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Han Kang and the complexity of translation

How literal must a literary translation be? Nabokov, who was fluent in three languages and wrote in two of them, believed that “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” Borges, on the other hand, maintained that a translator should seek not to copy a text but to transform and enrich it. “Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization,” Borges insisted—or, depending on the translation you come across, “a more advanced stage of writing.” (He wrote the line in French, one of several languages he knew.)

In 2016, “The Vegetarian” became the first Korean-language novel to win the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded to both its author, Han Kang, and its translator, Deborah Smith. In the English-speaking world, Smith, at the time a twenty-eight-year-old Ph.D. student who had begun learning Korean just six years earlier, was praised widely for her work. In the Korean media, however, the sense of national pride that attended Han’s win—not to mention the twentyfold spike in printed copies of the book, which was a fairly modest success upon its initial publication, in 2007—was soon overshadowed by charges of mistranslation. Though Han had read and approved the translation, Huffington Post Korea asserted that it was completely “off the mark.” Smith defended herself at the Seoul International Book Fair, saying, “I would only permit myself an infidelity for the sake of a greater fidelity.”

The controversy reached many American readers in September of last year, when the Los Angeles Times published a piece by Charse Yun, a Korean-American who has taught courses in translation in Seoul. (The article extended an argument that Yun had first made, in July, in the online magazine Korea Exposé.) “Smith amplifies Han’s spare, quiet style and embellishes it with adverbs, superlatives and other emphatic word choices that are nowhere in the original,” Yun writes. “This doesn’t just happen once or twice, but on virtually every other page.” It’s as though Raymond Carver had been made to sound like Charles Dickens, he adds. This isn’t, in Yun’s view, a matter merely of accuracy but also of cultural legibility. Korea has a rich and varied literary tradition—and a recent history that is intimately entangled with that of the West, particularly the U.S. But few works of Korean literature have had any success in the English-speaking world, and the country, despite its frequent presence in American headlines, does not register in the popular imagination the way that its larger neighbors China and Japan do. Han Kang seemed to fill that void—or begin to, at least. But if her success depended on mistranslation, how much had really got through?

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16 Writers on Their Favourite Translated Titles From Across Asia

Earlier this year, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop launched the Transpacific Literary Project, an editorial initiative to publish new and exciting writing from across East and Southeast Asia on The Margins while building a body of work that might help us better understand the importance of the Pacific World to literature. In an increasingly divided world, translated literature brings us closer together. As the year draws to a close, we asked some of our most beloved writers—from Viet Thanh Nguyen and Kimiko Hahn to Hari Kunzru and Tash Aw—to tell us about their favorite books in translation out of Asia and the Asian diaspora. Collected below are works that meditate through medieval texts, reimagine the immigrant story, and above all explore selfhood in surroundings.

Red Dust by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

In 1983, Ma Jian, a painter and poet, became the target of a rectification session during China’s 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. A colleague began the denunciation by saying: “I asked why a face in one of [Ma Jian’s] paintings looked like the face of a corpse. He laughed and said everyone puts on a mask but underneath our souls are ugly shameful things. He said we are born in a daze and die in a dream . . . He sees life as a great blackness. I feel he should confront his disturbed psychology.”

Alerted that his arrest is imminent, Ma Jian leaves his home in Beijing. Barred from leaving the country, he instead walks a path through it, traversing thousands of kilometres. His book, Red Dust, documents a movement through levels of containment: the captive mind looking for a doorway out into the world, or deeper into oneself. Red Dust is a book I have read a dozen times. It is a despairing, bawdy, provocative portrait of the artist, a memoir that creates its own form, asking, How can one be free in one’s mind when one’s body lives within an authoritarian state? How to see through the red dust of illusion?

Of his country, Ma Jian has written, “There is a collective fear of truth.” I grieve that the same can be said of all our countries; we are living in a conflicted age of revolution and denunciation, an age in which we abandon one another at our peril. The call to each of us to question ourselves, to think for ourselves, is urgent. “You have about twenty thousand days left before you die,” he writes. “Why are you wasting your life? You must focus your mind and do something.”

—Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien is the author of several books including Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which won the 2016 Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Her second novel Dogs at the Perimeter was just published in the United States by W.W. Norton this year.

