Spring 2011: Out of the Void

The curse of forgetting is our blessing and from whence our greatness springs. Out of the void, we create.

Not only is translation front and center of what we publish as a journal, it also takes place behind the scenes. In February 2011, after the excitement of putting out an issue (and hearing from readers like Eliot Weinberger) subsided, we got to work on the Spring edition. Among our first tasks: launch a search for our next guest artist. The Japanese illustrator Kazunari Negishi submitted a cover on 10 Mar 2011. One day later, tsunami struck Mr. Negishi’s homeland. We had to make the decision as to whether Mr. Negishi would be the one to provide 14 illustrations in three weeks. There was another front-runner, with a good cover submission, ready and willing, who had English to boot. Mr. Negishi didn’t read English; Sayuri, our contributing editor, would have to translate the texts. “Work is good though, in times like these,” she offered. I hesitated one day before saying yes. In the end, under what must have been very difficult conditions for both Ms. Okamoto and Mr. Negishi, 14 stunning illustrations were produced that would make any magazine proud. Many well wishes poured in when our Spring 2011 issue went live, and not a few of them mentioned how much they love the artwork. Here to introduce the Spring 2011 edition (as well as the dispatch from post-3.11 Japan that Sayuri especially undertook to write) is Assistant Editor P.T. Smith.

The editor’s notes for Asymptote issues always point the reader in a direction, and for the Spring 2011 issue it was one of current events and counterpoints. Without research, the current events of that period can be hard to place. The connection between Sayuri Okamoto’s letters and the 2011 tsunami is called out directly, so that’s easy. After that it gets harder, but that’s only appropriate because, as is often the case, other links and other ways to read the issue as a whole develop. With this one, it’s memory, both its recovery and its absences. In Anthony Luebbert’s essay on A. R. Luria, he writes, “The curse of forgetting is our blessing and from whence our greatness springs. Out of the void, we create.” That creative act lives throughout the pieces in this issue, which play off each other and allow me come to my own thoughts on memory.

Asymptote came to life in the early days of my own entry into the world of translated literature. My first job after college was in an office where there was a rather light workload or maybe just lenient supervision. I have fond memories of printing off pieces from Words Without Borders, folding them up, putting them in my pocket, and heading off to the bathroom to get in some reading. In my memory, I did the same with Asymptote. But that can’t be the case: I’d already left the job by the time the journal launched. I enjoy this vaguery, this impossible overlap.

In his essay, however, Luebbert writes of perfect memory. Whether it’s computers, the mnemonist Luria studied, or Kim Peek, the basis for Rain Man, Luebbert is drawn to the idea of flawless recorded memory—both what it means and how it might be achieved—but what he has real affection for is the flawed reality of remembrance. This flaw becomes seen as a lack, something we don’t have but might aspire to. But, for most of us at least, “The individual is propelled by lack, be it a deficit of love, wealth, or esteem.” We need this propulsion. In regards to Peek’s flawless memory and near lack of sexual desire, Luebbert notes, “Our genes need our desires to be satisfied by action and not merely by reminiscing.” But what if we shift that? What if in flawed reminiscing there is a call to action, a call to creation?


Rereading this issue offered something resembling what remembering offers: a chance for new connections, for understanding to be slightly rewritten. A new interpretation began to dawn on me after re-encountering other lines from Luebbert’s essay:  “Our society demands information in the form of schemas, methodologies, and histories. It is all about how to sustain and recreate society itself, since it is renewed entirely every 5 or 6 generations. The information that is judged to be correct is passed on and preserved.” What else benefits from renewal after generational shifts? How about that the core of Asymptote: translation? Replace society with literary translation and we’re onto something, right? We need schemas and methodologies. It’s how the art is sustained and recreated. After some years pass, translations fall out of favor, mistakes are seen or new understandings arise, a new translation is called for, and yet  something of that old version is always preserved. Does this hold? Maybe.

This issue also includes an interview with a literary theorist, Susan Bassnett, so is there something there to ground this flight of mine? Perhaps. When answering a question there, she explains that, “I have just written an essay in which I argue that a sonnet by the Irish poet Michael Longley and a novel by the Australian writer David Malouf can be seen as ‘translations’ of book 24 of Homer’s Iliad. Clearly neither are literal translations nor indeed do either of them attempt to follow the structure of the original but I view both these works, both the poem and the novel, as translations because neither could have been written without Homer in the first instance.” So there’s real comfort stretching what can be considered translation. These authors are rewriting something old, something passed down, something that changes as successive generations encounter it, just as our own memories change each time we re-encounter them. Bassnett also writes: “I find myself falling back again and again on what might seem to be rather old fashioned language and thinking of the writer and the translator as a wordsmith, as a craftsman, as a storyteller, as a pattern shaper.” Memory is certainly pattern shaping, whether we’re doing it actively or passively. Translation and memory, memory and translation: remembering as translating your past, or a culture’s past. It fits.

