Translation

UNCERTAIN MANIFESTO

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UNCERTAIN MANIFESTO BY FRÉDÉRIC PAJAK, TRANSLATED BY DONALD NICHOLSON-SMITH

The first volume of Frédéric Pajak’s Uncertain Manifesto (currently in its seventh volume in French) is composed of oblique relationships. The relationship between its large illustrations and short snippets of text is loosely associative, even mysterious. The chapters range from memoir to historical account to philosophical musing. At first, the book feels something like a stack of random pages ripped from Pajak’s sketchbook, notes haphazardly compiled rather than meticulously ordered. Though, as the book progresses, a greater arc emerges. Uncertain Manifesto is haunted by the memory of Europe hardly holding onto “the vestiges of peace, and with these crumbs improvising a society that erases other societies,” as Pajak hints in the introduction. The book exists in the shadows of other manifestos—centrally, Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto—but, by the end of this first volume, one gets a sense that Pajak has set about concocting some kind of balm, something to ward against the dangers of entrenched ideology.

Much of the book chronicles Walter Benjamin’s travels during the 1930s, and his thoughts on the rise of fascism. A reflection on the nature of fascism, likely felt important when the first volume appeared in French in 2012—in 2019, Uncertain Manifesto’s arrival in English feels vital. In less capable hands, such a genre-defying, heady enterprise might have sagged under the weight of its own ambition; here, it’s full of wit and life. Powerful precisely on account of its subtlety.

New York Review Books.

—Review by Landon McGee

WHAT'S IN A NAME

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WHAT’S IN A NAME BY ANA LUÍSA AMARAL, TRANSLATED BY MARGARET JULL COSTA

“Despite all, I speak of names: / because I cannot find / a better way:” writes Ana Luísa Amaral in her brilliant new collection, What’s in a Name, forthcoming from New Directions. The poems here are translated from the Portuguese into understated, lyrical English by Margaret Jull Costa—poems that are concerned with the power and limitations of naming the world. They read as intimate conversations between the poet and reader, in either the early hours of morning or the late hours of night, where small, everyday moments quickly spiral into great cultural, historical, and even cosmic significance. In the poem “Definitions,” a friend of the speaker must choose between buying a blue or white jacket. Soon, the color white becomes the moon, a "moss-free wall," "the way a cats walks." Amaral connects these images, by the color white, to Emily Dickinson’s "the White Sustenance-- Despair." For Amaral, this white sustenance is "the innermost part, or the part imagining / the unimaginable." It is the blank page.  

Like Dickinson, these poems inhabit a lush inner life, one that “does not pass / quietly—”. In “Casualties of War,” the speaker shakes “a tiny speck / from this sheet of paper” which in a matter of stanzas becomes “a flamethrower of inflammable fluids / with a past waiting to attack.” After meditating on her own cosmic insignificance in “Differences (or minor glimmerings),” Amaral writes across “this sheet of paper. Which is what will remain. / As a book: interstellar ring, / like an onion awaiting a moonlight / other eyes cannot see.” In these pages, the inner life becomes external and the external world becomes internal. Words, which always “grow shorter / when said,” slip away from the things they name. And yet, the poems always land somewhere deeply human, with compassion for friends, for daughters, for refugees and the victims of war. These poems challenge us, asking: “Is it the light that’s late, or our / configuring gaze? / And the years translated / into our language, the millions of light years / made space-devouring / waves, do they cause space to collapse or to soar?”

New Directions.

—Review by David Brunson

THIS WOMAN'S WORK

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THIS WOMAN’S WORK BY JULIE DELPORTE, TRANSLATED BY ALESHIA JENSEN AND HELGE DASCHER

Julie Delporte’s This Woman’s Work, translated by Aleshia Jensen and Helge Dascher, is a beautiful and resonant autobiographical meditation on art, gender, and identity. The author sifts through her cultural consumption to find the root of her frustrations with gender inequality, sometimes so deeply ingrained that it is impossible to pinpoint their original source. She wonders, “What are the images that hold us captive?” Captive, that is, in repeated performances of gender that feel impossible to break. In pursuit of this question, Delporte presents the reader with her recollections of paintings, film stills, statues and texts, all evoked in bright and expressive colored pencil. Through vignettes, she wrestles with difficult breakups, pregnancy, and the fear of being alone. She expresses her anxiety and frustration with gender roles too. Recalling experiences of sexual assault as a child as well as potent micro-aggressions and barriers ingrained in the language of the adults she loved—and indeed, language itself, the masculine-centric French—the artist seeks to be liberated from womanhood, imagining herself as a wolf or a dolphin.

