July 2013 Asymptote Journal
The new issue of Asymptote is now available, and GOD DAMN is it loaded. Just read this intro note from the editors:
Every translation is a conversation, each translator in dialogue with the original author, each language speaking to another. Asymptote’s Summer issue is full of such conversations, perhaps most notably our exclusive interview with best-selling author turned translator David Mitchell, who together with his wife, K.A. Yoshida, translated a memoir of autism by the 13-year-old Naoki Higashida. We also got to speak to Tan Twan Eng, the first Malaysian Man Asian Literary Prize-winner, and avant-gardist Can Xue, whom Susan Sontag singled out as the one Chinese writer worthy of the Nobel Prize. Ottilie Mulzet finds her conversation partners translating Hungarian masters László Krasznahorkai and Szilárd Borbély. Q&As with playwrights Maria Cassi and Chantal Bilodeau, meanwhile, shine their light on this issue’s Special Feature: Self-Translation in Drama; or, when a translator is faced with her worst enemy: herself!
Writing doesn’t always have to be straightforward or even legible, as the asemic writing of Michael Jacobson shows. 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize winner Fady Joudah’s elliptical essay on translation challenges the reader, just as Rachel Shihor’s parabolic fiction does (and you can learn more about contemporary Israeli fiction in Yardenne Greenspan’s overview). Our Fiction section has crystallized around the theme of departure; whether in László Krasznahorkai’s tantalizing short piece, Wu Ming-Yi’s tale about the cast-out second sons of Wayo Wayo Island, or Melanie Taylor Herrera’s “The Voyage,” set in 17th century Panama, all these stories address just what happens when we leave all that we have and are behind. The lyrical black-and-white photographs of Guillaume Gilbert, our guest artist, extend this theme throughout this issue, capturing frozen moments just before.
Beginning with an ekphrastic and closing with a meditation on sculpture, the poetry in this edition is profoundly concerned with the elemental: the basic structures of our physical and metaphysical worlds. Pierre Peuchmaurd’s eye observes and unflinchingly records, Kim Kyung Ju’s inner world is overwhelmed by its contact with the outside world; Ihor Pavlyuk, our first Ukrainian author, like a mussel, senses “the whisper/ Of distant tides.” The attitude is one of “feeling the whole hunger,” of attempting to express something large via the small and the sensual. Each poet is presented with an audio recording in the original language, sometimes, as with Ulrike Almut Sandig and Enrique Winter, with astonishing musical accompaniment.
You’re a remarkably prolific writer, having written over a hundred short stories and dozens of novellas and critical essays. Yet only a fraction of those works have been translated into English. Are there any works of yours that have not been translated that you would like to see translated?
At present, two of my full-length novels have already been translated. And it was recently announced that the latest [translation] of my novella The Last Lover, which is currently still being edited, will be published by Yale University Press in the spring of 2014. Dozens of medium-length and shorter works have been translated into English. I estimate that some 13 million Chinese characters of my works have been translated—is that really a small amount? My output is very consistent, and that’s very difficult for a writer to do. My wildest dream is to get all of my works published in the United States.
With regard to your writing process, you’ve said in interviews that your writing comes from your subconscious, and that a good writer should not know what he or she is writing. What do you think of when you begin a story?
The subconscious by itself is actually not the deciding factor; every individual has a subconscious. The key lies in whether you can unleash it to create. Here there is a complicated mechanism, and I can only explain it from the vantage point of philosophy and art. In five or six years, I plan to write a book, Philosophy of Art. In that book, I’ll elaborate my thoughts on these issues based on my experience practicing art and the fruits of my intensive research into Western philosophy. I’ve already been writing for over thirty years, and the writing method I use is precisely the creative method of modern art: Reason monitors from afar. Emotions are completely unleashed. I turn towards the dark abyss of consciousness and plunge in, and in the tension between those two forces, I build the fantastic, idealist plots of my stories. I think that people who are able to write in the way I write must possess an immense primitive energy and a strongly logical spirit. Only in this way can they maintain total creativity amid a divided consciousness. In China, I have not seen a writer who is capable of sustaining that kind of creativity for many years.
The structure in your work can be so difficult to discern—both in terms of narrative structure and in the way the images connect to one another—that it’s hard to imagine just how you shape your stories. How do you edit a Can Xue story?
I never edit my stories. I just grab a pen and write, and every day I write a paragraph. For more than thirty years, it’s always been like this. I believe that I am surrounded by a powerful “aura,” and that’s the secret of my success. Successful artists are all able to manipulate the “balance of forces“—they’re that kind of extraordinarily talented people.
In a way, [Mitchell’s] last two books beautifully set the stage for The Reason I Jump, a memoir by then 13-year-old Naoki Higashida and now translated from the Japanese by Mitchell and his wife, K.A. Yoshida. This is their first translation. As a portrait of a boy whose ‘disability’ inhibits his communication with the outside world, this slim work is unparalleled, and though its aims may be humble and small in scale (to help explain the reasons why Higashida, and by extension other, similarly autistic people, do the things they do), the revelation of a previously illegible mind suddenly legible on the page is not.
Like Reif Larsen, you’ve already had to answer many questions posed by translators about your work, but did you yourself have any experience as a translator before this book? And what do you now think of translation as a creative activity?
This is my debut as a translator. The exercise has confirmed my long-held suspicion that my translators are three times cleverer than me, with a better command of English as well as the ‘into-language,’ plus a knowledge of the mysterious art and science that is translation itself. As a writer I can be bad, but I can’t be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right. Translators are jugglers, diplomats, nuance-ticklers, magistrates, word-nerds, self-testing lie detectors, and poets. Translators rock.
Someone once said that all writing is translating—if only translating the language of thought onto paper. Similarly, fiction, in some ways, is about bringing characters to life through ventriloquism; do you find it productive to also see translation as an act of ventriloquism, and in this case a double act of ventriloquism (both of culture and of an outsider’s psychological space)?
The theory of translation is fertile and deep, but I’m too much of a beginner to go weighing in here, especially considering that Asymptote’s readership must include some of the best translators on Earth. All I tried to do was render The Reason I Jump into a book that Naoki would have written had he been born in the UK and not Japan. That intention was my guiding principle and my Sir Alan Sugar who dealt with my hesitancies and second-guessings and prevarications accordingly: You, my friend, are fired.