Art Works Blog

Connecting through Literature: Spotlight on Words Without Borders

There is an oft-cited statistic that only three percent of all books published in the United States are works in translation. It’s a woeful number that hasn’t changed much in the last few years. But according to the literary translation database Three Percent, a resource from the University of Rochester, “An even greater shame is that only a fraction of the titles that do make their way into English are covered by the mainstream media. So despite the quality of these books, most translations go virtually unnoticed and never find their audience.”

Since 2003, the online magazine Words Without Borders has been doing its best to shift this narrative, and give works in translation their turn in the spotlight. Every month, Words Without Borders—a frequent NEA grantee—publishes 8 to 12 newly translated pieces of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and graphic literature, which are accompanied by book reviews and essays. The organization also has a blog with additional insights into translation, and an education resource called Words Without Borders Campus, which connects students and educators with international literature, and offers resources for understanding and teaching it. We spoke with Words Without Borders Executive Director Karen Phillips to learn more about her organization, and why reading literature from other cultures is good for hearts and minds.

NEA: Let's start with a basic question: What is the importance of having works in translation and reading them?

KAREN PHILLIPS: This may sound overly simplistic, but if we only had access to say, painters from the U.S. or music produced here or food that came from here, we would be missing out on so many amazing cultural influences and experiences. Even though reading international literature involves an additional hurdle of the process of translation, it's no less enriching than having access to other arts from around the world. There's tremendous value to being exposed to stories and writers that come from another language. Without translation, we wouldn't have had access to so many writers that probably shaped our experience, from Homer to Elena Ferrante, or Rabindranath Tagore.

Beyond the cultural and arts experience, I would argue that there's probably no better single way to develop empathy for other people around the world than by reading and experiencing perceptions and cultural contexts and emotions. I think literature brings us inside of stories in a way that news reporting doesn't, and it challenges our assumptions about other places while also showing us the great commonalities between people in different places.

NEA: What do you look for when selecting pieces, countries, or themes to focus on when putting together the magazine?

PHILLIPS: Beyond literary excellence, we're trying to present a vast diversity that comes from writing around the world. This may mean seeking out literature from places that are frequently left out of the English-language market, but it also means keeping up with new trends that are happening in places that are more commonly translated, such as European countries, or Latin America. We're very excited to feature work from underrepresented places and languages. We published an excerpt from the very first novel from the country of Burundi ever to be translated into English [Baho! by Roland Rugero]. We did an issue of writing from Madagascar—most of the writers hadn't been translated into English before, and it was really outstanding work. Last year we had a special feature on Uyghur poetry. How often do we get to read poetry translated from Uyghur?

So we are excited about underrepresented places, but we also try and offer a new angle on literatures that might be more familiar. For example, we did an issue on Italian writing, but we framed it in terms of migration and writers who might not have come from Italy but have moved there and adopted Italian as their language for writing. It showed a different side of Italian contemporary literature.

Another thing we look at is gender. There's an imbalance in literature in translation—like literature in general—it skews toward male writers. So we're sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully pushing back against that. It's not uncommon for us to do a whole issue of only women writers from a certain place, or a feature of only women writers and poets. Our editors are very good at meeting with translators and publishers to get a sense of what's happening around the world.

NEA: You mentioned women as one of the major groups that are generally underrepresented. What are some of the other groups or countries that you wish you saw more of in translation?

PHILLIPS: There are probably more gaps than there is filling in looking at the whole realm of what's being translated. There's so much that hasn't been done yet. I'd say indigenous African languages tend to not be translated very much; literature from sub-Saharan Africa is not very well represented in general. There's a wealth of literature from smaller Indian languages that isn't being translated. There's so much written in Arabic that we don't have access to. Indonesia, where there are something like 300 native languages—we're barely scratching the surface of what's available there. One of the issues we've come up against is the availability of literary translators working from those languages. It's hard to find in languages that aren't as represented in publishing.

