Thursday, February 6, 2014

Women in Translation | Availability and bias

Previous posts in Women in Translation:


One of the things that kept cropping up after I posted my original post on women in translation was a sentiment from a lot of men (and some women) that their own personal reading stats (which ended up matching the overall publishing trends almost to a T) were the result not of some problem with publishing or even with their own reading, but rather the result of their own personal bias. "I just prefer books by men" was a common sentiment. Or "Men write [X] while women write [Y], and I like [X]". Or arguments about the quality of men's writing as compared to women.

The point is basically: Don't use me as an example, I have a personal bias.

And it's wrong.

First of all, I think it's problematic that readers are so quick to declare biases as something fixed. Reading belongs to a fluid, ever-changing world. A reader may love one genre on Monday, but be sick of it by Thursday, and want to come back again by Sunday. There are no rules to reading, nothing that could ever justify a bias so firmly.

But my main problem here is that readers who are suggesting that the reason they read a lot more books by men (again: in the exact same ratios as the overall stats) are completely missing the impact that availability can have.

It's very simple: when you have 15 books with a blue cover and 5 books with a red cover, and this is the pool of books from which you can choose your next read, what are you more likely to pick? There are so many more blue books than red... it has nothing to do with the fact that they're blue, it's just that you're more likely to find something you like in that pile. And so you inevitably read more from the blue pile, and occasionally pick up a book from the red. In a ratio that's approximately 3:1.

This is what's happening with women writers in translation. It's that simple.

When publishers - and particularly publishers who specialize in literature in translation - fail to offer books by women writers in the same amounts as books by men, the inevitable fact is that fewer books by women in translation are read. And then readers become convinced that there's an inherent difference, books by women are [Y] and they don't like [Y]. They have a "personal bias".

A couple weeks ago, Chad Post of Three Percent told off Jhumpa Lahiri for implying that there isn't literature in translation by saying "look for it". His point was that there's quite a bit of literature in translation if you just seek it out. Well, here's the thing: I've been actively seeking out literature in translation by women for two months now and it's not so simple. I've been reading literature in translation for years - I know where to look. I've pored over Three Percent's translations databases, went directly to publisher websites, sifted through hundreds of books. And at the end, I could find only a few dozen writers. This, despite knowing exactly what I was looking for.

Availability is important. If the translations (or the books) don't exist, obviously people aren't going to be able to read them. When the overwhelming majority of the most prominent literature-in-translation publishers have only 25% (or less) women writers (Dalkey Archive, Europa Editions, Open Letter, and many others), it's no longer that readers are creating a bias here. The bias already exists. Readers are just having a hard time getting out of it because of a lack of availability. The sooner we recognize this bias, the sooner we can try to start fixing it. And the sooner we fix it, the sooner we'll find ourselves with a more balanced, diverse and interesting literary environment, and isn't that the point?

1 comment:

  1. Really, really good post -- I'm so enjoying this series, even though I don't read a ton of books in translation myself (ack, I know, Jhumpa Lahiri would wash her hands of me).

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