge’), my ability to eagerly pick a sentence apart into its constituent blocks and then put it all back together again, like a mechanic taking apart a perfectly healthy engine and putting it all back together, just for fun. But maybe in a different car, a newer model. Isn’t that what translation is?

Translators and theorists love metaphors, there are always new ones: translation is alchemy, translating is pouring a liquid out of one container into another, it’s changing clothes, it’s eavesdropping, it’s slavery to the source text. It’s a word puzzle, a problem to solve. It’s like doing a crossword on the train, struggling over a word that’s on the tip of your tongue yet nowhere, caught like a belt-loop on a door handle, then finally the Eureka moment when the solution hits. It’s then an epiphany and a rush of euphoria. But you don’t always get that hit. Sometimes translation is a long, cold slog, picking the lesser of two evils or admitting defeat and sticking with an awkward turn of phrase because it seemed awkward in the source text anyway, and who am I to know better than the author? I’ll still get blamed for it though, the awkwardness. Yet if it were fluent, the source text author would get the praise. So we are invisible at best, conspicuous at worst.