Showing posts with label debate. Show all posts
Showing posts with label debate. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Award lists are important, but framing is important too

Over the past few weeks, I have had decidedly mixed reactions to the release of the Man Booker International Prize shortlist. The award - which has gone to women in translation twice in its history (as well as once to an English-language woman writer back when it was given to writers alone and twice in the parallel history of the International Foreign Fiction Prize) - suddenly emerged with a shortlist that was, to quote the Guardian and the NYT and just about every media outlet, "dominated" by women.

For the first time in history, the prize was not in its usual gender breakdown of 4 men and 2 women or 5 men, 1 woman. These are not just ratios of recent years, these are consistent numbers across the years (for the IFFP, at least). Women were consistently minorities, consistently outnumbered 5:1. They almost never took home the prize. And suddenly this year, the ratio flipped. Now it's 5 women writers and 1 man.

A shortlist "dominated" by women.

On the one hand, I am delighted by this shift. It's not about "beating men", rather it's a wonderful indicator that the women in translation project is working. The prize judges specifically cite the importance of diversity in their shortlist, in a way that makes it obvious that they are aware of what it means to have women in translation at the forefront. Prizes mean visibility, visibility means more sales, more sales means more readers, and ultimately more readers means that publishers may realize that it's in their financial interest (as well as their moral one...) to publish more books by diverse women in translation.

On the other hand... Framing is important, and the current framing of this shortlist as one "dominated by women" undercuts all of the hard work that has gone into this effort. It also undersells the list. It was deemed unremarkable for years that the IFFP had similarly ratio-ed shortlists, but with men "dominating"; men writer dominance was never commented on. The degree to which men writers have dominated literary discourse for decades despite stunning output by women writers is only discussed in the context of feminist perspectives. This creates the impression that women succeed only when there is a feminist agenda working in their favor. But the unremarked upon mostly-men shortlists? Those are simply as a result of the quality of the text, right?

It's important to recognize this shortlist. It's important to specifically recognize the degree to which it's still a rarity, that this is a shortlist that goes against market trends. Most important of all, recognize the women writers themselves, who are getting their moment in the spotlight, something that is still all too rare for women writers in translation.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

"Translated literature", here and in the world

One of the biggest questions I ask myself when thinking about WITMonth and the women in translation project at large is whether or not I am helping or hurting. This, after all, is a project I've been working on for years; I have dedicated countless hours to assessing the state of women in translation in English. But that question of "in English" is another one that I think about quite often. After all, I am not monolingual, I also read in Hebrew (albeit less frequently than English). And I often think about how my efforts maybe segregate women in translation; if people are only reading WIT during WITMonth, doesn't that entirely defeat the purpose?

On Twitter, Tim Gutteridge responded to a tweet by Vagabond Voices (quoting Katy Derbyshire's desire to see an end to the segregation between original and translated literature), asking: "I wonder if this is a peculiarly English-speaking way of thinking about things. I don't think Spanish readers, for example, self-consciously read "translated literature" in this way. Any thoughts from those familiar with other reading cultures? I also wonder (I'm in a curious mood!) if some of the brilliant ways in which we promote translated literature - and the kinds of books we seek out - inadvertently strengthen the boundaries between translated and non-translated, rather than breaking them down."

These are extraordinarily valid questions that sit within an extraordinarily complicated realm.

Several responses addressed the complexity of the issue. Some noted that in certain countries, "translated" literature may be obvious simply by author name; I would argue that a similar "foreignness" metric (which was raised in relation to the French perspective) applies to English as well, though it is no guarantee of whether or not the book is in translation or originally in English. Others still responded to the way that segregating translated literature has created the perception that only "certain" types of books are actually translated into English, in essence removing the majority of "middlebrow" literature that originates in other languages.

I can't speak to every language or culture, of course, but I can speak to the situation as I see it in both English and Hebrew, as well as stories I have heard since embarking on this project.

This past WITMonth, I received some gentle disagreement from an Israeli blogger (Shiri, from Books on Buses) who felt that my insistence on defining translation (for myself) as originating from languages other than English was unfairly exclusionary. Examining the bias from a translators perspective, it seemed to her than translations from English were no less worthy of attention. I continue to maintain that translations from English need no help; English-language books are constantly translated (into Hebrew and just about every other language on Earth...), often regardless quality. Hebrew in particular seems to have as many books translated from English on the bestseller lists than books originally written in Hebrew... often more, in fact. Books translated from languages other than English, while still relatively more common than in English (remember that the Hebrew book market is significantly smaller), are far more rare. Yet I concede that not all translations from English are made equal - for an Israeli reader (as well, I imagine, for many non-Anglo/European readers), a translation of an Indian or African or Native English-language writer (for example) can often be as enlightening in its diverse perspective as a translation from a "foreign language". Sometimes more so. (See: European/Western dominance in translation.)

I have no doubt that the situation in English is unique. Viewing "literature in translation" as a concept that we need to focus on stems from a unique lack of foreign perspectives. English seems perfectly content to define diversity through the lens of English alone, often failing to recognize that different languages thoroughly shape different experiences. This is true not only of literature, but culture at large. While the rest of the world absorbs Anglo-American culture from birth (whether through television, movies, music, or books), many Anglo-Americans feel uniquely comfortable entrenched in their own limited perspectives.

Defining what "literature in translation" means in other languages does become more complicated (as that Israeli blogger noted), because literature in translation simply isn't rare in other languages. Everyone reads books translated from English, from the US, the UK, South Africa, Nigeria, Australia... and there are also relatively more books translated from other non-English languages. And while in Israel, many bookstores do distinguish between original and translated literature (most bookstores, in fact), the translated shelves are almost always significantly larger than the originals. That's just how it goes.

The question about the types of books translated, meanwhile, feels like it strikes right to the heart of everything I have been trying to do with the women in translation project these past six or so years. Tim is absolutely that the current market for literature in translation is highly defined: we view literature in translation as a genre, rather than a description. Literature in translation is disproportionately published by independent publishers, and this too defines how these books are received by the wider public. Like it or not, independently published books are not going to be available to the vast majority of readers, regardless questions of their literary style. Small town public libraries cannot afford to purchase largely unknown books, nor will certain chain bookstores (e.g. Barnes & Noble) carry them either. Nor is the marketing of these books ever intended for mass consumption, meaning that even people who predominantly purchase their books online are unlikely to stumble across these titles.

This is not to say that I'm satisfied with the current situation. On the contrary, my constant pleas for the women in translation movement to go "mainstream" is exactly meant to push back against this frustratingly niche constraint. The fact that on top of the practical accessibility constraints, much of literature in translation is more experimental and as such does not appeal to many "average" readers. With the exception of Scandinavian thrillers (which boomed in the early 2010s), most genre literature from around the world simply doesn't get translated. More than that, children's/YA literature and even contemporary literature are rarely translated, removing exactly the sorts of books that are most popular in the English-language market today.

As such, there are a lot of misconceptions about literature in translation. For every passionate fan, there are a dozen or so readers who bemoan cultural differences "lost in translation", without any attempt made at bridging those difference. The primary faces of literature in translation (overwhelmingly men, typically of a certain background writing with certain literary quirks) do little to dispel these myths. The framing of literature in translation as its own category is also a double-edged sword; I steadfastly believe in the importance of promoting diversity and believe that literature in translation provides this in a unique form, but this should not "other" or exoticize it.

This leaves us in a tricky position. In English, we have to emphasize literature in translation because there is so little of it, even as the distinction becomes murkier in other languages. But the very act of defining translations also limits us in what we are given, with perceptions often defined by those publishers brave enough to devote themselves to the more experimental/diverse sides of translation, which then leads to fewer mainstream publishers embracing literature in translation in their genres. The self-feeding cycle means that, yes, we're not quite breaking free of problematic boundaries and assumptions regarding literature in translation.

