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Where Are the Women in Translation?

Words without borders, By Alison Anderson, May 14, 2013

Alison Anderson is the author of two novels, Hidden Latitudes and Darwin’s Wink. Her translations include Leila Marouane’s Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, two novels by Sélim Nassib, Amélie Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée, Lifeform, and Hygiene and the Assassin, and Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog and Gourmet Rhapsody. She lives near Lausanne, Switzerland.



I’ve never been good at math, or maybe I should say, I never liked math enough to be good at it, even if I did get the odd A in the subject in high school. So I don’t have a clue how to divide 3% by 26%, for example. I searched on the Internet, and found calculators that were very handy for the research I was doing for what has turned into this blog, but I’ll have to leave it to you to work out what twenty-six percent of three percent is. Not an awful lot.

As most of the readers of these pages will know, three percent is the rough estimation of the number of translations from other languages into English published in an average year. Twenty-six percent, however, is just an average I have chosen from my informal and hardly exhaustive or scientific survey into the percentage of women authors published in translation in a given year. (If anyone would like a more precise breakdown of the numbers, please contact me.)

When dealing with literature, what matters far more than the precision of numbers over any given timespan is their symbolic value. And what these findings urge us to do. Over the last four years, vidaweb.org has been keeping a very close, virtually scientific tally of the presence and absence of women in major periodicals, book reviews, and so on. Their study covers most of the significant literary publications in the United States, and some British ones. And the findings make dismal, if predictable, reading: 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.

A week before this year’s annual London Book Fair, 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. For every Clarice Lispector there is a Roberto Bolaño, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Javier Marías; for every Christa Wolf a Günther Grass, Daniel Kehlman, or Peter Stamm. I sat down one evening at the computer and chose four indicators on which to base my informal survey: one database, and three literary prizes. In summary, here is what I found.

The Translation Database, compiled by Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester, New York: over the last two years, an average of 26% of the books of fiction or poetry published in the United States were by women. (Obviously, some books may have been left out, or not counted for some reason.)

The Best Translated Book Award, also founded and presented by Open Letter: over the last three years, 17% on average of the books on the longlist were by women, and 21% of the shortlist, fiction and poetry combined.

The PEN Translation Prize: over the last twenty years, only three women have won, which makes 15%.

Finally, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP): over the last three years, 13% of the longlist, and 16% of the shortlist (in other words, the “token” woman on the shortlist of six). No woman author has ever won this prize since its founding in 1990.

This last regrettable finding, regarding the IFFP, was also the most timely, as one of the panels at the Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair would be devoted to the prize; if the dearth of female authors on their longlists and shortlists was not mentioned, I would, timidly, raise my hand and ask if anyone had an explanation—had they even noticed?

Fortunately, they had. The members of the panel were Boyd Tonkin, a reviewer and editor at the Independent; Gabriel Josipovici, a British novelist, critic, and literary theorist; and Turkish author Elif Shafak—all also members of the jury for the prize. In response to a more general question regarding what the judges would have liked to have seen more of on the list, Ms. Shafak immediately pointed out the lack of women, and spoke about it at length and with some elegant indignation, but no one was able (or willing?) to offer a root explanation as to why there were so few books of the requisite quality or interest to make their way onto the shortlist. (This is a problem already in the English-speaking world: hence the creation twenty years or so ago of the Orange Prize, now called the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Is it time to found a prize for women in translation?)

But again, 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? Two-thirds of the translators nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize along with their authors are women, shortlist and longlist alike. Why aren’t women translators promoting more women authors? Does the problem lie at the source, are there simply fewer women than men writing in Norwegian, Urdu, or Modern Greek? Do women have a harder time getting published? Attaining fame or even simply recognition in countries that might be more macho or patriarchal, particularly in the literary world? I remember searching in vain at the Paris Salon du Livre a few years ago for someone from the editorial board of the literary magazine Lire to whom I could complain about the lack of coverage of books by women in their glossy pages. And yet go into any French language bookstore and the number of books of fiction by men and women seems fairly well-balanced.

How much of this is due to an unconscious, involuntary gender bias? Or are women—an excuse offered by some of the culprits in the Vida debate—simply less inclined to submit articles, reviews, and novels than men are? Do they give up more easily, especially in the face of patriarchal disdain in some of the source countries?

Or could the problem be that American and British publishers are reluctant to take on women authors because their sales are not, traditionally, as robust? I did an informal survey of my own career, and found I have translated seventeen books by men, and twenty by women. But over the last year, I have translated exclusively male authors, and I have turned down four recent offers, all books by men. My experience, too, with some of the books by women—the majority in fact—has been that they received absolutely no reviews whatsoever, not even on Amazon, nor was any publicity or advertising devoted to those novels by the publishers—not even on their Facebook sites! Granted, translated books rarely get reviews anyway; but some of the books by men which I had translated did manage a nod in the New Yorker or the New York Times. Ahem.

Across the hall from the Literary Translation Centre was the elegantly simple stand for Croatia, their first year at the Fair. A tiny amphitheater of wooden seats. I hurried over after a translation panel to listen to an interview with Dasa Drndic, whose novel Trieste is on the shortlist for the IFFP. And yes, the only woman on the list. Her book, from which she read excerpts, is set during the Second World War and the Holocaust in the region of the borderlands between Italy and what was then Yugoslavia. Some of it made for difficult listening, but you could not deny it was superbly written. I went up to Dasa after the interview to wish her luck. We talked about the fact that she was the only woman, and that if she won, she would be the first in the prize’s history. She told me, with a mischievous smile, that she was thinking of going to the award ceremony on May 20 wearing a tux and a red bow tie and, if she dared, a beard and a mustache.

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