Daniel Hahn on the untranslatable, a dispatch from the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference, poems by Agnar Artúvertin, and more!
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We’re back with another Fortnightly Airmail, your one-stop source for the latest updates and exclusive dispatches from Asymptote’s global network of staff, friends, and contributors!

Your Itinerary Today:

  1. TAKE OFF: Our Summer Recruitment Drive extended to July 20
  2. TRAVEL LOG: Ahead of his upcoming London appearance, Daniel Hahn weighs in on “untranslatable” words
  3. POSTCARD ONE: Julia Leverone at the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference
  4. PASSAGES: Three poems by Agnar Artúvertin
  5. REARVIEW: Recent highlights from the Asymptote blog

Great news for Asymptote lovers looking for new ways to support the cause of world literature in translation: our Summer Recruitment Drive has been extended to July 20! Check out the new openings in marketing, sustainability, and design. In particular, we’re looking for a Blog Editor and a Podcast Editor to join our far-flung team of 80+ staffers. For detailed information on current openings and how to apply, head over to our recruitment page today.


Ahead of our first-ever "Ask a Translator" live event with Daniel Hahn in London on Wednesday, July 20 (RSVP at or invite your friends to the Facebook event page here), our resident translation guru is back to answer the questions you’ve always wanted to ask about literary translation, but never had the chance to—until now. This week’s question comes from Lin Chia Wei, a reader in Taiwan: 

Is there anything that is completely untranslatable, in your opinion?

Everything is untranslatable, that’s what I think.

Or alternatively, I think that nothing is.

And honestly, I’m perfectly comfortable with either of those ideas; both make sense to me. I’m not altogether comfortable, however, with the idea behind the question itself.

There are certain components to a text that are likely to present particular challenges to a translator (I talked about these in last month’s column), things that feel like absolute impossibilities. And conversely there are moments when you’re translating and a clever solution presents itself, or when a new voice you’re creating comes into focus, and the sheer rightness seems miraculous, the fact of it being so very possible feels exhilarating. But these experiences, and the question, would seem to suggest a simple binarytranslatable / not translatablewhich is misleading. Translation is all failure, because it’s never “perfect”; and it is all also, simultaneously, a triumph, because however imperfectly something living has been created out of the most unlikely circumstances.

Now, I used the word perfect. But I used it rather nervously, and in “scare quotes” to protect myself, because I don’t know what it means, I don’t know what perfection in a translation would even look like. My aim when translating isn’t perfection, my aim is to use English to make a piece of writing that does the same things another writer has done before me in some other language; my aim is to take one superb piece of writing, and make another superb piece of writing that can stand in for it with a new set of readers.

That description is quite abstract, I know; but it’s describing a process that is itself approximate. The translation won’t be the same as the original (it will be in a different language, for one thing, so all of the words will be different, which is no small change…), but it will closely resemble it in whichever ways I feel are the most important. It will differ from it, of course, in others.

Last week I translated a short story from Portuguese for Words Without Borders, which began with this phrase: “Escolhia as músicas do filme Lua Cambará, quando achei…”. There’s nothing particularly tricksy about it. My translation will begin something like this: “I was selecting the songs to put on the soundtrack of Lua Cambará when I came across…” It’s a serviceable translation, and one that palpably existsthe original is not, then, “untranslatable”.

My translation conveys what I think is most important about the original. But the versions differ significantly, too. In the Portuguese, you don’t know who the subject of the verb is until the second phrase; in the English I’ve got a pronoun as my very first word. The Portuguese narrator is choosing music for the “filme”; in English both “movie” and “film” would have seemed to locate the story too specifically somewhere that wasn’t Brazil, so my translation does without either and I’ve been a bit more specific, using “soundtrack” instead. The Portuguese has one word (escolhia) where I have three (I was choosing); though I’m proud that despite this change the rhythm of my version is identical to the author’s original word. What else? Overall the English has fully twice as many words as the Portuguese. The Portuguese word for “songs” has mostly nice soft consonants (the way “song” does), but it has three syllables instead of one. And so on. Does that matter? Yes and no, of course.

Every word has all sorts of inherent properties that go beyond the simplest functional meaning. Even if we all pictured the same thing when we heard the word dog, or chien, or Hund, or perro (which of course we don’t), those words are all different. You might use them all to label the same animal in a children’s picture-book, and dictionaries will tell you that these words mean one another, but they are not, they cannot be, identical. They have different echoes in their own languages, different idiomatic uses, they sound different and weigh different and taste different in the mouth.

