Lee Yew Leong on Asymptote
Tell me about the creation of Asymptote. When and how and why was it conceived?
Asymptote debuted in January 2011. Right from the start, it was conceived as an international journal that would present the best writing from all around the world—running the gamut of literary genres: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, visual art, criticism, and interviews. The first issue saw work from 15 languages and included new translations of Aimé Césaire, Habib Tengour, Ko Un as well as a Swedish Poetry Special Feature—and this is just to mention the poetry. We were a small team of 6 editors back then, but somehow we managed to attract the best translators (Clayton Eshleman and A. James Arnold, Pierre Joris, Brother Anthony of Taizé, Howard Goldblatt, and Francis Li Zhuoxiong) and well-known writers, such as Mary Gaitskill and Alain de Botton, who gave us previously unpublished work.
We ran these big names alongside emerging new talents or even big names unnoticed by the West that we thought deserved to be discovered. And this has been our formula till this very day. Everything we publish is available for free online on our website. We post not only the translated texts, but also, when available, the works in their original languages, audio recordings of those originals, and accompanying artwork specifically curated for each issue.
I founded Asymptote partly as a reaction to the literary parochialism I experienced living in Singapore back then, and partly because I was inspired by Lewis Hyde's take on George Bernard Shaw's famous statement: "If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange those ideas, then each of us will have two ideas." Lewis Hyde takes this gem of an idea further and says: Similarly, incorporeal works of art (poems, short stories, etc.) have the potential to affect millions, since unlike apples, they are unencumbered by the problem of scarcity. To unencumber them even more from affecting millions, you'd have to unlock them via translation. That's our mission in a nutshell: to unlock the literary treasures of the world.
The main reason we're online stems from our commitment to social justice. Providing free access to the world's literature—for everyone, regardless of geography, language or class—is emboldened by an online platform. Print books cost money to make and to buy. This automatically minimizes access. Print books are physical objects and are in turn limited by physical location. This locks even more people out of the conversation.
The relatively low cost and immaterial nature of a website allows us to bring world literature to as many people as possible, in every area of the world, for free. There are obvious limitations to this as well, but we know of no better tool for our purposes. The advent of global communication technologies allows Asymptote to uphold its mission in ways that simply would not have been possible twenty years ago, and which remain impossible in traditional print models.
What makes Asymptote different from other places to read poetry (and literature) on the internet?
What makes us different, I think, is our focus on global literature in translation. In terms of poetry, we have published a very wide range of poems—modern, ancient, translated from many languages as well as written originally in English. For instance, the new October issue includes our annual English Poetry Feature with contributions from Wanda Coleman, Idra Novey, and Danniel Schoonebeek, among others. And it also has two wonderful ancient poems in new translations: one by Propertius, a forgotten contemporary of Virgil's; and another by Aandaal, a 9th-century Alvar saint of South India. Our poetry editor, Aditi Machado, who's a terrific poet in her own right, has been doing a fabulous job editing this section for the past two years. The other sections (fiction, non-fiction, interviews, visual, drama, criticism) also have amazing editors who are dedicated to finding the best untranslated texts and bringing them to our readers. To date, we've published texts from 59 languages and 86 countries.
The other thing that's different about us is that we usually offer readers an mp3 recording of the text in the original language—sometimes it's the author reading his or her own work, sometimes it's the translator who's reading. This way we're taking advantage of the fact that we're an online magazine and we try to give readers a feel of the rhythm of each text in the original.
What is something that you have recently published that really excited you, and why?
We're very excited about every single issue we publish, of course. Right now, the new October issue is still very much on our mind. It includes the annual English poetry feature, which I've already mentioned. And there's a fantastic interview with Anne Carson and her partner, Robert Currie. Our former assistant editor, Megan Berkobien, spent a few hours talking to them in their home and asked them all kinds of questions about poetry, translation, and their collaboration.
Another recent project that's near and dear to our hearts is the Jonas Hassen Khemiri project. We were the first to publish a translation of his message against racial profiling, "An Open Letter to Beatrice Ask," where Khemiri addresses the Swedish Minister of Justice directly, asking her to put herself in his shoes and imagine what it's like to be racially profiled. This provoked a lively debate when it was first published in Sweden and, after we ran the translation in the April 2013 issue, English-speaking media, The New York Times included, also began to discuss the issue.
We wanted to take this even further and translate Khemiri's letter into as many languages as possible, so we worked with a team of volunteers who translated it into 17 languages. All translations were published on Asymptote's website and also carried by publications from Japan, Spain, Hungary, Slovenia, and other countries. The project ended up having an amazing reach thanks to our wonderful translators. That's something we plan to continue in the future, to translate not just from other languages into the English but also from English into other languages.
What should someone submitting work to Asymptote know about the site?
They should know that we are looking for original translations which have never been published before. We are particularly interested in works by authors who should be better known in the English-speaking world but have not yet gotten the exposure they deserve. This is not to say that we're only interested in little-known authors—each text we publish has to be truly remarkable and bring something new. We do our best to avoid being biased toward any specific areas of the world, so we're particularly interested in publishing work from countries that have not yet been featured in Asymptote.
And we recently launched our blog, which publishes even more content on an almost daily basis: translations, reviews, dispatches from events, interviews—all kinds of texts having to do with global literature and translation. So we definitely encourage people to submit work to our blog as well.
What other literary sites and journals, online or print, are your go-to?
There are so many of them, it's hard to list them here! But here's a very incomplete list: Three Percent, The Complete Review, Writers No One Reads, Words without Borders, BOMB, 3:am. And then, of course, there's The Paris Review, the Page-Turner blog at The New Yorker and many, many others.