And so... there's no real bottom line here. Yes, "literature in translation" is a highly context dependent term. Yes, we are limited by what that phrase has come to mean. Yes, there is a global lack of mainstream literature in translation and a particular lack of literature in translation across a wide range of popular genres/designations. But also: No, I don't believe that these are fixed states. More and more books in translation are becoming popular in English-speaking spheres. As bookish communities embrace diversity of literature in a variety of forms, I believe that the market for more international literature will also grow. And ultimately, I can also hope for that ideal future that Katy speaks of, when literature in translation (and women in translation in particular!) does not need to be defined as such, because there is nothing odd or rare about it.

We're just not quite there yet.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

I am an uneducated feminist | Thoughts on Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex

I don't think I quite expected to be confronted by my ignorance to such a stark degree while reading The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir's classic of feminist literature. I am currently reading the version translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, slowly immersing myself in this book I had heard so much about in references, but had never actually read myself. I kept telling myself there would be no reason for me to actually read this "original", second-wave text; after all, I have read so much literature from future generations of the feminist movement. Right?

I'm not a new feminist, nor do I consider myself to be a young feminist. I have followed feminist discourse since my early teen years and I have even actively engaged in it through the women in translation project. Feminism is a key part of my identity and I have long made sure that I read plenty of essays and discussions about feminism. I have often found myself enlightened by online feminists, but almost as often exasperated or frustrated. At times, I've even been angry with mainstream, popular feminist writers and their writing. But I certainly never considered myself uneducated, nor did I think that they were uneducated.

It's hard to come away from reading The Second Sex and not wonder if perhaps many more of us are ignorant than I previously believed: ignorant of the history of feminism, of the literature, and of our own inflated sense of self-importance.

Early in The Second Sex, de Beauvoir writes about the ways in which being a woman is not the only determining factor in political views or approach: "women as a sex lack solidarity: they are linked to their classes first; bourgeois and proletarian interests do not intersect". The use of the word "intersect" immediately caught my attention. While the translation is modern, it seemed unlikely that the choice of this word was necessarily modern. In essence, it struck me that I was reading a clear reference to intersectional feminism, years before it was canonized as a term by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. de Beauvoir actually has several discussions that are surprisingly parallel to modern intersectional theory, specifically in reference to the complex status that racial/ethnic minorities have in society (i.e. black people in the US, Jewish people in Europe).

I was surprised by these references, though I'm not sure why. Crenshaw is certainly the figure in truly establishing intersectionalism as a concept within the feminist movement, and her status as such should not be diminished. Rather, I use this example to point toward my own recurring ignorance of how prevalent certain ideas have been in feminist discourse long before they appeared on the internet in filtered, shallow versions. Furthermore, my own interest in this specific example emphasized that while I've seen Crenshaw - like de Beauvoir - referenced time and time again in online pieces or essay collections, I had never actually read any of her works or writing on the topic. It suddenly occurred to me that I had been reading watered down versions or reworkings of feminist theory, rather than the original.

There are a lot of things in The Second Sex that are outdated (and not just funny things, like references to Queen Elizabeth... singular, since in 1949 there had only been one). It's understandable that certain norms and psychological understandings would have changed over 70 years. The clearest example of de Beauvoir being a product of her time probably comes from her now-conservative interpretations of gender/gender roles and sexuality. Specifically, her writing would place her on the border of the modern definition of "transphobic", with a sort of closed-mindedness to the fluidity of gender identity that most modern feminists of her ilk have forsaken. The adherence to Freudian psychology similarly feels rather old, and certainly some of the studies are no longer relevant or have been disproven since de Beauvoir's time. She also has a bizarre tendency to over-cite male authors writing about women, as though these are more accurate than women's own accounts. These all make some degree of sense when taken as a product of de Beauvoir's time (and if we view her work as truly revolutionary), though it is still worth pointing out. Even as de Beauvoir goes out of her way to emphasize extremely progressive-for-her-times interpretations of gender roles or sexuality, there are still gaps or interpretations that have simply proven to be false. These, if anything, emphasize the ways in which feminist discourse has changed... and the ways in which it hasn't.

Because ultimately The Second Sex remains shockingly relevant to the modern reader. More than that, it often reads like a more critical, in-depth version of a feminist blog. Topic after topic strike me as those which I still see being discussed today, even if the specific references and studies cited have changed (thankfully). Which makes me wonder... why are there so many feminist blogs of this sort, if it's already been written and analyzed? Some parts even left me embarrassed that I've tried to write about the same topics myself, yet it now becomes obvious that I was missing so much necessary context and history.

What strikes me while reading The Second Sex is that many pop-feminists are just as uneducated as I am. The uncomfortable truth is, for all my "feminist stripes", I've actually never engaged with the canon before this. Yes, I've read plenty of the fictional feminist canon (e.g. The Handmaid's Tale, The Bell Jar), and I've even read Bad Feminist (though some of you may recall what my opinion on the book was...), but I've actually read very little of the canon. Most of what I read of feminist literature is actually regurgitated online pop-feminism, and while this has benefits of a sort, I was thoroughly misled to believe that it was ever enough.

What do I mean by this? Take discussions of "intersectionality". Most online posts that discuss the importance of intersectionality (and I include my own blog here!) do so from a vague, hand-wavy perspective. We can all cite Crenshaw as the originator of the idea because just about every blog post has ever referenced her (almost furiously), but we rarely discuss what it actually means. I've seen countless arguments that center around the idea that intersectionality (or, indeed, intersections) can only refer to the intersection between race and another marginalization: namely, that since it was initially used to describe the intersection between race (specifically, being black) and gender (female). This is an odd claim when it is evident that the concept of intersectionality existed long before the phrase became popularized by Crenshaw. Again, this is not to take away from the importance of Crenshaw's writing (especially since her work focused on the black experience specifically, which is still too often ignored!), but it does remind me how easy it is to reference existing work that you (I) have never actually read or studied and moreover to reference it without any of the work that actually went into the original research/theory.

This is far from the only example. In her chapter on motherhood, de Beauvoir dedicates a great deal of time and words to describing the hypocrisy of contemporary abortion policy. It is almost identical to something that we might read today, with the only major difference being that abortion is somewhat more freely available today (somewhat). Yet her descriptions of the limitations placed on it and the moralistic arguments against it could just as easily have been posted to The Guardian last week. I've always felt vaguely uncomfortable with the way that many feminist columns or blog posts feel similar to each other; many popular feminist writers will want to place their own stamp on a certain topic and will write about it, even when it has been explored by other writers. This is not inherently wrong (since personal experience can obviously shape interpretation, and more feminist writing means more exposure to feminist thought!), but it leaves me feeling as though many writers are only constantly rehashing existing ideas rather than exploring new concepts. The Second Sex has made me feel that even more strongly, with the sense that when we have these discussions, we're forgetting for how many years feminists have already been writing about these same concepts (and often with far more depth).

I'm not quite done with The Second Sex yet and I still hope to write a review of it more fully. This, after all, is not a review. I'm not even sure it's a fair assessment of modern feminism, rather than disappointment in my own ignorance. To be perfectly honest, I'm suddenly wondering whether I even have the stripes to be able to comment on pop-feminism - is that even a thing? Have I simply misunderstood what most of the feminist writers I've been reading for years have been trying to tell me?

Here's the bottom line: I like how extensive The Second Sex is, but it's not the compiled nature of the book that makes it important. If a feminist were to focus an entire book on a topic that de Beauvoir covers in only one chapter, it would not make it a lesser work simply because it is shorter/covers fewer topics. Rather, it occurs to me that it's the pseudo-academic style that de Beauvoir utilizes that has been missing from most of the works I've read. While I often disagree with the literal sources that de Beauvoir cites (and occasionally thinks she cherry-picks anecdotes without acknowledging contradictory experience), she is still casting a wide net. She references literature, memoirs, and scientific studies. de Beauvoir is not simply reworking existing ideas through the lens of their existing context, she is compiling a comprehensive study of a wide range of topics as though from scratch. (And do I really know whether this was from scratch? Clearly many of these topics had already been widely discussed...)

