An exclusive interview with Anthony Seidman on border poetics, our January Book Club selection, and the Winter 2019 educator’s guide!

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Shortly after the release of our milestone Winter 2019 issue, news of the Man Group pulling its sponsorship of the Man Booker International Prize rippled across social media, with many expressing dismay. Though the award was initially conferred upon a living author of any nationality for an entire oeuvre, a recent change in direction meant that from 2016 onwards, the best book in English translation would be singled out instead, with the £50,000 cash prize split equally between author and translator. Not only was this a great leap forward for recognition of translators, the fact that the prize was now awarded to a book instead of a whole body of work meant that talented international writers like Han Kang and Olga Tokarczuk could get catapulted into the spotlight more easily. In short: let's keep our fingers crossed for some other sponsor to step up—what a great setback it would be to world lit if the prize got discontinued.  

Your Itinerary Today:

  1. TAKE OFF: Announcing our January Book Club selection, and the release of the Winter 2019 educational guide! 
  2. POSTCARD ONE: An exclusive interview with Anthony Siedman, translator of A Stab in the Dark  
  3. IN TRANSITAsymptote staff share their reading recommendations
  4. PASSAGES: Discover Dubravka Ugrešić’s The Spirit of the Kakanian Province
  5. REARVIEW: Start the day with Asymptote’s daily blog

The Asymptote Book Club is back in session with Zsófia Bán’s "Night School," where your classmates will include everyone from Frida Kahlo to Laika the space dog (first published in our Summer 2014 issue). Check out the syllabus here. Are you a resident of the US, UK, or the EU? Why not enrol in our Book Club? Subscribe by February 10 to start receiving the best of world lit delivered to your door this very month!

For all you pedagogues out there: this quarter’s Educator’s Guide is now available for download here! Visit the Asymptote for Educators web page to discover new ways to bring translation into your classroom. With writing prompts and reading suggestions galore, this guide will be sure to spice up any literary discussion. Share the wealth with all your educator friends and be sure to fill out this survey to give us feedback about our Guides! Your feedback is invaluable in helping us introduce global literature into the beautiful young minds all over the world.

In this conversation, editor-in-chief of Revista de Literatura Mexicana Contemporanea, UT-El Peso professor, and founder of Bagatela Press Bernardo Jauregui speaks with poet and translator Anthony Seidman about his latest translation publication, A Stab in the Dark (Palos de ciego), a collection of poems by Sonoran poet and journalist Facundo Bernal. Originally published in 1923, it is possibly the first Chicano text and is the first book from Los Angeles Review of Book's new publishing project.

Facundo Bernal, a long-neglected border author, writes about life in LA and in the border town of Mexicali, capturing the colour and flavour of Mexican and Mexican-American life in the first decades of the 20th century. Seidman’s inventive translation recovers Bernal’s essential work from a historical and geographical margin.  

BERNARDO JÁUREGUI: If you strip away the formal aspects of poetry you are left with the essential, the logos. In that sense, does the content of A Stab in the Dark chime with the social conditions of today?

ANTHONY SEIDMAN: Yes. Surprisingly, the Border Region, and the extended environs of San Diego, Los Angeles, the Imperial Valley, and Mexicali, have not changed drastically. There remains the phenomena of the barrio, the segundo barrio in El Paso, and the awkward, yet dynamic reality of two countries divided by bridges, paperwork, and walls—and the Border Region continues to form a type of estuary where the two cultures comingle. Perhaps unwillingly. Perhaps enthusiastically. Out of caution, I regard myself as an observer. But I consider this very much a reality of the Guadalupe Treaty and the dynamics between the United States and Mexico. Recent heart-wrenching accounts of Central American immigrants, and their experiences in Los Angeles and the border region, strike me as coming from a different narrative and perspective. That is to say, I perceive the narrative of the Mexican/Chicano/Border experience—first set down in Bernal’s book and in other early masterpieces, like Mariano Azuela’s Los de Abajo (The Underdogs, 1929), which was written in El Paso—as more or less unbroken. The themes of A Stab in the Dark recur in the work of contemporary poets from the Southwest of the United States and Northern Mexico.

