Tuesday, August 21, 2018

WITMonth Day 21 | Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso

Listen up, Hollywood. Here is your next major blockbuster adventure film or miniseries. Are you listening? Catalina de Erauso's Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World is your next summer hit, I promise, just don't mess up the casting. This story (translated by Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto) is so utterly wild, it's impossible not to appreciate it (even if you're likely to spend half your time reading scratching your head and raising your eyebrows).

There are a few things I should point out right off the bat. First, yes, the title is a little... bad. The term "transvestite" rather clearly displays this edition's age (and it has not aged particularly well). Second is the questionable approach (in general) taken in attempt to contextualizing the author's gender/identity within (not so) modern definitions, that ultimately left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable. The introduction (and again the title) attempts to define who Catalina de Erauso was, but I'm not certain that the conclusions are entirely apt (I'll get to this in a moment). This is certainly a shame, but that should not erase the content within the book itself. Which, again, absolutely ridiculous.

Because Lieutenant Nun is a memoir of sorts, but it's the sort of memoir that leaves you wondering whether the author is just having a good laugh. The story is chock-full of unbelievable coincidences, recurring characters (since when does that actually happen in real life...?), absurd adventures, suave romances, gender-bending apathy, and constant drama. Was the author really pretty much the coolest Spaniard roaming around Latin America in the 17th century? Or is this a case of epic trolling?

Of course I did not know any of this before I picked up the book. I purchased Lieutenant Nun (for a nice $1 at a used bookstore) precisely because of the gender question posed by my edition; I was intrigued by the contrast between the nun and the soldier. As I learned more about Erauso, I found myself drawn into scholarly debates about gender and sexual identity (a taste of this is available on Wikipedia, surprisingly!). This debate is, of course, heavily influenced by current cultural interpretations of gender and sexuality, and I personally have often been uncomfortable with attempts to define historical figures by modern categories of gender/sexuality. Even so, reading Lieutenant Nun, exploring Erauso's own casual dismissal of femininity (at times) and flirtations with women (frequent) and alternating identification, I think the characterization of Erauso as genderqueer or gender nonbinary is ultimately the most descriptive (especially since Erauso used both masculine and feminine pronouns).

Erauso begins the memoir by detailing the childhood of a young girl, destined for the convent. This is where the adventure begins, with Erauso quickly leaving the confines of cloistered life behind and embarking on a series of terrible exploits that ultimately lead to their arrival in the New World. Here, Erauso ends up involved in an almost endless stream of complications, ranging from "I basically made all the pretty noble girls fall in love with me" to "I lost a ton of money" to "I shot and killed my brother" to "I got out of murder charges six more times in a variety of ways". In a rather dry, thin style, Erauso tells of each adventure as though it's all perfectly normal. As I read their account, I couldn't help laughing aloud. It's all so ridiculous... yet so entertaining. Made for film, I tell you.

It's surprisingly difficult to actually summarize or review Lieutenant Nun. There's the narrative itself, of course, with the intense and dramatic adventures that is pretty much impossible to describe without doing its absurdity injustice. But then there's also the meta-commentary, the modern interpretation of Erauso's gender (and why is it that we're so obsessed with their gender/sexuality anyways...?) and the extensive discussions surrounding it. I'm not particularly qualified to get into that, nor into the more historical analyses of the veracity of Erauso's various stories. But they cast an interesting light on this short book, adding depth to a swashbuckling maybe-totally-trolling brief memoir. Even without getting into the meta conversations though, the book is definitely worth reading just for the wild ride you'll end up on... and again, Hollywood, your next hit is calling!

Monday, August 20, 2018

WITMonth Day 20 | 10 Recommended Pre-20th Century Classics

One of the most common (dismissive) responses to WITMonth's existence is that of course there is bias, since women did not historically write as much as men. While true that women often did not have the same opportunities to write as men did, it is simply not true that women did not write at all. Nor is it true that women only began writing from a certain period and onward. In fact, women have been writing and telling stories for literally hundreds (indeed, thousands) of years. The first credited novel was written by a Japanese woman, Murasaki Shikibu. Some of the finest ancient poetry was written by women. Not being a literary scholar or historian, it's certainly hard for me to point to the best classics by women in translation... but it's not impossible! So here is just a taste. (And keep an eye out for the 20th century edition!)
  1. The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu (tr. from Japanese by Royall Tyler, among others): The literal first novel, a genuine classic and cornerstone of literary culture at large!
  2. The Book of the City of Ladies - Christine de Pizan (tr. from French by Rosalind Brown-Grant, among others): Before feminism was feminism, there was Christine de Pizan, eloquently arguing for women's rights (albeit through a deeply Christian, European, and at-times narrow-minded lens).
  3. The Clouds Float North - Yu Xuanji (tr. from Chinese by David Young and Jiann I. Lin): One of China's early poets, with poems ranging from the personal to the atmospheric.
  4. The Princess of Clèves - Madame de Lafayette (tr. from French by Nancy Mitford): Romance, intrigue, and drama combine in a novel that is clearly rooted to its time period, but also surprisingly modern.
  5. Indiana - George Sand (tr. from French by Sylvia Raphael): A pre-feminist novel exploring the rights of women (and poor women) in a world that simply does not view them as worthy.
  6. Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings - Juana Inés de la Cruz (tr. from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, among others): Nun, writer, proto-feminist, and scholar, Juana Inés de la Cruz is not the name of a leading Mexican prize for Spanish-language women writers for nothing!
  7. The Pillow Book - Sei Shōnagon (tr. from Japanese by Meredith McKinney): Musings on life, poetry, art, and boredom by a writer who would probably feel perfectly at home on Twitter... even though she wrote over 1000 years ago.
  8. The Appeasement of Radhika - Muddupalani (tr. from Telugu by Sandhya Mulchandani): An erotic poem about Krishna and Radha, groundbreaking in the sexual liberties its women have, as well as having been a Telugu classic for hundreds of years.
  9. Birds Without a Nest - Clorinda Matto de Turner (tr. from Spanish by J. G. H., among others): A Peruvian novel detailing the struggles of indigenous South Americans, heaping criticism on existing power structures and demanding a better future.
  10. The Book of Mahsati Ganjavi - Mahsati Ganjavi (tr. from Persian by Paul Smith): A 12th-century Persian poet and court-member, whose surviving works primarily focus on love and emotion).
Here's the thing: This list isn't easy to compile. It's not all novels. It doesn't quite cover the entire world. It's limited in terms of the backgrounds of the writers (almost all of whom were at the very top of their respective cultural classes). But it also is a list of classic women writers, and given another hour or two, I could come up with another 10, 20, or 50 more titles (especially if I let myself include a lot more European women!). There are dozens of brilliant women writers from all eras whose works have been translated into English; there are thousands still more who have yet to be translated.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

