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The leap that has been taken: an interview with Lee Yew Leong

Lee Yew Leong is the founder and editor-in-chief of Asymptote, among the world’s leading journals of translated literature. Asymptote has published authors from more than 120 countries, including 17 Nobel Laureates. Between 2015 and 2017, Lee curated a weekly showcase of literary translation in the Guardian, which remains to date the highest-profile weekly showcase of world literature in the Anglophone sphere. Lee has written for The New York Times and served as a judge for PEN International’s 2016 New Voices Award. He spoke with our editor, James Appleby.

For the less mathematical among our readers – myself included – an asymptote is a line that approaches a curve, heading towards infinity but never quite touching. Just how close can a translation come to its source text?

Close, very close – but never quite there! However, one might remember that all writing (even writing in English by a monoglot English speaker) is translation – of thought, feeling, and, ultimately, our discrete subjective realities. Then perhaps one might be more forgiving of any underlying inadequacy. Always better to focus more on the gain than the loss, I think.

Like Interpret, Asymptote publish texts in the original where possible. What made you take this decision? What can a reader who doesn't understand Korean, for example, gain from the Korean audios of your recent feature?

We live in a time when as revered an institution as the British Museum is still overlooking translators. Rather than state that something is translated from such and such a language, would it not be more powerful to make available the source text alongside the original? Confronted with unassailable evidence that the original arose from a different language system, readers might better appreciate the leap that has been taken. Aside from that, I’m a strong believer in the sensual qualities of language, both visible and audible, where feelings, and not just meaning, might reside. Finally, the sound of a literary creation – independent of what it might mean – can also be a thing of beauty. Why not celebrate it as well?

Readers can be concerned with the faithfulness of translation, but are there situations in which it’s better for a translation to be unfaithful?

Infidelity by omission happens quite a bit – in fact, probably most of the time – since it’s not always possible to fully convey the meaning of the original and still deliver a translation that sings. Infidelity that intentionally superimposes a layer of interpretation absent in the original and otherwise goes against the grain of the original? That’s where I would draw the line.

Many authors, especially poets, have been called untranslatable. From one magazine of international poetry to another, how true do you feel this is?

Even between completely different language groups, a plausible leap can always be made insofar as human experience is universal. It’s just a matter of whether the result is publishable – and whether enough of the original makes it through intact without footnotes, which I consider just as important. What’s vital to understand is that we’re not simply transposing from one text to another; we’re asking the translator to recreate a literary text that derives from another literary text.

As Asymptote approaches the publication of its fiftieth issue, what can you say about the joys and challenges of editing the magazine?

It’s been both a privilege and a joy to expand the frontiers of world literature while sharing a deeply personal thrill of literary discovery. Some of my proudest moments include debuting a future US National Book Award winner in Elisa Shua Dusapin and helping translator Aneesa Abbas Higgins win a book-length contract as a result; and introducing to English readers the first-ever Sinophone ‘20 under 40’ list, before Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize win attracted interest in the region in 2012. All despite being outside the publishing centres of London and New York. I take great pride in our outsider status.

All the same, even as my team and I have advocated for translators and authors of colour through our work, it’s been true that I, like most persons of colour in a predominantly white publishing industry, have not escaped prejudice. For example, five years into editing the journal that I founded, the first person to receive an all-expenses paid invitation to represent Asymptote at a conference was not the only full-time Asymptote team member, i.e. myself, but my part-time white assistant managing editor of only six months. What took the cake was that I was actually physically closer to the city where the conference would be held!

I recently came across the sad news that The White Review is shuttering. The reason cited was denial of UK state funding for the past three consecutive years. Still, they did receive funding for an entire decade prior, whereas Asymptote, which produces a much greater output, has never received any sort of ongoing state funding. Because we’re incorporated in Singapore, not the US or UK, we are also excluded from the many sources of funding available to literary magazines in the English-speaking world. The sad fact is that the emphasis on #SupportLocal just translates to nationalism on a global scale. Even in a supposedly boundary-less arena like world literature, we have no one to look after our backs.

So we hustle. Our years of hard work have earned us the backing of sixty or so sustaining and masthead members including Booker Prize winner Yann Martel and acclaimed translators like Daniel Hahn and Margaret Jull Costa; they’ve also seen us develop small revenue streams through our international Book Club, submission portal, and advertisement packages. We have also partnered with cultural agencies on each quarterly issue since October 2021 for more substantial funding. Still, all of this doesn’t add up to minimum wage for the one person who keeps everything humming along. Given recent inflationary times, with more people cancelling their subscriptions than joining of late, it’s been very hard for us.

It’s a problem that affects all editors, unfortunately. Despite all that, how do you structure an issue of Asymptote?

Section editors at Asymptote work independently, but somehow – perhaps because I wear multiple hats and am responsible for roughly 70% of an issue’s content – it all coheres thematically across the 40 or so articles that make up each edition. Speaking for my own sections (and I certainly encourage my section editors to do so for theirs), I curate my line-ups so that the pieces speak to one another. Then I synthesize it all through the editor’s note with the help of my digital editors; we brainstorm the issue’s tagline as early as one month before launch.

One of my favourite pieces from a recent edition is César Jumpa Sánchez's translation of César Vallejo's Trilce, a text I know from a language I read. Put bluntly, is there a point in reading a translation from a language you understand?

Sure, and hopefully not just to nit-pick on the unsuccessful bits, which some people actually like to do! For budding translators, or even for those of us who are simply curious about translation, you can get a lot out of setting an accomplished translation beside its original and examining the choices that have been wrestled with. Even better: compare multiple translations with one another for a deeper look into the translation process, which our excellent new blog column, Principle of Decision, does!

Let’s come to the English-speaking world, which seems, slowly, to be returning to translation. What benefits might this bring to English-language writing and its readers?

With this year’s Best Picture going to Everything Everywhere All At Once and movies like Barbie breaking box office records, 2023 seems to be the year of the multiverse, as The Economist has pointed out. But it’s worth remembering that the original multiverse – albeit cultural, not physical – has existed as long as translation itself. Both an act of empathy and hope, translation enables one to walk a mile in other shoes. Given the hegemonic status of English, it’s even more important to be reminded about these other ways to be. Only then can our own worlds be truly allowed to expand.

Finally, are there any unifying features of successful translations – or unsuccessful ones?

A literary text is just a concatenation of words, isn’t it? The way these words accrete as sentences, then as paragraphs, is what gives the text its energy and sometimes incantatory power. A successful translation reproduces that energy – with a bit of creative license if it must. An unsuccessful translation – even if or sometimes because it adheres to the original – is one that fails at this crucial task.


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