It took me a long time to read The Second Sex in large part because I mistakenly assumed that I didn't need to read it. There are few topics that de Beauvoir has covered so far with which I have not already been familiar. Most of the ideas that she cites that I didn't know are ones that are clearly outdated. But that just isn't what makes the book important. At the end of the day, this is a bit like the sciences: I might read a review of a topic in order to generally learn about it and the most recent updates in the field, but if I really care about it, I'm going to have to read the source papers that the review cites.

It's time for me to read the sources.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

WITMonth Day 29 | Going mainstream

I often worry about WITMonth being too niche. It feels like something that shouldn't be particularly complicated, yet it's so foreign to so many readers that there clearly is something about reading women in translation that hasn't quite broken into the mainstream. Literature in translation at large remains this odd sort of genre (even though it isn't a genre!), only occasionally breaking into the mainstream.

I've had a lot of goals for WITMonth over the years. Most of them have even come to pass, with things like the new releases database, recommendation lists, library and bookstore recommendation tables, and more growing out of this once smaller venture. There have also been new things, like this year's WITreadathon on BookTube, which has been an absolute delight to follow (where I've been able) and which I'd love to see happen more in the future as well.

But I think I'm left with only one more real goal, and it's a fairly straight-forward (if not simple) one: I want to see WITMonth go mainstream.

Does that make me sound like a sell-out? Or like I'm aiming too high? Because truthfully, I recognize that going mainstream is a lofty goal. After all, this is a project that focuses on books that aren't typically in the public's eye. Most literature in translation remains published by independent publishers (heck, even AmazonCrossing isn't exactly mainstream), with little widespread publicity or hype like most Anglo titles. (I say most, because of course there are huge problems within the English-language literary community as well when it comes to marginalization, but this is not my personal focus, important as it may be!) To then select from within this small category of books even fewer books that just so happen to be by women/trans/nonbinary authors is almost laughably specific. How could this ever become a commonplace movement?

I believe that it's possible, though. I really do. I've seen WITMonth grow from ten bloggers cheerfully doing their thing to a worldwide movement across multiple platforms with hundreds of participants and active involvement on the part of publishers, translators, booksellers, and libraries. WITMonth has not, it's true, been extensively covered in most of the mainstream media book pages, but it has been mentioned in a few over the years. There are no universally beloved celebrities touting the importance of reading women in translation, yes, but there are passionate readers around the world (literally!) who are encountering this project for the first time every day. And most readers eagerly embrace this project, recognizing their own prior biases and seeking a way to rectify them. Readers want to encounter new worlds, from new perspectives.

My recurring theme this WITMonth has been about action, whether when addressing publisher imbalances or our own reading biases. And before that, I also talked a lot about why I felt that what was missing from WITMonth was the larger feminist movement. In my mind, these two themes are how WITMonth can go from being a niche, popular blog-movement to a worldwide phenomenon, recognizing the need to promote women writers from around the entire globe. It's time for literary-minded feminists to fight for internationalism as a part of intersectionality, it's time for gatekeepers to acknowledge their importance and help open the gates, and it's time for readers to make clear that things cannot stay static forever.

There's nothing niche about the concept of women writers in translation, after all, and there shouldn't be anything niche about recognizing the need to promote those writers within a system that periodically disadvantages them. There is no reason that every reader wouldn't be able to find excellent books by women in translation, from all over the world (remember all those "10 Recommended" lists this month?), which means there is no reason that every reader in the world won't be able to take part in - and fall in love with - WITMonth.

Let's go mainstream, folks.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

WITMonth Day 25 | Stats (part 3) | What we need to do now

By now, I hope you've read the women in translation publishing stats for 2017 and for 2013-2017. I hope you've seen a few of the responses I got from publishers regarding their low translation rates of women writers. I hope you've thought a lot about where we are as an English-language literary environment, that the great improvement of the past few years (in which the women in translation movement has grown and hopefully also become prominent) has not yet appeared in publishing itself. Nor has it entirely appeared in literary journals, either, with most review outlets and journals still largely reviewing with a bias towards men writers in translation.

The fact is that many readers still also struggle to read more books by women in translation, whether simply because there aren't all that many books to choose from in the first place (true for translations at large as well, but there are still more than twice as many books by men writers for each book by a woman in translation) or because those few books that do get released don't necessarily get the same attention in the media as comparable men writers do. The situation is improving somewhat in terms of media (Words Without Borders and LARB are good examples of journals that achieve a pretty good level of parity), but there's no denying that the overall trend is somewhat stalled for publishing and it doesn't seem like it'll get better by itself. Most of the publishers with the worst translation rates of women writers don't seem to have made any particular effort in improving their statistics (though of course I did not contact everyone...), nor do a few of them seem particularly bothered by the situation.

So here's what we need to do now:

Hold publishers accountable.

Part of the reason I decided to email publishers to ask for their statements on the women in translation problem was to find out, quite simply, whether they had thought about the issue at all and whether it concerned them. What we learned from the three responses that I got back is that some publishers do care and are making active efforts to improve the situation. I particularly appreciated the frank response from NYRB, who pointed to precisely the need to seek out forgotten or waylaid books by women writers, specifically in spite of the difficulty. This should be true, I feel, for all publishers of "niche" or otherwise marginalized types of books.

But alongside those publishers that do care, we found out that there are publishers for whom there does not exist a "women in translation" problem (and not because they publish books by men and women to equal degree). It's not for nothing that neither Archipelago Books or Dalkey Archive responded to my emails; these were not my first attempts to contact either publishing house about the matter. It's possible that my emails simply never reached their targets or that they've been set aside during the August slump, but... it's time to hold publishers accountable. This means all publishers that fail to meet a basic standard, no matter how defensive they get or how wonderful we find them in general.

There's no easy way to do this, unfortunately. The fact is that even the most egregiously imbalanced publishers of literature in translation still publish phenomenal books by WIT that deserve praise and attention (not to mention those excellent books by men in translation as well). Archipelago, after all, is responsible for bringing to light one of my favorite books of the past few years (Cockroaches). Europa for its part (as they mention in their response) have played a huge role in mainstreaming literature in translation (and women in translation specifically) with authors such as Elena Ferrante and Muriel Barbery. Dalkey has done tremendous work in bringing more international literature to the front stage in the first place, with certain series including books by women from around the world. The same can also be said of academic publishers and just about any of the other publishers of literature in translation. There is no doubt that when publishers that rarely publish women writers get around to doing so, the results are worthwhile.

It's just that it isn't enough. And moreover, simply letting those good books erase the fact that these publishers have embarrassingly large gender gaps in their catalogs benefits absolutely no one, nor should publishers be let off the hook just because of it. Let's be clear about something: There is no lack of literature by women writers from around the world. There is no lack of books by women writers from almost every language on Earth. There are imbalances, yes, but why should those imbalances make their way into translations when most publishers are selecting at most a handful of books to translate from around the world every single year? Perhaps it is time for publishers to prioritize books by women writers. Perhaps it is time for publishers to look at their yearly lists and make sure that yes, parity is being reached. Perhaps it is, finally, time for quotas, despite however much I may have resisted them in the past.

In a sentence: Most publishers of literature in translation need to be publishing more women writers. That's it. That is all they need to be doing.

But the most important thing that readers can - and should - do is make their position very clear. It's time for us to stop tip-toeing around publishers that don't translate women writers, whether they are major publishers of literature in translation (Dalkey, Archipelago, Pushkin, Gallic Books), big-name publishers that occasionally publish translations (Knopf, HarperCollins, FSG), or academic publishers (Yale University Press, Columbia University Press, Oxford University Press). It is time for us to recognize the uncomfortable truth that low translation rates year after year after year don't magically add up to balance when you look over time. (And with regards to academic publishers, it is worth remembering that the stats are actually a lot worse than they seem from my stats posts, since those do not take into account retranslations of classics or nonfiction titles, both of which are categories overwhelmingly dominated by men.)

