Language: Spanish

Fall 2016: A Fresh Opportunity to Talk

Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision.

Halldor Laxness, Stefan Zweig, László Krasznahorkai—just when you think you are announcing just these three international literary superstars in the Fall 2016 lineup, it turns out you have four. On October 3, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti controversially unmasks Elena Ferrante as Anita Raja. But, even before Gatti’s unwelcome revelation, I had already picked out Anita Raja’s contribution as a highlight and intended to include her name in all our issue-related promotional materials. Fearing that we would be accused of riding the controversy, I drop a note to criticism editor Ellen Jones: “What do you make of all this Anita Raja = Elena Ferrante business? Is it opportunistic of us to feature her name in our publicity materials (which we already sent for printing) and on the cover (which can still be changed)?” The issue’s been on her mind as well. “We want to avoid the same kinds of accusations NYRB are getting in this morning’s papers,” Ellen says, “but I don’t think it would do too much harm to have her as one among many names in our promotion materials… I don’t think we need to bury a good essay on purpose, in short.” But what about in the promotional materials themselves? How much do we say about Anita Raja? Communications Manager Matthew Phipps decides in the end to take a risk and state matter-of-factly that Elena Ferrante has been unmasked as Anita Raja (which anyone who has been following literary news already knows). Too frazzled to make a call on the copy after staying up for 36 hours to put together the video trailer (it’s been a while since I made these for Asymptote, and I am rusty), I sign off on the newsletter. That’s how, in spite of a massive publicity blitz that involved printing and distributing 4,000 postcards; print and digital ads in the Times Literary Supplement that set us back by 900 GBP; 97 personalized emails to media outlets, 90 tweets, 20 Facebook posts, and seven blog posts about the Fall 2016 issue (all documented in then Marketing Manager Ryan Celley’s publicity report here), dear reader, we still came to be booed. Here to introduce our Fall 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Garrett Phelps. 

What a work of literature ‘means’ is always tough to get a feel for, let alone talk about. Of course a famous theorist or two have claimed this is an insurmountable difficulty. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. Not being too slick with the theoretical stuff, I’ll just say that literature is meaningful to the extent it’s ambiguous and open-ended. And if any idea unifies Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue, it’s the way interpretive problems result from this state-of-affairs.

For Anita Raja, ignorance is the reader’s point of departure and return. In “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance” she argues that “the translator must be above all a good reader, capable of diving into the intricacies of the text, taking it apart, discerning all its nuance. The translator is, in short, a reader required to puzzle over the complexity of the original text, line after line, and to piece it together in the new language—a fundamentally impossible task.” Good translators are, essentially, readers par excellence. Anyone who’s dabbled in the field probably won’t find this idea controversial. Sooner or later, though, even a top-notch translator hits the same wall as the average reader, who’s more okay letting intricacies, nuances and puzzle-pieces remain gut-feelings. Demanding much more is futile even if doing so is worthwhile. This is especially true of translation, where success is often the sum of accumulated failures.

Guillermo Fadanelli’s “In Praise of Vagrancy” makes a strong case why all the above is exactly as it should be. “After labouring over so many books—reaching conclusions, contradicting myself, stating and re-stating my principles—it feels wonderful to be without answers… Nothing excites me more than to be asked a question that leaves me utterly confounded, and mute.” This return to uncertainty is the greatest effect literature can have on a reader. It’s all about being lost at sea. What little security does exist is a product of conversation, which pushes people to make up their minds, even if only for conversation’s sake.

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A similar pressure to take a position occurs in literature. Just take a look at a few stories from the fiction section: “Wayward Heroes” by Halldór Laxness, “Ten Years of Marriage” by Su Qing, and “Cafés Morts” by Maïssa Bey. If you read the issue “cover-to-cover”—or whatever the digital-journal equivalent is—these are the first three pieces you’ll encounter. Despite the enormous gaps in language, culture and period separating them, several thematic threads appear when they’re read together. (The clearest is an age-old gender divide, which gets foisted upon these female characters even though it’s little more than an empty custom.) As a result the stories feel like they were written to be read in tandem. This naturally wasn’t the case, but Asymptote’s rigorous editorial efforts did give them a fresh opportunity to talk. They no longer have to stand alone, self-referential and largely self-contained.

