Sunday, August 20, 2017

WITMonth Day 20 | The importance of nonfiction

I've always loved nonfiction, though it's been sidelined in my reading for several years. As a kid, I used to devour heavy historical tomes or manuscripts. I loved reading political commentary, biographies, essays, and scientific texts. I used to read a lot more nonfiction than I do today (excluding the mass of scientific papers I read for work, which would add up to more than all literature I currently read if counted...).

Certainly, I can't say I've read all that much work by women in translation.

Now as an important disclaimer, I'll note that I've read very little nonfiction by men in translation either. But I can't pretend that I'm not painfully aware of how little nonfictional works by women in translation are translated. One need only glance over university press catalogs such as Columbia University Press (in which only one of seven recently released titles in translation is by a woman) or Harvard University Press (in which two out of fifteen titles in the Spring/Summer 2017 catalog were by women writers) to realize that an even more extreme gap between men and women in translation exists in the academic world of nonfiction texts than in fiction (and I'll note that the single title by a woman in translation from CUP is actually a novel; books by men are divided).

I've previously talked about why I find university presses to be important gatekeepers, but those stats specifically referred to fiction. When it comes to nonfiction, with an even wider gap, I find myself increasingly frustrated. Translated nonfiction is already such a minor subset. It can span basically whatever topics and fields you want, since nobody really has any expectation that you translate certain books above others (because let's be real - nonfiction published by university presses has a very specific target audience in mind). There is no real motivation to publish a new-new-new-new translation of those most masculine Greek classics, nor to specifically publish that one guy's treatise on European fascism. Yet somehow the strong bias in favor of men writers exists.

Nonfiction is important. Academic texts are important. Not simply as just "another" parameter, but also because nonfiction covers a huge spectrum of the human experience. Take, for example, the three nonfiction titles by women in translation I have read thus far in 2017: Scholastique Mukasonga's powerful memoir Cockroaches, Ece Temelkuran's thoughtful and politically sharp Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, and Ève Curie's unique biography of her mother Marie. Each book covers a different piece of the nonfiction spectrum, though all three are certainly more on the literary side of things (than the academic). And I'm still in the midst of reading Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl, an utterly unique oral history of that horrific event.

Yet alongside these titles, I've come across so many books in the past year by early feminist scholars that have never been translated. Books by queer Latin American feminist analyzing their identities. Books by historians, scientists, researchers, and academics. Books that crop up when you sift through Wikipedia, author by author, but have yet to find a home in English (or many other languages, for that matter). Instead, nonfiction in translation (itself too tiny a field) remains steadfastly male, and predominantly European. This should change.

1 comment:

  1. I've just read Svetlana Alexievich's The Unwomanly Face of War, which was amazing, and this always makes me wonder why I don't gravitate more frequently to non-fiction. However, I have to admit that when I do read non-fiction, I tend to prefer that written by women.

    ReplyDelete

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