Announcing our November podcast, looking ahead to #GivingTuesday, Simon Wickhamsmith translates Tseveendorjin Oidov, a Q&A with Alice Xin Liu, and more!

View this email in your browser

Hello again! Ahead of #Giving Tuesday (please keep Asymptote in mind!) and the looming deadline of our $4,500 Translation Contest, we return with the third edition of Fortnightly Airmail, brimming with exclusive news from our globe-spanning network of translators and partner organizations.

Your Itinerary Today:

  1. TAKE OFF: Announcing our latest podcast episode, with a special focus on journalist-writers from Poland
  2. IN THE AIR: Dec 1 is #GivingTuesday! 
  3. POSTCARD ONE: Simon Wickhamsmith translates Tseveendorjin Oidov in another PEN/Heim Exclusive
  4. POSTCARD TWO: Alice Xin Liu on translating Shen Congwen's family letters
  5. IN TRANSIT: The lowdown on what we’ve been reading these days
  6. PASSAGES: Spotlight on Alberto Ruy-Sánchez's “Poetics of Wonder”
  7. TOUCHDOWN: Call for blog pitches and questions for translator Daniel Hahn in our new column debuting Dec 11

First things first: we couldn’t be more pleased to announce the release of the latest Asymptote Podcast, available now for download on iTunes. This month, Editor-at-Large Beatrice Smigasiewicz explores the role journalists have played in the development of modern Polish literary culture, where there has always been a surprising degree of cross-pollination between authors and reporters. Beatrice’s reporting leads her into some fascinating encounters with contemporary writers who cut their narrative chops in the newsroom. The second half of the podcast features Asymptote contributor Katrine Øgaard Jensen reading the “fiercely emotional, yet icy and cynical” poems of Ursula Andkjær Olsen she translated for our current issue. You won’t want to miss it, listen today!

Here at Asymptote, we’re getting excited for this year’s #GivingTuesday, just a few days away, on December 1! Developed in 2012 by the venerable New York City institution, the 92nd Street Y, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, #GivingTuesday harnesses the power of social media in order to kick off the charitable season each year, helping to focus attention on the nonprofit organizations that survive on the generosity of their supporters. Unaffiliated with any institution or government body, Asymptote is one such organization. Have you enjoyed our free and ad-free issues gathering the best contemporary writing around the world? Want to support our latest initiatives, including this very fortnightly airmail, our recently released educational guide, our soon-to-be-announced book clubs and anniversary events? If so, we hope you’ll consider making a tax-deductible donation to Asymptote this Tuesday!

In the second installment of our PEN/Heim Exclusives, we’re thrilled to present Simon Wickhamsmith’s translations of poems by Tseveendorjin Oidov, whose avant-garde work stands out among the wider Mongolian poetry landscape. Our exclusive preview of this unpublished work, as well as work by other winners of the 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants, appears courtesy of our partners at PEN America.


Brief in Eternal Blue Memory, Tomorrow's Tender Sky,

or the Presentiment of Movement


The eternal blue sky,

along which silver fishes move,

grows angry, but

holds the faith and clears up quickly.

The mind of a kindly woman,

paying attention to the milk of love,

counts off the days,

wishing for birds from stories.

Deep in the thoughts of the man

who rushes towards the tryst they rest their wings,

thinking of those left behind, exposed,

remembering the warmth of the words

whispered into the dusty shadows.

Truly the dreams of faithfulness awaken,

and one morning in the future, the sky will clear.






Twin Red Cords


The two red cords of desire

unroll across the great boundless expanse.

Rays fall from the sun to the earth,

by night they are lost, in the sound of crickets at evening

noises grasp one another,

the sun rises

in the morning sky.

We wait for time,

which snatches at a thread, as at desire's hand,

we shoot at it with wisdom.

Intuition, like a chain,

is transformed in the sun,

in the light of our yearning, it is ripped apart by warmth,

it whips the shadows.

In the night of thought

the two red cords of desire intersect,

and the closer the cords come together,

the stronger they become.

The sun falls to earth,

burns upwards into the sky.

The bronze brazier of harmonious feelings

sends fire to the sun.

It joins with the sun's rays,

it flows against the sun's rays.


17 March 1980


Alice Xin Liu has translated poems by Sen Zi for the Copper Canyon Press anthology Push Open the Window: Contemporary Poetry from ChinaHer translations have appeared on Granta's website, Asymptote, and Words Without Borders. She translated Han Han's next nonfiction book, which she compiled with her co-translator Joel Martinsen, to be published by Simon and Schuster in 2016.

