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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Celebrating literature that ‘brings the world close’

A photo provided by Beowulf Sheehan of writer Laila Lalami, a Moroccan-American novelist, essayist, and professor, speaking at the 20th anniversary gala of Words Without Borders in New York. Words Without Borders, one of the few magazines in the world dedicated to literature in translation, is turning 20 at a fraught time: Around the world, wars are raging. Writers are being jailed, dissident voices silenced and books banned.

By Robert Ito

Words Without Borders, one of the few magazines in the world dedicated to literature in translation, is turning 20 at a fraught time: Around the world, wars are raging. Writers are being jailed, dissident voices silenced and books banned.

As the magazine’s staff considered its anniversary celebrations — a virtual gala on Nov. 2, following a live one on Oct. 25 — one question was pressing: How do you find words, let alone celebrate them, when bombs are dropping?

The answer, said Karen M. Phillips, the magazine’s executive editor and publisher, was right there, baked into their mission — to gather and celebrate international literature, and in doing so, strengthen the connection between readers and writers around the world. Given the current political climate, the need for such conversations has never been more vital.

“Literature is a really powerful space for imagining new ways forward, or thinking through situations that are impossible if you take them head on as facts,” she said. “We’re always publishing contemporary writers who are reflecting, through their literature, the events and crises of the world.”

Over the years, Words Without Borders has presented literature about the war in Ukraine, the global pandemic and the refugee crisis in Greece. Launched in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent American invasion of Iraq, the magazine’s first three issues in 2003 were dedicated to works from writers in Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The series’s title: “Literature from the ‘Axis of Evil.’”

“We saw it as an antidote to extremism and this war of abstractions that was going on,” said Alane Salierno Mason, the magazine’s co-founder and president. “But then, we were also publishers. We thought that if we were going to launch a magazine, we wanted people to pay attention to it.”

People did notice, and continue to in ever-growing numbers. Since its inception, Words Without Borders has expanded to include the works of over 4,600 authors and translators. Contributors represent 143 countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe, their works translated from 139 languages. One of the magazine’s primary goals has been to highlight works written in languages that typically weren’t being translated into English — Faroese, say, or Urhobo — and to showcase voices and viewpoints that most American readers would not otherwise encounter.

“Words Without Borders does this heroic job of bringing the world close to us,” said Courtney Hodell, the director of literary programs at the Whiting Foundation, which presented one of their inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prizes to the magazine in 2018. “At times like this, that feels like an essential and fundamental human act.”

Writers and poets including Ilya Kaminsky, Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and Laila Lalami attended the live gala in Manhattan. The participants mentioned some of the magazine’s accomplishments, like publishing nine Nobel laureates — seven of them years before their works were recognized by the Swedish Academy.

“We can’t take all the credit, but I do think we have good taste,” said Samantha Schnee, the founding editor and board chair. “And we have a fantastic team of editors. But I also think it goes back to our translators who say, ‘Hey, this is someone you should take a look at.’”

A corps of translators double as talent scouts for the magazine, scouring the literatures they translate from for new voices. But there’s also another, simpler reason the magazine seems to spot so much international talent before others do, Mason said.

“Who else is doing this?” she asked. “The Paris Review, to name perhaps the best-known literary magazine, might do a few translations a year. Same with The New Yorker, but generally, they’re publishing people who already have some name recognition.”

The gala celebrants also looked to the magazine’s future, which includes an ongoing expansion of Words Without Borders Campus, the magazine’s educational component. Launched in 2017, the program offers students and teachers free access to contemporary literature from around the globe and trains educators on how to teach these stories.

In December, the program got a major boost from the Whiting Foundation, which awarded the magazine the largest grant in the publication’s history. The multiyear Humanities in High Schools grant, which provides $75,000 in its first year, will help expand partnerships with school districts.

Around the same time last year, Poupeh Missaghi, a writer and translator from English and Persian, began a project for Words Without Borders called #WomanLifeFreedom: A Series on the Revolutionary Uprising in Iran, inspired by the death of Mahsa Amini in 2022. The yearlong series is an example of what the magazine does best: provide a range of accounts, from witness narratives to pen-and-ink drawings of protesters, to readers who otherwise would have no access to them.

One of the essays published in the series, “I am a Witness,” has been expanded into a book from Ithaka Press, “In the Streets of Tehran: Woman Life Freedom,” written by Nila (a pseudonym) and translated by Missaghi. “If we didn’t have outlets like Words Without Borders, how could we create these spaces for conversations about translation and world literature?” she asked.

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