Over the past few years, Asymptote has become a powerhouse publication for literature in translation, showcasing the boundless energy translators invest in sharing international voices. In response to Trump’s Muslim ban, the journal is now raising funds via IndieGoGo to commission translated work from the countries affected, specifically focusing on writing that addresses or reacts to the executive order. Asymptote‘s founder, Lee Yew Leong, was kind enough to conduct an interview with CHIRB over email to discuss the journal’s vision for this project, the importance of translated literature, and authors who are fighting intolerance in this time of political unrest.
Aram Mrjoian: To start, for those who may not be familiar with Asymptote, can you tell us a little bit about your journal? Can you talk about your commitment to publishing translated work?
Lee Yew Leong: I founded Asymptote because the journal I wanted to read did not yet exist: a free online journal curated with a high bar that would present new fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama and interviews from upwards of 25 countries every quarterly issue, thus celebrating the simultaneity of different languages and different world views, while also being a site for literary discovery. Back then, I was not so much heeding Goethe’s call to “hasten the age of world literature” as much as I simply wanted to bring into existence a journal I felt should exist.
In many ways, I think of Asymptote as a counterpoint to the literary gatekeepers in London and New York who have traditionally decided what the world reads in English, and who often assumed—much like the big Hollywood studios who would have in the past dismissed outright a project with an all-black cast like Moonlight—that we’re not ready yet for writing from other cultures.
Translation, being the gateway to unlocking non-English literature for English-only readers, is obviously central to the magazine’s mission and a good deal of our content (in the form of criticism and interviews especially) addresses translation as a craft head-on. Through last year’s ground-breaking Special Feature, in our fifth anniversary edition, focusing on experimental translation (sample, for example, the envelope-pushing work of Joe Pan and Martin Rock), we’ve also engaged with questions of what translation can be.
We are also a journal for general readers curious about literary translation. Translation advocate Daniel Hahn has taken questions from readers in his ‘Ask a Translator’ column while literary scholar Josh Billings has shed light on the lives of famous translators. As well, Nina Sparling’s Food and Literature columns and Florian Duijsens’s Pop Around the World features have opened our readers’ eyes to how translation permeates everyday life.
But what truly sets us apart from other translation journals out there is the two-way nature of our mission: Not only do we showcase translations from other languages into English, we also commission massive translation projects from English into other languages, both to engage other linguistic communities and to disrupt the English-centered flow of information.
All that we do we do not only to promote translation but also to advocate for inclusivity in literature. Our latest project to feature new work from countries affected by the travel ban is an extension of this advocacy.
Aram Mrjoian: Your mission statement reads, “a translated text may never fully replicate the effect of the original; it is its own creative act.” Do you think the art of translation often goes unrecognized or unrealized by the average reader? If so, why?
Lee Yew Leong: Speaking for myself, I’ve certainly devoured many world literature titles in my youth (in the 90s and early 00s) without considering the intermediary act of translation, and certainly without even registering the name of the translator, at times. (My parents are not university-educated or even English-educated—we speak Mandarin at home; I was left largely to my own devices, outside of school, in my formative years.)
In hindsight, I wonder if this magical thinking was encouraged through the industry-wide practice of putting only the author’s name on the cover, and through the tendency of most reviewers to eschew mention of the text even being a translation in the first place—as if this somehow reduced the author’s aura or risked affecting book sales. Nowadays, publishing has certainly evolved, with the result that readers are perhaps more enlightened. The “collusion” has broken down somewhat perhaps due to movements like #NametheTranslator and projects like Three Percent’s Best Translated Book Award (which received the London Book Fair award for international literary translation initiative the year before our own win). In fact, there are even translation superstars now, like Edith Grossman, Ann Goldstein and Margaret Jull Costa, who are proudly acknowledged on book covers, and whose role encourages the reader to give the book a chance, in cases where the author is an unknown entity.
Aram Mrjoian: Your recent project is super cool. To quote the IndieGoGo page, Asymptote “will undertake large-scale editorial research and commission new work—and new translations—from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, specifically work in response to Trump’s executive order.” Do you already have any idea of whose work you hope to include? Also, what role do you think literature, translated or otherwise, plays in encouraging empathy and fighting xenophobia?
Lee Yew Leong: It’s still early days in our research on the seven countries, but I’m definitely hoping to feature the Syrian writer published by New Directions, Osama Alomar (of whom Lydia Davis is a fan), and British-Somali author Nadifa Mohammed—also a Granta Best young British novelist—who previously gave us this wonderful survey essay on Somali writing.
Ultimately, I’m open to whatever work comes in via our call for submissions. My two criteria are literary merit and how well the work serves as a rejoinder to Trump’s travel ban. In fact, the showcase has already kicked off at The Guardian, with Iranian author Mohammad Tolouei’s story “Made in Denmark” making its English debut in Farzaneh Doosti’s translation. At a time when the rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration has been overwhelmingly about the dangers posed by immigrants, I thought this touching story, narrated by a four-year-old, who transports us into an alternate reality and puts us in the shoes of those who are actually from these countries, would be a fitting counterpoint.