#WITMonth Day 19 | I'm tired | Thoughts

This will be an atypical blog post (certainly for WITMonth), or perhaps a blog post more akin with what a personal blog would normally look like.

As the title says, I'm tired.

In a few days, I'll be posting Part 3 of the 2018 WITMonth stats. In this post, I'll be detailing 5-year trends, looking at women in translation statistics from 2013 through 2017. This will be a long post (possibly split into two; we'll see once it's finished), with my attempt at looking at the problem more broadly and not within the limited confines of a single year. In the context of preparing this post, I have also contacted a few key publishers (mostly those that Twitter users predominantly associated with literature in translation, when I posed the question a few weeks ago) to ask for statements about women in translation and these publishers' track records.

But you have to understand something before I post these stats, and it's this: I'm tired. I'm tired of seeing that base 30-31% translation rate for women. I'm tired of having to explain why promoting individual titles does not make up for a global lack. I'm tired of having to explain to publishers that each book they publish is a choice, and that they can, simply, choose to publish men and women in equal amounts (and trans and genderqueer and nonbinary authors as well). I'm tired of having to justify why it's important to publish women writers - and women writers from around the entire world - when it should be obvious.

Most of all, I'm tired of making excuses. And I will be stopping, as of today. I will no longer be excusing away certain publishers that consistently behave in a certain way. I will no longer be excusing away inexcusable gender gaps. I will no longer be accepting nonresponses or justifications; I will be demanding more. I'm tired, and I'm tired of feeling like this incredible project and the community that you have all built isn't doing enough. Because remember this: WITMonth 2014, the first WITMonth, had maybe 10-15 participants. The entirety of it, every. single. post. can be seen in this list. Today, I'm lucky if that's the amount of posts I see in a day. We have grown so, so much and we have done so, so much and we deserve more than this.

I mentioned in this year's first stats post that I felt like the work I do is useless. After all, I've been doing it for years and nothing has changed and the important gatekeepers have simply not budged. But many of you responded very strongly to those lines, messaging me and commenting that the stats were not meaningless, that they were necessary, that they were having real-world consequences that I couldn't yet see. You all have no idea how much hope and comfort those comments and messages gave me, and I am truly grateful to each and every one of you for your participation in WITMonth.

Now it's time for us to act. Enough is enough.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

WITMonth Day 18 | 10 Recommended Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

I love science fiction and fantasy. I love science fiction and fantasy infused literature too. I love books that have magic in them, books that explore new and invented worlds, and I love books that play around with setting in order to tell their magical stories. I also love women in translation, as you might have noticed, so this overlap was pretty much to be expected. That being said, whatever list I give today will not be able to hold a candle to Rachel Cordasco's brilliant http://www.sfintranslation.com/, which covers a whole lot more excellent speculative fiction in translation (including a lot of WIT) than I'll ever be able to recommend. Check it out!

  1. The Wall - Marlen Haushofer (tr. from German by Shaun Whiteside): Post-apocalyptic literature shrunk down to its most intimate, as a single survivor of a mass catastrophe continues to live.
  2. Amatka - Karin Tidbeck (tr. from Swedish by Karin Tidbeck): Queer, dystopic science fiction, exploring individual freedom within an oppressive society.
  3. Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was - Angélica Gorodischer (tr. from Spanish by Ursula K. Le Guin): A tremendous fantasy powerhouse detailing the history of "the greatest empire that never was", beautifully translated by another fantasy powerhouse and legend.
  4. The Queue - Basma Abdel Aziz (tr. from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette): An almost too-real totalitarian dystopia turns its eyes on its people following an attempted revolution.
  5. One Hundred Shadows - Hwang Jungeun (tr. from Korean by Jung Yewon): Shadows quietly begin to rise in the slums of Seoul, as two lonely young people grow closer together in their wake.
  6. The Days of the Deer - Liliana Bodoc (tr. from Spanish by Nick Caistor, with Lucia Caistor Arendar): Fantasy, but from a purely indigenous American perspective, creating a unique spin on the European invasion of the continents.
  7. The Gray House - Mariam Petrosyan (tr. from Russian by Yuri Machkasov): Disabled young boys and teens in an otherworldly boarding school, in which nothing is quite as it seems and neither are its denizens. 
  8. The Core of the Sun - Johanna Sinisalo (tr. from Finnish by Lola Rogers): A "Finnish weird" dystopia in which women are bred for docility, and life is tightly controlled. 
  9. Hybrid Child - Mariko Ōhara (tr. from Japanese by Jodie Beck): A biological specimen escapes, and begins to live an independent life in a world of rogue AIs and cyborgs.
  10. Memoirs of a Polar Bear - Yoko Tawada (tr. from German by Susan Bernofsky): Three generations of entertainer polar bears recount their lives and relationships.
SFF has a problem with publishing women writers, and the overlap with women in translation is even smaller and more disheartening. But as you see, there's still no lack of excellent, exciting, or intriguing books, old and new! Not to mention many YA titles which will be summarized in the next post. What are some of your favorites?

