Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu…Who Knew?: Words Without Borders’ Surprise Hit

In Growth Markets by Chip Rossetti

By Chip Rossetti

Last fall marked the release of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, an anthology of modern Middle Eastern literature in translation that has had a surprising success in the American market. Tablet & Pen represents a fruitful collaboration between the literature-in-translation online magazine Words Without Borders and anthology editor Reza Aslan, author of the bestsellers No God But God and How to Win a Cosmic War. Aslan’s high media profile netted the book some prominent publicity, including stops at the Colbert Report, Diane Rehm, Tavis Smiley, and MSNBC’s Morning Joe, among other places.

Aslan points out that he’s been “completely taken aback by the success of the book. There were a good couple of days there where it was ranked in the low 70s on Amazon, which is remarkable for any anthology, let alone one on the literature of the Middle East.” While certainly modest compared to Stieg Larsson or Stephenie Meyer standards, the hefty (657-page) anthology has sold through its initial 15,000 print run, and is already back on press. “When I was working on this book,” Aslan continues, “the advice I got from well-meaning critics was that you can’t get Americans to read poetry in English, let alone translated from Arabic. My response was that this is about more than poetry: there is a real urgency about these kinds of works from authors from this diverse region.”

Tablet & Pen includes stories, essays and poetry from four languages — Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu — including an essay by Lebanese mystic Gibran Khalil Gibran and selections by the well-known female Iranian poet Forugh Farrakhzad. Aslan describes the editing process as “basically, just a year of solid reading,” with help from the Words Without Borders team, as well as scholars and experts in the various literatures, many of whom were writers and translators themselves. Although fluent in Arabic and Persian, Aslan found himself in charge of combing through Turkish literary selections: “I had to become an expert in Turkish literature of the last century. In that regard, what was very helpful to me was Turkey’s PEN center, which provided me with a journal of new Turkish literature, including some great contemporary writing. The poet Can Yücel, with his short three- to four-line poems, for example, I found amazing.” Ultimately, of the 130 pieces, almost half of them were newly translated or retranslated for the book.

“It involved culling thousands of individual pieces and finding a common connection between them, a single sustaining narrative,” says Aslan. As it turned out, that overarching narrative — about how literature becomes a tool for forming national and regional identities, and a means of social criticism — seemed to come out of the stories themselves, according to Aslan. “For me, it was just a matter of putting the individual works in a chronological, thematic order to allow that theme to rise to the surface.”

The genesis of the anthology came from Words Without Borders, which since 2003 has set itself the ambitious goal of “translating, publishing, and promoting the finest contemporary international literature” for English-language readers. Each month, the magazine publishes eight to ten pieces in translation — stories, poems and occasionally essays—based on a common theme. Occasionally, the issue will focus on a particular language or region (writing from Hungary, Japan, and Pakistan have all been the subject of recent issues), or on a topic or genre, such as international reporting, science fiction, or (this month’s issue) horror. One of their most popular (and eye-opening) subjects is an annual issue devoted to international graphic novels.

Dr. Reza Aslan

According to executive director Joshua Mandelbaum, Words Without Borders, although based in New York, has a strong international following: over 45% of its audience reside outside the U.S. In addition to English-speaking countries, Words Without Borders draws readers primarily from India, Germany, China, France, Italy and Japan, says Mandelbaum, receiving an estimated 30,000 unique visitors per month.

Frustrated by the low profile of literature in translation among American readers, Alane Salierno Mason, senior editor at W.W. Norton and founder of Words Without Borders, originally conceived the idea for a magazine dedicated to translation back in 1999. “I was in the discussion and brainstorming stage for two or three years. I started talking up the idea at every opportunity,” including at a publishing panel discussion on translation. Dedi Felman, then an editor at Oxford University Press, happened to be in the audience, loved the idea, and paired up with Mason. “Dedi was instrumental in connecting the idea with what was possible on the web,” says Mason. “She already had web experience, and understood how to connect editorial ideas to what was technically possible.” To handle much of the day-to-day editorial work, Felman and Mason brought in Samantha Schnee, who, as an editor at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope, brought a literary magazine background to the mix. From that point on, with an initial NEA grant in hand, “it was really a triumvirate [triumfeminate?] that launched the magazine,” says Mason.

Since then, Words Without Borders has published 1100 pieces from 110 countries and 80 languages — all of which can be accessed on their website — raising the profile of global literature in translation for English readers. Some of their pieces have become what Mandelbaum calls “site favorites that for years have remained intensely popular with our readers,” often driven by social networking media, particularly Stumble Upon and Wikipedia. Pieces on translation always receive a lot of hits, something Mason suspects is due to their being used in classes. A surprising favorite genre among their readers is poetry: Mandelbaum cites Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem “To kiss a forehead is to erase worry,” translated from the Russian, as a perennial top visit every year since it appeared in 2005, while “much of our recent China traffic goes to our excerpt from Ball Lightning by Liu Cixin.” A region’s importance in the news also has a direct impact on an issue’s popularity, Mandelbaum points out: “In terms of issues, I think we will always be known for the Iraq, Iran, and North Korean issues we did in 2003.”

Tablet & Pen is the fifth book-length anthology that Words Without Borders has published in the last few years: their first was Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers (W.W. Norton, 2007) which has sold just over 10,000 copies, followed by the more provocatively titled Literature from the “Axis of Evil”: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Other Enemy Nations (New Press, 2007) with over 12,000 copies sold to date. Most recent are a collection of writings on the end of the Cold War in Europe, The Wall in My Head (Open Letter, 2009) published on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (Ecco Press, 2010.) With the success of their latest title, Alane Mason hopes that Tablet & Pen will be a useful template for future books that will bring readers to works in translation: “Hopefully, we’ll be fortunate enough to get more high-profile editors like Reza, for anthologies covering all the parts of the world we haven’t done yet.”

DISCUSS: Will 2011 Be the Year Translated Lit Gains Traction in the US?

About the Author

Chip Rossetti

Chip Rossetti is the managing editor of the Library of Arabic Literature translation series at NYU Press. He is a translator of contemporary Arabic fiction.