Words Without Borders: Toward More Black Writers in Translation

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘The onus to publish Black voices from around the world is ultimately on the publishers themselves,’ writes one contributor to the January ‘Words Without Borders’ issue.

Image: Joël Andrianomearisoa, Untitled, 2016. Textile & plastic. By arrangement with the Primo Marella Gallery, and provided by Words Without Borders to Publishing Perspectives

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Becker: ‘Our Own Myopia’
Noting that the nonprofit Words Without Borders is—like many companies and organizations—”continuing efforts toward lasting structural change,” the Words Without Borders magazine editor Eric MB Becker has augmented the January edition’s review of some previously published international work by Black writers with a new addition.

A trio of new articles has been added—arriving online one day after the inauguration of Joe Biden and the United States’ first Black vice-president, Kamala Harris—featuring three voices on the question “How Do We Better Publish Black Writers in Translation?

“Less than a year after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led to renewed Black Lives Matter protests and a reckoning across American society,” Becker writes in his introduction to the archival and new material, “literary publishers—including this magazine—are seeking to address the deficit of Black writers published each year.”

Becker’s article is instructive, not least in his reference to Words Without Borders’ own self-examination.

Eric MB Becker. Image: Luisa Leme

“At Words Without Borders,” he writes, “we have begun to evaluate our own myopia when it’s come to better publishing and promoting Black writers. The danger of the single narrative, a double risk when publishing writers who are Black and write in a language other than English, is pervasive, and we’ll be working with outside advisors to assess and help guide our efforts.

“As we work to address our own shortcomings through sustainable, structural initiatives aimed at lasting change, we are taking inspiration in the work of Black writers in our archive whose work is testament to the multiplicity of Black life as it confronts structural racism (and its effects) throughout the globe.”

While commending the 11 works from seven languages revisited from past years as part of this month’s package, there’s special relevance and immediacy–responsive to the urgency Becker mentions–in the three new articles he has brought to the issue for a look at contemporary takes on issues of translation and the writings of Black authors.

As Becker writes, “In the wake of 2020’s racist violence, and subsequent organizing by the Black Lives Matter movement and others to combat white supremacy, literary magazines and publishers everywhere have, to differing degrees, made efforts to publish more Black writers. But as some Black writers and editors have pointed out, it is equally as important that we evaluate the assumptions and practices behind these initiatives.”

A Three-Voice Conversation

In the three articles, you’ll find Aaron Robertson, a United States-based translator; Sandra Tamele, who works in Mozambique; and Évelyne Trouillot of Haiti.

Aaron Robertson

From Robertson in “Publishers Need More Black Translator Friends,” there’s an important connection made to the fact that in most translation work, the translator serves as literary agent, trying to find an important work a publishing home. Robertson write:

Aaron Robertson

“The onus to publish Black voices from around the world is ultimately on the publishers themselves.

“During last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, however, it became clear that this will only ever be half of the struggle for recognition, if that. Though most of the work of translator outreach and relationship-building should fall on publishers, this is almost never the case.

“The hustle comes from those who are tired of needing to do most of the work. But we do it …

“The latter half of 2020 saw a number of publishers increase employee salaries, make headline-worthy senior-level hires, and commit to publishing more work by writers of color. These were positive developments, but I did not notice major stories about how these shifts can benefit the work that translators do.

“There is a place for artists in the Movement for Black Lives, which has never been exclusively about conditions in the United States. It has global ambitions.”

Sandra Tamele

Based in Maputo, the founding publisher of Editora Trinta Nove Zero, Sandra Tamele in “Developing a Publishing Infrastructure in Mozambique,” writes, “Literary translation is still underrated in Mozambique and most writers, who paradoxically draw inspiration from authors they read in translation, do not share my view that translation can be a tool to find and perfect one’s voice and writing, and that it has a huge potential to impact and diversify the literary tradition, as well as to bring gender equality to publishing.

Sandra Tamele

“In Mozambique, women are underrepresented in print and male publishers tend to be biased toward publishing men, claiming that female voices lack quality, substance, and creativity.

“I try to counteract this by publishing feminist voices that might inspire a new generation of female writers and translators through creative writing and through translation workshops as part of the annual literary translation competition I’ve organized since 2015.

“Building a readership and earning the trust and buy-in of both debut and established writers is proving difficult.

“So difficult that even with Editora 30.09 being shortlisted for the London Book Fair’s 2020 International Excellence Awards, its role as a Frankfurter Buchmesse Invitation Program publisher, and our two-year presence at the Sharjah Book Fair, the local literary community is still to grasp the extent of this opportunity to showcase Mozambican literature abroad.”

Évelyne Trouillot

From Port-au-Prince, Évelyne Trouillot’s message, translated by Paul Curtis Daw, is cinched in her article’s headline, “Respecting the Diversity of Creativity.” Her observations include a bracingly high view, the internationalist’s reach coming into view:

Évelyne Trouillot

“The hierarchy of nations affects the selection of books to a degree that should not be overlooked.

“Currently, at least in the case of Haiti, publishers generally choose from the corpus of books by Haitian authors published outside the country, specifically in France or Canada. In no way do I minimize the value of books published beyond Haiti, but I would simply like to underscore the limits of such an approach.

“Indeed, we can ask ourselves a number of questions. Do the choices of Anglophone editors reflect my country’s literary trends, given that those choices fall almost entirely within the range of Haitian works published elsewhere? To what extent are the literary dynamics present in a book’s country of origin taken into account by Anglophone editors?

“Typically, such an editor characterizes the translated work as a representative specimen of the country of origin’s literature, when in fact the editor sometimes has no inkling of the literary landscape in question …

“As a Black, non-Anglophone Haitian woman writer, I write about my personal world in my own languages (Creole and French) in order to move toward other people. With no concern for what a prospective Anglophone editor might think of my texts.”

The Diversity of ‘Diversity’

What you may find, if you can take the time to read these articulate essays, is that two things actually are at play here, thanks to Becker’s and Words Without Borders‘ curation and presentation.

First, it’s actually easy to understand the issues of limitation being described and assessed by each writer, and at that level, these articles are highly worthwhile because they light up points of constraint we’ve all felt at one time or another. Probably not the same restrictions being named here, but parallels. No one actually gets off scot-free in such media-soaked societies as those we inhabit today.

But second, there’s something about a diversity of translation—and when it’s real and why it works and what it takes–that’s quietly coursing through every line, even when one of these essayists isn’t directly addressing a point about translation. You realize, for example, that you’re reading Trouillot in a translation talking about translation. And her translator in this is male. Even here, choices have been made, frontiers have been crossed.

You leave these three colleagues with a wider understanding of what Becker has called “global blackness,” and of what he calls “this evolving dialogue’s plurality.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, and more from us on translation is here

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.