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Archive for the 'Fiction' Category

Friday, April 29th, 2016

The Plays of Gao Xingjian

City of the Dead and Song of the Night

The Plays of Gao Xingjian

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a brief look at the plays of Gao Xingjian, a writer who has worked in multiple genres—short stories, essays, novels—but is best known as a playwright. Sixteen years ago Gao became the first writer in Chinese to win the Nobel prize for literature, since then The Chinese University Press has been steadily publishing translations of his work into English.

City of the Dead and Song of the Night is his most recent collection of plays. In City of the Dead Gao updates the ancient morality tale “Zhuangzi Tests His Wife,” a cautionary tale against infidelity, to confront the traditional patriarchal system. Song of the Night, considered one of his most ambitious plays, theatrically portrays the female psyche. MCLC has called the book “intriguing and thought-provoking.” For a more detailed explanation of these two plays, you can read “Gao Xingjian: Autobiography and the Portrayal of the Female Psyche,” the volume’s introduction by Mabel Lee, one of his translators and an expert on his work.

Of Mountains and Seas is based on the ancient text The Classic of Mountains and Seas. This play reenacts the classical world of Chinese mythology, traversing the creation of humans to the beginning of Chinese dynastic history. (more…)

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

An Overview of the Inaugural Russian Library Titles

Between Dog and Wolf

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on our exciting new Russian Library series. In this post, series editor Christine Dunbar introduces the first three titles in the series.

An Overview of the Inaugural Russian Library Titles
By Christine Dunbar

One of the defining features of the Russian Library is its generic diversity. This is particularly significant for an Anglophone audience, because we tend to think of the Russian literary tradition as one that derives its greatness from novels, primarily the 19th century masterpieces of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Others think first of Chekhov’s fin-de-siècle plays, which have become part of the Western canon in large part because of their connection to Stanislavsky and eventually to method acting. Russians, and for that matter, scholars of Russian, are more likely to consider poetry the best and most powerful iteration of Russian letters.

The first three books in the Russian Library will publish in December, and while the three have much in common—linguistic virtuosity being the most obvious example—they amply demonstrate the profusion of genres that make up Russian literature. Before going any farther, let me digress momentarily to admit that I am and will be referring to genre in a fairly unsophisticated manner. I believe that it is generally more productive to think of a work as exhibiting certain generic characteristics, rather than belonging to a genre. However, obeying the generic conventions of the blog post, I’m not going to get too hung up on it here.

Andrei Platonov (1899-1951) was a supporter of the 1917 revolution, and in both his best-known novel The Foundation Pit and the plays in the Russian Library volume Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays one can see his sympathy for the dream of communism, even as he absolutely eviscerates the policies and realities of the contemporary Soviet Union. Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays contains two plays written in the early 1930s as direct reactions to the travails of collectivization and the resulting famine. (Estimates vary, but most place the death toll of the famine at between 5.5 and 8 million.) (more…)

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

When the Incident Occurred

The Lost Garden

“When the incident occurred, Zhu Yinghong was startled out of a deep sleep by a commotion somewhere in the house. The moment she opened her eyes she had a feeling that neither of her parents was in bed. As usual, she reached out to touch the thin blanket covering the plank bed, and felt nothing but a cold chill. Years later, she would piece together what little she remembered of that night with what she’d heard here and there, and concluded that it had happened sometime in April or May.” — Li Ang

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on an inventive collection of short fiction from Ng Kim Chew: The Lost Garden: A Novel, translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin with Howard Goldblatt. We are happy to present the video of a recent panel on The Lost Garden, featuring Li Ang herself, along with her translators and Columbia University Press Director and editor Jennifer Crewe, followed by an excerpt from the second chapter of Part 1 of the novel.

Li Ang and her “Lost Garden”

When the Incident Occurred

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

The Disappearance of M

Slow Boat to China and Other Stories

“When I (uh, it’s not me) . . . when he discussed that essay, he had an uncanny feeling that he had written it himself, while at the same time it was obviously mocking his writing. How could there be another author like this, who was able to penetrate into his thoughts and preemptively write his future, thereby forcibly removing him from this position of the ‘author’?” — Ng Kim Chew

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on an inventive collection of short fiction from Ng Kim Chew: Slow Boat to China and Other Stories, translated and edited by Carlos Rojas. “The Disappearance of M,” excerpted below, is the first story in the collection:

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Problem with History

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure

“Think of official history as a book. A book comes into view; it seems to suggest that it has no blank spaces, no margins. But it does, it contains blank spaces. In those spaces I cram my own notes, copious notes that are not yet articulated thoughts, and in the end weave a new book solely from the notes in the margins.” — Hideo Furukawa

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on Zhu Wen’s Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale That Begins with Fukushima, translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka.

Hideo Furukawa is in New York this week with Monkey Business for the PEN World Voices Festival (along with other fantastic writers, editors, and translators), and will be participating in a number of events: April 27 (Wed.), New York University, 6:30pm; April 28 (Thur.), Kinokuniya Bookstore, 6pm; April 29 (Fri.), BookCourt, 7pm; and April 30 (Sat.), Asia Society, 2pm (Ticket purchase required)! And now, on to the post:

Five years ago, on March 11, 2011, the town of Fukushima, Japan, was struck by a devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. Over 20,000 people died.