Again and again Fadanelli tries to clearly state what conversation is. Every verdict ends up contradicting the others, which I suppose is fitting. Still, they all point out that we’re stuck at square one no matter how wide our perspective. If you’ll allow a second quote of his: “Digressions and accidents along the road might give rise to new discoveries—like a long forgotten bottle of wine, or the realisation that the whole excursion is simply absurd. The act of wandering contains within it the most important of all human values: it reinforces our intuition of the void.” As far as he’s concerned a vagrant’s life is better than any fleeting security, even if it accepts ignorance as a permanent condition. That said, plenty of these digressions and accidents can teach us something.

In the issue’s interview with László Krasznahorkai (conducted by János Szegő and translated from Hungarian by Eszter Krakkó) the novelist puts the situation simply: “I tend to think that the only thing that exists is nature, that nothing else is real but nature, and the reality one perceives is similarly nature itself, beyond which only void resides.” At its best literature is nature’s analogue. Not in any stale realist sense, but insofar as it mirrors what Krasznahorkai’s talking about, i.e., the equilibrium between tangibility—call it nature or reality, whatever you like—and the big terrifying unknown. A heightened experience of one heightens the other in turn. The most important thing literature can give a reader, as Fadanelli claims, is the guts to acknowledge this. It’s a spur to curiosity, and sometimes it  produces an insatiable desire to read.

Yet anxiety about the inexpressible still lingers, especially for readers, writers, translators, editors and others with a bet in this game. Often there’s a fear of having no clue what one is saying, of being found out. It’s a fear that “Should music stop we would be suddenly heard. Chorus of stutterers.” (That’s taken from Dimitris Lyacos’ “Z213: EXIT” which, for the record, is one of my top three pieces from the issue.) A journal like Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision. It’s worth mentioning that this is key to successful works of translation as well. And to works of fiction. And poetry. And criticism and drama and so on. They all ease our fear of becoming voiceless.

Garrett Phelps has been an assistant editor with Asymptote since July 2018.

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Summer 2016: In-Between Times

How can we get past a feeling of being shipwrecked among the intensity of our selves?

After our first mention in The New York Times in June 2015 (which merely notes that there is a real-life counterpart to the journal by the name of Asymptote in Alena Smith’s drama), April 2016 sees our second mention and two key members stepping down. The departure of Senior Editor Floriana friend from my time at The New School whose support has been a great source of strength for me, personally—is a great setback. But April 2016 also ushers in our first-ever monthly report, a two-page summary of each month’s activities which I’ll make available to the public for the first time here. Designed by Theophilus Kwek to be easily skimmed, this internal report not only records Asymptote‘s progress across the board each month, but also represents my commitment to transparency of the magazine’s financials. After all, as any serious dieter knows, tracking stats that matter is the way to go. A quick glance reveals that we spent $1,798 (all figures in USD) in total over April, while only $247 has come in through small donations and the sale of one publicity package. This means that over the month of April, Asymptote has bled $1,551 (which I cover either with funds previously raised or out of my own pocket). For the first three monthly reports (i.e., from April to June 2016), these figures do not yet include wages for Asymptote‘s only full-time team member (i.e., me). It is only in July 2016, exactly six years after I conceived the journal and opened a tab in my name that would add up to 70,000 USD while also foregoing a full-time salary all these years, that I begin to stipulate my own remuneration. This obviously doesn’t change the fact that monthly incoming funds are still a trickle compared to monthly outgoing funds, but at least it sets up a proper accounting as to how much I am being owed by my own organization. Here to introduce our Summer 2016 issue—possibly our most diverse ever, with 34 countries being represented and featuring additional translations into Albanian, Bengali, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, Greek, Japanese, Kannada, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Slovak, and Tamil—is Assistant Editor Andreea Scridon.

What are our human perceptions made of? Water. Our nervous systems, the machineries of feeling, float in a quiet, dark world of water. Our most dramatic moments—at least in terms of development—take place in amniotic fluid. This quasi-godlike and continuous source of life is a trope that never runs dry. Yet in addition to its undeniable positive qualities, it makes for an inevitable metaphor for inner turmoil: after all, doesn’t turbulence stem from an aquatic scenario? The idea of fluidity, increasingly present in a contemporary world with an unstable future, further complicates things.

