Words Without Borders does Lonely Planet one better: It mainlines the experience of elsewhere—the wanderlust, the delirium of dislocation. Culled by the editors of
Wordswithoutborders.org, the online magazine for literature in translation, these 28 stories, essays, and poems by mostly unknown writers (at least to American readers) are introduced by writers better known to us: Jonathan Safran Foer on Chinese “revolutionary humanist” Ma Jian, whose story “Where Are You Running To?” joins Communism and music to the loss of human dignity in a whirlwind of anxiety; Heidi Julavits on the young Norwegian writer Johan Harstad’s “Vietnam. Thursday,” which draws a depressed shrink out of his torpor while talking with a woman scarred by napalm; José Saramago on Argentine writer Juan José Saer’s “Baked Mud,” in which a deaf man is plied with wine “so he’d tell us about droughts he had seen that were worse than this one, just to know that such calamities . . . did not mean that this bitch of a life was coming to an end.” Bleakness abounds, but rarely gratuitously.
Read two or three a day, these stories etch maps in your mind, an Amazing Race
drawn from literature: Find the Tajrish Bridge in Iran, or the Cola Bridge in West Beirut. Surrealism and realism flourish equally. Indonesian writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma’s “Children of the Sky” is an incantatory opera in prose about impoverished children “slithering out of sewage drains.” The lone African entry, “The Uses of English” by Nigerian Akinwumi Isola, stands out for its vivid characters, whose skill at hurling insults reach a fever pitch in the village when a woman’s son is sent out to use his rudimentary, comically misunderstood English to ratchet up the mockery. “Language imperialism,” a phrase Wole Soyinka uses in his introduction to the story, is appropriate to this anthology as a whole, intended as a corrective to the disheartening statistic that out of all books in translation now published worldwide, 50 percent are rendered from English but only 6 percent into English. The message of this anthology is clear: Let a thousand English translations bloom.