Revisiting the Winter 2011 Issue: Asymptote’s Origin Story

On the occasion of our milestone 30th edition, some reflections on form—#30issues30days

“Congratulations on taking on the formidable task of launching a journal dedicated to translation. You’re a brave man!” said the translator of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera to me in December 2010. So I can’t say I wasn’t forewarned.

The idea for Asymptote had come out of a meeting at Singapore’s National Arts Council in June 2010. How to turn Singapore into a hub for literary translation? was the topic du jour. I mooted the idea of a platform that would identify and showcase talent in translation. Several seemed enthusiastic, but in the end, no one lifted a finger. Supposedly the go-to person for literary translation in Singapore, D., who was one of ten people at the meeting, did not deign to reply to the two emails I sent him.

The original team I assembled around July 2010 was lackluster, lackadaisical. Admittedly, I didn’t know these Singaporean team members very well, nor it seemed they me. Having just returned from eight years of overseas study (I owe much to my teachers Robert Coover, Mary Gaitskill, Dale Peck, and Michael Hofmann, but it was the lovely Sidney Wade who turned me on to literary translation), I was trying to connect with the local literary scene. Although the dispatches written by our current Singaporean editor-at-large might suggest otherwise, there really was not much of a scene back then, around a decade ago. The main players were aloof. Although I contributed to nine consecutive issues of the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore—Singapore’s only literary journal back then—no one seemed to have read my work.

At a reading, local author Y. stalled because of technical difficulties. I rose from my seat to help. Grateful, he agreed to meet me for a drink the next day—we talked about our literary aspirations. He started inviting me to gatherings, where I met other local authors. But if he was friendly, he also had a knack for misintroducing me at local readings, snatching a made-up bio from thin air. Snatched from thin air… would that also be a fair way of describing Asymptote’s genesis? More like “jumping off the cliff and building [one’s] wings on the way down,” as Ray Bradbury said.

After conceiving Asymptote’s name, mission, and scope, as well as hiring a web development company (the award-winning fFurious) to co-design the journal, I asked Y. to come on board as Drama Editor. One by one, the volunteer editorial positions filled up. At that point, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I would need staff in auxiliary roles. (On top of bankrolling the formidable costs of web development myself, I would be Asymptote’s unofficial web designer, managing editor, technical manager, uploader, proofreader, communications manager, marketing manager, as well as ad-hoc section editor for unfilled positions in addition to my two main official roles as editor-in-chief and fiction editor.)

A. positioned himself from the outset as mentor, although it was specifically the role of poetry editor I’d offered him. Nobody would bother to type out a URL as long as, he insisted. The original text should be presented side by side the translation, he balked. But I thought the format he proposed clunky, unsuited for the Internet. Not to mention the fact that, unless you are a hyperpolyglot, most of the original texts would be inaccessible anyway, so what would be the point of a bilingual presentation? In the end, I took none of his advice. He would eventually withdraw himself from the masthead rather inconveniently the day before we went live with our official call for submissions in November 2010—imperilling my plan to launch my quarterly journal in January 2011. Incredibly, he still offered to pick the poets for the debut issue (he said he had a hard drive stuffed with translations). I said no thanks.

[Five years later, after I ignored a request to be interviewed for an article about the Singaporean literary scene commemorating the nation’s 50th birthday, I found out from A.’s Facebook feed that he had been interviewed instead about Asymptote’s impressive achievements (in particular our groundbreaking London Book Fair win—a first for the country that had withheld funding from us in favor of D.’s organization). In the article, A. was described as being “involved with the journal as an advisor”; this didn’t sit well with me, but more importantly, I thought it unfair to my colleagues who worked hard to earn their titles on the masthead, so I reached out to A. to address this piece of fake news. Claiming he didn’t have control over what the reporter had written (which he disingenuously posted anyway), he threw a fit on social media.]

Emails to my low-energy Singaporean team were a depressing affair. After no one replied to an email soliciting editorial input, I realized that it was up to me to create the team I needed. I sent out feelers to my former creative writing classmate Anthony Luebbert and former student Sayuri Okamoto (both friends I knew I could count on). Luckily for me, they said yes; I don’t know how I would have gotten through the first years of the magazine without their moral support.

After editor-to-be A. stepped down, I recalled someone I’d met at a reading in New York—featured in the same lineup that fateful day years ago, we shared a brief conversation on the sidewalk outside the reading venue during intermission. Brandon gave me a few copies of his translation journal; I brought them back to Singapore. After a little sleuthing revealed that Brandon’s magazine had stopped being active for some time, I wrote and offered him the newly vacated role of poetry editor. When he accepted, I realized what a blessing A.’s recusal had been; a journal of world literature would never have fully taken off had it consisted solely of Singaporean editors. What I never fully admitted to my former team (and the National Arts Council) was that I did not care for literature defined along national lines. From the outset, my vision of the journal was rooted in diversity and inclusivity, and it would be curated with the highest possible standards.

Even more importantly perhaps, with Brandon coming on board, I got used to the idea of editing a journal with people I’d barely met or even not at all. In December, we were lucky to be joined by Aditi Machado; introduced by N., she came on board as contributing editor but has served as poetry editor from July 2011 onwards. In all our eight years of collaboration, we’ve never been in the same room; in a way, we’re still complete strangers. In the editor’s note I wrote to accompany Asymptote’s debut issue, launched after a few consecutive all-nighters, on 5:30am, February 1st, Singapore time (still January in the US!), I mentioned not having seen my editors while working on the issue, but I wonder how many readers also understood this to mean that I had also not met a few of them—like, ever?

