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.


Translating from the Visual

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference, or lack of difference, between the visual and the written arts. Lessing theorizes that poetry or prose exists in time, and the visual arts in space: e.g that you can only experience a poem or piece of prose in one direction- linearly through time, usually from start to finish, but in a painting, the whole and parts coexist simultaneously rather than consecutively. You may ‘read’ a painting, but you still experience it as a whole. People often forget to experience poetry or prose as a ‘whole’, as the whole can only be reflected on afterwards the reader has read the final page. However, although the mediums are so different, the viewer and reader responses to visual and textual art can be the same.

Borges has questioned whether we experience reality successively or simultaneously in his short story ‘the Aleph’, whereas Joyce attempted to convey everything in language in his Ulysses. Borges believed it was only possible to capture the temporality of experience- and therefore any attempt to convey the totality of human experience in language would fail.

We experience paintings spatially. The paint, the brushstrokes, the canvas literally take up space and exist for the viewer as a whole composed of complementary parts. Although we usually experience text temporally rather than spatially, there are ways of creating a spatial experience of a text. Imagine, as an author, visually plotting out character arcs and events in a novel using Post-it notes and string, like detectives in a movie. And what is a graphic novel if not simultaneously spatial and temporal? they exist as both art objects and literature. There are also incredibly visual poems, where the shape reminds the reader of the imagery contained in their words. Some novels are also arranged visually in this way. And while the process of reading may be temporal, the evaluation of said reading is often spatial. Our experience of a work builds up an image in our minds. Zooming out of a book after having read it- making connections, seeing patterns, getting an overview of the totality of the work: these are all spatial experiences of a book or poem. As a translation theorist, Berman places emphasis on the whole, deploring translators who get too caught up in the minute linguistic details of a text.

An interesting example of a spatially-organised text would be Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. In a letter to a friend, she drew a diagram of the plot for her text which looks like the capital letter H. There was a part one and a part two, joined by a narrow bridge in between. The bridge is where a time period of 10 years is skipped over in a single page. Woolf didn’t want to explore death as a process, she wanted to explore death as a state of not being, of the effect that death has on those you leave behind. The poet Pizarnik used to draw a picture to capture her mood and feelings before she wrote the poem. The visual and textural are irrevocably linked. Art, whether visual or written, is a way of conceptualizing and expressing the gaps which open between the perceptions and emotions.

The way that literary theory and literary history organises itself is also responsible for our linear understandings of text. Why do we put text in a chronological order, why do we separate them into different eras and epochs? Borges claims that every writer creates his own precursors. We are obsessed with uncovering the influences on individual writers from what came before. Literary theorists are interested in the connections between the ideas of Borges and Benjamin, but there’s no evidence that Borges ever even read Benjamin.

So how does photography fit in with these definitions ? Should we treat photographs in the

same way as we treat paintings? I don’t think so. It’s possible to put things in a painting which do not coexist with each other: think of surrealism. However, it’s much more difficult to fit disparate elements into a photograph. Photographs can be taken in an instant and tend to portray things which are closer to reality. Because photographs can be so quickly and readily taken, yet it takes up to two years to complete a painting, I believe that photographs, or series of photographs, can more easily tell a story. There’s also the issue of space with a single painting compared with a series of photographs or a novel. The amount of scenes in photographs or novels are almost endless, yet it would be difficult to tell a story in as much depth with a single painting.

There’s an interesting parallel here between photographs and translations. Photography captures an exact moment which will never repeat itself, whereas literature is immortal and unreal: it always portrays a fantasy world which never really existed. With photography, there’s the idea of inevitable loss, just like with translation. The moment that a photograph captures is already lost by the time it has been captured. In the same vein, translation documents a text, but many say that something is always lost in the process, that the original can never truly be captured in the words of a new language. 

Ekphrasis is the process of translating an object or a visual piece of art into literature. Ideas about ekphrasis are similar to Roman Jakobson’s ideas on translation: he separated translation into three distinct forms-  interlingual, intralingual and intersemiotic. According to Jakobson, intersemiotic translation involves the changing of form- for example, from text to picture, or from poetry to play. But for Jakobson, ekphrasis did not count as intersemiotic translation because, for him, intersemiotic translation had to start with a text. Ekphrasis starts with a work of art and ends with the text. An everyday example of this would be audio description for the visually impaired on the television. 

I have been using the idea of ekphrasis this week to create poetry and prose inspired by three paintings of my choice. I have chosen ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ by Van Gogh, ‘The Sick Child’    by Edvard Munch,  and ‘A View on the River Stour Near Dedham’ by John Constable. I remember writing an assignment on Van Gogh for art at A-Level, and although he has become one of the best known painters in the world since his death, his works still speak to me on an extremely personal level. In some ways he was the archetypal tortured artist, and in other ways he was so much more than that. His free, expressionist style is similar to the style in which I also paint landscapes, no doubt both consciously and unconsciously due to his influence. I have chosen to work from one of his later paintings, one I have copied before,  and one which speaks to his worsening mental state in the same year ear as his suicide. The painting, a landscape, is simple enough, yet laden with emotion and the creeping sense of foreboding. 