WITMonth has been extraordinary for a lot of reasons (in my mind, but I suppose I'm rather biased!), but I think one of the things that it really does brilliantly is give people the exposure they need to a lot of books by women writers in translation. While, yes, some readers sequester their women in translation to August alone and rarely read WIT beyond that, most end up with so many new additions to the TBR that they inevitably shift more of their reading towards parity. Even if it hasn't been enough to cause a significant market shift, there are literally hundreds of new readers around the world who are aware of the fact that fewer women writers than men are translated into English (not to mention other languages!) and have been exposed to new and brilliant books by those existing WIT as a result of WITMonth and the women in translation movement at large.

And readers have power. The more we purchase books by women writers in translation - during WITMonth or throughout the year - and the more we discuss these books in equal measure with books by men writers, the more publishers will see that readers really do care. The more publishers are also explicitly contacted and challenged for their imbalances, the more (I hope) they will begin to fix the situation.

Readers also have a role to play.

It's not just that we can influence publishers (though that's huge). We as readers (and reviewers and bloggers and vloggers and feminists) need to begin challenging ourselves. Ask yourself: How many of the books I read per year are in translation or international? Of the literature in translation that I read, how many of those books are by women writers? In the same way that diversity movements have (rightly) pushed for a broader range of books reflecting the world's diversity in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, ability, class, religion, and more, we also need to recognize that true diversity means reading books from all over the world, in all languages, and by all genders. We will inevitably have biases in our reading and it is highly likely that most readers will still have Anglo-preferences (especially considering how few YA/genre books actually get translated versus how many are read...), but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying to move towards something better.

So, dear readers, I ask that we also pledge to read more balanced ourselves. WITMonth is wonderful as an opportunity to put the spotlight on women writers in translation, but it should not be the only time we read WIT. Nor should we allow ourselves to simply follow existing publishing biases without doing our own work in selecting books with parity in mind. (In the interest of fairness, I should note that since embarking on the women in translation project, I have read significantly more WIT than MIT. Yet my Goodreads Translations shelf is only just reaching parity, simply because so much of my youth focused on men writers. Don't forget that parity still does not equal equality!)

We have a long way to go before we reach parity. A much longer (likely impossible) path continues from there to true equality. There is still a lot of work ahead of us, and I do mean all of us - readers, translators, and publishers alike. Each of us can and must do our part. Whether it is ensuring our individual parity or publicly demanding more from those around us (particularly those in gatekeeping positions), the time has come. We must - each of us - contact our favorite publishers, whether to praise them for their efforts and improvements or to point out their flaws and demand better. We must make our positions clear. Address our own biases. Change our own behavior, if need be.

As I said in my previous post: No more.

Friday, August 24, 2018

WITMonth Day 24 | Stats (part 3) | Publishers respond

I left off yesterday with a cliffhanger, having presented data that shows the degree to which publishers of literature in translation have failed women writers in translation. Seeing these numbers year after year is more than disheartening, it's infuriating. At a certain point, I have to wonder what else there is left. Do I simply accept this as the industry standard and continue to promote those 30% of books by women writers that do get translated into English? Do I step back and not point to this injustice, simply because too few books in translation get published at all? Do I continue to disregard the pervasive imbalance in publishing that sees women in translation (and particularly non-European women in translation) as rarities, rather than the perfectly prevalent thing that they are?

I contacted a handful of the major publishers of literature in translation described in yesterday's post, presenting them with this data and asking for public comment. I only emailed publishers with easily navigated websites in which I felt I could verify my data personally, so this of course offers only a narrow view of publisher responses. Someday, I hope to contact the rest of the repeat-offender publishers. (Feel free to do that as well, I think this is a case of "the more, the merrier".) Even with these limitations, I found the responses (and silences...) quite revealing. 

First up, Europa Editions initially pointed to 2017 as a unique outlier, citing a higher rate of publication of English-language women writers and translations of books by women from two new countries for them ("And it was the year we published our first novel in translation from the Japanese (written by a woman) and our first Mexican novel in translation (also written by a woman), and both of those books were high priorities for us so we tried to clear some space around them."). As the five-year data shows, this is only partially accurate: Yes, 2017 is an outlier, but it is not the first year that they've stumbled in terms of publishing women in translation. The official comment from editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds pointed to Europa Edition's involvement in WITMonth at large, and their perceived role in the publishing industry overall: "Our commitment to publishing women writers is hardly an august enthusiasm and it is certainly not circumscribed by our affinity for the goals of the WIT initiative. It is year-round, multifaceted, decades-long, and, I would argue, has done quite a lot to change industry- and market-thinking about the prospects for women in translation in recent years."

In the interest of full disclosure, I have omitted from this statement a single sentence at the end that I feel characterized my original email as an attack on the publisher. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly remind publishers that these stats are in no way meant to be a declaration of war or as any sort of indication that your publishing house is not making any effort. They are, quite simply, a reflection of reality, and if that reality shows that your publishing house isn't doing very well, then I will continue to comment on it and expect better. I will get back to this...

Next, New Directions responded that they were surprised by the low rate, and hoped that the rates had been improving (which, as I reported earlier, they have somewhat!). They reaffirmed that they "are trying", and cite the women in translation movement (and global stats like those I have been publishing here over the past several years) as having "influenced our approach to the issue, which I believe is reflected in more current lists. (As I bet you know, it’s a time-consuming process, finding the books you want to translate from abroad and then getting them translated, edited, presented in catalogs, and out into the world.)  I think ND is moving in a good direction." As I mentioned earlier, this effort is clearly seen in the gradually improving ratios at New Directions, and it is gratifying to know that this has been borne of a concentrated effort. Given where we are, this how it should be.

Finally, New York Review Books responded with a similar acknowledgement of the situation, writing: "It’s pretty disappointing. We should really be doing better. This is not meant as a defense or justification but just to note that we don’t do new fiction and the history of literature is that most books published in all languages have been written by men, which is the source of our books, whether reissues or new translations. Again this should just be a push to work harder to find good female writers from the past." This, too, is an excellent recognition of the problem at hand and I hope that we will begin to see a change in the actual publishing rates in the near future.

Neither Archipelago Books nor Dalkey Archive responded to my Tweets or emails. This is not the first time I have attempted to contact either publisher and received no response.

There are a few takeaways from these responses. First, it is wonderful that publishers recognize that they have an imbalance and are searching for ways to improve them. Really. It is absolutely wonderful. I love that many publishers have embraced WITMonth and I think that it's absolutely the right first step in becoming more aware. Each publisher also pointed to their achievements in publishing women in translation until now (as well as forthcoming titles), which I also think is pretty great. It's good to promote books by WIT, keep at it!

Second: Defensiveness is not a tactic. The truth is that sometimes - typically - human beings mess up. I can say that as a reader, I know that I don't read nearly as diversely as I'd like to. I ultimately read very little queer lit, not enough Southeast Asian literature, etc... We are all influenced by bigger forces than our own taste or interest. Publishers are no different. But pointing out that we have these biases isn't an attack, nor is it an erasure of those few books you have published by women in translation. (I'll get back to this later as well.) 

Here's the problem: We all know that it's not enough to simply state your support of a project. Archipelago, for instance, are one of those publishers that have used the #WITMonth tag in order to promote books translated by women (and not women in translation), all the while steadfastly ignoring any and all attempts to communicate with them regarding their abysmal publication rates. The defensive stance that many publishers take in response to literally pointing out the facts to them is disappointing in large part because it shows a lack of commitment to the cause itself, where the bottom line is ultimately consistent parity. It's not enough to have published men and women in equal rates for one year.

But what do we do to make that better? Europa suggest - and perhaps with good reason - that this isn't something that can be solved with a snap of the fingers, rather that there is a process. To be honest, I don't think that this approach is inherently wrong. In the years I've worked on this project, I've seen how many factors play into the global imbalance. It's not inaccurate to say that the US translation market is influenced by markets in other countries, biases in other countries, and imbalances in other countries. But as I've explained many times, I also think that it's a cop-out to use those as an excuse not to publish more women in translation in the Anglosphere (or other languages, for that matter!). Translation is already so highly selective and curated that yes, it might require some more effort on the part of publishers. 

