Podcast editor Dominick Boyle speaks with translator Olivia Hellewell, whose stellar translation of an excerpt from Katja Perat’s The Masochist earned her first place in the fiction category of our 2019 Close Approximations Contest and $1,000 in prizes. Set in an impeccably researched past, the novel gives Leopold von Sacher-Masoch—the (in)famously eccentric aristocrat after which masochism is named—a fictional daughter. The excerpt, featured in our Winter 2019 issue, depicts protagonist Nadezhda Moser as a woman of powerful wit and will to address issues that resonate with the present day. Dominick and Olivia sit down to discuss what drew Hellewell to translate from the Slovenian, what it’s like to translate from a language with a smaller stature on the world stage, and more.
Slovene or Slovenian? Close Approximations' 2019 fiction winner Olivia Hellewell weighs in.
Featuring Etel Adnan, Maggie Nelson, and Close Approximations winners, among new work from 35 countries!
We are proud to present “Body Memory,” our most diverse issue ever, featuring new work from a record-breaking 35 countries! Etel Adnan, Steinn Steinarr, and Argonauts author Maggie Nelson join us in celebrating our eighth anniversary and the six winners of our international translation contest picked by Edward Gauvin and Eugene Ostashevsky. Top honors go to two translators of underrepresented languages this year: Olivia Hellewell, who works with Slovenian fiction, and Daniel Owen, Indonesian poetry. Who else won a slice of USD3,000 in prizes? Find out here.
If you believe in our work, help us spread word of it in the physical realm with our Winter 2019 flyer (pictured above), or join us on Facebook and Twitter over the next two weeks especially as we push the glorious art and writing entrusted us out into the world. If you’re inclined to tweet, here’s a suggestion:
NEW ISSUE! Please RT @asymptotejrnl’s Winter 2019 “Body Memory” feat. Maggie Nelson, Etel Adnan, and Steinn Steinarr, among new work from 35 countries! Find out who took home $3,000 in prizes in the magazine’s annual translation contest, unveiled here: http://asymptotejournal.com/
On social media, many have been posting before and after photos in response to a ten-year challenge. At Asymptote, we take this ten-year-challenge to mean something else altogether: the challenge is see through what we’ve done for a full ten years, at least. It may beggar belief that we have done all that we’ve done in the service of world literature (events, educational guides, podcasts, blog posts, newsletter dispatches, and even a Book Club) on little to no institutional funding. Truth is, it has been every bit as hard as you suspect it to be behind the scenes, as we recounted in last year’s #30issues30days showcase. Although we are one of the most generous resources for out there for world lit, chronic ineligibility for nation-based grants means we’re stranded without support. High-visibility literary festivals apply for and receive sponsorship all the time, but who will support the very private act of literary discovery on a computer screen? As we enter our ninth year, the last leg of this challenge, we hope you’ll stand with us and sign up either as a sustaining member or a masthead member. We need your support more than ever. Become a part of our global movement—join the Asymptote family today!
You [write] to orchestrate what it is about the world that hurts you.
92,400 words—if an Asymptote issue could be held in your hands, it would be a book with 92,400 words and 368 pages (based on the typical range of 250-300 words a page). And it would be a free book, since, to catalyze the transmission of world literature, we don’t charge for access and hope it always remains that way. That’s 92,400 words that have to be solicited, considered, selected, edited, uploaded, formatted to both our house style and the satisfaction of contributors, and then fact-checked and proofread by four to six pairs of eyes. Out of the 44 articles that these 92,400 words constitute, eight might require extensive footwork for rights, ten commissioned from scratch, and as many as 18 illustrated by a guest artist. Then newly appointed chief executive assistant Theophilus Kwek obtains this figure of 92,400 (for the English text alone) “by copying the entire [Winter 2016] issue into a word document, and rounding off to the nearest 100 for footnotes [he] may have missed.” The occasion for this? We have been invited to submit an application to a grant administered by Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC), and one of the requested data is wordcount. How this comes about after five years of no official contact between Asymptote and NAC goes like this: In February 2016, back in Singapore to visit with family over Chinese New Year, I send out a batch of solicitations. One is addressed to Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who played a major role in facilitating the June 2018 Kim-Trump summit, the costs of which (twelve million USD) the Singaporean government willingly absorbed. On 14 February, 2016, I receive a call at 8 a.m. by someone from Balakrishnan’s office encouraging me to take up the matter with NAC instead. I mutter something about NAC being unsupportive, and put the phone down quite quickly. The next day, someone more senior—an actual spokesperson from the Ministry—calls. Charmed by her diplomacy, I agree to “allow [myself] to be approached.” On February 16, an email entitled “funding for Asymptote,” pops up in my inbox. Negotiation takes a protracted seven months, during the course of which my case is rotated between four different officers, and in the process of which hopes are raised only to be dashed—with even the acting director of NAC’s literary arts sector development admitting to me that they had changed their mind (i.e., that it is not a matter of one officer’s stance being discontinuous with another). The long and short of it is that funding is allotted to Singaporean writers and translators of Singaporean work only; support for literary editors only extends as far as sponsoring workshops or mentorships. This was NAC’s policy in 2011 (and one I was well aware of); if it hadn’t changed, why make contact? She sends me off with a one-time grant to the tune of 8,800 USD, tied to publication of Singaporean content on Asymptote platforms in the fourth quarter of 2016. In April, at the invitation of AmazonCrossing and with partial support from the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors in the UK, I speak at a London Book Fair panel on “Discovering Stories from Asia, Africa, and Turkey”; despite the geographical reach of the subject matter, I am the only person of color represented on the panel. Unlike, say, an all-male panel, this goes unremarked, underscoring a troubling diversity problem in publishing that I’ve tried to counter with my own magazine by appointing section editors from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Here to introduce the Spring 2016 edition—that I launched from the couch of my college friend Vanessa’s apartment in Brixton, London—is Visual editor Eva Heisler:
Revisiting the Spring 2016 issue, I am struck by how far-ranging and innovative the work is—and how moving. Through the inspired efforts of Asymptote’s translators, I am transported across cultures and geopolitical contexts as I gain access to poems, stories, drama, creative nonfiction, and criticism originally written in Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Filipino, Nahuatl, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovenian, and Thai, to name just a few of the languages represented in this issue.
