Start out 2018 right by taking a listen to our favorite readings published over the last year.
I do think we’re living in a very good time for publishing translations.
Phoneme Media is a nonprofit company that produces books in translation into English and literary films. Based in Los Angeles, the company was founded by Brian Hewes and David Shook in 2013, though it wasn’t until 2015 that the press began publishing on a seasonal calendar. To date, Phoneme Media has put out over twenty titles of fiction and poetry, and is particularly interested in publishing works from languages and places that don’t often appear in English. Many of their books are accompanied by short films that take on different formats, from video poems to book trailers, and have been shot around the world. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to David Shook over Skype about publishing translations from underrepresented languages and some of the titles he’s excited about.
Sarah Moses (SM): How did Phoneme Media start?
David Shook (DS): It came about basically because of my own work as a poet and translator. In my own travels—when I was working in community-based development, mostly in East Central Africa and Latin America—through relationships, through friendships with writers, in places like Burundi and Equatorial Guinea, and writers working in indigenous languages in southern Mexico, for example, I was just encountering all of these writers that I felt deserved to be read in English, that would contribute something important to our literary dialogue and that couldn’t find homes in terms of publishers here in the United States and in the UK, too, for a couple of reasons. The first being the lack of translators working in those languages and familiar with those regions, and the second was the fact that these books were somewhat outside the purview of even the publishers who specialized in translation—some great publishers. I think of Open Letter, for example, which has largely focused on literature from European languages, which I also think is incredibly important, but something like a book of poetry from Isthmus Zapotec, or the first translation from the Lingala—a novel we’re preparing to publish later this year would definitely be a bit outside their wheel house.
SM: How do you find translators for languages like the ones you’ve mentioned?
DS: Well I think our reputation is such that, despite having been around a comparatively short time, we’re often approached by translators working in more unusual languages. Our translation from the Uyghur, for example, by Jeffrey Yang, and the author is Ahmatjan Osman, who was exiled in Canada, was exactly that situation. Jeffrey brought the translation to us because he knew of our editorial interests. In other cases, like our book of Mongolian poetry, I was alerted to its existence because the translator won a PEN/Heim grant. And I do read widely, both in search of writers and of translators, who I think are important. For example, a place like Asymptote, which I read regularly with an eye toward acquisitions. I mean when we acquired, for example, this novel from the Lingala, the translation was a huge issue because there are very few, if any, literary translators from the Lingala, so I actually auditioned a few Congolese translators before finding this husband-and-wife team, Sara and Bienvenu Sene, who did a really great job. They’re really literary translators, whereas most of the translators I’d auditioned were technical translators or interpreters. And it’s pretty spectacular, considering I think English is their fourth language. I think a big part of my work is scouting out these translators and also encouraging a new generation of translators to go out into the world and find interesting books. I’m very proud that we’ve published many first-time translators on Phoneme Media.
The endless choices confronting a translator constitute a great deal of creative freedom.
Our latest issue features three poems by the Uyghur writer Tahir Hamut. Here, the Asymptote Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly talks to the translator, Joshua Freeman.
When we first spoke in October 2015, you mentioned your excitement about translating Tahir Hamut. It’s wonderful to see these poems now. How long have you been working with Hamut? Have you worked with him on translation issues?
Tahir Hamut was actually one of the first poets I translated, almost ten years ago. I met him soon after I started translating his work, since I was also living in Ürümchi, capital of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, at the time. He’s a terrific conversationalist with wide-ranging interests, and I’ve enjoyed exchanging ideas with him on all manner of subjects over the years. I used to ask him occasionally why he didn’t write much poetry anymore, since I regard him as one of the most talented living poets writing in Uyghur. (His poem “Returning to Kashgar” is perhaps my favorite.) Over the last couple years it’s been exciting for me that he’s suddenly reemerged with a torrent of new work, every bit as good as his work from the nineties.
When I translate work by a living poet—and most poets I translate are still around—I usually produce a semi-final draft of my translation, and then get in touch with the poet about any lingering questions of meaning or interpretation. Those conversations can be quite lengthy, and in fact I really enjoy them; as a non-poet myself, it’s a unique chance to have some access to the literary thought processes of poets I admire. Speaking with Tahir about his work, we’ll sometimes slip briefly from Uyghur into Chinese to discuss a word or a line from the “meta” level of a second language.
Interesting that you call yourself a non-poet. I wonder if you are of the camp that considers a translated poem a new poem all its own? Or do you think it is strictly a translation?
There’s lots of interesting theory on the subject by people who’ve thought about it longer than I have, so I’ll just share my own sense of it. A translated poem is not exactly a new poem, but it’s definitely distinct from the original work. The endless choices confronting a translator constitute a great deal of creative freedom, but the starting point of each choice is still the original poem, and in that sense translating poetry differs fundamentally from writing it. One analogy that comes to mind is music: different musicians will interpret a composer’s work differently, but their performance will still be guided by the same notes on the page. READ MORE…
"A lot of what's really vibrant and interesting in Uyghur poetry right now is happening primarily on the web, and even on phone messaging apps."
Your translation of Merdan Ehet’éli’s poem “Common Night” is Asymptote‘s first piece from the Uyghur. I want to point out two words from the poem: “pig iron” and “hellfruit.” Can you tell us about these words and how you translated them?
The Uyghur word choyun (also chöyün) refers to pig iron or cast iron, and for me it calls to mind something hard and rough. The connotations are much less positive than the words tömür (iron) and polat (steel), both of which are used in Uyghur personal names. In speaking of “a night poured into our spines like pig iron,” Merdan Ehet’éli may be alluding to Tahir Hamut’s well-known poem “Summer Is a Conspiracy,” in which Tahir refers to fear’s “pig iron voice”, which “seeps into the marrow / and hardens.” READ MORE…