15 April 11 | Chad W. Post

Asymptote Journal just posted their April 2011 fiction section featuring four interesting works in translation.

I first found out about this, because they included an excerpt from Ingrid Winterbach’s The Book of Happenstance, which we’re bringing out in June. The excerpt is fantastic, naturally, but the care and design that’s gone into this web feature is equally impressive. In addition to the excerpt itself, the righthand column contains a number of cool extras, including a link to read the piece in the original Afrikaans, or to hear Ingrid read it in Afrikaans. There’s also a note from the translators (Ingrid and Dick Winterbach). Obsessed with translation issues as I am, I think their comments are really interesting:

An important motif in the novel The Book of Happenstance is the loss of words in Afrikaans – the countless words that have fallen into disuse for a variety of reasons. The protagonist is a lexicographer, who collaborates with an etymologist in cataloguing these obsolete words. The novel accordingly foregrounds language: it focuses on unusual words, word play, the etymology of words, free association. This foregrounding of language poses very specific difficulties for the translator. It requires an attention to language akin to that needed for the translation of poetry.

These disused words occur frequently in the text (sometimes running for paragraphs on end). What is interesting for an Afrikaans reader, however – familiar with the current status of a word – could very well be wearisome to the foreign language reader, unnecessarily and frustratingly slowing down the narrative. The challenge was to retain as many of the words as possible – but still make them as captivating as possible for the foreign reader.

Also included in this issue of Asymptote:

An excerpt from Imre Kertesz’s Fiasco which is translated by Tim Wilkinson and has a very striking opening:

Your manuscript has been assessed by our firm’s readers. On the basis of their unanimous opinion we are unable to undertake publication of your novel.

We consider that your way of giving artistic expression to the material of your experiences does not come off, whereas the subject itself is horrific and shocking. The fact that it nevertheless fails to become a shattering experience for the reader hinges primarily to the main protagonist’s, to put it mildly, odd reactions. While we find it understandable that the adolescent main protagonist does not immediately grasp what is happening around him (the call-up for forced labour, compulsory wearing of the yellow star, etc.), we think it inexplicable why, on arrival at the concentration camp, he sees the bald-shaven prisoners as “suspect.” More passages in bad taste follow: “Their faces did not exactly inspire confidence either: jug ears, prominent noses, sunken, beady eyes with a crafty gleam. Quite like Jews in every respect.”

It is also incredible that the spectacle of the crematoria arouses in him feelings of “a sense of a certain joke, a kind of student jape,” as he knows he is in an extermination camp and his being a Jew is sufficient reason for him to be killed. His behaviour, his gauche comments repel and offend the reader, who can only be annoyed on reading the novel’s ending, since the behaviour the main protagonist has displayed hitherto, his lack of compassion, gives him no ground to dispense moral judgements, call others to account (e.g. the reproaches he makes to the Jewish family living in the same building). We must also say something about the style. For the most part your sentences are clumsy, couched in a tortuous form, and sadly there are all too many phrases like “…on the whole…,” “naturally enough,” and “besides which …”

We are therefore returning the manuscript to you. Regards.

There’s also a section of Liu Zhenyun’s Cell Phone, which is described by translator Howard Goldblatt:

Cell Phone began as a joint project between Liu Zhenyun, one of the country’s most respected novelists, and Feng Xiaogang, creator of the cinematic blockbuster and China’s most successful director of mainstream films. The co-written script for the movie spawned the novel, both of which appeared at the end of 2003. While observing friends at a party kept busy answering cell phones, Liu noted the camouflage and pretenses employed in many of the conversations, which seemed to hold deep secrets, and he sensed that these instruments of ubiquitous communication could be a double-edged sword, capable of linking practical utility to moral expedience. That is the core issue of Liu’s novel, whose light-hearted, often comical tone lays a thin veil over the author’s evocation of the cost of technology’s incursion into urban life and the concomitant loss of privacy, already in short supply in Chinese society.

Finally, there’s also a piece from Torgny Lindgren’s The Tree and a special feature from translators Erika Sigvardsdotter and Bradley L. Garrett on Lindgren’s work:

The insular village surrounded by oceans of billowing needle trees is one of the recurring themes in Lindgren’s writing. In The Tree, this conceptual image is crucial. Isolated in time and space, the village comes to stand for the paradoxical pairing of insular, uncultivated narrow-mindedness and refined, perfected, material and social culture where everyone and everything knows its place and function. It is a seemingly eternal place, of great beauty and cultural depth, yet always on the brink of annihilation.

Asymptote is quickly establishing itself as one of the most interesting—and best designed—translation websites out there. Keep up the good (and beautiful!) work.


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