On December 10, a panel of writers, editors, publishers and librarians gathered in the main branch of the New York Public Library to discuss the December issue of Words Without Borders, an online magazine dedicated to global YA literature from around the world, previously unavailable in English. Moderating the panel was historian and library science professor Marc Aronson, co-editor of the issue Briony Everroad, author Padma Venkatraman, publisher Arthur A. Levine, and librarian Roxanne Hsu Feldman.

For more than 10 years Words Without Borders, a nonprofit group, has dedicated itself to bringing previously untranslated works into English in an effort to promote cultural understanding. Words Without Borders publishes an issue each month throughout the year, usually centered on a theme or geographical location, with two annual issues covering queer literature and graphic novels respectively. The December issue marks its first foray into literature for children, and executive director Karen Phillips remarked as she introduced the panel that it is “already breaking records” for readership via their site’s analytics.

The issue, called “Around the Globe: International YA Writing,” includes stories translated from Bangladesh, Germany, Norway, Georgia, South Korea, Quebec, and many other countries. To kick off the evening, Venkatraman read from Michele Noël’s piece “In Search of the End of the World,” set in remote Northern Canada, it is a story told from the perspective of a First Nation adolescent. Aronson then started the discussion on the “challenges, choices, and revelations” in trying to bring international literature to America by asking editor Everroad: “Why the focus on YA, instead of middle grade?” Everroad responded that the field of children’s books is a sprawling one, whereas YA is “closer to the adult side of things,” and because of that, “there was plenty to choose from.”

To curate the selection, Everroad called on her publishing contacts from her career at Random House U.K. and from her founding of the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize. Everroad helped establish the prize in 2010. “A very small proportion of books in the U.S./U.K. market are translated from another language,” she said, “and therefore a relatively small pool of translators are working on them. It can be hard for younger translators to get started, and to get contracts with publishers.” Everroad said that she set up the award to recognize the achievements of emerging translators and to help them get noticed and secure paid projects. To judge the prize, contestants all translate the same story and are judged accordingly. She asked translators and editors what they liked in order to gather submissions. Together she and co-editor Daniel Hahn, himself a writer, editor and translator, contacted publishers for submissions.

The process of getting stories was straightforward from Norway and Sweden in particular, Everroad noted, though the request for YA literature often elicited a confused response in Eastern Europe. “I had to reformulate my question and redefine what YA is.” Outside of northern Europe Everroad encountered what she felt was a sharp divide between books for very young children and adults, where literature for adolescents was not really represented. A title from Georgia had been published for adults and went on to be very successful; it was subsequently published in Germany as a young adult novel, where it won an award for that category. In compiling the issue, Everroad was conscious of demonstrating a breadth of voices to represent many countries. She sought to give a window into a slice of life in another place, rather than publish didactic stories.

Levine’s experience seeking new acquisitions for his imprint has proved similar. He seconded Everroad’s remarks on Scandinavia’s publishing structure, remarking that in the Nordic countries there is a system in place similar to that in the United States. Levine has observed a substantially developed tradition of YA literature in northern Europe, yet when Levine looks to other nations for properties to bring to the U.S., he has found an overabundance of didactic works. He has also found it difficult to “fold in a point of contact,” where books in translation will connect with American readers. Over the years Levine has searched out books from Russia, a nation with a particularly rich literary heritage, but has only recently found something to publish. In March 2015 his imprint will release one of the first contemporary YA novels translated from Russian, Playing the Part by Daria Wilke, which has received some attention abroad because the novel deals with controversial anti-gay legislation in contemporary Russia.

All the pieces in the issue are extracts from novels; Everroad said she encountered difficulty in finding short stories. Aronson asked Everroad how she and her co-editor decided what to translate. In some cases, she would hear about the same piece from multiple sources, including Ahlam Bisharat’s piece, “Nom de Guerre: Butterfly,” which piqued her interest. Everroad later added that a goal of the issue was to highlight books in the hopes that publishers might see them and consider publishing them for larger audiences.

