Translationista Wants YOU to Support Literary Translation

Newsflash: There isn’t much money in literary translation – in fact, there’s almost none. Except for the occasional runaway bestseller, books in translation tend not to sell enough copies to bring in the sort of big money that keeps publishing houses healthily afloat, so organizations and publishers devoted to making sure that all of us have regular access to wonderful books from around the world are often forced to operate at a loss. These folks can really use your help, and there are so many worthy organizations that deserve support. If you’re in a position to make an end-of-year contribution or two (think of the karma points! the tax write-off!), please read on, as I’ve selected a handful of them to recommend to you. And please don’t think I’m advocating against any organization not mentioned here – these were hard choices to make.

Words without Borders: Even back in the day when WWoB was “just” an online magazine specialized exclusively in publishing literature in translation, it did incredible work, presenting unprecedentedly huge numbers of writers (including lesser-known ones) translated from many different languages. Since the site is searchable by language, region and keywords as well as author, translator and genre, it is the best way I know to get a quick overview of what’s happening in the literary scenes of countries all over the world (especially as the site makes frequent use of guest editors who are experts in the literature of particular regions). WWoB also regularly publishes essays about translation, interviews with translators, and now has begun an education program that brings foreign-language authors into schools to meet with students and discuss their work. I want to see them bring translators into the classroom too. Donate here.

Center for the Art of Translation: This San Francisco-based organization puts on a large number of excellent and well-publicized public programs each year involving literary translation, as well as publishing the magazine Two Lines, an excellent journal of translated literature in which each work published is accompanied by a brief essay by the translator about the experience of working on the text, a great way to bring awareness to what the translator contributes to the English-language work. CAT also runs the most exciting educational translation program I know: Poetry Inside Out, which sends poetry translators into elementary schools and has them lead quite young students in translation exercises. The results are truly remarkable. Every year the best of these young poet-translators’ work is published in an attractive anthology (this year’s edition is entitled Cyclops Wearing Flip Flops – best title ever?). Donate here.

Archipelago Books is such a great high-class hardscrabble not-for-profit publishing house. It prints beautiful books in a distinctive square format, with a lot of attention to editing and a lot of persistence when it comes to promoting authors who are underappreciated in English but extremely important. I am thinking, for example, of the great late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (whose heartbreaking self-eulogy In the Presence of Absence, in the prizewinning translation by Sinan Antoon, was one of the most beautiful books I read last year). Or the major Lebanese author Elias Khoury, by whom Archipelago has published four books, including the stunning Gate of the Sun, which I can’t recommend highly enough. I read it with my graduate students at Queens College last year, and they couldn’t stop talking about Khoury’s artistry. I wouldn’t hesitate to call the book a masterpiece, and commend Archipelago for taking on Khoury, who (besides being internationally renowned) tends to write big fat novels of the sort that entail very high production costs. It would be almost impossible for this sort of venture to be commercially self-sustaining, which is why Archipelago has gone the non-profit route and operates with the help of grants and donations.

Which brings me to the stalwart Brooklyn-based “publishing collective” Ugly Duckling Presse, a nonprofit that specializes in all sorts of wonderfully whacky poetry and outside-the-mainstream literature of other genres too – much of it in translation. And guess what, there’s not a lot of money in poetry either, which is why UDP relies heavily on volunteer labor to keep its doors open. Even so (or perhaps because of this), it publishes some of the most lovingly produced books I’ve ever seen, many of them with letterpress printing. UDP is adventurous, always ready to take a risk on an unknown or “forgotten” author whose work interests the editorial crew, and it has become an important presence on the Brooklyn literary scene with frequent public events. I wouldn’t want to imagine the world of publishing without it. You can subscribe to its publications (receiving a big box of assorted books in the mail means you can make it Christmas any time of the year), or just donate.

Translationista would like to wish you all a very happy, healthy, prosperous, interesting and inspiring new year!

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