Showing posts with label publishers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label publishers. Show all posts

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.

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.

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.

Friday, August 4, 2017

WITMonth Day 4 | Visibility and women in translation

One of my original goals for WITMonth was introducing more readers (and industry folk) to the very problem of women in translation. As more and more readers, reviewers, media outlets, translators, publishers, bookstores, and libraries join in the efforts, we're getting that done. Every tweet, every review, every post that references WITMonth means one more person learning about the cause.

This is huge, because WITMonth largely began as an obscure, minor blogging event. And while most readers still probably don't know that only ~30% of books translated into English are by women writers (and some probably don't care all that much...), more and more are discovering this - and their own reading biases - daily. And they are working to fix it.

But this post isn't just about how it's great to see more readers becoming exposed to the issue. It's more about visibility at large, and how impossible it is for any movement to advance without those who ensure that people can even be exposed to the issue. I've long hoped for greater bookstore/library involvement in WITMonth, out of a belief that the overwhelming majority of readers are introduced to books not necessarily through Twitter, but through literal visibility.

Readers - particularly younger readers - walk into the bookstore or library, and typically gravitate towards the books that are clearly labeled. This is how I do most of my bookshopping/library-hunting: I first check to see what's exposed on the display tables, then I look for the little bookseller recommendation tabs, and then aimlessly browse. The uncomfortable truth is that there are far too many books in the world for every reader to be exposed to every single one. Most of us need some sort of guidance - whether capitalistic/publisher-guided or genuine/word-of-mouth - to find good books.

WITMonth 2017 has seen a notable rise in bookstore and library involvement. This is wonderful. Even as most bookstores highlight a select collection of books that are probably familiar to hardcore readers of translated literature, they are opening the door for countless readers who haven't heard of the cause and didn't necessarily know about the publishing imbalance. Furthermore, a significant portion of literature in translation (and especially women in translation) is published by independent or lesser-known publishers. By placing these books front and center, bookstores and libraries are able to introduce readers to an entire world of literature that they might never have considered previously.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

WITMonth Day 4 | Undoing the trend

This is a post I've struggled to write for many months. I've actively avoided it. But it's women in translation month - year three! - and this is as important a time as any to discuss:

We all have a problem with women writers in translation. End of.

I spent several months at the start of the year fretting over my three-year "trend" results, working and reworking them. I emailed publishers. I tweeted publishers. I pondered the matter. I published the overall stats. I read arguments by publishers that perhaps people like me were being too rough on the "good guys" and that publishers were not, in fact, the central gatekeepers of literature in translation and thus devoid of responsibility.

The reality is this, again: We all have a problem with women writers in translation.

Let's start with publishers: many, many, many publishers are clearly trying the best they can within a broken system that makes it hard to even acquire books by women writers in translation, and struggling to reach parity. These are the sorts of publishers that participate in WITMonth, share the women in translation stats, commit to the Year of Publishing Women (2018). These are publishers that are - for lack of a better distinction - making an effort.

These publishers deserve to be commended and recognized for their efforts. Truly. Some of them have abysmal rates themselves, but frankly I respect that they're nonetheless recognizing the broader problem and promoting those few women writers that they do publish. The next stage is correcting it - or first perhaps identifying its exact source and working on that - but any recognition of the problem is wonderful.

However, I do wonder at what point we need to start addressing the elephant in the room: That the problem of women writers in translation will not magically solve itself. Rather, it will require hard work, dedication, and commitment.

I'm always nervous during #WITMonth that it might seems as though I'm relegating the issue (and subsequent attention to it) to one month, rather than demanding equal care throughout the year. The fact that some publishers use WITMonth to promote their handful of women writers (out of an extensive and overwhelmingly male backlog) is great, until their stats remain static. The fact that some publishers give discounts on books by women writers in translation during WITMonth is awesome, until they refuse to change their approach to acquisitions and translations.

I have women in translation statistics going back three years: 2013, 2014, and 2015. Some publishers have shown marked increases; others have shown marginal shifts (going from 0% to 16%, for example). The overall yearly rates: 27%, 27% and 31%. I would love to believe that 2015's ~30% is a sign that things are improving, but it's difficult to ignore the fact that a solid factor in that increase is one publisher (AmazonCrossing; without them, the ratio drops to 25%). So the trend holds, at least for the past three years.

But publishing is not something that responds to immediate, minor whims. Publishing - particularly of literature in translation - is a long-game, with some publishers announcing their forthcoming titles a year or two in advance. The question becomes:

What happens now?

The lack of women writers in translation is a trend. If you go back far enough, you'll find various people over the years pondering the imbalance. Nothing came of it, unfortunately. Slight upticks, but we're still left with a huge imbalance. Now is our opportunity to change that. The 30% trend - as it were - can be history, if we choose it to be.

Readers: WITMonth can become WITYear. Why not have parity in our own reading? Why not make that one small change, at least for ourselves? (We wouldn't even have to sacrifice quality or complexity or diversity! Just gain new dimensions.)

