The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative

This is a guest post from Lyn Miller-Lachmann of The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

Today’s teens live in a far more interconnected world than young people of earlier generations. They meet peers in other countries through video games, “sister schools” programs, and study abroad. Many immigrant families maintain ties to their countries of origin, and travel back and forth during school vacations. Air travel and the Internet have brought the world to our living room, and people in the United States to the rest of the world.YA literature in translation

Literature plays a unique role in building global connections. Knowing the stories of a culture is key to understanding that culture. Writers who live within the country or culture offer a different perspective from that of writers who travel to the country as tourists or researchers. The We Need Diverse Books movement has highlighted the authenticity that comes from being a cultural insider. The insiders of books with international settings are authors from those countries.

Language, however, remains a barrier. That’s where translators come in. Thanks to the process of translation, young readers are not restricted to English-speaking countries when “traveling” through books. If books can take you anywhere, translators are the pilots or the ships’ captains who make sure you arrive safely at your destination.

In recent months, a group of literary translators and activists have created the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI). According to the mission statement, “the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative strives to raise the visibility of world literature for adults and children at the local, national and international levels. We intend to do so by facilitating close and direct collaboration between translators and librarians, because we believe translators are uniquely positioned to help librarians provide support and events to engage readers of all ages in a library framework that explores and celebrates literature from around the world.”

On the adult side, Elena Ferrante, Stieg Larsson, Roberto Bolaño, Haruki Murakami, and other international authors have garnered critical acclaim and spots on bestseller lists. If adult readers willingly embrace books in translation, why are our teens and their younger siblings still stuck at home?

Some of the reasons have little to do with the interests of young readers but with the way the children’s publishing industry is structured. For instance, small literary publishers and university presses have often been the ones to introduce adult readers in the U.S. to international authors in translation, and novels from these publishers have received favorable attention in industry publications and major newspapers. On the children’s side, far fewer of these small presses exist, and they struggle to gain recognition for their efforts.

In a future article, we plan to highlight some of those courageous publishers, based in Canada as well as in the U.S., that have taken the risk of translating the world’s literature for children and teens. At the same time, we also want to recognize those major houses that have chosen to publish relatively unknown authors from abroad in translation even though the potential for profit may be less apparent.

While YA and children’s authors in the U.S. have come to expect foreign rights deals—and young readers in other countries regularly read books in translation—somewhere around two percent of books published for young readers in the U.S. are translations. The lack of international literature gives the impression that U.S. teens do not need to learn about the rest of the world—or to listen to people who live in the rest of the world. For teens who live in an increasingly interdependent world faced with environmental crisis, economic change, and mass migration, the lack of access to other perspectives threatens to condemn them to second-class global citizenship, at the mercy of local and global economic and political forces and with opportunities closed off.

Librarians play a key role in counteracting this dangerous insularity. We translators involved with the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative plan to develop topical book lists to use with teen readers. For instance, we’re planning a list focused on literature from Brazil to coincide with the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August, and our reading list for Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month in September will highlight authors from Latin America who write primarily in Spanish. We’re also putting together some fun suggestions for activities to use with the books, such as scavenger hunts, craft projects, film festivals, and more. We welcome your ideas as well! Traveling around the world—even if it’s virtual—is always fun. And, of course, in making books in translation available we’re creating the real-world travelers of the future. As translators, authors, editors, and librarians, we look forward to working together, as we encourage teen readers to explore beyond the boundaries of their own culture and language.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of the YA novels Gringolandia, Rogue, and Surviving Santiago and the translator, from Portuguese to English, of the picture books The World in a Second and the forthcoming Lines, Squiggles, Letters, Words. A longtime member of ALA and YALSA and the former editor of MultiCultural Review, she blogs on translation, diversity, writing, and travel at