Friday, August 17, 2018

WITMonth Day 17 | The Years of the Voiceless by Okky Madasari

It's difficult to review a book that I know wasn't written for me. This is one of the best parts of the women in translation project, when I get to encounter a book that is so utterly outside of my comfort zone and area of knowledge that I feel my mind reaching out and growing in response to the new information. The Years of the Voiceless by Okky Madasari (translated from the Indonesian by Nurhayat Indriyatno Mohamed) was not written for me, for a Jewish-Israeli woman specifically who has never formally learned anything about Indonesian history or culture.

That's part of what made The Years of the Voiceless so appealing to me. I often feel like the translations I read are inherently politically framed (see this post from last WITMonth), especially in terms of which books are chosen for which audiences. So many translations feel as though they are heavily vetted by whether the English-speaking audience will be able to "handle" the text (this, I should note, is true of both very "highbrow" literature, and "commercial", but this is a topic for another time). The Years of the Voiceless didn't feel like that at all, probably because it wasn't. I didn't get The Years of the Voiceless from an indie US/UK publisher. I got it from the very excited Indonesian representative at the London Book Fair in 2016, after I told her about the women in translation project. She happened to have a copy of The Years of the Voiceless on hand and gave it to me as a gift. It may have taken me two years to get around to reading the book, but I am grateful for the gift, which was more than just a book.

From a technical perspective, there are a lot of things I can point to in The Years of the Voiceless which are less than perfect. Bearing in mind that this is a translation done internally, published by an Indonesian publisher and likely not really meant for particularly broad international audiences, the writing/translation is not exactly stellar. There are clunky bits and awkwardness in the use of footnotes to explain certain cultural nuances (but not others). The pacing of the novel is also somewhat suspect, with a remarkably (disappointingly) rushed ending that feels like it cheated its characters out of a proper, dramatic denouement.

Yet these points feel minor in the face of how intelligent the novel is, and how much it demands of its readers. While reading The Years of the Voiceless, I kept wondering what it would be like if I knew more about Indonesian history or literature. Indeed, I've read only one book out of Indonesia (Leila S. Chudori's Home) and that was specifically about the expat experience. The Years of the Voiceless was the first time I had ever encountered Indonesia up close. The two books end up forming an interesting contrast, with Home bluntly addressing the source of Indonesia's conflicts (Suharto's authoritarian regime at its most obviously cruel) and The Years of the Voiceless quietly pointing to the seismic shifts in Indonesian culture under his influence (without once mentioning his name).

In this form, The Years of the Voiceless ends up feeling more sharply tuned than Home. Where Chudori uses exile as a narrative framing device, The Years of the Voiceless is immersed in day-to-day, village Indonesian life. Madasari exposes authoritarianism slowly, its creeping influence growing in the lives of the characters until it eventually encompasses them.

The Years of the Voiceless revolves around mother and daughter, Marni and Rahayu, each representing a different generation of Indonesian women and their own struggles with a "modernizing" Indonesia. Where the illiterate, traditional Marni builds herself up as a businesswoman and money-lender only to constantly face hatred/bigotry, sexism, and a corrupt system that only takes, Rahayu is a modern Muslim ashamed of her mother's "sins" who finds herself immersed in a political mess as her interest in Islamist teaching increases. The two encounter the power of the state in markedly different forms, but the outcomes remain the same - when Marni and Rahayu's story converge, the full tragic implications of authoritarian regimes may be seen on full display.

One of the things I especially liked about The Years of the Voiceless was that it never offers simple explanations. Marni's business grows as a result of her money-lending, directly borne out of her hard work. Yet her wealth is deemed to be her husband's before hers, she is loathed by the very people who use her services, she is constantly forced to "donate" to the ruling party and to petty bureaucrats in order to survive, and her daughter views her with disgust. This latter point is of particular interest, with Marni exasperatedly trying to understand how Islam can denounce her business, while their local Islamist teacher constantly uses her services without paying his debts. Marni may be illiterate, but she has a clear-eyed understanding of business. We see most of the world through her eyes, where she largely ignores the actual politics of Indonesia and focuses predominantly on her own struggles.

Rahayu's story complicates things further. It is here that the extent of state-inflicted violence becomes apparent, once Rahayu effectively abandons her agricultural studies and becomes a teacher of Islam. Rahayu is simultaneously a reflection of Indonesia's modern Islamist leanings, but she also represents a lot of the hypocrisy that came with the shift. The novel is not explicitly critical of Islam, not by any means, but there is a quiet recognition of the way it was used (and occasionally abused) in the name of power. Much like Marni's interactions with the Islamic teacher from their village, Rahayu finds herself as a second wife (unrecognized, effectively no more than mistress) in a way that seems to emphasize the hypocrisy of several men of faith taking advantage of their position and the women around them. That her relationships and their consequences ultimately drive the drama of the last portion of the book feels especially meaningful. The personal becomes the political; the political is inherently personal.

All in all, it's hard for me to assess The Years of the Voiceless in a truly objective way. From a technical perspective, there is a lot to criticize (as I mentioned earlier), but the technical feels absolutely secondary to the story and the message. But how much of my response to the story is driven by the fact that I personally have hardly been exposed to these sorts of narratives? Would The Years of the Voiceless feel as intelligent and sharply critical if I had read significantly more Indonesian literature? Perhaps it would simply feel like another narrative describing the creeping onslaught of authoritarian horrors. (And I can't possibly imagine that being relevant to any of the political situations in the world today, not one, nope.) I feel as though I lack the proper context and understanding to give The Years of the Voiceless its proper due.

But as it stands, with this reader being the uneducated, ignorant boor that she is - I found that I really appreciated The Years of the Voiceless, learned a lot from it, and was emotionally engaged. This wasn't a mere technical exercise - I truly got angry for Marni on a number of occasions, at one point even directing my anger aloud and declaring that she should just leave her village behind. It's far from a perfect book, but it worked for me and it provided me with a fascinating perspective on Indonesian history that I don't think I could have gotten in any other way. I have a feeling it might do the same for other readers as well.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

WITMonth Day 15 | 10 Recommended Poetry Books

Well, we're back to my lists, as always helped by the excellent people of the internet who filled out my WITMonth Recommendation Survey a couple months ago! Today we're moving onto poetry, a category that can include some of the most lyrical writing the world has to offer, as well as some of its most political, powerful, amusing, entertaining, and emotionally wrenching. Not to mention innovative, inspirational, and educational! Let's go.