Translators: Let us know what books we're missing! You're our eyes and ears in other languages, capable of pointing out fantastic literature by women writers that has maybe not been recognized yet by English-language publishers (or any other language publishers, for that matter - WITMonth applies to all languages/countries!).

Publishers: Seek out that which we know exists. We know there is always excellent literature by women writers, even if they're not always recognized as much as books by men. Yes, it might be a bit more difficult to find those books, but that would go a long way in guiding us towards the most basic gender parity.

A trend is only a trend if it lasts. We can stop it, but we'll have to work for it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

2015 Women in Translation Stats | Part 1 - Publishers

Unlike previous years, I found myself digging into the women in translation statistics a little more in depth in 2015. After almost three years of crunching these numbers, small patterns have emerged and I've begun to look at the big picture. Not that it's always easy when looking at publishers that release 4-5 books a year on average, but the more you look at the titles that are published (and who publishes them, and what genres they fall into, and who their authors are), the more you do start to recognize recurring themes, recurring problems, recurring offenders.

This will be a major theme in these posts; I have decided to dub a certain class of publishers "repeat offenders". These are the publishers who have not simply failed to translate books by women writers at similar rates as men, but also have shown a pattern of failing women writers, consistently falling below the already-low average. My hope is that these publishers will now join the 2016 Publishers in Translation challenge and commit to doing better, but for now let's start looking at numbers.

Introduction and methodology

2015 overall men:women rates of translation

As always, all data on published titles is taken from the Three Percent database. This collection of statistics is thus US-specific (and only for first-time fiction/poetry translations of original texts, so no retranslated classics looked at or nonfiction titles of any kind), though by all indicators is also fairly representative of the translation trends in the UK as well. Gender assessments are done one-by-one, based primarily on biographical information (Wikipedia, biographical information provided by publishers, personal websites and pronoun use, etc.). Anthologies were labeled "both" authors unless specifically noted as being all one-gender (one collection was exclusively women writers and was included as having been written by a woman).

The 31% overall rate may look a bit familiar there to long-time readers of this blog, since that's the same fairly disappointing number we encountered in 2014. As we'll see later (in the three-year "trend" stats), there is simply no indication that there's an improving trend. Yet. Put as kindly as I can possibly phrase it: 31% is embarrassingly low. It is not good enough.

What makes this 31% even more shocking is how very fragile it is. Because as you'll soon see, it's not that all publishers simply publish around 30% women writers in translation and are done with it. If only it were so simple.

The top 24 publishers

There's something to be said that even most of the "major" publishers of literature in translation haven't released all that many books. In order to tune in more sharply to publishers who "specialize" in literature in translation, I decided to look specifically at publishers who had released 7 or more titles in translation in 2015. At face value, the results seemed pretty straight-forward:

Perhaps not amazing, but 32% is at the average, indicating some level of consistency in the field. Except... not really.

Zoom to enlarge (?)

When it comes to publishers crossing the 50% mark, there are only two: AmazonCrossing (with 65.8% women writers) and Europa Editions (55.6%). Both publishers show an increase from their last year stats (from 52.3 and 31.6% respectively), though it is unclear how much of that has to do with the fact that Europa Editions published significantly fewer books in 2015, while AmazonCrossing published significantly more (and I'll get back to AmazonCrossing in a moment). A third publisher comes close to reaching parity: Atria sits at the respectable 45.5%, compared to a 2014 50% ratio - solidly balanced. Wakefield Press also comes in at a reasonable range, with 42.9%.

But let's look at Amazon again. Last year, I noted that AmazonCrossing seemed to lap other publishers of literature in translation when it came to publishing women writers in translation, and this has become disturbingly accurate this year. AmazonCrossing published 48 titles by women writers in translation in 2015 (a sizable portion of which were part of a series of German-language romance novels), while the next 23 publishers published a grand total of 51 titles by women writers. And in this sense, it suddenly became apparent that AmazonCrossing is simply a statistical outlier. In essence, if we want to see what publishing in translation largely looks like, we can't look at any ratios with Amazon in them, because Amazon skews those numbers far too significantly. Ouch.

The top 23 publishers (excluding AmazonCrossing)

So I decided to look at the overall men:women ratio without AmazonCrossing, and then the top now-23 publishers. The overall rate drops from 31% to 25%, the top publishers drops from 32% to 22%. While AmazonCrossing is of course the largest publisher of literature in translation these days regardless of gender, no single publisher should ever be responsible for that much of the gender divide. Especially when the immediate conclusion to be reached is: Other publishers are doing very, very poorly.

For example: The next largest publisher of literature in translation after AmazonCrossing is Dalkey Archive. Now Dalkey has long been one of the worst publishers when it comes to translations of women writers (see here) and they have also long avoided explaining how in 2014, the publishing house managed to publishing a stunning zero books by women writers (out of 30 titles released overall). Despite that criticism, their 2015 ratio is not particularly inspiring: 16%.

