Fall 2013: Translators Talk to Us

Here is yet another dimension of Asymptote which has only begun to emerge: it is becoming an invaluable historical record.

October 2013 marks a turning point: for the first time since our debut, I am not editing at least five sections (as I have for each of the first eleven issues), only two (fiction and nonfiction). Ironically, my workload only increases. A larger team means more housekeeping tasks (some delegatable, some not): asymptotejournal.com accounts to create, staff dossiers to maintain, orientations to conduct, internal surveys to chase after, recommendation letters to write. Most of all, supervising so many new staff in a virtual environment proves a Sisyphean task. Some are not used to being held accountable to pledged hours; others, passionate though they may be about our mission, quickly realize that magazine work is actually rather gruelling. Morale during this transitional period is low, with more than a few recruits falling off the radar. Still, each time a personnel does not work out is a valuable HR lesson learnt, better than any management book can teach. On 6 September, the first-ever draft of our orientation manual is produced by then part-time Managing Editor Tara FitzGerald in close consultation with me and circulated among senior team members; on 23 September, a revised version is released to the entire team, now 45-strong. At 31 pages (as opposed to 66 in its current incarnation), this groundbreaking document represents a hopeful beacon of synced work protocol. Among the milestones this quarter: Poetry Society of America publishes an interview with me; we make our first appearance at ALTA; our daily blog (yes, this one!) is launched at the same time as the October 2013 edition, featuring, among others, an interview with Anne Carson and Robert Currie, and poetry by Wanda Coleman, who passes away—we note with great sadness—five weeks after said issue launch. A quick look at the first month’s blog offerings reveals: A new translation of Louis Aragon (via Damion Searls), a review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, dispatches from International Translation Day in London and Frankfurt Book Fair, as well as Florian Duijsens’s inspired “Pop Around the World” column. As with the quarterly journal, then, we tried to set a high bar from the get-go. Here to introduce the Fall 2013 issue is contributing editor Ellen Elias-Bursac.

I first heard about Asymptote when my translation of an essay by Dubravka Ugrešić was published in the Fall 2011 issue, the journal’s fourth. But it was only with the Fall 2013 issue—and a short story by David Albahari which I’d translated from the Serbian—that I began an ongoing collaboration as a contributing editor.

I agreed to come on board because I was drawn to the extraordinary number of languages and literatures represented in each issue (17 in Fall 2013), the caliber and inventiveness of the editorial staff, and the ways the journal makes the most of its online presence by including both a recording of the work read aloud in its original language and the original text. (Have a look, here, for instance, at the Isthmus Zapotec of Natalia Toledo’s poems, or here, at Vyomesh Shukla’s poem “What I Wanted to Write” in Hindi.) I was also wowed by the stunning illustrations in every issue.

As a translator myself, I am always interested in reading what my peers have to say about their writers and the challenges they have faced. To demonstrate the many ways translators can talk to us through Asymptote, below I offer several quotes from their notes in the Fall 2013 issue.

Some situate the translated text within the author’s opus and the larger cultural context. When introducing her translation from the Arabic of Hassan Daoud’s story “The Penguin’s Song,” Marilyn Booth tells us that these works “eschew easy exoticism or external description. Rooted firmly in Lebanese society and history, they remind us of the significance of the mundane for lives everywhere.” David Stromberg, having translated “Good Girl” by Gail Hareven from the Hebrew, notes that she finds “ways of exploring characters and questions that lie at the heart of what it means to be human.” Writing about the ancient poems of Propertius that he has translated from the Latin, Henry Walters explains that “In Propertius we find a forerunner of the lover in all his many guises: earnest seeker, ecstatic devotee, jealous prosecutor, groveling scoundrel, haunted and haunting ghost.… And where something new begins, one should be able to hear, if one listens closely enough, the urgency and scope of its human feeling.” Poems from Aandaal, another poet from centuries past, were translated by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar from the Tamil, and Chabria suggests that “For Aandaal the body is the site of the sacred: she demands that Narayana take her aching adolescent body as his bride. She plays with contrasts, juxtaposing extreme violence and swooning surrender, desires deep within the body and visions of Deep Time.” On a more technical level, Gonzalo Melchor notes that the metaphors of Luis Rosales are built on a wholly personal idiom, and spring from a heartfelt philosophical and religious vision that infuses his poems with a strange magnetism.”   


Other translators, however, choose to focus on the challenges they faced. Sean Cotter pulls us into his experience of translating Mircea Cărtărescu’s prose from the Romanian as he recalls how Left Wing was a journey through wonder, revulsion, admiration, anger, and joy. The book offers no escape from the emotions it portrays, especially not to the translator, who inhabits each word like a hermit crab.” Sim Yee Chiang, on the other hand, gives us a sense of the playfulness required for translating Yoko Tawada from the Japanese: “Soulflight is a translator’s playground, a fantastical realm populated with tigers, fiends, and neologisms. Looking for a word to describe a person who tells fortunes using turtles? Tawada invites the translator to create one, just as she has.” Anna Cefola instead offers us a glimpse of her balancing act in translating the poetry of Hélène Sanguinetti: “I find delightful tension in wanting to accurately deliver her edgy poetry to readers, while wanting to change words to make it more accessible.” Clare Sullivan’s description of bringing readers Natalia Toledo’s poems—originally written in Isthmus Zapotec, then translated by Toledo into Spanish, and later rendered into English by Sullivan—captures the challenges she had to confront: “She succeeds through images both sharp and tender that resonate in her native tongue… Because my translation is based on her Spanish version, however, I must ground my work in her vivid imagery. This process has required me to visit the region, research names for local fruits and fauna.”

Aside from such fascinating insights into the translation process, the visual section is, somewhat unexpectedly, one of my favorites in each issue of Asymptote for its sheer inventiveness. In the October 2013 issue the artist showcased is Frédéric Diart, who explores the possible links between painting and language. Describing a project that “features paintings that were born from words over several years,” he explains that “These words have to do with experiencing limits: how we relate to history, how thinking can be made chaotic, how language can be torn apart. These texts and their authors are fertile and open fields of memory.”

Asymptote itself opens up fields of memory. When I revisited my contribution, David Albahari’s story “Trash is Better,” I listened, as I do every so often, to the recording of Albahari reading the story. Here is yet another dimension of Asymptote which has only begun to emerge now that the journal has been coming out for seven years: it is becoming an invaluable historical record. In Albahari’s case, his voice has been so changed by personal circumstances that for me, being able to listen to him speak as he was able to speak five years ago, is a moving and precious privilege.

As I write this in early September, just after a month spent celebrating women writers in translation, I found myself remarking on how well-represented women poets and prose writers are in this issue. The writers featured in the nonfiction section, for instance, are all women, as are more than half of the contributors to the issue’s English Poetry Feature.       

Asymptote probably seemed improbable at its inception. But the combined efforts of editor-in-chief Lee Yew Leong, the staff working in nearly every time zone, and the writers and translators who embraced the journal’s mission have treated all of us to an extraordinary rollercoaster ride of literature in translation.

Ellen Elias-Bursac has been a contributing editor at Asymptote since August 2012.


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