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Found in Translation: Pittsburgh’s Newest Literary Festival Crosses Cultures

From small bookstores to grand concert halls, Pittsburgh has hosted literary readings and lecture series for decades. Now the city is getting what’s likely its first literary festival dedicated to works in translation.

Mieko Kawakami will mark publication of her new novel at the festival.
Reiko Toyama
Mieko Kawakami will mark publication of her new novel at the festival.

The inaugural Pittsburgh International Literary Festival runs 10 days starting Wed., May 12, and features 30 speakers from 20 countries, including a Nobel laureate and two Pulitzer Prize winners. The virtual festival (most events are live), is organized by the nonprofit City of Asylum. Program director Abby Lembersky said what makes the event unique is its focus on “the craft of translation, and how literary translation intersects with different social justice topics.”

The festival’s program on May 20 features Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature, discussing her novel “Flights” and her forthcoming “The Book of Jacob.” The evening includes a live conversation with Tokarczuk’s translator, Jennifer Croft, who won the Man Booker International Prize for “Flights.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen is author of acclaimed novel "The Committed."
Bebe Jacobs
Viet Thanh Nguyen is author of acclaimed novel "The Committed."

Other programs feature Pulitzer-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen (“The Committed”); Japanese novelist Mieko Kawakami and translators of her acclaimed “Breasts and Eggs”; and Pulitzer-winning poet and translator Forrest Gander with Mexican poet Coral Bracho, discussing their new collaboration, “It Must Be a Misunderstanding.” The May 18 event with Kawakami will also serve as the launch event her new novel, “Heaven.”

The May 14 program, “Representation and Translation,” is a panel discussion.

“It’s all about examining the dearth of translators of color into English in the U.S., and questioning identity and who should be translating other people’s voices,” said Lembersky. Controversy recently resulted in the firing of the Danish translator for U.S. inaugural poet Amanda Gorman’s book, and spotlighted the need to create more opportunities for translators of color. The panel features translators Jeremy Tiang, Aaron Robertson, Bruna Dantas Lobato, Anton Hur, and Paige Ayinah Morris.

Several programs highlight local presses. On May 15, “International Perspectives from Autumn House Press” includes remarks and readings by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Michael X. Wang, and Dickson Lam, three Autumn House writers who explore immigration and multiculturalism.

City of Asylum was founded to provide shelter and support for writers in exile from their home countries. It has evolved into a group that also presents a year-round slate of literary and musical events. The Pittsburgh International Literary Festival opens May 12 with “We Crossed the River,” a multimedia concert based on the first-person testimonials of child details at the U.S.-Mexico border, as gathered by Dominican-American novelist and University of Pittsburgh professor Angie Cruz. The testimonials serve as the material for text-based video projections and as the lyrics for 60 minutes of original music composed by Pitt’s Eric Moe, and performed by Music on the Edge.

For a complete schedule, see the festival’s web page.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: