Thursday, July 21, 2016

Women in Translation Stats | The Clickbait Version

Are women being translated less than men?

We decided to compare rates of translations into English for books by men versus books by women. You'll never believe the shocking results!

1. Approximately 30% of new translations into English are books by women writers

2. Most of the top publishers of literature in translation publish very few women in translation... and top publisher AmazonCrossing is the only one trying to make up for it!

 3. University presses struggle even more to promote women in translation...

4. The imbalance exists across many languages...

 5. ...and many countries!

6. "Sure, but SOME parts of the world are more sexist and old-fashioned..." NOPE.

7. "But women mostly write Genre, not Literature!" STILL NOPE.

8. These stats have changed little over the past three years. Isn't it time to fix it?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

#WITMonth the Third

As the weather begins to turn, the time has come once again to prepare for the third annual Women in Translation Month! This year's goal is simple. No bells, no whistles, no drama.

Just read.

Three years into this project and the gap between translations of books by women versus men is still disturbingly wide. The amount of prominent literary voices either ignoring the problem or denying its existence is still too high. The number of readers still largely unaware of the plethora of books by women writers in translation is sadly too high as well. And the vast libraries of untranslated masterpieces by women writers from around the world from all historical periods is a constant reminder of how far we still have to go.

So all I ask of you is this tiny favor: Read.

Read women writers in translation. Share books you love. Seek out new ones. Learn about untranslated masterpieces. Look at the statistics posts, whether the ones on this blog or on or any other site. Research and learn. Read.

And spread the word.

Logo courtesy of Charlie Coombe - thank you!!!

Friday, April 8, 2016

2015 Women in Translation Stats | Part 3 - Genre and original publication

Read parts 1 and 2

After a longer than intended break, we're back with the latest round of women in translation statistics. This set of stats aims to debunk a few more pervasive and utterly false claims regarding the global lack of women writers in translation, and also points to an area in which we can absolutely do better.

As always, my work is based on the US-centric Three Percent database (heavily expanded in this case...), and thus only includes first-time translations of fiction and poetry titles. Genre and original publication year were determined on a title-by-title basis.

Original publication year was largely assessed through Goodreads data, however in many cases the provided year was inaccurate and further research was required. This means that the margin of human error (though uncalculated) is likely to be much higher for publication year than for other metrics, and it is entirely possible that older titles or posthumously published titles were given misleading years. Most publication years, however, were verified through copyright information and Wikipedia, suggesting that at the very least, the data should be ballpark representative.

Genre definitions were given by my own assessment of the title's summary, including several overlapping categories (crime, thriller, mystery, etc.) and reductionist labels. By and large, any title marketed as "genre" was given the marketed label (thriller, romance, mystery etc.), while only titles which were explicitly of a genre nature were labeled (fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, etc. for ambiguously marketed titles with obvious subject matters). While this too is an imperfect metric, it nonetheless captures the broader picture and should be largely representative given the sample size.

The Three Percent database provides two genres: fiction and poetry. While I've found this division hypothetically interesting in the past, the results boil down simply:

Basically: there is no significant change from the overall stats. Good to know! We can suggest from this data that women are slightly more likely to be published for writing poetry than fiction, but the difference is fairly minor.

This is all I'd ever looked at in previous years, but this time I decided to follow a hunch and do some more digging. As I described in the methodology section, I went through the database title-by-title and gave fairly generic genre descriptors: fiction, crime, thrillers, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, poetry, etc. As you can tell, these definitions are far from comprehensive or indeed unique. The idea wasn't to specifically pinpoint the genre of each title (such a task is frankly impossible), but to get an impression of what sorts of books are being translated into English.

Which means the first chart I'm going to show you ostensibly has nothing to do with women in translation:

From a general lumping-together of all "non-literary" genres versus "literary fiction" (with short stories cast as a separate category since collections may yet contain more than one genre and often include more than one writer), it's apparent that the world of literary translations is actually pretty evenly balanced between so-called "genre" fiction, and "literary" fiction.

