World literature: Found in translation

Aside from news reports that tend to focus on war or election scandal, Americans generally don't hear much about – or from – people in other countries. One reason may be that very little foreign-language literature is translated into English. Less than 3 percent of all books published in English worldwide are translations, according to a leading publishing database. In the United States, just a fraction of the titles that make it into English are translations of foreign novels, short stories, or poetry.

Since 9/11, when Americans felt an urgency to learn more about other cultures, a number of efforts have taken root to try to bring more global literature to US audiences.

The online magazine of international literature, Words Without Borders, was founded "to address a yawning gap in literary publishing," says Alane Salierno Mason, founding editor. "We just weren't hearing enough from voices around the world." The e-zine is hosted by Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Originally conceived as a resource for publishing professionals like Ms. Mason (a senior editor at W.W. Norton) to become exposed to international authors, www.wordswithoutborders.org has since evolved to serve a larger purpose: connecting the public directly to the hearts and minds of people beyond American shores. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly identified Alane Salierno Mason as "Mr."]

"It was clear that Americans did need and want to know more about the realities of the rest of the world, not just the abstractions that are flung around in political discourse," says Mason.

The nonprofit site, now in its fourth year, offers contemporary writing from places such as Argentina, China, Italy, and Pakistan, often for the first time in English. It gets about 200,000 page views per month and counts roughly 8,000 subscribers, more than one-quarter of whom live in the US. (Some subscribers choose to pay a fee, but anyone can access the content for free.) Last fall, the organization published its first print anthology of works from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria titled – what else? – "Literature from the 'Axis of Evil' and Other Enemy Nations" (The New Press, 2006), now in its third printing.

"There's a wave of interest right now," says Jill Schoolman, publisher of Archipelago Books, a small nonprofit press in Brooklyn, N.Y., established in 2003 to publish world literature in translation exclusively. "People are hungry for perspectives from other countries."

Case in point: One of Archipelago's recent books, "Gate of the Sun," by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, was one of The New York Times's 100 Notable Books of 2006.

Rainmaker Translations – a Las Vegas-based consortium of Ecco/HarperCollins, W.W. Norton & Company, New Directions, and Archipelago Books – was also recently formed to support the publication of more top-quality global writing here in the US. The consortium put out its first three titles (translated from Arabic, Chinese, and Russian) in the spring of 2005 and plans to fund up to four more in the coming year.

In March, the Center for the Art of Translation, a nonprofit in San Francisco, will publish the first in its new bilingual anthology series, TWO LINES World Library, focused on writing from specific regions published over the last several decades.

Dalkey Archive Press, a long-time nonprofit publisher in Champaign, Ill., has upped the number of translations on its publication list since 2003, from 25 percent to nearly 80 percent. "We're actually, in our relative terms, being successful with translations. They're selling better and better for us," says Dalkey publisher John O'Brien, citing a recent translation that sold roughly 6,000 copies – a lot for a small publisher. "Stores are recognizing that there's an audience for them."

In recent years, more nonprofits have applied to the National Endowment for the Arts for grants to publish literary translations, says Amy Stolls, who oversees the grants program in literature for the NEA. The agency is also leading initiatives to increase the availability of translated prose and poetry in the US, such as publishing partnerships with foreign governments.

Not everyone views these developments as evidence of a larger movement, however.

"There is definitely renewed interest in translation, but scrutinized carefully, it isn't clear that it's consequential," writes Lawrence Venuti, professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia and an expert in translation studies, in an e-mail. He notes that while a handful of new efforts have surfaced recently, others have floundered. "The big commercial presses seem more interested in investing in foreign writing that makes money straightaway" – such as sexy memoirs, crime fiction – "than in creating a readership for foreign literatures," he adds.

The business is precarious, warns Richard Wiley, associate director of the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "At any time, these endeavors could fold. There's always a year-to-year, hand-to-mouth existence," he says.

Perhaps that's why some organizations are working to cultivate more global readers. Since 2005, the popular PEN World Voices Festival in New York has featured international authors from dozens of countries to build enthusiasm for world literature. Publishers and Independent bookstores launched the annual Reading the World campaign in 2005, which offers a recommended reading list. Educational efforts, like San Francisco-based Poetry Inside Out are paving the way for a new generation of internationally literate youth.

Whatever the future of these efforts, getting to know the stories of people across the globe can hardly be a bad thing.

"Good writing can give us a glimpse of the heart of foreign places," says Mason.

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