The International Library

Bonnie Chau
From the September/October 2023 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

One early Thursday afternoon this past June, Mexican author Carmen Boullosa sat onstage with translator Samantha Schnee at the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn, New York. The two took turns reading from Boullosa’s novel El libro de Eva, published by Alfaguara in 2020; Boullosa read in the original Spanish, and Schnee from the English translation, The Book of Eve (Deep Vellum, 2023). Projected onto the large screen behind them, Alice McCrum, program manager at the American Library in Paris, was beamed in from across the Atlantic to moderate a lively discussion with the two featured guests. Attendees included not only the dozen or so seated audience members in Brooklyn, but also participants at the American Library in Paris, people enjoying morning coffee at a remote-viewing event at the San Francisco office of the Center for the Art of Translation (CAT), as well as literature lovers worldwide via Zoom.

Mexican author Carmen Boullosa (left) and translator Samantha Schnee onstage at the Center for Fiction in New York City, with Alice McCrum (center) of the American Library in Paris, at the International Library’s June event. (Credit: The Center for Fiction)

This time-and-space-bending occasion was the second hosted by the International Library, an initiative to present live conversations about literature in translation while connecting transnational audiences. The project has its roots in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when literary events shifted to online spaces. Looking to distinguish the American Library in Paris in a literary landscape that had become saturated with virtual readings, McCrum had been in contact with Melanie McNair, the senior director of public programming at the Center for Fiction, about partnering for online events that would link live audiences in each of their locations. When McCrum and McNair decided that their first event would highlight Dorothee Elmiger’s novel Out of the Sugar Factory, published by CAT’s Two Lines Press in May, the three organizations became official collaborators.

McNair and McCrum, along with Leslie-Ann Woofter, CAT’s event manager, wanted to create an accessible online gathering with the kind of spontaneous, informal, and dynamic atmosphere of face-to-face meetups. “I missed the possibility to continue the conversation instead of just shutting your laptop—the casual, impromptu conversations that spring up when people are milling about, waiting in line for the meet-and-greet, or shuffling slowly to the exit,” says Woofter. “Those discussions that spill over from panelists to attendees and travel down the street to the nearest café or bar.”

They also felt an urgency to talk about translation in our current cultural climate, one that has seen an exceptionally sharp increase in the ideological divide between the major political parties in the United States. The literary landscape reflects this conflict—the American Library Association reported that attempts to ban library books last year reached the highest level ever recorded by the association, which has tracked library censorship for more than twenty years.

Transnational conversations around language, creativity, and representation are especially vital to expanding our understandings of difference. Thus the International Library was born. McNair jokes that her “secret name for the series is ‘Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner,’ for the meals that each of our audiences might want at the time of day where they will be [attending each event].”

While the three partner organizations all have distinct histories and missions, the intersection of literature and community-building is at the heart of what they do. The Center for Fiction dates to 1820, when it was founded in Manhattan as a library and reading room for young men working as merchant’s clerks. The American Library in Paris was established in 1920 with a collection of donated books and periodicals sent to U.S. troops during World War I, and CAT was founded in 2000 to nurture and publish translated literature, a medium that is fundamentally about forging relationships across space and time—the collaboration of multiple writers, languages, cultures, geographies, and time periods. 

The inaugural International Library event took place in May, with Elmiger and Kate Zambreno discussing Out of the Sugar Factory, translated from the German by Megan Ewing. “I’m a European writer writing in German but living in New York, and questions about place, switching languages, and translation are often on my mind,” says Elmiger, who is Swiss. “So for me personally, the idea of these simultaneous events conceptually makes a lot of sense. I do believe that the importance of translation is greatly underestimated. Works in translation allow us to be in conversation with each other, through reading or by talking about what we read. In this messy, tragic world, that seems to be a fundamentally peaceful thing to do.”

The International Library events raise questions particular to literature in translation: Who gets to translate? To be translated? How do we translate? And for whom? One of the challenges of hosting international conversations, McCrum notes, is appealing to differing sensibilities across cultures. “The conversations must speak to three in-person audiences, as well as to many more online audiences; we have virtual participants from around the world,” she says.

Though there have been occasional instances of increased visibility for translated literature in the past decade or so, the United States remains insular in its reading habits: The often-cited statistic from 2008 that only 3 percent of books published in the U.S. are translated from languages other than English has remained mostly unchanged while other nations publish and read translated literature at much higher rates. McNair stressed the value of cross-cultural exchange, remarking, “International literature calls for us to challenge assumptions and accepted ‘truths’ on a broader level. I would like to think of our audiences as being even more open to looking at the world in a new way, knowing that there are people in different cities listening along with them.”

Planning is under way for the next few installments of the series, including one in October featuring Emily Wilson at the Center for Fiction; Wilson’s 2017 version of Homer’s The Odyssey was the first published translation of the epic poem by a woman. In the future, Woofter says, she would like to see the in-person featured-guests portion of the events occur in San Francisco and Paris. Both she and McNair hope to continue adding new international partner organizations and audiences.

In the meantime the International Library is accumulating fans. Author Sofia Samatar, a professor at James Madison University who teaches African and Arabic literature, attended both events and says they offer “an exciting way to think about translation, since a translation is always a conversation of a particularly intense kind, involving multiple forms of expression, spaces, and contexts. What better way to celebrate it than a transnational collaboration with a virtual component, featuring conversations between writers, readers, and translators?”


Bonnie Chau is the author of the story collection All Roads Lead to Blood (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2018). She is on the  board of the American Literary Translators Association, teaches at Columbia University and Fordham University, and edits for 4Columns, Public Books, and the Evergreen Review.