It’s no secret that us English-speakers think very highly of ourselves. What’s less obvious is how that pomposity affects the dissemination of media. According to Words Without Borders, “50 percent of all the books in translation now published worldwide are translated from English, but only 6 percent are translated into English” (Schnee, Mason, and Felman, xi). I could not locate an updated statistic, but the prevailing sentiment holds that we think we’re BFDs, and we’re missing out on a wealth of literature as a result.
Words without Borders (WWB) is a magazine that bridges the gap by translating and publishing international literature. Words Without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers* is a particularly innovative anthology published by the organization in 2007. WWB asked 28 esteemed authors to choose their favorite short story or poem that had not seen the English light of day. Their choices were translated from a wide array of languages: Arabic, Chinese, Italian, and Spanish, to name a few.
I couldn’t help but agree with author Ariel Dorman, who felt disturbed that many stories remain “shipwrecked and without a translator” (Schnee, Mason, and Felman, 344). Nowadays, we are so bogged down by the politics of physical borders that we narrow-mindedly focus on one goal: what is pragmatic? I’m not saying throw rationality by the wayside, but wouldn’t it be more prudent to understand the cultures that we’re turning into numbers? To expand our perspective through knowledge and empathy? Literature is a resource in that regard. What better way to learn about a different world that to hear from someone immersed in it?
As you might expect in an anthology, some stories are better than others. One of my favorites is “Revulsion” originally written in Spanish by Horacio Castellanos Moya. It is the El Salvadorian version of The Catcher in the Rye and it appeals to all of my unintelligible angst. Another favorite is “The Scripture Read Backward” originally written in Bengali by Parashuram. It ironically inverts the India-Britain post-colonial power structure, lending India the upper hand.
After reading this story, my respect for translators skyrocketed. To be honest, I hadn’t put much thought into the process until then. A translator is tasked with capturing the language and the subtle meanings. They must retain the author’s nuances. Even something as straightforward as alliteration proves difficult. Furthermore, you must have a decent mastery of the culture and history behind the text you’re translating. Sukanta Chaudhuri, the translator of Parashuram’s work, had to have a working knowledge of what colonial dynamics were like in order to catch Parashuram’s idiosyncratic jabs at Britain.
Admittedly, there are stories in the collection that I’m not crazy about. One complaint I have is that the majority of the stories hint at oppression in some form. Of course, oppression happens in all nations, including our own; however, when you’re dealing with an anthology intent on increasing access to foreign works, and most of those works have a subjugation theme, you run the risk of associating foreign nations with subjugation—at the expense of other wonderful cultural happenings in that nation. Still, this is a small taste of the many works that WWB provides us and their mission to alter the one-way translation street is laudable overall.
As such, I give Words Without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers 4 out of 5 camel humps. The immense respect between authors is beautiful to witness. Writers we know and love, like José Saramago, go to bat for their beloved non-English works, and we listen to them and learn from them. Reading the collection made me feel like I’d cleansed my Westernized mind… and feel less guilty about forgetting all of the Spanish I learned in high school. To get that same feeling, I recommend you at least check out WWB’s site!
* Schnee, Mason, and Felman, eds. Words Without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers. New York: Anchor Books, 2007. Print.
*n.p. Words Without Borders, 2016. Web. 27 April 2016.