"Ask A Translator," Daniel Hahn's new column, Why Asymptote Matters, and Part Two of our Q&A with Alice Xin Liu!

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We’re back with another edition of Fortnightly Airmail! A quick update: as of Dec 11, we've raised $2,015, thus crossing the 40% mark of our fundraiser. This means we have a gap of less than $3,000 to close in ten days. If you can afford to chip in during this season of giving, please do! Your support will enable us to keep bringing you exclusive features from the front lines of literary translation!

Your Itinerary Today:

  1. TRAVEL LOG: "Ask A Translator," a new column by Daniel Hahn!
  2. POSTCARD ONE: "Why Asymptote Matters" by Adrian West
  3. POSTCARD TWO: Part Two of our interview with translator Alice Xin Liu
  4. PASSAGES: Spotlight on Krisztina Tóth’s “Churning”
  5. A MESSAGE FROM THE PILOT: Good news: The deadline of Close Approximations, our $4,500 Translation Contest, has been extended to Feb 1, 2016!

This Fortnightly sees the first installment of "Ask a Translator," a new feature in which acclaimed writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn answers reader questions about the ins and outs of literary translation. Hahn has translated Nobel laureate José Saramago, among many distinguished others, and served as Chair of the Translators Association of the Society of Authors, and National Program Director at The British Centre for Literary Translation. For his first column, Daniel picked a question from reader Raimy Shin to answer:

When comparing two translations of the same text, what does one look out for to determine which is the superior translation? Or does it all come down to different style?

Translation is never a neutral act. It cannot happen without interpretation or personality, and it can’t happen without context. Which also means one of the reasons it’s hard to compare translations, even of the same text, is that no two translators will be aspiring to quite the same thing. Certainly the premise behind the question is entirely correctany two translations of anything will differ, and those differences will have some significance. But those differences won’t always allow you to evaluate the versions side by side on the same metric scale.

You can assess a translationlike any work of artby its achievement of success in its own terms, how it manages what it’s set out to do. You can evaluate, too, whether you think that’s a thing worth doing at all. But the decision as to which of two translations is superior assumes they share the same goals. To take a crudely exaggerated examplesay you’re trying to compare King Lear, the Sistine Chapel ceiling and chocolate ice cream. Which is better? Impossible to say. They’re all supremely good examples of the kind of thing they are. If they were all judged by the same criteria, sure, that would be easier, but also kind of meaningless given their categorical differences. (Which of the three is the best play? Well, King Lear, but that hardly seems like a fair fight, does it?)

Now, when a publisher commissions me to translate a novel, I do work under the pretence that I’m writing not a translation but the translation. That’s the pretence, and aspirationas though what I’m writing is not personal and defined by its million individual choices, and not contingent. And yet I know, of course, that it must be, because another translator will notice things in the original that I don’t, or I’ll choose to privilege things that she won’t; because my palette for expression in English will be different from hers, because we all as writers of English have languages that are distinct, words or constructions we particularly like or don’t. The fact that my English is (mostly) British and (mostly) 21st century will play obviously into what I produce. And what about that publisheram I producing a translation for a big commercial publisher, or for an academic publisher, or for a “classics” list? Those things, and the assumed readerships they imply, will inform my intentions, too. (If you’re translating a play, is it for the sort of publication where you want every cultural detail preserved and explained or is it for performance where actors have to be able to speak the lines and you have to remember to punctuate in such a way that they can occasionally breathe?) As I say, the process is never neutral.

Your question pertains, mostly, to pretty long-lived texts (it’s unusual for a modern work to be translated multiply), which means that translations can themselves differ in period. Even within Tolstoy’s lifetime there were several competing English Wars and Peaces, each one working to a different agenda from Rosemary Edmonds in the 1950s, Anthony Briggs in the early 21st century, or the many in between. Each translators will have understood her/his role differently. (Should they seek to be invisible, hiding the fact that the book’s translated, making it sound naturally English, or draw attention to its foreignness? As much as anything, this is a matter of politics and fashion.) They will have made different assumptions about what their readers want, and how much their readers know. Are they working for scholarship, or to make a great story as accessible as possible to newcomers?

These questions reveal nothing about which translation is “superior”, but rather indicate their differences in intent. A translation of a comic novel might produce more or less straight, stone-dead translations of the jokes with footnotes to explain the cultural references that underpin them; or it might reconstruct the jokes, changed to make Anglophones laugh, thereby losing some of the cultural specificity but obviating the need for reader-distracting footnotes. Is one of these decisions “superior”? Well, it depends what you like, what you want.

Go see Romeo and Juliet three times. One production might speak the verse beautifully, making you notice details you’d not noticed before. Another might be brilliantly paced, a really dramatic theatrical experience. A third might be a film, or Prokofiev, or West Side Story. They’re all the same, and not the same. Translations always are.