The reconstruction has been swift. ‘The incident is about to be forgotten, or they pretend nothing has happened,’ Japanese writer Hideo Furukawa said about his hometown. For Furukawa, careful examination is the only route to healing. One must investigate one’s nation and its past and present. His new book, Horses, Horses, In the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale that Begins with Fukushima, is a mix of fiction, history, and memoir, as one can see in this short excerpt.

The Problem with History
Hideo Furukawa

Our history, the history of the Japanese, is nothing more than a history of killing people.

I am not sure of the best way to phrase things, given that rather inflammatory start. I will explain things as simply as I can. We live within the echoes of the Warring States period. For example, bushō, the term for military leaders, circulates as a commodity in contemporary society, and, thus, it continues to echo in everyday Japan. By the “Warring States period” I include the Azuchi Momoyama period right up to the beginning of the Edo period (1573–1603). I am not sure if the Azuchi Momoyama period is still taught as a single historical period in schools (elementary, middle, and up through high school). But I am quite sure that everyone learns that there was a period when Oda Nobunaga and then Toyotomi Hideyoshi ruled supreme. For example, we consume these two men as commodities all the time. When I say we “consume” them as commodities, I mean how we see them as “heroic” and think of them positively. Why would that be? (more…)

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Complexity and Individuality of Contemporary Chinese Experiences and Perspectives

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, translated by Julia Lovell, and newly released in paperback. We are happy to present part of an interview with Julia Lovell from the Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as the short story “The Apprentice,” excerpted in full from the book:

On Zhu Wen’s Stories and Other Works of Chinese Fiction: A Q & A with Julia Lovell

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: In an endorsement of the new collection, Jonathan Spence, who praised I Love Dollars in the London Review of Books, says that this “second volume of short stories” is “both darker and denser than the first.” Does that fit with your feeling about the new book or would you characterize the contrast differently?

Julia Lovell: I think that’s a perceptive comment by Jonathan Spence. There was plenty that was shocking and dark about the first collection – in particular, the kind of careless amorality that some of the stories diagnosed in 1990s China. But there was also, I think, a strand of humor, a strong appreciation of the farcical, running through some of the pieces. That’s less dominant in the new collection. Two of the stories that take a more conversational, absurdist take on life in the People’s Republic – “Da Ma’s Way of Talking” and “The Apprentice” – are also overtly tinged with sadness. The relaxed, humorous narration of the first story contrasts with its ending; in the second piece, the lightly sardonic tone blurs into the narrator’s sense of despairing melancholy as he feels increasingly trapped by his future in the socialist economy. At the same time though, I think that the new volume offers more thoughtful insights into human relationships, and into the impact of political pressures on day-to-day life.

But I’m still very drawn to work that showcases the more relaxed side of Chinese culture. At the moment, I’m working on a new abridgement of Journey to the West, a book from the imperial Chinese canon that fizzes with humorous irreverence. Stodgy Neo-Confucians, covetous Buddhists and libidinous Taoists – all are mocked in the novel; at one point, the book’s hero, the Monkey King, even urinates on the hand of the Buddha. (more…)

Monday, April 25th, 2016

An Interview with M. A. Orthofer, author of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

“There does seem to have been a definite move from larger publishers dominating publishing translations into English to smaller, more nimble independents and non-profits taking the lead in the field, and I think the future success of fiction in translation depends on their continued viability.”—M. A. Orthofer

The following is an interview with Michael Orthofer, author of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction:

Question: Your site has become legendary in its ability to stay on top and find the most exciting new works in global fiction. How do you do it?

M. A. Orthofer: It all starts with reading as much as possible—though ironically, working on the site cuts into my reading-time (though I think I would complain about finding too little time to read, even if that’s all I did all day). I’ve also always read very widely—fiction in every category, from every corner of the world, from any language—and have always been eager to seek out new and different voices, approaches, stories. Many readers seem to find specific areas or periods or styles or genres they’re most comfortable with and concentrate much of their reading on these, but I’ll read pretty much anything, and I think that has made a big difference, as the site (and now the book) reflect that and offer something for everyone.

And while I’ve always tried to look beyond the merely local and familiar, the internet, with its easy access to information and writing from everywhere in the world, has obviously helped expand my own horizons tremendously.

Q: What are you seeing as some of the most noteworthy trends in global fiction?

MAO: One of the great things about international literature is that there is such incredible variety, and so not even hot trends like magical realism, “Da Vinci Code”-type thrillers, “Harry Potter”-like fantasy, or Nordic crime fiction can completely crowd out everything else. Success does breed a lot of imitation, locally and internationally, and there are certainly still too many instances of foreign writers trying to follow the formula of the biggest American and British best sellers, but I think there has been a distinct move back towards relying on local strengths—be that language, history, mythology, tradition—in foreign writing too. Crime fiction is probably where this is most visible, with other countries and cultures putting more of a local spin on stories again—which has certainly worked for writers from the Scandinavian countries.

A curious trend as far as books in translation in America (and the UK) goes does seem to be the rise of the short work of fiction, as I can’t remember ever seeing as many translated novels and even story-collections in the hundred-page range. There are still lots of big works being published—not least the multi-volume epics by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante—but the small, slim volume of fiction in translation has become much more common. I don’t think this is a real global trend—it seems limited to the US and Britain—and I assume one reason for it is simply that publishers are more willing to take on short works because they are considerably cheaper to translate.

