“Around the Globe”: International Diversity in YA Writing Event at the NYPL

By Nadia Kalman

Last Wednesday evening, the New York Public Library hosted “Around the Globe,” a lively panel discussion marking the launch of Words Without Borders' first-ever International Young Adult Literature issue.

In their introduction to the issue, guest editors Briony Everroad and Daniel Hahn make a passionate case for the genre:

If you can get past the thick fog of casual snobbery that always seems to envelop this subject, it seems perfectly obvious that a lot of the most interesting writing happening in the English-speaking world just now is being published as YA (young adult) fiction.

That same passion was evident during the panel discussion itself, which included Everroad, who spent a decade as an editor at Random House UK and founded the Harvill Secker Young Translators' prize to recognize new and emerging translators. Other panelists included Roxanne Hsu Feldman, the Middle School Librarian at the Dalton School, who is originally from Taiwan; Arthur A. Levine, who heads an eponymous book imprint at Scholastic, and is a leading publisher of translated children's and YA literature; and Padma Venkatraman, an award-winning author, most recently of the novel, A Time to Dance. The panel was moderated by Marc Aronson, an author and a professor at Rutgers’ graduate library school.

The panelists spoke about the joys, as well as the challenges, of publishing international YA literature. The wonderful thing about many works of contemporary YA fiction, such as the pieces published in Words Without Borders, is that they avoid didacticism and seek, instead, to see the world through the eyes of their protagonists. "There's a world of great authors," Arthur A. Levine said, and Briony Everroad spoke of being "thrilled by the breadth and quality" of the work she read for the YA issue.

However, as with mainstream fiction, there is always the danger of exoticizing people from other parts of the world. Roxanne Hsu Feldman described "Asian-flavored" metaphors and an over-emphasis on historical tragedies, often redeemed through the heroics of white outsiders, that can accompany well-intentioned books about Asia written by American authors . Padma Venkatraman suggested that authors "need to be really careful when [they] write outside [their own] culture."

Publishing international authors helps to address this issue, since they write from within their own cultures, and are perhaps more willing to write the small, "slice-of-life" stories that are sometimes missing from the field. And yet, even if an international author is being published, it's important to make sure the book's cover is not sending an exoticizing message. "If it's China, can we please have calligraphy all over the cover?" Briony Everroad said, with irony.

Another issue, which Arthur A. Levine described, is that, in order to decide whether to publish a work from another language, publishers may need to commission a translation into English. That hasty, "first-draft" translation sometimes fails to do justice to the original work.

Levine talked about a recent experience: a German-speaking editor spoke highly of a hilarious German book, so Levine commissioned a translation. However, when he read the translated book, he found little humor in it, and called the editor into his office, where she re-translated sections of the book, patiently explaining, for instance, "This is a joke about cow piss."

The questions at the end of the panel included, somewhat poignantly, a request for the full, translated texts of the novels that were excerpted in the magazine. Many of those novels have not yet been published in English, and that is one of reasons Words Without Borders produced the YA issue. The magazine provides an opportunity for editors and publishers in the Anglophone world to learn about exciting international writing. As Executive Director Karen Phillips put it, "Our hope is always that someone will find it, and fall in love, and get it to you.”

Click below to listen to the panel discussion. Audio courtesy of New York Public Library.


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