I also chose to work from a painting by Edvard Munch because I regret that his talent has been reduced to a single painting since his death: The Scream. Munch’s works go far beyond that. I wanted to include at least one portrait in my trio of chosen paintings, and this scene is laden with such tender emotion that I could immediately visualise it. And finally, I chose a work from John Constable. I wanted to work from one of his sketches rather than one of his finished paintings because I find his sketches so much more lively and vibrant- his finished paintings often look flat and overworked to me. This became my most personal poem. To me, constable is inextricably linked with my childhood experience growing up in Suffolk. Nobody from Suffolk with an interest in art is unaware of Constable’s great legacy, and my grandfather was no exception. My grandfather is a wildlife artist with a deep appreciation for Constable and Gainsborough. This painting reminded me both of going to view these landscapes at galleries and of experiencing these landscapes first-hand on enforced family day trips out in the countryside, which I only became grateful for much later in life.

Book Reviews Translations

Writing a Reader’s Report

Reader’s reports are a fairly well-hidden part of the publishing industry, but they can make or break a book. It’s important to remember that there are two main types of reader’s reports – those which review a manuscript in the same language as the manuscript, and those which review a published foreign-language book for consideration for translation. Obviously, I will be focusing on the latter.

Esther Allen, translator extraordinaire and prolific producer of reader’s reports, once called it “the most silent of literary genres”. You can read her delightful Guardian article on the subject here. Publishers who want to keep an ear to the ground of foreign literature commission book-hungry linguists to read a manuscript and write a 2-4-page report on whether they would recommend it for translation. Thus, a reader’s report is a mixture of plot synopsis and personal commentary. They don’t pay well – between £80-120 per piece, but if you’re someone like me who devours books in a couple of days for the sheer joy of it, being paid a few pounds an hour to read and do a write-up seems like a slice of heaven, am I right?

I’ve never been paid to do a reader’s report myself, but we’re currently doing workshops on them for my Research and Methodology module, wherein our tutor has passed on many tantalising nuggets of information. For next week’s workshop, I’ve decided to do a Reader’s Report on Tausche Dirndl Gegen Sari, partly because I’m currently reading an English novel and this was the most recent German book I’ve read, and partly because I can give it a very thoroughly mixed review. The fact that this book is so specific to the Indian/Bavarian culture clash is my ultimate reason for not recommending it for translation. I doubt British or American readers would get much out of it, as charming as the book was to me in places.

If done well, and if they are particularly positive, reader’s reports can help you to get a foot in the door with a publisher and could even lead to a translation commission. However, opportunities for reader’s reports won’t be advertised anywhere and you need to contact publishers in order to start receiving requests. Remember that when you are emailing publishers about doing reader’s reports, small indie publishers are much more likely to give you a positive response, or even a response at all.

I’m writing a quick list of things to consider and questions to ask oneself when writing a reader’s report, partly to refresh my own memory and partly to summarise my scruffy handwritten notes:

  1. Remember that there are different literary conventions for writing reader’s reports depending on the source language of the book. Unfortunately, the format for reader’s reports of German books is much more regimented and thorough than most other languages. Why am I not surprised?
  2. Make sure to research the specific imprints of the publisher you are writing for. What kind of books do they publish? What would they be looking for? What makes them tick?
  3. At the start of the report, remember to include basic information about the book such as its original publisher, date of publication, author, length and a suggested translation for the title. If the title is particularly difficult to translate because of its cultural specificity, make sure you inform the publisher about this.
  4. It’s important to situate the book within its literary context. Is this a particularly ‘trendy’ area of literature in the source language right now? Is it full of historical or political references?
  5. Author: What does the author usually do? Do they also write other things such as plays or poems? Is this a debut novel? Are they prolific or do they have few books on the market? Does the author write across genres or in one specific genre? Do they have a significant online presence? Do some background research.
  6. Point of view: What kind of point of view do I write from? Do I use the first or third person? It may be useful to switch between the two, for example between the plot synopsis and your own personal commentary. Remember to always use the present tense when describing the book’s plot
  7. Tone: Think about the tone of the book. Is it dark or light? Uplifting or though-provoking?
  8. Genre: Think about the genre of the book. Does it already fit neatly into a well-established or pre-existing literary genre? Does it transgress genres or straddle various different ones? Does it bring anything fresh to its genre? Have similar books already been translated into English, or would it be unique?
  9. Style: What kind of literary style does the author have? Does it remind you of another author or group of authors in the source language? Are the influences on the author clear?
  10. Structure: how is the book structured? Are there long or short chapters or sections? Are there any paratexts such as introductions, discussion questions or an interview with the author? Would I recommend translating these too, or not?
  11. Intended audience: who is buying this book in the source language? Check reviews for its reception. You might want to translated a couple lines from prominent reviewers. Would it appeal to the same audience in the target language? Why/why not? Is it high-brow or low-brow, and would this affect its target audience?
  12. Purpose: What is the book trying to do or say? Did it lead to any self-reflection or throw up pertinent questions?

