‘Specimen,’ Inter-translatability, and the ‘Constant Rewriting of Un-matching Halves’

Specimen, which launched in June 2016, is an “entirely multilingual web-magazine, which through translation gives voice to the multifaceted world.” At the site, you can read great literary works translated from Arabic into Russian, German into Indonesian, Italian into Jamaican Patois, and tens of other combinations.

The magazine has already run a special section of Arabic literature, curated by Adania Shibli, featuring work by Shibli, Mays Dagher, Mahmoud Omar, and Abd Maqbul. The Spanish-Arabic translator Shadi Rohana has also worked with Specimen to translate work by Juan Villoro, among others.

ArabLit chatted over email with Specimen’s Vanni Bianconi — a poet, translator, and the founder and artistic director of Babel Festival — about the young project:

How long was Specimen in the works? How did it come about (beyond coming out of Babel Festival)? From what sort of discussions and aims? Why “Specimen”?

Vanni Bianconi: Once we had the idea of the magazine, it took us about a year and a half to put it together, but before that there have been many discussions, along with a few false starts. Specimen has been the answer to multiple questions and urges, of various sorts. We wanted to create a literary magazine, more agile than printed books yet less ephemeral than web platforms; we wanted to work with several languages at the same time, intensifying translations and focusing on peripheries, while resorting as little as possible to English as a central language; we wanted to bring a typographical sensitivity to the web, as well as other book-related habits; we wanted to keep working with the world-wide network of people and friends we met in over 10 years of Babel festival and related projects.

And the idea came with the very word “specimen”, in the sense of the typographical specimen: these samples of fonts, displaying the same sentence in different forms and shapes and alphabets, prompted us to organize multilingual contents on a web page, where every text is unique while representing a whole family.

What sort of act is translation?

VB: Among many other things, it is an exercise in duplicity. A way to learn to be always here and somewhere else. To translate is like walking in a town but following the geography of another place, other streets, other parks, other riverbanks. And not to fall in the river, not to feel estranged from neither of such places, but rather feel at home in the plurality of things, in their hidden resonances and clashes, in the constant rewriting of un-matching halves.

Another, related aspect that is very important for us is Ricoeur’s definition of translation as “linguistic hospitality,” a practice that prompts you to go toward the other before inviting the other to your own home. In this sense translation represents a model for other types of hospitalities.

What is your selection process for pieces (beyond looking for “the linguistic arrow rather than the narrative arc”)? Will most of them be (fairly) short? How do you decide which languages you’ll translate each piece into, and what is the process? 

VB: That phrase implies that we cherish writings that question their very substance, their form, and resort more to the linguistic resources than to plot and character. But this very inclination can drive us towards experimental fiction, as well as towards poetry and other non-fiction and mixed genres. Both rather classic and very contemporary kind of writings, plus some “roads not taken” of the literary canon.

We also circulate on the crossroads of languages, for instance commissioning texts to writers who don’t write in their mother tongue, such as Aleksandar Hemon, Xiaolu Guo, Levan Berdzenishvili and Saleh Addonia, and asking them to translate themselves into their mother tongue.

Besides, many texts and projects are triggered by the encounters between texts we published and readers/writers/translators, or by personal encounters, for instance in the occasion of Specimen launches in Ramallah (at This Sea is Mine) or Moscow, so that the world map that defines Specimen will idiosyncratically reflect our physical movements and discoveries.

We also have many an ideal friendship in mind, groups and platforms where we have been discovering great writing we’d like to work with, for instance, arablit.

Eventually the written outcome of these dialogues and encounters is read by the editorial board for a final decision, and further editing and translations.

How often is the site (or magazine, or…?) updated? What do you mean when you say you bring “a slow pace, too”?

VB: Every ten days we publish a new text and some new translations. This is not much, as cultural websites go, and we’ve been often advised to publish much more often. But we find ourselves struggling with the pace of such platforms, so we decided to publish little but pay great care to each text, at all levels (choice, editing, translation, layout, paratexts, etc.).

Will there be different guest editors who do what Adania has with alPestine?

VB Definitely, we already have a number of dossiers in mind, as well as people we’d like to involve as guest editors. The poetic of relation is key to everything that happens within and around Specimen.

Are you looking for more translators? How does someone join on with the project?

VB: Yes, always. We started from the network of outstanding writers and translators we have been working with, and many new projects bring us to discover more people, in different areas of the world and combining different languages. At the same time, we are open to spontaneous suggestions, and it is enough to send an email to info@specimen.press with a proposal or a sample, and we’ll take it from there.

What are some of the pieces in the works now? 

VB: A few commissions, such as a story by the Aboriginal collective Karrabing, in pidgin English as well as a few of their languages; new translations of established writers such as Aleksandar Sorokin, Adbelfattah Kilito, Joanna Walsh, Adam Zagajewski, Cervantes, Szymborska, Don Paterson, Giorgio Vasta, Robert Walser; and a lot of young and new writers we keep discovering on the way.

Among the Arabic writers we’d like to publish next (some of which we discovered on arablit of course), are Anis Arafai, Youssef Rakha, Hisham Bustani, and we’d like to find a translator for Salim Barakat.


Soon readers (who are logged in) will be able to highlight & annotate their texts, correct? How do you see this intervention? Do you imagine other ways the readers can involve themselves in the texts?

VB: And also to change the background colour, like changing the texture of the page you are reading, or to save the favourite texts and create your personal issue of the magazine. Our aim is to bring qualities of the printed form to the web, and vice versa to gradually explore the potential of the digital medium: we try not to use images or videos, but to implement as much as we can the quality of the reading experience and the interconnection between contents.

Other ways of involvement to come may include suggesting or supporting future dossiers and projects; and a return journey to the physical dimensions, with series of events and on-demand artisanal printing of selected contents.

Start reading Specimen at www.specimen.press.