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Asymptote’s Third Anniversary: The State of Translation

By Alisha Kaplan

Despite the onset of winter storm Janus, the Housing Works Bookstore Café was packed on January 21 for Asymptote’s third anniversary event, “The State of Translation.”

Asymptote is an exciting international journal dedicated to literary translation, published quarterly and available for free online. With fifty-plus editors around the globe, the publication features work from 54 languages and 75 countries.

Inside Housing Works, a cozy space displaying books from floor to ceiling, people drank coffee and wine and ate sandwiches and pastries from the café. The evening’s featured guests were Eliot Weinberger (translator of Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Bei Dao), Robyn Creswell (poetry editor of the Paris Review), Idra Novey (translator of Clarice Lispector), Daniella Gitlin (translator of Rodolfo Walsh), Jeffrey Yang (poet, translator of Liu Xiaobo, and editor at New Directions) and Cory Tamler (Asymptote’s fiction contest winner).

Each took the stage to read English translations that they’d selected from Asymptote’s archives. Idra Novey went first and read two poems by Polish-German poet Dagmara Kraus from her collection gloomerang, translated from the German by Josh Edwin. Novey said that Edwin’s translations are a stay against the claim that translations lose the musicality of the original pieces.

Next up was Jeffrey Yang, who chose three poems from Xi Chuan’s collection Notes on the Mosquito, translated by Lucas Klein. Chuan is one of the most influential contemporary poets in China and an acclaimed translator himself. Yang was followed by Daniella Gitlin, who read an excerpt titled “16 September 2001” from Catastrophes, which was self-translated from Afrikaans by South African writer Breyten Breytenbach.

Then Robyn Creswell took the stage to read from “33 Sonnets Flattened” by Frédéric Forte, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan. Creswell quoted Forte who said that on the page his “sonnets” exist like freeze-dried vegetables, but when spoken aloud, they come alive.

Eliot Weinberger then presented the winner and runners-up of Asymptote’s “Close Approximations” poetry contest, which he judged. The winner was Owen Good, of Northern Ireland, for his translation of Krisztina Tóth’s Churning and Other Poems from the Hungarian. Weinberger was disappointed that almost all of the roughly 75 submissions were translations of European writers and he was surprised that budding translators are not exploring literature from other parts of the world.

The last reader was Cory Tamler, who, along with Željko Maksimović, was the winner of the “Close Approximations” contest for emerging translators in fiction, judged by Howard Goldblatt, for their translation of Tanja Šljivar’s “I Make Mistakes” from the Serbian.

This was followed by a lively panel discussion with the readers, in which they talked about what has caused the increased interest in translation and the significant role of online communities in bringing translated literature to a wider audience.

Asymptote will continue its anniversary celebrations in Zagreb, Croatia, on February 3, and Boston on February 26. More events are being planned in Berlin, Shanghai, Philadelphia, Sydney, and Buenos Aires in the coming months.

Published Jan 28, 2014   Copyright 2014 Alisha Kaplan

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