The Written World: Writing in Translation

Blogger in Residence, Sophie Constable, shines the spotlight on two wonderful websites that are enriching our understanding of the world through international literature. 


Have you ever gone into a bookshop in another country only to find school textbooks? Or writing pads? Maybe pens. But no novels? It has dawned on me, slowly, how hard it is to get a book published in Uzbekistan, or Fiji, when there aren’t even any bookshops.

Our publishing world is primarily an English one. But without other languages, we would never have read Tolstoy. No Les Miserables, no Three Musketeers, no Miffy, no Tintin, no Pinocchio, no Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. No Bible, come to think of it. Isn’t it troubling that so many amazing voices are not being heard, particularly now at a time when global voices are so important to the world understanding itself in all its fabulous and complex diversity?

Well, here are two websites that are tackling the issue.


Words Without Borders (WWB) is a website specialising in publishing global works in translation, with each piece the creative work of both an author and a translator. They’ve published work from 130 countries, including significant amounts of writing from China, Brazil, Syria, and Iceland, among others. ‘For Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Guadeloupe, Honduras, Mongolia, and Somalia, to name only a few, we’ve published only one piece’, says Susan Harris, who has been with WWB since its launch in 2003.

WWB is dedicated to making international literature available in English in order to enrich readers’ understanding of the world. ‘Where much of the population is monolingual,’ Ms Harris says, which of course includes the U.S. and Australia, ‘most people’s knowledge of foreign cultures is restricted to what’s available in English.’ Further, much of what is translated into languages other than English first has to go through an English translation—A Nepali work will first be translated into English before it’s available in Lithuanian simply because there aren’t a lot of Nepali/Lithuanian bilinguists. ‘Everything we read is mediated at some point between source and delivery, and the greater the distance to the primary source, the greater the power those mediators have to shape and distort information,’ Ms Harris says. She goes on to explain that these mediators often perpetuate earlier misconceptions and generalisations, and the resulting simplistic abstractions lead to lack of understanding, fear, and worse. ‘We think literature is one of the best routes to cultural understanding,’ she says. ‘And on a personal level, I love international literature and want to be able to read work from all over the world, which I can do only in translation.’

A work that illustrates her passion is “Funeral for Walt Whitman“, by the Egyptian poet Abdel-Moneim Ramadan.  ‘It was recommended to us by the great poet Adonis,’ Ms Harris says. ‘Ramadan places Whitman in direct conversation with Lorca, any number of classical Arabic figures, and a clutch of early modernist and contemporary Iraqi poets.’ Thus linking poets across languages and generations, it demonstrates the crucial role that translation plays in the development of international literary culture.  ‘We can read the poem because it’s been translated into English,’ Ms Harris explains, ‘but Ramadan could write the poem because Lorca and Whitman have been translated into Arabic. So: a Syrian-Lebanese poet who writes in both Arabic and French recommends an Egyptian poet, who draws on classical Arabic figures as well as modern Iraqi writers, alludes to a Spanish master, foregrounds an American giant, and blends them all in a work both densely allusive and thrillingly original.’

I love it.

‘This is the power and importance of literature in translation,’ Ms Harris goes on to say. ‘When other poetic traditions are made accessible to us, they can only enrich our own. And when other cultures, other countries—other lives—come to us through this most personal and revealing of forms, we can truly engage with and enrich each other, and become true citizens of the world.’

Another site concerned with keeping voices personally authentic is Free Women Writers, a collective of Afghan writers and students advocating for gender equality and social justice in Afghanistan. Despite Afghanistan’s long literary history, Noorjahan Akbar started the site in response to finding the only reading material available in her home town was radicalising literature, ‘basically guidebooks on how to abuse women,’ Ms Akbar writes candidly in her post Three Years and Counting. ‘I had to do something. I didn’t have enough money to buy all the books and create a huge fire and dance around it like a witch, so I decided to work with a close friend, Batul Moradi, and create an alternative.’

Free Women Writers is an effort to make Afghan women feel connected to each other,’ she says. ‘Patriarchy thrives on isolating women. We are trying to dismantle that isolation by talking with each other and listening to each other through our writings. In addition, I think when a writer sees their piece published, translated and shared, they feel legitimised. We want to legitimise the voices of Afghan women. We want to say we are the ones qualified to tell our stories and define what being a woman in Afghanistan means. Our voices, our stories, our experiences are not only legitimate but essential for changing in Afghanistan.’

The journey started with the publication of an anthology of Afghan women’s writing, called Daughters of Rabia after Rabia Balkhi, the first recorded poetess in the Afghanistan region. ‘There is a long history of people memorising poetry, engaging in poetry competitions and holding poetry festivals in Afghanistan,’ Ms Akbar says. ‘These events still happen and are an important part of the culture.’ 

When the first print runs went out of print, Ms Akbar took the project online first through Facebook—‘Afghans love Facebook,’ she writes, and then through the website, to access more readers. Though most homes in Afghanistan aren’t connected to the internet, for Ms Akbar this was important because the online world—like the physical one—is dominated by men. ‘The online language is often hateful towards women,’ she says. ‘Platforms like ours provide a safe space for women online—especially since most women in Afghanistan don’t have a safe space to tell their stories offline.’ For some, cyberspace may be a safer place to be heard than at home, and women make the effort to connect, read, write and share despite the risk.

When asked if she has a favourite piece of writing on the site, Ms Akbar says ‘I really liked the poem “Stones of Honor,” but I think I am naming this one basically because I read it most recently. I am very proud of the women who write for Daughters of Rabia/Free Women Writers. Now, there is more than 125 women published on our platforms and every single one of their pieces is inspiring and precious to me.’ 

How fitting in a world where every voice counts.

Sophie ConstableSophie Constable has worked as a veterinarian and Antarctic researcher, been an expat trophy wife in the Middle East and did her PhD on health education with remote Australian Indigenous communities. Throughout, writing has remained her passion. She was awarded the NT Literary Award for her short story “Khmoc” and shortlisted in the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award for her novel Bloodline. This year she is excited to be part of the ACT Writers Centre HARDCOPY program. Sophie blogs at www.dogeared.com.au.

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