As editor of Asymptote’s visual section, I am interested in featuring artists who explore issues of text, narrative, linguistic identity, translation, or voice. One work that explores language as shifty, always on the move, is Bad Language, a collaboration between translator Laura Marris and video artist Matt Kenyon. The video, which documents Marris’s process of translating a poem by Paol Keineg, presents the poem as a moving entity animated by possibilities, the page rippling with adjustments and substitutions. This “moving translation” is particularly suited to Keineg’s French since the writer, who was raised in Brittany, often integrates Breton vocabulary. As Marris explains, “I wanted to translate in a way that could accommodate shifting linguistic loyalties, rather than delivering one authoritative version.” READ MORE…
Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to Morocco, Hong Kong, and the United States.
We are back with the latest from around the world! This week we hear about Morocco, Hong Kong, and the United States. Enjoy!
Hodna Nuernberg, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Morocco
Some seven hundred exhibitors from Morocco and around the world descended on Casablanca for the Salon international de l’edition et du livre, which took place from February 9-18. Half open-air souk (rumor had it that one of the ambulatory vendors went so far as to offer women’s panties for sale!), half oasis of high culture, the book fair counted over 125,000 titles from forty-five different countries. Egypt, this year’s guest of honor, accounted for nearly fifteen percent of the titles on offer alone, and managed to ruffle more than a few feathers when an Egyptian publisher was allegedly caught displaying a book (A Brief History of Africa) whose cover featured a map of the continent depicting a “mutilated” Morocco—the disputed territory of the Western Sahara appearing as an independent nation under the Polisario flag. The presence of the book was firmly denied by the Ministry of Culture.
What persists through every job I have held...is my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I
translate into a new tongue.
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
This is perhaps the most appropriate introduction to Christopher Merrill, the award-winning poet and translator from Slovenian and Korean who directs the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. Gifted with a style that frequently combines, as Kirkus Reviews called it, “Merrill-the-poet’s gorgeous writing, and Merrill-the-reporter’s sharp eye,” he has risen to greater international prominence in part through his involvement with the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and extensive cultural diplomacy engagement all over the world.
In his recent memoir Self-Portrait with Dogwood, Merrill writes: “The invention of language made possible what we imagine to comprise human experience, for good or ill—agriculture, warfare, religion, government, poetry, philosophy, art, and science, not to mention the emotions that drive individuals, societies, and civilizations. Long ago, under a tree, we learned to express ourselves in a new key, building structures of meaning word by word, phrase by phrase, alert to the necessities of living, to the varieties of love and grief, to the mysteries of faith, quirks of nature, and consolations of storytelling… The musical possibilities encoded in language expanded our understanding of the worlds without and within, giving birth to poetry—and so much more.”
Claire Jacobson: Can you tell me how you got started writing poetry, and translating, and being involved in the international writing community? Basically, what is the origin story of Christopher Merrill?
Christopher Merrill: A writer’s origin story may change over time, especially if the writer’s life takes many forms, as mine has. Thus at different points along the way I have dated the beginning of my literary vocation to a love affair; a serious illness at the age of twenty-four; working as a war correspondent in the Balkans; making pilgrimages on the Holy Mountain of Athos; and so on. But the most enduring story is that as a teenager in New Jersey I wanted to be a soccer player and a poet: two career paths that did not sit well with my parents—which only enhanced their appeal. When I matriculated at Middlebury College, where I was recruited to play soccer and intended to be a French major, I had the good luck to take a poetry workshop with the novelist Thomas Gavin, who became a lifelong friend; his encouragement inspired me to serve what turned into an unusual literary apprenticeship, which included stints as a graduate student, nurseryman, college soccer coach, caretaker, bookstore clerk, director of writers’ conferences, and freelance journalist. What persists through every job I have held, each of which I viewed as a gift regardless of the pay or working conditions, is my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below.