If we continue down the line, fellow heavyweight "literary giant" New Directions did only marginally better at 20%. And these are the stats we see among the non-Amazon top publishers, for example: Seagull Books at 12.5%, Gallic Press at 15.4%, Pushkin Press and Archipelago at 0% (!), Penguin and Knopf at 12.5%... Even seemingly more aware or "younger" presses like Deep Vellum and Open Letter scrape by with 33% and 30% respectively.

Suddenly it's not surprising that the overall ratio is 31% even with AmazonCrossing. With so many publishers barely translating 20% women writers (let alone 30% and certainly not 50%), it's unsurprising that the situation is simply not improving.

University presses

I also found myself checking a new metric this year: university presses. More precisely, I looked at the publishers whose names contain university names or the phrase "university press". Why specifically these? Why not any publisher that is distributed by or partially funded by a university? Quite frankly, I know that as a simple reader, a university press gives an air of... authenticity, a sort of quality control highlighting classics and canon-worthy titles. How do women writers fare in this elite world? Badly.

Not only is 19% well below the 31% average, it's even below the Amazon-excluded 25%. And before readers jump to inform me that of course university presses are bound to translate fewer women writers because women wrote significantly less prior to 1960 (which of course ignores the countless works of phenomenal literature written by women throughout history but I'll set that aside for a moment...), I'll shoot this in response: What purpose do university presses serve in new translations, if not to seek untranslated, unfamiliar and forgotten gems? Women have written plenty of those since the dawn of time, and precisely fit the bill when it comes to eye-opening new titles.

University presses publishing significantly fewer women writers than men means one thing: they are perpetuating an all-male canon. Publishers are gatekeepers. They carry responsibility. So this sort of huge gender disparity is not something to be shrugged aside or ignored.

Now what?

By this point, it should not surprise any readers why I have challenged publishers to release their own internal gender ratios, and to publicly commit to improving them. The fact is that even publishers who have expressed support of Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) failed to publish a single new translation of a woman writer in 2015, and hardly any of the rest did much better. Publishers are failing readers and it is high time we recognize that there is serious work to be done.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The 2016 Publishers in Translation Challenge

Happy 2016! Let's get down to business.

Before I publish the final 2015 women in translation statistics, I'd like to make a few things very clear: Things aren't great, some publishers are definitely doing better than others, and I don't for a moment want to diminish from the great work publishers of literature in translation do at large.

I'll be getting into more details about specific publishers and specific publisher patterns in future posts, but for now - at the onset of a new calendar year - I want to make one main request of publishers: do better.

The 2016 Publishers in Translation Challenge: Translate more women writers!

With even basic parity still a long, long way off and almost all major publishers falling all-too-comfortably below the 31% overall average (as you'll see more clearly in the stats post, of the top 25 publishers of literature in translation in 2015, only 5 were above 31% and only 2 reached/crossed the 50% mark), it's for publishers to show that they recognize this problem and they are committing to fixing it.

For the record: Some of the publishers with pretty abysmal rates have already expressed support for the women in translation project in different ways (WITMonth, the Year of Publishing Women, etc.), but this ultimately has not yet translated into concrete publications. While I continue to admire and support publishers who take part in the project, I also can't just ignore the lack of meaningful results.

The challenge is this:
  • Acknowledge the problem!
  • Publish your own translations rates (including backlog). Show us where you are, for good and bad. Give us the whole picture.
  • Commit to working towards a solution.
  • Publish women writers.
Many publishers will likely scoff at this point, saying that they choose only the best books, or the books that make the most sense for them to publish, or only books that fit with a certain "aesthetic" (a heavily coded word if there ever was one). I'll scoff back and say this: If you can't find books by women writers that fit your aesthetic or style, then your aesthetic or style is probably defined by being exclusively male.

We've passed the point of gently chiding publishers. We've passed the point of being baffled by ratios that make no sense. We've passed the point at which the claim that "women just don't write like men" is deemed an acceptable argument.

At this point, I want to see results. I want to see publishers owning up to the years in which they published zero books by women writers. I want to see publishers owning up to the fact that they have failed to give voice to women writers in equal measure. I want to see publishers recognizing that this was and is a problem, and saying: We are done being part of this problem.

You only pick the best books? Awesome. None of those books were by women? To quote the wise Rafiki: look harder. You'll probably find a gem.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"What else can we add?" | Some thoughts about women in translation and publishing

I want to preface this post by emphasizing that my criticism of publishers having a poor record when it comes to women writers in translation is only about that. This post is not meant to serve as a general "shame"-post, nor is it meant to incite much more anger than the initial statistics did. The reason I have chosen to write this out as a post at all is because I felt that I would not be able to be fully expressive (and fair) in whatever comments I might put up on Twitter. And I thought that the issue was a serious enough one to justify giving it its space.

The introduction is simple: P. T. Smith tweeted about publisher willingness to talk about and improve on matters regarding women writers in translation. I noted that the positive behavior is very publisher-specific, and that there are some who are better than others, to which P. T. Smith named and tagged a few good ones, and named and tagged Dalkey Archive as one of the "less hot" publishing houses. The full thread can be found here (posted with consent; since Dalkey is not an individual person rather a public entity, I see no need in gaining their consent to re-share their public tweets).

