12/02/2010 01:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Development Work Includes Literary Translation? You Sure?

In order to explain the importance of literary work to the broader project of social justice, international exchange, and democracy, I might need to start in Turkey.

I was one of very few Americans to attend the Writers and Literary Translators International Congress (WALTIC) in Istanbul from September 2-5, 2010. I met one other American, and read the presentation abstract of a third. That's it.

Strange doings. Strange because, as one Ms. Rahman noted in her WALTIC presentation on development work as it relates to literary work, English is the language through which the Northeastern Indian poets who work in regional dialects still remain connected to most world literature -- they read the translations in English. That's how they get their world literature. It's how most writers working in the world's many regional dialects access canonical literature.

I appreciated Ms. Rahman's message because of, well, Mongolia.
(These threads weave together, I promise; we just need to go over to Mongolia for a minute.)

In July of 2009 I was finishing my second stint in Ulaanbaatar. During my first, I sent my translations of contemporary leftist Bolivian poet Vicky Allyon's poetry from my apartment in freezing Ulaanbaatar to Hayden's Ferry Review, and the translations appeared in the magazine's "Grotesque" issue later that year. I sent them from Mongolia because I worked there for the Mongolian Writers Union during my year as a Henry Luce Scholar from 2007-2008 as the Union's International Relations Advisor, doing PEN Center formation advocacy work, editing literary translations, and working with exiled Chinese writers. That last function brought me to WALTIC in 2010. I gave a presentation under the "Freedom of Expression" bracket about Tumen Ulzii Bayunmend, an Inner Mongolian dissident waiting for resettlement.

Now we just have to visit Bolivia for a second, and then we can come home.

I perhaps should have started with seminal poet and accomplished translator Forrest Gander. I took his workshop in advanced literary translation in college, and he's the one who put me in contact with Vicky when I spent the summer of 2005 in Bolivia to write about the medical outreach organization The Rio Beni Health Project. I hung out with Vicky's daughters and ate peach pizza with them in a big bed with a white mop dog slipping about on the wooden floor. Vicky lost her job shortly thereafter, for organizing a children's book fair in the street so the poor kids could come.

What publishing in a nationwide and important outlet like Hayden's Ferry Review did for Vicky was not small. For a poet who has been marginalized by her culture, in a country that has also been marginalized, to see her work translated into English, and for the United States then to see it through translation, makes a difference in standing for that poet on her home turf -- in Vicky's case for a woman, in South America, so that standing is already tenuous.

Literary translation is both a question of adding to the record in the lasting way and one of status and mobility in the present-day way. I took a class in literary translation with Forrest in 2005 because it seemed like a fun project, one that let me get my hands wet with the whole-worldness of literature -- but most of all because it just made sense that if I had some facility with language, that my career, as a literary one, would include translation. It wasn't a moral imperative to "do good." It just seemed to follow that if I loved words and languages and travel, that this is one of the things I'd always be doing.

Seeing what publication could do for people, especially women, in developing countries got me thinking. It created a desire to spend my career working on the literature of women in developing countries, translating it, editing it. Both are creative acts, and fulfilling because it's one of the only tangible ways that a creative skill set could so swiftly be applied in social justice work. Who knew creative writing could be helpful, tangibly so, in the development sector?

So I went to Mongolia for a second time to continue that work, this time as a literary translation editor for The Asia Foundation. The Asia Foundation was sponsoring the publication of Never Ended, Never Begun, a book of contemporary, Buddhist-themed short stories by a young woman named Altangerel Taivankhuu. Alta, as she's called, is in her early thirties and the youngest head of Mongolia's Ministry of Justice the country's ever seen. She's beautiful, wise, eloquent, reserved, and she'll speak a few quiet words to a roomful of old guys who remember well the Soviet era and they'll bustle out to do her bidding. She also happens to have written four books of poetry and short stories. She's a dynamo and a top gun in one of the most fascinating and rapidly changing societies on the planet.

At the release of Alta's book I spoke to an audience that included the U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia about the link between literary translation and development work. I'm not sure why more creative writers aren't literary translators for much the same reason I'm not sure why more development agencies aren't funding work to translate and preserve cultural scripts: to me, it simply follows. Literature is a cultural script, and, I told the audience, democracy isn't possible without intercultural exchange. And intercultural exchange isn't possible without the preservation and study of the narratives a people keep alive by telling them to their children at night, the stories a people use to nourish themselves and make sense of the world. Language feeds us stories, which feed us with meaning. Globalization gives us the chance, as literary translators and just as people to listen to the stories of others, and hear what the world means to them. What democracy is possible without that?