Thursday, May 14, 2015

Women in Translation | The grim improvement of 2014

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

Well... no.

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

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 I expect I used an outdated database but the percentages largely stand.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifth: Spread the word.

1 comment:

  1. I will admit that I struggle with books in translation as a whole but on looking at the books I HAVE attempted (some successfully) I cant think of one written by a woman (translated by one, yes, written, no).

    It's not as if I have a particularly narrow spectrum of genres etc that I read from - I enjoy books translated from both French and Japanese whilst I struggle with Italian (Umberto Eco, I'm looking at YOU!). Books written about and by Indian authors I cant tell whether source language is English or otherwise.

    Would I read a book solely because it was translated? No. I would read a book because it was in English and I thought it sounded attractive and interesting. I will admit that perhaps I am not always looking in the right place and therefore supporting the right people


Anonymous comments have been disabled due to an increase in spam.