Q: What is your sense of what and how much of international fiction is the English-speaking world missing? Are there many authors and books that English-language readers don’t have access to because of lack of translations

The number of books published in English translation is still so low—less than five hundred new works of fiction in 2015, according to the Three Percent database—that it’s impossible not to conclude that we are missing a tremendous amount. It looks to me very much like a tip-of-the-iceberg situation—compounded by an uneven distribution of what gets translated. BecauseAmerican publishers are so reliant on outside financial support for the additional cost of translating works, those countries that are able and willing to subsidize the translation of their literature are far-better represented in translation. As a result, fiction from many European countries, or South Korea and Japan, is much better-represented than that from countries and languages that haven’t invested in subsidizing translation—or aren’t able to.

(more…)

Monday, April 25th, 2016

Weekly Feature and Book Giveaway: World Literature Week

World Literature Week

This week, in conjunction with the PEN World Voices Festival, we will be highlighting our wide range of books of and about world literature here on the Columbia University Press blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Here’s a quick summary of books we’ll have posts for this week (we’ll add the posts, as well, as they arrive!):

Monday

  • An interview with M. A. Orthofer, highlighting his thorough and fascinating new guide to contemporary fiction around the world, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction
  • Tuesday

  • An interview with translator Julia Lovell and “The Apprentice,” an excerpted short story from The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, a collection of short stories about everyday life in China in the late 1980s by Zhu Wen (following up his previous collection, I Love Dollars)
  • An excerpt on writing a book composed from notes in the margins of history, from Hideo Furukawa’s novel/history/memoir of the 3/11 disaster at Fukushima, Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka. Hideo Furukawa will be in New York for the PEN World Voices festival! For more details, click here.
  • Wednesday

  • “The Disappearance of M,” the first story in Ng Kim Chew’s collection of short fiction, Slow Boat to China and Other Stories, translated and edited by Carlos Rojas
  • Watch novelist Li Ang discuss The Lost Garden, her eloquent and beautiful exploration of contemporary Taiwan, with translators Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt, and Columbia University Press Director Jennifer Crewe, and then read “When the Incident Occurred,” an excerpt from Part 1
  • Thursday

  • A quick critical look at the dominance of English and its effect on world literature from Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, by Rebecca L. Walkowitz, and The Fall of Language in the Age of English, by Minae Mizumura, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter
  • Editor Christine Dunbar introduces our new Russian Library series, with a particular focus on its first three books: Between Dog and Wolf, by Sasha Sokolov, translated by Alexander Boguslawski; Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays, by Andrei Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler, translated by Robert Chandler, Jesse Irwin, and Susan Larsen; and Strolls with Pushkin, by Andrei Sinyavsky, translated by Catherine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Slava I. Yastremski
  • Friday

  • Take a closer look at Chinese University Press’s extensive collection of drama from Nobel Prize for Literature winner Gao Xingjian, including, among others, The Other Shore, Snow in August, and, most recently, City of the Dead and Ballade Nocturne
  • A wonderful selection of poetry from Chinese University Press’s series of International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong anthologies, particularly the most recent installment, Poetry and Conflict, Edited by Bei Dao, Shelby K. Y. Chan, Gilbert C. F. Fong, Lucas Klein, Christopher Mattison, and Chris Song
  • Book Giveaway

    We are also offering a FREE selection of titles discussed in the feature: The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, by M. A. Orthofer; Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, by Hideo Furukawa; The Lost Garden, by Li Ang; and The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, by Zhu Wen. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, April 29th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

    Thursday, April 21st, 2016

    Thursday Fiction Corner: Chu T’ien-wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man

    Notes of a Desolate Man

    Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar tries to explain why Chu T’ien-wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man is so awesome.

    I have been struggling to write about Chu T’ien-Wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man, which I read in Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin’s translation, because by starting with one aspect of the text, I am unavoidably not starting with any number of other aspects, all equally deserving of attention. In other words, I am finding hard to write about this book because I love it so much.

    It is a book about belonging and mortality and art, which is just about the least informative thing I could say. It is also a book about a Taiwanese gay man, Xiao Shao, watching his best friend die of AIDS. The beginning of the novel foregrounds this information, as though the implied author is conspiring with the first-person narrator to show the reader that being out and proud kills you. But the narrator’s language of guilt, sin, and unnaturalness only partially obscures a life rich in love, art, and, above all, words.

    Theory and narratives—particularly from films—provide a structure with which the narrator makes sense of life, but words provide comfort. When his partner leaves on an extended business trip, Shao combats debilitating loneliness and anxiety by reading lists of colors from an article on visual imagery in Chinese poetry: “moist red, light primrose red, fingernail red, vale red, light peach red, light poppy red, apple red, cheek red, melon pulp red, molten iron red, strawberry red, distiller’s red, escargot red, cassia red, pomegranate red, mercury red, cooked-shrimp red, blush red, and crab-pincer red” (65). These reds return, in a lover’s well-kissed lips, in a sister’s first lipstick and menstrual blood, in the communism of a mainland China Shao will never see.

    Shao’s alienation from what he sees as normal family life is reinforced by the book’s non-linear chronology—and how could it not be, with a narrator whose default touchstones are arthouse cinema and French theory. But in the novel’s penultimate chapter, Shao recognizes that the China he both longs for and shuns, which he has been conflating with the space on the map occupied by the mainland, doesn’t actually exist, or if it does exist, exists only in language, only as a concept that he himself creates. I would argue that on a higher authorial level, a symmetry is being drawn between the false outsider status of the homosexual and the Taiwanese people. That is, perhaps in time Shao will recognize that his idealized notion of a heterosexual nuclear family that flawlessly insulates its members from loneliness and loss cannot be found in reality, and to the extent that a family can mitigate sorrow, his own is no less capable.

    As a Slavist, I can’t help but compare Notes of a Desolate Man to Notes from the Underground, and there are many similarities: the intimate tone; the defiant embrace of irrationality; the loneliness; the non-linearity; the centrality of thoughts about sex and power. Even the way Shao weaves together personal reflections with critiques of social theory mirrors the narration of the underground man. And the narrators, both of whom are 40, are going through something of a midlife crisis. But Dostoevsky’s narrator is an outward-facing one, ranting to an audience, seeing himself as set against all of society. Shao’s narration is quieter. He’s unreliable, but not slyly so. This is a man attempting, if not quite managing, to be honest with himself, to gain meaning through details and grand theory alike. The underground man would scoff at Shao’s naiveté, but I appreciate his attempt to use the tools at his disposal—Lévi-Strauss, Fellini, Miyazaki—to make sense of a life not governed by reproductive cycles, and that will eventually end in death.

    Thursday, March 24th, 2016

    Thursday Fiction Corner: The Blue Wolf by Inoue Yasushi, translated by Joshua Fogel

    The Blue Wolf

    Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar muses on the (unfair) expectations readers put on translations after reading The Blue Wolf by Inoue Yasushi, translated by Joshua Fogel.

    I am wary of treating literary texts as windows into the soul of a people. Presupposing the existence of the individual stable concepts of “soul” and “people” is bad enough; putting them together inevitably smacks either of nationalism or racism. I think of Dostoevsky’s 1880 Pushkin speech, where he calls Tatiana “the apotheosis of the Russian woman.” I find Belinsky’s equally political remark about Eugene Onegin—that it is “an encyclopedia of Russian life”—to be more congenial, if also limiting. (This is, after all, the same guy who told Gogol that his books could be aesthetically bad as long as they weren’t bad for society; not really an art for art’s sake type.) This is a very roundabout way of saying that I am so pleased that we published Joshua Fogel’s translation of Inoue Yasushi’s The Blue Wolf: A Novel of the Life of Chinggis Khan.

    It could easily never have been translated. Originally serialized (I learned from the brief but informative Translator’s Note) in 1959-60, and immensely popular in Japan, it took almost 50 years for the book to appear in English. And I can imagine why. There’s something rather odd about the idea of translating a Japanese novel about Mongolia into English. But why is that?

    I think some of it has to do with our tacit expectations of a translation. With some exceptions for genre fiction—Swedish crime novels, say—we expect a translation to be excellent literature; after all, a translated book has been elevated above its peers, one of the chosen few to appear on a world stage. But at the same time, we expect it to fulfill an anthropological function. We want to learn something about its country of origin. Our (well, my, at least) ignorance is so vast that the simplest of details becomes a revelation. We don’t read Wordsworth and think, “oh, so daffodils grow in the Lake Country, how interesting,” but we may well have such a thought about the flora of the steppe.

    The Blue Wolf is remarkably effective in this way. There isn’t, granted, much discussion of flora, but in reading the novel I learned a great deal about social mores, battle tactics, and political maneuvering on the Mongolian plateau. As for any historical novel, these details are the result of painstaking research, not the chance-met details a reader might glean from reading something of foreign origin. According again to that very useful Translator’s Note, Yasushi was well regarded in the academic community for taking the time to get these details right. All that is missing is the reader’s feeling of delight (if we’re being charitable) or self-righteousness (if we’re not) in the immersive, two-for-one nature of reading something set in the same foreign locale that produced the author. That is, the feeling that you are increasing your knowledge not only of Japanese literature but also of Japan.

    Perhaps a Japanist would feel comfortable drawing some kind of conclusion from the fact that this book was so popular. I do not. But I found it to be an enjoyable and fascinating look at the life of Chinggis Khan, and the book’s language of origin, in regard to that basic fact, is neither here nor there.

    Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

    Thursday Fiction Corner: Trees Without Wind by Li Rui, translated by John Balcom

    Trees Without Wind

    Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar muses on sound, names, and the ethical stakes of translation after having read Trees Without Wind by Li Rui, translated by John Balcom.

    In their introduction to In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky propose translation as a way out of having to choose between a fragmented world, rich in cultural specificity and a more culturally homogenous, English-speaking world, rich in unmediated communication. Translation, they argue, “works to strengthen the pluralism of world languages and cultures by giving writers in all languages the opportunity to reach English’s global audience while still writing in their native tongues” (xv). However, Allen and Bernofsky do not ignore the ethical dangers inherent therein: “As a writer of the language of global power, the translator into English must remain ever aware of the power differential that tends to subsume cultural difference and subordinate it to a globally uniform, market-oriented monoculture” (xvii).

