• Books
  • Words Without Borders founder Samantha Schnee: “It’s like going to the gym for your brain”


Words Without Borders founder Samantha Schnee: “It’s like going to the gym for your brain”

How celebrated translator and founder of Words Without Borders Samatha Schnee is promoting world literature and collaborating with international authors.

Photo: Annette Hornischer / American Academy in Berlin

From Annie Ernaux baseball caps to special issues of The New York Times Book Review to the sudden chicness of publishing house Fitzcarraldo’s trademark Yves-Klein-blue covers, literature in translation is having a moment.

The US and UK book worlds – long regrettably insular, with translated books historically accounting for some 3% of market share – are opening up; one British study found that the biggest market for translations was under-35s. The future, it seems, is bright –and Yves Klein blue.

Samantha Schnee has been on this particular beat since way before it was cool. The Scotland-born American editor and translator has been widely recognised for her many translations from Spanish, particularly the work of Mexican author Carmen Boullosa.

That experience –of being in such close proximity to such a different culture –got me hooked.

Schnee is also the founding editor of Words Without Borders, an online nonprofit magazine dedicated to the promotion and dissemination of international translated literature – with an emphasis on writers who work in endangered or otherwise marginalised languages. (WWB featured the likes of Han Kang, Olga Tokarczuk and Valeria Luiselli well before these became English-language stars.)

Schnee is currently a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, where she is working on the English translation of local Basque author Irati Elorrieta’s debut novel Winter Lights

Photo: IMAGO / Ukinform

Welcome to Berlin! How are you liking the city?

I love Berlin. I came here for the first time in 1990, as part of a school trip. I was studying abroad in Mainz, and we spent a week here. This is back when Checkpoint Charlie was still operating.

To enter East Germany, we had to change money at the border; we could go in, but we were supposed to be out again by midnight. That experience –of being in such close proximity to such a different culture –got me hooked.

I later applied for a foreign study programme in Berlin, so I spent the winter of 1992 living with a host family in Zehlendorf. My host father was a German radio journalist, and my host brother was a party promoter –I got to see very different parts of Berlin (laughs).

He took me to a rave in the Tränenpalast when it was still an abandoned railway station. I had a fantastic time here. I’ve been dying to get back for a long stay ever since. So when the opportunity arose for a fellowship at the Academy, I jumped at it. The novel I’m translating is set in Berlin – it’s from a different era, from 2009, so I feel like it captures part of what I missed while I was gone. 

Photo: IMAGO / Cavan Images

Can you tell us some more about Winter Lights?

Berlin really is a character in the novel, and it portrays a very diverse group of people living here. In particular, it shows how the main character –a young Spanish woman who is from the Basque Country – builds herself a new life in Berlin, seeing Germany through the eyes of a newcomer.

Berlin really is a character in the novel.

At the same time, she’s haunted by the ghost of her ex. Well, not quite her ex, but she was in love with him, and yet they just couldn’t communicate for whatever reason. And it turns out that he has died on a cliff walk near Bilbao, but nobody knows whether he jumped or just fell. The protagonist spends a lot of the novel coming to terms with this loss, and her regret about how the relationship came to an end.

The two parts are woven together: you get her life in the city, and also these conversations with an absent ghost in her head, although to her it’s as if he is almost physically there. He is easier to communicate with now that he is gone. 

Has it helped you to currently be in Berlin? Translators don’t always visit the locations from their work…

It’s absolutely helping, because I can go and see the places from the novel, and I can check out the geography. My descriptions can be a lot more accurate. Google Maps can only get you so far!

I have a map up above my desk. Most of the novel takes place in the north of the city – around Mauerpark, Humboldthain, Gesundbrunnen… I’ve been able to go up there and walk around, getting a sense for the lay of the land. There is this old bar called the Kugelbahn, but sadly it is no longer open.

Photo: IMAGO / Seeliger

And I am working closely with the author, Irati Elorrieta, who lives here. She and I meet to review the chapters that I’ve translated. Her English is very good, and she is perfectly fluent in German, and obviously a native speaker of Spanish and Basque, too. It’s been a privilege to have that relationship with her.