Alice recently talked 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). These letters were first excerpted in English for our July 2011 issue.

The original family letters were first collected in a volume in 1996. Described as the Chinese Faulkner, Shen Congwen is widely considered the most influential Chinese writer of the twentieth century. Given his prestige and stature, why has the English translation been published only this year?

There has always been interest in translation of these letters since that 1996 collection. Yiyun Li has spoken about them, for example. I think it's just hard to get letters published in general and Yilin, the publisher, took it on because they do classics and classic literature. This particular book also took a long time: I was commissioned in 2009 and handed in the manuscript in 2012, and then my editor at Yilin, Wu Yingying and her bosses at the publishing houses took until this summer to publish it. So all in all it's been six years in the making—and I am still looking for a outside of China publisher for this book so that it will be accessible to a wider audience.  

Shen Congwen never wrote fiction again in the last thirty years of his life, although you mentioned—in the translator's note accompanying the extract we published in July 2011—that he hoped to. What do these letters reveal of his writerly struggles? 

That is the main tragedy that arises out of this collection of letters—one of the greatest Chinese writers, the greatest in some people's minds, never published a word of writing after the Communist Party took power in 1949. In some ways 1949 was a year that confirmed a transformation in the arts. Many artists felt like they had to choose: either write ideological literature in accordance to the Party, or try to and fail, and in Shen Congwen's case it was the latter. He wanted to please, but was paralysed because he couldn't. He tried to write a novel about mahjongg—as far as I can tell from the letters—with the idea in mind to criticize it morally. It never got off the ground. Shen Congwen talked about writing fiction again, and constantly referred back to his successful novels and the events surrounding him when he was writing them. 

In the extract that you translated for us, Shen Congwen compares Tolstoy with Turgenev and decides he likes the latter better. I'm curious to know if he discussed other foreign influences in the rest of these collected letters, and how he perceived Western culture in general. Could you shed some light?

He doesn't talk an incredible deal about foreign influences, apart from those Russian giants. He didn't dislike Western culture, and was not vehement about it. There is one great letter where he talked mildly disdainfully about the Greta Garbo hairstyle of all the women on the street in Shanghai. 

Part Two of this interview will appear in the next Fortnightly Airmail.

Megan Bradshaw, U.K. Editor-at-Large:

Clarice Lispector’s women tend to be wives, mothers, and precocious daughters who are suspended in their own dreamscapesoften between a bourgeois kitchen sink and a high priestesshood of high culture. She gives the impression of a woman on the sidelines, always taking notes. Lispector admired Virginia Woolf, but disagreed with her decision to cut the string prematurely. “The terrible duty is to go to the end,” Lispector wrote. Indeed, Katrina Dodson’s translation of The Complete Stories understands the author’s productive melancholia, which opposes naiveté and is reborn in voraciousness: her love for life, taking written form.

Vera Carothers, Assistant Blog Editor:

In August, George Packer’s essay “The Other France” appeared in The New Yorker. The subtitle: “Are the suburbs of Paris incubators of terrorism?” Not least because of its prescience, pay attention to Packer’s piece now. Through sheer elegance of prose, he suspends two images of Paris—the city of light and the darkness of segregation and disenfranchisement of France’s “others,” who live in the city’s outskirts—giving essential pause to our assumptions. 

Yardenne Greenspan, Israel Editor-at-Large:

Dan Nosowitz, writing for Atlas Obscura, investigates the origins and persistence of Italian American pronunciations—especially culinary ones—in his recent article How Capicola became Gabagool: the Italian New Jersey Accent, Explained. Through interviews with linguists and cultural experts, as well as a few pop-culture references, Nosowitz shows that Italian Americans are in fact preserving the remnants of ancient Italo-Dalmatian dialects and heritages, now long gone from Italy itself. 

Julia Leverone, Assistant Editor:

Oxen Rage, a crucial work from the great Argentine poet Juan Gelman, in Lisa Rose Bradford’s newest translation, is a force of a collection that teaches us about life under fire, and poetry’s office within this life. Its progression uncovers perspectives and personas that traverse human experience, coping with forces capable of erasing that same experience; Gelman lands, ultimately, in a realm of slow beauty, extolling the importance of love and relationships.

Caridad Svich, Drama Editor:

Chris Goode's Men in the Cities is an absolutely brilliant dissection of patriarchal complicity and violence against self, as well as others in society. Unlike some musical scores written for performance, it reads quite wonderfully on the page. I am also reading Max Porter's beautiful first novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which is tender, raw, gorgeous, and elliptical—quite the rare and beautiful meditation on loss and love. 