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Another Birth, Other Words: Queering the Poetry of Forough Farrokhzad in Translation

Recently, the Swedish Academy responsible for the dictionary of Swedish language added the new gender neutral pronoun hen to the newest edition of their work. The news reached international media and reaffirmed the idea of Scandinavian countries as being the ‘frontrunners of gender equality.’

The application of the gender neutral pronoun isn’t all that new, though. It has been a subject of debate among feminist-leftist circles since the 1970s. Swedish kindergarten Egalia even applied the use of hen back in 2011. Egalia’s mission to undo gender stereotypes entailed among other things the substitution of the gendered pronouns han and hon (he and she) with the gender-neutral neologism hen.

The Scandinavian narrative of progressiveness and gender equality isn’t without its challenges and controversies, however. Internal disputes within leftist-feminist circles suggest that some see the gender neutral pronoun as a liberating panacea, bound to revolutionize binary gender roles, while others view it as an unrealistic utopian project that will only serve to blur actually-existing inequalities. Semantics won’t fix the lived experiences of sexism, they argue.

What those opposed to linguistic gender neutrality forget, however, is that this trend is often not nearly as ‘exotic’ or foreign a phenomenon as is often cast. You don’t have to travel farther than Finland — Sweden’s neighbor — before you encounter a gender-neutral language, where the neutral (and only) 3rd person pronoun is hän. This word has served as an inspiration for the Swedish equivalent: hen and the Danish: høn.

Even further afield, another language remotely related to Danish with shared Indo-European roots is Persian, in which some of the oldest and most influential literature in history has been written. Throughout history, Persian’s lack of gendered pronouns has allowed for the production of subversive texts that have confounded and enchanted readers and leaders alike.

The world-renowned Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Molana Rumi, who lived in the 13th century and wrote in Persian, is often brought forth as an example of this subversive poetic tradition, where the Persian neutral pronoun ou (او) allows for a wide array of interpretative possibilities. His object of desire could be a monotheistic God, a deity of the earth, a woman, or his friend and mentor Shams-e-Tabrizi.

Although some read his poems as homoerotic, there is no known proof that Rumi was homosexual or had a physical relationship with his mentor, Shams. What is beyond dispute, though, is their intense love and admiration for each other.

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Pramoedya Ananta Toer: Why You Should Know Him

Pramoedya Ananta Toer is widely regarded as one of Indonesia ‘s best writers.

At a young age, he joined the anti-colonial struggle against Japan during World War II and later enlisted in an army to fight Dutch colonialists .

He was captured and jailed by the Dutch in 1947. His foray into writing began in prison, at age 24. The Fugitive, his first novel, came out during his two years of incarceration.

Pramoedya or “Pram” – a hero of Indonesia’s anti-colonial movement and a champion of human rightsand freedom of speech – was born on February 6, 1925, in the poor Javanese town of Blora.

He died in the capital, Jakarta, on April 30, 2006 at age 81.

Pramoedya “dedicated his whole life to this country through his work”, his daughter Tatiana Ananta told The Associated Press at his funeral.

Google Doodle  marked the 92nd birth anniversary of the Indonesian writer and activist who spent most of his adult life in jail, imprisoned first by colonial powers and later by Indonesian governments.

“Each injustice has to be fought against, even if it’s only in one’s heart – and I did fight,” Pramoedya was quoted as saying in the book Exile: In Conversation with Andre Vltchek and Rossie Indira.

Pramoedya’s father was a schoolteacher and nationalist who inspired him to join Indonesia’s struggle against colonialism. His mother came from a pious Muslim family.

Despite only having a primary school education, he went on to write more than 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction.

The novelist is best known for the Buru quartet, which traces the birth of nationalism in Indonesia. A Javanese boy named Minke, who rejected the country’s hierarchical society, is the protagonist in the series.

“In fact the books were smuggled out of Indonesia by Pram’s friend, a German priest, to avoid being taken  or destroyed, and have now been translated into more than 20 languages worldwide,” Google Doodle wrote.

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A Journey to the Heart of Human Conflict: Three Screenplays and their Stories

The juxtaposing of prose and screenplay provides an absorbing ringside view of a maestro at work

MT is a one-man literary movement in the Malayalam language. The hundreds of thousands of gossamer words this 84-year-old literary phenomenon of Kerala has written since his teens is like a complex filter through which you can gaze at the Malayali and her contemporary predicament as she grapples to make sense of the persistence of the feudal past within the seductive embrace of the present.

