Summer 2015: The Wonders of Travelling To and From Different Languages

Let’s hope, then, that languages can heal—let’s make them a force of reconciliation.

A meme recently caught my eye: “If you do what you love, you’ll never have to work a single day in your life. you won’t have any work-life balance and you’ll take things personally.” This is true. What I might add is in order to keep doing what little you love, you have to do a lot of things you don’t want to do. Leading a virtual volunteer team and upholding the quality of a magazine across so many different platforms (including social media) aren’t things that go naturally together. Whether or not you feel like it, you have to step in whenever work pledged by someone else falls through or is submitted in an unsatisfactory state. Over the years, editing the magazine has taken a toll. With the Winter 2015 issue and a gruelling IndieGoGo campaign out of the way, it’s time to recover some joie de vivre. Since the Vietnamese Feature we planned for April 2015 is in woeful shape anyway, I decide to cancel the Spring 2015 issue. A football widow is someone who must cope with the temporary death of her relationship during football games. My long-suffering magazine widower of a partner and I book a month-long Airbnb in Paris (my first time stepping on European soil in ten years), where we work on a book-length translation project together in between visits to gardens and museums. While in Paris, news arrives that Asymptote has been shortlisted for the London Book Fair award for International Literary Translation Initiative. I buy Eurostar tickets and make arrangements for Asymptote’s first-ever team gathering in London, documented here. April 15 comes, and on the day we might have launched the Spring 2015 issue, I walk up a stage instead to receive an award on behalf of the entire magazine. Although we competed against the Dutch Foundation for Literature (which, unlike Asymptote, has institutional backing) and China’s Paper Republic (which predates Asymptote), the selection committee declares their decision “unanimous,” calling our magazine “the place where translators want to publish their own and their authors’ work.” My own euphoric team members aside (some at the ceremony, most not), I’m also congratulated by the reporter at Lianhe ZaobaoSingapore’s main Chinese broadsheetwho ran a full-page story on me in March and thus made my Chinese-speaking parents proud (being avid readers of this broadsheet but not of English literature, let alone Asymptote, this is possibly a bigger deal to them than any London Book Fair award—and so for the next six months, they don’t nag at me to look for ‘proper work’). Otherwise, attention from Singaporean media is close to non-existent. On the other hand, news of our win is joyously received by our international readers on social media. How different the magazine’s outlook from exactly four months ago! Here to introduce the first issue after our London Book Fair win is Assistant Managing Editor Lou Sarabadzic.

I have a real passion for multilingualism that can be explained from two different perspectives. First, the half-full one: as a poet writing in French and English (and sometimes incorporating both within the same piece) I love hearing about any multilingual writing experience, or any writer using an adopted language. The half-empty (a lot more than half, actually…) perspective would instead focus on the fact that as an author writing in only two languages, there are thousands of languages I can’t read, understand, or even name. French and English: so far, that’s all I’ve got. And while I need writing in both these languages to explore things I couldn’t explore in just one of them, I am acutely aware that these are two dominant, Western European languages. In my case, multilingualism doesn’t equal diversity. It’s more about personal choices, education in an Erasmus era, and privileged immigration.

Yet from both perspectives I reach the same conclusion: I love multilingualism because it has so much to teach me. It’s also what I immediately liked in Asymptote. In the Summer 2015 issue, the journal explicitly embraces and celebrates multilingualism by making it the subject of a Special Feature, edited by Ellen Jones. (And it will do so again in 2016 and 2018.) This commitment takes diversity and inclusion to a whole new level. I was already extremely impressed by the international line-up of writers, artists, and translators featured in Asymptote. However, this specific—and recurring—focus on multilingualism encapsulates what the journal is all about: not only providing translations from one language into another, but ‘facilitat[ing] encounters between languages’. In other words: making languages inseparable, fostering new connections, exploring history, and suggesting a future. In his editor’s note, Lee Yew Leong writes that this issue “contains work from more than thirty countries and from four new languages, bringing [Asymptote’s] tally to seventy-two(!)” Now, that’s something you don’t see in just any journal… Along with multilingualism, contributing to a platform for a truly worldwide literature is something that was crucial in my decision to apply to work at Asymptote: a single language doesn’t mean a single country, as colonisation and history sadly show us.

Obsessed as I am with French, my first language, I was delighted to find it represented by so many perspectives: from France and Algeria with Zahia Rahmani in the extract “From Muslim, a Novel, translated by Matt Reeck; from Morocco with Abdellatif Laâbi’s poem “Letter to My Friends Overseas,” translated by André Naffis-Sahely; from Quebec with Guy Jean’s poetry “From Air Triste, translated by Jen Lagedrost and Catherine Fagan; and from Lebanon with Eyad Houssami’s self-translated “Mama Butterfly.” I wish this diversity was something to which I had been more accustomed, especially as a young student. Unfortunately, the French curriculum gave little space to voices other than those of the privileged and the colonisers.

Since I am a translator, one of my favourite things when reading Asymptote has always been to jump back and forth between the translation and the original, which is available for most texts. Sometimes I even read the English translation as I’m listening to the original text read by the author. In a multilingual section, this activity goes from frankly fascinating to simply exquisite. I could start with a piece of multilingual writing I was just about able to access in the original given my linguistic skills: “All Green Will Endure Chrónicle,” written by Susana Chávez-Silverman and translated by Asymptote’s Criticism Editor Ellen Jones. I listen to this Anglo-Spanish tongue Susana Chávez-Silverman invents for us, and I’m in awe. And then, as a writer and former teacher who likes to use Franglais (or Frenglish), I read the wonderful translation by Ellen Jones and I’m transported. I laugh at this self-conscious narrator as I recognise my own experience as a language learner, which always makes you aware of your limitations in your first language: “A whole horda of colibríes, or flock, manada, or whatever the heck you call a group of hummingbirds (those animal group names are one of my favorite things of all time, but I’ll confess tout de suite that I don’t always—OK, hardly ever—get them right, in English, español, or any of my tongues or their in-between).”

