With only three issues under its belt and its fair share of challenges, Asymptote founder Lee Yew Leong remains optimistic that the literary magazine will carve a place for itself in the market.
Asymptote and its international team of editors has contacts with translators in almost every language, and they use them. Among contributors for the journal are Lydia Davis, Mary Gaitskill, Thomas Berhard, Jose Saramago, Aime Cesaire, Ko Un, Shen Congwen, Gozo Yoshimasu, Adonis and Howard Goldblatt. They have published fiction, nonfiction, poetry, criticism, drama, visual art, and interviews from more than 200 authors and translators in their three issues, working collectively in 33 languages. According to founding editor Lee Yew Leong, "We operate differently from other translation journals in that we don't just sit back and wait for translations to come to us. We actually identify the good work from writers [that haven't yet been introduced to the English speaking world] and actively seek out translators to help to translate the work for us. It was in this way that Akutagawa Prize-winner Gen'yū Sōkyū, who had never been translated into English before, had a work translated into English for us in the July issue."
The journal, which sports a sleek and spare website design, pays careful attention to design (there are no ads) and features a guest artist for every issue, and its artwork is curated to go along with prose pieces. And the treatment Asymptote gives its content doesn't stop with the visual: they could be the only translation journal to make mp3 recordings of the original text available alongside the English translation, complete with a translator's note.
Although Asymptote has its editorial process down it is facing the usual difficult question for lit journals--financing. It's safe to say that Asymptote has found its corner of the market and made it its own. Lee relates how the journal's trouble in getting off the ground, mentioning that funding dangled by the National Arts Council of Singapore vanished just as he'd put a large amount of his own money into the journal, as well as an ex-poetry editor's sudden resignation on the day before the journal went live.
"The financial thing is a problem--in a way, we're like Twitter; we have yet to monetize what we do. I've written to several organizations to ask for donations but no support has been forthcoming so far. The fact that we're not tied to any country (in fact, I'm resolutely moving the journal out of Singapore), institution or publishing house also can't help."
Lee, a Taipei-based fiction writer, calls the journal "essentially a volunteer collective at the moment," and none of the artists, editors, or contributors receive pay for their involvement, though, with help, Lee wants everybody to get paid. "Before extra help came on board, in the form of interns, just this past month, I was essentially a one-man office, doing most things myself other than the editing, which I share with my editors. Obviously this is not a model that can sustain itself for too long; we'll see what the future brings."
Lee notes that he "manages everything on the mileage of a lot of goodwill," but unfortunately, "donations haven't been too forthcoming." And that's because Lee has concentrated most of his energy on ensuring high-quality issues rather than "writing letters to organizations." Lee plans to seek sponsorship for the journal once the October issue goes live on October 14.
Asymptote operates with a staff all around the world. Said Lee: "We need not be in the same country to operate as a team--with Internet now, you can really do everything. After that psychological barrier was passed, I had no trouble inviting people from other countries to come on Asymptote. Till date, though we have had passionate (as well as heated) discussions about the direction of the magazine, I still have not seen Aditi Machado, my current poetry editor from India."
Asymptote is looking to release four issues per year. The website received about 6000 unique hits per day shortly after its last issue went live, and has readers in over 150 countries, with the U.S. representing the largest segment. Despite the fact that Asymptote is currently running in the red for web development costs, Lee and his staff are not deterred, driven by their passion for their project: "Literary journals have traditionally been the gatekeeper for what constitutes good writing. I can't see that changing in the future. At Asymptote, that's our first concern—that what we put out is literature."