I remember first hearing about Words Without Borders back when I was teaching at Bard College, because one of its original organizers (working from memory, I come up with Alane Mason, Dedi Felman and Samantha Schnee) had a connection to someone at Bard who was able to arrange for the start-up magazine to use the college’s computer servers for storage, and as a result there was a lot of early talk about WWoB on campus, and I think Susan Gillespie had the editors up for a talk or fundraiser. We’re talking about the very early years of the 21st century, when online magazines were only just barely starting to be a “thing,” and usually were published in close association with established print media, and it wasn’t yet clear how much of a readership an online-only journal would have.
Cut to a decade later, when Words Without Borders is solidly established as one of the premier online sources for information about international literature. Crack editor Susan Harris (who serves as WWoB’s editorial director) and executive director Joshua Mandelbaum now head up an entire team of editors, reviewers, web designers, and no doubt hundreds of translators. WWoB has published so many translations of works from so many countries that you can use it as a reference site, looking up a country to get a sampling of its literature and, in many cases, essays about its literature. WWoB has also participated significantly in discussions of literary translation – what it’s for, how it should work, how we should talk about it – and it would be a huge impoverishment of our literary culture if it were somehow one day no longer to be around.
There’s no charge to use the WWoB website; in that sense it’s like public radio: expensive to produce, great to have, dependent on donations. Every year or so the team puts on a benefit in New York to raise funds. This year’s benefit – a celebration of Chinese literature featuring a reading by Wenguang Huang, author of the memoir The Little Red Guard – just happens to be scheduled for Tuesday, October 30, the very day when Hurricane Sandy is expected to strike the East Coast. I tend to have a lot to say about hurricanes. It may well be that between now and then the hurricane’s path and the forecast will change and the event will go off without rain boots and umbrellas or worse. And maybe you weren’t planning to go in any case, because attending benefits is not in everyone’s budget. But note the humble little donations link at the bottom of the benefit website. I know that WWoB is always grateful for contributions of every denomination, and they are sure to be especially grateful now, because planning a benefit involves a certain outlay of funds – you have to plan a party to attract donors, and even parties that get rained out have to be paid for. So if you can pony up $20 or $50 or $100 to support a truly great organization that does so much to promote international writing and translation, this would be a very excellent time to do so.