Translating Experience: NEA’s International Literary Exchanges
“Literary exchanges are one of the most effective ways to introduce people of different countries to one another.” So stated Chairman Dana Gioia when he introduced the NEA’s new initiative, International Literary Exchanges, in 2007. Less than four percent of books published in the United States are translations—and those that are lucky enough to be translated aren’t necessarily easy to find in your neighborhood chain bookstore. Through creative partnerships with other governments, the NEA provides the means to make contemporary foreign literature more available. The initiative, part of the U.S. Department of State’s Global Cultural Initiative, helps U.S. nonprofit presses to publish foreign works in English. Likewise, the participating foreign governments are expected to produce a volume of translated contemporary U.S. writing for their citizens, making U.S. literature more widely available in other languages.
The initiative began when the NEA, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and the U.S. Embassy in Mexico supported Lineas conectadas and Connecting Lines, bilingual volumes of contemporary U.S. and Mexican poetry, respectively. Since then, cultural ministries in several other countries have expressed interest in literary exchanges. By early 2009, the NEA will have provided support for five sets of anthologies, bringing the literature of Mexico, Russia, Northern Ireland, and Pakistan to readers in the United States. Conversely, thanks to the work of presses in those nations, more poems and short fiction by American authors are being read abroad.
To produce these anthologies, the NEA has tapped poets, translators, and editors who are respected in the small but vital field of literary translation. Olivia Sears, director of the San Francisco-based Center for the Art of Translation, served as translation editor for the anthology Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, forthcoming in February 2009 from Dalkey Archive Press.
“Having an NEA that is interested in translation is tremendous,” Sears said. “And the fact that these anthologies are being printed bilingually demonstrates the value of literary translation. That’s unusual.”
In all the books except the Northern Ireland anthologies, texts in both languages appear on facing pages. Contemporary Russian Poetry was the first time Dalkey Archive Press had printed in Cyrillic; the Illinois press released the volume of Russian poetry in 2007.
The market for these anthologies goes beyond the U.S. borders. Contemporary Russian Poetry is selling well in Europe, where Russian poetry is more popular than in the United States. “English is a bridging language,” Dalkey’s Associate Director Martin Riker said, explaining that many books are translated from English into other languages. “These anthologies are benefitting the entire English-speaking world.” The Russian partner, the Foundation for Creative Projects, produced a bilingual anthology of contemporary American poetry for sale in Russia in October 2007.
To drum up stateside interest in Russian poetry, Dalkey sent three Russian poets on a book tour that included a Washington, DC reading at the Library of Congress and a Chicago event cosponsored by the Poetry Foundation. Marketing the books is crucial, Riker said, praising the NEA for giving Dalkey the leeway to support a promotional budget as part of its publishing grant. “Foreign writers aren’t known here,” Riker said. “It’s kind of a Catch-22. The NEA wants to encourage more diversity in our own literature, but how do you get people to pay attention?”
The prospect of introducing contemporary American poets to readers abroad thrilled Kevin Prufer, the poet and editor tapped with selecting poems for an anthology that will be published in Pakistan later this year. He imagined his readers as curious and educated, but unfamiliar with anything written in the States after 1950. Compiling the anthology was what he called a “noble” task.
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