It has become increasingly easy to overlook the vital role translation plays worldwide, whether by expanding cultural awareness or enabling authors in foreign countries to let their voices be heard. Publication companies in the United States are less likely to publish foreign literature because of the increased cost of translation and because, really, how many Americans will actually read it?
Questions like these were brought up during a discussion on the LSA theme semester, “Words without Borders: Translation in a Digital Age,” to address the need for Americans to access translated international literature, as well as increase the visibility of foreign authors’ work.
How then, can we combat this trend toward a monolinguistic United States, where only three percent of published work is translated?
The speaker, Susan Harris, editorial director of online magazine Words without Borders, believes in taking advantage of digital media’s distributive power to publish already-translated international literature in a monthly magazine format.
Harris said that many people don’t realize writers from non-English speaking countries are often constrained to an audience in their own country. Authors can only tell their story to those within their geographical border, as publication companies can’t even read such stories without first hiring a translator, and in most cases, this is too much of a hassle.
Harris is setting out to combat this obstacle with Words without Borders, “the online magazine for international literature” that offers a way for foreign authors to expand their audience while giving the public an exclusive view into their culture. The magazine celebrates all types of creative literature, offering over 1,200 pieces, in about 87 different languages.
Harris spoke candidly, discussing Words without Border’s transformation from a tool for publishers into an issue that offered Americans an opportunity to read original content that wasn’t told through an English-speaking lens.
A veteran publisher with 17 years of experience at Northwestern University Press, Harris explained that this lack of published international literature was what prompted her to found Words without Borders nine years ago, in an effort to demonstrate to publishers everywhere the wealth of talented writers from other countries that were going unnoticed and unpublished.
The non-profit publication uses grant money to discover gifted foreign writers and translate their work: publishing essays, novel-excerpts, columns and even graphic novels in their monthly issues. Due to Words without Border’s influence, many of the featured authors get attention from publication companies, allowing their work to further break free of geographical constraints.
Harris also addressed the exciting advantages of publishing her magazine in a digital age, discussing how Words without Borders has been able to quickly respond to current events utilizing the immediacy of the Internet. The flexibility of digital media allowed Harris to react quickly to developments in the Arab Spring, giving her the opportunity to deftly modify future issues and feature the political upheaval in two issues.
Harris was quick to point out the impressive team of translators that make the entire digital publication possible, and she talked about the ability to search by translator, a rare feature giving translators the credit they deserve.
The connecting power of Words without Borders to make connections among authors, translators and specific themes was the take-away for many in attendance.
“(Digital publications) is a good thing , because you are making everything accessible, and it’s a good thing that it’s free,” said LSA junior Jie Ling Kuan. “For me, I’m back in Malaysia, I don’t really have a lot of access to foreign literature.”
She added: “To get those books you probably have to buy them online. But you have Words without Borders, they are providing it for free. You can just go online and look at these literatures from other languages, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn those languages in Malaysia, and I can’t get those books, so this is really a great thing for me.”