Some years ago when I finally decided to read Don Quixote in English, I chose Edith Grossman’s translation. I knew I wanted something more or less recent. I knew hers would be careful and sensitive, but also energetic, and I knew she also had the skill to make me laugh in the funny bits. I could have argued, of course, that the closest experience to reading Cervantes would have been Thomas Shelton’s translation, which is four hundred years old and would have been read by Cervantes’s own contemporaries (Shakespeare among them, of course). But I wanted something that bridged the gap between Cervantes and me in a certain way. Grossman’s translation was the perfect particular translation for me, but in part what that means is it did exactly what I wanted a translation of Quixote to do for me at that moment. It captured Cervantes’s book, but did it in a way that suited my sensibility, and what I like as a reader.

Does this mean there’s never any difference in quality between one translation and another, and it’s all a matter of taste, with everything indiscriminately valid? Of course not. Some translations are sophisticated and sensitive and effective; some display a profound failure to understand an original and a total inability to write pleasing, supple prose to replicate it. Some things are just mistakes. But difference is often just difference, too. So instead of assuming that one of two translations is necessarily superior and the other more flawed, consider what the differences tell us about what precisely the translator is actually trying to do and why. (I love books with a Translator’s Note.) Only then can you try to gauge whether it’s a success, but according to its own criteria, not somebody else’s.

Have a question to ask Daniel Hahn? Please send it to askatranslator@asymptotejournal.com!

It is a rare person who will affirm that things in English-language publishing are exactly as they should be. The #readwomen 2014 campaign emphasized the scandalous gender bias in publishing, promotion, and reviewing; the translation database at Three Percent tracks abysmal figures for foreign fiction in translation; and anecdotally, anyone who has dealt with large publishers cannot help but lose heart at their willingness to lose millions on lavish advances for famous has-beens while refusing the relatively minor risk of publishing foreign writers of great stature.

The situation is hardly better with journals and magazines. While a cornucopia of poorly funded, university-based journals offers prospective writers and translators next-to-no visibility, more famous outlets, many of which state in their masthead a willingness to publish the new, the daring, and the uncategorizable, go on cranking out one mind-numbing workshop story after another. Then, up in the ether, are the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and their ilk, at the gates of which the translator clamors like poor K. before the portal of Kafka’s castle.    

Nietzsche famously remarked that the Renaissance was raised on the shoulders of a hundred men. The good literature that makes it into English, especially the literature from other countries, does so thanks to the efforts of far fewer. Every time a new journal or small press launches, it is a major event for literature; every time one closes, it is a disaster. When an unknown writer becomes a sensation, there is often the sense that he or she comes out of nowhere, but this is rarely the case: Krasznahorkai has been writing since the eighties, Elena Ferrante since the nineties, but only now are they getting their due in English. When recognition comes, it is usually the result of long, thankless, unpaid promotion on the part of writers, translators, editors, and other advocates.

Journals like Asymptote are essential to this process: spaces where established voices don’t crowd out newcomers, but where rigorous criteria ensure that the goods on offer are more than mere fluff. A particular advantage at Asymptote is the multitude of different voices who have input over the content; in many cases, these people are based where the authors translated reside, and can judge not only the work’s importance but the fidelity of the translation in question.

Asymptote helps provide a bridge between obscurity and the commercial publications that are necessary if foreign literature is to have an impact outside of a tiny circle of initiates. These authors have to make it into print, but publishers can rarely find them on their own, and when a translator sends a sample with a query letter, the risk is high that it will get thrown onto a slush pile alongside My Little Pony fan fiction and the memoirs of 9/11 conspiracy theorists.

I say this from experience, because Asymptote has helped to get a number of the authors I translate into print. When I began translating Josef Winkler, he was virtually unknown—the two books translated by him in the mid-1990s hadn’t received a single review. Shortly after publishing an essay on his works and a short translation of his novelette Natura Morta in Asymptote, I found a publisher for his works, which have since been reviewed in the Guardian and the TLS. Pere Gimferrer, arguably the greatest living poet in Spanish and Catalan, was similarly unknown in English when I published an excerpt of his novel Fortuny in Asymptote in January, 2013; that novel is forthcoming from David R. Godine, and I also published a translation of his poem Alma Venus with Antilever in June of last year. As I write, I am in negotiations for two other books by two authors I wrote about and translated for Asymptote, Marianne Fritz and Jean Améry.

Asymptote is free. Neither the editors, nor the translators, nor the authors are paid. In an ideal world, it would be otherwise, but the preponderance of free content on the internet would make a subscription model harmful to the already beleaguered authors Asymptote is trying to make better known. This does not mean it is free to produce. Hopefully these words about the importance of the journal to the writers and translators it has presented to the world will encourage you to contribute to its survival.

With ten days left to go before our fundraiser ends, we need your support even more! Please take a moment to contribute today.

Alice Xin Liu has translated poems by Sen Zi for the Copper Canyon Press anthology Push Open the Window: Contemporary Poetry from China. Her other translations have appeared on Granta's website and Words Without Borders.