On the subject of “in-between times”, after finishing university a friend described herself as feeling as though she’d been soaked and left out in the sun to dry. Yet for a good writer (the kind I’d like to be), anxieties of this sort can acquire a kaleidoscopic quality on the page. How do we anchor ourselves to the world? How can we get past a feeling of being shipwrecked among the intensity of our selves? Can we even psychologically approach that which seems beyond our conception and our control? Finding myself too drenched by such ruminations to draw any conclusions, I turned to the varied readings of Asymptote’s Summer 2016 Issue.

Take, for instance, Pedro Novoa’s “The Dive,” translated into English by George Henson (and made available in 14 more languages). Form aptly mirrors content as the fluidity of the water that serves as the central environment is mimicked by the fluidity of a prose where neither past nor present dominate, with sensations edging out temporal concerns. This dominance of the piece’s atmospheric element stands in contrast to the concreteness of the medical solution which threatens to alter the narrative, but even sickness is ungraspable in its fluidity as the narrator notices underwater “bits of our life floating like irregular oil spots.” In fact, this pollution opposes purer images of “agonizing light,” of “the search for oysters and pearls.” This otherworldly and frightening undercurrent is dominated by children who fall prey to malevolent forces far beyond their conception and control and who, in their most dramatic moments, are nevertheless capable of anchoring themselves to their own perceptions.

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Elsewhere in the issue, Ratik Asokan reviews Gabriela Adameșteanu’s The Encounter, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth. In this novel, modern society is curiously akin to an alien world in its unknowability. Living under the supervision of the Romanian communist secret police instills a deeply-ingrained sense of paranoia and spurs a desperate desire to awaken from the nightmare that is forcefully inflicted history. I include the premise of this “nuanced exploration of interiority”, as Asokan puts it, in my water musings as a parallel to Roberto Merino’s “Television, The Thousand One Nights,” translated by Neil Davidson. In the fictional and not-fictional twentieth century shared by both texts, the soft and sweet matter of the human brain is subjected to the hard metals of communism and television, and we have inherited this aquarium to live in, somewhere between God and reality shows. What’s more, urban space becomes nothing more than a temporal anchor as Merino describes the filtered lacks and gaps of memory via television as an “extended sojourn on the fringes of unreality.” I have long been preoccupied with the idea of unmooring, or feeling adrift among the depths of our most complex emotions and experiences.

On this topic of angst, I point to the multilingual writing feature of this issue because the transitional and oppositional space of translation is not without its anxieties. The creational act, which seeks to obtain harmony within discord, takes on a psychedelic nuance in MARGENTO’s translation of Serban Foarță’s “Buttérflyçion.” With this poem, Foarță surmounts formal anxieties by breaking the bounds of writing. This delightful oddity of a work unites amorphous verse (it’s worth hearing the thumping metre in MARGENTO’s delectable reading) with an amorphous author. Foarță, I learned, could be described as the lovechild of Tristan Tzara and Nasreddin Hodja. This parabolic trickster is also the creator of an utterly specific aesthetic as the songwriter for Phoenix, a Romanian rock band that was instrumental in ushering in post-communist liberty. Breaking the boundaries of conventional literary creation can be problem-solving: we become able to accept the paradoxes that come with feeling by freeing ourselves from linguistic constraints. Hemingway’s affirmation of “I write to bleed” echoes a tendency that comes up again and again the body of this issue, especially in this poem which defies classical notions of restraint.

Another discovery in fluidity was Raúl Gómez Jattin’s “AS IF YOU’D remember Isabel,” in James Rumsey-Merlan and Camila Vélez Valencia’s translation. The poet is a flagellator of memories, examining the curiosities of the mnemonic phenomenon that impel it towards it own self-denial: memory that is at some times so selective, and at other moments sears vividly. This reflects the whirlpool of inner turmoil, in which perception is magnified: he writes, or better said, sings, of “golden eyes like peacock feathers,” “of the hopscotch underneath your patio’s mamoncillo tree.” Gómez Jattin is a self-possessed wizard who manipulates the fluid phenomenon of memory: from “the rag dolls that were our children,” a flux occurs, and we find ourselves in other waters as the narrator declares that “my children are made of rag and my dreams are made of rag,” A final transition from idyllic childhood to crepuscular adulthood is made in the last line with his nihilistic response to Isabel’s asking about his life: “As if I had one of those.” This monumental link between childhood and nonexistence suggests that the rhyming nature of “womb” and “tomb” is a singular coincidence.

