Women in Translation Month: Moving Toward Parity
In May 2014, blogger Meytal Radzinski, a student of biophysics in Israel and an avid and insightful reader, announced the first Women in Translation month, to be held that August. Her goals, she wrote, were simple:
1. Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation
2. Read more books by women in translation
It was an idea born of her realization that not only were most of the translations she was reading written by men, but in fact most translations published were written by men—and not just by a little bit, but disproportionately so. “Based on my rough calculation,” Radzinski wrote in December 2013, after examining the database of titles in translation published in the US in 2013 (compiled by Chad Post of Open Letter Books, at the website Three Percent), “women writers contribute less than 30% of the literature that is translated into English.”
One of the commenters on that post pointed out that author and translator Alison Anderson had written an essay on the subject for Words Without Borders in May 2013, titled “Where Are the Women in Translation?” In addition to data from the Three Percent database, Anderson also cited statistics from the Best Translated Book Award, the PEN Translation Prize, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. These revealed that not only were a disproportionate number of male authors translated into English, but a disproportionate number of men were nominated for prizes and won them. (“Is it time to found a prize for women in translation?” she asked.) Anderson pointed out that the situation in translation was part of a larger pattern, documented by the New York City–based VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, whose research revealed that “although the majority of readers of novels are said to be women, they remain grossly underrepresented in publications, whether as reviewers or subjects of review.”
Meanwhile critic Tara Cheesman-Olmsted, blogging at BookSexy Review (since renamed Reader at Large), had been following Radzinski’s posts and proposed an “informal challenge to fellow readers, bloggers and reviewers: in 2014 challenge yourself to read a set number of books in translation written by women — and then review them. The review part is key. Whether on a blog, as a contributor to a traditional media outlet or on Goodreads it’s important to give these authors a little marketing nudge.” She added, “Hmmm … this could merit a hashtag. Something I’m terrible at. Anyone?”
So it was that when Radzinski announced the inaugural WIT Month in 2014, she encouraged her audience to share about the books by women in translation they were reading, as well as any related information or events, by commenting on her blog, emailing her, and tweeting using the hashtags #WITMonth or #womenintranslation.
The idea caught fire, and in the two short years since then, a host of other initiatives have sprung up to raise awareness of the issue and, more important, to redress the imbalance. An exhaustive accounting would be impossible, but to name just a few:
- English PEN followed up on Anderson’s essay by organizing a panel of the same name at the London Book Fair in April 2014, featuring Anderson herself, with writer and editor Sophie Mayer as moderator.
- In September 2014, translator Katy Derbyshire picked up on Anderson’s suggestion of founding a prize and announced a project to create a “women’s prize for translated fiction.” (That effort is ongoing; follow Derbyshire’s blog for updates.)
- At the PEN World Voices Festival in New York, in May 2015, translators Margaret Carson and Alta L. Price of the PEN America Translation Committee moderated the panel “Who We Talk About When We Talk About Translation: Women’s Voices.” Carson, together with poet Jen Fitzgerald, the former director of the VIDA Count, analyzed the figures from the Three Percent databases, showing the gender distribution of translated works for the largest publishers of translations in the US, as well as for the New York Times Book Review and for translation prizes (see here, here, here). Since then, Carson, Radzinski, Derbyshire, and Post have each gone on to do additional number-crunching, providing a clearer and more detailed picture of the disparity. (All of their findings are available on the Women in Translation Tumblr, created by Price and Carson at the time of the PEN World Voices panel.)
- In June 2015, taking the issue beyond consciousness-raising, two presses specializing in translation responded to Kamila Shamsie’s call for 2018 to be the Year of Publishing Women by committing to publishing women only in 2018: And Other Stories and Tilted Axis.
- In October 2015, at the American Literary Translators Association annual conference, in Tucson, Alta L. Price and Margaret Carson once again looked at the question “Where Are the Women in Translation?” in a panel with Kaija Straumanis, editorial director at Open Letter Books; Susan Harris, editorial director at Words Without Borders; Jim Hicks, executive editor at the Massachusetts Review; and Meytal Radzinski, the founder of Women in Translation Month.
- In May 2016, Katy Derbyshire kicked off a new series at Literary Hub, highlighting female authors whose books ought to be translated, with “10 German Books by Women We’d Love to See in English.” Other posts in the series have featured translators writing on books by women from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro; Italy; and Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Iraq, and Palestine.
- In July, Derbyshire, with the help of many translators contributing, assembled a list of books written by women and published in English translation since 2010, which can be shared with booksellers so they can feature the books in their stores during Women in Translation Month.
- This month, independent presses have accepted an invitation from translator and blogger Susan Bernofsky to select one translation of a female author to offer at a special WIT Month discount of 40 percent.
In the past two years, awareness of the disparity between male and female authors translated into English has skyrocketed (and, more recently, increased attention to the low numbers of writers of color translated as well). To some it’s obvious why this matters, but to those who wonder why it’s important to read women in translation, the answer is that we live in a world that’s more or less half women, half men. If our reading skews overwhelmingly male, we miss out on what half the world has to say, in terms of both story and style. And by the same token, in a world of 7.4 billion people, with only 1.5 billion of them speaking English (native or otherwise), if all we read is books by English-speaking authors, we’re missing out on 85 percent of what the world has to offer.
How far this movement goes, and how fast, remains to be seen. Translators are certainly doing their part. It’s up to publishers now to pick up the ball and run with it.