Place: Los Angeles

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.

READ MORE…

Waking Up in David Lynch’s American Dream

He’s already inspiring greatness by bringing out the best in those of us who can no longer sit idly by.

In Trump’s America, a Muslim-American filmmaker living in Los Angeles discovers that art meets reality.

The night of the US Presidential Election felt like a moment that could have been stolen from a David Lynch film. At once surreal and subversive, yet strangely fitting, Donald Trump was chosen as the President of the United States. Like Lynch’s own protagonists, an eerie detachment swept over me as I witnessed Trump take the stage to deliver his victory speech.

As a Muslim-American and a son of immigrants, that nightmarish disbelief turned into anger and resentment when I awoke the next day. How could a country built by immigrants on the bedrock of religious freedom elect a candidate who prided himself on xenophobia, racism, and religious intolerance? Yes. I’ve heard the many arguments showing that Trump supporters had very real concerns about the economy and individual prosperity that outweighed worries about his racist and misogynistic rants. But in one fell swoop, my perspective on the American electorate and the promises of this country changed dramatically.

In better times, I imagined the American Dream much the same way Francis Ford Coppola envisioned it in The Godfather, Part II:

Thousands of immigrants rise to their feet and stare at the Statue of Liberty with hope in their eyes as they head to Ellis Island. The camera pans to capture individual faces. The Godfather theme crescendos and then fades away. Cut to a young Vito Corleone standing in line at the Ellis Island Immigration Station. He’s interviewed by an immigration official and sent to quarantine. Fast-forward sixteen years. Vito lives safely in New York with his wife and infant son, over 4,000 miles away from the torment of mob-ruled Sicily.

That is a place where hard work, loyalty, and intelligence get rewarded. Sure, Coppola romanticizes the sometimes harsh facts of the early 20th century. Living in New York’s Little Italy during the 1920s, Vito’s meteoric rise from squalor to fortune has a fantastic quality. We don’t see the America with deep racial divides or a country on the verge of economic collapse. But that idyllic portrayal represents an image that immigrant families have clung to for centuries as they arrived in the United States.

It’s been over two weeks since the election, and the reality of a Trump presidency along with a Republican majority in the House and Senate has begun to settle. But a sense of safety, trust in our neighbors, and a greater vision for a pluralistic society have been lost in the face of an increase of reported hate crimes that personify Trump’s hateful campaign rhetoric.

In some ways, I consider myself lucky in that regard. Outside of my brown skin and the beard on my face, there aren’t many symbols that make me easily identifiable as a Muslim. Verbal and physical attacks appear to be reserved for Muslim women, who are easily recognized by their headscarves.

The country also faces an enormous political divide as protesters march in the streets in over a dozen cities to let their disaffection be known. President-elect Trump continues to vilify his opposition through Twitter and criticize the mainstream media. The events since the election are a far cry from the American Dream Coppola portrayed in The Godfather, and even David Lynch’s peculiar world no longer serves as an adequate metaphor for the current state of affairs. Instead, I find myself thinking of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and its depiction of the violent, nativist reaction to Irish-Catholic immigration in the 1860s.

But succumbing to that kind of negativity is a trap that leads to cynicism. Throughout the week I’ve witnessed glimmers of hope and courage from my own community. Three days after Trump’s win, the Islamic Society of Southern California’s interfaith allies from the Episcopal Church, in collaboration with local synagogues, stood in front the mosque’s doors with signs of solidarity. Later that week, I joined a group of protesters in downtown Los Angeles, where we chanted “No Hate! No Fear! Immigrants are welcome here!”

Donald Trump started his campaign on the vague promise of making America great again. By the looks of it, he’s already inspiring greatness by bringing out the best in those of us who can no longer sit idly by in this new America. Let’s just hope he meets us halfway.

Jawad Qadir is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

*****

Read More Essays: