From Ahtna to Zapotec: Celebrating Four Years of Literature from Rare and Underrepresented Languages

Assistant Editor Daniel Goulden on rare and underrepresented languages in translation and Asymptote

All too often, ‘World Literature’ gets reduced to European literature.

I jumped at the chance to help Asymptote buck that trend. When I came on board as assistant editor, Yew Leong (our editor-in-chief) asked me to research languages that Asymptote hadn’t yet featured in translation. This was—predictably—a challenging assignment.

For authors in the West, getting a novel published in translation is already an exceedingly difficult task. For authors elsewhere, the hurdles are exponentially greater. Regional instability and economic underdevelopment can stand in the way. Finding a talented translator—someone who not only speaks your language but also has the skill to make it come alive in English—or being found by one can be nearly impossible. Without passionate, skilled translators, many writers abroad who want their voices to be heard in other countries ultimately resort to writing in English (if they can) and thus set aside both their native language and its unique literary vocabulary. I found myself tracking down leads for hours, emailing contacts from around the world in search of an author or translator with work to submit.

What I found showed me just how crucial Asymptote‘s mission is. In expanding the umbrella of world literature, Asymptote helps shine a light on languages neglected by publishers in New York and London. In our October 2013 issue, for instance, we published a series of poems by Natalia Toledo, the first woman to write in the Isthmus Zapotec, an indigenous American language still spoken by over 750,000 people in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. We not only published the original text alongside its translation but also included an audio clip of the author reading her work, which allowed readers to engage with the text on a whole new level by listening to a language they had most likely never heard before.

In our October 2011 issue, we published James Byrne’s and ko ko thett’s translations of various Burmese poets. If you haven’t seen Burmese writing before, you should click over to these poems now and select ‘Read the original in Burmese’ in the right hand column for a special treat—it could be the most beautiful language you have ever seen.

Asymptote has also published languages with very few speakers. In fact, John Smelcer, who gave us three Ahtna poems for our January 2012 issue, is the only living tribal member who can read and write in Ahtna—one of the most endangered languages in the world. By publishing his work we were able to introduce Ahtna literature to readers around the world and help it live longer.

And there are more such success stories. Over the summer I was able to reach out to the two of the main translators of Swahili into English, N.S. Koenings and Annemarie Drury. After a friendly and helpful email correspondence, Koenings and Drury both submitted outstanding work that we ended up featuring on the cover of our current issue.

My experience has shown me that translators overall are a friendly, collaborative bunch. Over the course of my research I’ve had conversations with writers and translators from places as geographically dispersed and dissimilar as Afghanistan and South Africa, almost always finding people more than happy to submit work or introduce us to translators who could. Unlike the cliché about the dog-eat-dog world of New York agents, translators are in service not just to themselves but also to their languages, and are usually delighted to find a platform where they can share their work and bring more attention to those languages.

So far, we have published great works of literature from more than 25 rare or underrepresented languages, and we hope to uncover much more in 2015 and beyond.

As the world continues to globalize, world literature will also continue to evolve at an astounding rate. But if the mission of world literature is to succeed, we must constantly seek out and challenge our prejudices. In the internal questionnaire that all Asymptote team members fill out after every issue, there’s one question that never changes: Is the most recent issue skewed towards any region or language? (This shows how serious we are about our mission of diversity—that we try to pick up on our own subconscious biases.) Instead of simply showcasing any translated literature then, Asymptote proactively seeks to expand its horizons—and the horizons of world literature—with each new issue. It’s a cause that’s worth supporting.

Update: We’ve crossed the $10,000 mark or 40% of our Indiegogo campaign! With just NINE DAYS left to go before our campaign ends, there’s no better time to step up to the plate and help us go all the way! Thank you so much.