    To look at this binary from a slightly different perspective, is the role of translation to give the reader a glimpse of a piece of the fragmented world to which she would otherwise not have access, or is it to bring stories to a larger audience, who will appreciate their universal appeal? Is it in service of celebrating otherness or commonality? Like many binaries, I find this one fascinating to contemplate and not all that useful to answer. It’s a little bit of both, of course, or maybe that means it’s neither.

    At an event during Read Russia’s Russian Literature Week 2015, Mark Krotov told an anecdote about his mother’s take on this question. She was frustrated by Anglophone readers using the difficulty of parsing Russian names as an excuse to avoid reading Russian literature. She advocated a simple fix: Anglicize the names. After all, the names aren’t the important part. Later the same week, if my memory does not fail me, Marian Schwartz supported a similar, if slightly less extreme, solution. If a character is called by five different variations on his name throughout the book, she’ll choose two (I think she said two—it could have been three—but the principle stands) and use those throughout.

    But what about when the names themselves carry meaning? Or when the sound of the name plays an important role in the aural landscape of the work? Or, heaven forbid, both?

    I recently read Li Rui’s Trees Without Wind in John Balcom’s translation, a book in which sound is important not only for establishing a sense of setting but also for maintaining a link between the stream of consciousness narration and the outside world. The text is full of people chewing “crunch, crunch, crunch,” a donkey digging “dig, thud, dig, thud,” a saw sawing “chi-la, chi-la, chi-la,” leaves rustling “hua-la, hua-la,” and other such sounds. This selection of sounds combines words that refer to sounds and pure sounds. This same dichotomy is preserved in Balcom’s decisions regarding the names in the book. He has chosen to identify most characters by their transliterated names—and I am assuming here that he has not simplified them for an Anglophone audience, but I do not know. In any case, I did not find them difficult to follow. For some characters, however, he has translated their “speaking names”—for example, Uncle Gimpy, Second Dog, or the name of the town where the action takes place, Stunted Flats.

    This decision—which, for the record, seems to me to be entirely the right one—does limit the instances of non-English words in the text, but Balcom has chosen to leave some non-name terms in the source language as well. The most common example of this is “kang.” In phrases like “how could you wet the kang again?” (47) this is clearly something akin to a bed, but in other contexts it appears to have an even more central role in daily life. Choosing one English word would have fixed the meaning. In a book set during the Cultural Revolution, a time that erases boundaries between public and private (which is to say, a time when who is sleeping with whom has potentially stark political consequences) stating that two characters were eating in bed—when the kang is in fact an entirely standard place to eat—would have been significantly misleading. At the same time, for better or for worse, the unfamiliar word kang draws the Anglophone reader’s attention in a way that is probably not the case for a reader of the original text. This seems to me to be not a tragedy, as it is a productive place for the reader’s attention to be. It highlights questions of gender disparity, outside scrutiny of communities, the meaning of home and belonging, etc. that are important in the novel. But it is an interpretive lens that is maybe not forced, but at the very least thrust upon the reader of this translation.

    It will come as no surprise, I think, to hear that I enjoyed Trees Without Wind for both its specificity and its universality. The passages that mock the formulaic heroes of proletarian fiction remind me of similar responses to socialist realism in Russia, and the use of kang solves a problem readers of Russian literature face when they read that so-and-so was sleeping on the stove, a completely standard activity for certain designs of pech’, but rather masochistic-sounding for the initiated. (The Wikipedia article references the Kang bed-stove, further cementing this similarity.) Drawing connections between two pieces of the fragmented world to discover commonalities—yet another way in which translation defies binary thinking.

    Thursday, February 18th, 2016

    Thursday Fiction Corner: Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls

    There a Petal Silently Falls

    Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar asks how much, if any, contextualizing information should be provided to the reader of a translation?

    I was once astounded by the return of a bizarre detail late in a Krzhizhanovsky work—so astounded, in fact, that I flipped back to see in what context it had originally appeared—and found that I had read it not early in the text but rather in the preceding scholarly introduction. But introductions can serve an important function, particularly for translations, where a reader often lacks background knowledge assumed in the original audience. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton’s translation of Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls eschews an introduction for a brief translators’ afterword, and this fact—combined with my own ignorance—led me to read the title novella without any knowledge of the Kwangju Massacre of 1980.

    This has, in my view, two main consequences. First, it allowed me to read the work as primarily about rape. The narration combines chapters in the voices of 1) a construction worker who rapes and beats a mute teenager, 2) the traumatized teenager herself, and 3) a mysterious group attempting to locate her, and this structure serves to underline the teenager’s inability to speak aloud in the world of the story. Her misadventure is sparked by the deaths of her brother and mother, leaving her wandering the countryside alone, looking for her brother’s grave. (more…)

    Thursday, January 28th, 2016

    Thursday Fiction Corner: The Closing of the Russian Mind?

    The Closing of the Russian Mind

    Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! Last night, Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar attended “The Closing of the Russian Mind? Freedom of Expression in Putin’s Russia,” sponsored by PEN America (watch the video here). She wrote up a brief reaction to the event for today’s post.