But the time has come for all of us to do our parts in ending this imbalance.

To be continued...

(Yes, I'm sorry, but this is just getting really long and I want it to be as coherent as possible and it's already pretty messy!)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

WITMonth Day 23 | Stats (part 3)

Here's the thing about math: Cold as it may be, it can often hide pervasive truths. Numbers don't lie, but they can mislead. They can omit. And sometimes, even as they tell the truth, they hide its depth and scope.

I've been publishing yearly statistics for a while now, but each time it feels like a snapshot. Every year, I get comments along the lines of "okay, but this is just an outlier" or "the average is skewed" or something to that extent. If we're being fair, these arguments aren't wrong. If a publisher is consistently doing good work in terms of publishing women in translation and suddenly has a bad year, isn't it a little silly to single them out? Wouldn't we expect to see some fluctuation in the rates of publication and publication trends themselves?

And so I did what any reasonable scientist would do: I decided to look at the bigger picture. Instead of analyzing data year-by-year, I decided to look at the past five years as a whole (2013-2017), representing the five WITMonths that mark this project.

The problem is that the data doesn't actually change. Yes, numbers may hide nuances, but in this case... they don't. That generally unchanged average of 28-30% publication of women in translation? It's unchanged because most of the prominent publishers of literature in translation haven't changed anything. Not in their averages, and not year by year. As you will see, there's a disheartening lack of progress. Hopefully seeing these numbers laid out will trigger the realization that yes, something needs to change.


The first thing I decided to look at was the total number of books published from 2013-2017. I selected major publishers based on their overall translation publication rates, and mapped out the flat sum of books published by men or by women. As you can see, overall publication rates vary widely between different publishers, with some "major" publishers only releasing 15 or so books over five years. Even so, it's very easy to see that the overwhelming majority of publishers not only publish more men than women in translation, but do so at staggering rates. This becomes even more apparent in the figure below:

If 30% has been the approximate base rate of publishing women writers in translation for every year since 2013, it seems likely that most major publishers would simply hover around this rate. It turns out that this isn't actually true, and that the influence of a single publisher - AmazonCrossing - is even greater than I had previously assumed (alongside the significantly more minor effect of smaller publishers, which I did not include in these counts). If we take the grand sums of all of the top publishers, the rates of publication of women writers look fairly similar to those yearly values: 31% books by women writers. But if we remove AmazonCrossing, the rate fairly plummets to 24%.

It's not hard to see why. Out of the major publishers, only two even reach 50% (Deep Vellum at a solid 1:1, AmazonCrossing at 61%), with 5 additional publishers crossing the industry average of 30% (Other Press, Open Letter, HMH, Bitter Lemon, and Atria). There are then a few publishers that hover around the industry average (Europa Editions, Seagull Books, Graywolf, Minotaur) and publish just over 25% women in translation, followed by a shocking sequence of 15 big-name, high-prestige, acclaimed publishers of literature in translation that don't even come close. Publishers like Dalkey Archive, New Directions, Archipelago, Gallic Books, Knopf... it's not even an imbalance, as much as an outright lack.

This made me wonder whether I was missing something fundamental. In order to make sure these numbers weren't as a result of a single outlier, I looked at each of the five years individually for six major publishers, going both by sheer numbers of books translated and publishers who were frequently associated with publishing literature in translation.

There are a few interesting takeaways from this breakdown. First: It's interesting to note that AmazonCrossing wasn't always as focused on publishing women in translation as it is today. It also shows that the 60% rate cited above is a low-ball, shifted somewhat because of 2013. Since 2014, they have published comfortably more women writers than men in translation. They remain the only major publisher to do so. (Remember that many smaller publishers such as Feminist Press consistently focus on books by women writers, even if I do not include them specifically in these stats posts!)

Things get a little complicated after that. I actually first want to highlight Open Letter, since they're a bit of an interesting case in this group. With an overall rate of 34%, they fall somewhat on the side of better publication of women writers. But as you can see, this mostly follows a back-and-forth fluctuation - one above, one below. They also never quite make it to 50%. In my mind, Open Letter serves as a great reminder of what happens if you just follow the market flow without any critical assessment. This is the ultimate baseline... and no, it isn't good enough.

Next we have publishers like Europa Editions and Seagull Books. Both have rates just under the industry average (~28%), where it seems like a single year pushes that number just a bit lower (for Seagull, 2015; Europa, 2017). Even so, neither publisher quite manages to break free of the industry average. Europa does have one year of publishing parity, but it too is an outlier in a different way - it's the year in which they published the least amount of books in translation overall. Seagull's situation is a little more erratic, again showing how prevalent the baseline 30% really is.

In the next category, we have an interesting, singular example of a publisher that has been improving in their stats from year to year: New Directions. Despite publishing approximately the same number of books every year since 2013, they have steadily increase the share of books by women that are released per year. While they have yet to crack the base threshold (and have an abysmal 19% rate overall from 2013-2015), there is a clear upward trend. New Directions thus emerges as a unique beacon of hope when it comes to publishing women writers in translation, suggesting that this movement may actually lead to concrete change in the near future (I will discuss this more in depth in tomorrow's post).

Finally, we have a series of publishers that not only have low average rates, not only seem to publish very few women writers in translation, not only don't really change from year to year, but also simply go entire years without publishing a single book by women in translation. Take Archipelago, which does not actually publish all that many books in translation every year (but are uniquely associated with translated literature) as an example. This is a publisher that comfortably did not publish a single book by a woman writer in translation in both 2013 and 2015. Dalkey Archive is its counter, a publisher that puts out a massive amount of literature in translation every year, yet also managed to go the entirety of 2014 without publishing a single book by a woman writer in translation (I've written about this before, of course, quite specifically). Gallic Books, Pushkin Press, and NYRB all also have at least one year in which no women in translation were published. Interestingly, for both NYRB and Gallic Books, years in which women weren't published amount to the years in which they published fewer books overall. This should not be an excuse, however; books by women in translation are not simply add-ons, with room leftover only after the men have had their chance. In the other direction, Pushkin Press published its highest number of books in 2015, the same year it published zero books by women in translation.

There is, however, important context missing behind this data. First: The wonderful Three Percent Database on which I based these numbers has its own biases, for instance the limited focus on fiction and poetry, the lack of YA/children's literature, the omission of previously released/translated titles... Several of these publishers (Pushkin, Archipelago, NYRB) publish many additional books in translation that simply aren't getting counted here. However. I looked over the catalogs of each of these publishers, specifically those books that do not make it into the Three Percent Database. The situation not only does not much improve, it often gets worse. Archipelago, for instance, has an entire publishing line specifically for children's literature, in which I found a rate of below 20% (children's literature! that field allegedly so dominated by women!). For many academic-associated publishers, the situation is far worse, as there is a huge imbalance in nonfiction translations.

W - women, M - men, B - both

These numbers are, quite frankly, enraging. They demonstrate an across-the-board lack of interest in the women in translation project, alongside the global stagnation I've described in previous posts. Publishers of literature in translation are supposed to be showing us the best that the world has to offer, but how can that possibly be true if we are only seeing a tiny fraction? (And don't forget that an overwhelming slice of these titles is from Western/Northern Europe!) Something has to change.

...and so I decided to do something about it.

To be continued.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

WITMonth Day 16 | ...languages other than English | Thoughts

One of the common misconceptions during WITMonth is its English-language exclusivity. This is an understandable mistake: Everything on this blog is in English, as are most of the books that I discuss. The statistics I present are all about translations into English, the publishers I promote/discuss/criticize are for the most part working in English, and it's difficult for me to share content from languages that I don't know how to read or understand.

