The Sounder

Savannah Whiting, communications coordinator for literature in translation website Words Without Borders tells The Sounder how WWB brought international language literature to the world and how now it's bringing it to the classroom

A mental exercise: Think of a country you’re likely never to visit.
How many people do you know from there?
What was the last story you saw about it in the news?
Do you speak the language?
Have you ever read a work of literature by one of its writers?
No, you say? Keep reading.

In the late 1990s, a book editor in New York City began dreaming of a Web site that would offer excerpts of books from around the world, translated into English. In the early days of the Internet, she and editors like her were hard-pressed to discover talented writers in other languages, with obvious consequences for readers: it was becoming known, around this time, that fewer than 3% of books published in the United States were translated from other languages.

That editor, Alane Salierno Mason, began working to transform her idea for the Web site from dream to reality along with editors Dedi Felman and Samantha Schnee. After September 11, the nationalist and isolationist policies that gave birth to the “axis of evil” brought new urgency to her efforts, and the site, Words Without Borders, launched in 2003. Its first issues featured writing from Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and the former Soviet states. What was originally conceived as a resource for publishing professionals took on a much broader mission: to build cultural understanding through the translation, publication, and promotion of contemporary international literature.

In the 14 years since, Words Without Borders has become the online destination for a global literary conversation, publishing writing from over 132 countries, translated from 112 languages and counting. Over half a million readers per year visit the website to read the highest quality translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, reportage, essays, drama, and graphic novels. The magazine’s archives are free for readers to explore—a treasure trove of over 2,400 pieces in English translation, including fiction from Dari and Pashto, poetry from Faroese, and memoir from Khmer.

In a single issue of this free online publication, one can read short stories by women writers from Taiwan juxtaposed with contemporary Flemish fiction, or Latin American queer narratives alongside Kashmiri poetry from four centuries—none of which has appeared in English translation before. This potential for discovery prompted Vanity Fair to liken the website to “a brainy dating service for your intellect—a way to hook up inquisitive readers with otherwise unobtainable but potentially mind-blowing texts.”

The magazine has now taken a further step to awaken young minds to international narratives, drawing on its rich collection to develop a free sister Web site and education program, WWB Campus. The Web site began with writing from Mexico, Egypt, and China—a selection informed by the fact that Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin are the three most commonly spoken languages by English language learners in the US. “These are some of my students’ stories,” says Cheryl Smith, a Baruch College professor and early adopter of the program. “This is a way for them to see themselves in literature.”

The program develops new content each year, recently adding units on Japanese and Russian literatures, with plans for Iranian literature to come next. Designed to be used by both students and teachers, the WWB Campus site is organized into units by country and theme, such as love stories, taboos, and leaving home. Original video interviews with authors and translators and resources from around the web deepen students’ interaction with the literature.

A sidebar alongside Gilberto Jerónimo Mateo’s poem “Purépecha Mother” in the Mexico unit, for example, offers teaching ideas for educators, as well as photographs, music, an interactive map, and news stories chosen to give a nuanced picture of past and contemporary Purépecha culture. The unit is introduced by an essay by Francisco Goldman, who reflects on contemporary Mexican literature in the context of the recent Ayotzinapa tragedy, in which 43 students were disappeared.

This approach is meant to broaden students’ horizons on and off the page, enriching their knowledge of literature, culture, and foreign affairs. Teachers have spoken of the program’s effect on the dynamics of their classroom, turning ESL students into authorities on their national literatures and cultures. By using literature in translation to enable exchanges of this kind, Words Without Borders hopes to inspire the next generation of global readers. For an organization founded to help foster international exchange through literature, “this is the natural next step,” says Mason, “and it couldn’t be more timely.”