    The Closing of the Russian Mind?
    By Christine Dunbar

    Last night I attended a PEN America-sponsored event at the Manhattan JCC titled “The Closing of the Russian Mind? Freedom of Expression in Putin’s Russia.” These events are always a little surreal. All six people on stage—headliner Ludmila Ulitskaya, novelist Anna Nemzer, poet Maria Stepanova, publisher Ilya Danishevsky, moderator Masha Gessen, and the interpreter—were native speakers of Russian, and only Gessen is bilingual. The audience was comprised of at least 80% native or heritage speakers, and I revised that estimate down during the closing Q and A. In my immediate vicinity in the top row of the sold out event, I saw only two other non-native speakers. The desire to reach a wide public, however, necessitates an English-language event. So you have either very smart, very eloquent people attempting to express complex ideas, on the fly, in a second (or third, for all I know) language in which they are highly, impressively competent but far from fluent (Nemzer, Stepanova) or you use an interpreter (Ulitskaya, Danishevsky), and most of the audience hears the same thing twice. If you are lucky, they are polite about it, keeping quiet while they mentally quibble with the interpreter’s word choices, which is easy to do when you don’t have to consider syntax, grammatical agreement, or cultural references. (How, for instance, is the poor interpreter to render Ulitskaya’s seemingly simply statement, “We have the kitchen again,” where the kitchen is a cultural shorthand for, well, literally sitting in the kitchen, which becomes the central location of cultural life, a place where poems are read, songs are sung, and issues are debated, in the absence of a functional public square?) If you are unlucky, the audience loses patience, and the whispering starts. It’s a bind, and one I saw no way out of, until today.

    Of the six people on the stage, other than the aforementioned beleaguered interpreter, Ilya Danishevsky is probably the least well known. And he seemed the least comfortable. But he was a masterful performer. He spoke with animation and conviction, but softly, forcing the auditorium to quiet in order to hear him. But to me, most impressive was his orchestration of the interpretation, which tended toward short statements with frequent pauses, allowing him to retain control of the momentum throughout his statement, rather than losing it after each three or four sentence block. The high point, however, was his use of the interpretation to create an enjambment, when he says something along the lines of “we are speaking about the Russian landscape, and for me, this landscape is connected to two concepts” and then he signals for the interpreter to take over, forcing the audience to wait to find out what those two concepts are. (Fear and solipsism, in case you are curious.) I had noticed before that a practiced public speaker, used to working with an interpreter, could make the process seem less onerous for everyone involved, but I had never before witnessed a speaker using the very fact of interpretation as a rhetorical device. I’m looking forward to checking out more of Danishevsky’s work.

    Wednesday, January 20th, 2016

    Book Giveaway! We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, by Shirley Hazzard

    We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think

    “In these essays there is a lovely sense of witnessing a brilliant and judicious mind at work. Shirley Hazard has a way of finding the right phrase, and capturing a tone and a rhythm, that offer a sort of sensuous pleasure to the reader. She cares passionately about writing, the life of the mind but also the public realm. As in her novels, her essays display the quality of her sympathy, her ability to make distinctions as well as connections, and her acute analysis. She is an inspiring presence in our literary life, and having these essays is both a gift and a revelation.” — Colm Tóibín

    This week, our featured book is We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, by Shirley Hazzard, edited with an introduction by Brigitta Olubas. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

    We are also offering a FREE copy of We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address.

    Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

    “In Sebald one encounters an ethics of melancholy outrage” — Carol Jacobs on W. G. Sebald

    Sebald's Vision, Carol Jacobs

    “In Sebald one encounters an ethics of melancholy outrage, but he also sets forth his moral position with an astonishing sense of self-certitude.”—Carol Jacobs

    In the following excerpt from the preface to Sebald’s Vision, Carol Jacobs details some of the distinctive features of W. G. Sebald’s fiction:

    Three aspects of Sebald’s writing must inevitably strike every reader. To begin with, it is a question of a postwar German author addressing the Holocaust (and other historico-political and ecologi­cal disasters) in a manner the reading public had never before wit­nessed. In Sebald one encounters an ethics of melancholy outrage, but he also sets forth his moral position with an astonishing sense of self-certitude.

    Second: every reader is struck by the visual oddity of literary and essayistic works peppered with images: photographs, documents, diagrams, sketches, and reproductions of artworks. The temptation, of course, is to assume that, given the ethical stance, the visual materials are there as illustrations. In Sebald’s writings one soon notices that this assumption is particularly vexed, since he openly plays with the purposeful uncertainty of what he places be­fore our eyes. The visual materials, as Sebald admits in an interview, often serve the purpose of readerly disorientation. And then one en­counters in each of his writings an astonishingly innovative writing style. Given his performances of meandering detours, his shatter­ing of frames, crossing borders, writing tangentially, disintegrating the name, surreptitiously citing, and announcing blindness, what is called for is a careful analysis of the highly unusual literary practices of his texts. How to reconcile such a radical stylistics with moral cer­titude? This is the question. How to understand, as Sebald will assert in interviews, that he can only speak indirectly? The task in reading Sebald, then, is to account for a whole range of concepts: what Sebald called our moral capacity alongside the vagaries of perception and, more generally, how representation in art and literature relates to the epistemological crises that he shows us arising out of the juxtaposi­tion of all these.