And literary translation demands more of its practitioners than just a transfer of basic meaning, it demands a new text that maintains the original’s register and diction, its rhythms and resonances, too. There is no word in English that does all the things “chien” does in French; no word in French that does all the things “dog” does in English. Does that mean even this simple word is untranslatable?

So yes, maybe everything really is untranslatable. If you think “perfection” is the measurethe absence of any loss, the absence of any change—then yes, it is. Translation is trying to retain inherently linguistic things, to maintain absolutely all those properties that are by definition rooted in language, while carrying out a process of detaching a text from its languageso of course it’s impossible!

And yet we do keep translating, because we understand that translation is really something other than a striving for vague perfection; translation aims for comprehension, interpretation and expression, it aims for particulars of effect, even if by different and sometimes even roundabout means. Its success is not measured merely in degrees of loss but in what new thing is created to replace, to re-present what came before it. Sure, wordplay is untranslatablebut if you can use your ingenuity to create something that has the same effect (a new piece of wordplay, which is clever in just the same way and also makes a reader laugh in just the same way), then you have managed, however implausibly, to produce a translation. Everything is fundamentally untranslatable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t translate it anyway.

Do you have a question for Daniel? Send it to us at askatranslator@asymptotejournal.com. New to Asymptote? Find previous installments of “Ask a Translator” over at our blog.

Assistant Editor Julia Leverone recently attended the second annual Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference in Ripton, Vermont. Here she explores a few ideas on translation and form that sprung from her experiences, lectures, and readings at the conference.


Prior to arriving on the mountain, I had been thinking about the way my workshop would go. I signed up for a fiction-only translation workshop, the first I’ve ever taken, since in my MFA I only took the poetry workshops required for my degree. I geared my brain to not critique what my fellow translators’ texts included structurally, but how the writing was expressed. In cases, as I read through the workshop pieces on a soft lawn overlooking Vermont forest, I ended up succumbing to the impulse to suggest changes on the creative level when I knew that the translator had a collaborative relationship with the author. Similarly, it came up in our workshop’s discussion that sometimes a translation can provide edits and writing that move beyond the original text. Both things constitute new translation territory, and are exciting to think about and see happen.

I was given Forrest Gander’s essay, “César and the Caesura,” to read for my workshop. It raises the question of the interrelation between form and cultural experience, and between grammatical constructions and cultural experience. The essay made me think of how the translation of different expressions (to give a basic example, in Spanish, “dejar caer”—to let fall—is the single alternative to the sentiment we have in English of “to drop”) only leaves the disparateness to be enjoyed by the translator. We translators, like language learners inevitably comparing their newly found terms to ones they’ve previously known, do sustain many more pleasures than we can cleanly explain to our audiences. It becomes a question: when/where/how do we convey that relishing?

The first day of the conference, I sat across from faculty member Geoff Brock at lunch, a poetry translator as well, and also someone who has undertaken prose and novel projects in translation. We talked about the goodness of the switching: how accommodating to a different pacing, a different engagement with voice and the sentence itself, is healthy for translators returning to poetry translation. On my way down the mountain into town for shampoo I tuned in to the Green Mountains classical music station, and a quartet began a piece for which every member could play each part. The radio DJ said this gave the music a consciousness, an expectation, and therefore a more aligned performance. I’d like to think that translating various pacings and prosodies would make one a stronger translator, and/or source language reader, and/or writer in English.

Translating prose is a long game. Many of my edits for my prose translation work are for voice, just as, in our workshop, many pieces received comments designed to aid the consistency and audibility of their English-language voice. Yet, I can observe and cherish the transformation that happens in my own English-language poetry when I’ve been working deeply with a single writer, when I assume that voice and style automatically and, at times, unconsciously. With prose translation, the reverse happens: after a while of employing the author’s voice as I hear it in English, in my sentence lengths and arrangements and uses of commas, my own voice pushes past the fusion and enters into the translation. Marvelous to notice, but not good for the translation’s end-product. The difference between my poetry and prose translation experiences is more than anything an indication of my predilection; though I try to bring my English-language poetry and poetry translation skills to the page, as my workshop leader Esther Allen encouraged me to do, when I’m working on my novel translation project.

I picked up faculty member Karen Emmerich’s translation of Amanda Michalopoulous’s short story collection, I’d Like, from the Bread Loaf bookstore. Most of the stories discuss art and writing, and especially short story writing, which the author unabashedly prefers to novels and poetry. They (Michalopoulous and Emmerich) write:


The sun disappearing behind the clouds, the outdoor space heater, the first drops of rain falling on the awning—they all heighten the impression that everything is happening both inside and out. In my heart and in the street. Why else would it start to rain just when I can no longer hold everything in? These parallels make me feel a slight, controlled unease.