  1. alphabet - Inger Christensen (tr. from Danish by Susanna Nied): A unique poetry book with its own heartbeat and rhythm, and one that demonstrates the very best of experimental poetry.
  2. Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972 - Alejandra Pizarnik (tr. from Spanish by Yvette Siegert): A comprehensive collection from an author who has attracted a passionate following in the years since her tragic early death, renowned for her lyricism and personal touch.
  3. Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets - Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani (tr. from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom): A collection of four controversial Tamil women, whose writing inspired threats against them but also recognition of their strength and power.
  4. A Rain of Words: A Bilingual Anthology of Women's Poetry in Francophone Africa - edited by Irène Assiba d'Almeida (tr. from French by Janis A. Mayes): Too often forgotten in conversations about women in translation, this collection showcases African women writing in French and spanning a continent.
  5. The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova - Anna Akhmatova (tr. from Russian by Judith Hemschemeyer): An iconic writer whose works have become modern classics, exploring horror and beauty and war and peace.
  6. Women Poets of China - edited and translated from Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung: This collection spans Chinese women's poetry from early literature through the early 20th century, showcasing stylistic changes across the eras and the unique perspective women had when writing poetry.
  7. Poems: New and Collected - Wisława Szymborska (tr. from Polish by Clare Cavanagh): A Nobel Prize winning poet in a rich collection (though you can't go wrong with just about any of her works).
  8. The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology - edited by Nathalie Handal (various translators): While not exclusively women in translation, this collection is vast in its scope and variety with women writers spanning the entire Arab world.
  9. Poems - Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (tr. from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden): An early, pre-feminist writer whose poetry remains powerful alongside her more political works.
  10. The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems - Natalia Toledo (tr. from Zapotec by Clare Sullivan): Poetry's eternal power on display in this collection of Zapotec poetry, through themes of love and loss and mystery.
Any excellent poets in translation missing from this list? Who are your favorites?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

WITMonth Day 14 | WITMonth lists from other people!

One of the most incredible things about WITMonth has been watching it grow over the years. Today, there is no shortage of excellent writers, translators, publishers, reviewers, critics, etc. engaging with WITMonth, reviewing books by women in translation, and writing about the topic. If in 2014 it was possible to keep track of every. single. post, this simply isn't possible anymore (and for the best reason ever). And just as there's been a huge influx in reviews and thoughtful pieces about women writers in translation, there have also been quite a few stellar recommendation lists out there! So to give you all a bit of a break from my ramblings, I'm going to link out today to a few lists that I've seen around this WITMonth:

I'm missing a lot of excellent lists, but there are still plenty more days this WITMonth to explore them. What lists have you been working off? How have you been finding new books to read this WITMonth?

Monday, August 13, 2018

WITMonth Day 13 | "The Option" | Translate This Book

I never seem to start with the right book. Author Yael Neeman became a bestselling, household name author in 2011, with the novel We Were the Future that details the lives of children coming of age in a Kibbutz (autobiographic, by all accounts). Yet when a collection of her short stories became available a few years later, that was, for some odd reason, the book that I ended up buying and reading. And liking.

It's hard to review short story collections, particularly when those collections were written in another language and I have little with which to describe them. How can I explain that despite my notoriously terrible memory, the first story (which translates to "Barrenness") has lingered with me for literal years? How can I explain that Neeman's writing has an edge to it that is simultaneously brilliantly sharp, but also delightfully light?

I'll say this, briefly: I didn't love all of the stories in The Option (כתובת אש). There were a few that I skimmed through, because they tired me. But even as some of the stories didn't jive well with my personal style, they were all interesting and Neeman managed to avoid that oh-so-frustrating pitfall that many single-author collections have by creating a series of truly distinct stories. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, some are melancholic, some are whimsically tragic, some are just weird, and some are, yes, forgettable. Overall, though, she creates a truly enjoyable, well-written collection. It makes me want to read We Were the Future as soon as I can get my hands on it, to experience what was supposed to have been my introduction to a talented writer's works. It makes me want to read her latest work, just recently released. I've got what to look forward to.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

WITMonth Day 12 | 10 Recommended Historical Fiction Books

Ever since I was a child, one of my favorite genres has been historical fiction. There's just something about sinking into a world that is both richly different from my own (the way that fantasy or science fiction might be), but also rooted in history and delightfully educational. To this day, I love reading historical fiction and then immediately going to the sources: Did this really happen? What was life like in this country during this time? How did the events that affected these characters actually play out? What else was going on during that period? And so on. As a result, I'll often try to get my hands on as many historical fiction titles as possible, especially those from different countries, backgrounds, historical periods, and perspectives. There's so much of the world to explore through historical fiction!

  1. The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende (tr. Magda Bogin): A modern classic of Latin American literature and the epitome of a "sweeping family epic", spanning decades and infusing its history with magical realism.
  2. Segu - Maryse Condé (tr. Barbara Bray): A stunning, expansive, and emotionally pulsing history of Segu (modern-day Mali), exploring religion, changing customs, war, and family.
  3. Little Aunt Crane - Geling Yan (tr. Esther Tyldesley): The history of a Japanese woman left behind in post-WWII China, taken as a secret slave surrogate womb for a childless young couple and gradually becomes a member of their family in a rapidly changing China.
  4. The Doctor's Wife - Sawako Ariyoshi (tr. Wakako Hironaka and Ann Siller Kostant): A quiet and quietly directed story of the wife of Japanese doctor Hanaoka Seishū, her influence on his work, and the lives of Japanese women during the late 18th century.
  5. Dance on the Volcano - Marie Vieux-Chauvet (tr. Kaiama L. Glover): The story of Minette, a young Haitian woman with exceptional singing talent, shunned for her race but admired for her talent, all alongside Haiti's tumultuous history and history of racism.
  6. The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem - Sarit Yishai-Levi (tr. Anthony Berris): Jerusalem through the eyes of the women of the Sephardic Ermosa family, "cursed" never to be loved by their husbands, spanning the Ottoman empire, the British Mandate, Israel's War of Independence, and through modern Israeli history.
  7. The Court Dancer - Kyung-Sook Shin (tr. Anton Hur): A young dancer in the Korean Empire's court finds herself in a new world and new life, but unable to escape the old.
  8. The Queen of Jhansi - Mahasweta Devi (tr. Sagaree and Mandira Sengupta): Something between biography and historical fiction, an account of the epic Queen of Jhansi in her battle against the British.
  9. The Free Negress Elisabeth - Cynthea McLeod (tr. Brian Doyle): The fictional history of Elisabeth Samson, a free black woman in Suriname overcoming racism.
  10. Granada - Radwa Ashour (tr. William Granara): The history of the Spanish-based Muslim-Christian conflict and Arab history at large.