Would you say A Stab in the Dark is a pioneer of documentary poetry? The historical dimension informs both the content and the form of most of the poems. It could very well be read as a conceptual book.

I agree. I find that Bernal was most keen when creating his personae—Míster Blind and others… Much of his work reminds me of poets like Ed Dorn, Charles Reznikoff, or Louis Zukofsky, who enriched their poetry with transcripts, direct testimonies, creating a collage of voices from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Bernal was a journalist, and he viewed his poetry as material for the daily papers. There are obvious parallels with the broadsheets of the great Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada, as well as with the Anglophone poetic tradition. Bernal was a contemporary of William Carlos Williams and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to claim that A Stab in the Dark is something like Paterson, or Zone by Apollinaire. Bernal was creating not only Mexicali, the urbe, but the Border Region itself, from Baja California to Los Angeles, as a literary locus. Faulkner had his county, Joyce had his city, and Bernal, too, was both drawing inspiration from and inventing a place. His collection’s main strength resides in its tensions—its cut-ups of newspaper items, its heteroglossia, its clashes between languages and customs. The conceptual aspect of the book is that the Border Region itself is speaking.

“A Major Bust” reports the arrest of drug dealers and “A Resounding Victory” chronicles a baseball game in the tone of a radio sportswriter. This is an anti-literary approach typical of Modernism. What is it about Modernist poets that we still find attractive?

It’s all fun, right? The contrast itself, the friction between popular and lofty speech—Bernal employed meter—and the constant question posed: hat is the material of poetry? Williams also wrote a poem about attending a baseball game, as did Marianne Moore. But there’s another dimension. Baseball was forbidden in Cuba and Puerto Rico prior to the Spanish-American War—it was viewed as a Yankee influence. Bernal is toying with cultural contraditions. Baseball was very popular in Mexico, despite it being from the United States, and Bernal points with great delight to the skill and prowess of Mexican players, who can defeat the Yankees at their own game.

Literature is now very much seen as a tool to oppose oppression. Almost a hundred years after its publication, Bernal's book touches similar concerns.

Again, I agree. Full stop. The book is very much “political,” coming from the polis of Mexicali, as well as of L.A., Tijuana, San Diego, and it clearly situates itself within the rich and remarkable tradition of protest poetry in Latin America. As much as one may admire the exquisite voices of the Latin American canon, let us not forget the radical work of the Honduran Roberto Sosa, the Salvadoran Roque Dalton, and the Mexican Efraín Huerta, to name only three.

You seem to have a preference for translating poetry from Mexico, and lately from the Border Region. Could you tell me how this came about?

From life experience. I lived in Ciudad Juárez roughly from late 1995 to 2000, and the Spanish I learned was the Spanish of the Border Region. I did an undergraduate degree in Spanish Literature at Syracuse University, but the Spanish I spoke was merely functional, lacking any zest, any pepper, and I had to live in Juárez to pick up the slang, tone, nuance… but of a very specific Spanish, with its own history, weather, and depths. This Spanish I learned in Juárez helped me dig deeply into the Spanish of Tijuana poet Roberto Castillo Udiarte, and that resulted in my translation of a book titled Smooth-Talking Dog, published in 2016 by Phoneme Media of Los Angeles. Caló—English verbs transmogrified into Spanish—fed my ears and my imagination. Also, the first writers I met who were my age were from Juárez. I saw how fascinated they were by contemporary North American poetry, as well as the lyrics of poet-musicians like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. When I read the early poems of Edgar Rincón Luna, I detected a tone, a thematic range and use of the colloquial, that reminded me of the Beats, as well as of the Surrealists. I think it’s also fitting that I discovered Salvador Novo’s poetry from a fellow who sold books on the sidewalk, not too far from the public market in Juárez and a few blocks from my favorite cantina, El Recreo. Novo has that sense of humor perceptible in only a few of his fellow countrymen. His translations of then-contemporary North American poets, and his own poems like “Epifanía” or the English-language “Seamen Rhymes,” all seem imbued with a delightful foreignness. Throughout it all, I sensed I was a stranger in a strange land, yet in a region that absorbed “foreignness,” a place neither entirely here nor there. That was the tone of much of the poetry I discovered in the Border Region and I felt I could convey it in English. Since then, I have translated and published books by Kyn Taniya and Luis Cardoza y Aragón, as well as Novo, and a novel by J. M. Servín about his wild, undocumented days in New York.