A few hours later, the Dalkey twitter account went active and responded with a barrage of tweets:

The tweets mostly sought to list women writers in translation Dalkey are going to publish, but there were two points in reading these that I had to stop. And stop myself from responding too harshly too quickly. This list is really, really wonderful in that it shows that Dalkey Archive will be publishing women writers in translation in 2015-2016. Compared to the jaw-dropping 0% of 2014, I think we can all recognize this (with absolutely no cynicism) as a step forward. But there's a lot, a lot more here that Dalkey has not yet addressed. They end their barrage with the rather snark-tinged question: "What else can we add?" And so, Dalkey Archive, in all seriousness, here's what:

As far as I have been able to tell and certainly in response to my own inquiries in 2014, Dalkey Archive has never once made a public statement regarding women writers in translation and why their publishing house consistently falls well behind the already-low translation average for women writers. 2014 was a shocking anomaly, but it's not alone. My 2013 statistics found them at a solid 24%, when the overall average was 28% (and recall that Dalkey was the leading publisher of translated literature in 2013 by a comfortable margin).

And so simply publishing the names of women writers Dalkey plans to publish is not merely not enough, it's meaningless. Are these all of their women writers for 2015-2016? If so, we're right back to the beginning with atrocious ratios... At this stage, we are working largely from percentage-based work. Amounts are wonderful - yes, truly wonderful that each and every one of these books will be published! - but they do little to address the fact that for every woman writer it publishes, Dalkey by and large publishes 5-6 more books by men (from the years I've counted, at least, and most likely worse statistics the further back we go).

Furthermore, one tweet touts fairly balanced Best European Fiction anthologies. While I do not have the statistics in front of me, my recollection was that the 2013/4 anthologies were at around 40% when it included the English-written stories. Perhaps I am doing Dalkey a great injustice by quoting merely from my unreliable memory (and I strongly encourage anyone with access to the book to fact-check me because I absolutely do not want to spread false and hurtful claims), but I recall specifically noting that Dalkey had included an interesting array of English-written stories by women writers, and then had a similar 30% stumble when it came to the translations. I will happily correct this notion if it turns out to be wrong. I will point out that the other Dalkey anthology I've encountered (Georgian literature) had a solid 25% women writer representation rate.

The main point is this: Dalkey Archive has a pattern of publishing significantly fewer women writers in translation than men. And it has a bad track record when it comes to addressing the problem. Merely pointing to your upcoming women writers does not explain how you went an entire year without publishing a single work by a woman writer in translation. Listing writers does not tell us what their percentage is within the larger body of your publications. It does not change the pattern, and it explicitly refuses to address the problem in the way that other publishers have daringly done.

"What else can we add?" Well, answers to these questions. Clear statements regarding Dalkey Archive's future efforts to reach gender parity in publishing (I hope). Explicit publication lists with transparency regarding the gender breakdown and ratios. Explanations for 2014. Perhaps even public explanations for why women writers have until now been so marginalized.

"What else can we add?" Let's start here.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Women in Translation | The grim improvement of 2014

It would be wonderful if when I ran the statistics on women in translation, I looked only at the raw percentage. I could come and point to the slight increase - from 28% to 31% - and say that there's been an increase. There's been an increase! Excellent! Let's pack up and go home, we're done here, right?

Well... no.

It should be fairly obvious actually. A 3% increase is fairly pathetic. I don't particularly consider it to be a significant change, considering how fluid these things are. One tiny uptick does not yet qualify a trend, and it's worth digging a little deeper into the numbers before we start to celebrate. So let's dig deeper. Warning: I will try to remain objective in this post, but I'm not going to pretend that there aren't problems where they exist.

As always, statistics were taken from the excellent Three Percent database. I'll also point out that another batch of statistics was recently released at Our calculations were completely uncoordinated, so take that as further proof of the existing problem. Oddly enough, we seem to have reached different calculations for many fields... I expect I used an outdated database but the percentages largely stand. I also find their charts to be less intuitive and comfortable, so I'll be posting my data regardless. Check it out though. It's grim.

I find it very interesting that women are better represented in poetry than fiction. I don't have an explanation for it, but it's interesting and worth noting, especially given (false) assumptions that women are more likely to write "thrillers" and "Genre fiction".

Some of you may recognize this graphic from Twitter, which I posted a while back. This looks at the top six translated languages, and the gender breakdown. As you can see, the "other cultures" excuse that is so loved by denialists is moot. Essentially, we see that the lack of women writers starts at the top and continues on down (evidenced by the complete language chart below, which sadly is much less visually clear but paints the picture quite well). A country like France does not for a moment lack women writers (and yes, France is the overwhelming source of books translated from French), yet it fails miserably at translating them. Is the problem really in French? Or is the problem in our translations into English?