While circling my angst like a rabid rabbit this past summer, I found myself in this particular dune of the Asymptote archive and wandered out of it with the impression that…perhaps any feeling that has worth inherently has its oppositions, too. In such scenarios, writing itself becomes a solution for those of us prone to existential crises: we re-encounter fluidity on the page, turning to writing as a sense of perception. This is what the constantly re-emerging, multipartite character of Asymptote continues to mean for me—an array of senses, a variegated way of understanding my experiences and those very different from mine.

Andreea Scridon has been an Assistant Editor since July 2018.

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Winter 2016: Gifts

Set against the highest quality control standards, Asymptote weighs equally the stumbling, daring hunches of experimentation.

Daniel Hahn’s Ask a Translator column, in which he fields questions about his craft posed by Asymptote readers, kicks off at the blog. What should have been a happy occasion (our fifth anniversary, celebrated in New York, London, Hong Kong, Ottawa, Chicago, and Belgrade) is marred somewhat by a quarrel with one of our partner institutions. I should first note that the success of the past year (2015) has been a true double-edged sword: although it has bestowed greater visibility (which has in turn brought us partnerships with hitherto-undreamt-of international reach—all the better, I suppose, to catalyse the transmission of literature), our own team members are more coveted by other organizations as a result. Since these are paying organizations (either non-profits with institutional backing or for-profit companies with commercial viability), Asymptote can’t compete. With success also comes assumption that our coffers are being filled to the brim by sponsors and we should be spreading the wealth around. Yet, we are essentially still going it alone; I’m still working full-time without pay and channelling funds raised into web development costs, translation contests, and marketing the work that we’ve been entrusted with. Someone from a partner organization turns down an invitation to moderate our New York event for fear of being interpreted as endorsing our policy of not paying contributors; he demands that we start doing so. Should implies can, but the reality isn’t so. Still, it’s wonderful that translators have such a fierce advocate in this person; I wish editors at publications like ours also had organizations and movements behind them too. Here to introduce the Winter 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Lindsay Semel.

I was recruited as one of Asymptote’s Educational Arm Assistants in January of 2016, just around the time this issue launched. What I want to share now is a story about my first weeks with the journal and my reckoning with the Winter 2016 issue that is ultimately a defense of inefficiency and the impostor syndrome.

Even two-and-a-half years later, I still know this issue more intimately than any other, because when I came aboard as a recent undergrad (it’s not atypical for Asymptote team members to be a bit green) I felt I’d been given two unique gifts. The first, bafflingly, was the complete confidence of our editor-in-chief, Lee Yew Leong. As far as the Educational Arm was concerned, I was free to take on whatever naïve dreams I could imagine—as long as the final product met the standards of the journal. My first spicy taste of impostor syndrome—now a familiar one when negotiating Asymptote assignments—came from the simple fact that I wasn’t a teacher. I could identify with Yann Martel when he said in his interview: READ MORE…

Fall 2015: Taking the Spaceship Back

Time, the fourth dimension of our existence, threads through the whole Fall 2015 issue as its unifying motif.