This may seem like a random, quirky tidbit, but it's quite a bit more than that. Another of the most common comebacks to the standard ~30% translation rate for women writers is the claim that literature in translation is usually literature, and women are "just more likely to write genre" (this is a claim that's cropped up in comments, tweets and private conversations, often with publishers). The above chart disproves the first part of that claim. The next will disprove the second:

As you can see, the gender breakdown here is not all that different from the global one. Yes, women are slightly better represented in genre fiction than overall, but four percentage points is... not all that much. It's a difference of 11 books out of over 200 in the "genre" category. Certainly nothing compared to the "dominance" women allegedly have in genre fiction. This is almost identical to the ratio we see pretty much everywhere, and the excuse of "genre" stumbles once it's established that genre in fact makes up just under half of all fiction/non-poetry publications in translation.

This myth is important to bust for several reasons. First: The implication of a two-tiered quality ranking. Linking women writers to "genre" (often disparagingly, with outright statements of the lower quality) is no different than the old argument that "women just don't write as well". It's an attempt to discredit works written by women, as well as an obvious move to separate them somehow from a standard (which is inherently defined by men).

Second: It is simply false. Women, it's true, write a fair amount of fiction (of all sorts), but this is not translated (!) into translations. Let's just say for a moment that women were writing far more genre fiction than men (and it's entirely possible that they do; I genuinely do not know global publishing trends). That means that men - despite being a minority in their native languages - would be getting published at significantly prioritized rates than women!

Here I'll also bust another myth: AmazonCrossing's strength as a publisher of women writers does not simply rely on genre. While they are predominantly a publisher of genre fiction (66/75 titles), women make up 6 of their 9 purely fiction ("literary") titles. Another predominantly genre publisher, Atria, also see 2 out of its 3 non-genre titles as written by women. It's a trend that holds, and in fact with the exception of AmazonCrossing (always the exception), publishers that focus on genre fiction publish far fewer women writers than others! Below is a chart showing genre books by publishers (of more than two books in 2015) with majority "genre" titles (in percentages):

Not so women-dominated after all. Once again, AmazonCrossing carries most of the weight.

Original year of publication
The next metric - also new, and now specifically focused on fiction titles - stems from another set of hunches. Before I begin, I should note that I began collecting data with an idea in mind as to what the bias would be, and discovered that I was wrong. I initially expected to see a short delay when it comes to translating contemporary books by women writers, but soon found that there was no clear difference. I also noticed that some books had pretty significant gaps between when they were translated and when they were published in the US. I dropped this categorization while analyzing the data, because my initial hypothesis proved incorrect. I have to admit: I'm glad to know women writers don't face a clear delay when it comes to recent publications.

That said.

I divided the data into three time periods. The first was 2010-2015 and - as noted - there was no significant difference in terms of publication rates (for fiction or genre). On the contrary: women made up 36% of publications in that time period, somewhat pushed by the prevalence of recently released genre novels by both men and women.

The second was 1971-2009. Here a gap begins to open just a bit overall: 27% women writers. Once I looked only at "fiction" titles, however, the gap opened further, and women made up only 23%. So there is clearly some struggle in translating women's backlog literature.

The third time frame was pre-1971. This cutoff was effectively to create some sort of "classics" division, with 1970 chosen in large part because it's been 45 years, and I'm young enough that I genuinely view that as a long time ago (sorry if this makes anyone feel old! I promise it's intentional!). This division made me stop in my tracks and stare at the data for a long, long time. I'd had a hunch that women would be severely under-represented in the "classics" realm (despite these being, of course, first time translations), but that could not prepare me for the scope of the imbalance.

You see, of 38 titles I identified as having been published before 1970 (including short story collections I could solidly identify as predominantly of the era, such as Clarice Lispector's complete stories and poetry collections, here reintroduced), 4 were written by women. To put that in chart form:

This metric is unbelievably infuriating. One of my focuses during the 2015 women in translation month was classic titles, and I unsurprisingly struggled somewhat to find books, even more when seeking books which have been incorporated into the "canon". Meanwhile, I discovered a practical treasure-trove of untranslated works (including a plethora of explicitly feminist literature). True, not all would fall under the category of "fiction", but there's definitely a lot out there that's never been translated.

And there's the part that fills me with rage. The Three Percent database, I'll again note, only includes first-time translations. You won't find a new translation of War and Peace here. Sometimes there's a new collection of short stories by a famous author (in this year's example, a new collection of Chekhov works) which qualifies, but these are largely little-known writers and utterly unknown "rediscovered masterpieces". So why are they almost all by men? Why is the earliest book by a woman writer only from 1921, while men have 7 books from the 19th century and 1 from the 17th?