The story ends with its protagonist thinking she could write a story constructed on that notion (a slight, controlled unease), a beautiful way of thinking about the short story form. Within the description of the notion is the short story’s necessary conflict, combined with and counteracted by the brief ordering of prose.

In Emmerich’s talk at Bread Loaf, she took up the topic of control in the sense of responsibility, the responsibilities translators bear to both the original text and to the whole of the finished, translated text. Out of her talk and Brock’s on imitations it comes to me that alternatively, in the cases of writing beyond a text, there can exist the responsibility to art, to the muses, to the creativity of the stimulated mind, that “slight unease.”

At the conference I encountered three lovely new terms: reverence, imaginative supplement, and departure—which arrange around a translator’s approach to her task and translation choices. Translator’s choices can also range to those more global, like when opting among texts to render. It came up that when working in a language of a country where there is political strife, the translator may have the responsibility to choose texts that explore and expose and counter and make sense of that strife. Just as it is crucial for literature to incorporate witness, it is inherent to the ethic of translation that we transmit the real and the difficult experiences of those in distant countries and cultures and languages. It is also, of course, crucial for us to celebrate and to disseminate works that assert beauty amid destruction.

And so now, I’m left wanting to take on many more projects of translation, invigorated by all this thought. The extent that my mental tangents went to is testament to the lively and rich atmosphere of this conference, of which I know I only explored a corner. In trying to re-capture my experiences, forcing myself back to remember and give order to the lovely, fleeting, sometimes uneasy moments I had, I recognize them, undoubtedly, as moments of growth.


These three poems by Agnar Artúvertin, translated from the Faroese by Matthew Landram and published in our Spring 2012 issue, are at once frugal and lush. They address small images and smaller moments—the body, an open window, a drunken night. But this minutia grasps for more unwieldy ideas, be it a search for belonging in “The Protestant” or a struggle with banality in “SMS”.

Most striking about Artúvertin’s poems is their self-assured register, how they are brazenly philosophical while describing only mundane happenings.  In “Poem About the Body,” after conjuring the body with the grotesque accuracy of “semen, blood, bile,” Artúvertin asserts, “It takes a body/conflating imagination and experience to make a body/of literature.”  This simplicity of logic and observation runs through all three poems, each of which is playful and subversive in its brevity.

 —Poorna Swami, India Editor-at-Large


The Protestant

From my first knowing, I knew
that I'd been born into the wrong country.
Mother, why couldn't you see it?

Where did this foreign sense come from
if not some strange country, frightening, yes,
but alluring also?

And the moontower through the open window —
after you had fallen asleep —
why did it grow, so enticingly grow?



Candles burn out. We act out
our dramas, empty bottles
of beer, sometimes do good
deeds — help the elderly
with street crossings —
but nothing ever changes.

Poem About the Body

The head isn't at issue here but the body: the body
which contains everything in its nerve and vein; the body
that swallows hell and earth wholly; the body
whose chemical lure tricks the mind into thinking; the body
which confounds the mazelogic of guinea pigs and rats; the body
where rests the roots of the poetic sublime; the body
of bodily experience from whence oozes all viscosities of the body —
semen, blood, bile, lymph, beauty too. It takes a body
conflating imagination and experience to make a body
of literature. So be grateful and worship the body.

For more knockout pieces from five years’ worth of issues, wander through our extensive Archive, navigable by date, language, or country.


Have you been keeping up with the Asymptote blog lately? Some of our recent favorites have included the June 2016 edition of our What's New in Translation column, featuring reviews of the latest titles in translation, a dispatch from Translation Day at Oxford University, and another from The World in Words at the New York Public Library, a bracing, beautiful excerpt from Eric Dupont's forthcoming novel Life in the Court of Matane, a wide-ranging account of a Quebecois childhood; Laura Farris's review of Tatsumi Hijikata's Butoh choreography notations, which she calls "a marvel of poetic elision and evocative design"; and U.K. Editor-at-Large M. René Bradshaw's musings on Brexit, her life as an "international mongrel," and the complicated nature of a British national identity. For these and other gems, be sure to make our blog one of your daily destinations!


And that’s a wrap on this round of Fortnightly Airmail, but we’ll be back in two weeks with more updates on your favorite source for literary excellence from around the world, Asymptote. If you miss us in the meantime, feel free to check in at our blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. Looking for ways to show your appreciation? Kindly click over to our Donate page and show us some love! We couldn’t do this without you.

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