The third quarter of 2015 is thorny with developments. On July 31, we announce the second edition of our international translation contest judged by Michael Hofmann (Poetry), Ottilie Mulzet (Fiction), and Margaret Jull Costa (Nonfiction—a new category), this time awarding a total of $4,500 in prizes. Technical Manager József Szabo (also one of the editors behind the fabulous Tumblr blog Writers No One Reads) completes a laborious site migration that has taken almost two years. Our website is now both adaptable to mobile devices and optimized for search engines. On October 1, I receive an invitation from The Guardian initiating a partnership that would see Asymptote simultaneously running our blog’s Translation Tuesday articles on their site for 76 weeks, starting from October 27. (Of the 11 Guardian Books Network Members announced on October 21, we are the only magazine dedicated to translation and also—I can’t help noting—the only one from Asia.) This turns out to be the first of three partnerships that we formalize in October (the other two being with PEN America and Lithub), all three of which we announce proudly via our first-ever Fortnightly Airmail, launched on October 29, thanks to then Communications Manager Matthew Phipps and then Graphic Designer Berny Tan (who valiantly turns around a new newsletter design within 24 hours after I veto the first). This inaugural newsletter doesn’t yet spotlight PEN/Heim grant winners (the first boatload of these would arrive on November 13). Instead, it carries Jennifer Croft’s essay “When the Author You Translate [i.e., Olga Tokarczuk] Gets Death Threats,” which Lithub republishes on their website on November 2. (We would also go on to be the first to excerpt Olga Tokarczuk’s 2018 International Man Booker Prizewinning Flights in our Winter 2016 edition before it hit bookstores anywhere.) October 2015 also ushers in our first-ever virtual event featuring Mexican author Albert Chimal’s “The Time-Traveller.” Originally composed in Spanish as a series of tweets, the English translation by George Henson, which also respects Twitter’s character limit of 140, is published twice: first, as a headliner in our Fall 2015 issue, and then via our English Twitter channel as a long string of tweets pushed out (by then Marketing Manager David Maclean) to the world over a span of 40 hours. If you were there for the tweetathon, thank you for being a part of the work. Here to introduce our Fall 2015 issue is Hong Kong editor-at-large Charlie Ng Chak Kwan.

If I were able to travel back to 2013 and meet my younger self, I would enthusiastically tell her that she was about to become part of a community devoted to breaking cultural and linguistic borders in the literary world and that she would never regret joining a journal whose mission was translating and publishing works written by people far and wide. It is unbelievable that I have now been a Hong Kong Editor-at-Large for Asymptote for more than five years. The many issues of Asymptote have seen me face a few life hurdles—graduating from my Ph.D., securing my first job as a translator, and becoming a full-time university teacher—and still I stay with Asymptote. Time definitely changes a lot of things—for good or for bad—but the ever-expanding archive of Asymptote tells me there are some things that remain constant, like the journal’s perseverance.

Time, the fourth dimension of our existence, threads through the whole Fall 2015 issue as its unifying motif. The issue’s pieces transport us to a wide range of times, from the Armenian genocide in Gostan Zarian’s “The Traveler and His Road” to the forensic anthropological investigation of the dead in Leila Guerriero’s “The Trace in the Bones”. We are not restricted by conventional time frames that confine our experience as words allow us to exist in the past, the present and the future simultaneously. The first line of Alberto Chimal’s “The Time Traveller” actually says it all: “Good morning, afternoon, evening, says the Time Traveller when his machine is moody and doesn’t ask him where (or to when) he’s going.” The Time Traveller’s trouble, in other words, is not where to go but rather the lack of a good temporal compass. Chimal’s story—comprised of a series of the Time Traveller’s wild and witty Tweets—portrays a compassionate titular character with ample knowledge of history and literature. Although its protagonist is no Gulliver—he is much more sophisticated than that 18th century traveller—Chimal’s story amuses and fascinates as much as Swift’s, even as it avoids the latter’s satiric bitterness. READ MORE…

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. READ MORE…

Summer 2014: The Tip of a Vast Iceberg

The best writing does not mirror something we already know but rather offers a new view.