Before the Luebbert essay, I read Saramago’s “Small Memories.” There, I never thought of translation, only of memory and my personal challenges with it. It’s a personal essay, diving into his childhood memories, piecing bits together to make a narrative that holds, or holds just well enough to survive. It’s brave, or at least I see it as brave because that move into the past, into recovery, is something I’m afraid of in my own life. But it’s also something I’m ever drawn to: whether as nonfiction or fiction, works of memory fascinate me. (Here, again, though maybe only in a personal way, let’s pair remembering and translating: two things I, a monoglot, find personally impossible, yet what I am always compelled to read.)

Immediately, Saramago layers his narrative, “The child I was did not see the landscape as the adult he became would be tempted to see it from the lofty height of manhood.” It’s an announcement that he is striving to leave behind that adult perception and portray the childhood experience, but that’s only possible from the vantage point of adulthood, through the language and prose skills that he possesses  and that the child never did. It’s a statement of both honesty and dishonesty: this is incomplete, this isn’t pure, but it’s as close as we’re going to get, and let’s get past that gap together. It’s the same deal a translator makes with the original text and the reader of the new text. It is all rather lovely.

It’s also rather sad. Memory is rather sad, translation is rather sad. If, that is, we focus on the loss. We can choose to do otherwise. We can practice some Buddhism and sit with that sadness, with the loss of friendships that have ended, with versions of ourselves that no longer exist. And then that sadness can pass when we joyously celebrate what is created when we remember, retranslating those stories into a place that works for the present. That too will then pass. Memory, literature, translation—life is never unrelentingly sad or joyous, whole or fractured, it’s always passing between. In Okamoto’s letters, she writes of the hanami festival, a picnic dedicated to viewing cherry blossoms, being cancelled because of the tragic damage done by the tsunami. Cherry blossoms are a way of observing and appreciating the ephemeral, a beauty that is fleeting.

By skipping it this one year to honor the victims of the tsunami, they pin it all in place. Okamoto writes of her memories of festivals past while processing this one that does not exist. In the future, when writing of bygone festivals, this non-festival, the reason why, the meaning of it, will be another memory in this overall narrative. Her letter is full of melancholy and mourning. It is comfortable in them, as one needs to be to process something like the 2011 tsunami. The hanami festival and the presence of its absence help her do that, help her hold on to this fleeting experience. Remembering, translating, writing, reading, rereading: I’m layering them over each other because it all becomes a way to move through life, to build our lives, to survive.

All of this can be done to a place too, as Dominic Pettman suggests.  “In Divisible Cities” (which we not only translated into Italian but also arranged to be published in Chinese in our partner journal in Hong Kong) is a disjointed essay, broken into fragments of thought and fragments of ideas, bringing in quotations from various sources and making them into something new. But just because we rely on fragments to create, to see what arises from the gaps and the leaps, doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole. Pettman opens by explaining “mattering maps”: “we all carry in our heads the personalized Baedeker of things which matter to us: shopping maps, eating maps, browsing maps, narcotic maps, erotic maps. Some corners of the city make us anxious, others curious, and still others strangely empty.” I recognized this in the maps I have of the city where I’ve lived in for most of a decade.

He wants to move that further though, towards “A map which does not represent cities that exist independently, but a map which brings cities into being; turning their potential and promise into brute matter.” At first I didn’t understand what he meant, and maybe I still don’t (maybe this type of complexity and abstractness is above me), but something still clicked. It clicked as I worked my way through his combination of personal moments, memories, and intellectual quotations. I need to re-remember, reread, recreate this city. I need to renew my translation of this city to make it new again, to suit who I am now, to make my memories of place into something more than just old, sad, and broken. It took rereading this issue, and finding all the connective tissues that spoke to me now that may not have spoken to me before, for me to have this deep breath, to sit in the passing moment and see what potential lies ahead.

P.T. Smith is an Assistant Editor at Asymptote.

Find the Spring 2011 issue here. If you like what we do, help us realize our full potential: Become a masthead member or a sustaining member today!