July 2011: Alane S. Mason '82


Alane S. Mason ’82 aims to widen the horizons of readers by breaking down the language barriers that separate us from writers around the world. She is a vice president and senior editor at New York’s W.W. Norton & Company, and the founder and president of Words Without Borders (www.wordswithoutborders.org), a not-for-profit organization that translates, publishes, and promotes international literature.

Mason earned a B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with highest honors. Her great passion for reading began in the summer between third and fourth grade when she discovered the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but she never dreamt she’d have a career in publishing. “It wasn’t on my radar,” she says. “I didn’t really know publishing existed. You don’t think about how books come to you – they are just there, as if they grew on bookshelves!”

Mason’s history professor at UNC suggested she pursue a summer internship at Harper’s Magazine, where, coincidentally, Lewis Lapham ’52 was the editor. After her internship, Mason landed an editorial assistant job at Simon & Schuster and later, became an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. At Harcourt, she signed up and edited David Guterson’s bestselling Snow Falling on Cedars and Randall Kenan’s award-winning Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. Having taken Italian at UNC, Mason continued her study of the language, and in the mid-1990s, she translated her first book, Elio Vittorini’s Conversations in Sicily, which was published as a New Directions Classic.

For the past 17 years, Mason has been at W.W. Norton & Company. She says, “One of the wonderful things about publishing is that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ day. On any given day I might talk with the art department about a book jacket, write letters to people who might give a blurb about the book, and draft various marketing materials, in between reading submissions, editing books in progress, responding to calls from agents. I am responsible for 17 books coming out this calendar year, and each needs a contract, editing, production, publication, and promotion.” Norton is one of the oldest, largest, and last independent publishing houses, and is owned wholly by its employees. “At Norton, I have been extraordinarily fortunate to work with authors like Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog and most recently, Townie), Diane Ackerman (The Zookeeper’s Wife and One Hundred Names for Love), and Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare)—all of whom have become major bestsellers.” She also edited Greenblatt’s hotly anticipated new book due out this fall, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

In 1999, Mason began thinking about the need for more literary translation in the U.S. “Despite all the talk about globalization, very little of even the best writing in other languages was being translated into English. Our culture seemed to have become inward-looking and provincial, only interested in selling our stuff abroad and not in listening to what others had to say. It seemed to me that something needed to be done about that, and that the internet made it possible in a new way.” Mason applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and received $30,000, but it was conditional. She had to find matching funds. “The timing could not have been worse -- the dot-com bubble had burst, and people didn’t want to put any money into internet projects. Traditional funders of the arts and culture tend to have a local focus, and funders interested in international matters tend to be focused on trying to get computers to Africa and needs other than arts and culture. I called the literature program director at the NEA and told him I was able to raise only $10,000 toward the match. He said, ‘You’ve raised $10,000 for literature this year? Do you know that puts you in the top ten percent of fundraisers for literature in the country?’ That somehow gave me the confidence to push ahead.”

Since its founding in 2003, Words Without Borders (WWB) has published more than 1,110 pieces from more than 110 countries, translated from more than 90 languages. In keeping with its aim to broaden the horizons of readers, WWB also partners with book publishers to get its work into print form. It has created five anthologies of literature in translation, including Words without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers; Literature from the “Axis of Evil”: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations; and most recently, Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. Mason says, “As distinct from journalism, which is almost always from the perspective of the outsider looking in, literature gives us a view from the inside, helping us to better understand the complexities of other societies.”

Words Without Borders is now an independent 501(c)(3) organization with a full-time managing director and two full-time editors, all of whom collaborate online as there are no funds for office space. “WWB is astonishingly productive and influential for such a small-budget operation, and has had real ripple effects in the literary world, with several book contracts awarded to the authors it has featured and laudatory coverage in The New York Times, the Boston Globe, Vanity Fair, the Chronicle of Higher Education, public radio, and other media.” The organization is also developing an education project to make its work more accessible to students and teachers at both the secondary school and early college levels, including online learners. The first educational segment of the website is likely to focus on literature from Mexico, made available in both Spanish and English.

A recipient of a 2010 Distinguished Alumna Award for Outstanding Contributions to Humanity from UNC-CH, she has some advice for Hotchkiss students who might be potential English majors: “Don’t feel put down when people ask, ‘what are you going to do with an English degree?’ Every enterprise needs people who can use words effectively, and our whole society needs more people who can see things from many points of view, who can inhabit someone else’s world in the ways that only literature – especially foreign literature – enables us to do.”

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