What drew you to Words Without Borders (and literature in translation more generally)? What is your personal relationship to language and translation?
It is so cliché to say, but I participated in an exchange program and it changed my life. More specifically, I had the opportunity to study in Belgium for a cumulative two years, staying with host families and attending both high school and college courses. I knew six words of French when my host family first picked me up at the airport, and I had to learn the language from scratch. Thanks to that program (and the diligence of my teachers, friends, and host families), a curiosity about French, Belgium, languages, and international literature flourished where it hadn’t been previously.
From there, I double-majored in French and English at the University of Vermont, then I went on to teach English in Chalons-en-Champagne after graduation. Around that time, I began work on my current manuscript, which focuses on the town of Szubin, Poland, during World War II, and a POW camp just outside the town, where Nazis imprisoned my grandfather. I took that manuscript to the University of Pittsburgh as part of my MFA in creative nonfiction writing. To facilitate the translation that’s been necessary to complete the work, I had the opportunity to study Polish with Oscar Swan, and one of my first assignments in his independent study was to translate part of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. (My written Polish turned out okay; my spoken Polish truly vexed him, as I kept forgetting cases and dropping a French accent on top.) In between, I took over the Translation department at The Offing, where I read and edited submissions until 2020.
Words Without Borders was a frequent companion all those years, because it was difficult to find innovative work, translated to English from French, by emerging translators. It helped inform not only my taste in translated literature, but also my interest in translation as a profession and translators as writers and artists. This was enormously helpful to my responsibilities at The Offing, too. At a certain point, my primary reason for picking up books was who translated them—the author and press were secondary, as was the subject matter. The best part of literature in translation is how it encourages you to interpret the world—reality, culture, time, history, relationships—in a different way. The way anglophone literature tells stories (hero’s journey, rising and falling action) is in the minority globally, and what a gift it is that translators help bring the rest of the world into focus for us.
Could you share some of your favorite books and/or writers? What do you look for in a great book?
As a former bookseller, I used to joke that this question was super mean—I love all my book children equally! Honestly, though, I rarely put down a book dissatisfied. It’s why I’d make a terrible critic.
I love nature writing (Camille T. Dungy, Kerri ní Dochartaigh, Jessica J. Lee, Aimee Nezhukumatathil) and poetry (Ross Gay, Ocean Vuong, Joy Priest). I love those “slim” books people are always talking about (Small Things Like These, Kibogo, Linea Nigra, I Who Have Never Known Men, The Employees, The Blue Book of Nebo, Em, Minor Detail). I love books that are absolute units (The Books of Jacob, Our Share of Night, The Love Songs of W. E. B. DuBois, Moon and the Mars). I love short stories (The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Some of Them Will Carry Me, Love After the End, Milk Blood Heat, Where the Wild Ladies Are). I’m getting more into horror, speculative fiction, and sci-fi (Becky Chambers, Stephen Graham Jones, Cherie Dimaline, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah). I love nonfiction that’s doing something really interesting with form and truth (Antiman, Out of the Sugar Factory, White Magic, A History of My Brief Body). I love Jenny Odell and Sayaka Murata, Olga Tokarczuk and Kyung-sook Shin, Brandon Taylor and the Calico Series from Two Lines Press, Mieko Kawakami and Yaa Gyasi, Marie NDiaye and Akwaeke Emezi. Some of my favorites from the last year were The End of Drum Time, Animal Life, and Carnality. But my top rec at the store was always Piranesi. And some translators I’ll read no matter what are Anton Hur, Jeffrey Zuckerman, Emma Ramadan, and Robin Myers.
Are there languages, themes, or genres that you’re eager to see more of in English translation?
We need more contemporary Belgian francophone books translated to English that aren’t thrillers, policiers, or Amélie Notthomb!
Before coming to WWB, you worked at White Whale Bookstore in Pittsburgh. Could you tell us about your experience as a bookseller? How has it informed your work at WWB?
The best part of working in a bookstore is talking to people in your community about books. As the events director, I also had the opportunity to plan and schedule book events catered specifically to Pittsburgh—from local authors and regional interests to national tours and virtual events with international writers and translators. I was constantly reading catalogs and galleys months ahead of their publication dates, sending blurbs to presses, and thinking about the books specific customers might like or the events certain local partners might enjoy. Forming relationships with independent publishers, other booksellers, writers, and avid readers was my favorite part of the job. And I really miss chatting up Pittsburghers about books!
I believe my enthusiasm for those relationships translates well to my work now at WWB. Something I admire so much about the organization is how it fosters connections and how, as part of its mission, it’s determined to be a good global literary citizen for the long term. In an industry where many systems at play drive folks toward burnout or jadedness, WWB still has so much genuine excitement for the possibilities held within international literature. And it reminds me of the unadulterated delight I felt as a bookseller when someone picked up Igifu on my recommendation, or when someone told me that a specific event we’d hosted was life-affirming.
Beyond literature and translation, what are your passions and interests?
I love being outdoors (running, hiking, walking), baking, going to the movies by myself, and watching the Pittsburgh Penguins. I’m in the market for new hobbies, so if you have any recs, let me know!
Based in Pittsburgh, PA, Anna received her BA in English and French from the University of Vermont and her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She’s also spent time working and studying in Belgium and France. Anna was the translation editor for The Offing from 2016 to 2020. From 2019 to 2023, she was the events manager, then events director, at White Whale Bookstore. In 2021, she won the NAIBA Joe Drabyak Spirit Award for Handseller of the Year. She’s been working on a book since 2013 about the town of Szubin, Poland, during World War II, and might even finish a full draft someday.
Copyright © 2023 by Anna Claire Weber.