But as I've said before, WITMonth is not actually limited to English. On the contrary, I would very much like to see people having the conversation about publishing, promoting, and supporting women writers in just about every language and country on Earth; I don't think it would be out of place anywhere.

There is a single exception, though, and that's when people use WITMonth to promote books by women written in English and translated into other languages.

This is a bit like the translations versus translators issue (also in the fact that I won't police how people interpret WITMonth, no matter how frustrating I find it). At its base, I'm not against promoting women who write in English. There is a reason the #readwomen movement exists - women writers have notoriously been sidelined by critics, awards, and prestige. This is a phenomenon that crosses borders and languages, apparently.

That being said, women who write in English do not have a problem when it comes to translations. In general, English-language books are among the most translated in the world, even when they don't really deserve it (see this old post). Translations from English dominate SFF and YA book markets almost entirely, and aren't lacking in other genres. And I have seen little evidence to suggest that English-language women writers are translated into other languages less frequently than men; my gut feeling tells me the numbers are about equal, though I obviously cannot commit to this statement without actual data.

There's a reason WITMonth exists. That reason is that hardly any books by women who write in languages other than English get translated into other languages. Evidence suggests that they are also underrepresented in their own literary cultures, often ignored in favor of men writers. The purpose of WITMonth is to promote women writers from exactly those parts of the world that don't typically get attention, whether in English or not. Promoting Margaret Atwood translated into German... just doesn't do that. Yes, Margaret Atwood has faced barriers because she is a woman, but she has never faced barriers for not writing in the marketable, "universal" language of English, or being a woman in a country in which writing is considered immodest, or being a woman in a country that has a small literary tradition that rarely gets attention beyond its borders and only has a few million potential readers, or... the list can go on. It's really not the same thing.

It's true, WITMonth doesn't cover everyone. Nor will it ever be a perfect encapsulation of intersectionality or literature at large; WITMonth excludes many underrepresented women who write in English, after all. It's not meant to be perfect, though. For me, very simply, WITMonth is just about promoting women who write in languages other than English. Giving this attention to women writers who already have a huge movement behind them ends up, in my view, erasing those writers that do need the extra space. Women who write in English have a unique set of opportunities; let's save our August energy for those who don't.

Monday, August 6, 2018

WITMonth Day 6 | Writers, not translators | Thoughts

One of my WITMonth rules of conduct is that I don't police how other readers interpret the month, but I also won't change my understanding of what WITMonth stands for. This means that I'll often find readers/publishers/whatever sharing books in the tag that I feel have absolutely nothing to do with the actual message of WITMonth or the women in translation project at large. For instance, readers who share books by Anglo women writers translated in a wide range of languages - not really what I'm fighting for.

But the most common misunderstanding about WITMonth centers around the ambiguity of the phrase "women in translation". After all, "women in STEM" means women who partake in STEM subjects. Therefore, shouldn't "women in translation" refer to women who translate? And so, many translators and publishers in particular understand this to be an equal part of the women in translation project.

Now to be clear: I am obviously not against the promotion of women translators. I'm pretty much pro-translators under any circumstances! But the simple fact is that women translators make up just around half of all translations into English in the US. While that is far from the "overwhelming majority of translators" that many (sexist) readers have attempted to tout in an effort to discredit the women in translation movement (also as though women translators must only translate books by women, and vice versa!), it is still hardly an imbalance. And when compared to the huge imbalance when it comes to actually translating women writers, I simply do not find myself as emotionally invested.

There are two additional layers to this that I want to address.

The first is the question of a gender gap when it comes to translating women writers. A cursory glance at the data regarding translator gender shows that women translators are more likely to translate women writers than men; this ultimately isn't so surprising, but it does not bode well in terms of reaching gender parity. Translations shouldn't have to depend on the translator gender, nor should the task of translating women writers fall entirely to women translators, as though women alone are capable of relating to (and thus working on) books by women writers. If we do not expect the same standard for men writers (and we do not), then we shouldn't have to for women either.

The second issue is more complicated and more critical in my mind (in both meanings of the word). One of my greatest frustrations - and sensations of failure regarding the women in translation project - is the fact that too many people use WITMonth to promote women translating men writers. And this is entirely too common, particularly among publishers who have very few women writers in their catalogs. I have seen multiple cases of publishers sharing "Happy #WITMonth!" style posts with photos of their women-translated texts, when literally all six of the books in the photo were written by men. It did not even seem to occur to the publishers that there might be something wrong with the photo, so entrenched is the understanding that women writers in translation are not the "norm".

I've seen this countless times over the past few years: The moment I am not explicit about seeking books by women writers in translation (or even if I am!), people immediately recommend books by men writers and only books by men writers. The default remains staunchly male (and typically European and white, unless otherwise stated). It is disheartening, to say the least. That people co-opt the "women in translation" movement to apply it to translators and thus get away with not actually promoting a single woman writer in translation feels like a double slap to the face.

As I said earlier: I won't police how people interpret and celebrate WITMonth. I have no problem with the promotion of women translators. But I do have a problem with the use of WITMonth to promote men authors under the cover of supporting women translators, who are not exactly underrepresented (though there is another conversation in here that I am unqualified to have). And I further have a problem equating the two matters, as though women translators and women writers face the same struggles and discrimination (both face struggles; they are not the same). In my mind, WITMonth will continue to remain focused on women writers in translation. It's okay if WITMonth means something else to other people, but let's not forget where the imbalance truly is: Women writers remain sidelined and in the extreme minority when it comes to translations into English (and other languages). This is what I would like to focus on.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

WITMonth Day 4 | The other translation gap (into English)

Today's post comes courtesy of Twitter user @asyndetic! I asked on Twitter if there were any topics that anyone wanted covered for WITMonth:

And to be honest, it's a great question, one that I've only ever briefly touched upon in the years that WITMonth has been running. The reason I've never been able to answer it is that... I don't have any solid, evidence-based explanations. As a scientist, I find it difficult to make claims without having the data to back me up. Here, in a field in which I only have anecdotal evidence, can I really claim to be accurately representing reality?

But... this isn't biochemistry. Let's discuss the anecdotal evidence, shall we?

If I'm going to be honest, I observed this phenomenon years ago, long before I ever started thinking about women in translation. It all began with one of the first books I read translated into Hebrew, Philippe Claudel's Brodeck (a man in translation, of course). I adored the book, and almost the instant I finished reading it, I rushed to Amazon to write my review. Except... the book was preorder only. I was surprised - after all, Israel always gets everything just a little bit delayed, if at all (see: movies, music, fashion...). The same thing happened with the next book I read, which was only translated a year or so later. I quickly realized that while most books translated into Hebrew were from English (and often within months of publication in the US), many of those from languages other than English actually weren't available in English at all. Many remain untranslated into English to this day.

Here's the thing: Just about every language other than English that I've ever looked into has significantly higher rates of publishing translations than English does. Now, a lot of that stems from translations from English (just take a quick look at the Instagram WITMonth feed, which is full of German readers promoting books by Anglo women... more on that later this month), but it's not exclusive. Bilingual (or even monolingual, non-English speaking) readers have been telling me for years the same thing I have always felt: When you grow up surrounded by translations, there's just nothing weird about it. In fact, monolingual English speakers often ask me how I "got into" translations, and the honest answer is that I didn't. I read in English growing up, and I read in Hebrew growing up. I always knew that there were other books out there that weren't available in English. I always knew there were more options that weren't necessarily available in one language or the other.

That old adage of "3% of books published per year are translations"? That "3%" is an absurdly low ratio. Literature in translation remains a niche, dismissed "genre", almost. Most readers don't even consider whether they are reading literature in translation, even if they are the most socially aware readers ever. Just look at how stagnant my efforts are to get more feminist readers to take part in the women in translation project. Look at how diversity efforts are almost always focused on Anglo writers, to the point where many readers don't even realize how many books in translation already exist.

So to the initial question: How is that English falls behind? I think it's a two-part answer.