In The Art of the Publisher, Roberto Calasso explains how the legendary publisher Aldus Manutius was groundbreaking:

“He was the first to imagine a publishing house in terms of form. And here the word form has to be interpreted in many different ways. Form is crucial, first of all, in the choice and sequence of titles to be published. But form also relates to the texts that accompany the books, as well as the way in which the books are presented as objects. It therefore includes covers, graphics, layout, typeface, paper.” (Trans. Richard Dixon)

If you were to imagine an online magazine of world literature in terms of form, what interpretations of form come to mind?

Let’s start with the obvious. The table of contents, the way an article is presented, the kind of articles we publish, the fact that we publish writing from upwards of 25 countries in each issue—all these clearly constitute a magazine’s form.

Asymptote issues are uploaded via a content management system that I collaborated closely with my web developers on. (While our logo design was entirely fFurious’s doing, I came up with the landing page design, the article layout, and the horizontal drop-down menu—to illustrate how this menu would work, I even showed up one day at their office with cut-outs of sample text that I had printed.)  Via fields in this content management system, every article’s data (translator, author, language of original text, etc.) need only be entered once; it would then show up automatically in the issue’s table of contents or the site’s internal search listings. In conceiving the fields of input for the first issue, I was really determining the form of the magazine for subsequent issues to come.

The costs quickly added up. After the initial design was implemented, I was billed for every subsequent change I requested. For instance, I had certainly allowed for the possibility of multiple translators per article, but when contributor Jeremy Tiang brought to the table a drama article that was credited to two authors (Quah Sy Ren and Tan Ing How’s The Assassin, the Medium and the Massage Girl), the content management system had to be tweaked to accept this data. Cost? 110 USD for this fix alone. Did it make sense, economically, for me to throw money at it? No. But not implementing this change would have denied a platform for this work.


The cover design comprising two overlapping circles came about by accident: Someone at fFurious had uploaded a random graphic with two circles as part of the mock-up of the landing page design. But I immediately saw the potential of the overlapping segments to serve as a metaphor for the relationship between an original text and its translation. That’s how our very first guest artist—my friend the talented photographer Kevin Kunstadt, who was returning the favor of a review I’d written for his gallery—came up with the fabulous cover for our Winter 2011 edition consisting of two different takes of one object—a form we have adhered to this very day.

One last thing about the obvious aspects of Asymptote’s form. The first issue not only showcased translations into English from upwards of 20 languages, but also two from English into other languages: Mary Gaitskill on Natsuo Kirino, translated into Japanese by Sayuri Okamoto, and Soren Gauger on Ludwik Sztyrmer, translated into Polish by Pawel Rogala. Although it would take us two more years to fully unleash our potential via Jonas Hassan Khemiri’s article translated into upwards of twenty languages, the form of it was already anticipated in our debut issue.

I want to propose that editorial makeup is as much a part of a literary journal’s form as all the other expected forms (i.e. design, content, curation etc.). Why not, since where you come from and where you are based determines the linguistic resources available to you—and, even more importantly, your editorial inclination?

Put the table of contents of our 1st issue side by side with the 30th, our most recent: outwardly, their forms are remarkably the same. Compare the mastheads of these two issues, however, and you will see that we are 14 times larger than we were back in January 2011—Asymptote staff now hail from thirty countries and six continents. At first an accident foisted upon the magazine, it’s now a deliberate strategy to develop our network and cover the world as much as possible.

Make no mistake: This openness of form, made possible by technology and by the fact that we are a volunteer-driven journal, has not been easy to maintain. In our early years, as the only full-time staff member, I had to step in and edit as many as six sections of these issues by myself, in addition to rolling up my sleeves and translating articles for the journal myself. It’s not that we didn’t have people knocking on the door to join the team—I needed to know that the new team members could uphold the quality of the journal and sometimes it has taken a while for the right person to come along.

In the first paragraph of the first editor’s note, I mentioned receiving “new material for the website, completed for us just the day before.” What we received on January 30th via fax was my short Q&A with Gozo Yoshimasu (which Sayuri speedily translated into English to accompany his Naked Memos) and, via email, Mary Gaitskill’s specially commissioned essay on Natsuo Kirino (since the essay hadn’t turned up in our inbox yet, we had agonized about whether to put her name in the postcard that we sent to be printed in hundreds of copies to advertise the magazine; in the end, I made the call to go ahead). Posted even later than these two articles was my interview with Golden Melody award-winning lyricist Francis Li long before Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win in 2016.

This interview (conducted in Chinese and translated into English by me) was published in Francis Li’s collection of essays by Route Culture in September 2016. My Q&A with Gozo Yoshimasu found its way into print in December 2016 thanks to New Directions. In April 2017,  Mary Gaitskill’s essay on Natsuo Kirino was published by Vintage alongside the seminal (and utterly heartbreaking) essay, “Lost Cat,” in her new collection of nonfiction, Somebody with a Little Hammer (I was moved to see my own name included in the Acknowledgments section at the end of the book).

Between these articles’ digital publication and subsequent appearance in print, the conversation about world literature has definitely shifted a little bit more toward Asia as well as many other underrepresented regions—so much so that ALTA director Aron Aji would publicly ascribe the rise of literary translation to “the Asymptote effect” at a February 2017 AWP panel. Despite all the difficulties surrounding our launch, then, I am proud to have had a hand in this shift.

Lee Yew Leong is Asymptote’s founder and editor-in-chief. 

Find Asymptote‘s Winter 2011 issue here. If you want to help us stick around for the next 30 issues, consider signing up as a masthead member or a sustaining member today!