Sidenote for those who notice: Yes, it was intentional.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

WITMonth Day 11 | Notes on stats posts

Some thoughts:

I'm currently working on a stats post summarizing five years of data, trying to understand whether there have been any meaningful improvements over the years that WITMonth has been running and if not, in what way and why not. In the context of this effort, I would like to draw attention to a few points:

1. Several publishers are what I have referred to in previous years as "repeat offenders". As I analyze the data more carefully, it occurs to me that this title is not sufficient enough, and I am currently in the process of contacting major publishers of literature in translation who I believe have a poor track record when it comes publishing women writers in translation (in numbers, not quality of course). I think it's time to have a serious conversation about why publication rates are remaining largely stagnant, and to see how things can improve in the future.

2. The Three Percent database on which I base some of my analyses is wonderful, but it does not cover all grounds. Remember that this is a database focused on first-time US translations of fiction and poetry, excluding nonfiction, YA, kidlit, and plays. For this reason, my publishing statistics are inherently Anglo-centric. That being said, I am also trying to collect data from prominent non-US publishers of literature in translation as well, in the hopes of having some complementary data. I also typically skim the websites of major publishers myself, in order to make sure that the statistics that I publish are accurate. I'm always grateful to receive any corrections to my assessments, but please bear in mind that I publish nothing without having also double checked that the gist of it is correct.

3. Usually, the Three Percent database actually overestimates the degree to which women writers are translated into English, due to its specific limitations. Among academic publishers in particular there are dozens of retranslated "classics" published every year (almost exclusively by men), as well as nonfiction titles which are also overwhelmingly by men. I don't have the time to create my own translation data in order to properly assess all of the data, but please remember this point when looking at that 30% rate. Based on my anecdotal assessment, the real number is probably closer to 25%.

There's a lot more coming this WITMonth, and a lot more work that will need to be done throughout the year. Hold on tight...

Friday, August 10, 2018

WITMonth Day 10 | Stats (part 2)

Much as I love the cold, hard data behind the general publishing stats when it comes to women in translation (spoiler alert: I love very little about them), there's only so much that publishing can tell us. True, publishers are a fairly major gatekeeper when it comes to the existence of women in translation (indeed, perhaps the only gatekeeper... and the reason I'll be visiting this topic again later this month), but there are many stages from the moment a book is published to the point at which it reaches the reader.

One of these is literary publications and media. Much as we would love to think that nothing affects our tastes and interests, the fact is that marketing does work. This is certainly true of book marketing, with review outlets, bloggers, and the media at large playing a huge part in how books ultimately become hits or misses. Even among indie presses, the way a book is promoted can heavily shape the way it will be sold/recommended in the future.

And so I decided to again check the status of literary reviews, to see whether the situation has improved for women in translation since 2016 (when I last checked this metric). It's pie chart time!

Journals and review sites were selected partially on the basis of visibility within the literary community and recommendations (not a particularly scientific metric, I know), as well as ease of data collection (i.e. chronological posting, well-labeled reviews). Due to the relative limitations in translation-focused literary reviews, this may lead to certain bias simply because of the smaller range of options. This analysis is not nearly as comprehensive as that of VIDA, but is inspired by their work. All assessments done manually, so of course there is the possibility that I have made some mistake - please let me know if this is the case and I will happily make any corrections!


In 2016, The Guardian presented me with a bit of a conundrum. That was the year of Elena Ferrante, with several articles going back and forth as to her identity (remember that?) and her literary merits, and a time in which Asymptote Journal had a weekly feature in the "Fiction in Translation" tag. Ultimately, I found that of reviews, 22% had been of books by women writers in translation, even as the general Fiction in Translation tag had more features and pieces about women writers (30%). This year, the metric is flipped, with only 22% of the general features, reviews, and so on about women writers in translation, but among reviews alone, that number goes up to 29%. Neither percentage, I should note is particularly good. (I should also point out that I have a very strong suspicion as to why women writers are relatively better represented now in reviews - Nicholas Lezard who used to have a column in The Guardian's book pages no longer writes there, and that column featured perhaps three women over the course of the three two I looked at it...)

The reason I start with The Guardian now (and the reason I started with it in 2016 as well) is because I can think of no other newspaper with such a prominent literary review that easily and clearly labels its forays into translated literature, while also not having a paywall. More than that, The Guardian also prominently features online, is frequently shared, and is regarded quite highly as a general book page. Think of the exposure a book reviewed in the NYT or The Guardian has as compared to a book reviewed in a niche journal - the impact of widespread publicity is huge. That The Guardian is still reviewing and featuring so few women writers in translation in their pages is deeply disappointing.

I next looked at two of the major "niche" literature in translation journals, Words Without Borders (which I had checked in 2016) and World Literature Today. While neither journal has quite the reach of a site like The Guardian, they nonetheless have tremendous influence within certain spheres and represent a lot of the brilliant content related to literature in translation. Here, I was pleasantly surprised by review rates. While Words Without Borders does not publish nearly as many reviews as it does original translations or excerpts, it is still a commanding voice when it comes to literature in translation and perhaps the first resource that most readers think of when seeking voices in translation. That their reviews are solidly split between women and men writers is absolutely thrilling, particularly in light of their mediocre rates in 2016. WWB have long supported the women in translation movement and this support is not simply words, as is evidenced both by the numbers and the improvement over time. They have made an active effort to seek out women writers from all over the world, publish them at equal rate as men writers, and, it would appear, also review them at equal rates. This is wonderful.

