Anthology of Middle Eastern literature proves an audience for poetry in translation

By Harriet Staff

On PublishingPerspectives, Chip Rossetti looks at the success of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, an anthology of contemporary poetry and essays released last year and translated from four languages in a collaboration between Words Without Borders and editor Reza Aslan. The book faced skepticism that it could find an audience (particularly an American one) throughout its editorial process, and even Aslan admits he was "taken aback" when it hit #70 on Amazon. The 657-page collection included 130 pieces, many of which were translated to English for the first time from Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu.

Aslan describes the editing process as “basically, just a year of solid reading,” with help from the Words Without Borders team, as well as scholars and experts in the various literatures, many of whom were writers and translators themselves...

“It involved culling thousands of individual pieces and finding a common connection between them, a single sustaining narrative,” says Aslan. As it turned out, that overarching narrative — about how literature becomes a tool for forming national and regional identities, and a means of social criticism — seemed to come out of the stories themselves, according to Aslan. “For me, it was just a matter of putting the individual works in a chronological, thematic order to allow that theme to rise to the surface.”

Its success was less of a surprise to Words Without Borders, the online magazine that's spent over ten years building a case (and a market) for English-language translations of global literature. Drawing over 30,000 unique visitors a month (45% of whom come from outside the United States), this is the fifth anthology they've brought to book-form in the last couple of years, all of which have sold around 10,000 copies. Words Without Borders credits Aslan's high profile with helping to sell out the first 15,000 print run of Tablet & Pen, but Words Without Borders have their own impressive track record of raising the profile of international poetry.

Since then, Words Without Borders has published 1100 pieces from 110 countries and 80 languages — all of which can be accessed on their website — raising the profile of global literature in translation for English readers. Some of their pieces have become what [Joshua] Mandelbaum calls “site favorites that for years have remained intensely popular with our readers,” often driven by social networking media, particularly Stumble Upon and Wikipedia. Pieces on translation always receive a lot of hits, something Mason suspects is due to their being used in classes. A surprising favorite genre among their readers is poetry: Mandelbaum cites Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem “To kiss a forehead is to erase worry,” translated from the Russian, as a perennial top visit every year since it appeared in 2005, while “much of our recent China traffic goes to our excerpt from Ball Lightning by Liu Cixin.” A region’s importance in the news also has a direct impact on an issue’s popularity, Mandelbaum points out: “In terms of issues, I think we will always be known for the Iraq, Iran, and North Korean issues we did in 2003.”