The nonprofit organization Words Without Borders launched in 2003 to aid in publishing works from countries and cultures underrepresented in English-first language regions. WWB now has an archive of 12,000 published pieces across 140 countries and 130 languages. Though their mission has not changed, there are several new developments planned to expand the literary conversation.
“I think it’s easy to forget just how much has changed for both the publication and the landscape of international literature since we started in 2003,” said Eric M. B. Becker, digital director and senior editor.
The publication was among the first online-only literary magazines, has evolved to become a platform for writers and translators alike, with programs like its Poems in Translation contest, the Indigenous Writing Project, and the Words Without Borders Campus program. Throughout, the mission has remained the same: to offer free access to international literature through translation online to anybody with an internet connection.
“Our focus has always been on accessibility,” explained Karen Phillips, executive director and publisher. “Most of our individual supporters just really believe in the mission to cultivate a greater understanding of literature and to build bridges between writers, translators, and readers.
Among the new developments is a complete site overhaul, aimed to improve reader accessibility. The revamped site went live today.
“We began as a monthly magazine, producing issues organized around countries, geography, or language, but nowadays they have become restraints,” Becker says. Phasing out the monthly themed publishing model, WWB will publish new work daily. This includes collections of criticism, interviews, reading lists, and other resources that further expand upon the synergy between literature and the authors and translators at work.
“It’s a little unwieldy to go through back issues,” said Becker. “The new site offers a new search tool that allows people to search based on their interests, travel, or a specific country.” The search tool is part of the site’s streamlined design to be unassuming and effective in offering readers direct access to the entire WWB archive.
In addition to the overhaul, the publication will expand its focus on audio and visual content, including an evolving range of programming: virtual events, conversations, and more.
“The goal is for an individual to make a connection, have an experience with a piece of writing and translation,” Phillips said. “Whichever way we enable that connection to happen, whether that's because they see it on TikTok, or they watch an interview on our site, or listen to an author reading their piece… all of those roads lead to this spark, this connection that we want to facilitate through Words Without Borders.”
Over the years, WWB's passion and drive to be a bastion for international literature has paved the way for many writers and translators that weren’t able to gain an audience in English-speaking countries. “So many wonderful things have happened to me thanks to being published the first time around, like my entire literary translation career, basically,” said J.B. Anton Hur, the Booker shortlisted Korean translator. Such established writers as Han Kang, Valeria Luiselli, Andres Neuman, and Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk all found a home for the work in the publication early in their writing careers.
“I think I speak for my colleagues too, that as an editor I'm more interested in providing a space where writers and translators can converse and have a dialogue through their work,” Becker said.
Through the site overhaul, rolling publishing model, and a commitment to exploring multimedia technologies, WWB aims to evolve alongside the dialog forming around the work they publish. “I’m excited that we can fully embrace our digital identity,” said Phillips. “We get to free ourselves to pursue so many different writers, genres, styles, languages that might not have been possible in our old publishing model.”
Indeed, it is all part of the publication way of expanding their efforts on the eve of its 20th anniversary—a milestone that everyone at the publication is excited to celebrate and explore across events both digital and in person.
“It's going to be a time of experimentation,” says Phillips. “It’s part of a paradigm shift of the way we see the world.”