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Briefing notes: Where are the women in translation?

  • By Sophie Mayer
  • 23rd September 2014
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In this month's Briefing Notes, Sophie Mayer asks why most books translated into English are written by men.

Just over a year ago, translator Alison Anderson switched her dictionary for a calculator, and set out to crunch some numbers for translation magazine Words Without Borders. She says:

“I decided it was time to confirm for myself what I had sensed over the last few years working full-time as a freelance literary translator: the Vida figures would probably apply to translated literature, as well. Far more male novelists make their way into English than female ones… It is not the lists or the numbers that matter per se; it is what they represent, and the questions they raise. Where are the women in translation? Why aren’t more women getting into print in English, particularly when one bears in mind that the proportions are reversed when the gender of the translator is in question.”

Since 2009, VIDA, an organisation representing women in Anglophone literary arts, has published its VIDA count, breaking down publication of books and reviews by gender, to shocking effect. Anderson’s findings were equally concerning, with percentages by year, based on Three Percent’s translation database, hovering between 25 and 35%.

Anderson presented her findings as part of an English PEN panel at the 2014 London Book Fair (LBF), which I chaired, with For Books’ Sake editor Jane Bradley and novelist Krys Lee, who offered a dual perspective on the situation of women writers in South Korea and writers in translation in the US. So many people (mainly women) attended the panel, including journalists, publishers, writers, translators, and reviewers, that we realised the question wasn’t ‘Where are the women in translation?’ but ‘Where are the (often) male gatekeepers prepared to listen to us and help make change?’

On International Translation Day (ITD), Bradley and I will be joined at the British Library by translator and Love German Books blogger Katy Derbyshire for a workshop on Amplifying Women’s Voices in Translation. We will have contributions from the floor from experts such as Anderson, translator Ros Schwartz and Words Without Borders’ founding editor Samantha Schnee – and we hope from many Free Worders, too.

We want to take up and run with the passion we heard from the audience at LBF: the appetite for a greater diversity of voices in translation, more avenues through which to discover them, and more incentives for publishers, reviewers and booksellers to pay attention to them. What we learned from the panel – and what many translators already know – is that the books are out there, but they are struggling to cross the border. When Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in 2009, for instance, only one of her books was available in English translation. We’re looking for practical solutions to what’s evidently a bottleneck that keeps the great books being published by women in languages other than English from keen Anglophone readers.

Despite Müller’s success (and more recently, Alice Munro’s), Bradley pointed out that only 14 women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature since the prize was first awarded in 1901, and women account for only 4 of the 22 laureates awarded the biennial Neustadt International Prize for Literature since its inception in 1970. This lack of recognition affects the awareness and appetite of publishers and readers, leading to lower numbers of books being translated, and often less attention to those that are.

One highlight (or lowlight) of Anderson’s findings is that no novel by a woman has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Yet small press Peirene, with only 12 titles on its list, has had three novels by women shortlisted in its four years of operation, a sign of the high quality of contemporary literary fiction by European women. Is it time, Anderson wondered, to found a prize for women in English translation?

There is precedent. Since its inaugural award in 1996, the Orange Award (now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize) has shown an unerring ability to celebrate and promote emerging writers who are now fixtures in the literary heavens. According to The Bookseller, the Orange Prize is a  proven driver of sales, and libraries that promote the prize reported a reader survey in which 48% of respondents said that they had tried new writers as a result of the promotion, and 42% said that they would try other books by the new authors they had read.

Yet, from its inception, the Award has been controversial, losing its first sponsor (Mitsubishi) and courting criticism from its own judges as well as reviewers and authors. AS Byatt called it ‘sexist… The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don't believe in’, although the award does not stipulate gendered subject matter, and has rewarded historical epics, crime thrillers and experimental writing, genres often associated with male writers.

With awards to Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (and to Diane Evans and Irene Sabatini in the short-lived Orange Award for New Writers), Orange juries have also been more attentive to the multiethnic and transnational diversity of Anglophone writing than more established UK literary prizes.  That raises the intriguing possibility of replacing the Orange New Writers award with a Bailey’s Writing in Translation award that continues to extend the prize’s global awareness.

Such a prize could capitalise on 2014’s grassroots online push for wider attention to women writers. @readwomen2014 was created by Joanna Walsh (@baudade), and has over 5,000 Twitter followers, and #WITmonth (women in translation month), an initiative within the larger campaign, took place this August with particularly enthusiastic participation from translation press And Other Stories, who have recently published their first female author in translation, Elvira Dones, and are consciously looking to add others to their list. While it’s impossible to trace the diffuse effects of a hashtag campaign on book sales, it garnered thousands of tweets, initiating previously unheard conversations between readers, writers, publishers, bloggers and reviewers.

What we’re hoping to find next Friday at ITD is a channel for this energy, one that can change literary culture – and society, while we’re at it. The lack of women writers from publication, translation, reviews and prizes is not a discrete phenomenon; it’s part of systemic sexism that generates a narrative about an absence of women, rather than their omission. Jill McDonough’s current post on the VIDA blog calls for an attitude shift towards ‘Rejecting Models of Scarcity, Believing in Plenty’.

So it’s important to pay attention to initiatives that already exist, such as Words Without Borders, which publishes translations with an attention to diversity including an annual Queer Issue. For Books’ Sake is dedicated to reviewing and promoting writing by women, and UK feminist webzine The F-Word has an active fiction and non-fiction reviews section. All of these initiatives, however, depend on volunteer labour from editors and contributors, which is committed, celebratory and certainly bears out McDonough’s belief in plenty. But, as the VIDA figures show, this dynamic community has yet to make an impact on the mainstream media, which could provide fees for reviewers as well as greater coverage for authors.

So we need to reconfigure the question: how we stop counting numbers of women in translation, and make women writers, translators and reviewers count? Panels at LBF and ITD are powerful ways of bringing the question of equality to the fore, applying pressure on publishers to be accountable, much as the VIDA count does. From hashtag campaigns to a high-profile prize via intelligent media coverage at every level: every strategy and solution counts. I believe in plenty.

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