Is world literature racist? (By ‘world literature,’ I refer specifically, of course, to agents in the world literature industry, say, programmers of literary festivals or those who disburse funds.) An unhappy episode looms in my recollection of Asymptote-related work leading up to the Summer 2014 issue. I have only ever brought it up once, and briefly, two years ago, in a blog post about editing a literary journal as a person of color. With Asians in America reclaiming their visibility recently, it may not such be a bad idea to ride the wave. So here is the story: Five years into helming a magazine as its only full-time team member, I came to know about an invitation sent to a part-time team member. This invitation, issued by a White person, to represent Asymptote at an international conference with an offer to be flown in from anywhere, was sent directly to the White female Assistant Managing Editor who’d been with Asymptote for less than seven months, and who actually lived farther away from the conference than me, based on her current city at that time. Appalled by the blatant racism, I told her that I would not authorize her appearance on behalf of Asymptote—if I couldn’t defend myself against the racist, at least I wouldn’t be complicit in his invisibilization. What surprised me was how incomprehensible this decision was to another White senior team member, who took it upon himself to sway my mind. Forced as a person of color to “accept offense and facilitate its reconciliation,” I chose to shut down the conversation instead, as Maya Binyam would have recommended. Since then, I’ve observed an interesting pattern: people will often rush to the aid of one marginalized group without realizing how it occurs at the expense of other marginalized groups—groups that don’t even have anyone else flying a flag for them, be it Asians or editors (more on this later). Here to introduce the Summer 2014 issue is Senior Editor Sam Carter.

This issue graced the Asymptote homepage when I was applying to join the journal back in August of 2014. As I put the finishing touches on a cover letter—and as I later drafted my responses to a series of follow-up questions—I came back to the contents of this edition again and again to explain why I wanted to contribute to such an impressively expansive, incredibly inclusive, and somehow still remarkably cohesive literary project. Greeting me each time was Robert Zhao Renhui’s stunning cover featuring a man leaping from an iceberg juxtaposed with a polar bear swimming in presumably icy waters. Amid a stillness that nevertheless captures a sense of imminent movement, both remain cool and collected despite the unknown that lies ahead. I soon followed suit, plunging into a new position that, as often happens with sudden immersion, proved instantly invigorating.

If you’re looking for an ice-breaker—or a place of your own to dive into the issue—you probably couldn’t do better than the excerpts from Raúl Zurita’s The Country of Ice, translated by Daniel Borzutzky. Yet unlike the cover photographs, ice here freezes time, recording the past rather than providing any sort of springboard into the future: “You then look at the giant wall of ice and you feel you were once there, perhaps hundreds, thousands of years ago, and you curl up in a ball as if wanting to save yourself from that memory.” The five prose poems have a decidedly chilling effect, one that the poet has been exploring his entire career. READ MORE…

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. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation: September 2018

Readers of English are introduced to four fresh titles, and to their takes on conflict, whimsy, and the human condition.

Even as we celebrate 30 issues, join us at Asymptote as we bring you new reviews of exciting fresh releases. Dive into four titles here with us, featuring work set in Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Syria, and Argentina. Keep on following our blog in September to witness the journey our team has been through in the last seven years.

Checkpoint+by+David+Albahari+-+9781632061928

Checkpoint by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Restless Books, 2018

Reviewed by P.T. Smith, Assistant Editor

On the jacket copy for Ellen Elias-Bursać’s translation of David Albahari’s Checkpoint, Restless Books cites Waiting for Godot and Catch-22 as comparisons. I’ll take them, especially the latter, but if I’m pitching this book to people, I’d offer up authors instead of books, and César Aira and Kurt Vonnegut. They better suggest the whimsy and quick-play changes that fill the brief pages of this novel, the sense that anything might happen, that the rules of the narrative can change in a sentence. Aira brings the freedom and the pace that Checkpoint has and Vonnegut the gentler, more passive characters than the strange and bold people who make up Catch-22.

Checkpoint is a quick book, coming in at under 200 pages in small format, and written entirely in one paragraph. It’s the latter that sets the pace. There are no pauses, sentences come and come and come, and so, though it seems as though at times nothing happens, events can rise and fall in an instant. This pace fits a war novel that’s about the absurdity of war, which Checkpoint determinedly and obviously sets out to be. A group of around 30 soldiers marches with their commander to guard a checkpoint, but they have no idea who they are guarding it against, who they are at war with, or even which side of the checkpoint they marched from. They have no known orders, and no way to communicate with their superiors. It’s a paralyzing life, one which soon includes mysterious deaths, refugees, attacks by soldiers of unknown allegiance, severe weather, and misfortunate forays into the surrounding forest.

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Asymptote Podcast: #30Issues30Days Edition

Dig through our archive with Dominick Boyle, who unearths gems from South India, Chile, Sweden and more!