    That his writings are about vision as the ability to see can escape no reader. Alongside the unusual, interspersed visual materials that rightfully engage so many Sebald scholars a theme of sight is oft en woven into the text. In “Air War and Literature” Sebald reproves those writers who directly witnessed the Allied bombings. What was called for was a steady gaze at what was before them (“Air War”) rendered in a concrete prose that might make the reader see. Still in The Rings of Saturn the narrator will celebrate not only Rembrandt’s verisimilitude but also his rebellion against mimesis. That refusal to copy nature emerges as Rembrandt’s social commentary. Sebald also writes of the remark­able realism of the art of Jan Peter Tripp, while nevertheless insisting that it is less its identity with reality that is worth considering than the “far less apparent points of divergence and difference”. In a late interview, Sebald will go on to insist that the Holocaust, which so concerned him, can only be spoken of indirectly: “So the only way in which one can approach these things, in my view, is obliquely, tangentially, by reference rather than by di­rect confrontation.” These are atrocities, he often takes the opportu­nity to remind us, that he himself, in any case, born in 1944, could not possibly have experienced head-on.

    The degree to which written texts are called upon to see and report a factual or historical world of the artist’s experience fluctuates wildly in Sebald’s works and, more crucially, also within each individual work. In the texts we are about to read, neat conclusions about vision-of-the-eye are impossible. And then we encounter the prolific acts of citation, both visual and verbal, that are bound to seem twenty-twenty from a certain point of view. As we all know, however—and no one better than Sebald—the play of montage alters the incorporated material and puts it into new relations that cause us to see and read otherwise.

    Thursday, July 30th, 2015

    Rebecca Walkowitz on Writing in Translation

    In the following video, Rebecca Walkowitz discusses her new book Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature. In this section of her talk from the Novel: A Forum on Fiction conference, Walkowitz discusses writing in translation:

    Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

    Will the New Man Booker International Prize Challenge English’s Dominance in World Literature?

    Born Translated, by Rebecca Walkowitz

    “Upgrading the status of translators, the prize upgrades the status of multilingualism. It also upgrades the status of translations. No longer merely derivations or adaptations of original works, translated editions will be assessed as works in their own right.”—Rebecca Walkowitz on the new Man Booker Prize for Translated Fiction

    The following post is by Rebecca Walkowitz, author of Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature

    Earlier this month, the organizers of the Man Booker International Prize announced that they are scrapping the old prize, recognizing the career of a single novelist working in any language, and launching a new prize for a single novel translated into English. So, next year, we’ll have the Man Booker Prize, which celebrates the best novel published in English and also written in English. And we’ll have the Man Booker International Prize, which celebrates the best novel published in English translated from another language. What are the consequences of this change?

    The new International Prize is likely to increase the visibility of translated books. All but two of the past International Prize winners have been English-language novelists. That group is no longer eligible, so the Man Booker’s enormous publicity machine will be focused at least half the time on writers who work in other languages. Greater publicity for translated books, it is hoped, will lead to a greater number of readers for those books. Not simply celebrating excellent translations, the Man Booker organizers want to increase the number of foreign-language works contracted by UK publishers.

    To be sure, the new Prize is a boon for “foreign” writers, by which they mean writers who use languages other than English. But the organizers also have local readers and local publishing houses in mind. They want English-language readers to have more translations to choose from because they believe that reading books from other languages will help British citizens compete with their more worldly European neighbors. In this sense, the new International Prize, for all its cosmopolitanism, also has nationalist motives: the education of English-only readers. Of course, it may be that reading novels in translation will lead some people to learn additional languages and to think about English as one language among many.

    In my view, the new Prize is likely encourage that kind of thinking not because it rewards foreign books but because it rewards translators of foreign books. The prize money (£50,000) will be split evenly between authors and translators, who will share credit for the production of the translated work. Upgrading the status of translators, the prize upgrades the status of multilingualism. It also upgrades the status of translations. No longer merely derivations or adaptations of original works, translated editions will be assessed as works in their own right. Readers will be asked to notice (instead of forget) that the work they are reading was brought from another language.

    (more…)

    Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

    Interview with Rebecca Walkowitz, author of Born Translated

    Born Translated, by Rebecca Walkowitz

    “For a long time, we’ve assumed that all books begin in one language, often called a ‘native language,’ and then travel out to other languages. This is how we’ve expected ‘world literature’ to work. But today, many books begin in several languages—they start as world literature…”—Rebecca Walkowitz

    In Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, Rebecca L. Walkowitz argues that translation should be understood as the engine rather than the caboose of literary history. She analyzes the ways in which contemporary novelists such as J. M. Coetzee and Jamaica Kincaid incorporate the themes, forms, structure, and visual devices of translation in their works to tell this story.

    Question: What is a “born-translated” novel?

    Rebecca Walkowitz: I call some contemporary novels “born-translated” because they have been published simultaneously, or almost simultaneously (within a few weeks or months), in several different languages. For a long time, we’ve assumed that all books begin in one language, often called a “native language,” and then travel out to other languages. This is how we’ve expected “world literature” to work. But today, many books begin in several languages—they start as world literature—and this is especially true for novels that are written in English. In my book, I am interested in how Anglophone novels have begun to reflect on this situation, embedding their existence as translated works into the stories they tell and even into their structure and style.