This fortnight we’re revisiting Alberto Ruy-Sánchez’s Poetics of Wonder: Passage to Mogador, which originally appeared with Caterina Camastra’s Arabic calligraphy in our January 2014 issue, and which earned translator Rhonda Dahl Buchanan runner-up in our first Close Approximations translation contest. Here is Buchanan herself, writing earlier this year about what this meant in terms of the manuscript:

“What a thrill it was to see a sample of my translation from Poetics of Wonder: Passage to Mogador by the Mexican writer Alberto Ruy Sánchez, published in the January 2014 edition of Asymptote….I believe this recognition helped Dennis Maloney, editor of White Pine Press, secure a PROTRAD grant from the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (FONCA). With funds from FONCA’s Program of Support for Translation, Poetics of Wonder was published [by] White Pine Press.”

You can find fiction judge Howard Goldblatt's citation here.

A quick reminder: We’re still accepting submissions for this year’s Close Approximations contest, awarding $4,500 total in prizes. The winners and runners-up will be selected by our distinguished judges, Michael Hofmann (poetry), Ottilie Mulzet (fiction), and Margaret Jull Costa (nonfiction). For more on our judges, and instructions on submitting, please visit our Contest page.

Here's our favorite passage from Poetics of Wonder: Passage to Mogador:


And then, from the table where they lingered before their first kiss and whetted their appetite for conversation, delighting tongues and palates, where hours before two mouths closed around a single fruit, from that table, the lovers took the word saffron and transformed it into yet another instrument for caressing each other.

Saffron: bound to the delicate pleasures of the palate and the enduring beauty of the Alhambra. Two dimensions of a culture devoted to the senses, that of ancient Al-Andalus, where the word was pronounced Zaffaraán. Saffron, with its curved filaments, is an arabesque whose spiral comes from a flower and unravels in the mouth.

Their lips and fingers became stained with those blushing amber notes as they rode a wave of tiny kisses, pinching each other ever so slightly, just as they had seen the majestic purple flower gleaned in the fields, its three stigmas plucked by nimble fingers gathering the true red gold: saffron. Only three strands to each flower. And as it takes thousands to produce a few ounces, the lovers pinched each other in equal measure.

Saffron was and is the name of a treasure. But it is also known to be poisonous if consumed in excess. The most expensive and painful poison, although some would say the most delectable as well. Saffron overwhelms the senses, illuminating lovers as if they carried a sun within. Then it rises to the head, soon taking over the entire body, provoking neither hallucinations nor torment, but rather an excess of pleasure.

Even their gazes assumed a more radiant splendor from the word saffron. And wherever eyes, fingers, and lips lingered over the naked, beloved body, an ephemeral tattoo remained, a yellow or orange trail, visible only to the lovers for one meticulously prolonged instant.

They became tinged with burning desire for each other, and finally one of them made a colorful confession: "Your voice makes me feel saffronized."

With the chosen word, they were tracing a new map of love, an amazing geography of desire to tantalize their senses. And they continued their journey, unfolding and exploring "the saffron route" over their bodies.


Writers ReflectA Clarion Call

"Look at the rose through world-colored glasses," Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote. And in this spirit Asymptote is now seeking (translated) poetry and nonfiction directly responding to world events or global issues for publication in our blog. Subjects can vary widely: the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, the Paris attacks, etc. The goal of this new blog series is to share responses to these urgent matters from all over the world, not just its English-speaking territories, and to encourage writers of all stripes to engage with these issues through literature. Submissions should be no more than 1500 words. Translations into English are strongly preferred over submissions originally in English. Send your submissions, pitches or queries to

Ask a Translator—A New Column by Daniel Hahn

Good news for lovers of translated literature who have always wondered about how beloved texts made it successfully (and oh so lyrically) from their original language into another tongue. Acclaimed translator and author Daniel Hahn will bring his expertise and experience to any hard-hitting translation questions you can come up with. Please, don’t be shy—send your question to Daniel at!

We’ve arrived at the end of this edition of Fortnightly Airmail. If you’re craving more of the best international literature in translation, or updates on literary happenings worldwide, you can always catch up on our latest issue, check in with our blog, follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or dive deep into our archive to see what you might have missed. We hope you’ll join us on our tireless quest to keep exploring the lesser-known contours of the literary globe!



Your friends at Asymptote

Copyright © 2015 Asymptote Journal. All rights reserved.

Our mailing address is:
Asymptote Journal
No. 84, Section 1, Zhongshan North Road, #13 – 7
Taipei City 10444
Subscribe to our newsletter here.

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can unsubscribe from this list

To share this email, click here