Alane Salierno Mason is a senior editor at W. W. Norton & Company. She is an editor at Words Without Borders (WWB), the online magazine for international literature. Mason graduated in 1986 from Carolina with a bachelor of arts degree with honors in creative writing and highest honors in English from the college.
1) How has the mission and modus operandi of Words without Borders evolved since its launch fifteen years ago?
I would say that the mission — to foster international communication through literary translation, to provide authors around the world an entry point into English in a form that is approachable not only by specialists but attractive to general readers and students — has remained the same. Gradually we’ve been able to expand our capacity to fulfill the initial dreams. For instance, we have just launched an education program to create curricular units in world literature that can be used in high schools and colleges, and the first units, on Mexican, Chinese, and Egyptian literature, are currently being “test driven” in 19 public schools around the US. We’ve long hoped to be able to supplement our textual context with audio and video — and a couple of weeks ago, we just launched our first author video, a gorgeous and moving piece with Palestinian author Atef Abu Saif. [http://wordswithoutborders.org/article/writing-the-lives-of-gaza-video-interview-with-atef-abu-saif]
As for the modus operandi, with the help of both institutional and private donors who share our mission and love our work, we’ve been able to grow, slowly but securely, from being volunteer-led, with one half-time paid position, to supporting three full-time and two part-time staff positions. That means we can do more, more consistently, at a higher level of professionalism.
2) What has been your biggest surprise?
Early on, I was surprised by how easy it was to find literary work from some places I might have thought difficult — like Iran — and how hard to find work from large swathes of the rest of the world, Asia, Africa. I was surprised — though it will sound naive — that the only literature we could find from North Korea, back in 2003, was directly propagandistic, not just avoiding state-sensitive subjects but always coming around to some sort of homage to the Great Leader. This, I had never imagined outside of an Orwell novel. I’d imagined we’d find a vein of samizdat literature, as if it were Czechoslovakia in the 1980s.
3) What has been your biggest disappointment?
I suppose that my biggest disappointment is entirely personal. I made the decision long ago to stick with my full-time job as an editor at W.W. Norton & Company, one of the best jobs in book publishing. But having started WWB in part so that I could read much more literature from around the world, I now find that I have time to read only a fraction of all that WWB publishes.
4) How did the partnership with the Spain-USA Foundation and the March 2013 issue of “Spain’s Great Untranslated” come about?
Our founding editor and current board chairwoman Samantha Schnee, a gifted and accomplished translator from Spanish in her own right, was at a London Book Fair meeting with Valerie Miles, who recommended applying for the grant. Samantha worked with Aurelio Major, Mercedes Monmany, and Javier Aparicio who selected the authors and recommended specific pieces, which we then matched with some of our favorite Spanish language translators. The issue was also published in book form thanks to the grant from Spain-USA.
5) What steps would you recommend to a Spanish author trying to get published in the U.S. market?
First, I would recommend a stiff dose of realism. One of the main ongoing domestic products of the U.S. is culture, and we home-grow an awful lot of writers, from a vast variety of “terroirs,” some even writing in Spanish or coming from Spanish-language cultures and family backgrounds. What would you advise an olive-oil producer from California trying to get into the Spanish market? You’d tell them it’s damned difficult and perhaps something less polite.
But of course, literature is not olive oil and a great writer provides something arguably more unique. Occasionally an author might get so much international attention that eventually U.S. readers must take note. Yet even that is not a guarantee of commercial success; I was at Harcourt Brace, where Jose Saramago was published, before he won the Nobel Prize, and I recall his books selling under 1,000 copies. Sometimes a translation might take off first in the UK, and a spark from that flame travels to the US and leads to a success here as well; I’m thinking of Shadow of the Wind. Yet in general, authors in the US must be more career-minded than ever before, and a Spanish-language writer wanting to be published here should not just be thinking about book publication, but about building a second, US-based career: frequent publication in US magazines and periodicals or UK-based journals like Granta; a social media following; and ideally a university position, journalistic posting or lecture circuit that has him/her in the US regularly and making many US connections.
6) How has the advent of the internet helped or hindered foreign authors in their quest to be translated and published in the United States?
