Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

OFAC's Syria Sanctions

Some serious stuff today, everyone.

As a member of ALTA's Board, I've recently joined my fellow Directors in expressing our support of PEN and other leading authors' and publishers' organizations requesting that OFAC permit US publication of books and articles from Syria.

That's a lot of surprising words for someone unfamiliar with the situation. You can go read the full press release on PEN's website, but the short version is that the Office of Foreign Assets Control's new sanctions on Syria are:

dictating that American publishers may not enter into transactions for Syrian works not yet fully completed, may not provide “substantive or artistic alterations or enhancements” to Syrian works, and may not promote or market Syrian works.

Essentially, we can't publish anything from Syria.

This is already a dreadful thing, terrible policy, and oh, by the way, also a violation of First Amendment rights. But the worst part is, all this has happened before (and it will probably all happen again). The same coalition that's denouncing these sanctions today actually filed suit against the Treasury Department back in 2004 for similar sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and Sudan. The suit was dismissed when OFAC fixed those regulations and promised never to do it again. Funny story about that.

This goes against everything that we literary translators hold dear and work for every day. No introducing readers to new points of view. No depicting a strange and wonderful foreign culture. No exchanging of ideas from the other side of the world -- which should be so easy these days with the existence of the Internet. No way to understand our enemies, and no way to understand the people living under enemy governments who are probably our friends.

Esther Allen had a project that was directly impacted (read: "postponed") by the sanctions back in 2003/2004, and wrote a wonderfully sharp piece on it for Words Without Borders. Go read it, and be happy that the regulations got fixed once.

And then, realize that the same problems are going to happen again. Anyone who attended the ALTA conference in Milwaukee remembers Alice Guthrie's remarkable reading of her translations at the Fellows Reading. Really brilliant stuff, just like the rest of the Fellows. Only now, she'd be prohibited from publishing any of it, just because it happens to be from a country that our government isn't getting along with. ALTA's level-headed president, Russell Valentino, called the sanctions a "misguided policy". I think I have some stronger words for it.

At the very least, we can all rest assured that the coalition isn't afraid to bring a suit against the government. Hopefully, we won't have to go that far again.