When did you decide you wanted to be a translator – was it always your dream?

Google Maps can only get you so far!

It was actually a total accident. When I was in the middle of my creative writing Masters programme, we launched Words Without Borders. And my WWB colleague Alane Mason, an executive editor at the publishing house Norton, received a submission from a Spanish agent of a book by a Spanish author –but she couldn’t read it, so she asked me to take a look and advise.

I read the novel and I really liked it, and I ended up translating a sample for her. The publisher didn’t end up buying the book, but I continued translating – and I ended up including translation as part of my masters thesis. And then I just kept going. I never stopped.

What do you like about it?

It’s the place where I feel the most flow. It’s where I can get in the zone and lose track of time – even more so than reading. I like how engaging it is.

And I’ve always enjoyed playing with language and making up words: for me, it’s just like a puzzle, in a way – like a crossword puzzle. It’s fun! And it’s a game –though not a game that you can make a living off, because nobody makes a living from translating into English, but by getting supplementary work you can cobble together a living. I think it’s good for your brain. It’s like going to the gym –for your brain.

Clearly you don’t just enjoy translating, but also deeply believe in promoting translated literature within the English-speaking world. Why is that? 

I think there is a huge problem of trade imbalance – a cultural trade imbalance, where anglophone culture is exporting so much more than it’s importing.

And that is not good for anybody. It’s not good for people living in anglophone cultures, and it’s not good for the people who are trying to slip inside that really closed-off gate.

Unfortunately, with English being the lingua franca, it often functions as a barrier to entry in the publishing industry: authors who don’t write in English will need to be published in English before their work gets [distributed] more widely in other languages.

That’s not always the case – I think European languages with their cultural promotion groups, like the German Book Office, have done a good job avoiding that barrier. But if you’re an author from a nation that doesn’t have an agency like that, it’s almost impossible. That’s why we founded WWB.

Photo: IMAGO / VW Pics

Alane Mason at Norton was so frustrated that she – as a lover of translated literature –couldn’t get a book like that, the one I did a sample of, past her editorial board. So we thought, why not create this free online resource that anybody with an Internet connection anywhere in the world can access – and then see what happens?

The readership has changed dramatically over the last twenty years. We used to have almost 100% US-based readers, but now it’s less than 50%. People all over the world are using it, which is awesome. That is my number one goal: to keep growing the audience, so that more people interested in literature in translation can use it as a resource, but also so that people who don’t even know they’re interested in literature in translation can discover it. 

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the role of the translator in society. The translators I meet all agree that they should get better pay, better treatment, and more exposure (as do I!). But they tend to have different reasons: some say it’s because the translated words on the page are 100% theirs, while some understand themselves more as cultural activists…

I see translators as cultural ambassadors. They play so many roles. The actual translation of a book is, in so many cases, just the tip of the iceberg. Translators have to know the literature of the language they’re translating from, and they have to figure out who they want to translate.

The actual translation of a book is, in so many cases, just the tip of the iceberg.

And then –in probably the majority of cases –they have to take that work to editors in the anglosphere and say, “This is something that you should pay attention to.” In that sense, they’re acting as scouts; they’re acting as agents. Unfortunately, neither of those roles is financially remunerated. After publication, too, translators do a lot of unpaid work to support the English-language release.

Still, you can’t really be a great translator without being widely read in both the source language and the target language, so that you then understand the context of what you are doing. That’s why I think they are cultural ambassadors. Translation is so much more than just taking someone’s words and putting them into another language.

What do you recommend to us, as readers?

Explore the world through books! Be an armchair traveller. That’s probably something The Berliner readers are already doing, because I think Berlin is pretty special that way. Germany, too, is pretty special that way – certainly in comparison to the US, which is much more geographically isolated and generally less curious about what is out there.

And you can just have fun exploring the Words Without Borders website and seeing what’s there: a requiem for a melting glacier by an Icelandic author, or a piece by a Brazilian journalist who moved to the Amazon as deforestation threatens indigenous peoples there. It’s a snapshot in time, and it’s a portal to our world.

  • Find out more about Words without Borders on their website.