The internet makes it much easier for translators and authors to work together, of course. It also makes it much easier to research the lists of agents and publishers, and if one joins communities of interest in Spanish-language literature on social media, the names of agents, publishers, and others who share that interest are likely to pop up. I can’t see any hindrance, except that faced by all authors of books — readers spend a lot more time checking Facebook and reading short snippets on line, and that time must come from somewhere; in many cases, from the longer and more solitary immersion required by books.
7) What would help you identify interesting works from Spain?
I assume that this is directed to me as a book editor, in which capacity, I trust most the strong recommendations of others I know who follow the literature closely, who also know that because Norton distributes so many smaller presses that publish a great deal of contemporary work in translation, I can’t really till the same field. I might be able to pursue a great new translation of a classic work, or a work that is somehow a once-in-a-generation standout with extraordinary chance of success, already fully translated so that my colleagues and I can all evaluate it in the same way we would a new English-language work.
Fortunately, WWB has much more freedom to take chances on new and interesting writing (the reason the idea attracted me in the first place), and relies both on recommendations of translators and others in our network, and on submissions from cultural agencies.
8) What steps would you recommend cultural ministries take to increase the visibility of their authors within the U.S. market?
Providing excellent and substantial translation samples is certainly a great start. Unfortunately most cultural ministries do not, themselves, have publishing experience so their judgement about what is most likely to “travel,” and their ability to evaluate a translation that they commission, is not always reliable. They should hire first-rate, experienced editors to make a more rigorous selection of the work that they are willing to back with a translation sample, then hire only the best translators and make those translation samples longer. Also, they tend only to translate novel excerpts, when in fact, essays and stories are more conducive to publication in periodicals, where many authors begin to get noticed. Translating and helping to get these shorter works placed would help "position" the authors much better for publication of a longer work. In short, the cultural ministries should probably invest a lot more in fewer authors (but of course, it is very difficult to pick winners, and there is an inherent conflict with the governmental expectation that ministries should be promoting a whole industries). Even beyond that, they might provide those selected authors with seminars on promotion and career-building in the US — or choose to invest more in authors who already have those skills. I don’t really like suggesting that, but I’m afraid it reflects a jaded and reluctant realism. I can imagine that this idea of authorial self-promotion, culturally, might be a very difficult nut to crack, as I have the impression (perhaps wrongly) than European authors still see themselves more as “artistes” while Americans are accustomed to an idea of the writing life in which the author is more of an artisan, ready and willing to hang out a promotional shingle.
9) How did Words without Borders Campus come about, and what do you hope to achieve through this effort? Do you envision partnerships with universities around the globe?
Early on, my experience at Norton led me to believe that educational publishing can provide great stability and, in many cases, the most successful long-term life for books. It was also clear that if we wanted to broaden the horizons of American readers, our best chance of doing so was to capture their interest while they’re still young and curious. At the same time, American high schools and colleges have become intent on providing a more “global” curriculum for their students. So it was obvious that we had something they needed, and that we just needed to build a channel to make our work more accessible to them and more practical for them to use. Ultimately, it took the vision, dedication, and hard work of our long-time board member Doug Unger, a professor of English at University of Nevada-Las Vegas and faculty for the Black Mountain Institute, to create a prototype, in collaboration with WWB’s education consultant, Nadia Kalman. As for international partnerships, we've already had interest in the WWB Campus from schools abroad, and since it is a Web-based program, it can easily travel.
10) What needs to happen in the United States for more than three percent of available books to be translations?
Some time must pass. I do believe that more recent college graduates and those to come have a much greater international awareness than their elders. They travel more, they feel more globally connected — through the internet and through immigrant and international student friends. Also, the percentage might be adjusted on the other end, in that certain amount of English-language work is likely drifting away from books — in fact, I’m tripping over the question of what “available books” now means and might mean in the near future. In any case, I’m not sure that the 3% figure is still up-to-date. Should we be bullish and bet on 10% by 2025? And is that more or less likely than carbon-reduction in the United States?
Alane Salierno Mason
Vice President and Executive Editor, W.W. Norton & Company
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10110
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