What Do We Do Now?: Literary Translation in a Post-Trump World by Susan Harris

Wednesday, November 9, was the third and final day of the translation workshop I was running at the Singapore Writers Festival. It was also election day in the US: Singapore is thirteen hours ahead of New York, so the polls were beginning to close as we started that morning. When the early returns leaned heavily toward Donald Trump I was only somewhat alarmed; but as the day continued, my leisurely peeks at the New York Times on my phone turned frantic. Finally I commandeered the classroom computer. I saw the word STUNNING. The studentsChinese, Indonesian, and Malay, the latter two Muslimread the news projected on the screen over my head. “He doesn’t know anything about us,” one said.

That evening, still reeling, I opened my e-mail and found Agnel Joseph’s invitation to contribute to this space. Agnel suggested I talk about translation editing; his message had been sent just about the time Trump clinched. My subject had been all but handed to me.




          [I]t’s becoming terrifyingly clear that our voters have made what I believe is a profoundly irresponsible choice . . . Depending on whom you ask,

          the votes were cast over immigration, democratic rights, disenfranchisement, anti-establishment anger, racism, isolationism, nationalism,

          patriotism, a massive collapse of trust, austerity, control.


These words were written, not about the US election, but in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum in late June of this year; and if they sound familiar, it might be because they appear in Danny Hahn’s piece in this space in the Summer 2016 issue. Danny’s wonderful essay, which now reads like a warning, underlines the increasing spread of insularity that we in translation publishing fight every day, and confirms the urgency of combating this ignorance and prejudice through our work.


So: What is this workWhat do translation editors do? And, in the wake of Trump’s election, the Brexit vote, the rightward shift across Europe, and the general free-floating hostility and aggression that seem to drive public discourse these days: What do translation editors do?


At Words Without Borders, where I’m the editorial director, the answers to those questions have always been entwined. WWB is an organization based in the US that translates, publishes, and promotes the best literature from around the world. We produce events, and have partnered with book publishers to produce print anthologies, but our most visible project is our magazine, Words Without Borders (www.wordswithoutborders.org). We publish monthly; every issue has a themea topic, a country or region, or a languageand includes other features, book reviews, and interviews. To date we’ve published over 2,200 pieces by authors from 131 countries, translated from 111 languages. And our blog, WWB Daily, is updated several times a week with everything from breaking news to commentary on translated classics. We’ve also started a parallel program, Words Without Borders Campus, to provide educators with resources and content to more readily incorporate contemporary international literature into their classes.


Our first three issues presented writing from Iran, Iraq, and North Koreathe Bush administration’s “Axis of Evil,” and also three literary traditions, and cultures, largely unknown in the West. These early issues established the practical terms of WWB’s mission: to offer literary nuance and human perspective in place of crude political sloganeering, and to encourage global understanding through that most reliable insight to cultureliterature. Particularly in the US, we know much of the world through a strictly political prism; literature expands and refines that restri...