I can hear the arguments already: "But women didn't used to write as much as men!" You know what? Sure. Sure, let's say you're right, and only 10% of all pre-1970 literature was written by women. Why in the world should that impact which books we choose to translate and rediscover in 2016? These are not established books. With the exception of one book, none of these books were written by famous men, or men who left a lasting impact on literature. They are already unknowns. And I find myself wondering: why not take that opportunity in promoting an unknown writer and recognize the literally thousands of women writers history has almost purposely forgotten? We know an imbalance exists, has existed, and seems determined to continue to exist. Is this not an opportunity to right the wrongs? Is this not the opportunity to bring to light literally hundreds of regarded, important and historically relevant texts by women writers from around the world?

The utter lack of books for kids/YA
This one doesn't even need a chart. Out of 549 titles in the 2015 database, two were fairy tale collections and three were marketed towards young adults (though here I may have missed a title or two; we're still talking about 1-2% at most). Such a huge hole made me wonder if there wasn't something else hiding here or a problem with the source data.

I tweeted Chad Post about this imbalance and he explained that he does not include picture books in the database. This explains the glaring children's books gap, but not the lack of YA. Young adult and children's literature has been going through a targeted diversification process, with movements like "Diversify YA" and "We Need Diverse Books" leading the charge. It's critical that those efforts do not forget the importance of international and translated fiction, especially given the increasing tendency towards xenophobia in Anglo society. For literature in translation to cease being niche, it must be viewed as entirely normal by younger readers as well.

How does this relate to women in translation? On the one hand, it doesn't. This is simply another field in which a stark and deeply problematic imbalance is present. On the other hand, women writers are often credited with writing more books for kids and according to VIDA's Children's Literature count from 2014, women are generally more likely to win awards for children's books (indicating that perhaps women do write a majority of literature for children, especially if we assume the bias against women when awarding prizes crosses genres as well). While I cannot say for certain if this true worldwide, it may act as an indicator or guidepost that is without a doubt relevant to our overall conversation.

The emerging picture
A good deal of what I've tried to do with the women in translation project (and these stats posts) is identify various misconceptions that surround the lack of women writers in translation, as well as try to find the source of the problem. These posts can only ever look at that which is available in English and in that regard will forever be incomplete.

That doesn't mean they can't be representative of something. Yes, it means something when publishers year after year after year publish 30, 20, 10, 5% women writers. Yes, it means something when the problem stems not from one pin-pointed mark on the map, but across the entire globe. Yes, it means something when the problem spans genres and eras. The picture reveals a stubbornly consistent lack of women writers in translation, regardless of the metric thrown at the problem. This is deeply troubling.

Is there a single entity to blame? No. This is a problem that literally spans continents, centuries and concepts. It's a problem we'll only be able to solve by working together across borders and languages and ideas.

And to solve it, we need to know what we're up against. This is just another piece of that endlessly complex puzzle.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

2015 Women in Translation Stats | Part 2 - Languages and countries

Read Part 1 - Publishers here.

I should point something out before I begin: This post will include some personal observation and analysis in addition to the hard numbers. When writing about statistics (particularly those that have a, shall we say, feminist nature), people will eventually try to prove that your numbers are actually wrong. It's hard to reject the publisher stats (though some have tried), but somehow people eventually reach a particularly toxic - and at times racist - argument.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

We left off with an industry-wide problem and an overall rate of translation at 31%. At this point, I decided to look more specifically at the language breakdown of the books published. Part of this is out of pure curiosity, but most of this has to do with the question of whether women are poorly translated worldwide, or if this is a geographically isolated problem.

Once again, my numbers come from the US-based Three Percent database and are for first-time translations of fiction and poetry only. A single title by an author of unknown gender (translated from German) was removed for the sake of simplicity. The cutoff value for the country/language specific charts was at least 7 titles published, in order to better see the data. As always, there is a chance of some inconsistencies/inaccuracies due to human error...

Breakdown by countries and languages

Click to enlarge
As you can easily tell, the problem of translating women is not as a result of a certain country, rather the overwhelming majority have low rates overall (some more than others). It's difficult to measure how universal this is, mostly because of how many more translations there are from French relative to all other languages, and also because we again face the AmazonCrossing conundrum discussed in the previous post. Amazon has been shown to be a statistical outlier, and I knew from compiling these ratios that many of the titles had specifically been translated from German.
Languages, excluding AmazonCrossing
Note that German has gone from having more women writers translated than men, to significantly fewer, Korean has balanced out fully, and while Finnish didn't make the 7 cut in this case, it's actually the only one of the three to have retained an advantage for women writers (by one book). The differences really aren't all that major beyond German, but it's such a huge difference that I want to emphasize it: Of 37 titles by women writing in German, a whopping 27 were published by AmazonCrossing.