Over the past six decades, MT taught the Malayali to look squarely in face of the multiple waves of Time she rides on and hear the plaintive sounds when they collide.

Eight major novels, 18 volumes of short stories, nine books of essays, 55 film scripts — and still going strong. You have to be a person of leisure to fully engage with the delights of this prodigious output. Of course, there would be many a Keralite of my generation who simply grew up with their literary consciousness drenched in the ink from his pen.

Giving offence

Predictably, the secondary literature around him — of reviews, interviews, critical analysis, academic and media overviews and translations — is almost of an industrial scale. It’s an avalanche. Whenever one has to write on MT, one is gripped by a sense of stunned paralysis — what more can one say on someone about whom everything significant has been already said.

But little of it captures his protean skill — the deft, surgical manner in which he dissects the middle-class Nair family to clinically expose its fears, anxieties, joys, arrogance, false pride, contradictions and its fatal nostalgia for its decadent past. He is like some in-house Balzac of the Nair community and every description of that caste, in his stories, perceptively foretells its conflicted future.

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From Perumal Murugan’s The Goat Thief to Tamil Pulp Fiction, a Look at Recent Notable Translations

Ambai’s A Night With A Black Spider, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, is a new collection from Speaking Tiger featuring short stories translated from Tamil. The stories range from the mythological to the real, and present an intimate look at the author’s many worlds.

Blaft Publications which has previously brought out two volumes of Tamil Pulp Fiction translated to English and deservedly has a cult following, is out with the third volume, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Volume 3. Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte’s The Blaft Book of Mizo Myths, from the Chennai-based Blaft Publications, which was out last year, is also a fantastic book that brings stories from the misty mountains of Mizoram to the English language. The thin volume of six stories seems a right introduction to folk stories rich with beasts and beauties from the northeastern state.

The Goat Thief by Perumal Murugan, translated by N Kalyan Raman, is recently out from Juggernaut. Perumal Murugan is an important voice in contemporary India throwing light on the Tamil society in the Kongu region. This is his second book since being resurrected from his literary suicide. One that he was forced into by mobs that sought to stifle his voice.

The prolific Kannada writer Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please, Mumbai Stories is all set for release later this month from HarperPerennial. Kaikini is one of Kannada’s most important contemporary voices. The collection has been translated by Tejaswini Niranjana. Kaikini’s stories are set in contemporary India while his style is classic.

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A Good Time for Translations

In Livemint, Sana Goyal explores whether the UK market has ‘space for Asian fiction in translation’.

Over the past couple of months, literary critics in the UK and the US have been unstinting in their praise for Ghachar Ghochar, Vivek Shanbhag’s Kannada novella, translated into English by Srinath Perur. “A Great Indian Novel Reaches American Shores” is how The New York Times publicized its review. In the UK, translator and publisher Deborah Smith, reviewing the book for The Guardian, wrote that “reading beyond our tiny borders shows us what we’ve been missing”. The question is, will Ghachar Ghochar’s international success pave the way for more literature translated from Indian languages—indeed Asian languages—to gain a sizeable readership outside the country?

The interest certainly exists. In the UK at least, the year 2016 was pertinent in terms of translated fiction. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize joined forces with the Man Booker International (MBI) Prize, which changed in character and criteria into a prize exclusively for fiction in English translation—awarding £50,000 (around Rs40 lakh) for the winning title, to be shared equally between the author and the translator. South Korean writer Han Kang and her translator, Smith, bagged the inaugural MBI Prize for The Vegetarian(Portobello Books), a disturbing three-part novella delving into the subjects of madness, desire and the rejection of social conventions.

A year earlier, Smith had set up Tilted Axis Press (TAP), a not-for-profit focused on publishing Asian language literature, which started functioning in full swing in 2016. Research—commissioned by the MBI Prize, and conducted by Nielsen Book—revealed a near doubling in translated fiction sales figures in the UK between 2001 and 2016, from 1.3 million to 2.5 million copies.

One may credit this overall curiosity for, and consumption of, translated tales to the success of Scandinavian noir, or even the Italian literary sensation Elena Ferrante, but there’s something to be said for the UK pointing its compass towards languages and literature from the Asian continent—from Korean, Thai and Japanese to Bengali and Kannada.

