Thursday, December 26, 2013

Women in translation | Responses

In the wake of my post from a couple weeks ago about the dismal percentage of women writers who have been translated into English, I cannot in good conscience leave the matter alone. It's not done. My post was meant not to throw the observations to the wind, but to search for answers and make sure that the playing field starts to change.

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who was involved in the conversation: everyone from bloggers, to translators, to publishers play an important role in finding the source of the problem and rectifying it. Without your insights and thoughts, this really would have just floated away, never to be mentioned again. We've already taken the first steps. Now we continue.

Here on the blog and over on Twitter, a few theories arose as to why the stats look the way they do. Tony Malone of Tony's Reading List suggested that perhaps men are perceived as writing better "literature" than women, hinging on the fact that books in translation are often of a more "literary" nature. After a short debate over the use of the word "perceived" (in which I would argue that using such a claim only further implies actual, active sexism...), Tony also rightly pointed out the sad notion that while women will gladly read books by men, men are somewhat less willing to read a book written by a woman, and that perhaps publishers are merely "hedging their bets".

Meanwhile, Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press provided a publisher's view on the matter. She argued that women are simply not writing the type of Literature that Peirene, for example, want to publish, adding that women write more "genre" and less "literary fiction", and that their technique is often "not up to scratch" as compared with men. While I greatly appreciate her perspective on the matter, I'm not sure I agree with it. At all. To start with, I struggle with the definition of "literary fiction" Meike seems to be using, especially the idea that books should not form a type of escape. While we clearly have different ideas on art, its power and what even qualifies, what troubles me more is Meike's perception (again that word!) that women lack the technical talents male writers have.

This is a problematic idea for several reasons. One, there is no logical basis for it. Writing is in no way something biologically influenced - it's not as though because of their better upper body strength, men will obviously be better able to describe dewdrops on a leaf. More than that, however, is the fact that it's an extraordinarily unfair and broad generalization of both men and women's writing styles. I will not pretend to have ever read books with the same type of scouting eye that Meike must, but I have read a lot of books in my short lifetime. Usually, the only differences between writing styles stem from the very type of book itself. Does Hilary Mantel's writing lack technique? Obviously not. Does Marie NDiaye's odd writing sound like a woman or like a writer experimenting with a different style? Definitely the latter. Does Alice Munro's actual writing sound like a woman wrote it? Nope, though the topics may be viewed as more domestic and as such "effeminate" (an assessment I thoroughly disagree with, by the way).

In both Meike and Tony's comments, a certain subtext appears - that women are not writing the type of Literary and Important and Quality books that these publishers are seeking. I take particular offence at this. Besides the fact that I don't believe it (basing myself mostly off of Hebrew, where women are just as likely to produce quality Literature as men, yet significantly less likely to get translated - as we saw, no Israeli women were translated in 2013), I think it shows a greater problem with literary elitism. I don't want to get into that argument today, but if this remains the last hurdle to cross before women are properly represented in literature in translation, I will happily tear it down.

Michelle Bailat-Jones (of pieces fame) linked to a brilliant article which I wish I could have seen before writing my own paltry post: Alison Anderson's Words Without Borders article which is exactly about this lack of women in translation. Yet this article raises a point I failed to mention in my own post - the strikingly low percentage of women to be recognized by the various translations awards (to be discussed more in the next follow-up post).

Michelle and T. Olmstead (of BookSexy Review) went on to discuss what might be the source of the imbalance. Michelle pointed out that most of the books she had received in 2012 for review from publishers (unsolicited or pitched) were written by men, while she had been forced to specifically request books written by women. 2013 might emerge with better statistics (indeed, Michelle felt confident that it would), but based on the broader numbers, I am somehow skeptical that it will be a perfect split at the end. Based on other comments I've seen and my own observations of the literature-in-translation blogosphere, publishers sending more books by male authors might just be a trend. More statistics are needed before we can really point fingers - I would greatly appreciate more insight from other bloggers and reviewers who receive books for review directly from publishers.

The next stage comes in several parts, asking help from across the board. But we'll be looking at that in the next follow-up post, hopefully in the coming weeks. Brace yourselves: we've got a long way to go.