But what about countries, I can hear you ask? Surely languages aren't especially representative, since of course Spanish spans three or so continents, French at least three, Russian an entire swathe of Asia and Europe... surely there's some major difference with countries, right?

Not quite. France remains the overwhelmingly dominant voice, and since French translations remain dismally disproportionate in not-translating women writers, it's not especially surprising that the overall ratio looks not unlike France's.

And still, the rest of the world doesn't do all that well either. I decided to try to find the countries with the best track record, the area of the world so often touted as egalitarian and supportive of women and progressive and... you get the point. So yes, I looked only at the Nordic countries:

Hmm. Not that great either.

The narrative of "some parts of the world"
I think I need to pause here for a moment and explain what it is exactly that I'm trying to show. You see, there's this one argument I'm constantly told whenever I talk about this imbalance: The problem of women in translation is surely as a result of "some parts of the world being more oppressive to women". Western readers frequently imply that the entire project is meaningless, since of course there are going to be cultures in which women simply aren't valued as highly as men. This is almost always code for "the rest of the world is sexist, but the West has advanced beyond that".

This is a claim that has not only always angered me greatly because of how heavily racially coded it is, but more to the point angers me because of how distinctly false it is. Look at the charts above. Do you usually include France in your list of "oppressive to women"? What about Sweden? Boy, Spain sure does have a poor track record. And goodness me, Norway, that bastion of oppression!

By languages too. I have most frequently heard readers and industry-folk alike try to argue that Arabic would have significantly lower rates of translation than other languages. And while it's true that women writers make up only 23% of translations from Arabic, that's the same ratio you find for, well, French. It's the same ratio you find for Japanese (22%), only a little less than the ratio you find for Portuguese (27%) or Spanish (29%). Any claims that attempt to dismiss the problem of women in translation by limiting them to "certain parts of the world" are not only false, they are racist. They presume a cultural superiority by one specific slice of the world which - guess what - is doing just as poorly as almost everywhere else. At times, even worse, especially given how many more books they get translated per year.

This is what it looks like by continent of origin. Europe, the Americas and Asia all hover around the 31% (plus or minus), and Africa generally does lag behind. But of course, the entire African continent accounts for a grand total of 31 titles, making its lower rate of translations less prominent. Europe remains the primary source of all translations, and we're still left with a fairly global problem.

I also looked within Europe. This metric is probably the sketchiest and least accurate, because my definition of Western versus non-Western Europe was extremely vague. Basically anything east of Germany and the entire Baltic region got called "non-Western", but this is mostly just a guided attempt to show the differences between the two regions:

And here there is a marked difference - Western Europe at an unsurprising 35%, while the smaller countries (with far fewer translations) don't even reach 20%. That's something worth remembering for the future.

Final takeaways
I want to reiterate that these numbers are all extremely skewed, and to a certain degree almost meaningless. When one language and one country and one part of the world is so dominant in all of translation (a topic that should be discussed separate of the women in translation project...!), it makes it hard to recognize the weight behind any of the other numbers. French's 23% translation rate is obviously much more significant than, say, Tamil's 100% (which results from one book). But even with that, it's impossible not to recognize that there is no part of this world - no language or country or continent - that is doing well. The problem of women writers in translation is global, and while some countries technically have parity or even ratios above 50%, their weight is generally not so prominent (with the exception of German, where the numbers shift drastically without one publisher).

We cannot blame "some" regions of the world for a failure to give voice to women writers, and we cannot attempt to make this some sort of cultural distinction when it is effectively universal. We can only continue to discuss the gross imbalance and seek ways in which to rectify it across the board.

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.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking ahead to 2016

So there are three main issues left over from 2015 which I'd like to talk about before I can begin to fully discuss goals for 2016...

First and foremost: While this blog has largely been dormant the past few months, it is not yet obsolete or gone. I'll likely be posting less frequently over the next few months as well, but I expect to be back full-time in the spring.

