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.
Back in February, shortly after returning from the Non-fiction Conference in Amsterdam, we ran this piece on the newly established European Literature Prize. Just to refresh your memory, this is based on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award and honors the best Dutch translations of European literary novels. At the time, the 20 title longlist had just been released, and contained a lot of interesting books—many of which hadn’t made their way into English.
Today, the chairman of the jury, Frans Timmermans, announced the five title shortlist:
Obviously, the Mitchell book was written in English (and is really quite amazing), but additionally Grøndahl, Topol, and NDiaye have all been published in the U.S. (Although not necessarily these particular titles.) Based on my knowlege of those four authors, I personally think this is a pretty solid list, and am really looking forward to the September 3rd announcement of the winner . . .
In the meantime, here are a few quotes from the jury about the shortlisted titles:
“The exceptionally original hybrid of fiction and non-fiction” in HHhH by Laurent Binet, a literary reconstruction of the assassination of leading Nazi Reinhard Heydrich and its consequences, “allows the reader to participate in the author’s quest, even when the sources contradict each other.” The result is both “an exciting novel and an idiosyncratic commentary on the writing of history.”
Dat weet je niet (Det gør du ikke) by Jens Christian Grøndahl is centred around the marriage between an artist and a Danish Jew. The jury praised this psychological novel for its “subtle and at the same time pitiless analysis of major topics such as origin, identity and intimacy. Skilful realism, quietly expressed.”
In De niet verhoorde gebeden van Jacob de Zoet (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) by David Mitchell we travel to Japan with a young clerk sent out there in 1799 to put affairs in order at a remote Dutch East India Company trading post. “A compelling piece of historical novel writing; pleasure in storytelling leaps from the pages.” The compliment applies to the translation as well. The care and suppleness with which the different voices and the historical vocabulary have been rendered in Dutch can only be called impressive.
“Strong characterization, magnificent literature” was the jury’s verdict after reading Drie sterke vrouwen (Trois femmes puissantes) by Marie NDiaye. This incisive triptych about family relationships, banishment and violence, set in France and Senegal, “offers a painful insight into human cruelty, human impotence and the survival instinct”. The melodious style of NDiaye’s writing has been exceptionally beautifully preserved in the Dutch translation.
With De werkplaats van de duivel (Chladnou zemí), Jáchym Topol has written a grotesque novel about the latter-day history of the notorious concentration camp at the Czech fortress town of Theresienstadt, recounting how a traumatic history is being transformed into commercial entertainment. The Czech Arnon Grunberg at his best: sardonic and intelligent in equal measure.
The European Literature Prize will be awarded in 2011 for the first time, recognizing the best novel translated into Dutch from another European language and published in 2010. The winning author will receive the sum of €10,000. The prize is exceptional in that it is also awarded to the Dutch translator of the chosen book; he or she will receive € 2.500. The longlist was selected by thirteen independent bookshops. A professional jury is responsible for selecting the shortlist and the winner.
And in case you’re interested, here’s the list of jury members and supporting bookstores:
Frans Timmermans, member of the Lower House, former Secretary of State for European Affairs (chairman)
Marja Pruis, author and literary critic for De Groene Amsterdammer
Guido Snel, lecturer in modern European literature at the University of Amsterdam, writer and literary translator
Herm Pol, Athenaeum Booksellers, Amsterdam
Edith Aerts, De Groene Waterman bookshop, Antwerp, Belgium
The European Literature Prize is an initiative of the Academic-Cultural Centre SPUI25, the Dutch Foundation for Literature, the weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer and Athenaeum Booksellers. The following independent bookshops participated in the selection process:
Athenaeum Boekhandel, Amsterdam
Boekhandel de Groene Waterman, Antwerpen
Boekhandel De Omslag, Delft
Boekhandel H. de Vries, Haarlem
Boekhandel Het Martyrium, Amsterdam
Boekhandel Krings, Sittard
Literaire Boekhandel Lijnmarkt, Utrecht
Boekhandel Paagman, Den Haag
Boekhandel van Gennep, Rotterdam
Boekhandel Verkaaik, Gouda
Eerste Bergensche Boekhandel, Bergen N-H
Linnaeus Boekhandel, Amsterdam
Boekhandel Van Rossum, Amsterdam
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .