Posts featuring Bob Dylan

Revisiting the Winter 2011 Issue: Asymptote’s Origin Story

On the occasion of our milestone 30th edition, some reflections on form—#30issues30days

“Congratulations on taking on the formidable task of launching a journal dedicated to translation. You’re a brave man!” said the translator of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera to me in December 2010. So I can’t say I wasn’t forewarned.

The idea for Asymptote had come out of a meeting at Singapore’s National Arts Council in June 2010. How to turn Singapore into a hub for literary translation? was the topic du jour. I mooted the idea of a platform that would identify and showcase talent in translation. Several seemed enthusiastic, but in the end, no one lifted a finger. Supposedly the go-to person for literary translation in Singapore, D., who was one of ten people at the meeting, did not deign to reply to the two emails I sent him.

The original team I assembled around July 2010 was lackluster, lackadaisical. Admittedly, I didn’t know these Singaporean team members very well, nor it seemed they me. Having just returned from eight years of overseas study (I owe much to my teachers Robert Coover, Mary Gaitskill, Dale Peck, and Michael Hofmann, but it was the lovely Sidney Wade who turned me on to literary translation), I was trying to connect with the local literary scene. Although the dispatches written by our current Singaporean editor-at-large might suggest otherwise, there really was not much of a scene back then, around a decade ago. The main players were aloof. Although I contributed to nine consecutive issues of the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore—Singapore’s only literary journal back then—no one seemed to have read my work.

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The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.

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