Do you keep up with the work of other translators?

Yes, of course. I am always thrilled by the way David Shook curates new voices, especially from the Spanish-speaking world and from Francophone Africa. Boris Dralyuk’s explorations of Russian poetry are inspiring. His essays also open new vistas to names now forgotten. Ana Rosenwong is another brilliant translator of demanding poets like Rocío Cerón. I deeply admire Michael Casper for his work on Yiddish poets like Rikudah Potash, and I thank Piotr Florczyk for introducing me to so many Polish poets. I loved Wendy Burk’s recent translation of Tedi López Mills. And, of course, there are the great  Forrest Gander, Jerome Rothenberg, Kent Johnson… Some blasts from the past that keep my eyes open in astonishment are the El Cid of Paul Blackburn and the wild American Villon of Stephen Rodefer / Jean Calais. I also need to mention Longfellow’s fine rendering of Coplas por la Muerte de su Padre  by Jorge Manrique. Again I would like to emphasize that poetry always relies on translations, on the mixing of voices… Perhaps poetry, too, is its own type of border, neither here nor there. As Gorostiza wrote: no es agua ni arena, la orilla del mar. The first great poets in modern English, like Sir Thomas Wyatt, composed poems that were translations of Petrarch. And Petrarch was looking back to the Latin poets, to the verse from Provence…

What do you think are some genres that Bernal would be borrowing from today’s world for his verbal fireworks? Does he employ modes of thought and a diction that might have an equivalent for the reader of the 21st century? 

I think Bernal would be quite comfortable with today’s poetry, and with visual art employing language and collage. Maybe he would have been a painter or an artist today. Actually, at times, his poetry has the barbed and mordant teeth of Hogarth’s drawings, especially when he’s moralizing. He has a little bit of the Caprichos of Goya, too. In terms of poetry, again, I think of Dorn and Williams. I think of songs like Dylan's “Idiot Wind,” or of certain politically charged rap. That is what he would have sounded like in our times.

This book congregates a team of writers and editors around a transnational project. Do you see this as a model for future projects?

Of course. Why not?! Or rather, please let it be so.

Bernardo Jáuregui is a professor at the University of Texas in El Paso. He is the editor-in-chief of the Revista de Literatura Mexicana Contemporanea. In 2003 he founded Bagatela Press, a bilingual independent press.

Anthony Seidman was born in 1973 in Los Angeles and educated at Syracuse University and the University of Texas at El Paso. His list of publications includes several volumes of translations and collections of poems, the latest of which is A Sleepless Man Sits Up in Bed (London: Eyewear, 2016). Throughout his career, Seidman has drawn inspiration from the complex culture of the US-Mexico border region. In recent years he has earned a reputation as one of the most active and versatile translators of Northern Mexican poets.

Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-large for Hong Kong:

In After the WinterGuadalupe Nettel, a Bogotá 39 author and formerly one of Granta’s “Best Untranslated Writers,” shrewdly portrays human nature in spellbinding prose. Translated by Rosalind Harvey, the novel traces the lives of two estranged characters—Claudio, a Cuban book editor based in New York, and Cecilia, a shy Mexican woman studying literature in Paris—and their cross-continental whirlwind romance, which ends in failure. With poetic elegance and melancholic wit, Nettel crafts a portrait of urban solitude, the longing for connection, and the transformative power of relationships, however fleeting and flawed, in influencing lives and decisions. 

Hodna Nuernberg, Editor-at-Large for Morocco:

For some tragicomic relief from the eternal Egypt of the writer Naguib Mahfouz, you can’t go wrong with Waguih Ghalis semi-autobiographical 1964 novel, Beer in the Snooker Club. Set in the aftermath of Nasser’s nationalist revolution and the Suez crisis, Beer in the Snooker Club recounts the travails of Ram, the poor relation of an upper-class Cairene family. He is simultaneously an Anglophone and Arab nationalist, a card-carrying Communist and a member of the well-heeled Gezira Sporting Club—all in all, a superfluous intellectual whose longing for London, where he yearns to “have affairs with countesses and to fall in love with a barmaid and to be a gigolo and to be a political leader and to win at Monte Carlo and to be down-and-out in London and to be an artist and to be elegant and also to be in rags” —leads him straight into a serious case of postcolonial schizophrenia while also gleefully skewering both his fellow Egyptian elite and the burdened white men of the West.

