On October 28, a crowd of more than 200 came out for Words Without Borders’ annual gala to celebrate the publication’s 11-year history of publishing and promoting international literature.
With a crowd from across the New York literary world, the evening was hosted by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. True to Words Without Borders form, the evening featured bilingual readings in English and from Belarusian, Chinese, and Sinhala by Valzhyna Mort, Yiyun Li, and Ru Freeman.
Emphasizing the importance of translation to cultivate conversation across time and place, Li read two poems from Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, herself under house arrest. Freeman drew a parallel between translation and the Sistine Chapel, suggesting translation is like Michelangelo’s depiction of the hands of God and Saint Michael, not quite touching yet still beautiful.
With an archive of more than 2,000 stories, essays, and poems in translation from across 105 countries and 124 languages, Words Without Borders has built itself into what Sayrafiezadeh termed a great repository of world literature in English.
Building on its archive, Words Without Borders announced its new education initiative, Words Without Borders Campus, which seeks to bring translation into college classrooms. The program, which has already been implemented in community colleges in New York City, features world literature in both its original language and English translation and includes the participation of authors such as Carmen Boullosa.
The evening culminated in the presentation of the 2014 Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature to Carol Brown Janeway (pictured above), who, aside from championing work by Patrick Süskind, José Donoso, Yukio Mishima, Elsa Morante, Ivan Klíma, Robert Musil, and Nobel laureates Imre Kertész, Heinrich Böll, and Thomas Mann as an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, has translated works by Bernhard Schlink, Thomas Bernhard, Daniel Kehlmann, and Sándor Márai.
In his remarks before presenting the Ottaway award to Janeway, Luiz Schwarcz, publisher of São Paulo-based Companhia das Letras, praised the power of translation to teach us “the importance of things that are unexpected in a world where we’re expected to predict everything from the weather to our emotions.”
Accepting her award, Janeway told those present that her “very British education”—which required she study French, Latin, and German—was responsible for her success as a translator. She credited English with being the “great taxi service” for writing from around the world, referring both to the tendency of works translated into English to gain translations into other languages, as well as what she described as English’s extraordinary malleability and ability to absorb other languages. To those who would express dismay at the primacy of English worldwide, Janeway posed a question—“Who owns the English language?”—and then an answer, celebrating the fact that those countries that have historically spoken English “lost any claim at ownership a long, long time ago.”
On this night, which concluded with a party hosted by Rivka Galchen, Dinaw Mengestu, Jess Row, Téa Obreht, and Tiphanie Yanique, Janeway reminded us of the reason we translate literature from one language to another: to help writers bear witness.
Eric M. B. Becker is a writer, translator, and award-winning journalist from St. Paul, Minnesota. He has recently published translations of Brazilian writers Edival Lourenço, Eric Nepomuceno and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, as well as 2014 Neustadt Prize winner Mia Couto, in The Massachusetts Review, MobyLives, and Asymptote. In 2014, he was recipient of a Louis Armstrong House Museum Residency. He also serves as assistant managing editor at Asymptote.