In celebration of Asymptote’s milestone 30th issue, Podcast Editor Dominick Boyle dives into the archives to uncover some of his favorite recordings from the archive. In this episode, he revisits poetry set to music in Tamil and Spanish from Aandaal and Enrique Winter, and snarky telephone conversations with a whole city by way of voice-mail from Jonas Hassen Khemiri. He also spotlights: the touching suicide notes left by Jean Améry, which reveal 3 different sides of a man in his death; experimental Vietnamese poetry by Bùi Chát, which comes to life read by translator Jack J. Huynh; and Owen Good’s translations of Hungarian poet Krisztina Tóth, which Eliot Weinberger awarded first prize in our inaugural Close Approximations contest. Take a walk down memory lane—this time with your headphones on!

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Spring 2012: Why Asymptote Matters

I say this from experience, because Asymptote has helped to get a number of the authors I translate into print.

Asymptote is featured in the January/February 2012 issue of Poets & Writers and mentioned for the first time at The Millions—we are given the fond nickname, “The Audible Antipodal,” I suppose, in a nod to our multimedia offerings? (Said multimedia offerings recently expanded to include full-screen immersive slideshows in all Visual articles at a whopping cost of USD1,100, out of pocket.) Dalkey Archive approaches me with an offer to edit the inaugural Best Asian Fiction Anthology, modeled after their Best European Fiction Anthology. But there’s a catch: I have to find a sponsor for the series (who would be willing to part with $85,000 per annum), and I would only get $5,000 for the editing gig. Given how hopeless I am at fundraising, then, this is not going to happen. One detail from our discussion sticks, however. Given the state of China-Taiwan relations, Dalkey Archive thinks Taiwan will be “tricky,” just as Macedonia was eventually dropped because Cypress did not want to be included in the same lineup as Macedonia (with its current name) in the European counterpart. Ah, politics. Here to introduce the Spring 2012 issue is contributing editor Adrian Nathan West.

Even a casual reader who spends time overseas will notice something odd about English-language publishing. Just recently, at my favorite bookstore, La Central in Barcelona’s Raval, I saw, set out on shelf displays or on tables, books by Virginie Despentes, Mircea Cartarescu, and Han Kang—all available in Spanish and Catalan translation. In the US and UK, in places where bookstores still exist, translation is treated, at best, as a genre—though many talented independent bookstores are trying to change this. The figure 3% is often bandied about as the proportion of translated books published in English; this is bad enough, but the figure may well be optimistic (the figures for poetry and fiction are available at the translation database at Three Percent). Those masochistic enough to read reviews at Amazon or goodreads will see the same absurd prejudices against translated literature crop up over and over again; while professional translators cannot help but be dismayed at the inveterate willingness of large publishers to fork over lavish advances to plodding has-beens while keeping at arm’s length writers of undeniable stature from other countries. The stereotype persists—translated literature doesn’t sell—and neither Knausgaard nor Ferrante have done much to change it.

Nor do journals and magazines provide much of a haven for readers who want to know what is happening elsewhere. While a cornucopia of poorly funded, university-based journals offers prospective writers and translators next-to-no visibility, more famous outlets, many of which state in their masthead a willingness to publish the new, the daring, and the uncategorizable, go on cranking out one mind-numbing workshop story after another. Then, up in the ether, are the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and their ilk, at the gates of which the translator lingers like poor K. before the portal of Kafka’s castle.     READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news roundup brings us to South Africa, the United States, and Guatemala.

We’re back with another round of exciting literary news from around the globe. This week’s dispatches take us to South Africa, the United States, and Guatemala. 

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large, reporting from South Africa:

An anticipated event on the Cape Town literary calendar, the annual Open Book festival,will take place from September 5-9. The inclusive festival, at which spoken-word performances and bookmaking classes are added to the program alongside interviews with international authors and panel discussions on feminism, appears to have a particular focus on migrancy and notions of place this year, with several talks hosted by the African Centre for Cities.

The attendance of influential urbanist, researcher, and author AbdouMaliq Simone points to this unofficial theme. Simone’s enduring optimism with regards to city spaces and the possibilities they hold for producing new forms of trade, particularly in the context of those inhabitants who are forced to adapt for reasons such as crumbling infrastructure or illegal residency, is a trait that looks to carry over to the rest of the festival.

