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From the Editors: On “Words without Borders: The Best of the First Ten Years”

By The Editors

As part of our ongoing celebration of our ten-year anniversary, we're delighted to share this behind-the-scenes look into the making of our tenth-anniversary e-anthology Words without Borders: The Best of the First Ten Years. Editors Samantha Schnee, Susan Harris, and Rohan Kamicheril talk about the great changes in the world of translation, memorable encounters with authors, and the difficulty of representing ten years of fantastic writing in a single book-length volume. 

With over 1,700 works from 124 countries, how did you choose which pieces to include in the Best of the First Ten Years Anthology?

Samantha Schnee: Having read most (but not all) of the content we've published over the past ten years, there are certain pieces that are especially memorable, whether for the language, or the imagery, or the situations they describe, so I started by making a list of those. And then generally as I looked through back issues a favorite piece from each would come to mind. As one of the original editors I focused on content from our first years of publication, because I knew that our newer editors wouldn't be familiar with it all. There's such a volume of material on the site now that I think it would be an inhuman feat to read it all, a bit like cleaning the Augean stables—but much more fun!

Susan Harris: Each of us has favorites, and we also considered the balance of source languages and countries, topic, and tone. As we say in the introduction, every anthology is an exercise in exclusion; we’ve published so much, of such consistently high quality, that we had nearly as many finalists as we did candidates. 

Rohan Kamicheril: As Sam and Susan both point out, it can be bewildering—but exhilarating—to go through so much of the magazine’s history. It was a treat to read many of the older pieces in the magazine, but also particularly exciting to feel that thrill of recognition when you happen upon something that holds its appeal years later. If the piece still manages to evoke a feeling of discovery—that dawning sensation that the author has pulled off something truly extraordinary, to me that’s an important indication that it ought to be included in an anthology of our best work.

There are so many Spanish pieces in the WWB archive, was there a specific approach to narrowing it down to those that appear in the anthology?

SS: The fact that we've got a lot of Spanish content is probably partly down to me. I recall a Spanish teacher in high school telling me, if you can master Mandarin in addition to Spanish and English, you'll be able to speak to three quarters of the world's population. My son is learning Mandarin now, and I tell him the same thing when he says that it's becoming too challenging and he wants to go back to Spanish class. The wonderful thing about Spanish is that it gives you access to so many countries' literature, and we have tried to be conscious of that and explore the work of writers in Costa Rica and Venezuela in addition to work from places like Mexico and Argentina, which is generally easier to access. 

SH: On the other hand, the anthology also reflects our efforts to publish work from languages and literatures not widely known in English. Our Afghanistan issue in May 2011 broke new ground in presenting work translated from Dari and Pashto. It's represented here by Mohammad Hussain Mohammadi's wrenching "Dasht-e Leili," about the 2001 massacre of Taliban POWs. On a cheerier note, Akinwumi Isola's "Grammar of Easter," translated from Yoruba, slyly demolishes a condescending missionary and is one of the funniest stories we've published. And we’ve selected stories translated from Rajasthani, Indonesian, and Urdu. (I almost didn't mention Persian because we've published so much work from Iran that we tend to think of it as a mainstream language!) 

Do the pieces included tell the story of the evolution of Words without Borders?

SS: I would say not. What they more likely reflect is the editorial sensibilities of the editors at any given time, though there hasn't been a lot of turnover in that department. It also tells a story about the generosity of individuals who acted as our guest editors, writers and scholars who have areas of expertise and depth of knowledge that we, in our positions, could never hope to replicate; so they have volunteered to make recommendations to us and/or curate in issue of content from a certain language or a certain region. And then, as we have published more content, we've become more aware of gaps and weaknesses in what we're presenting, so we try to be ever-conscious of filling these in.

SH: I'd agree that the anthology reflects multiple editorial sensibilities. These pieces went through dual review—first by the editors who acquired them, and then again as we selected the content—and it was fascinating to reread pieces from the earlier years in this different context, and to reconsider them from our current viewpoint. Our editorial perspective has developed and expanded as our archives, and scope, have.

RK: It’s funny: I agree that we owe so much of the shape of the anthology and our successes to our fantastic contributors, authors, and well-wishers—but I think that this, in its own way, traces a fascinating arc in our development. It certainly doesn’t follow a linear logic, but much like with international literature, its fonts are numerous, its trajectories spread wide; this is in many ways the story of how, through an openness to influence, we’ve grown into a living, multi-vocal organization with such a great archive of work to draw upon.

You've met so many fascinating writers and translators from around the world, what anecdotes come to mind from these encounters?

