Winter 2017: Intimate Strangers

Who better to bare our intimate, struggling self with than several thousand of our closest friends?

January 2017: I have turned 40. Though I no longer remember when exactly I set down the rule for team members to refrain from sending me email over weekends, it is likely the embargo originated from this time. Entering a new decade is an occasion to take stock, to insist on a proper work-life balance. But 40 has always felt like an especially significant milestone, possibly because, as a teenager, I’d read an essay in which the narrator wonders obsessively if he’d land on the “right side of forty,” the obsession guiding his every life decision. Then his fortieth birthday comes, and with it the realization, like thunder, that he has lived life wrong. I’ve not lived life wrong, but I have certainly lived against the grain. Around this time I notice, for example, that I am spacing out more and more in gatherings with former classmates when talk turns to acquiring a second property. I stumble upon David Williams’s devastating essay in World Literature Today and can’t tear my eyes away from the line: “I couldn’t see it at the time, and I certainly refused to acknowledge it, but when my parents’ overeducated, thirty-something child chooses to sell his labor well below a living wage, they can be forgiven for thinking that their blue-eyed son is engaged in a sophisticated form of self-sabotage.”  Perhaps, this is why our sixth anniversary issue comes with what Australia editor-at-large Tiffany Tsao calls below a “frankly [desperate]” editor’s note; still, as she says, “who better to bare our intimate, struggling self with than several thousand of our closest friends?”

. . . you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else . . . This phrase hails from Amanda DeMarco’s brilliant rumination on life as a translator, Foreign to Oneself. Published in our Winter 2017 issue, the essay is composed entirely of excerpts from other texts (this particular quote is taken from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby). As I reread these words while writing this essay, my vision began to get a little blurry. I’m being maudlin, I know. But where else is one entitled to get weepy if not in a retrospective that invites writers to indulge in nostalgia? And the truth of this observation about being a translator sang out all the more because this was also the issue in which my translations of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry made their debut.

At that point, I was Asymptote’s Indonesia Editor-at-Large (my country of focus is now Australia, where I reside), and a few months earlier, I’d come across some of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry. Having heard that he’d recently won the Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Manuscript Competition, I reached out to him via Twitter to ask if I could work with him to translate his poems for our poetry editor’s consideration. This issue marked the start of an ongoing and very fruitful translator-writer partnership with Norman, who later came on staff and is our current Indonesia Editor-at-Large. English-language versions of Norman’s other poems were subsequently published in various magazines, and awarded both a prize and a grant from English PEN. The collection from which these poems are excerpted will be published by Tilted Axis Press in March 2019. If it weren’t for Asymptote, I’m not sure if Norman and I would have ever started working together.

In the context of an issue that marks a milestone in my translating career, DeMarco’s essay speaks to the fact that translation—especially on projects where I work closely with the author—has always been an intensely personal one. When asked about it, I often liken it to being a surrogate mother. You incubate and nurture someone else’s baby for months; the baby occupies your body, mind, and heart; you labor intensely to push it out into the world. I also often liken it to being a medium: submitting yourself to possession by another spirit, channeling someone else’s voice. To be frank, I think translation is an unhealthy profession (though I think writing is too, for that matter). As any modern, pop-psychology-savvy individual should know, maintaining boundaries is key to ensuring an individual’s emotional wellbeing. But the best translation results, at least for me, are achieved when I let the text take up residence in me, when I let the borders between the text, the author, and myself blur and seep into the translation.


Perhaps it was only fitting then that the theme of this sixth anniversary issue was “Intimate Strangers”—a nod to the strange and frightening intimacy of bridging different texts, realities, souls, and selves across linguistic seas. And perhaps the frank desperation of the editor’s note, which included reports of staff attrition, lack of funding, and chronic ineligibility for nation-based grants, was also devastatingly apt: who better to bare our intimate, struggling self with than several thousand of our closest friends?

As I revisited this issue piece by piece, I found this vulnerability, this unbearable permeability of being, scattered elsewhere. In Philip Holden’s sensitive reflection on questions of language in Singapore, he observes how communicating brokenly across languages reminds us of our inability to connect, as well as the almost visceral connections this shared inability can forge. It is “as though linguistic incompetence, incomprehension, and the process of mutual translation forces us back to the body, to the heart.” Vulnerability also leaps out from I Like It Here by Han Chang-hoon, translated by Jason Woodruff. On a storm-tossed fishing boat, a man realizes how much he loves his wife only after she tells him that she’s leaving the next day. “Just as one misses something one has lost, so one must also become attached anew to someone about to leave.”

This issue was memorable in other ways as well. As Indonesia Editor-at-Large, I was thrilled to see two Indonesian writers featured in one issue: Norman Erikson Pasaribu was joined by the acclaimed Balinese playwright Putu Wijaya, whose Shaytan was translated by Cobina Gillitt. The issue also included an amazing Special Feature on Indian Languages that contained poetry in Gujarati, Panchmahali Bhili, Dehwali Bhili, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, and the Char Chapori dialect. I was especially struck by Gopika Jadeja’s translation of Jitendra Vasava’s Living and dying in a foreign tongue, which captures the violence of forced education in an official, supposedly “more civilized” language not one’s own:

I sat alone in school

while our tongue sat outside

whining, like a dog

[ . . .]

It leaves us living dead

that foreign language.

The poem reminded me afresh of what translation should aspire to be—a means of enabling communication across languages without silencing or obliterating anyone’s tongue. At its most ethical, I believe translation operates on a principle of openness not only to other languages and cultures and places, but also to people. Over the course of more than four years as an Asymptote staff member, I’ve found it inspiring to witness how the journal has provided such a stellar forum for articulating and embodying these principles of translation. Here’s to another 30 issues, if not 30 years.

Tiffany Tsao is Asymptotes Australia Editor-at-Large. To read more about Asymptotes role in bringing her and Norman Erikson Pasaribu together as translator and writer, you can read this essay, which originally appeared in our fortnightly newsletter.


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