As we can see, the overwhelming majority of languages have a male-majority translation rate. Even the usually gender-balanced Scandinavian countries suddenly have gender imbalances (Finland excepted). Again we're forced to ask ourselves whether the problem is abroad in other languages, where "women are perhaps not writing" or whether the problem is in the English-speaking world which devalues those books which women are writing and just aren't having translated.

Here we have the top publishers (published 10 or more books in translation in 2014), numerically. This chart is important alongside the next, but I want to look at it harshly for a moment. Note that the top publisher of literature in translation - AmazonCrossing aka The Devil Itself - crosses the halfway mark for women. Of the top publishers, AmazonCrossing is the only publisher to pass the 50%, with Atria the only other one to reach it at all. And note that the second highest publisher of literature in translation - Dalkey Archive - published a stunning grand total of zero books by women writers in translation. Quite frankly, we could leave the chart with just those two stacks and dust off our hands.

Chart arranged from most books published to least, with at least 6 translated titles in 2014

But now let's look at the percentages. Percentage-wise only, we see only three publishers reach/pass the equality mark. Four managed not to publish any books by women writers at all. And another eight published only one book. Taking into account only the top publishers, we see that the translation rates suddenly shift down drastically. Instead of that initial 31%, we get 27%. Uh-oh.

So what do these results even tell us? What did we get from all this supposedly pointless number crunching?


Like last year, we see that the spread of languages indicates a problem here at home rather than in the countries of origin. Like last year, we see that the problem is very publisher specific, with some publishers striving to make improvements and others distinctly not. We see that same ~28% number everywhere - awards and translations and reviews. And from the results that the Women In Translation Tumblr posted, we see that the myth of "women translators dominating the field" is just that - a myth. The Tumblr found that women actually made up just under 50% of translators. Hmmmm. It's almost as though women are perceived to "dominate" in fields even when they don't, and this is used against them...

And now the million-dollar question... what do we do?

As readers, there's a lot. First and foremost, I highly recommend taking part in the conversation. Looking at your personal reading trends. Challenging yourself as to why you picked this book over another. Challenging publishers. Questioning, checking, thinking and being aware. That's the first step, before anything else. Before you even begin to read or buy books, just ask yourself these questions.

Second: Take part in the Women in Translation Month. Yes, shameless self-promotion! Spread the word and make WITMonth a major part of the discussion. One of the biggest problems the fight for equality in literary translations has at this time is how utterly spread out it is and uncoordinated. We've got lots of different passionate people who are completely unaware of the fact that others are fighting the same fight. Let's find each other, and we can only do that through the help of the hivemind internet. Let's work together. Let's localize and give ourselves this organized space to discuss and move forward. The idea of WITMonth - far beyond just reading books by women writers in translation - is to spread the word about the specific problem of the lack of women writers in translation. So let's help fix that.

Third: Help build the Women in Translation Database! This bigger project is meant to make it easier to find books by women writers in translation, so that we're able to at least offset decades of completely unbalanced publication rates and erasure. There are many different ways to help the database: if you're wondering how to help, feel free to contact me through any of the acceptable means (email, Twitter).

Fourth: Make the change yourself. If you're a publisher or a translator or someone involved in the industry, look at these numbers. Look at the numbers over at the Women In Translation Tumblr. Look at them again and again and ask yourself what you can be doing to fix it. It's a complicated question, and I'm afraid I can't think of any easy answers (because no, I don't think that quotas are necessarily the way to go). But the moment you start to think about it, you start to fix the problem. And that's a huge first step that we need to take, readers and industry-folk alike.

Fifth: Spread the word.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Women in Translation | Year in review

A lot has happened this year for women in translation. If last year was the year that many readers and reviewers and translators discovered (independently!) the problems in the translation rates for women writers, this was the year in which we all (again, largely independently) worked to fix it.

For me, an obvious highlight was the Women in Translation Month held in August. I won't rehash all the conclusions from it, but suffice to say that the incredible participation from different readers, reviewers, booksellers and publishers made it a fascinating project. I think we did a brilliant job of addressing a lot of common issues, and also of raising awareness for many books that might otherwise have been ignored.

WITMonth also sparked two further interests for me: the first was the general interest in identifying and raising awareness of older titles by women writers in translation (something which a great deal of passionate readers have helped me with), and the second was a hope to improve the rather pathetic women in translation database. The latter is a serious project I have unfortunately stalled on somewhat in the past month or so, but my hope is that it will be completed before WITMonth 2015, and will serve as a good introductory guideline for readers seeking older and more obscure titles.

More dramatically, 2014 saw the brilliant panel at the London Book Fair titled "Where are the women in translation?" as a sort of response piece to Alison Anderson's initial article from 2013. I cannot overstate how important this panel is to understanding many of the concerns surrounding women in translation, nor its importance in terms of highlighting possible solutions. I again encourage every reader who is interested in literature in translation (or in feminism...) to watch this panel. I do not necessarily agree with all of the conclusions reached (as I have said in the past, I personally do not believe quotas will serve as a good solution to the current problems), however I think that they did an excellent job of explaining the problem and offering solutions.

