Translation isn’t just for Tolstoy anymore. Works like Elena Ferrante’s now vault into the American mainstream.
Liesl Shillinger – Nov 21, 2018
A few months into the Iraq War, three American women founded a magazine called Words Without Borders. They hoped to create “an antidote to xenophobia and nationalism” by publishing foreign literature in translation. To that end, they wanted to share the voices of contemporary writers from the countries President George W. Bush had recently called the “axis of evil” — Iran, Iraq and North Korea — for English-language readers.
North Korea, a “completely closed” country, was the trickiest to comb for fiction, recalled Samantha Schnee, a translator of Spanish literature, who began the magazine with Alane Mason, an editor at Norton, and Dedi Felman, an editor at Oxford University Press.“The only writing we could get was writing from the North Koreans’ own literary journals, which they had in their New York office at the United Nations.” An intern was dispatched to the United Nations for reconnaissance. “She camped outside their office for two days,” Schnee said. “Finally, someone came out and said, ‘What do you want?’ And she said, ‘I just want your literary magazines.’ ” The North Koreans handed them over.
Since 2003, Words Without Borders has published literary translations online by more than 2,200 writers from 134 countries. Another translation publisher, Archipelago Books, opened that year in Brooklyn. More independent presses devoted to international literature followed: Europa Editions, in 2005; Open Letter Books, in 2008; New Vessel Press, in 2012; and a dozen others. Today, literary translation, once the province of monuments of the past, guarded by eminent sages, has leaped from dusty library stacks into the contemporary mainstream: Only last Sunday, a novel from Italy, “My Brilliant Friend,” written by Elena Ferrante this decade and translated into English by Ann Goldstein within a year of its emergence, premiered on HBO as a lustrous, fully realized television miniseries. Propelling the remarkable transformation of this literary landscape? Among other factors, Sept. 11 and its aftermath, with a powerful boost from digital technology. Translation wasn’t just for Tolstoy and Goethe anymore. New wars disturbed the peace.