Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Words Without Borders

A friend of mine loves the work of novelist Junichiro Tanizaki. When I first met her years ago and asked "Who?", and she rightfully looked at me with shock. How could I not know? Well, now I do know, and I also understand better just how little of the world's literature is available in the United States in translation. Even when it is, it takes something like the Nobel Prize to give its sales an uptick. There are some exceptions, but few. Blame our literary isolation on the phenomenon of geography, xenophobia, or what you will, but as a nation we're just not as aware of world literature as we could be.

That's part of why I was so pleased to learn of the online magazine "Words Without Borders," a site that publishes its own original translations, plus book reviews and other information about international literature. In its publishing rationale, the journal notes: Few literatures have truly prospered in isolation from the world. English-speaking culture in general and American culture in particular has long benefited from cross-pollination with other worlds and languages. Thus it is an especially dangerous imbalance when, today, 50% of all the books in translation now published worldwide are translated from English, but less than 3% are translated into English. (Bold emphasis added)

My friend Katie King pointed the organization out to me two years ago, but it really caught my consciousness when I met its founder and president, editor Alane Salierno Mason, at W. W. Norton a few weeks ago.

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