Moving from the issue to the concept of YA literature worldwide, Feldman weighed in on the market in China. Similar to Everroad’s experience in Eastern Europe and other places, the Chinese publishing scene moves from children’s books then to adult, and the YA category doesn’t really exist. Books focused on teen perspectives are often published online, and focus on contemporary Chinese life. Teens in China are primarily reading adult novels, these online stories, and a lot of manga, according to Feldman. She mentioned Chinese author Han Han, who started writing about life in high school as a teenager, and is now an established author at 32 in Shanghai. He is at the vanguard of the popular movement of online literature about young lives, where most of what would be considered YA in China is happening, and is actually written by teens.

Venkatraman has noted a similar lack of a distinct category of YA in Indian publishing. She observed that not only is there a lack of a substantial YA category in bookstores, but much literature for children in India is heavily didactic. The history of Bengali literature in particular is rich with bildungsromans, she added, books written long before the contemporary YA category was established. Venkatraman mentioned specifically a classic of Bengali literature, Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, which has endured since 1929. She noted also that Scholastic and Penguin imprints are publishing more Indian authors.

The discussion moved to whether YA is a category for wealthier, more developed nations. The panelists agreed that books are expensive in a lot of countries, and as a result many publishers respond to market demands, especially in Africa, and require that books be both educational and written in French or English, making potential translations more rare. Aronson’s experiences at book fairs when engaging with African publishers turned up a proliferation of folktales, books for very young readers, and books on Nelson Mandela. Aronson remarked that among the books he saw at these fairs, he did not see “an experience of life and art in between [childhood and adulthood]. There are reasons, economic reasons,” for the lack of YA, he suggested. Aronson’s theory is that YA literature has only really developed in those places where people have time in the phase between childhood and adulthood.

Aronson posited that some stories require more context or linguistic as well as cultural translation (though not all of them), and that this may be one impediment to enjoying translations for general readers. Levine, who publishes stories found around the world, responded with the example of science fiction literature, where the reader is thrown into a world that is entirely made up, but “if the writing is good enough, meaning they’ve created characters that are human,” the translation of culture comes naturally.

Aronson noted that the latest issue of Words Without Borders is free, but asked Levine specifically “what are the difficulties that a commercial publisher faces?” Levine responded that libraries and bookstores are strapped, and can no longer be counted on to buy a book just because it’s good. He starts from the premise that everything is a challenge. Because it’s so difficult to predict what will be successful, he looks to find something really rooted in its place, from somewhere in the world. That was his experience with Harry Potter. He read it and immediately felt “this is so British,” and wanted to publish it based on that merit.

Levine also encounters difficulties when he gets a reader’s report of a book he is interested in, and orders sample chapters translated. He’ll often receive at this point a hurried first draft of a translation, very literal, as though an artist decides to herself that she will “put down the first five colors and then make a painting.” Levine once had a bilingual English-German staffer who fell in love with a book and recommended he read a sample translation. The translation, in Levine’s view, didn’t warrant the praise the staffer had heaped on to the text. “It’s not funny,” Levine told her. “I know!” the staffer said, dismayed at the translation as compared with her own reading of it. The translator had missed a good deal of the humor in the book, including a double entendre about cow urine. Levine asked the staffer to include those notes back to the translator, to help tease out a fuller sense of the text in a next pass.

Given that the YA issue is breaking records for Words Without Border’s website, Aronson asked executive director Karen Phillips if there will be another. “Not right away,” was her immediate response. Aronson suggested an annual. She pressed that it was too soon to say if this would be one of their regular annual issues but “your wish has been noted.” A board member in the audience piped up: “We can do anything with funding!”

The December issue helps to shine a light on multicultural diversity around the world. Aronson noted that “the positive thing about translation is that things emerge directly from the culture.” And with more translations coming to the Anglophone world, more stories are getting space. Even in nations with a strong YA presence, books are now more and more reflecting a multicultural world, as in a recent popular book from Germany, Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf, newly translated into English by Tim Mohr (and published earlier this year by Levine). In much of the YA literature from countries like Germany, France, and throughout Scandinavia, stories about characters of color and the European immigrant experience are starting to be told.

The Words Without Borders December issue highlights fresh voices working on challenging themes, the sort of writing that global YA addresses generally. Editor Everroad has her own goals in mind with the issue, saying in conclusion, “We hope that publishers will see a piece, fall in love, and get it to you [the audience].”