    Q: How does this affect the way contemporary novels are written?

    RW: From the perspective of fiction-writing, the fact that novels will appear in translation right away has changed the way writers use language. Kazuo Ishiguro has talked about his efforts to design his books around structure and narrative architecture rather than around individual phrases or puns. David Mitchell’s novels often tell us about the presence of foreign languages on the page rather than representing them directly (through direct quotation or inflected dialogue). We can see in Ishiguro’s and Mitchell’s novels a focus on narrating languages—describing their relationship to other languages, explaining how they circulate and who can use them, observing which characters understand them and which don’t—rather than a focus on playing with them or reproducing their characteristics on the page. Ben Lerner has noted that his novel Leaving the Atocha Station, about a young American’s experience of learning Spanish in Madrid, emphasizes the encounter with a language one does not understand rather than the “surface effects” of that language. In Jamaica Kincaid’s work, the reader is asked to think about the words they are not reading, because they have been spoken or thought by someone who does not have access to literacy or publication. These novels represent the different ways that characters speak English and other languages by explaining those differences, by telling us about the historical and political conditions of language education, and by developing generic, syntactical, and visual cues that can communicate multilingualism in multiple languages.

    (more…)

    Monday, June 29th, 2015

    Columbia University Press to Publish New Translations of Russian Literature

    Columbia University Press  Russian Flag

    We were very excited to read today’s New York Times included an article on our ambitious and very exciting new series of Russian literature in translation. The series, tentatively titled the Russian Library (on Twitter at @RusLibrary) will publish dozens of works in modern Russian literature as selected by the Press and a committee of Russian and American scholars.

    While the first books are unlikely to be published until after 2017, the books will include some modern classics in need of new translations with a majority of the titles being contemporary and post-Soviet works. In addition to bringing these works to the attention of English-language readers, the hope is that the series will also contribute to improving relations between the United States and Russia. Stephanie Sandler, a professor in the Slavic Department at Harvard University and one of several American professors to travel to Moscow for the conference, commented:

    Think about the good work that can be done by making available a wide variety of perspectives on Russia both from the past and the present. For many of us, the reason to be involved in the project and have it happen precisely at what would seem this inauspicious, high-tension political moment, is that we can start to find bridges between the two cultures and ways to talk to each other.

    The series will also help develop a canon for more recent Russian literature, a project that’s not without its challenges as Caryl Emerson, a professor of Slavic Literature at Princeton University, explains:

    Part of the problem is the delicacy of trying to define a future canon. The past is established. The Russians take their identity from what they read. What happens when you have a traumatic regime shift? People want things out there that are not known in the West but at what point are they worthy of being known?

    (more…)

    Thursday, May 14th, 2015

    On the making of trout amandine and cauliflower gratin, an excerpt from “The Author and Me”

    The Author and Me

    In this week’s Thursday Fiction Corner, we continue our celebration of The Author and Me, written by Éric Chevillard and translated by Jordan Stump, which has been named as a finalist for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award in Fiction! Today, we are happy to present a short excerpt from the book which truly gets to the heart of the story: the contrast between the delicate and delightful preparation of trout amandine and the brutal and horrifying cooking (if one can use a word with such limited negative connotations to describe the process) of cauliflower gratin. Bask in the glory of the description of the first, and shiver in fear at the description of the second:

    On the making of trout amandine and cauliflower gratin, an excerpt from The Author and Me
    By Éric Chevillard, translated by Jordan Stump

    So you begin, of course, by cleaning the trout, through the gills if you know what you’re doing, or more simply by making an inch-long incision in its belly, starting from the anus, taking care not to puncture the bile sac, lest you impregnate the fish’s pink, delicate flesh with a bitterness it succeeded in containing better than I, I must confess, Mademoiselle, but I have my reasons. Now rinse your trout, with care once again: there are sometimes little clots of blood still clinging to the spine. Cut off the fins, slash the end of the tail to prevent it from curling up in the frying pan like a scorpion’s, which would introduce into your lunch a note of aggression that will sooner or later be sounded by one of your tablemates anyway—whereupon you will lower your nose to your plate to find the exquisite tenderness your fellows deny you. Next, melt a tablespoon and a half of butter in a frying pan and, in another, dry roast a half cup of sliced almonds, stirring them gently with a wooden spatula. In your enthusiasm, you will have grown a third hand for snipping the parsley. Lower the heat under the first pan and, while in the other the almonds turn golden, brown your trouts (I put in two: I’d like one myself), dusted with flour and perhaps stuffed with a sprig of thyme. After eight minutes—men will have been born by the thousands, men will have died, that will give you a sense of those minutes’ import—turn the fish, salt and pepper the browned side, and add the parsley along with half the almonds. Let a few more minutes go by, turn the fish once again, scatter over the reserved almonds, drizzle the whole thing with the remaining butter and a little spray of lemon.

    What do you think?

    How much we’d have to say, if it weren’t rude to talk with your mouth full!

    Whereas.

    Whereas that woman.

    Whereas, quite to the contrary, that woman.

    Whereas, quite to the contrary, that woman began by dividing a cauliflower into little florets! (more…)