World Literature Today, meanwhile, (which has significantly more reviews over the same one-year period) is a more complicated situation. 36% is the frustrating zone of "I see that you're slightly better than average, but is this really all I'll settle for?", where ultimately - this is still not a great rate, but it's just a teensy bit better than the industry standard of 30%. It's where WWB was two years ago. With a stunning 83 reviews over a one-year period (significantly more than any other review outlet I examined), WLT has tremendous potential to shift the focus to a more balanced playing field and give exposure to dozens of women writers in translation. I hope they improve on this matter in the future, following in WWB's footsteps.

The next tier was popular online reviews, sites clearly associated with literature in translation that also publish reviews, again ones that I had looked at in 2016. Here, neither result is particularly thrilling. Three Percent is the blog-arm of publisher Open Letter (and where I get all the amazing raw data for my publishing stat posts!), which itself publishes a fair amount of women in translation (but has never reached 50% in a single year I've counted, always clocking in somewhere between 30-40%). The dissonance between a blog praised for its role in the women in translation movement (by virtue of their database, and I'll admit that having gender added has made my life significantly easier than back in 2013 when I went through title by title and added author genders myself!) and a 17% rate of review of books by women writers in translation is jarring, and it should be, especially since that number reflects a significant drop from 2016's 31%. It indicates an additional gender bias beyond the publishing imbalance, one that I do not think reflects well on any publication or review.

And then again, we have a flip: Asymptote, which had a 22% rate in 2016, has now moderately improved that rate to 29%. Neither rate is particularly good, of course, and again there's this significant conceptual gap between how Asymptote present themselves in terms of the women in translation project and how they actually review books.

Finally, I took to Twitter to ask for recommendations of literary journals that review international titles. I ultimately chose three journals for my assessment (again, mostly based on scope, comfort, and accessibility): Latin American Literature Today, Literary Review, and Reading in Translation. None of the three presented with particularly thrilling rates of review, again serving as a disappointing reminder that the bias against women writers in translation (or women writers in languages other than English, more accurately) is pervasive and widespread. It's not a few bad apples; the entire orchard is tilted.

I won't pretend that I'm not largely disappointed by rates that I see. Words Without Borders is a thrilling exception, but it should not be an exception. Having parity is not an unreasonable demand, nor is expecting literary journals to more carefully curate which books they promote. Considering the degree of unknown books I encountered in the last three entries (particularly the Literary Review, which included a lot of nonfiction) and how dominated literature in translation is by independent presses, this is not simply the fault of pushy marketing executives at corporate publishers. Every review we write is a choice of a single book out of hundreds published each year, and journals may choose whether they review significantly more works by men writers than by women. It may not be easy, but one simply has to look at WWB to see how it's done - no fuss, no issue, no grandstanding. Just interesting, thoughtful, and insightful reviews of books by women writers at equal rates as men writers. It's that easy.

Raw data

Thursday, August 9, 2018

WITMonth Day 9 | The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

When I bought Maylis de Kerangal's The Heart (translated as Mend the Living in the UK), I had only one impression of the book - this rare negative review from Tony Messenger's blog, that described the book as poorly written, boring, and filled with bizarre writing choices. I hesitated before buying The Heart for this reason, but ultimately my curiosity got the better of me... and the fact that the book was in the bargain bin and being sold for only $4 in the hardcover.

I started reading The Heart late on a Saturday night, intending to read only a few pages to get the taste of it. I fully expected to be disappointed - after all, a reader whose tastes and reviews I quite trust seemed to dislike it so much! - but as I read those early pages, I found myself instantly swept up in the rhythm. I had to force myself to stop reading after those first few pages in order to go to sleep.

It was somewhere in the middle of the night that a thought struck me: The Heart read like a millennial had written it. Or at least, it sounded somehow "millennial" to me. It sounded like how my writing would sound, if I wasn't just writing bad reviews on a sub-par blog. The pacing and the styling and rhythm and the almost loopy thinking... they all felt like they would be perfectly at home on a Tumblr post responding to some vague, random prompt. The writing felt like something many of my friends might write. And I liked it.

As I progressed in the novel, I discovered a few more interesting points of contrast between my interpretation and Tony's. Portions that filled in a minor character's backstory felt like little side-quests, rather than pointless distractions. The constant shifts in perspectives felt like a necessary way to describe the whole. As the story spun around Simon (whose heart is in question), I felt like I was growing to care about his world, if not him specifically.

The Heart, at its core, is a novel of the characters who surround Simon. It focuses to a significant degree on his mother Marianne, but as the narrative shifts from Simon's injury to Simon's death to Simon's "rebirth", so too does the focus, to the doctors treating Simon and eventually also those who wish to save other lives using his organs. It feels like a novel built of negative space; Simon is at The Heart's center, but he does not really exist within it.

There were a few things I outright disliked in The Heart. First, there is an odd objectification of women in a number of points throughout the book. There are full paragraphs that feel utterly unnecessary to either character development or story progression, particularly ones that focus on women. The novel felt sexist in places, which ended up throwing me out of the story more than once (though I managed to get back into it quickly, which was also pretty interesting). These are short, minor fragments, but they do cast a shadow on the book and prevent me from giving a whole-hearted endorsement (pun intended). I also found myself somewhat unimpressed by de Kerangal's constant descriptions of Simon's multi-racial background, with the fawning tone occasionally bordering a bit on fetishization. It may just be a cultural difference, but there was something about some of the descriptions that felt a bit off to me.

