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Making Literature in Translation More Visible Online

Bookwitty By Bookwitty Published on September 22, 2016
This article was updated on November 9, 2016
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By Karen M. Phillips


One of the standout pieces in Words Without Borders’ Madagascar issue last year was a beautifully devastating story by Magali Nirina Marson. A Reunionese and Malagasy writer based in Paris, she was making her first appearance in English, and we were eager to share her work with readers. We promoted the piece the best way we knew how—with Twitter and Facebook posts and a prominent spot in our monthly e-newsletter. In two months, just 550 readers worldwide came to read Marson’s work. And the piece floundered on social media, despite our best efforts to get it seen.

Compare this to one of the top-performing pieces WWB has published recently: an interview with Lydia Davis on translating the classics, published in June. In the same amount of time, and with substantially less promotion than Marson’s piece, this interview had reached 1,800 readers. It was a smash on social media, garnering the kind of heavy-hitting referrals that typically elude us and all the “likes” and “shares” we could want. We were thrilled. And yet . . .

Words Without Borders, like other nonprofit magazines and presses dedicated to literary translation, is driven by a mission. Ours goes something like this: reading literature from around the world, written in languages other than our own, opens our eyes to new perspectives, increases our understanding of geographically or culturally distant places, and makes us better world citizens. All this, while enriching and invigorating domestic literary production.

But selecting, translating, and publishing eye-opening writing only gets us halfway there: We need eyes to open. We need readers. And finding them online seems only to be getting harder.


Finding Readers Online

When WWB launched in 2003, the online literary magazine was still a novelty. Our founding editors embraced the new format as a way to effectively and economically get more international writers published in English. Not only did we hope to reach existing and new readers on the Web, but we believed that this initial encounter would lead to still greater exposure for the author, culminating in book deals, which would in turn reach more readers.

Few statistics on the field of literature in translation exist. The Three Percent blog keeps an annual database of poetry and fiction titles, but little is known about the number of shorter pieces of literary translation published in magazines. And still less about how many readers are accessing this work, whether in books or magazines, in print or online. We do know that there is more literature in translation available than in 2003, published by more magazines and small presses.

All this new content is to be celebrated. But is readership growth keeping pace? And are we doing enough to ensure our content gets seen? For those of us publishing online, the answer is probably no.

This summer, thanks to a New York State Lit-TAP grant, WWB had the opportunity to work with a digital consulting firm that specializes in nonprofits. We were concerned that our historically high growth in readership had started to slow, and we felt we were losing ground in an increasingly competitive market for digital content. At the same time, we wanted to be sure we were using our limited time to the greatest effect.

While none of the lessons listed below unlocked a single secret to getting more people reading translated literature, they did shed a lot of light on how to get our content noticed online.


Digging into Analytics, Google AdWords and SEO


1. Digging Deeper into Analytics

We learned that to really understand our readers, we needed to set up our analytics to capture more information about their behavior. It wasn’t enough to look at the basics—who was visiting our site, how long they stayed, how many left. With a little help, we were able to track which pages kept readers on the site longest or sent them to other pages, which traffic sources (social media, organic, ads, referrals) yielded the most engaged readers, and where we lost readers. We were also able to set up goals (like getting someone to subscribe to our newsletter, make a donation, or leave our site to purchase a book) and track when they were completed.


2. Grappling with Google AdWords

If you are a registered nonprofit, you are eligible for a Google AdWords grant of $10,000 a month to spend on ads (and it’s an easy application process ). These are Google ads that pop up when users search for keywords like “Chinese writers” or “online magazine.” As it turns out, spending this money effectively is no simple task. Large not-for-profit organizations outsource this work to firms specializing in AdWords. But for us, having a few training sessions made a big difference in learning how to set up and evaluate an ad.


3. Gateway Articles and SEO

By delving into our analytics, we quickly saw which content seemed to naturally be attracting readers. (I’ll give you a hint: many come to our site via this piece.) While some of those people may not have been looking for literature, these pages weren’t offering those who were enough ways to stay engaged on our site. To do that, we needed to be creating links, buttons, popups, and the kinds of subtle or not-so-subtle cues that tell you there’s more interesting content to be found. We also learned how a strategically-titled blog post can attract new readers to the writing you want them to discover. And, thanks to the basic logic of SEO, adding relevant links and multimedia to our pages will make them more likely to show up in Internet searches.


4. The Wonders of Referrals

Most of the writers we publish are unknown to readers of English; some have names that most of our readers can’t pronounce. But when a known quantity—say, a popular writer, a news outlet, or a lit festival—features that writer, and in so doing gives them their stamp of approval, suddenly readers make their way back to us. This may seem obvious, but it’s amazing what a difference this kind of online hand-holding can make in leading readers to new foreign writers. We realized we needed to work more on establishing these bridges from the familiar to the unknown, from a Lydia Davis to a Magali Nirina Marson.

Literature in translation is supported by a dynamic ecosystem of passionate individuals and organizations. And we’re all doing our part (and then some). But in the effort to scout out the best writing in other languages, have it brilliantly translated, and publish it (in this case online), we’ve exhausted our resources. Of course it’s not an either/or question: publishing literature or devoting our time and money to promoting it. But we’re learning that shifting slightly more weight to digital strategy may mean more eyes, and new eyes, on the page.

For those of us whose mission depends on reaching readers and introducing them to international writers, becoming more visible online is essential. The Internet isn’t designed to steer readers to the unknown, and we as a field need to start taking the wheel.

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Karen M. Phillips is the executive director of Words Without Borders.  

Posts on this profile were created by members of the Bookwitty team. Here, we discuss books, authors, publishers and other literary-related topics. You’ll find our writers based between our ... Show More

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