The translation world

I had the honor of speaking at ALTA this past October on the women in translation panel. While I had to leave the conference a bit earlier than I wanted, I found the entire experience to be fascinating and enlightening. Not simply because I got to learn a lot about the translator perspective on translated literature, but also because I realized that there remains a fairly large divide between the literary world at large (that readers belong to), and the publishing world of translation.

This is something that's come up a few times in regards to the women in translation project, namely that it's very difficult to encourage readers to even recognize that a problem exists when literature in translation is still largely viewed as "niche" and separate. From my selfish perspective of someone who wants to see more published literature by women writers in translation, I want to see this divide thrown out. The pervasive elitism of quite a few translators I spoke with (one of whom went so far as to question my viability as a critic simply because I've not studied literature!) makes it increasingly difficult to bridge this divide, and this is something I think will need to be addressed bluntly if we want to see efforts like the women in translation project actually succeed.

The question of gender as an exclusionary challenge

I've been thinking about the women in translation project quite a bit in the past few days as regards gender definitions. In an offline conversation with my sister, she pointed out that the way in which I define the project may be interpreted as excluding nonbinary genders or transgender writers. I was already thinking about how to address this matter in the FAQ I want to write for the project at large when I came across C. K. Oliver's post about how the "read women" movement (and I suppose, by extension, the women in translation project) excludes and is unfair to transgender men or nonbinary authors. "‘Read women’ puts NB, GQ, and trans male authors between a rock and a hard place [or under a microscope] if they do not disclose their identity, or have come out as trans men while writing their books. It’s that simple."

So while I'll include this more precisely in the forthcoming FAQ, I want to make some things very clear: The women in translation movement - which seeks to draw attention to marginalized voices - will never exclude transgender authors or nonbinary genders. My statistics are drawn up using gender markers from author biographies and have thus far not raised any transgender or nonbinary authors that I have been aware of (which of course is an interesting question in and of itself), but when I do encounter authors whose identities do not fit neatly within a gender binary, I am expanding the scope of the project to include these voices. I can do little to mitigate the problems that gender definitions create, but at least I can try to form a space in which their significance is not absolute.

Use of the term diversity

I also read Khavita Bhanot's recent post about how use of the term "diverse" is well-meaning, but only further plays into racial divides. The post effectively argues that calling non-white writers or stories "diverse" only emphasizes that they are an "other", and whiteness as a default. I found myself largely agreeing with this point (not with other aspects of the article, but I won't get into that right now) - for someone who is Asian-American, for instance, Asian-American experiences are not "diverse", they simply are. Diversity is in the eye of the beholder, which is why the signs readers hold up as part of the "We Need Diverse Books Now" differ wildly between the race of the reader.

But then I thought about how this doesn't really apply to literature in translation. Unlike racial experiences within a specific cultural context (like the US or Britain, in which these sorts of movements are most prominent), nobody can belong to all international cultures or read in every language. Literature in translation (beyond individual titles) will be diverse for literally every single reader, no matter what.

Which is why I continue to view the women in translation project as an important exercise specifically in diversity. The women in translation project is about encompassing all voices and all experiences, such that any and every reader may have the opportunity to read about something new. In this sense, the question of diversity can only be held within a single country/culture (and then Bhanot's post is largely relevant), but upon crossing borders, this definition too should disappear.

What to look forward to in 2016

A lot! Get ready...

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You | Review

There were a lot of things in Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You by Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés which made me laugh out loud. The short story collection is not meant to be an especially humorous one, but an underlying snark accompanies a good portion of the writing and some lines were, frankly, far too familiar not to make me laugh. "Arroz con pollo, sin pollo y sin arroz" made me laugh for a solid five minutes, not because the statement is necessarily that humorous on its own, but because we frequently joke in my family about my aunt's "arroz con pollo sin pollo" (and I had not known that arroz con pollo - named as such - was not an exclusively Peruvian dish).

The collection is written with almost deliberate indifference to the notion that the reader might not speak Spanish. It fits the tone - Milanés is telling stories of Cubans and of Cuban-Americans, and at times I found myself thinking that including in text translations would have been intrusive. And the Spanish, while prevalent, is not something you'll feel lost without. And you can probably figure it out from context, even if you don't know Spanish very well.