ONE: I think that in general, the English-language publishing and reading worlds remained closed off to literature in translation. While a handful of books and authors are "permitted" to break into the mainstream every year, this remains a niche field with a niche readership. There is limited awareness at large.

TWO: Women writers remain less trusted than men writers when it comes to "risk". Not many men authors have reached the automatic translation state either, to be clear; there are perhaps a handful of men writers like Haruki Murakami or Amos Oz who are translated the moment they publish a new book. But women writers seem to have to prove themselves far more for translations. In a world in which too few books are translated into English in the first place, it often seems to take longer for women writers to get translated or recognized.

This is all anecdotal, of course. Even speculative. It's very difficult to gauge how and why exactly English falls behind so egregiously when it comes to translating women writers; it's harder still to understand how it does so even as other languages succeed. Yet it's important to remember that other languages have other struggles, too. The minimal data I have collected from Hebrew, French, and German (most of it anecdotal or partial) shows that in translations from languages other than English, women writers from around the world still fare extremely poorly, even as global translation rates themselves are relatively higher. It is worth remembering that many countries and languages have their own biases against women writers, whether translated from English, translated from other languages, or native-written, as well as deeply entrenched sexism when it comes to women's literature at all. It is also worth remembering that many languages have significant translation gaps between each other, simply for lack of adequate translators (e.g. Hebrew and Korean!). These are all topics that I will someday, hopefully, explore more quantitatively and fully.

But for now, one thing is clear: Just as there is a translation gap between women and men into English, there is a global gap when it comes to actually publishing more literature in translation. As we work to make room for more women in translation in our cultural consciousness, it is worth remembering just how big a fight this really is.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

WITMonth Day 2 | Stats (part 1)

There is a sense that statistic posts are useless when it comes to the women in translation project. Indeed, if you check my "stats" tag on this blog, you'll notice that I entirely avoided the concept in 2017, opting instead to focus on reviews and lower-key discussion posts during WITMonth. Yet here we are in 2018. The Fifth Annual #WITMonth.

I began this project with statistics. Frankly, it was only by seeing the numbers in black against white that made me realize just how pervasive the problem was. It wasn't just my reading that was skewed, the entire system seemed entirely biased against women. The statistics helped me realize that something more had to be done, and with the help of several other members of this community, WITMonth was born.

There is a sense that statistic posts are useless.

I look at the statistics from 2017. I look at the statistics from 2015. I look at the statistics from 2014. From 2013 (the first year for which I conducted a comprehensive analysis). The numbers are largely static. In fact, the numbers are depressingly static, with little variation even within the various metrics I showcase.

After five years of advocating for this cause, I find myself feeling, not for the first time, that the work I do here is useless. After all, the most prominent publishers continue to insist that there is no real problem, at least the problem isn't theirs, at least the problem isn't really a problem. Others simply ignore the matter, as though by dismissing reader concerns, they can dismiss the problem entirely (I will discuss this further later in the month). But the numbers don't lie.

As with previous years, I rely on the excellent work of Three Percent, using their database (now updated to include author and translator gender). All analyses my own.

The first metric I always check is the simplest: what is the basic breakdown of books in translation, by men and women (and other).

As you can see, balance is still a far way off, with women comprising only 31% of new translations into English.  

The second basic metric I like to check is a regional assessment. As you can see below, the general skew towards translations of European literature remains pervasive. Not only does Europe make up more than half of all translations, it also showcases just how stark the divide is between publication of books by men and women, as well as the fact that excuses such as "there aren't many women writers over there" is simply a false, racist argument (and I have heard such excuses many times; I will continue to reject them offhand).

Another notable observation from this chart is the depressingly low rate of translations emerging from African countries. While this can somewhat be explained by the fact that some African writers use English as their primary language, it is still a huge oversight from the industry at large. There is also a missed opportunity here to explore a wider range of languages, not simply French or Arabic - Africa is a continent teeming with diversity of language and culture. There are countless older (and newer) texts that reflect this diversity, and not simply by men writers. These works deserve as much attention as classics from all other countries and cultures.

It is also worth noting a lack of diversity within certain continental designations. Recall that Asia is a huge, hugely populous continent, spanning several discretely different regions and cultures. Yet the literature translated out of these regions remains oddly homogeneous, with very few books published out of Southeast Asian or Central Asian countries. Curiously, women writers in translation were actually somewhat better represented in this regard, with two Indonesian titles translated (more interestingly, these were among the only non-European books published by AmazonCrossing - we'll get to that in a moment), an Armenian title, and a Saudi Arabian book as well. Yet the baffling absence of Indian books published in English remains from year to year, especially noticeable in the almost complete lack of Indian women writers getting translated/published.

Since I've already mentioned it, one of the other metrics I like to look at is AmazonCrossing's place in publishing. What was once a relatively ignored publisher of literature in translation has recently become a powerhouse, consistently publishing the highest number of books in translation from year to year. AmazonCrossing is also consistently one of the few publishers to publish more women writers than men writers in translation; 2017 is no exception. Yet what is so utterly shocking about AmazonCrossing's role in publishing women writers in translation is how much worse the landscape would be without them. Without AmazonCrossing, share of women writers in translation out of all translations dips from that already-not-so-great 31% to 28%; men writers are relatively "strengthened" from 65% to 69%. This becomes easily apparent when looking at how large a fraction AmazonCrossing represents for men versus women, as you can see in the chart below. One publisher is responsible for more than 20% of the books by women writers. That's... not okay.

If we look at publishers in general, the same old story emerges. AmazonCrossing is one of only two publishers within the top ten publishers that reaches or crosses the 50% mark. The other is the significantly smaller press Deep Vellum.

Here, I find myself needing to point out an added injustice of the awful statistics. Of course it's easy to see the absurd imbalances in publishing when laid out so starkly, not simply among smaller independent presses but also among the most established translators of literature in translation. But what is most upsetting in this chart (for me, at least) is that several of the publishers here with some of the worst publication rates have frequently attempted to capitalize on the women in translation project for their own sales, in what feels like cynicism at its worst. Moreover, the fact that certain publishers among the yearly top ten continue to refuse to engage in the conversation at all (indeed, often dismissing it outright) is similarly disappointing, as their ratios almost stubbornly refuse to balance out between men and women writers. There comes a point when I can no longer excuse the lack of improvement as simple ignorance; there are publishers that are well aware of the fact that they do not publish women writers, and they do not appear to care. This is a problem.

Here is what it is truly angering about every one of the charts above - they look almost identical to the charts I've published from previous years. Publishers like Dalkey Archive, Seagull Books, New Directions, and NYRB have had extremely low rate of publishing women writers in translation (indeed, of publishing women writers at all) for several years now. AmazonCrossing has been the primary support system for publishing women writers in translation for several years now. The base rate of translation of books by women writers has hovered around 30% for several years now. The completely disproportionate preference for publishing books by European writers rather than literally any other place on Earth has existed for several years now. Nothing of what I am sharing is new.

It could be argued that if there is nothing new in my data, I should not publish. Certainly, if this was a scientific paper of the sort I write at work, there would be nothing to report and I would have saved myself the effort of this work. Yet what we're talking about here is a distinctly static problem that is, shockingly enough, not getting better. Women writers in translation may be getting more attention these days as a result of the broader range of WITMonth and the women in translation project at large (and I'll discuss this point more in depth in part 2 of the stats posts), but for writers who have yet to be translated, the situation is not improving. 

There is still significant bias against women writers in translation. There are still sexist publishers. (Yes, sexist publishers. While there's plenty of unconscious bias, there is also a lot of plainspoken sexism. Do not hide from it.) We are still being cheated out of countless brilliant books by women writers that simply aren't getting their due.

After five years, something has to change.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Exclusion is a choice | Bias in "Best of" lists

Several days ago, Catherine Taylor published an interesting review of Boyd Tonkin's 100 Best Novels in Translation, pointing out and critiquing the fact that in a list spanning the years 1600-2000, Tonkin had included only 14 novels by women writers in translation. Then, a few days later, Sawad Hussain tweeted Tonkin's defense of this imbalance: "One of the hot topics was the eye-watering lack female authors in the '100 Best Novels in #Translation' . Boyd said that we had to take into consideration the centuries of systematic exclusion of women from the institution of publishing, leaving him with not much to choose from.. He said that he would have had to skew the project to the 2nd half of the 20th century in order to get a good amount of female authors in translation to choose from."