We also had a record number of women writers shortlisted for the IFFP this year, with judges making clear for the first time that they saw a problem with the fact that no woman writer has ever won the award beforehand. This led to half of the shortlist comprising of women writers, and though the prize ultimately went to a man, the judges did choose to give a special recognition of Birgit Vanderbeke's The Mussel Feast. This is as close as a woman writer has come to winning the award, and though it's a fairly small comfort, it is progress nonetheless.

More broadly, there has been increased awareness of international literature this year. Every year, more and more readers are introduced to a wider variety of books. My feeling is that as this general exposure for translated literature grows, so too will exposure for women writers in the field, eventually leading to something closer to parity. This exposure will hopefully begin to spill over to more mainstream literary outlets - this year was Elena Ferrante's year, and I think we'll soon start to see more women writers getting that prestigious spotlight which until now has been reserved almost exclusively for men.

But there have also been struggles this year. As much as I would love to end on a purely positive note, the fact is that once again women in translation are being shut out of major awards (IMPAC), once again women writers are profiled significantly less frequently than men (pretty much every news outlet in my observation, though this is purely anecdotal and I haven't run any official statistics), once again reviewers note a significantly lower rate of women in translation titles as sent to them by publishers (I should note that this too is anecdotal, and furthermore as told to me by other reviewers who receive significantly more books for review than I do), and once again we see publishers who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the true problem. There are still issues ahead of us which we will need to face.

Yet as I look back at 2014 - at the involvement surrounding WITMonth, at the increased awareness, and at the somewhat improving awards statistics - I see something vaguely resembling hope. We will need to see how the final 2014 translation database (courtesy of Three Percent, as always) turns out, but it will likely show a somewhat more positive outlook than the midyear update. And my hope is that 2015 will show a clear trend towards the positive.

We continue to discuss, we continue to improve.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

WITMonth Day 12 - Are we all reading the same thing? | Thoughts

An interesting idea arose today on Twitter - that many WITMonth participants are actually visiting the same writers again and again. Tony Messenger suggested that this may be as a result of lack of availability, echoing the narrow field from which we can pick and choose our women writers. This is undoubtedly a factor, however I find myself wondering if it's really the main reason. And so: post.

I've discussed in the past the fact that availability will shape what you read and how. Previously, I wrote about how if there's only a certain amount of books published in a field, it's not unreasonable that your reading rate will follow that ratio. This explains why so many readers report 25% women in translation reading rates - it falls very much in line with the general publication stats.

I think the question raised here is of a different sort, however. Given the stats that we have - given a limited number of books by women writers in translation - many readers are finding themselves tackling the same books, often "entirely independently" (that is, not as a result of direct recommendations). I don't think this is entirely due to availability, and I think it tells us a bit more about the state of literature in translation today.

First of all, let's not forget that many of the books we read are as a result of recommendations, direct or otherwise. Certainly I just read Ch'oe Yun because of a positive review, and yes, I bought Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment because I had seen dozens of gushing reviews of her writing (and because of a well-timed bookseller recommendation). Word of mouth is particularly powerful in smaller communities like literature in translation, and it's often hard to escape awareness of specific titles.

But I think there's more. Certain books are pushed more by publishers - these are the books that get sent out to reviewers and ultimately create buzz. Buzz breeds more buzz. Usually. Hopefully. Most of the books that keep cropping up are those ones: well-publicized, respectable buzz, good marketing, etc. And the vast, vast majority of them are recently published.

I emphasize this last point because I think we often forget it. There is a whole huge backlog of women writers in translation that many of us are unfamiliar with - books that have fallen out of fashion, or are out of print, or are in that in-between zone of not-new but not-yet-a-classic. There are hundreds of books like these, and to be honest it's going to be extremely difficult to find them. It's much easier to look in the newspaper (or on blogs), see what they've reviewed recently, and check out the books that look interesting. In this case, I find myself inclined to believe that literal availability isn't actually what's guiding us, rather it's bigger market forces that generally decide how we pick our books.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Women in Literature | An essay

Over the years I've been involved in literary review, I've said and written many different things about women writers, and particularly in recent months about women writers in translation. I've discussed possible differences in men and women's writing, a young adult literary culture that courts young women so passionately it alienates young men, VIDA statistics about women reviewers, writers espousing clearly sexist beliefs, gendered marketing, and most recently the striking gap between men and women writers when it comes to literary translations into English. There are still essentially 3 books by men for every single book by a woman in translation. My thoughts and ideas have evolved with time, often momentarily contradicting each other and occasionally living in an outrightly discordant land. The matter of gender - and gender equality - in literature has fascinated me for years, but never has it been more important to me than now. Nor, I think, more important for the broader literary community.

But numbers alone do not indicate why this is a problem, nor do they reconcile the seeming contradictions between my own arguments against the imbalance, and any reasoning for fighting. Simply put: why does it matter? What difference does it make if - as I claim - there is no tangible distinction between men and women writers?

