Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Expired copyrights, new literature, and the difficulties faced by translated literature feature in this week's updates.

As we welcome the New Year in, join our Editor-in-Chief, Yew Leong, and one of our Assistant Managing Editors, Janani, as they review the latest in world translation news. From the trials and tribulations faced by indigenous languages to new literary journals and non-mainstream literature, there’s plenty to catch up on!

Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief:

Though it was actually in 2016 that the UNESCO declared this year, 2019, to be the Year of Indigenous Languages, recent unhappy events have revealed how of the moment this designation has proven to be. A 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who was unable to communicate how sick she was died while in U.S. Border Patrol Custody—only one of several thousands of undocumented immigrants who speak an indigenous language like Zapotec, Mixtec, Triqui, Chatino, Mixe, Raramuri, Purepecha, or one of many Mayan languages, according to The Washington Post. Jair Bolsonaro, the new Brazilian president who has made insulting comparisons of indigenous communities living in protected lands to “animals in zoos,” wasted no time in undermining their rights within hours of taking office and tweeted ominously about “integrating” these citizens. On a brighter note, Canada will likely be more multilingual this year as the Trudeau administration looks set to enforce the Indigenous Languages Act before the Canadian election this year. The act will not only “recognize the use of Indigenous languages as a ‘fundamental right,’ but also standardize them,” thereby assisting their development across communities. Keen to explore literary works from some of these languages? With poems from indigenous languages ranging from Anishinaabemowin to Cree, Asymptote’s Fall 2016 Special Feature will be your perfect gateway to literature by First Nations writers.

The New Year has also brought with it a brand-new literary journal, in the form of the Tel Aviv Review of Books, the latest in a trend of burgeoning regional literary journals these past six months. Perhaps you have already heard of Bangkok Literary Review, started in June 2018? Or Arablit Quarterly founded in November 2018? Said founder and editor-in-chief Marcia Lynx Qualey, fresh from winning the 2017 London Book Fair Award for International Literary Translation Initiative, in her Asymptote interview: “We literature people must do all we can to agitate for open borders“—surely these exciting developments for world literature represent a giant leap toward that goal. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for 2019 to welcome even more literary journals spotlighting underrepresented voices.

Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor:

We have started off 2019 on the right foot with the heartening story of how supporters came together to raise funds to save London’s Feminist Library from shutting shop. We also saw the release of thousands of works of literature from the claws of copyright. The expiration of the additional twenty years imposed by Sonny Bono Copyrights Term Extension Act, withholding works published in 1923 from coming into public domain, expired on January 1 this year, liberating the works of Agatha Christie and Virginia Woolf among others.

Publisher’s Weekly (PW) has just purchased Millions, an online magazine that covers books, arts, and culture. Having seen the recent shutdown of sources for literary news such as the very popular BookSlut and Toast, perhaps the takeover of Millions by a more established institution will ensure it will continue providing news to readers around the world for much longer.

New years don’t come and go without new resolutions and new reading lists such as this one in Guardian. We were disappointed to find only a couple of translated titles on the list. Most such lists tend to highlight mainstream and usually Western books. Asymptote will continue to publish our popular ‘What’s New in Translation’ column every month to highlight the best in translated literature to watch out for.

There are other avenues to get your dose of non-mainstream literature. SFinTranslation.com, started in 2016 to survey all speculative fiction available in English, announced a ‘Favourite SF in Translation’ award that will be determined by a reader survey. In 2018, Japanese, French and Spanish languages had the most number of SF in publication, but the survey includes a wide range of languages like the Yiddish and Pashto as well. SF is seen as a niche genre with its own fan-following, but it offers alternate realities from the perspective of minorities. The beloved Ursula K. Le Guin epitomized this, but there are also many indigenous and non-Western literatures that tell their own stories.


Read more weekly dispatches on the Asymptote blog:

  • M. Gabriela Sosa

    Hi, I just wanted to point out that “Mayan” isn’t actually a language but a denomination used to refer to various indigenous languages like K’iche’, Kakchikel, Mam,… etc.

    Thank you for your great work.

    • Nina Perrotta

      Thank you for your comment! I’m Nina, one of the assistant blog editors. We’ve changed the post to reflect that “Mayan” is not a language but rather a term that includes various languages. Thank you again for pointing this out, and for supporting the blog!