The truth is, I liked Milanés' writing, but I'm not sure I liked the collection overall. As sharp and pointed as it is in parts, there was a very uniform tone to the stories that made it difficult for me to fully separate them in my mind. Not that they were identical (certainly nowhere near the level of similarity across Kjell Askildsen's short stories, for example...), but there wasn't quite enough separation between the majority. The best stories ended up being those that shifted from the familiar structure - a two paged slip of a story about a gay man suspecting his niece's boyfriend is gay, a story about a Chinese immigrant to Cuba, a story which drastically switches perspectives throughout its 28 or so pages with no fixed loop. These stories lingered just a bit longer in my mind, snagged on something I couldn't quite place.

Milanés broaches a lot of topics in Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You, many of which I found myself not only recognizing and appreciating, but also running through in my head again and again. Most notable was Milanés' almost aggressive focus on race, and colorism, often drawing attentions to features that were more positively viewed (pale skin, slanted eyes, smooth hair). Then there were the more general themes: family, belonging, the immigrant experience... A lot here was quite familiar in the positive sense - a sharp reflection of the world.

And yet I still am not sure that I liked the collection all that much. Some of the stories were deliberately truncated in a way that kept me on edge, others felt dragged out without much justification, and some stories felt utterly dry. Despite the relative shortness of the book, it felt long and tedious far more than it should have. And sharp writing is great only to the point where it can stand alone, and here there was a glossed over uniformity to the entire collection that lessened the effect of the writing. Some of these are certainly stories worth reading, but I'm not sure I would add Milanés to my "must read" list quite yet.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Musings for a new year

There's something uniquely literary about the Jewish High Holidays. As much as every holiday entails some reading and relaxing, the High Holidays practically demand it - with a dozen or so internet-free days, you're left with little else other than reading. (And eating. There's a lot, a lot of eating...)

Reading on Jewish holidays (or the Sabbath) is not always ideal. While you're utterly free from distractions, you also lack a lot of the day-to-day tools usually associated with reading. Do you like to annotate while reading? Yeah, that's not an option. How about researching the author of the book? Not going to happen! Are the sort of reader that needs to look up the historical context of every event mentioned in a novel? You're going to have a rough go at it. Reading during the holidays and Shabbat is reading without context or other people's opinions clouding your own or any sort of external factor (for good and bad). For this Millennial, it feels old-fashioned.

So what are the books I plan to explore this year?

After a remarkably unproductive reading year, I'm finding myself vaguely bored by most of the books I'm encountering, and abandoning stories with greater ease than ever before (likely contributing to my unproductive reading year...). I've been dipping in and out of a lot of different poetry and short story collections over the past few months (particularly during WITMonth, which was far more stressful than I had expected), and getting a bit sick of it. September holds the hope of breaking that spell with full-blooded novels.

In the women in translation department, I'm hoping to tackle Magda Szabó's much-lauded The Door. I'm also currently in the middle of Xu Xiaobin's Feathered Serpent, which isn't quite hooking me as much as I would have liked but it's not losing me yet either. I also have - humming and calling to me in increasingly louder tones - Elena Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child (and I do have reasons for putting it off, but they're starting to sound sillier and sillier to my ears).

In the broader translation department, I feel a bit stuck. I know there are many male writers I've been sidelining of late in favor of women, but... who are they? What are the books I'm supposed to be reading? Where is the rush of excitement at a new novel? Hopefully I'll find something good at the library today before the holiday begins.

But the truth is... this feels like a holiday to reinvigorate my love of reading, and the best route for that is almost always through younger stories. Books without the jaded cynicism adulthood seems to define as realistic. Books without "grittiness" or bitterness or dramatic, gratuitous violence. Books with optimism. Books with hope. (This is something I may someday discuss more in depth, but not right now.)

I have many reading days ahead of me this month, and too few books to fill those gaps. Too few books with positivity and happiness, with fun stories and sweeping narratives, with cleverness but with empathy too. I have too few books which truly give me a unique perspective on the world and add something to my perception of mankind. Too few books which challenge my cultural assumptions. I'm confident I'll find a few, but as always I miss the days when people could tell me "You have to read this book, you'll love it!" and know exactly what they're talking about.

A new year, a new year...

Monday, August 31, 2015

WITMonth Day 31 - The End (for now)

And there you have it, friends. Another August has gone by, and WITMonth is ended. It's hard to find the words (but I'll try anyways).