How does literature counter xenophobia? It’s said you only fear what you don’t know. “The best weapon against fear and hatred,” then, as Yann Martel offered in a blurb he contributed in support of our campaign, “is knowledge, and the best knowledge is literary knowledge.” Furthermore, literature is powerful because it operates on a plane of imagination that unlike the news—which however meticulously factual can apparently always be brushed off as fake these days—isn’t trying to be a vehicle for literal-minded reality even as it remains one for truth.
Aram Mrjoian: For those interested in supporting the project, besides some great perks, including signed books by Yann Martel, Junot Diaz, George Szirtes, David Mitchell, and others, can you discuss the larger goals of this project? You’re pledging 20 percent of all funds raised to the ACLU and Refugees Welcome. Can you talk about your commitment to those organizations and the importance of their work?
Lee Yew Leong: When we heard about the travel ban, our hearts went out immediately to those affected by the ban from the seven countries (including one of our own, editor-at-large for Iran, Poupeh Missaghi). We felt so strongly about it that we hatched this project, which we are confident will have a great impact in two ways. Firstly, by providing a high-profile platform at The Guardian and in our Spring 2017 edition to these “othered” writers whose safety and dignity are now being denied. We seek to amplify their voices, and in so doing, encourage more empathy for their situation. Secondly, by channeling a portion of funds raised toward the ACLU and Refugees Welcome, we want to contribute directly to the frontline efforts to ease, or even reverse the situation (when the new travel ban is announced).
The ACLU was one of the first bipartisan national-level organizations to actively resist Trump’s travel ban in the courts, and its advocacy played a crucial role in the suspension of the ban. Like Asymptote, it’s an incredible resource for knowledge, albeit a different sort of knowledge: it runs informational programs that help people know their rights. As a champion of basic human rights (especially free speech), the ACLU is 100 percent aligned with what we stand for. We too encourage debate and expression from all regardless of background. In fact, our mission of inclusivity extends not only to texts in our pages but also to our masthead.
Refugees Welcome is unique in being a coalition of secular, religious, humanitarian, and nonprofit organization that advocates for refugees. In addition to being a resource for refugees, it also undertakes public outreach and political advocacy. Though we’ve certainly showcased writing by refugees in the past, Refugees Welcome has an entire arm dedicated to compiling and foregrounding the lived experiences of refugees. As my chief executive assistant Theophilus Kwek recently pointed out in this essay looking back on a year in reading: “From stories of asylum-seekers defying death to reach the Arctic Circle town of Neiden, to weekly reports of dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Bengal, we’ve been confronted this year by the brutal realities faced en route by 65.3 million displaced people worldwide, including 21.3 million refugees. The figures are mind-boggling on their own, but it’s another thing to remember that each statistic represents a fellow human who has braved trials we could never begin to understand.” The importance of documenting refugee stories cannot be overstated, and Refugees Welcome’s project, along with its advocacy on behalf of refugees, surely deserves our support.
Aram Mrjoian: What authors has Asymptote recently published that might not be on our readers’ radar? What authors do you see really taking on the current problems of the Trump administration?
Lee Yew Leong: With new work from more than twenty-five countries in each quarterly edition, there’s more than a good chance that readers will encounter great new authors in every issue! Those who are just finding out about us for the first time can even explore our six years’ worth of free content geographically. Speaking for my own section (fiction) and for 2016, I’m especially chuffed to have played a role in introducing the Peruvian fiction writer Pedro Novoa, the Slovak magical realist Marek Vadas, the Malaysian Chinese story-teller Kuei-hsin Chang and finally, Su Qing, a largely overlooked female writer from Chinese mid-century literary modernism, whose novel Ten Years of Marriage (excerpted in English for the first time in our Fall 2016 issue) was so popular (all the more for being scandalous) it went through eighteen print runs by 1948, and was said to have “caused a shortage of printing paper.”
As for authors taking on the problems of the Trump administration, Zadie Smith, Martin Amis, J.M. Coetzee and quite a few others signed this letter protesting Trump’s travel ban. Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote this timely piece about refugees in America.
Editors are also tackling the issue too. The Boston Review recently ran an important forum organized by Amna Akbar and Jeanne Theoharis addressing the pressing problem of Islamaphobia that’s worth your time. Zooming out of this specific issue, there’s a whole list of literary journals out there, in addition to Asymptote, edited with an explicit focus on inclusivity. Finally, this ‘Citizens of Everywhere’ project, undertaken at the University of Liverpool in collaboration with The Guardian, surely deserves a hearty shout-out!
Aram Mrjoian is a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University, an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an associate fiction editor at Guernica, and a 2022 Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellow. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Electric Literature, West Branch, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Rumpus, The Millions, Longreads, and many other publications. Find his work at arammrjoian.com