A brief history of literary suppression

One of the books recommended to me when I began the Women in Translation project was Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, which I think ought to be required reading for anyone interested in literary gender dynamics, feminism, or literature in general. Russ's premise for the book is that as long as there have been women writers - and she makes a point of emphasizing that as long as there has been literature, there have been women writers - there has been a male-dominated literary culture that has attempted to discredit their works. Her examples are largely Anglo-American and mostly post-18th century, yet they paint a fascinating portrait of a broader culture. Sadly, despite having been written in the 1970s, Russ's academic take-down is still depressingly relevant today. While women writers are now taught in schools and university courses, you will still find that they are taught significantly less, and that the group of women writers who have been accepted into the "canon" is very sharply focused on a handful of Anglo-American women. You'll also still find professors who disparage women's writing, and refuse to teach their works (or works by writers of color).

Russ's arguments hinge on two key points:
  1. Women write.
  2. The initial response by the literary elite will always be an attempt to discredit that woman's writing.
I do Russ a great disservice by whittling her points down to these two generalizations. Russ goes into greater detail about the methods by which academics long attempted to dismiss women writers, whether because of genre, relationships with other men, outright falsehoods (did you all know that Charlotte Brontë wrote only one book? Villette and others clearly don't exist), and a pervasive self-fulfilling prophecy about what qualifies as literature.

Do men and women really write differently?

One of our great claims in the fight against literary sexism is that there is no difference between the writing of a man and the writing of a woman. I have even gone so far as to sarcastically suggest that perhaps "men's upper body strength makes them better suited to describing dew drops on a leaf". On the other hand, we argue that women need to be better represented, because they provide us with dimensions that are otherwise unavailable.

Reconciling these two seemingly contradictory claims is surprisingly easy, and apparently critical in this discussion when responding to angry cries about imposed equality.

On the surface, on a purely technical level, when it comes down to letters and words: men and women write the same. There is no difference between when a man writes the sentence "and he slowly lifted his head to behold the sky" versus when a woman writes "and his eyes rose upwards, beholding the sky". Readers cannot actually recognize the gender of an author based on excerpts, and writing as a concept has no gender bias.

But writing as a construct does.

Let me be clear: there are differences between men and women, but these differences are not neatly divided, nor are they explicitly defined. It's much more accurate to look at a spectrum, in which almost everyone crosses the so-called gender lines. This is true of literature as well, in as much as there are certain "traits" that are more commonly interesting and relevant to women, while other fields are more traditionally associated with men, yet neither of these is ever actually exclusive. I'll also point out that while I am writing about gender as something strictly binary, I understand that many do not define themselves in this way.

Today, marketing for traditionally male genres (such as a sci-fi) is occasionally done with an eye for male readers (occasionally), yet it is understood and accepted (and expected) that women will move beyond the marketing to pick up the books. Meanwhile, women writers are ghettoized in their "own" genre ("Women's fiction"). Women are expected to read broadly, by both men and women writers (if they don't, they are haughtily called misandrists), while men can easily read only books by white men (and just be called: sticking to the "canon"). This odd dynamic is important for several reasons which will be discussed a bit later.

These are ultimately marketing choices, but we cannot separate marketing from the larger culture surrounding it. We do not live and do not read within a vacuum. A culture that largely supports men while finding women to be "the exception" will not suddenly embrace books by women. To deny the background sexism that fills our culture and our world is to simply close one's eyes. All of the sexism that we see in literature exists in exactly the same format in film, television, business, science, and just about every other aspect of our society. This means that a great part of the difference between men and women's writing is entirely in how we package our books and ideas. To rephrase the most common and sharply on-point example of this: When a woman writes about the family and home life, she is writing niche. When a man writes about family, it's universal. Another fine example: Women write romances, men write dramas.

Yet we are still left wondering - what is the real difference? Is it all constructed, all society-based, all in our heads? The answer is unequivocally no. If it were the case, there really would be no difference if men were writing or women were writing. The fact that we care, the fact that we fight for this, the fact that we demand this equality is a strong indicator that some distinction exists.

That distinction is different experiences.

Men and women experience the world differently, socially and biologically. Our hormones ultimately determine our emotions, our reactions, our behaviors, and our experiences. To take the most glaringly obvious example, childbirth is an entirely different experience for men than it is for women. These are experiences that shape people, and all of that influences writing. Literature is, after all, deeply personal. The differences between men and women are enough to explain why a balance is needed between the two.

What then is literature?

We have concluded that there are certain differences between men and women, and also that there are bigger issues with our culture surrounding those issues. Some of it has to do with dismissing women's experiences as trivial (for example women writing about raising children is pedantic, or women writing about sexual violence is feminist-niche), but much of it has to do with a long, long history of, as Russ puts it, "suppressing" women's writing. A more accurate description would be, I think, "dismissing" women's writing.