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Blind by Joginder Paul

By Mitali Chakravarty

Blind

 

Title: Blind
Author: Joginder Paul
Translated from Urdu by: Sukrita Paul Kumar & Hina Nandrajog
Publisher: harper Perennial
Pages: 244
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Blind interfaces between being a thriller and a symbolic multi-layered novel. It starts in a home for the visually impaired and soars into the political and social arena of the world in which we live. Mr Joginder Paul, the author, based this story on his experiences in a blind people’s home near Nairobi during his sojourn as a teacher in Africa. In the book, he has relocated the home to India and the inmates are Indians.

Through the course of his narrative, he highlights the struggle faced by people with vision and without vision. He uses ‘sight’ symbolically to contrast physical, moral, intellectual and value-based vision. Some of the blind have a ‘third eye’ with which they can sense the world around them. Some of them are excellent craftsmen and have ‘eyes on their fingers’. The blind are so attuned to their condition that they fear external sight. Being free of vision gives them a sense of freedom in their interactions with each other and with the world around them. One of them, a basket weaver, claims, ‘… if my eyes begin to see, my fingers will go blind.’ When an inmate regains sight, he loses his sense of orientation. He feels threatened that he will be turned out of the home, the only shelter the blind trust.

The beautiful blind Roni finds herself in a brothel when she leaves the security of the home. Eventually, after a brief marriage with a man with sight, she is compelled to re-seek the shelter of the home. Roni, who has ties with at least five men through the narrative, finally marries an inmate of the home, Sharfu.

Unfortunately, Sharfu steps out to buy barfi for Roni, stumbles on an abandoned dead body, and, unable to convince the police of his innocence, he is taken into custody.

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Modernisation and its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

I often ask myself and others: why has so little Thai literature been translated? We are a country of around sixty-seven million people, and Thai is the twenty-fifth most spoken native language in the world; the numbers should suggest a better outcome. Have we been written off abroad as a good-time country of pad Thai, Phuket, and, troublingly, prostitution, a land where, as Thais like to say, we have fish in the water and rice in the fields, and therefore our people are viewed as not having suffered enough for deep meditation? Then I thought: instead of merely contemplating the question, why not start chipping away at it? When Words without Borders suggested a Thai issue, I was delighted, shaking in my boots as I pondered which authors and pieces to pick among the many I would love to showcase.

The writers back home offered backup. I pounded the pavement and made cold calls to reach authors, many of whom have become friends, and they generously shared their reading recommendations. Especially because Thai literature has been so rarely translated, theirs, I sense, is a Thailand that shows its vulnerable side, not the Thailand that has its best foot forward like in the guidebooks. In these pages, you will find expressions of the disquiet of living in contemporary Thailand, a Southeast Asian nation where the rate of modernization seems only to accelerate.

Thailand is an axe-shaped country with the “blade” flanked by Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. The “handle” separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand and touches Malaysia at its southernmost tip. The nation very recently lost the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (also known as King Rama IX), the ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty, which moved the country’s capital to Bangkok in 1782. Contemporary Thailand has known nothing but King Bhumibol as its head, and during his seventy years on the throne he was an imposing ballast for the country. Yet, the kingdom has not been without political turbulence: since its transformation from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has seen a dozen coups (plus a number of attempted ones) and is currently under military rule, this time since 2014.

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Shanghai recognises UK translator Wang’s ‘special contribution’ to literature

Helen Wang, a London-based literary translator and British Museum curator has been recognised on the international stage for her “special contribution” to children’s literature at the 2017 Chen Bochui International Children’s Literature Awards in Shanghai.

Wang, who translates contemporary Chinese literature, including novels, picture books and graphic novels for children and young adults, was commended as “a tireless champion” for Chinese children’s literature at the event, which named her Special Contributor of the Year on the eve of the city’s fifth international children’s book fair.

Wang earlier this year took home the 2017 Marsh Christian Award for her translation of Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, set in the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution, that was originally published by Phoenix Publishing House and published in translation by Walker in the UK and Candlewick in the US.

In addition to her translations, Wang has also worked collaboratively with the China Fiction Book Club, Paper Republic and Global Literature in Libraries. In 2016, she co-founded Chinese Books for Young Readers, a resource collating scant reliable information about Chinese children’s books.

“Helen Wang is a tireless champion for Chinese children’s literature. And her advocacy is widely recognised and appreciated,” said Junko Tokota, one of the judging panel.

She added: “Although her name is synonymous with children’s translation, Helen Wang has raised the visibility and professionalism of children’s literature translation worldwide.”

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