Here’s Part Two of her conversation with our Editor-in-Chief Lee Yew Leong about her translation of Shen Congwen’s family letters, out now from Yilin Press (and available on Amazon in US and China). But before that, they were first excerpted in English for our July 2011 issue. Part One of this interview was published in the last Fortnightly Airmail.

Unlike Shen Congwen, who was unhappy under the Communist regime, his wife Zhang Zhaohe—whose letters form half of this correspondence—was a fervent admirer of Mao. What sort of marriage portrait emerges from these letters? Would you say that theirs was a marriage of equals?

The book ends with Zhang Zhaohe's Postscript, written in 1995. There is a line: "Was Congwen happy, spending a lifetime with me, or unhappy? There is no answer. I didn't understand him, not wholly." That line has always puzzled me but it does shine a light on how different they were: She was a positive force who seemed to always tell Shen to lift himself up (from his many depressions) and write something fantastic, more in tune with the morale of the country at the time, and with Communist ideology. Shen, as these letters reveal, was sensitive and wanted to please, and in that way he respected his wife's opinion. If he was unhappy in his marriage, these letters don't show it. In fact their story has been the ground for romantic ideation among literary types today. They both were kind to each other, and Shen didn't stop addressing her as Sansan, his lifelong nickname for her—whether it was a marriage of equals, in terms of literary achievement, probably not, but in terms of companionship, then yes. 

As a translator of the text, can you describe some translatorly challenges that you faced?

There are so many. First of all there is the Republican-era tone as the letters start in 1930, a particular tone still emulated today. I tried to be as archaic as I could manage in the English. Many of Shen's concerns seem archaic, and essays such as "History is Like a River" and "A Letter from a Little Boat" needs a certain tone to go with it, which became a matter of working and reworking. There's a definite lyricism, anxiety and other complex emotions to his work that I wanted to convey. In particular his deep sense of melancholia. In his earlier letters, there was the sheer number of complicated characters that are no longer used in modern Chinese, which originate in traditional Chinese. So the earlier letters were like a time portal back to that in between stage between traditional and baihua. There was a lot of Baidu and Google use on my part as well as using several online dictionaries. Since this is a bilingual text, readers can compare and criticize the translations for words that don't seem to be in usage anymore in modern Chinese. 

Up till 2014, you were the managing editor of Pathlight, a literary journal focusing on contemporary Chinese literature in translation. What was behind your decision to leave and what new translation projects have you been up to since?

Pathlight has always been a magazine with problems: the independent English-language translators and editors were leaning as much on the Chinese government as on ourselves. The government funded the magazine, and their vision for the project was very different to ours, in fact they didn't/don't care about how the magazine came out, as political factions within the Chinese Writers' Association (CWA) played against one another. The English editors were tiny pawns in a very large game, and that game just got tiring for me, and I had a good run. The Chinese mainland literary establishment can also be very sexist, and despite the President of the CWA being a woman, there is a "secretarial" feel to any young woman who walks through the doors, or who dine with the top authors. I don't think this kind of commentary would even mean anything to the supposed perpetrators, since it has gone on for so long and is so blatant that no one would think it was a problem. I think it would be wise for translators and editors to understand how patriarchal the system is (in all of its tenets, from the small projects like Pathlight to how decisions are made up top to who pours the baijiu) before entering it. But I learned a lot in a very short amount of time, which holds true for anybody part of a nascent literary magazine.

My own projects now include the Shen Congwen (obviously) and Han Han's next book of essays co-translated with Joel Martinsen who is also my husband, to be released by Simon and Schuster next year. 


In one more plug for our Close Approximations Translation Contest, with a deadline for submissions extended to February 1, 2016, we’d like to reacquaint you with Krisztina Tóth’s “Churning,” deftly translated by Owen Good, selected by Eliot Weinberger as the winner of our 2014 contest.


Look where the coast curves in above the water

the circling wind rakes up all kinds of things

a plastic bag drifts down between the cliffs.

In the dark churning a silvery speck.

There is an inlet in the heart. This song

I thought up in my head. The tide goes out,

a single worn shoe rots here where the beach

abruptly springs forth from among the waves,

The wind curves in above the evening water:

This babbling song rakes up all kinds of things

a shoe drifts on the beach of sky cliffs,

and down among floating clouds the moon rots.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Fortnightly Airmail. In the second half of December, we will officially shut down for the holidays, but not to fear! One of us will still be updating the blog daily. From December 23, we'll run a series where team members take turns to talk about their best literary adventures all year. Around the New Year, we'll release our reading resolutions for 2016. In the meantime, you can always catch up on our past issues and watch for updates (of our fundraising progress or otherwise!) on our Facebook or Twitter feeds.

Wishing you the happiest of holiday seasons,

Your friends at Asymptote

Copyright © 2015 Asymptote Journal. All rights reserved.

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