A lot has changed between this year and last. First and foremost: the scale of the project this year was so much greater than I expected. I'll be exploring this a bit more over the next eleven months, but suffice to say it was extremely gratifying and encouraging to see so many more publishers actively participating in the Women in Translation Month and project. A great deal more bloggers, sites, readers and publications participated as well (in some form or other), with people continuing to discover the project until late in the month!

The project is growing. As well it should.

Like last year, I find myself a bit torn. Does WITMonth truly increase people's awareness for literature by women writers in translation, or does it segregate our reading such that August is the only time for reading women? My hope, of course, is that readers will not simply cease reading books by women writers in translation simply because August is over.

To me, 2015 feels like the year of the resources. Many publishing houses put the spotlight on their existing women writers, publications made lists of worthy women writers, and I believe we have begun the long process of integrating women quite natively into our broader cultural understanding. I cannot be sure it's enough, but one thing is for sure: we now have resources that did not previously exist.  It is getting easier to find books by women writers in translation.

There is more to do, however. First: We need to stop viewing this as a niche problem, and we need to stop viewing literature in translation as a side field. Diversity efforts need to join hands and recognize that we are all fighting the same battles. Within the context of women in translation, we further need to make efforts to ensure our recognition is not limited as well by a lack of cultural diversity. We are still struggling to read books by older women writers, still struggling to find books by queer women writers, and still struggling to recognize books by women writers from all manner of diverse backgrounds. We're doing a far better job than most of the literary community, but that doesn't mean we can dust off our hands and have our job be done.

We also need to turn publisher participation into publisher responses. It has not escaped my notice that the publishers most active in the women in translation project have largely been those with the better translation rates, nor the deafening silence we continue to get from the publishers with the worst rates (who are typically the most prominent and vocal publishers in the business). I'm still not sure what the best approach to this problem is, but one thing is certain - something needs to be done. Publishers need to be held accountable for subtle (and less subtle) sexism in the industry. We need to start seeing improvements and active measures.

Here's the thing about WITMonth. For one month a year, we decide to place a greater emphasis on a marginalized group. But our work lasts 12 months out of the year. For the next 11 months, we can (and should!) read all of the leftovers from this August. We can (and should!) continue to make clear to publishers that a 30% translation rate (at best) will no longer cut it. We can (and should!) insist that larger media outlets discuss the problem and help solve the awareness gap (at the very least). There is a lot more work to be done, from so many different perspectives.

But for now? August is ended, and I have nothing but gratitude and affection for every participant of WITMonth 2015. Without you, this could not have happened.

Thank you, and see you all soon!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

WITMonth Day 30 - Books I've read

To be honest, WITMonth has not been all that successful for me this year. A stressful first half (schoolwork), followed by a fairly ill second half left me drained and unable to either read as much as I would have wanted to, or review and post at the pace I had initially planned. But... that's not to say I didn't get some quality reading done in August!

I had the opportunity to re-explore classic poetry by women writers in translation through two collections: Women Poets of Japan (tr. Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi) and Yu Xuanji's poetry in The Clouds Float North (tr. David Young and Jiann I. Lin). Both books were a refreshing change from the long-winded poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden), which I also mostly plodded through at the top of the month. All three collections, however, are critical reminders that women have been writing quality literature for a very long time. In the poetry department, I also explored poems by Anna Akhmatova (tr. D. M. Thomas) and Marina Tsvetaeva (translated into Hebrew by Miri Litvak).

But there was more than poetry this WITMonth! I sampled quite a few short story collections as well, most notably Tove Janssons's brilliant The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (tr. Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella), which I've been finding a stylistic contrast to Cubana, a collection of short fiction by Cuban women writers. Jansson's style is fairly minimalist and crisp, while the stories in Cubana feel distinctly heavier and wordier.

In the novel department, we have two main books: First is an Israeli novel by teenager Carmel Ben Naftali ("Stages of Grief", which is not a direct translation but the one provided by the publisher), which is curiously written and uniquely young adult, but also predictably clumsy in its perspective of the world and very immature in its stylings. It's been an interesting experience, if somewhat uncomfortable simply because of the author's youth and inexperience. She shows a lot of potential, though.

