What we talk about when we talk about World Literature


For all the attention given to “world literature” in the buzz leading up to the Nobel Prize announcement, what do we really mean by it? Is it simply all the literatures of the world? As an editor of an international journal, I see “world literature” as a shifting aggregate of the literatures that have been translated into any given language. It’s clear to me, writing from Taipei, that an English “world literature” is vastly different from a Chinese one. Upon his recent passing, I found to my dismay that Ray Bradbury had never been translated into Chinese — all the more perverse for the fact that translations make up an impressive 50% of all books published here, compared to the woeful 3% in the United States. And if Chinese-speaking readers are denied the genius of so well-loved an author, one can only imagine what English-speaking readers in the US are missing out on.

At Asymptote, a journal I founded, my international team of editors and I believe “world literature” to be an adaptable notion. Although it is still ultimately the subset of all literatures that is brought into one’s language, our mission is to stimulate the transmission of literatures other than our own. In our eight issues, for example, we have already published work from 74 different countries and 53 different languages, ranging from Arabic to Burmese to Catalan.

With all the excitement presently surrounding Mo Yan (whose novels are translated by Asymptote’s contributing editor Howard Goldblatt), there may be no better time to highlight those authors whose un- or undertranslated work is worlds away from what, perhaps, most readers expect from Chinese literature. In this vein, we just completed a mammoth project that spotlights the newest crop of Chinese writers, a “20 Under 40”, if you will, of the Chinese-speaking world. This feature, consisting of 20 medium-length essays introducing 20 of the most promising authors from China — but also from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia — was first published in Chinese by leading sinophone journal, Unitas, in May 2012.

It is now available in English at Asymptote along with: drama from Singapore, video art from Taiwan, an excerpt of a Tibetan novel, a short story about homophobia at the height of the AIDS crisis (with a 2012 update on LGBT issues), an interview with celebrated Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, the family letters of acclaimed novelist Shen Congwen, a despatch on Chinese Christians by dissident Liao Yiwu, Chinese calligraphy and painting — presented in full screen slideshow format — based on a story by Cultural Revolution author Hao Ran, a spoken word performance by superstar poet Hsia Yü, and the poetry of Xi Chuan, Ouyang Jianghe and Yang Mu — three of the best poets working in the Chinese language today. And these are offerings from just one of the 53 languages in our ever expanding archives — available for free at our nonprofit online quarterly.

In working towards a broader “world literature”, we like to think that we are listening (as Sven Birkerts aptly put it) “not just for a new sound‚ although it feels very new‚ but for the full sound, taking in parts of the tonal spectrum that have been ignored for too long.” Is it possible that a Nigerian Bradbury or a Peruvian Woolf exists? Perhaps, but until we shine our searchlight into the farthest corners, we won’t ever know.


— Lee Yew Leong is the editor of Asymptote.

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