  1. Fascinating! I too struggle with the category of "literary fiction" and the way it corrals both readers and writers. I've also had some really interesting conversations with my students in recent years about the fact that what individuals read is often a product of what is logistically available, and that this isn't based on merit so much as a broad array of complex (often troubling) economic factors and ideological scripts. Thanks for this fascinating post that furthered my thinking!

  2. Thank you for continuing to write about this, as it's not something I would have been aware of, as someone who usually reads books originally written in English. And it's interesting how it goes back once again to genre vs. literature, especially that in this debate genre is gendered female and literature male...I wonder if this is a reflection of our tendency to form hierarchies or if this patriarchal distinction may in fact be part of the crux of the matter-is genre not Important enough because it is not Masculine enough? (and how does that even make sense when there are not clear distinguishing marks between men's and women's writing...)

  3. From what I remember from my swallowed comment, I think I was diagreeing with your interpretation of what I said earlier. It's not that women aren't writing literary books, it's more that these books aren't getting through the gatekeepers of overseas literary prizes and Anglophone publishers.

    Also, I disagree slightly with a couple of other points. I do think that there is such a thing as Lit. Fic. (I'd definitely describe the vast majority of my reading as such), and while it's obvious that there are no obvious sentence-level differences between male and female writers, I can't help feeling that on the macro-scale there is something there. I'm not saying that one is better than the other, and it may only be in choice of themes or viewpoints, but... That'd be one hell of a PhD thesis, by the way ;)

    I don't expect anyone to agree with that last point, but I'd be lying if I said I thought there were no differences at all between men and women when it comes to writing, even if they come wholly from nurture rather than nature.

  4. This is such a great conversation.

    First, I don't believe this is a genre / literary fiction debate. Women aren't the only ones categorized as genre writers - there's the entire category of sci-fi / fantasy (dominated by men) which is unarguably a genre. Mystery, horror, crime... all contain books written by acclaimed male (and female) authors. The only genre I can think of which is reserved almost exclusively as the domain of women is romance. And I don't believe that this is the type of book we are discussing here.

    There is an obvious inequality in how frequently women authors are being translated versus their male counterparts. But I don't this has to do with the types of books they are writing. Or some belief held over from the 1950's that men are better writers than women. Or that the male voice is more engaging than the female voice.

    I'm more interested in the question: How do you make publishers aware of the demand for a type of book that is both so specific (female authors translated into English) and still a bit nebulous (multiple languages, countries of origin, subject matter)? And do so in a way that says "you're missing out on an important literary work" instead of "publish more novels in translation by woman or you are being sexist".

  5. I love that you're carrying on thinking and writing about this. I didn't comment on the last post because I didn't think I had anything useful to contribute to the discussion, but I'm excited to see where you go from here. It's an important issue.

  6. In regard to BookSexy's comment, I want to clarify what I meant by classifying part of this debate as a genre vs. literary fiction divide. When I say genre books are being gendered female, I don't mean that genre books are being presented as written mostly by women (and, in fact, as BookSexy points out, many genres are perceived as male-dominated), what I mean is that genre itself is being gendered as female aka inferior. It is not related to whether the books are actually written by women or men.

  7. Literature translated into English is unusual because it is assumed that those who read literature in translation are not interested in genre or even mainstream fiction, with the exception, in recent years, of "literary mysteries." Since most of those who read and write genre and mainstream fiction, with the exception of mysteries and thrillers, are women, this means that books by and for women tend to get translated less often.

    Here's another way of looking at it. The reason there is so much fiction by women in the U.S. is that book publishers recognize that women constitute 70% or so of fiction readers. I don't know what percentage women make up of fiction-in-translation readers, but I would expect the percentage to be far lower. Whether this is a cause or an effect, I don't know. But it does have an effect on what sort of literature gets translated into English.

    Another thing to consider is why books are translated into English. There was a time when a sizeable percentage of these books were witnesses to violence in Latin America, mostly written by women. The other literature in translation then and now tended to involve two things that appeal more to a male reading audience: politics and sex. When brought together, for example in Milan Kundera, this approach proved very successful.

    Another consideration is translations of classics. Most classics known in the English-speaking world were written by men, from the Classical authors to the Russians to Kafka to Grass. This skews the numbers greatly.


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