The second novel I've been reading this WITMonth is Isabel Allende's classic The House of the Spirits (tr. Magda Bogin). I'm about halfway through but I completely understand Allende's status as a leading voice in Latin American literature now. While I've read her YA fiction in the past (middle school book club choices!), The House of the Spirits has a strength and confidence to it that makes me feel guilty for taking so long to read her more highly regarded titles. Regardless: I'm enjoying The House of the Spirits quite a bit and am glad that this is the novel with which I'll be wrapping up WITMonth.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

WITMonth Day 26 - More places on the internet

August is starting to wind down, the air is cooling, the mosquitoes are receding, and it's time to see what else has been happening throughout the month (see previous post here):

And as always... #WITMonth on Twitter is active as ever, join us as we wrap up the month!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

WITMonth Day 25 - If not at the library, if not digital... then how?

The problem I'm going to describe here is not unique to women in translation, but it's especially noticeable: Books are often technically in print but unavailable for all intents and purposes.

Here I am, plugging in author after author after author into my very liberal, very well-stocked library's database. And when I search for women writers in translation, I find that only a handful are available. And certainly when I look for digital copies through my library, only a handful of recent titles show up. Why?

I know that a lot (a lot) of literature in translation is published by not-for-profit university presses, but here's the thing: most readers cannot afford to buy every book they want to read. And certainly not when the book is more expensive than the average paperback (I'm looking at you, $28 paperback 200 paged novel!). We inevitably rely on other entirely legal and moral resources such as libraries or digital libraries to access literature. (Of course, even this is highly limited - I speak as someone who spends at most a month of the year with access to English-language library books, relying more on the graces of the eLibrary and kind souls who are willing to cart books across the ocean for me.)

But if the books aren't available... what are we supposed to do? Like I said, this problem isn't unique to women in translation, but it's felt much more strongly. The moment the playing field is so much smaller, it becomes increasingly difficult to actually get your hands on backlog women writers in translation. Even titles which are still in print but less mainstream are all but impossible to find.

I don't have a solution here. A few years ago, I thought the answer would be through digital books: All publishers would obviously digitize their entire catalogs and provide them to libraries with loan limitations and we'd be on our way to a utopian future full of all books. That hasn't happened, and honestly it seems like publishers - particularly smaller ones - are in no rush. That leaves us with a bit of a problem. Any thoughts?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

WITMonth Day 23 - Women Poets of Japan - A poem

Making my way through this fascinating collection (translated and edited by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi), and decided to share one of my favorites from it while I focus on recovering.

I Forget - Yoshihara Sachiko

when i awake
i wonder
if the color
i thought i saw
in my dream
was real
or imaginary

was it red?
i turn back
towards the word red
but the color is gone

what i thought was being alive
is only various colors
reflected and
in my mind

sun setting
turned the windowpane orange
shower spray
was a diamond color
so i thought

now only the memory
of color remains
the window
and the shower spray
have vanished

Saturday, August 22, 2015

WITMonth Day 22 - Spotlight on Argentina

After a few days of illness... I'm back(ish)! This time with some of Argentina's excellent women writers. Of whom, I should note, there are many!
  • Alicia Steimberg
  • Angélica Gorodischer
  • Cecilia Pavón 
  • Silvina Ocampo
  • Alejandra Pizarnik
  • Liliana Bodoc
  • Alicia Borinsky
  • Silvina Bullrich
  • Manuela Fingueret
  • Juana Manuela Gorriti
  • Liliana Heker
  • Sylvia Iparraguirre
  • Alicia Kozameh
  • Tununa Mercado
  • Claudia Piñeiro
  • Ana Gloria Moya
  • María Negroni
  • Olga Orozco
  • Lucía Puenzo
  • Beatriz Sarlo
  • Luisa Valenzuela
  • Alfonsina Storni
  • Ana María Shua
Furthermore, there are dozens of writers I've encountered in my research who despite clearly playing an important role in Argentine literature have not been translated. Though I have not done this for other languages, the gap appears significantly more wide with South American literature and so below is a distinctly abridged list of untranslated Argentinean women writers, many of whom are award-winners and critically acclaimed.
  • Agustina Andrade
  • Ariana Harwycz
  • Margarita Abella Caprile
  • César Duáyen/Emma de la Barra
  • Emma Barrandeguy
  • Elsa Bornemann
  • Susana Calandrelli
  • Sara Gallardo
  • Betina Gonzalez
  • Norah Lange
  • Marta Lynch
  • Eduarda Mansilla
  • Martha Mercader
  • Liliana Díaz Mindurry
  • Elvira Orphée
  • Luisa Peluffo
  • Samanta Schweblin
  • María Dhialma Tiberti
  • Aurora Venturini
  • María Elena Walsh