What drew you to Words Without Borders (and literature in translation more generally)? What is your personal relationship to language and translation?
When I was in middle school, my French teacher connected me with a French student my age who was looking to participate in a cultural exchange. She came to stay with my family for a few weeks, and I spent some time with hers in Alsace and Brittany the following summer. Living with a host family with only a couple of years of basic French under my belt was both exciting and very humbling, and the experience spurred me to continue studying the language with an intensity I hadn’t felt before.
About a year later, my high school French teacher handed me a copy of an absurdist French play called The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesco—the first book I read in French. While the language was simple enough for me to understand, the text itself was playful and formally inventive in a way I hadn’t yet encountered in English-language literature. I began to understand that a lot of the work that I found most interesting wasn’t coming out of English, but from other languages instead.
I went on to study French and theater in college, where I spent a lot of time thinking and writing about authors who were stretching and subverting language—either by incorporating slang or multilingualism into their work, or by participating in artistic and literary movements like the Oulipo. My school also offered several classes and workshops in translation, and after trying my hand at it, I fell in love. I went on to get my master’s degree in literary translation, which led to an internship here at WWB. I started following the magazine in college and found it to be an invaluable resource, both as an enthusiastic reader of diverse international literature and as someone seeking out writing on more “behind the scenes” translation topics: how translators get their start, how they approach their work, and how translated literature fits into the larger literary ecosystem.
I’m especially happy to be working with WWB Campus, our education program, because I never would have found my way into languages and literature without my teachers’ encouragement. I’m thrilled to help teachers inspire their students with world literature, whether by connecting them with texts and authors that reflect their own cultural identities and linguistic backgrounds, or by introducing them to work from parts of the world that they wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.
Could you share some of your favorite books and/or writers? What do you look for in a great book?
It’s so hard to pick favorites, but I’m often drawn to authors who are curious about and playful with language, like Elif Batuman, Anne Garréta (whose books are translated by Emma Ramadan), and Lydia Davis, to name a few. Recently, I’ve been seeking out authors like Annie Ernaux and Édouard Louis, who write autofiction and memoirs that draw on sociology. I also enjoy big novels that dig into the psychologies of their characters, like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (translated by Ann Goldstein). Some other recent favorites include Elisa Shua Dusapin’s The Pachinko Parlor (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins), The Enigma of the Return by Dany Laferrière (translated by David Homel), Paradais by Fernanda Melchor (translated by Sophie Hughes), and Identitti by Mithu Sanyal (translated by Alta L. Price).
Are there languages, themes, or genres that you’re eager to see more of in English translation?
I’m always excited to see graphic literature in translation, and while the Franco-Belgian bande dessinée industry is particularly active, I’d like to see even more graphic fiction and nonfiction from other parts of the world.
You spent a year teaching English near Lyon, France. How has that experience informed your work with WWB Campus?
I worked as an English teaching assistant in the banlieue of Lyon during the 2020–2021 school year. While I had a terrific experience working with my students and learning from my colleagues, it was a trying time for students and educators alike. Students in France were alternating between distanced and in-person learning at the time, and classes were often disrupted due to illness and absence. Teaching during the pandemic opened my eyes to the challenges educators face when trying to reach students both inside and outside the classroom. So, when I started working with WWB Campus, I had already spent some time thinking about resources and strategies to keep students engaged. What excites me about WWB Campus is that it functions both as a resource that students can navigate independently and as a teaching tool that educators can use in the classroom. Whenever I’m researching new contextual resources or searching for new images and videos, I think back to my students and try to choose materials that would have interested them.
Beyond literature and translation, what are your passions and interests?
I taught myself embroidery several years ago and devoted a lot of time to it during lockdown, working on ambitious, large-scale projects like embroidering clothing. It’s a very repetitive activity, which I find relaxing, and it keeps my hands busy while I listen to podcasts and watch TV. I also tap danced for many years. Now that I’m back in New York, I’m hoping to dust off my shoes and start taking classes again!
Maggie Vlietstra is the education program coordinator at Words Without Borders and a translator from French. She holds a BA in French and theater from Barnard College and an MFA in literary translation from French from Boston University, where she received the 2022 Shmuel Traum Translation Prize. Her translations have been published by La Piccioletta Barcaand Trilingual Press. Originally from Minneapolis, she lives in Brooklyn.
Copyright © 2023 by Maggie Vlietstra.