Asymptote is a new, international literary journal dedicated to the translation of literary works, both from various languages to English as well as from English to other languages. It was founded by our very own Singaporean writer, Lee Yew Leong, whose editorial team spans various continents and cultures – South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, America and East Asia – and is a veritable international, multi-cultural and multilingual task force.
This new journal offers not only a new space for literary encounters between languages and cultures, but also proffers a new metaphor for the whole enterprise of translation, in my opinion. A ‘classic’ metaphor comes from the Italian – “traduttore, traditore”, which means “translator, traitor”. My teacher had written this phrase on the board in my first translation class, demonstrating her (rather cynical) philosophical stance on the whole project of translation – something is always ‘lost in translation’, and the translator necessarily interferes in this gap of meaning guided her own bias, conscious or unconscious, political or philosophical.
In philosophy classes my charismatic and wildly esoteric professor once railed on about the possibility (or impossibility) of commensuration between various little narratives ( petits récits ), given the rejection of ‘modernist’ grand or meta-narratives. But translation, he declared dramatically, the possibility of translation hints at the possibility of commensurability between the little narratives. In his view, little narratives were understood as discrete cultures (Japanese, Iranian, Russian) and inter-cultural communication (and consequent kindness and friendliness amongst humankind) is only possible if translation is possible.
The Asymptote raison d’être is much more optimistic than my translation teacher’s stance, and much less abstruse than that of my philosophy professor’s. The editors write, “We are interested in encounters between languages and the consequences of these encounters. Though a translation may never fully replicate the original in effect (thus our name, “asymptote”: the dotted line on a graph that a mathematical function may tend towards but never reach), it is in itself an act of creation. … The value of translation is that it unleashes from latency ideas and emotions to a vast sea of others who do not have access to the language in which these ideas and emotions reside.”
With the asymptote, the y-axis and the x-axis will never get lonely, pairing off into the infinite distance and the distant infinity; the original text and its companion translations proliferate in the blinker-free world wide net, reaching a broader readership and our earthly community grows closer with a shared cache of stories, tales, imaginations. (This visual of the ever-extending asymptote stretching closer and closer to the x and y axes is a particular favourite of mine, planted in my head thanks to the journal’s About page.)
In addition, “[n]ot only will [Asymptote] display work in its original language after the English translation, [but they] also encourage translators (especially of poems) to provide audio recordings of the original work so that the reader has access as well to the sounds of that language, via a “Press PLAY” audio option whenever such an MP3 recording is available.” This project straddles cultures, languages as well as media – writing, audio and even visual (since writings in languages we do not know may just look like pretty aesthetic patterns to us, to me at least).
On a personal note, ever since I had woken up from an adolescent stupor, I have eschewed translated works as far as I could help it. It is a very queer point of obstinacy with me, and highly hypocritical too, since I do support the enterprise of translation, believe in the rationale of translation, and in fact, take translation courses and have translated texts for measly sums of money. It is my ugly maggot, a wholly unreasonable and whimsical crotchety monster that rears its head viscerally whenever I encounter translated works, even if it is just the subtitles on the TV screen. Perhaps one may call it a ‘pseudo-occupational hazard’, a ‘love-hate’ relationship; if I read a translated work, I absolutely need the original text by its side.
I definitely see the beauty in translated works, of course. I enjoyed Masahiko Fujiwara’s Literature and Mathematics, which fits quite appropriately with the name “Asymptote” too – straddling the distinct (or so perceived) realms of the literary arts and the mathematical sciences. (or scientific mathematics) Reading certain translated works is like listening to a person of that native tongue in question tell her story in halting, idiosyncratically accented and constructed English – do give Fujiwara’s story a read to see what I mean. It is the way French people speak English with ze akzent, or some absolutely guileless and endearing constructions like “Is you good self knowing English?”
Some parts of Okamoto’s translated piece of Fujiwara’s text for example are short and clipped, retaining I think the ‘Japanese’ feel to the work: “Mathematics is an all-or-nothing business: either one can prove one’s theorem or one cannot. There is no grey area. One cannot ‘almost prove’ or ‘nearly resolve’ anything. No compromise is permitted.” I feel like I can hear Fujiwara’s native Japanese writing underneath this palimpsest; the original text is not yet on this particular site, but I look forward to tackling the original version. (Edit: I am technology-incompetent/incompetent at site-navigation. The original texts are not located at the bottom of the page, but are accessible through a link at the top on the right-hand side. )
Local writer Alfian Sa’at has commented, “Singapore literature, because it is categorised along language lines, has been dubbed the ‘four solitudes’ because of the lack of inter-translations. So this is a very very exciting project. Support! : ) ” Indeed, it was only recently that 2003 Cultural Medallion for Literature winner Yeng Pway Ngon’s Chinese poems from the 1960s were translated to English by Alvin Pang and Goh Beng Choo – as part of the English-educated generation I feel rather embarrassed at my ignorance of ‘local’ literature and its history, be ‘it’ Chinese, Malay, Tamil or ‘Others’, and this embarrassment is accentuated by my generation’s familiarity with the ‘Western’ canon of Dead White Men. Further, tak dapat berturtur Bahasa Melayu, tertapi dapat berturtur Bahasa Ang-Moh Lang. (I can’t speak Malay, but I can speak the Ang-Moh Lang’s languages. Okay lah, kawan melayu saya ajar saya Bahasa sekarang. My malay friend is teaching me Malay now.)
In Issue Two, Mr. Lee Yew Leong says that “We have a despatch from Afghanistan consisting of interviews conducted in Farsi (about the status of women in wartime Afghanistan), and another despatch from Migrant Voices, Singapore’s NGO upholder of migrant worker rights, also consisting of interviews, but this time conducted in six languages, about the plight of migrant workers in Singapore.” Both Persian (or Dari, in Afghanistan) and Bengali (I’m assuming that Bengali is one of the six languages) are beautiful languages for which I have a soft spot, and I look forward to the original audio clips and transcripts as well as their translations; projects like Asymptote are certainly a treasure trove of resources to students of languages as well.
In conclusion, I whole-heartedly salute the Asymptote team and wish them the best in their project. I will certainly be following their website, paying particular attention to those with the original texts included, learning what I can from their eminent team of translators.