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The youth carry the fire and the rejection against tyrants in their blood: An Interview with Gioconda Belli

This new rebellion has been a spontaneous movement, organized by the social memory we, as Nicaraguans, have after fighting another dictatorship.

Since the late 1950’s people in Nicaragua began actively fighting and opposing the Somoza dictatorship—Anastasio Somoza took power for the first time in 1937. In the mid-1970’s the opposition grew stronger, and in 1979, the Sandinistas came together, and launched the People’s Revolution. Guerrillas, artists, rebels, and civilians united against the somocistas. And on July 19th, 1979, victory was announced. The Sandinista Revolution brought together people like the Cervantes Prize-Winning Author, Sergio Ramírez, the former Catholic priest and poet, Ernesto Cardenal, the poet and novelist Gioconda Belli, and the current Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega Saavedra.  

Ortega later came to power in 1979 for a four-year period and then again in 2007. He has since become a mirror image of Somoza; he has been in office for more than ten years and has recently silenced, threatened, and killed members of the opposition.

In mid-April of this year, thousands gathered on the streets of Nicaragua to show their discontent against the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, in particular for issues relating to environmental rights, corruption, public health, and lack of transparency. Four months later, the protests have not slowed down and neither has the repression coming from the Policía Nacional de Nicaragua and other orteguistas. Every day, images of bravery and brutality come from Nicaragua. El presidente, who was once part of the Sandinista revolution that ousted the Somoza dictatorship that shackled the country for more than thirty years, has now become a tyrant himself and has betrayed the ideals that he, alongside writers and activists like Claribel Alegría and Sergio Ramírez, fought so diligently for in the seventies and eighties. 

Gioconda Belli, one of Central America’s most beloved and important writers, has openly criticized Daniel Ortega and his government. In early August, the poet and novelist won the Hermann Kesten Prize for her outstanding efforts in support of persecuted writers, and she joined the ranks of other prominent writers and Human Rights advocates, such as Harold Pinter and Iryna Khalip.

Belli, who was one of the artists that walked alongside the Sandinista revolution, next to people like Ernesto Cardenal and Carlos Mejía Godoy, says she’s hopeful. “There is always hope,” she says. She also admits she trusts in the Nicaraguan youth that has bravely fought for a fairer society. The revolution, she argues, in the hands of the young men and women marching in Managua, in León, in Masaya, is alive and well. “Whenever you think of tyrants, such as Daniel Ortega, you must remember that their time will eventually come,” she adds. Finally, art, music, and literature, according to Belli, are the tool Nicaragua has to plan for a better future.

More than three hundred people have been killed by the hands of the orteguismo since the protests began, on April 18th. Daniel Ortega has been in power since 2007.

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Space Oddity: Rodrigo Fresán and the Dawn of the Psy-fi Heroine

Who's watching whom in the evasion and invasion of love?

The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden, Open Letter Books, 2018

“At its core,” reads its synopsis, The Bottom of the Sky is “about two young boys in love with a disturbingly beautiful girl”; author Rodrigo Fresán adds that it’s not a work of science fiction but with science fiction—a “love story in a space suit.” I’d like to challenge (or, more humbly, qualify) both statements: Fresán’s striking novel, now available in English from Open Letter Books, is more gender-bending than its back cover suggests and more genre-bending than its author says.

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Asymptote Podcast: Cultivating Multilingual Spaces

What does it take to create a multilingual space? Layla Benitez-James explores this question with a dispatch from Alicante, Spain.

In honor of Asymptote‘s Summer 2018 edition, which marks our milestone 30th issue and includes a dazzling Multilingual Writing Feature, Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James explores what it takes to create multilingual spaces by taking a visit to the IV Encuentro Internacional de Artistas de la Kasbah in Alicante, Spain. This festival, now in its fourth year, brings together over twenty artists from around the world in an effort to foster greater cultural exchange and artistic friendship. There, she chats with Colombian artist Manuel Antonio Velandia Mora about his work, as well as founders Nourdine Tabbai and Natalia Molinos about the event’s origins. READ MORE…