Ultimately, you need to give a clear answer on whether or not you think the book should be translated into English.

Book Reviews

Book ‘Warning’: Als Wir Träumten

So this is the novel I started last week and was deeply disappointed by: Clemens Meyer’s Als Wir Träumten (While We Were Dreaming, 2007). Ordering German books to the UK can be quite expensive because of the postage, so I spent a total of 14 whole English Pounds and gave up after exactly 37 pages. This is why I can’t in clear conscience call this a review. It’s more of an advisory sticker.

I was really looking forward to starting this 518-page whopper: It seemed to tick all the boxes: It’s GDR-related, semi-autobiographical and in plain prose. I’ve been spending a-LOT of time rambling about GDR literature and translation recently on my MA course so I bought this in the hope of doing a reader’s report or assignment on it in the new year. Clemens Meyer has been fairly hyped recently in Germany, winning the Leipzig Book Fair Prize and the Bremen Prize for Literature as well as being shortlisted for the German Book Prize. I don’t get the hype, though.

Okay, maybe I’m just not the kind of person to enjoy this book. I didn’t know much about it when I bought it. Maybe the boxer on the front should have given it away- but it comes off from the first few pages as bluntly ‘laddish’, macho and kind of pointless. In the first chapter describes vandalism and bar fights seemingly for the hell of it, and the second chapter was so full of the words ‘Brüste’ (breasts/boobs) I just gave up. I would LOVE to post a picture highlighting all the occurrences of ‘Brüste’ in the most egregious two-page spread I could find from this chapter, but I would like to sell the book on Amazon as ‘used: like new’ at some point, so you’ll just have to believe me. The sparse female characters are either passive and weak, or reduced to boobs on legs. I’m so beyond this.

I’m not sure if this work has already been translated into English. I know some of his work has. I tried googling around but kept getting swamped by the film adaptation under the name ‘While we were Dreaming’

Book Reviews

Book Review: ‘Der Circle’

I try to alternate the books I read equally between English and German. This week I’ve been reading a book in German translation: “Der Circle” (The Circle), by Californian novelist Dave Eggers and translated from the English by Ulrike Wasel and Klaus Timmermann (Kiepenheuer & Witsch 2014). I wanted to read a book by a German author this week, but I tried that and it didn’t go to plan (there’ll be a post about that too, but I didn’t want to start this blog off with a rant).

There’s no spoilers in this review because I’m only about halfway through, so breathe a sigh of relief before you buy it used on Amazon.

If there were a star rating, I’d give it four and a half. It’s a real page-turner. I actually started this last year and left it because I didn’t want it to take up too much space in my hand luggage when I was moving to Germany. It’s quite a hefty tome of over 500 pages, but it was surprisingly easy to slip back into. It’s basically a Dystopian novel: think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984 but updated for the social media age. The protagonist, Mae Holland, gets a job in a huge, swanky conglomerate which has rapidly eaten up all of its social media competition. They live in a bubble of beautiful, shiny people and buildings, with every creature comfort and mod con, but this setting only serves to accentuate the claustrophobic and disconcerting atmosphere of the book.

There’s loads of “Denglisch” in the book, but I wouldn’t have translated it any differently. The tone and register satirises millennial jargon reminiscent of smashed avo on toast and Silicon Valley tech speak, and does it well. There’s so much emphasis on ‘Community‘, the ‘Customer Experience’ getting ‘Smiles’, updating your ‘Zing-Feed’, and it all feels faithfully superficial and hollow. English-German mashups which made me smile included ‘upgedated’ and ‘geliked’. The Internet Age is pushing the Americanisation of other languages and you get a palpable sense of this on every page.

The characterisations fall a little flat, but that’s not really what matters. Mae is kind of ambiguous for a reason, I think- you are often left wondering what she really believes, is she really committed to this Brave New World, or does she just want to keep her job to keep her father’s health insured? Francis turns out to be a bland, sinister hipster and I liked it. Mae is drawn in by the mysterious, slippery Kalden which keeps the plot moving. Egger’s descriptions are beautiful and often unexpected, such as when he describes the ‘calligraphy strokes’ of Kalden’s figure.

This book really helps to capture the anxieties of the social media age and serves as a relevant warning about the insidious power of having all of our data online, of constantly being reachable. There’s a palpable FOMO here: Mae turns up just to be seen somewhere, she becomes trapped in the cycle of Zings, likes and shares which at first feels rewarding but then becomes exhausting and depressing. She’s reprimanded by her bosses for missing an unknown colleague’s ‘Portugal Brunch’, and fails to see the absurdity of this: she falls over herself trying to make sure she never makes that same mistake again. Mae sometimes seems overly passive and submissive, but this serves as a reminder of how increasingly little choice we have in social media participation. You can’t start study, start a career, or establish friendships without it. We pray at the altar of Networking and Group Chats. Look at me starting this blog.

Asimov once made predictions about the world in 2014, and it feels somehow ironic yet appropriate that this book came out in the same year (both in English and German). It plays out in the immediate future, but one we are hurtling towards.