Language: Isthmus Zapotec

Meet the Publisher: Phoneme Media’s David Shook on Translations from Underrepresented Languages

I do think we’re living in a very good time for publishing translations.

Phoneme Media is a nonprofit company that produces books in translation into English and literary films. Based in Los Angeles, the company was founded by Brian Hewes and David Shook in 2013, though it wasn’t until 2015 that the press began publishing on a seasonal calendar. To date, Phoneme Media has put out over twenty titles of fiction and poetry, and is particularly interested in publishing works from languages and places that don’t often appear in English. Many of their books are accompanied by short films that take on different formats, from video poems to book trailers, and have been shot around the world. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to David Shook over Skype about publishing translations from underrepresented languages and some of the titles he’s excited about.

Sarah Moses (SM): How did Phoneme Media start?

David Shook (DS): It came about basically because of my own work as a poet and translator. In my own travels—when I was working in community-based development, mostly in East Central Africa and Latin America—through relationships, through friendships with writers, in places like Burundi and Equatorial Guinea, and writers working in indigenous languages in southern Mexico, for example, I was just encountering all of these writers that I felt deserved to be read in English, that would contribute something important to our literary dialogue and that couldn’t find homes in terms of publishers here in the United States and in the UK, too, for a couple of reasons. The first being the lack of translators working in those languages and familiar with those regions, and the second was the fact that these books were somewhat outside the purview of even the publishers who specialized in translation—some great publishers. I think of Open Letter, for example, which has largely focused on literature from European languages, which I also think is incredibly important, but something like a book of poetry from Isthmus Zapotec, or the first translation from the Lingala—a novel we’re preparing to publish later this year would definitely be a bit outside their wheel house.

SM: How do you find translators for languages like the ones you’ve mentioned?

DS: Well I think our reputation is such that, despite having been around a comparatively short time, we’re often approached by translators working in more unusual languages. Our translation from the Uyghur, for example, by Jeffrey Yang, and the author is Ahmatjan Osman, who was exiled in Canada, was exactly that situation. Jeffrey brought the translation to us because he knew of our editorial interests. In other cases, like our book of Mongolian poetry, I was alerted to its existence because the translator won a PEN/Heim grant. And I do read widely, both in search of writers and of translators, who I think are important. For example, a place like Asymptote, which I read regularly with an eye toward acquisitions. I mean when we acquired, for example, this novel from the Lingala, the translation was a huge issue because there are very few, if any, literary translators from the Lingala, so I actually auditioned a few Congolese translators before finding this husband-and-wife team, Sara and Bienvenu Sene, who did a really great job. They’re really literary translators, whereas most of the translators I’d auditioned were technical translators or interpreters. And it’s pretty spectacular, considering I think English is their fourth language. I think a big part of my work is scouting out these translators and also encouraging a new generation of translators to go out into the world and find interesting books. I’m very proud that we’ve published many first-time translators on Phoneme Media.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

I wrote whenever anything struck me. As I started to write, I began to revive little by little, from my fingernails to my hair.

Happy Friday, readers! The Asymptote team has some exciting news: starting this week, we will be replacing our Friday literary news round-up with a more diverse and decidedly international column, brought to you by our team members around the world. We’ll have the latest and most pertinent updates on the literary scenes from various regions each week, from national trends to local events. This is your one-stop, world tour!

Starting this week in India, Poorna Swami, Editor-at-Large for India, updates us by region:

Noted Assamese poet Nalinidhar Bhattacharya passed away on September 2 in Guwahati at the age of 95. The Sahitya Akademi Award winner’s books include five poetry collections, five essay collections, and even a translation of Dr. Zhivago into Assamese.

But while the country lost a literary great, it also regained one. Tamil writer Perumal Murugan ended his self-determined literary exile on August 22. His reentry in to the literary world comes a year and a half after he publicly declared to quit writing because his book, Madhorubhagan [One-Part Woman], faced attacks from Hindu fundamentalist and caste-based groups. He had said on his Facebook page: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself.”

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Translating Indigenous Mexican Writers: An Interview with Translator David Shook

"I suspect many casual bookstore readers might not know how many languages are still spoken in Mexico. The sheer diversity is astounding."

David Shook is a poet, translator, and filmmaker in Los Angeles, where he serves as Editorial Director of Phoneme Media, a non-profit publishing house that exclusively publishes literature in translation. Their newest book is Like a New Sun, a collection of contemporary indigenous Mexican poetry, which Shook co-edited along with Víctor Terán.

Seven translators in total—Shook, Adam W. Coon, Jonathan Harrington, Jerome Rothenberg, Clare Sullivan, Jacob Surpin, and Eliot Weinberger—translated poets from six different languages: Juan Gregorio Regino (from the Mazatec), Mikeas Sánchez (Zoque),  Juan Hernández Ramírez (Huasteca Nahuatl), Enriqueta Lunez (Tsotsil), Víctor Terán (Isthmus Zapotec), and Briceida Cuevas Cob (Yucatec Maya). I corresponded with Shook over gchat to speak with him about the project.

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Today is Columbus Day, a controversial holiday in the United States. Several cities have recently adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day over Columbus Day, clearly a victory for recognizing indigenous cultures in the United States. Which leaves me wondering: how are the indigenous Mexican writers recognized today in the Mexican literary landscape?

As someone who regularly visits Mexican literary festivals and also translates from the Spanish, I’ve observed the under-appreciation of indigenous writers firsthand. Mexico’s indigenous communities make up 10 to 14% of its total population, and you certainly don’t find anywhere near that percentage of literature being published in Mexico today. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Poems by Irma Pineda

Love / my belly is now a dry tree / that once wanted to bloom stars for your nights.

On waking from your death
here you will see me
awaiting your hummingbird’s return
transformed into an old tree.

Al despertar de tu muerte
me verás aquí
convertido en un árbol viejo
que espera tu retorno de colibrí.

Dxi guibáni xquendagutilú
rari’ nga suuyu’
naa ma’ naca’ ti yaga yooxho’
cabeza’ guibiguetu’ sica ti biulú.

 

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