Ellen Elias-Bursac, Contributing Editor:

As the novel Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak opens, the protagonist, Peri, is bounding barefoot through the streets of Istanbul to retrieve her purse, snatched from their car. She and her teenage daughter are on their way to a dinner party. The dinner party scenes that follow provide a nuanced snapshot of the Istanbul elite, while the alternating chapters offer wildly contrasting scenes from Peri's childhood and reveal a starkly divided household: her father, a determined atheist, and her mother, deeply and assertively religious. Navigating her treacherous family life prepares her in turn for the complexities of her studies at Oxford, where she joins a group of students to explore and question the nature of religion. Her Oxford sojourn does not end well, and neither does the dinner party. The development of Peri’s character stands out, for me, as the most compelling aspect of the novel.

In The Spirit of the Kakanian Province, Dutch-Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić masterfully reviews several works by Serbian and Croatian writers while offering a profound personal reflection on what it means to write from the periphery.

As translator Ellen Elias-Bursac explains, “Kakanian” was a nickname for the Austro-Hungarian Empire used in Central Europe, derived from the epithets “Kaiserlich und Königlich” (imperial and royal). For Ugrešić, Kakanian writers are torn between the centripetal pull towards the center and the centrifugal force towards the province, which are both necessary areas of society but often tricky to balance.

Ugrešić’s reflections on Kakanian writers transcend the geo-historical and cultural particularities of these writers and offer food for thought for anyone interested in any kind of power-relation between the center and the periphery.

Anna Aresi, Copy Editor


The cultural text is a construct which assumes not only material factual culture but many written pages and miles of celluloid. The cultural text is a sort of meta-text. Metropoli create large and productive cultural texts. Vienna is one such cultural text. The Balkans are a cultural text. Kakania is a cultural text. The provinces are a cultural text.

The center is inclusive, the periphery exclusive; the center communicates, the periphery excommunicates; the center is multi-national, the periphery mono-national; the center is like a sponge, the periphery like stone. Whatever the case, the provinces are an inseparable part of the story of the metropolis, just as the center is an inseparable part of the story of the periphery. Only together do they make sense.

Discover Dubravka Ugrešić’s essay Unhappiness is Other People from our Spring 2018 issue or explore the Winter 2011 issue in which this piece appears and go on to strengthen your literary faculties, searching our diverse archive either by edition or by geographical region

January’s Translation Tuesdays have brought us to GeorgiaCanada, and Mexico. The last, about a dinner party gone wrong in the worst of ways, is darkly comical and as absurd as you can get: you won’t think about chairs the same way again after reading it. Our What’s New in Translation column spotlighted the exilic verses of Kurdish poet Abdullah Pashew, Tommy Wieringa’s emotional exploration of the homeland in immigrant imaginaries, and a hard-boiled thriller by screenwriter Agustín Martínez. If you haven’t dipped into our latest issue, don’t miss the highlights handpicked by our blog editors and section editors. Haven’t been following the latest in world literature news? Not to worry! Go Around The World with Asymptote to read about 2019 being the Year of Indigenous Languages, and catch up on the latest updates from Albania, Spain, the USA; Hong Kong, Hungary, and Indonesia; Brazil, El Salvador, and the UKCount on our blog editors to widen your horizons: make the Asymptote blog your daily window on world literature.

Is it already time? Goodness! Remember: Our social media elves are always there for you, whether on Facebook and Twitter. Do you have creative reflections on literary translation? Submit to our latest call (deadline: March 1st). If diversity and inclusivity in literature are important to you, come be a part of our mission! (A few openings have become available since our last announcement.) Otherwise, consider making a simple one-time donation or becoming a sustaining member or even a masthead member. Think of how far we’ve gone these eight years without institutional support—then imagine how much can we achieve together. 


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