As established earlier, women have always written literature. The very first novel was written by a woman - and a Japanese woman at that. Women have always had important roles in history and culture, yet when looking over lists of "classics" - lists which serve as the basis for many peoples' reading choices - you see that women writers have only recently begun making their way onto these lists, and in my experience rarely comprise of more than 25% (and that 25% is only achieved if nearly every single one of Jane Austen's novels are included...). Furthermore, while you'll see plenty of non-Anglo-American men on these lists (Tolstoy, Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Dumas, Goethe, I can go on...), you will rarely if ever see women in translation (particularly on Anglo-American lists).

These lists reflect what the literary perception of the "canon" is at this time. This is because the concept of the canon is entirely subjective - fluid, changing and terribly defined. Some lists include Emile Zola and George Eliot, others include Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, others have already opened their gates to J. K. Rowling and Halldor Laxness. The lists are eclectic, often entirely dependent on the country of origin and ultimately do little more than shed light on, again, what we perceive is the canon.

And right now, we perceive that canon as almost exclusively male. We perceive literature through the filter of male experiences and through centuries of defining art in the context of men. We can't ignore that, we can't disconnect that, and we can't pretend like it doesn't affect us. As a result, women have been systematically weeded out of our literary history (Marguerite de Navarre, Murasaki Shikibu, Grazia Deledda, Juana Inés de la Cruz, to name but a few).

When I was fourteen, I decided that I needed to read more "classics", to start reading like a grown-up. It didn't seem strange to me that I preferred for people to see that I was reading War and Peace as opposed to Sense and Sensibility, nor did it strike me as odd that I automatically rated those typical canon classics as more "serious" than those few books written by women that had been lucky enough to get published under the moniker of "classic".

It has taken me many years to reach this point where I can recognize how the canon has shaped my reading. It has taught me that certain experiences are worth more than others. It has taught me that there is an "objective" metric of literature, and how to define good books according to it. It has taught me which books are serious and which frivolous (this largely supported by literary journals, reviews, reviewers and publisher attitudes).

So it is no surprise that the year is 2014, and I am only just realizing that I have been letting other people determine for me what is a good book.

Bring on the pitchforks: Philip Roth is not a good author, but Hilary Mantel is. Javier Marías's The Infatuations is a pleasant enough book, but Yoko Ogawa's Revenge is simply stunning. Young-Ha Kim got all the attention at the London Book Fair, but Sun-mi Hwang blows him out of the water without a backwards glance. Everyone has by now heard of Knausgård, but who knows of his talented compatriot Merethe Lindstrøm? We know Roberto Bolaño, but what of Carla Guelfenbein?

Responses, denial, and why it's important

The above will have rankled some of you. Some will argue that the male writers I have listed here are actually some of the very best, and others will argue that the women here are clearly subpar. These are discussions we will always have and should have. Swap out each of the women's names with those of other men, and we'd have the exact same argument. It's one based on literary tastes and styles and personal opinions. This is great; this is what literary criticism is all about.

But I chose women for a reason. That's because as much as many people would like to close their eyes and plug their ears, there is a clear, glaring problem in publishing right now. And that problem is not the lack of women writers in translation (though that is without a doubt a problem). No.

The problem is the flat-out denial from most publishers. Denial, mixed with sexism, and a hefty dose of elitism.

In today's internet connected age, I can - in 140 characters - link to a review of a book I read, share it with the publisher, and within minutes have it shared to all of their followers. This happens. Constantly. But in today's internet connected age, I can get only one publisher to respond to my queries about the lack of women writers in translation, and that response is condescending, rude and sexist to its core.

So pay close attention, because these are the publisher responses I've gotten to this project:
  1. Nothing
  2. Sexist rant
  3. Nothing
  4. Nothing
  5. Nothing
I have been dismissed for writing under a pen name, dismissed for being a feminist, dismissed for focusing on women's writing, accused of wanting to impose quotas, haughtily informed that this publisher is aware of their abysmal track record when it comes to publishing women writers, and finally told, and I quote directly (though obviously somewhat out of context): "The press has a particular aesthetic that determines what gets published, and that aesthetic may in fact be practiced by more men than women." And all this in the single email response that a publisher deigned to send me.

At this point, I will praise the wonderful response from And Other Stories. After my tweet to them about the project, they acknowledged their gender imbalance in translation and have made real efforts to improve their catalog. This is the sort of publisher response we deserve.

No more

So this is where we stand. Armed with the understanding that a problem exists and ready (I hope) to do something about it, the inevitable question remains: What can we do?

We do this. We discuss.

We do not boycott these small, independent publishers because of their imbalance, but we make our voices heard. We do not point fingers (even when we'd like to), but we hope that by discussing the problems, they might understand them as well. We do not scream, but we shout. We do not kick, but we fight.

We do not impose, but we ask. We do not demand, but we challenge.

We do not pretend like this issue is black and white, or like it is the only battle. We do not act as though it's the simplest matter in the world, or that the solution we think is obvious will work for everyone. We do not belittle, we do not simplify, we do not dismiss. But we say, "No more."