At the same time, much of her meditation centers on the life of Tove Jansson, a Finnish author and painter whose story and work inspires Delporte to explore her own trajectory as a working artist and the additional stumbling blocks that female artists face. Still, as she reads Jansson’s books and letters, it is through them that she eventually begins to feel that she is finally able to find that she is “falling in love with the idea of being a woman.” While This Woman’s Work captivates in its personal expression of womanhood in all its vicissitudes and complexities, Delporte, by placing her life within the contexts of larger cultural narratives and the lives of other artists, also earnestly opens the door to other women’s experiences, asking how much of her story is her own, and how much is “the story of all women”?

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Rome Morgan

RAIN AND OTHER STORIES

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RAIN AND OTHER STORIES BY MIA COUTO, TRANSLATED BY ERIC M. B. BECKER

Mia Couto’s Rain and Other Stories maps out a Mozambique that’s torn with war, heartbreak, and loss. While some of the stories read as fables, offering meditations on the lives of men and women grappling with displacement and rebirth, a Chekhovian subtly is achieved, even when their realism turns to the magical: “The flowers, the one’s with a blue glimmer, began to swell and soar toward the sky. Then, all together, they plucked the girl. . . She was swept away into the same womb where she’d seen her father extinguished, out of sight and out of time.” In other stories, readers witness the departure of characters as Couto’s narrators suggest an uncertainty of their return. And it’s this uncertainty, and the motif of rain and all of its implications, that connects one story to the next.

However, what’s most successful about this collection are the ways in which Couto repeatedly asks unanswerable questions, piquing reader curiosity. Take “War of the Clowns,” a story of two manipulative clowns who, through their arguing and violence, profit off an entire city and incite war and inquiry. “What’s going on?” ask the spectators of the clowns, and although Couto describes to readers what occurs, he never tells us why. Instead, confusion swells among spectators until the “supporters divided into two camps, [and] little by little, two battlefields began to form.” By the end of the story, answers manifest through subtext, and the effect is both chilling and tragic. In this collection, Mia Couto, via Eric M. B. Becker’s aesthetically rich translation, packs an emotional resonance in each story—despite brevity, many only reaching five pages—that lingers with readers long after putting the book down.

Biblioasis.

—Review by Patrick Font

LYRIC POETRY IS DEAD

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LYRIC POETRY IS DEAD BY EZEQUIEL ZAIDENWERG, TRANSLATED BY ROBIN MYERS

So the rumor goes, Lady Lyric is dead. Ezequiel Zaidenwerg reports every way how in his sensation, Lyric Poetry Is Dead, with space for conspiracy theories to report of her sighting and escape. Each poem broadcasts anew; gossips and stirs the pot; one ups and redacts, chronicling narratives interspersed with Argentine history, celebrity and lore. The bilingual edition from Cardboard House Press, translated by Robin Myers, transmits to English the experience of reading Zaidenwerg in Spanish (a worthy feat) and includes drawings by Carmen Amengual and notes from poet and translator alike. The poems all begin in similar ways: “Lyric poetry is dead. Or so they say” but diverge in tone and cadence, and not only in story, so one never tires of reading or grows to expect the next line. There are moments of hilarity, like this one from the poem that opens the book which ends with lyric poetry’s liquidated estate and her properties include an “incredible variety of mirrors.” In other moments, the poem becomes accusatory and gives pause as the reader is charged with murder, and still other poems circumvent death entirely and boast of lyric poetry’s resilience: “but she is alive and she / is always coming back.” Lyric poetry becomes both the vehicle for Zaidenwerg to reimagine many histories and allude to other literary greats, and the poetic subject and star of her own legends. Just so, Lyric Poetry Is Dead is waiting to rise up like Lazarus and delight you over and over again.

Cardboard House Press.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

BRED FROM THE EYES OF A WOLF

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BRED FROM THE EYES OF A WOLF BY KIM KYUNG JU, TRANSLATED BY JAKE LEVINE

What if wolves behaved like humans? What if humans behaved like wolves? In Kim Kyung Ju’s dystopian play, Bred from the Eyes of a Wolf, translated by Jake Levine, this hypothetical comes alive. The outcome is not for the prudish or light-hearted. Kim newly approaches well-known narratives—from the archetype of the middle class family in Korean culture to the classic Greek Myth of Oedipus—to present an uncannily familiar and unfamiliar nuclear family, shitting together in a world where language is forbidden. The contradictory representation that unfolds forces the audience to confront taboo subjects and make new judgements. What’s morally allowable in a world of humanish wolves? What’s ethically grotesque and what’s just gross?