Irreverent mixes of languages and playful accents add an absurd dimension that can reinforce the comic aspect of a piece, but multilingualism can also be used for dramatic effect. This is what happens in Wilson Bueno’s “Three Extracts from Paraguayan Sea,” translated by Erín Moure. In this text, Portunhol—a hybrid of Portuguese and Spanish—has been creatively rendered into Franglais, with Guaraní remaining as Guaraní. In addition to being a stylistic achievement—both from the writer and translator—multilingualism here is the language of intensity and violence. Constant linguistic disruptions reflect the complex, emotional work of memory. Yet these short paragraphs built on confusion still evoke empowerment: whatever its format, this story is being told, and by a first-person narrator. It’s not that the impact of life-changing events cannot be expressed; it just needs to be expressed outside of usual norms and boundaries.

We often say, in reference to origins, “I’m half this and half that.” But what if we subverted that? This is what came to mind when reading Cia Rinne’s poetry in “Excerpt,” which combines German, English and French. Words are cut off, disjointed, but it is precisely from dismemberment that the self, the “I,” can exist. From “impossibilities,” the poem shifts in the next line to “i’m possibilities.” The I, divided, grammatically rejected to become a subject rather than part of a plural noun, is made much stronger. It’s not being halved, au contraire, but given all its coherence—its very existence, from dissociation. This dissociation is also one you hear: poetry is about rhythm and sounds, and it’s particularly true of this shift from “impossibilities” to “i’m possibilities.” (And since Asymptote values oral performance as much as the written world, you can even listen to the whole piece read by the author.)  

Although multilingual, Cia Rinne’s poetry doesn’t need any translation to be accessible to an English-speaking audience, which is why only one version of the text appears on the site. However, other texts do require translation—and, in the case of multilingualism, inventive translation strategies like the Franglais for Portunhol we mentioned earlier. Creativity was also an absolute requirement for Yoko Tawada’s “As Clear As Cloud,” translated from the Japanese by Sayuri Okamoto and Sim Yee Chiang. Interestingly, since it questions language, communication, and meaning, the text centres around the figure of an incomprehensible poet. Here, the Chinese sentences included in the original text in Japanese have been translated into Middle English.


While the multilingual section of this issue is definitely stimulating, the wonders of travelling to and from different languages abound in other sections as well. In the Nonfiction section, Ros Schwartz translates an extract of Mireille Gansel’s beautiful “Translation as Transhumance,” which won an English PEN Translates Award 2017 and a French Voices Awards 2015. Gansel speaks of the undefeated power of translation, “the conviction that no word that speaks of what is human is untranslatable.” But “translatable” doesn’t mean “that we’re willing to translate,” as is shown through her family history:

Father had added a further damper to the ukase banning the Hungarian language: ‘If you wish to communicate with the family, you will simply have to learn German.’

‘But do you know German?’ Father’s reply was chilling: ‘I know eight words, the ones the teacher reserved for the Jewish students in the class—the only ones he dinned into me: “du bist ein Stück Fleisch mit zwei Augen’’ (You are a piece of meat with two eyes). Then he said: ‘I hate German.’ Many years later, the little girl would understand that in the dark waters of a shared suffering and a shared rebellion, this hatred developed into a dual rejection: of German, the language of the persecutors and those who humiliate, and of Hebrew, the language of his Jewish-self, his persecuted and humiliated self. From his childhood in Balassagyarmat he harboured a lifelong rejection of any doublespeak.

With this extract, we come back to multilingualism’s conflicting nature: while it can be freeing, it can also reveal a dark, oppressive past, annihilating and diluting identity to the point of intense suffering.

So why do we willingly multiply our writing languages? Because above all, multilingualism, when it isn’t a tool of oppression, is about sharing; and this is what Yuko Otomo, born in Japan but writing in English, says in her interview with Greg Nissan. “It was out of pure necessity that I started to write poems in English. Fate took me out of the mother-tongue zone and I found myself in English when I moved to New York City,” she explains. “I knew English well enough to get by, but I was still in the Japanese language as far as my literary thought-process was concerned. It felt like being thrown into a black hole. Like transplanting a tree into a different soil: if the tree is young, it will adjust better. In my case, the tree was already fully grown. So it was not easy. But my desire to share my poetic world with others was stronger than my fear or hesitation.”

Multilingualism, as it appears in several pieces in this issue, can tell the story of stolen lands, forbidden cultures, and injured selves. Yet it can also talk about empowerment, the re-appropriation of one’s narrative, solidarity, compassion, and a profound desire to express what we know to be our own unique voice. Let’s hope, then, that languages can heal—let’s make them a force of reconciliation. Just like the “friends” in Abdellatif Laâbi’s moving poem, we can find our way to the imprisoned poet “through the mercy of the poem”, so that we can meet

beyond the barbed wire of exile
in a stillborn continent
that never surges out of the sea or the sky
nor is fashioned out of clay
but by the hands and the fervour
of voices that plead and jump out of the window
to plunge into the swell of possibilities.

Lou Sarabadzic has been an Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production) with Asymptote since July 2018.


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