NEA: What can we be doing as a community to ensure those gaps are filled?

PHILLPS: There's so much that we can do. Support for translators, both within academia and through grants and residencies—anything that supports a translator to delve deep into her craft and come into touch with the language she's working in is critical. Translators are an underpaid, very skilled asset and need to be supported and encouraged because the market currently doesn't offer them much. So I would say support for translators is fundamental.

Some countries have government supported book offices that help promote the national literature abroad, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Most countries don't have those support mechanisms built in. That means we need really enterprising editors who are reaching out and making connections and traveling and talking to translators, talking to academics, talking to writers—that's really important.

But part of what we need to do to support literature in translation has to do with demand. We need to sensitize readers to consuming this literature, to getting excited about it, and to fostering a sense of curiosity to want us read something by an author whose name we might not be able to pronounce, or from a place we might not be able to find easily on a map. This is one of the things we try and do as well—get readers excited and generate buzz around non-English language writers, and help a writer who's new to the English market.

Finally, getting young readers excited about literature in translation and international contemporary writing is really critical. They may not be exposed to cultural diversity, and they may not be learning as much about the world and our shared connections as we all need to be learning as global citizens. Literature is a great way to do that, especially when readers are coming of age and establishing their tastes.

NEA: There's been so much written about how technology has impacted literature in terms of e-books and self-publishing, and even purchasing. How do you think technology has impacted translation specifically?

PHILLIPS: If you ask literary translators about the role of technology, you'll get some really interesting responses. There's room for a lot of online research about language and about words, and there are creative ways in which translators are using the Internet. It also facilitates communication between writers and translators. They're able to get in touch with each other much more easily than they would have been in the past.

In terms of publishing, I can speak from our experience as a purely online magazine, which we have been since day one. It takes away some of the barriers to getting the work out there. Our founders realized that to put together a print journal was going to be a huge expense. We wanted to focus our efforts on seeking out the literature, we wanted to focus our budget on paying writers and translators for the work, and getting it out to as wide an audience as possible. When we were founded, we were looking specifically at the U.S. and the UK. Though we still have a critical mass in the U.S., we now have readers all over the world. We have huge growth in our readers in India, in Pakistan, in the Philippines, who want to access international writing through our publication. There's no way we would have that reach if it wasn't for digital technology.

NEA: Prior to joining Words Without Borders, you worked with a number of organizations that focused on freedom of expression. How does that dovetail with your current work in the realm of translation?

PHILLIPS: There are a lot of ways that translation intersects with freedom of expression. I think it most fundamentally has to do with the transmission of ideas. If you have a writer responding critically to the context in which she lives and writes, oftentimes those writers can be censored, can be blacklisted, and can face different types of persecution. Translation can give these ideas and this writing a mobility, and support outside of [a writer’s] country that they otherwise wouldn't have. I think there's also a really important role that translation has in terms of communicating different types of human rights abuses and atrocities committed around the world. Without the vital work of translators, we wouldn't hear about them and we wouldn't be able to respond to them as a global society.

NEA: Are there any misconceptions that you face about translation in general?

PHILLIPS: I think that one of the biggest misconceptions that we're up against, at least in the U.S., is that literature in translation is inherently challenging to read or somehow harder than English. It’s like eating healthy, low-sugar breakfast cereal: you know it's good for you, but it doesn't taste as good. I think that's definitely not true, and there is amazing, beautiful, varied, nuanced, whatever you're looking for, and maybe things you don't know you're looking for out there. There might be a different flavor, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's an unpleasant or difficult flavor.

I think another one is that now that we have computers and Google Translate, literary translation is not an art or a challenging task. In fact, it requires such deep knowledge of the source language and the cultural context of the source and the target languages. It's an incredibly difficult skill, and it requires great training and great nuance. I think people overlook that. Though I will say that I'm amazed and delighted to see so many interviews and essays about translation appearing in more mainstream publications. So that's really a great trend.

Read the NEA's 2014 collection of essays The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation.

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