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John Wilson

In Translation

Words Without Borders is an online magazine which seeks "to promote international communication through translation of the world's best writing—selected and translated by a distinguished group of writers, translators, and publishing professionals—and publishing and promoting these works (or excerpts) on the web," as well acting as "an advocacy organization for literature in translation." Their cause is a noble one, and seriously underfunded; you should consider sending them a check.

I say that even though the anthology just published with their imprimatur—Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers (Anchor Books)—is a disaster. The trouble begins right off the bat, with the introduction by Andre Dubus III, who recalls how Americans responded to the 1979 embassy takeover in Tehran and again after 9/11 with orgies of violence against immigrants. (You don't remember it happening quite that way? Maybe this book isn't for you.) The publicity material for the anthology features a helpful interview comparing censorship in Iran and North Korea with censorship in the United States. (You always wondered why so many people in airports are toting blockbusters by James Patterson and his ilk, and so few are carrying novels from Iran? Now you know.) Over the project there hovers the notion that reading literature in translation is a quasi-political act. You want to strike a blow against American fascism? Read a novel from the Hungarian and accrue virtue, distinguishing yourself from your dreadfully provincial fellow Americans.

The selections themselves—by 27 writers from all around the world—struck me as largely mediocre, despite the luster of their distinguished "recommenders" (a number of whom are writers I admire). I say that not with satisfaction but with disappointment, as a reader with a healthy appetite for a lot of different kinds of writing. (Of course, this judgment is in part no doubt simply a matter of taste, but taste ...

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