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

  • onJanuary 5, 2017
  • Vol.34 Winter 2016
  • bySusan 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 students— Chinese, Indonesian, and Malay, the latter two Muslim—read 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.

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[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 work—What 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 theme—a topic, a country or region, or a language—and 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 Korea—the 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 culture— literature. Particularly in the US, we know much of the world through a strictly political prism; literature expands and refines that restricted view, enlarging our sense of the world and the people in it. WWB provides a source for an international literary conversation, working to change the publishing landscape for literature in translation and to create a newfound appreciation for world writing among all readers of English.

Because we’re free and online, we’re accessible to anyone in the world with access to a computer. And because we’re online and—literally—unbound by the schedule and cost restrictions of print publication, we’re able to respond to world events in real time, and to provide both context and new content about the countries and people involved. Although we’re not an explicitly political publication, we’ve often addressed current world events through literature. In the wake of the heady Arab Spring of 2011, as the rebellion spread east and the dominos started falling, we published a double issue of writing from fourteen of the countries involved. Few of the pieces were actually written in response to the events, but all provided context for the English-language audience to understand what prompted the uprisings. We’ve published fiction reflecting the trauma for both sides of the Iran-Iraq War, a conflict as central to their literatures as World War I is for the US and Europe. Our issue on the Mexican drug wars reveals the living hell of daily life under the cartels; our Venezuela issue, published in 2014 just as that country erupted in protests, provided essential intelligence on that often-overlooked nation. As the Syrian refugee crisis expanded, we published an edited selection of narratives from the huge camp in Idomeni, Greece, as it was being shut down by the government. And the work we’ve published by the many writers exiled for their political actions not only documents those events, but also provides a personal counterpoint to stereotyped conceptions of immigration and asylum.

How do we find our content? We have an extensive network of authors, translators, publishers, agents, editors, academics, cultural and government offices (including the admirable LTI Korea), and others with whom we’re constantly in touch; we go to book fairs and writers’ festivals and conferences; we read constantly, both in translation and original languages. And we’re always looking for news about individual writers and pieces, and thinking about larger trends and topics we can build issues and features around. We plan our content well in advance—at this point our themes are set through March 2018—but we keep some flexibility to enable ourselves to respond to current events and new opportunities. In this alarming new world, we’re more determined than ever to encourage empathy with the “other” by introducing readers to the essential humanity of all.

As the daily news grows ever more sobering, we’re doing what we always do, but with new resolve and urgency. We’ll keep introducing new voices; we’ll continue to look for international perspectives. We’ll work particularly hard to bring WWB Campus into as many schools as possible, so that we can foster in students a passion for international literature, a curiosity about other cultures, and the desire to be true world citizens.

And aside from offering new perspectives from which to understand world events and fight ignorance and fear, we’ll also work to bring joy and pleasure, and beauty, into people’s lives. As the Algerian writer Mounsi notes, “Wherever our anguish is at its worst, it’s books above all that save us.” Literature instructs and communicates, but in uncertain times, it also provides examples of strength and humanity to soothe, restore, affirm, and hearten.

So: That’s what we do. And what we will do. 

 

 

by Susan Harris
Editorial Director, Words Without Borders