Words Without Borders Updates Its Look and Mission: ‘A Guided Journey’

In News by Porter Anderson

A big step forward for the 19-year-old nonprofit, Words Without Borders re-introduces its work in a new, agile site redesign.

The June 7 home page of the Words Without Borders redesigned site. Artwork: Azuka Muoh, ‘Omuma,’ 2021. Archival Giclée Print on Hahnemuhle fine art paper, 48 x 36 inches. Page image: Words Without Borders

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

A June 8 Event Is Set for 6 p.m. ET / 10 p.m. GMT
Many readers of Publishing Perspectives are familiar with our coverage of Words Without Borders, the nonprofit translation center and magazine led by executive director and publisher Karen Phillips; editorial director Susan Harris; and digital director and senior editor Eric MB Becker.

Today (June 7), Words Without Borders has opened a redesigned site, with an eye to its 20th anniversary next year.

In an introductory article by its editors, the program writes. “As Words Without Borders nears 20 years of publishing, it can boast more than 3,000 writers from more than 140 countries and nearly as many languages.

“Among these writers are Elena Ferrante, Olga Tokarczuk, Jokha Alharthi, Alain Mabanckou, László Krasznahorkai, and Yoko Tawada, all of whom appeared in WWB early in their international careers. In the meantime, the digital landscape has undergone enormous transformation, and the new WWB is about capitalizing on these new capabilities to connect to readers and readers-to-be.”

Merve Emre and Adam Dalva. Images: Words Without Borders

A celebratory digital event is set for Wednesday (June 8) at 6 p.m. ET / 22:00 GMT with the New Yorker critic Merve Emre and Words Without Borders books editor Adam Dalva. Advance registration is required to attend, and that registration is available here.

Probably the main operational change that Words Without Borders readers, members, and donors will notice is that the format of publishing a key monthly package of stories is giving way to a daily publication approach. “WWB will now publish new content daily,” the editors write, “presenting a mix of fiction, essays, reportage, poetry, criticism, and interviews about the most exhilarating writing around the world.

“Our new home makes it easy to create conversations and connections between writing from across the world—and across our vast archive—by organizing them into compelling collections, which you can browse from our home page. Our new model seeks to become less bound by borders of any kind. By expanding the possibilities of what we publish each day, we aim to deepen the connections between writers (and writing) from the most disparate perspectives and places.”

“By expanding the possibilities of what we publish each day, we aim to deepen the connections between writers (and writing) from the most disparate perspectives and places.”Words Without Borders' Editors

Today’s activation of the redesign is considered a beta version “with complete archives through the last five years, as well as a selection of WWB Campus resources available under the Learn tab in the navigation. The site’s search functionality is expected now to let readers find content “by author, translator, language, geography, genre, original-language text, theme, available educational materials, and more.

“If you’d like us to choose work for you,” the site’s operators write, “you can avail yourself of our ‘Surprise Me’ feature,” located in the Read tab of the top-bar navigation strip, administrators write in their lead story. “Similarly, the site integrates enhanced multimedia features, including work read by the authors themselves in the original language, providing yet another path into a writer’s oeuvre. Each page on the new WWB now offers the possibility of a guided journey, leading readers from one writer to the next according to an array of interests, with improved reading recommendations, contributor bios, and more.”

In coming months, the program expects to surface more if its archival work, until the full collection is in place, a portfolio said to include as many as 12,000 pieces. Today’s arrival of the new look and feel is being seen for the first time with material from:

  • Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Olga Tokarczuk
  • Jokha Alharthi
  • Fernanda Melchor
  • Boubacar Boris Diop
Support for Translators Rises

Olga Tokarczuk speaks at the Jerusalem International Book Forum, May 15. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Words Without Borders‘ progress in its presentation and digital home arrives at a good time, as translation and translators gain visibility and favor in many areas.

Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 19 to 23) is giving central thematic attention to the work and people behind the translation-rights trading that’s at the center of any publishing trade show.

Jennifer Croft. Image: Nora Pushkin, CC-BY-SA 4.0

And some sharp new energy has gathered around issues of how translators are credited and paid for their work, particularly in the recent stances taken by translator and International Booker Prize jury chair Frank Wynne and Tokarczuk translator Jennifer Croft with support from the Booker Foundation, the Society of Authors, and others. Too long treated by many in publishing as secondary players–not unlike the position wrongly assigned so frequently to illustrators–translators are speaking more forcefully for themselves and finding that they have serious support in many places.

The influential Batchelder Award will now reject submissions that don’t name their translators on the books’ covers, for example, something that many consider the bare minimum of appropriate recognition and credit for a translator.

Since 2003, Words Without Borders has helped bring the work of translators as well as authors to light, both reliant on their work and adamantly supportive of their artistry. The program has prioritized both fair compensation and rightful credit for these indispensable members of world literature.

Making translated literature available at no charge to the international readership, the program has introduced to many readers the art and aesthetics of many lands and tongues, gradually shaping a complex, deep-field map of literary custom, innovation, and heritage from many parts of the planet.

Administrators tonight are pointing out that they have made a special commitment to “showcasing languages and voices that are rarely translated into English, such as creole, indigenous, and endangered languages.”

In 2018, Words Without Borders received the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize for its work in bringing “a robust, insightful array of otherwise unavailable international literature to grateful readers.”

The place to start now? Olga Tokarczuk’s essay for Words Without Borders, translated by Jennifer Croft.

In that essay, Ognosia, Tokarczuk writes:

“The traditional perception of the human being is undergoing dramatic changes today, not only as a result of the climate crisis, epidemic, and the discovery of the limits of economic development, but also through our new reflection in the mirror: the image of the white man, the conqueror in the suit or the safari helmet, fades and disappears, we see in its place something like one of the faces painted by Giuseppe Arcimboldo—organic, highly complex, incomprehensible, and hybrid—faces that are a synthesis of biological contexts, borrowings, and references.

“Now we are not so much a biont as a holobiont, that is, a group of different organisms living together in symbiosis. Complexity, multiplicity, diversity, mutual influence, metasymbiosis—these are the new perspectives from which we observe the world. Blurring before our eyes, as well, is a certain important aspect of the old system, which has seemed fundamental up until now—the division into two genders. Today it can be seen increasingly that human gender is more along the lines of a continuum with a range in concentration of features, rather than the old polar antagonism between two. Everyone can find their unique and proper place here. What a relief!”

Regular readers of Words Without Borders, know just what Tokarczuk is saying.

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

More from us 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.