SS: I did one event with Iranian novelist Goli Taraghi at the NYPL's Cullman Center for scholars and writers where she regaled the audience with tales of her negotiations with Iran's censorship board, and she had everyone doubled over with laughter at the absurdity of these dialogues, and her cleverness at outwitting the censors. I also have a deep fondness for Iraqi author Najem Wali who came to stay with me when I was living in Texas and gave me a fright when he was detained by Homeland Security for an hour upon his arrival from Germany, where he now lives. We didn't have those problems when we launched WWB in 2003 and he came to New York to read his story "Waltzing Matilda," (which is about a young Iraqi soldier from Basra) dressed like a character straight out of "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" (to which the story makes reference); he was mesmerizing.

SH: I’ve met many of our contributors at book fairs and conferences, but one of my favorite meetings was completely serendipitous. At the Frankfurt Book Fair I squeezed into the U-bahn and found myself at eye level with a nametag which, improbably, belonged to Ambar Past, the author of the wonderful “Practice for Hangmen.” Ambar lives in Mexico, never goes to Frankfurt, and was at the fair with an organization unrelated to her writing. Over 275,000 people at the fair that year, and we ended up crammed into the same car. We’d never met, and I felt a bit of a fool introducing myself on the train. But she was as delighted as I was by our accidental rendezvous.

RK: Years ago, at a rather lavish uptown party thrown, unless I’m misremembering, in Goli Taraghi’s honor, I was standing in a corner trying to be helpful and unobtrusive. Before I even saw her coming, Goli swept up to me and declaimed in an imperial drawl, “I am Goli Taraghi. I am a writer.” She pronounced the word reuter, with a cavernous Iranian vowel in it. The effect, and her entire demeanor, were so winning that I felt no reservations about answering, promptly, “I’m Rohan Kamicheril, I’m the intern.” She was undeterred, and held forth on Iran, her writing, and had me alternately agog, spellbound, and laughing uncontrollably. Rereading her work in the anthology now, and in her new collection, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons, the impression is still unmistakable, of a sympathetic, keen-eyed observer with a story to entertain all comers.

One might say the pieces in the Anthology have two authors, the writer and the translator. How does WWB find its translators, or do translators seek out WWB?

SS: Initially we had to do a tremendous amount of outreach to both editors and translators, because no one had heard of WWB and there was still a fair amount of suspicion about publishing on the Internet, I would even say disdain. But with the passage of time, thankfully, WWB's reputation has grown and Web sites publishing high-caliber writing became accepted, and evolved into part of our reading norm. Both these developments have been a real boon to us, because we don't have to work nearly so hard to find content. Those first issues were entirely the product of literary prospecting which, while exciting, is time-consuming. In theory now as editors we have more time to CREATE content by commissioning work expressly for WWB.

SH: Every issue we publish expands our network, and just as the archives have grown over the years, so have our connections and our access. We’re very much part of the literary translation community. In addition to introducing many international writers, we've also had the pleasure of launching translators and watching them grow in their careers. Translation into English has a higher profile now than it did ten years ago: the UK translation scene is particularly vibrant, thanks to dedicated activism, and many more graduate programs in translation have been established stateside. We're working with many of the translators we worked with from the beginning, including the top names in the field, but also with a new generation, young and extremely talented, and in some cases trained and mentored by the established ones. Many translators not only translate, but promote, advocate for, and otherwise work on behalf of authors and international literature in general, and we’ve surely benefited from their dedication and energy.

RK: There really is no way to tell where a new translation might come from, or where one of us might hear about a new author or just the right person to translate her or him. Things have certainly changed for online publishing, and—no doubt—for contemporary literature in translation. Both have finally achieved a certain level of legitimacy in the culture at large, and as a result, we’re lucky enough to receive introductions to new translators and authors not just through agents and foreign publishers, but through fellow translators, American writers, and cultural organizations. 


Words without Borders: The Best of the First Ten Years celebrates the first decade of Words without Borders.  Contributors include Kader Abdolah, Adolfo Albertazzi, Justyna Bargielska, Lúcia Bettencourt, Carmen Boullosa, Horacio Castillo, Ismat Chughtai, Vijay Dan Detha, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Louis de Paor, Nicholas Dickner, Ernest Farrés, Gabriella Ghermandi, Marek Huberath, Akinwumi Isola, Etik Juwita, Ilya Kaminsky, Rivka Keren, Nomura Kiwao, Fatos Lubonja, Leila Marouane, Mohammad Hussain Mohammadi, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Ambar Past, Tomaž Šalamun, Teresa Solana, Andrés Felipe Solano, Abdellah Taïa, Goli Taraghi, Jyrki Vainonen, Lawrence Venuti, Najem Wali, Ghirmai Yohannes, Motoya Yukiko, and Zheng Xiaolu. Buy the book online over here.

Published Nov 22, 2013   Copyright 2013 The Editors

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