Saturday, 25 May 2013

Words Without Borders

 Words Without Borders (WWB) is a non-profit organisation encouraging cultural understanding
through the translation, publication, and promotion of contemporary international literature. Its publications and programs enable readers of English to explore the multiplicity of viewpoints, richness of experience, and differing perspectives on world events offered by writers in other languages. It provides a location for global literary conversation, principally through its monthly on-line magazine. This includes ten to fifteen pieces of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction not previously translated into English; to date the magazine has published over 1,600 pieces by writers from 119 countries, translated from 92 languages.

Susan Harris is the editorial director of the on-line magazine. She spoke to me, via e-mail, from Chicago: WWB is virtual; it has no offices, Susan and her colleagues all work from home, either in the States, or in London.

The current magazine features pieces from North Korean writers living in exile.  I asked Susan how the editors decide on themes for issues?  “It's a mixture. We do annual graphic novel and queer issues, and we often do an issue of writing from the guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair. This year is the tenth anniversary of our founding, and we’re celebrating by returning to the themes of our first three issues: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.”

I wondered how much lead-time is required for each issue, and what happens if world events render commissioned material out-of-date?  “We work well in advance on the issue themes, and we've already scheduled most of 2014, but we acquire work for the monthly features, usually three to four pieces, closer to publication. We try to remain flexible to accommodate breaking news and other developments. In 2011, I'd planned an issue of writing from the three languages of Algeria - Arabic, French, and Berber - for August. In January the uprisings started, and we realized that, regardless of what transpired over the next seven months, we would need to acknowledge the situation. Then all the dominoes started to fall, and it became clear that the entire region was undergoing revolution. So we took apart our schedule and scrambled to publish two issues of writing from the Arab Spring, in the rough order of the uprisings: July with North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Tunisia), and August with the Middle East (Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen).

I asked whether WWB commissions from translators, or directly from authors?  In which case, how do they manage the translation process? “We do prefer to receive translations. but we often solicit submissions in the original languages - from authors, publishers, agents, etc. In those cases, if we don't have the original language reading capacity on staff, we place the pieces with a reader and commission a sample.  If we’re happy with the sample we commission a full translation.” 

On a personal note, I asked Susan what she most enjoys about her job, and what she finds most frustrating? “I love working with authors and translators and helping to bring work that I couldn't otherwise read into English.  It frustrates me there's so much we don't know about, or to which we don't have access.”

Words Without Borders is at They are interested in expanding their offerings from Asia, particularly in the languages they haven't yet published – Thai, Khmer and Laotian. So if you are in Thailand, Cambodia, or Laos, get writing!

My next post will be on Words Without Borders’ North Korean issue. Have you read it yet?  If so do please share in advance  your opinions.