Volume 74, Number 36 | January 12 - 18, 2005

Talking Point

Forbidden writers

By Andrei Codrescu

Early in 2004, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control created panic among publishers by advising them that they might face legal action if they worked with any authors from countries under economic sanctions. That would have included an Iranian Nobel prizewinner and writers from Cuba and Sudan.

The legal genius at Treasury must have thought that there was money in this enterprise. Unfortunately, there is zero economic incentive or profit in publishing translations of writers from those countries. Publishers truly do this for culturally altruistic reasons. Who’s the last writer from the Sudan to make the New York Times bestseller list?

On the other hand, we profit immensely from knowing something about the people whose governments we censure. Writing is the very opposite of “economic” anything — it usually subverts the political establishments of all countries.

In the ’60s, American underground writers helped topple the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe, while Eastern European writing published in the U.S. made it difficult for hard-line Cold Warriors to dehumanize the people over there. In those days, the C.I.A. was smart: it actually promoted translation and facilitated exhibitions of modern art that upset the ideological commissars.

These days, the C.I.A. complains about not having enough Farsi and Arabic translators. Maybe there are, they just don’t want to be spies. They’d rather translate literature. In my opinion, if there is enough literature you won’t need so many spies.

Of course, Treasury is not the C.I.A. In any case, nine months later, the Treasury Department relented. They issued the opinion that publishers can now work with writers from the economically proscribed countries as long as they aren’t government officials. Makes sense to me. And how you know that they aren’t government officials is that their governments want them dead.


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