However, to the most important point: Perhaps you noticed that I skipped over an important bit of information at the beginning of this review. Where, you would be correct in asking, is the translator's name? Well, in the version that I read, the translator is Sam Taylor, who I think did a really great job of making the writing flow and keeping the book as engaging as it was. But when I went back to read Tony's review, I realized something interesting: the quoted passages did not match the ones that I had just read. In fact, the passages that Tony includes all felt awkward and stilted in portions compared to the gently rolling text I held in my hands.

It turns out that Mend the Living and The Heart are actually not the same book, exactly, instead being that (now rare) phenomenon of two distinct translations of a modern novel that were released at the same time in different countries. Mend the Living, despite having my personally preferred title, was translated by Jessica Moore. Though I have of course not read the entire translation, the contrast with the portions I read on Tony's blog make clear that Moore's translation creates a very different effect overall.

For example: In the passage describing Marianne's meeting with the parents of her son's friends (mostly uninjured in the accident that ultimately kills Simon), Moore's translation creates a very tight, stiff vibe. Lines like "the four of them are aware of how lucky they are, of their monster’s ball, because for them, it’s only breakage" feel like they are heavily crafted. Contrast that with Taylor's version: "all four of them are aware how lucky they are, how monstrously lucky, because their children are only a little broken". There are two main word-choice distinctions: "monster's ball" replaced with "monstrously lucky", and "it's only breakage" with "only a little broken". In both cases, I find myself preferring Taylor's word choice. Of course I have no idea what the original was, but the message here is clearly the same, as is the general style. Yet Moore's translation uses somewhat weird, rare words (breakage? monster's ball?), while Taylor spins the sentence to flow with an almost childlike appreciation. One of the translations feels like a very high-brow classic novel, while the other feels loose and modern.

Of course I am biased, having read only one of these translations and generally liked it, especially liking how fresh it felt and to my own generation's online writing style. But almost each of the examples that Tony cites sent me back to the pages of The Heart's translation, and appreciating how much smoother the text flowed there. It leads me to wonder what Moore's translation is like at large, particularly since this is a fairly rare example of a modern book having contrasting, contemporary translations. I certainly liked Taylor's approach, and appreciate it even more after comparing it to an alternative.

All in all, The Heart ended up surprising me. I fell in love with the writing style, I was (mostly) able to look past the weird/unnecessary/male-gaze-y bits, and I thought that the story was extremely moving on the whole. This is not the sort of novel to keep you on your toes, but it has its own sort of pulsing tension anyways. The end in particular felt like a thriller, as the tone and narrative largely move away from Simon. It's a book I wish I could have read in one sitting; even so, I am grateful that I read it at all.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

WITMonth Day 8 | Reading the world challenge (part 4)

Part 4, here we go! As always, remember that not every country is represented, nor that every country representation is necessarily in novel format! Links provided where I have them. Of course, if you have any recommendations for any of the missing countries (or missing languages), please let me know!

  • Japan (Japanese): Yoko Ogawa - Hotel Iris
  • Jordan - MISSING
  • Kazakhstan - MISSING
  • Korea, South (Korean): Bae Suah - A Greater Music
  • Korea, North - MISSING
  • Kuwait (Arabic): Fatimah Yousif al-Ali - "The Ringing Body"
  • Kyrgyzstan - MISSING
  • Laos - MISSING
  • Latvia (Latvian): Aspazija - Poems
  • Lebanon (Arabic): Hoda Barakat - The Stone of Laughter
  • Lesotho - MISSING
  • Libya (Arabic): Laila Neihoum - Poems
  • Liechtenstsein - MISSING
  • Lithuania (Lithuanian): Giedra Radvilavičiūtė - Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again
  • Luxembourg (French): Anise Koltz - At the Edge of Night
  • Macedonia (Macedonian): Lidija Dimkovska - A Spare Life
  • Madagascar (French): Bao Ralambo - "Blastomycosis"
  • Malaysia - MISSING
  • Maldives - MISSING
  • Mali - MISSING
  • Malta (Maltese): lare Azzopardi - "Green Line"
  • Mauritius (French): Nathacha Appanah - The Last Brother
  • Mexico (Spanish): Cristina Rivera Garza - The Iliac Crest
  • Moldova - MISSING
  • Monaco - MISSING
  • Mongolia - MISSING
  • Montenegro - MISSING
  • Morocco (Arabic): Leila Abouzeid - Year of the Elephant
  • Morocco (Tashelhit): Mririda n-Ayt Attiq - Tassawt Voices
  • Mozambique (Portuguese): Paulina Chiziane - The First Wife
  • Myanmar (Burmese): Nu Nu Yi - Smile as they Bow
  • Nepal (Nepali): Jhamak Ghimire - A Flower in the Midst of Thorns
  • Netherlands, The (Dutch): Tonke Dragt - The Letter for the King
  • Nicaragua (Spanish): Gioconda Belli - The Scroll of Seduction
  • Niger - MISSING
  • Nigeria - MISSING
  • Norway (Norwegian): Hanne Ørstavik - Love
  • Oman (Arabic): Jokha Alharthi - Celestial Bodies
As you can see, there are still a lot of gaps in this list! Many countries and languages remain unexplored. As always, any recommendations are most welcome, especially since a full version of this list will eventually be published more conveniently. In the meantime, however... happy reading!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

WITMonth Day 7 | 10 Recommended Nonfiction Books

Typically when we talk about women in translation, we focus on fiction. For me, this mostly stems from the fact that Three Percent database on which I base my statistics is fiction/poetry focused (and thus these are most of the titles to which I'm exposed!), and that I typically personally prefer reading fiction to nonfiction. That being said, nonfiction is a fascinating slice of literature and should not be forgotten! Women writers are often underrepresented in nonfiction writing overall (particularly when it comes to history, science, and politics), and certainly when combined with the women in translation gap, it's worth promoting a few nonfiction books by women in translation!

