Blog Post

Words Without Borders

Like most people, I live in multiple worlds. My life, like yours, is a Venn diagram with someoverlap some of the time . . . Two of my favorite worlds--New Media and global fiction--overlapped today when I came upon the Words WithoutBorders site. Words Without Borders is an online magazine where shortstories written around the world are translated and offered for downloading. You become a member by offering a donation that "feels right to you." There are currently 8000 members worldwide. This is so important because 50% of all books in translation now published worldwide are from English but only 6% are translated into English. That's pretty appallingly isolationist. How can English-speakers pretend to be cosmopolitan if we are both notoriously bad at learning other languages---and then don't even bother to translate what is written in other languages into the only one we happen to speak. No wonder the rest of the world knows so much more about us than we know about them.  Shame on us!

I think I first became aware of this imbalance when I taught in Japan. I write about this in Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. I was there teaching English and my best students all wanted to translate Japanese writers into English. That's why they were in my classes. But their English was stilted and I warned them that most translators translate from another language into their native language, and I suggested that  they should be translating from English into Japanese. One of my favorite students was persistent. She wanted to translate her favorite writer, the brilliant woman writer Fumiko Enchi, into English, and said (I'm quoting now from my own memoir--that feels a little weird!), "No, sensei. We Japanese already translate hundreds of Western writers into Japanese. I want Americans to see what excellent women writers we have."

Go to the Words Without Borders website (, join, make a contribution to a worthy cause, and read some great short stories by writers from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, the Middle East.


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