Women in Translation Month: Disparity Within Disparity
This year, as a contribution to Women in Translation Month, created by Meytal Radzinski in 2014, the PEN America Translation Committee has run a series of blog posts featuring books written and translated by women that have won the PEN Translation Prize and the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, as well as books by female authors published after receiving a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant.
Our final post, from Jane Eldridge Miller, editor of Who’s Who in Contemporary Women’s Writing, makes a plea to look beyond writers of the 21st century, and outside of the languages most commonly translated into English, to get a fuller picture of women’s contribution to the literary world.
Click here for an account of how Women in Translation Month came into being, and a look at some of the efforts aimed at getting more female authors translated into English and more people reading them. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow the conversation at #womenintranslation and #WITMonth. Also, visit the Tumblr Women in Translation.
Women in Translation: Disparity Within Disparity
When I was asked in the late 1990s to create a guide to contemporary women writers, I discovered there was a need for a truly international one. Although there were many other guides to women writers available, they had either a broad historical scope or a particular national or ethnic emphasis; none of them adequately represented contemporary women writers from around the world. I worked with over 200 contributors to compile around 1,000 biographical and bibliographical entries, and the result was Who’s Who in Contemporary Women’s Writing, published by Routledge in 2001―the first and still the only (I believe) international guide to contemporary women writers.
Initially, because the guide was intended for an English-speaking audience, I stipulated that an author had to have at least one work available in English translation to be included. But I soon realized I had to relax that requirement in order not to exclude significant writers. I was quite surprised and dismayed to discover how many writers were largely or even wholly untranslated, and so it was important to me that the entries clearly indicate which works had been translated into English and which had not. I hoped this information would be of interest to translators and publishers.
In my introduction, I described the current state of affairs for women writers in translation (circa 2001) and my hopes for the future:
“[M]ost readers in English-speaking countries continue to read in national or cultural isolation. Most publishers, reviewers, and bookstores in these countries give readers barely a hint of the amazing wealth and variety of writing produced by women in other parts of the world. . . . This volume offers readers an opportunity to discover hundreds of ‘new’ writers and gives those writers an opportunity to be known outside their own countries, to acquire new readers, and perhaps even to receive new translations. The Internet has made global communication instantaneous and effortless, and it is inevitable that awareness of and interest in global literature will grow, particularly as that literature becomes increasingly available for purchase on-line.”
As the third annual WiT Month comes to a close, I’m happy to say that my prediction was accurate. Awareness of and interest in women writers in translation has definitely increased, even if the number of translations still lags behind that for male writers. But in this improved situation some disparities persist. One is that most of the recent efforts to promote women writers in translation tend to favor 21st century writers. It’s understandable that publishers and bookstores are drawn to what’s new or to young writers who have garnered recent critical attention. But there is a great deal of excellent and important writing by 20th-century women writers that remains untranslated. I worry that many of the writers featured in Who’s Who―women who began their careers in the 1960s through the 1990s―have been forgotten. Publishers would do well to look, for example, at the success of two recent translations of older books―The Bridge of Beyond (1972) by Simone Schwarz-Bart, translated from the French by Barbara Bray; and The Door (1987) by Magda Szabo, translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix―and to remember that no matter what the original date of publication, newly translated books are “new” to their English-speaking audience (and can be promoted as such).
The other continuing disparity I see is in which literatures are being translated. In the index of Who’s Who, the writers are listed under 110 different nationalities (with many writers being listed multiple times due to their family backgrounds and the circumstances of their lives). Yet most translations, then and now, are of women writers from a handful of countries, most of them European. I remember so clearly those editors and contributors who told me that their countries or their languages had never before been represented in an English-language reference work. Their desire to have their writers gain new audiences and be recognized as part of the larger literary world was powerful. But for so many of these writers from underrepresented countries, further recognition has been sparse.
I am immensely heartened by WiT Month and the movement to read and publish more women writers in translation. But now that there is a growing consensus that there should be more translations of women writers, I hope we can also encourage translators and publishers not to limit themselves because of the date of the original publication of a work or the country of origin of the author. There is such a rich variety of significant works by women still to be translated―works from the past as well as in the present, and from all over the world.
PEN member Jane Eldridge Miller is the editor in chief of Who’s Who in Contemporary Women’s Writing (2001) and the author of Rebel Women: Feminism, Modernism, and the Edwardian Novel (1994).