What drew you to Words Without Borders (and literature in translation more generally)? What is your personal relationship to language and translation?
My first really memorable encounter with WWB happened a few years ago, when I was teaching English in Bulgaria. A lot of my students were very advanced, which meant I got to skip the grammar and vocabulary and go right to English-language literature. I was having the best time bringing them this literature that I’d grown up reading—getting to walk into a classroom in the Balkans and show them the literature of the American South, for instance. But, because I was having such a good time and teaching whatever I felt like, the whole thing felt totally unfair. Despite it being an English class, I wanted to give them a chance to show me some of the literature that they’d grown up with, too. This meant that I needed to find a piece of classic Bulgarian literature, in a reliable, well-edited English translation. And I needed it to be easily available, online, for free.
There are not a lot of places where you can find that, and there were, I think, even fewer just a few years ago. Words Without Borders had not just one piece that fit those criteria but multiple—classic and contemporary literature in a not-very-frequently-translated language, free and online, with introductions and translators’ notes and editorial discussions. And, even more strikingly, everyone involved was getting paid! And so, with these students, I got to discuss not just this poem they all had known since childhood, but also the dynamics of translation and the differences between English and Bulgarian: what kind of choices had the translator made, and why, and what would the students have done differently? What was impossible to capture in the translated version—and what new insights or experiences did they have when they encountered the translation of this familiar work?
So, even though that was well before I started working at WWB, that initial experience absolutely drew me to the organization.
I was drawn to this particular job in part because I realized that, while social media is full of lively discussions of books and literature—including a lot of translated literature—people outside of professional literary circles and specifically outside of literary translation circles aren’t necessarily talking about literary translation as such. In the wider online book culture, in recent years, there’s been a huge surge in discussion of translated books. That’s even more true among younger audiences. But there’s no acknowledgment of the translator, nor is there a lot of acknowledgment of the specific qualities of the translation itself. There’s this huge aspect of the conversation missing even as the popularity of literary translation grows. Working on WWB’s social media was an opportunity to address that lag in the broader online discussion.
Could you share some of your favorite books and/or writers? What do you look for in a great book?
In both translated and nontranslated literature, I’m drawn to the strange and fantastical and macabre, probably because I was brought up on a steady diet of Southern Gothic and Southern grotesque. I love Italo Calvino, Camilla Grudova, Mariana Enríquez, Brian Evenson, Umberto Eco, Sayaka Murata. This year I also loved Carnality, Jawbone, Time Shelter, and Boulder.
Are there languages, themes, or genres that you’re eager to see more of in English translation?
More children’s literature!
You recently graduated from University College London with a degree in English linguistics. Could you tell us about that experience? Why did you choose to study linguistics?
My master’s research was very much at the intersection of linguistics and literary studies. I was looking at the development of linguistic nostalgia at the turn of the nineteenth century, examining the way it manifested in two very different movements. One of these movements wanted to standardize the English language, legitimizing it, and legitimizing educated speakers, through guides to “correct” speech. And the other one was Romanticism, with its ethnographic tendencies, its delight in dialect and minority languages, its interest in, to quote Wordsworth, “the real language of men.” But in both cases, expressed very differently, these two movements were deeply nostalgic and interested in preserving or reviving some form of language seen as more pure and more authentic. I find this interesting for the same reason I’m fascinated by utopian language projects, like the Medieval/early modern preoccupation with reviving the language of Adam—a language in which the word has a totally nonarbitrary relationship to its referent, where the word is the thing.
People are and have been historically uncomfortable with their own language, even in the case of something like English, with its hegemonic status. Actually, probably all the more so in the case of a dominant, non-endangered language. Again and again, especially in periods of turmoil and change, we see speakers expressing discomfort with the fact that language has its limits. And we see speakers grappling with the fact that everyone is constantly translating, within even their own language: because language changes over time, because language splits into dialects, and also, on an even more subtle level, because language splits into idiolects, with each speaker using the tool differently. So there’s always a disjuncture between the speaker and the hearer, and the history of any language is filled with examples of people trying to make sense of and compensate for that.
Literary translation, of course, makes that constant process of translation literal and explicit. If every generation of language users expresses this constantly churning discomfort about the unworkability of language, then literary translation acknowledges the discomfort, examines it, and places it front and center. Of course, the goal of translation is to bridge those unbridgeable communicative gaps, not just examine them. But good translation, from what I can tell, finds momentum and a compelling tension in those gaps: it doesn’t run from them or pretend they don’t exist. Which is why I like working with translators, and reading what they have to say about their work.
Beyond literature and translation, what are your passions and interests?
Cooking ridiculously elaborate dinners that aren’t ready until 11 pm, walking around aimlessly, leaving long voice messages for my friends. The history and folklore of Southern Louisiana. Complaining. I think that’s it, maybe I should get a hobby or something.
Eleanor Stern is the social media editor at Words Without Borders. From New Orleans, she holds a BA in English and Creative Writing from Barnard College and an MA in English Linguistics from University College London. She currently lives in London, where she writes fiction and nonfiction about literature and language for outlets like the New Inquiry and Joyland while trying to get it together and finish up a novel.
Copyright © 2023 by Eleanor Stern. All rights reserved.