‘Asymptote’: Introducing a Literary Magazine

I’d like to introduce you all to Asymptote, an online journal of international literature and translation that I help to edit. The name (I had to google ‘asymptote’ at first) is a term from analytical geometry: a line towards which a mathematical function tends towards infinitely but never meets. It’s intended to describe the way a translation creatively mimics the effect of a text in another language, without ever replicating it entirely.

The journal’s main aim is to counter the lack of diversity in literature by translating the best new writing from all over the world into English (and sometimes other languages too). In not quite four years the journal has featured new writing and art in 65 languages from 93 countries, including previously unpublished work from David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, J.M. Coetzee, José Saramago, and many others. You can always read the work in its original language too, and hear a clip of the author reading from it in their mother tongue. All this is beautifully illustrated by a different guest artist each month.

Asymptote calls itself a journal, but, to my mind, it might be better described as a literary magazine. Each quarter we feature new poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction in translation, as well as interviews and reviews. In addition, there are always two special features. The first of these is the Writers on Writers feature, in which an underappreciated or emerging writer is introduced succinctly by a better known one. The second varies from issue to issue – recent examples include features on self-translated drama, English “Diaspora” writing, and Taiwanese fiction.

Even my own section – criticism – is different from an academic journal. The section mostly comprises reviews of recent translations, and essays on the subject of world literature or translation, but we ask our contributors to write for a broad audience, avoiding the use of scholarly apparatus. Having said that, we have featured the work of many academics, including, recently, David Kaufmann (George Mason University), and Jacob Emery (Indiana University). Every now and again we include a more scholarly piece of literary criticism, such as an essay by the Argentine cultural critic Gonzalo Aguilar (forthcoming in January).

The team now comprises upwards of 70 multilingual people living all over the world, many of who have never met another Asymptote member. We communicate using email and Skype, and organise all our projects using an online platform called Trello. The global reach of all these people is impressive – if I ever need to get in touch with a writer or an academic, chances are somebody on the team has their email address.

In just four years, we’ve not done too badly. Calling Asymptote “an amazing cultural force in the literary community”, PEN America proposed that we join forces in 2015 to commission pieces that would otherwise not make their way onto a publisher’s desk. We have been nominated Magazine of the Year alongside the London Review of Books, our April issue last year was plugged in The New Yorker, and our July issue was picked up by BBC Culture.

This January, along with a couple of other London-based team members, I’m hosting an event to celebrate the journal’s anniversary. On Monday 19th January, Adam Thirlwell (twice one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists), acclaimed translators Daniel Hahn (from Portuguese, Spanish and French) and Deborah Smith (from Korean), and Stefan Tobler (Publisher of And Other Stories), will come together at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon to discuss their favourite translated books, and the current state of global literary translation. All are very welcome, but get your tickets before it sells out!

Asymptote is an international not-for-profit organisation, and we rely entirely on donations to keep us afloat. We’ve just launched a new fundraising campaign to raise money to hold a translation contest, and to organise more events like the one in January. If you’re feeling generous around this time of year, or simply found something you liked in the journal, please consider supporting us.

Finally, we have vacancies! If you’re interested in joining us, you can see the available roles here, or if you’d like to contribute, our submission guidelines are here.

Published by

Ellen Jones

I edit the Criticism section of Asymptote. I have a BA in English and Spanish literature, and an MSt in English Language from Oxford. I am currently researching English-Spanish code-switching in contemporary fiction at Queen Mary.