  1. The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir, tr. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier: A classic of feminist literature that is often regarded as one of the foremost critical texts of the 20th century.
  2. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets - Svetlana Alexievich, tr. Bela Shayevich: Not a Nobel Prize winner for nothing, Alexievich has long been praised for her oral histories, bringing in individual voices as parts of a breathing tapestry of living history.
  3. Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy - Ece Temelkuran, tr. Zeynep Beler: A fascinating modern history of Turkey, its political turmoils, and hope for its future.
  4. Cockroaches - Scholastique Mukasonga, tr. Jordan Stump: A brutal, beautiful, and unforgettable account of the Rwandan genocide.
  5. Now and the at the Hour of Our Death - Susana Moreira Marques, tr. Julia Sanches: A unique account of end of life care, and the end of life.
  6. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions - Valeria Luiselli, tr. Lizzie Davis and Valeria Luiselli: Written across both English and Spanish, translated and retranslated, this extraordinarily timely account of undocumented children in the U.S. facing deportation looks to the heart of a problem too often dehumanized.
  7. What Are the Blind Men Dreaming? - Noemi Jaffe, tr. Julia Sanches and Ellen Elias-Bursać: Mother, daughter, and granddaughter each grappled - in her own words and language - with the memory of surviving the Holocaust, moving on and staying behind.
  8. In Other Words - Jhumpa Lahiri, tr. Ann Goldstein: The acclaimed U.S. author switches languages for a book-length meditation on language, translation, identity, and love itself. 
  9. In Praise of Black Women - Simone Schwarz-Bart, tr. Rose-Myriam Rejouis, Val Vinokurov, and Stephanie K. Daval: An encyclopedia of black women throughout history, spanning prehistoric queens through modern world leaders across several volumes.
  10. Translation as Transhumance - Mireille Gansel, tr. Ros Schwartz: Further meditations on translations as they relate to humanity, culture, and history.
Those are just a few nonfiction titles! As you might have seen, this list is incomplete - where, after all, are the women in translation writing about the sciences? Writers from Asia? From South America? No list will ever be truly encompassing, so help fill in the blanks! What are your favorite nonfiction titles by women writers in translation?

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.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

WITMonth Day 5 | The Country Road by Regina Ullmann | Brief thoughts

I had tried to read Regina Ullmann's The Country Road (tr. Kurt Beals) once before, about a year ago. The initial title story rather bored me, and I soon found myself drifting away. Like so many of the titles I review here, I set the book aside for a later date, assuming that the problem was me and not the book. As I revisited more and more books from that period of abandonment in recent months, liking several, The Country Road seemed like a good candidate for a renewed effort. Let's see, I thought, how the book fares this time, with a fresh mind.

It turns out I was even less forgiving of the book this time. Because while yes, technically I finished the book, I was bored by just about every short story. (I almost typed "episode", which I think sums up my thoughts on this book rather well.) I ended up skipping over the ends of just about half of the stories. I disliked the writing. I disliked the frames of most of the stories. I disliked the airy conclusions and concepts.

I disliked this book, and I truly was not expecting to. There's a degree to which I'm still not sure what it was about The Country Road that meant that I actively disliked it, rather than just being passively disinterested. This was a book that felt like work, and not the sort of rewarding work that is ultimately worth it. No, The Country Road was the sort of work that you realize, as you're doing it, that you don't want to be doing, there's no reason you should be doing it, and honestly... who even gave this task?

Not to my taste, certainly. Oh well.

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.

Friday, August 3, 2018

WITMonth Day 3 | 10 Recommended New Releases

This WITMonth, I'll be trying something new by posting lists of "10 Recommended" (number may vary!) for a wide range of genres, designations, and topics, comprising of titles that either I have heard of or recommendations I received for those specific categories based on the WITMonth Recommendation Survey I conducted a few months ago. As WITMonth begins and people get their TBRs/library holds/bookstore orders organized, I think the first recommendation list should, quite obviously, be of new releases! Each of the following titles is newly published/translated in 2018. While not all of these titles are necessarily available in equal measure across different English-language countries (and certainly are not necessarily available in other languages/countries), this will hopefully be a convenient place to start for a lot of readers!

  1. Disoriental - Négar Djavadi, tr. Tina Kover: One of the biggest hits of the year so far in terms of women writers in translation, Disoriental has been garnering praise from across a wide range of reviewers, bloggers, and readers alike. 
  2. Soviet Milk - Nora Ikstena, tr. Margita Gailitis: A slim, grim, and almost universally admired work about the Soviet Baltics that seems guaranteed to leave a mark on its readers.
  3. Brother in Ice - Alicia Kopf, tr. Mara Faye Lethem: A somewhat divisive genre-bending book that has nonetheless been on the radar of many readers this year.
  4. La Bastarda - Trifonia Melibea Obono, tr. Lawrence Schimel: This short novel is guaranteed to make its reader think and explore new worlds, with its unique status as the first novel by a woman writer to be translated out of Equatorial Guinea, and one exploring a queer coming-of-age at that.
  5. Celestial Bodies - Jokha Alharthi, tr. Marilyn Booth: For another trip to a relatively unexplored country, Celestial Bodies takes readers to Oman and describes the lives of three sisters.
  6. Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata, tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori: Already gathering praise from delighted readers and newfound fans, Convenience Store Woman seems primed to be a summer hit.
  7. Fish Soup - Margarita García Robayo, tr. Charlotte Coombe: An internationally admired and prize-winning Colombian author's short works translated into English, to great acclaim.
  8. The Chandelier - Clarice Lispector, tr. Benjamin Moser & Magdalena Edwards: The classic Brazilian author with a new (old) release.
  9. Waiting for Tomorrow - Nathacha Appanah, tr. Geoffrey Strachan: This novel of culture and family that quietly been gaining traction among book bloggers and readers, with praise for the writing and storytelling.
  10. Little Reunions - Eileen Chang, tr. Jane Weizhen Pan & Martin Merz: A seemingly autobiographically-inspired novel from the iconic, beloved author.
But of course... this list is only a taste of the new books by women writers in translation released in the past year! While there are still distinctly too few books by women writers translated into English (and other languages), there are plenty more - you can find some of them here, in the 2018 WITMonth database! Happy reading!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

WITMonth Day 2 | Stats (part 1)

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

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

There is a sense that statistic posts are useless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After five years, something has to change.