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Women in Translation: Why Does It Matter?

  • By Katy Derbyshire
  • 23rd February 2016
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In light of International Women's Day on 8 March and ahead of an event at Free Word Centre on 10 March - 'Few Women in the History: Tackling imbalances in international literature' - translator Katy Derbyshire explores the importance of translating literature by women.

For more than two years now, translators, reviewers and writers have been asking, “Where are the women in translation?” We’ve been counting in earnest and finding a lack, wondering how this huge imbalance comes about in a literary culture that has well and truly discovered women’s writing and female purchasing power.

For what it’s worth, I think some countries do lag behind the Anglophone world in terms of publishing writing by women, particularly in literary fiction. My own observations of German publishing certainly confirm this (more on this topic in the forthcoming issue of New Books in German). But I also think critical reception is a major factor – since the VIDA counts began, we have known for sure that women receive less review coverage than male writers. That applies around the world, meaning UK/US editors are less likely to notice women’s work. It’s also a question of what kind of books women publish and what kind get translated. So AmazonCrossing has a largely female roster of writers because it translates genre fiction and self-published novels, where women are very well represented, while Dalkey Archive is the polar opposite with its extremely literary list.

Thinking about root causes may help us to find solutions, but I’m interested in why we’re bothering in the first place. Is #WomenInTranslation a noble cause for the sake of equality, or can we also find pragmatic arguments that might convince editors to publish more translated fiction written by women?

In our ongoing efforts to start a literary prize for translated fiction by women, we’ve been leaning heavily on the diversity argument. Novels written by women from other cultures and in other languages really do offer windows into lesser-known worlds. Be they Herta Müller’s Romania under the Securitate or Han Kang’s South Korean domesticity, the (fictional) worlds they contain will often be unlike British readers’ own lives in some ways, but similar in others. We are rightly concerned about giving readers better access to writers of colour – Anna James of The Bookseller sums it up as:

Read diversely because our world is diverse.

By that measure, a diverse reading list should equally include writers outside of the white middle-class male Anglophone parameter.

Marlon James recently criticised what he called “cultural ventriloquism”, a literary phenomenon whereby white authors write in a “palatable” way about countries and cultures of which they have little experience. This pattern of books written in English and set in “exotic” places, reinforcing clichés and giving us few genuine insights – Christopher Isherwood being my favourite culprit – could be broken by publishing fiction from those countries themselves. The perfect remedy for Isherwood’s slick, patronising male-gaze glam, for me, is the German author Irmgard Keun’s writing from Weimar-era Berlin and her later exile. Also, Keun is much funnier.

But I think the publishing and reading community would also benefit in other ways from translating more women. Remember what sparked the current (relative) boom in translated fiction? It was crime writing. Scandinavian detective stories made many readers overcome their reluctance to reach for anything genuinely foreign. The format was familiar enough to act as a gateway drug, paving the way to full-on binge-watching of The Bridge. Readers (and viewers) are now actively seeking out stories written in other languages about other cultures. OK, they may well play on a stereotype of dour sociopathic northern Europeans, but at least they’re written by actual northern Europeans. And many of them are women, as For Books’ Sake point out.

Before Nordic noir, translated literature was largely the preserve of – how can I put this? – demonstratively intellectual dudes. The DID would boast an apartment full of tasteful furniture and impenetrable foreign tomes. Novels by other DIDs, of course, about philosophy, loneliness and suffering, perhaps livened up by late-life affairs with younger women. Contemplations of other literary DIDs’ deaths, homages to classic DID writing, and so on in an eternal circle-jerk. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a sucker for a good DID, especially in my personal life. But as a hegemonic literary culture, they can get rather dull.

Scandicrime broadened the audience for translated fiction and brought it out of its DID niche, which did us all a favour. And now translated fiction written by women is poised to do the same. By that I mean not just Elena Ferrante – who has, you may have noticed, gathered a fan base of female (and male) readers addicted to her stories of female friendship, as translated by Ann Goldstein. I also mean the kind of genre fiction that AmazonCrossing is translating. As I write this, the number 1 on Amazon’s US list of bestselling historical romance books is German novelist Corina Bomann’s The Moonlit Garden (trans. Alison Layland). Published only in January, it has already racked up over 1000 customer reviews. That certainly suggests a lot of potential readers for translated fiction.

Women buy two thirds of all fiction sold in the UK. I would argue that translated fiction hasn’t traditionally been bought by women because it has pandered (to hijack Marlon James’ terminology) to DID readers. Without wishing to stereotype, how many stories about erectile dysfunction does a girl really need to read? To tap into this lucrative market, the obvious route would be to publish more books originally written by women, books female readers can identify with more easily. They might be literary fiction like Jenny Erpenbeck’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning The End of Days (trans. Susan Bernofsky), graphic novels like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (trans. Blake Ferris and Mattias Ripa), or genre writing like that of  Argentinian writer Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula K. LeGuin, Amalia Gladhart and Sue Burke.

Yes, UK editors would have to cast their nets further than international prize-winners and headline-hitters. But why continue to restrict two thirds of the audience to either homegrown banalities or migraine-inducing DIDism? If and when our prize comes to life, it will celebrate amazing translated fiction by women, regardless of genre. Let’s keep telling publishers about these great books and hope that they listen – for readers’ sake and for their own.

To highlight and celebrate International Women’s Day, we’re holding an event on Thursday 10 March all about women in international literature. For more information and to book tickets, please click here


Katy Derbyshire is a London-born translator of contemporary German writers including Inka Parei, Felicitas Hoppe, Helene Hegemann, Dorothee Elmiger and Christa Wolf. She lives in Berlin with her daughter, co-hosting a monthly translation lab and the bi-monthly Dead Ladies Show.

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  • Thank you for this article, Katy. I have read many great books translated by female linguists and women deserve not only the credit for the work they do in translating literature but also an equal status to their male colleagues working in this profession. In my daily work as a translator, I am regularly humbled by the great translations I come across completed by female translators.

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