Hussain continued by asking: "But my question is, even if, women in translation have been marginalized, doesn't that mean the books that DID [...] make it through, have probably been interrogated to a FAR high degree than any male authored novel at that time, and so, the work is maybe...possibly...more than likely...of a higher calibre and should have been considered? #womenintranslation @translatewomen"

Tonkin's response - and Hussain's dismantling of it - both seem fairly reasonable. Tonkin acknowledges that women writers have long been marginalized and removed from the canon; this in itself seems like progress. But as Hussain points out, it is very easy to poke holes in this argument. Women have long been marginalized, it's true, but their novels have thus had to pass significantly more stringent tests in order to be considered canon-worthy.

Tonkin's second argument - that he would have had to prioritize the second half of the 20th century in order to achieve a more gender-balanced list - also fails to pass muster. Since, as we all know, women did not simply begin writing after 1950 but rather have been writing fascinating, important, and worthy novels since literally the beginning of the novel-writing tradition itself (hello The Tale of Genji),  it seems rather unlikely that Tonkin would really have had to skew the list any more than I imagine it already is. Moreover, Tonkin even displays bias in drawing the definitions of his list - why, indeed, should the novel be judged only from the 17th century, when the first novel (written shockingly enough by a woman... in translation!) was written in the 11th? And given how biased translations are in general in terms of actually rediscovering lost classics, wouldn't he have been better off giving more weight to the brilliant women of the 20th century that he ultimately passed over for no apparent reason?

Here's that blunt truth: Exclusion is a choice. I'm not saying that it's easy to make a list of 100 Best Novels in Translation with 50% women writers and have it fully align with the standard canon, because it isn't. In fact, it's impossible, because the canon is inherently exclusionary. But when crafting a new canon, isn't the whole point to be introducing and promoting new and diverse works? If in creating a new list of titles in translation, you fail to give space to exactly the writers that would be surprising and exciting for a diverse readership, what exactly are you achieving?

Tonkin claims that he couldn't include more women into his list because of existing bias. He's right that bias has long existed and has shaped the canon extensively, but he is absolutely wrong to have let that guide his own choices without more serious criticism or active effort. His response to criticism further demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of why the canon is so problematic, so entrenched, and so ultimately pointless, and why attempts like his to "redraw" it end up so disappointing. As noble as his recognition of the problem is, it's simply not enough. We can do better.

I suppose we'll just have to make our own list.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

WIT, the feminist movement, and awareness

In the four years I've worked on the women in translation project, I'll admit that my goals, aspirations, and thoughts have evolved somewhat. In 2014, the day before the inaugural WITMonth began, I posted an essay about women in literature in general. The fight, as I saw it then, was about convincing readers of translated literature that women writers were worthy of the same space and recognition as men.

Four years later, I can tentatively state that I believe that the message has gotten across. The literature in translation community is quite small, and though many editors and publishers still haven't made any significant strides to correct their sexist approaches and biases, enough have. And more importantly, readers have clearly embraced the movement to promote more women writers in translation, with WITMonth growing from year to year. While the ratios have yet to change in any significant way, there is a clear effort on the part of many newer, younger publishers to produce only balanced catalogs. I am confident that we will begin to see the statistical progress in the next few years.

And so the goalposts have moved, just a bit. If four years ago I hoped that someone - anyone! - would just become aware of the problem, I have recently realized that this problem is actually far deeper than just the literature in translation community. In places where I would expect some awareness or acknowledgement of the lack of women writers in translation, of the marginalization that women creating works (or writing feminist criticism) in languages other than English face on a larger scale, I find a tremendous, very obvious gap.

My gut has been telling me for several years that the problem of women in translation belongs, in large part, to the global lack of literature in translation available in the English-speaking world. Most countries in the world import a lot of literature (much of it from English, though this is a different matter worth discussing another time), with translations subsequently normalized. English is perhaps not unique in its assumption of lingual-cultural dominance, but it certainly ends up getting away with it on a far greater scale than most other languages. The reasons for this are vast and complicated and I will not get into them at this time. However, one thing remains certain: most native English speakers, across the board, struggle to engage with art that is not originally in English, whether it is music, film, television, or books.

It's only in recent years that I've discovered that this almost willful ignorance extends to circles I naively imagined to be more aware. Intellectuals and academics aren't more prone to reading literature in translation; on the contrary, I have found many to often use that (often irrelevant) line about how "something gets lost in translation". Among feminists - even self-identified intersectional feminists - the awareness gap seems even wider.

More problematic still is the fact that many of these so-called intersectional feminists (and can feminism really be intersectional without being international...?) will even maintain that Anglo-American cultural norms are default. I have (on multiple occasions) had to argue with "intersectional" feminists that applying USian cultural norms on another culture is not only inaccurate, it may at times be entirely contrary. Not every conversation will sound the same way in a different culture. Not every feminist act will apply to every culture. And many acts that Anglo-American feminists might scoff at as "not really feminist" may actually be remarkably radical and/or outright rebellious for another culture.

Of course this ignorance applies to literature as well. As much as certain feminists do make a point to read literature in translation, you'd be hard-pressed to find most prominent feminist critics discussing and giving weight to exactly the women who most need a space in which to be heard. When I asked feminist-identifying folk on Twitter whether they read literature in translation, a surprisingly high number of respondents said they wish they read more women in translation, but felt as though they were never exposed to those books or struggled to find them in libraries/bookstores. Several noted that with so much literary hype surrounding new Anglo releases, it was hard to make time for women in translation, who are rarely hyped to the same degree (with the rare exception, as with men in translation).

It ends up being frustrating on two fronts. The first is the feeling that I have to fight for intersectionality to include internationalism, even though this is a fundamental tenant of the concept. With literature playing such an important role in terms of introducing readers to new concepts, the oversight here feels particularly egregious. I shouldn't have to explain to readers who fight for "diversity in YA" that USian kids also need to be introduced to kids from other countries, whose culture is different from theirs (and written to match that culture, and not an Anglo-American readership). I shouldn't have to explain to feminist critics that queer feminist theory is markedly different in languages that have inherently gendered words. This should be obvious.

The second front is the sense that would-be readers - those who aren't averse to anything in translation because "something gets lost in translation" - are missing out on so many opportunities to read brilliant women who are translated because these books are never promoted to remotely the same degree as lesser books in English. (For the record, I have found this to be true also in Hebrew, where translations from English almost always win out over translations from any other language. Hype is inevitable.) Most books by women in translation are published either by smaller presses or AmazonCrossing (which, due to a lot of reasons, doesn't always end up with the best translations or do a lot of self-promotion, even if some of their books are excellent; on the other hand, they also publish a lot of genre lit, so that's something!). These books are, for various reasons, not getting into the hands of readers. They are getting lost, and readers are losing.

There's a lot that we can do to improve the situation. For me, it comes back to that original WITMonth goal: raise awareness. But it is no longer my goal to raise awareness within a closed community of those who already read literature in translation in a targeted, directed way. I now want to reach all readers and raise awareness of individual books, getting them into the hands of as many prospective readers as possible (see: #WITreviews). I now want to raise awareness among intersectional feminists, to see them embrace internationalism in the way that anti-racism has become a core tenant of the movement. I now want to raise awareness among feminist critics and academics, particularly in light of how many fascinating-seeming feminist theory papers I have stumbled across in my searches that have never been translated into English.

None of this is easy. It wasn't easy getting WITMonth off the ground, either. But I firmly believe that in a few years from now, I will be able to look back and say that I have achieved my perhaps-too-ambitious goals. Certainly, I will be able to look back with a sense of pride that I have tried.