Kim layers more than classic archetypes here. He builds his post-apocalyptic pastiche with meta-awareness and the cockroach-like systems of civilization: capitalism and castigation. His wolf family highlights their cognizance of their own humanity when the mother warns her son: “Be careful! / Any animal that takes the path of humanity / always results in a scene filled with blood!” to which her son bemoans: “Fuck! Just like a human that thinks he is an animal, / I never recognize the trap.”  And then, there’s no short-supply of self-referential jabs at the deadbeat poet, or the censure of writing by an authoritarian government. Near the end, two policemen, in cyber suits and Orwellian practices, arrive to make arrests. From Policeman 2, “This mother and son, / they are like languages that live / in one another’s background. / [ . . . ] It’s suspicious.” Policeman 1, now suspicious, “Language is forbidden! // You are all sentenced to space dust!” Translator Jake Levine howls the play into English and leaves readers a closing essay to ensure that nothing from this new and untried Korean fable is missed.

Plays Inverse Press.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

LANGUAGE IS A REVOLVER FOR TWO

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LANGUAGE IS A REVOLVER FOR TWO BY MARIO MONTALBETTI, TRANSLATED BY CLARE SULLIVAN

The bilingual chapbook Language is a Revolver for Two by Peruvian poet Mario Montalbetti, translated from the Spanish by Clare Sullivan, explores the systems of language as an economy—how language behaves through supply and demand. What exists within language’s economic bounds and what exists outside? A sardine, the need for love, the dawn coming down “orange as a ripe papaya” shattering on the pavement? Here, the study is of the ways language moves collective and the violence thereof: “my words are a knife / chilling when it enters your heart / laughing when it enters mine.” As these lines and the title suggest, the violence is throughout but it is thematic, controlled, and shared. In one poem, Montalbetti’s speaker burns nocturnal, kept awake by an anonymous no, and in another, is a pilot, smashing the poem-plane to bits while claiming: “all your poems end, / trying to express a private sentiment / in public language.” Though small, this brief collection observes the everyday and leaves us with grand questions—how does the market of language affect the quotidian, the supreme, and what escapes the system?

Ugly Duckling Presse.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

NIGHT SCHOOL: A READER FOR GROWNUPS

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NIGHT SCHOOL: A READER FOR GROWNUPS BY ZSÓFIA BÁN, TRANSLATED BY JIM TUCKER

Jim Tucker’s translation of Zsófia Bán’s 2007 story collection, Night School: A Reader for Grownups, doesn’t read like a translation at all. Nor does it read like anything you’ve ever perused—unless you’ve read Night School in another language. A frenetic homage to the textbooks Bán once encountered in German class that “skipped from transportation to the Holocaust to Gummy Bears—in that order,” Night School takes readers on a wild romp through a kaleidoscope of postmodern fairy tales. We learn the just-so story behind Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, encounter the 19th-century naturalist Henri Mouhot trekking through the Laotian jungle, and find ourselves privy to an email exchange between the characters of the 18th-century epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. All flaunt their meta-awareness: Mouhot’s wife quotes Heart of Darkness, which had not yet been written, and predicts his impending death, as Victorine Meurent predicts Manet’s, and Laika the Dog stoically predicts her own.

Night School might not seem to lend itself to translation, so bursting with slang, neologisms, tongue-in-cheek zingers, and off-the-cuff historical and literary references, yet one cannot deny the sheer Dadaist power and Seussian flare of lines like this one from “Motherwhere”: “They searched for her […] in the cold turkey clinic, in the Wild Turkey still […] in the market square, in the market research center […] in the ash cans and trash cans, under the bumps and in the sumps.” Assignments and images litter the collection and frequently, we are instructed to argue pro or con. Bán’s humor transcends language barriers, and Tucker’s translation never leaves us wondering what we’ve missed out on by not speaking Hungarian. A must-read for anyone who needs a break from the grim currents of contemporary literature, yet still craves the heady thrill of a really smart book.

Open Letter.

—Review by Mekiya Walters