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Inttranews Special Report: Words Without Borders

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Words Without BordersIn a world rife with ignorance and incomprehension of other cultures, literature in translation has an especially important role, hence the value of Words Without Borders. Its purpose is to promote international communication through translation of the world's best writing – selected and translated by a distinguished group of writers, translators, and publishing professionals – and publishing and promoting these works (or excerpts) on the Web. So how does WWB see the future of literary translation, faced with initiatives like Google Print, and growing illiteracy rates? Inttranews decided to find out more…*

Inttranews: How and when was Words Without Borders first set up, and what are your main objectives?
Words Without Borders: Words without Borders was launched in 2003 with the help of a $35,000 seed grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Inttranews: As the "major" languages spread their influence, and with the growth in translation technology, is human translation going to become less important in the future?
WWB: No, certainly not in our area, which is literary translation. I don't believe that computers can translate any better than they can write. Voice, style, passion, originality -- the essential elements of literary writing and literary translation -- those are human qualities.

Inttranews: As publishers, what are some of the current trends you see in literary translation?
WWB: Fortunately, we see a renewed interest in foreign voices -- at the same time that economic forces seem to make it ever harder for commercial publishing of these voices to succeed.

Inttranews: What should an aspiring literary translator do to get work?
WWB: Identify the foreign language works most likely to appeal to English language readers. Translate self-sustaining chapters/excerpts and publish them on Words without Borders and in other literary magazines. Present a selection of such chapters/excerpts to agents and publishers.

Inttranews: In a recent court case in Germany [see Inttranews 08.02.06], the ruling stipulated that translators should get a percentage of book sales. How do US publishers pay translators, and what is your reaction to that news item?
WWB: It is common now for commercial publishers to give translators -- especially well-known, experienced translators -- a small percentage of royalties. However, commercial publishers don't publish many of these works. The majority are published by small presses and university presses, which have different contracts with terms that are -- as a matter of survival -- less generous.

Inttranews: In Europe, with 25 official languages, publishers often receive state subsidies for translating works into other languages. Should governments do more in favour of translation, or should the initiative be left to independent publishers?
WWB: Of course governments should do more! Translation is a national and international good, with enormous cultural and thus economic benefit. Or, as Borges put it, "Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization." Certainly this is worth state support. [chk]

Inttranews: In the current context, such as the Strategic Language Initiative, is there not a danger that works selected for translation will increasingly be for their political content rather than their cultural value?
WWB: I'm not familiar with this Initiative. In any case, the politics of literary writers are notoriously unreliable -- I very much doubt that most international literature can be so easily categorized.

Inttranews: How does WWB select the works you translate and publish? Is commercial potential the overriding factor?
WWB: WWB is not-for-profit, and so far, we do not sell anything from our website. So commercial potential is meaningless in our context. If what you mean is accessibility to a popular readership, then I suppose the answer is yes -- we see our job as making literature in translation seem less intimidating and elitist than it might be otherwise, so we do shy away from publishing work we ourselves find unintelligible, even though other fine minds might well find merit in it.

Inttranews: Does revenue from translation cover your costs?
WWB: We are supported by grants from foundations and private donors.

Inttranews: According to recent statistics [see Inttranews archives], the level of literacy is dropping in the Western world. What can and should be done to change that trend?
WWB: We're doing what we can, trying to make reading foreign literature seem as cool and exciting as travelling -- or surfing the internet.

Inttranews: What is your reaction to English Only legislation (which 23 states in the USA have adopted)?
WWB: Why not "English And" legislation, requiring everyone to at least make an effort to learn another language other than English, for the sake of the neural health and mental agility of our citizenry as well as cultural enrichment?

Inttranews: It is estimated that at the present rate, half of the world's existing 6,000 languages will have disappeared by the end of the 21st century. Can and should anything be done to slow that down?
WWB: Our hope is that if writers have a better chance of being translated from a threatened original language, if they can expect to be read or heard both in the richness of the original and in the different richness of a translation, they are less likely to abandon their original language for the sake of a wider audience. Other incentives for keeping languages alive are political/social matters for the peoples themselves to decide.

Inttranews: As publishers of translations, what are your feelings about the Google Print initiative [which aims to put library content available on-line]?
WWB (Dedi Felman, executive editor at Oxford University Press): I don't have a strong feeling, but my answer is that Google should be seeking permission for what it puts on line, just as libraries pay for the copies of the books they circulate and Kinkos pays permission fees for the work under copyright that it circulates. We must support the creative endeavour and Intellectual property rights must be respected, even as we come up with new arrangments such as Creative Commons which offer a more extensive menu of licensing options and often promote wider distribution of works. On the other hand, I believe that works should be entering the public domain much sooner than they currently do. The recent extensions of copyright terms prohibit the circulation of would-be classics and erode audiences for new works.

Inttranews: What has been your reaction to audiobooks? Are they included in your offer?
WWB: We hope to be the first literary magazine to offer oral literatures in the original through audio clips to be added to the site later this year. But we don't have any full-length book rights to our selections, audio or otherwise.

Inttranews: As publishers of translations, what are your opinions and strategy about current web policy to make all content free?
WWB: Since we are donor-supported, there is a strong sense that like National Public Radio, our content should be free and available to anyone interested in tuning in.

Inttranews: If there is one trait specific to literary as opposed to technical translation, it is freedom of speech; that is, to concentrate on form rather than content, and errors can become more subjective. How is proofreading performed at WWB?
WWB: By careful professionals with experience in book publishing.

For more information, please visit:

* The spokesperson for Words Without Borders is Alane Salierno Mason, a senior editor at W.W. Norton & Company, with over sixteen years’ experience in high-quality book publishing; three of the books she published by previously unknown authors in the past four years went on to become National Book Award Finalists. Ms Mason has translated from the Italian for New Directions.

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