Thursday, August 2, 2018

WITMonth Day 2 | Stats (part 1)

There is a sense that statistic posts are useless when it comes to the women in translation project. Indeed, if you check my "stats" tag on this blog, you'll notice that I entirely avoided the concept in 2017, opting instead to focus on reviews and lower-key discussion posts during WITMonth. Yet here we are in 2018. The Fifth Annual #WITMonth.

I began this project with statistics. Frankly, it was only by seeing the numbers in black against white that made me realize just how pervasive the problem was. It wasn't just my reading that was skewed, the entire system seemed entirely biased against women. The statistics helped me realize that something more had to be done, and with the help of several other members of this community, WITMonth was born.

There is a sense that statistic posts are useless.

I look at the statistics from 2017. I look at the statistics from 2015. I look at the statistics from 2014. From 2013 (the first year for which I conducted a comprehensive analysis). The numbers are largely static. In fact, the numbers are depressingly static, with little variation even within the various metrics I showcase.

After five years of advocating for this cause, I find myself feeling, not for the first time, that the work I do here is useless. After all, the most prominent publishers continue to insist that there is no real problem, at least the problem isn't theirs, at least the problem isn't really a problem. Others simply ignore the matter, as though by dismissing reader concerns, they can dismiss the problem entirely (I will discuss this further later in the month). But the numbers don't lie.

As with previous years, I rely on the excellent work of Three Percent, using their database (now updated to include author and translator gender). All analyses my own.

The first metric I always check is the simplest: what is the basic breakdown of books in translation, by men and women (and other).

As you can see, balance is still a far way off, with women comprising only 31% of new translations into English.  

The second basic metric I like to check is a regional assessment. As you can see below, the general skew towards translations of European literature remains pervasive. Not only does Europe make up more than half of all translations, it also showcases just how stark the divide is between publication of books by men and women, as well as the fact that excuses such as "there aren't many women writers over there" is simply a false, racist argument (and I have heard such excuses many times; I will continue to reject them offhand).

Another notable observation from this chart is the depressingly low rate of translations emerging from African countries. While this can somewhat be explained by the fact that some African writers use English as their primary language, it is still a huge oversight from the industry at large. There is also a missed opportunity here to explore a wider range of languages, not simply French or Arabic - Africa is a continent teeming with diversity of language and culture. There are countless older (and newer) texts that reflect this diversity, and not simply by men writers. These works deserve as much attention as classics from all other countries and cultures.

It is also worth noting a lack of diversity within certain continental designations. Recall that Asia is a huge, hugely populous continent, spanning several discretely different regions and cultures. Yet the literature translated out of these regions remains oddly homogeneous, with very few books published out of Southeast Asian or Central Asian countries. Curiously, women writers in translation were actually somewhat better represented in this regard, with two Indonesian titles translated (more interestingly, these were among the only non-European books published by AmazonCrossing - we'll get to that in a moment), an Armenian title, and a Saudi Arabian book as well. Yet the baffling absence of Indian books published in English remains from year to year, especially noticeable in the almost complete lack of Indian women writers getting translated/published.

Since I've already mentioned it, one of the other metrics I like to look at is AmazonCrossing's place in publishing. What was once a relatively ignored publisher of literature in translation has recently become a powerhouse, consistently publishing the highest number of books in translation from year to year. AmazonCrossing is also consistently one of the few publishers to publish more women writers than men writers in translation; 2017 is no exception. Yet what is so utterly shocking about AmazonCrossing's role in publishing women writers in translation is how much worse the landscape would be without them. Without AmazonCrossing, share of women writers in translation out of all translations dips from that already-not-so-great 31% to 28%; men writers are relatively "strengthened" from 65% to 69%. This becomes easily apparent when looking at how large a fraction AmazonCrossing represents for men versus women, as you can see in the chart below. One publisher is responsible for more than 20% of the books by women writers. That's... not okay.

If we look at publishers in general, the same old story emerges. AmazonCrossing is one of only two publishers within the top ten publishers that reaches or crosses the 50% mark. The other is the significantly smaller press Deep Vellum.

Here, I find myself needing to point out an added injustice of the awful statistics. Of course it's easy to see the absurd imbalances in publishing when laid out so starkly, not simply among smaller independent presses but also among the most established translators of literature in translation. But what is most upsetting in this chart (for me, at least) is that several of the publishers here with some of the worst publication rates have frequently attempted to capitalize on the women in translation project for their own sales, in what feels like cynicism at its worst. Moreover, the fact that certain publishers among the yearly top ten continue to refuse to engage in the conversation at all (indeed, often dismissing it outright) is similarly disappointing, as their ratios almost stubbornly refuse to balance out between men and women writers. There comes a point when I can no longer excuse the lack of improvement as simple ignorance; there are publishers that are well aware of the fact that they do not publish women writers, and they do not appear to care. This is a problem.

Here is what it is truly angering about every one of the charts above - they look almost identical to the charts I've published from previous years. Publishers like Dalkey Archive, Seagull Books, New Directions, and NYRB have had extremely low rate of publishing women writers in translation (indeed, of publishing women writers at all) for several years now. AmazonCrossing has been the primary support system for publishing women writers in translation for several years now. The base rate of translation of books by women writers has hovered around 30% for several years now. The completely disproportionate preference for publishing books by European writers rather than literally any other place on Earth has existed for several years now. Nothing of what I am sharing is new.

It could be argued that if there is nothing new in my data, I should not publish. Certainly, if this was a scientific paper of the sort I write at work, there would be nothing to report and I would have saved myself the effort of this work. Yet what we're talking about here is a distinctly static problem that is, shockingly enough, not getting better. Women writers in translation may be getting more attention these days as a result of the broader range of WITMonth and the women in translation project at large (and I'll discuss this point more in depth in part 2 of the stats posts), but for writers who have yet to be translated, the situation is not improving. 

There is still significant bias against women writers in translation. There are still sexist publishers. (Yes, sexist publishers. While there's plenty of unconscious bias, there is also a lot of plainspoken sexism. Do not hide from it.) We are still being cheated out of countless brilliant books by women writers that simply aren't getting their due.

After five years, something has to change.


  1. This is devastating. Thanks for your analysis of this pervasive and persistent problem.

  2. Dear Meytal
    A huge thank you for doing this work. Agree that the figures are depressing, but I would be a little more upbeat. Thanks to your work, there have been new initiatives, such as the birth of Tilted Axis Press which focuses on writers from South Asia and includes a large percentage of women. The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. And Other Stories committing to a year of publishing books by women writers in translation. Individual translators choosing to champion books by women writers... I think you have made an impact. It's going to be a slow process, but you have definitely made an impact, so thank you.

    1. I very much agree with Ros, Meytal. I am sure there are many like me out here who so appreciate what you do and your strong voice advocating for all of us, for women writers everywhere. Even if progress is disgustingly slow, you help us to feel hopeful and not alone. Plus the data is just so important to have. Trust me, your incredibly hard work does not go unnoticed by so many of us. I do, however, understand how discouraging it can be.
      In gratitude,
      Jenny McPhee

    2. Thank you so much, Ros and Jenny. The strong response this year has made me really hopeful that change IS coming, if slowly.

  3. That really is rather infuriating - and eye-opening. To all of those people who blithely say or think that 'diversity is all the craze now, it's gone too far the other way' etc.

  4. Well said. This is a clear problem with an obvious solution, and yet...nothing?

    1. I'll be discussing part of the solution in a post either this week or next, I'm really hopeful that things are beginning to change...